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The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It's a labour of hate I offer to you., 22 Oct. 2014
First off, it’s hard not to be impressed by the serious-mindedness of this beautifully written polemic. While it often had me throwing up my hands in despair, I do respect that it was the result of exhaustive reading and sometimes deep thought. Yet I have to then admit that a third of the way through, I started to have serious misgivings as to whether or not I should continue with it. As a near-totally blind forty-something man who lost his Christian wife to cancer at the end of last year (you can read about her at www.shaggybeastofthought.wordpress.com), I have enough with which to contend already without suspecting that Harris not just disagrees but personally hates and despises her and the colourful collection of Christians and Muslims that make up her African family. I don’t even imagine that Harris would be much more kindly disposed towards the two atheist friends of ours who quietly sat beside her bed on the day that she expired.

Harris appears to condemn faith as belief without evidence and goes on about this at tiresome length but then contradicts himself in a throwaway remark “the leap of faith is really a fiction. No Christian… {has} been content to rely upon it.” No, and it was none other than Hitch who pointed out that Harris, Dawkins and Dennett were wrong to go on about religious people’s certainties since in fact doubt is an integral part of faith. It’s not altogether clear whether Harris is opposed to religion or to fundamentalism. He appears to condemn fundamentalism per se but then suggests that Jineist Fundamentalism might well be a benign force in the world. Not if you have bedbugs in your flat it isn’t!

I know for a fact that many much more orthodox Christians than myself insist that God has never ‘spoken’ to them in the sense of a voice inside their head. If your hair dryer speaks to you, you’re mad. If a painting speaks to you. you’re creative.

As ever for a new atheist, Harris is happy to airbrush away the dark side of secularism. The wearisome expose of the Spanish Inquisition might have carried more weight not coming from a man who supports both torture and killing people for holding the wrong beliefs. By the way, Harris’s defence of torture could quite easily be applied to justify capital punishment. How do you feel about that fact dear Liberal reader? Many people far less learned than Harris would correctly point out that the New Testament represented a new covenant and therefore the often ghastly rules of the Old Testament no longer applied. Even at the moment of death there is the possibility of redemption so there is no reason to assume that Christians don’t give a damn about their atheist friends and acquaintances roasting in Hell. By the way, Jesus descended into Hades, the land of the dead, not into Hell. Jesus in part condensed down the essence of his teachings to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and when asked to define his neighbour told the parable of the good Samaritan.

I am not asking Harris to believe any of the central tenets of Christianity. Personally I see immense problems with a literal as opposed to figurative reading of scripture. At the time of writing this review I am listening to Progressive Christian John Dominic Crossin who manages to make a far more robust challenge than Harris to orthodox theology without turning offensive or disrespectful. All I am asking is that Harris has enough respect to do intellectual justice to the beliefs of those Christians who do hold to an orthodox theology. Suffering seems to be the principal reason for his atheism yet I have to observe that my Christian parents do not explain away that problem in the ways put forward in The End of Faith. Such over-simplifications rather blunt Harris’s dismissal of theology as a discipline.

I don’t feel qualified to comment on Islam beyond observing that Harris's accuracy rate on Christianity is hardly encouraging. However I would recommend Adam Curtis’s excellent series The Power of Nightmares which seems relevant here. I will add that however rare, there have been prominent cases of violent fundamentalists who have been de-radicalised and converted back not to atheism but to moderate Islam.

Much of chapter 5 is distinctly scary (not the parts on drugs which are quite crackers!) and I absolutely share Harris’s concern. However, if “nothing in the Bible suggests that killing human embryos or even human foetuses is the equivalent of killing a human being” then in what way is opposition to stem-cell research primarily religious? It’s akin to the myth that the principal opponents of assisted dying are not disabled people but religionists.

I absolutely share Harris's belief in the benefits of meditation but feel the need to observe that the negative thinking that lies at the heart of Buddhism has all too often been appropriated by self-help advocates whose worldview is the complete opposite. Furthermore, the logical implications of non-self and of illusory free will is that there is very little reason to hate your neighbour. Hands up everyone who thinks that The End of Faith is a book entirely shorn of hatred?

A New Atheist acquaintance once observed to me that it’s hard to argue with Harris and there we can most certainly agree! Harris doesn’t so much flirt with self-contradiction as grabs it by the arms and waltzes with it across the room. A small part of me admires this as a nuanced approach but a much larger part of me just throws up my hands in despair. In the end I really don't know what the point is of this book. Harris clearly doesn't share Peter Boghossian's definition of faith as 'belief without evidence' but nor does he have a problem with Fundamentalism per se. If the problem with religion is that it is founded on untruths then surely a more conciliatory bridge building approach is called for. The numerous US Christians who have benefited from the ideas of Eckhart Tolle and Pema Chodron demonstrate that this is far from a lost cause.

Of course Harris would assert that moderate Christians legitimise fanaticism but that’s a bit like saying that being centre-left gives cover to Communism. As for the idea that moderate religionists have been softened by secularism I can only quote Christopher Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” You might just as well assert that the two kind-hearted atheists who sat beside my dying wife were subliminally moved away from a hard Nietzschean worldview by the gentle hand of religion.

In the epilogue Harris opines that 'it is time we realised that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil". Agreed, but why the fixation on 'piety'. Is it really any better for a secularist to matter-of-factly assure me that my life will get better? I think not. It continually bewilders me that the New Atheists fire off about the evils of faith but have nothing to say about the far more questionable virtue of hope. "Many", adds Harris, "are still eager to sacrifice happiness, compassion and justice in this world for a fantasy of a world to come". Yes, and we call some of those people New Atheists.

I will sign off by simply recommending that this review is read in tandem with my 2-star review of Ravi Zacharias’s The End of Reason.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 28, 2015 9:37 PM GMT


END OF REASON: A Response to the New Atheists
END OF REASON: A Response to the New Atheists
by ZACHARIAS RAVI
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.99

2.0 out of 5 stars There is so much to atheism than this, 22 Oct. 2014
Anyone who wants to know what I thought of The End of Faith can see my two -star review on this website. Yet anyone who wonders why the New Atheists still fulfil such a vital function could do far worse than to read this short volume.

To be honest, many of Zacharias’s’s examples in this short book are pretty weak, but At the heart of his response lie four assertions:
1. That the new atheists are shockingly rude and very selective in their facts
2. That the new atheists are shocking hypocrites.
3. That the new atheists are shockingly bad at logical thought.
4. That atheists have no right to talk about right and wrong

I absolutely agree with the first three assertions but feel that they do feel a bit like shooting fish in a goldfish bowl. Maybe some new atheists would be surprised to find rudeness, selectivity or inconsistency of thought or hypocrisy but in truth I suspect that Dawkins and Harris in particular wouldn’t give a damn. For them a ‘religious liberal’ like me is vacuous as are most sophisticated theologians, and the only true Christians are fundamentalists. In that case the only question that concerns Harris is whether religious claims are actually true.

However it is really Zacharias’s fourth assertion with which I must most vociferously object. A few years back I remember hearing a woman on TV talking with faint bemusement about the new atheists. She was clearly a Christian but also clearly an academic and pointed out among other things that it is possible for a theist to argue that God does not in fact exist - which I took as meaning that existence is not an adjective that can be applied to the almighty. I am inclined to agree with her and while I both pray and meditate, I think a good case could be made for asserting that 'does God exist?' is a nonsensical question. To quote from A Reasonable Faith, published by the wonderful Sea of Faith network:
“many Christians, particularly in the mystical tradition… have always understood God as metaphor and symbol.”

So the automatic association of atheism with moral nihilism is clearly false, and for albeit very different reasons I find myself agreeing with Harris that the word atheist should become redundant. Yet time and time again atheists are dragged out by Zacharias like a perennial bogeyman even when doing so is deeply morally questionable. Dawkins had previously made a pop at Stephen Jay Gould for being accommodating to religion, and now Zacharias does so attacking Gould for being an atheist. Also in the firing line are Carl Sagan and Don Cupitt.

The latter inclusion upset me slightly as Cupitt created the 1984 TV series Sea of Faith which inspired the wonderful Sea of Faith network. My (Christian) wife died in December and as part of the healing process I attended in July their annual conference. A kinder, more welcoming group you would not find, especially given that I am registered blind and wondered whether these would prove to be hard Darwinians puzzled at why I had not been evolved out of existence! Yet the people to whom I spoke seemed no more fond of Dawkins than am I or my atheist friend Dolly. Let me tell you about her. She sat quietly by my Christian wife’s bed on the day that the latter died and my late wife trusted her enough to ask her to take care of her husband. Could I suggest that Dolly far more encapsulates the spirit of Jesus than ultra-judgmental Zacharias. Incidentally, the flippancy of Zacharias’s defence of the monstrous idea of Hell left me speechless.

It is hardly incumbent on me to come to the defence of Buddhism since to do so could well represent a triumph of the ego. However I will make some gentle pointers. Karen Armstrong in her Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life draws heavily on Buddhism. When my wife was dying and I found myself sitting by the local vicar sobbing my heart out and saying that I felt a hypocrite asking for prayers as I attend a meditation sangha, I was touched by his response: “I like Buddhism, it’s a very compassionate belief system.”

Einstein was not a Buddhist but his comments on compassion were read out at a meditation retreat which I attended:
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

Now returning to the Sea of Faith Network, one particularly interesting conversation that I had was with a former angry atheist turned agnostic. I got the impression that at the heart of the new atheist project is a very 19th century optimism about the perennial upward progress of man who will eventually discard religion like a useless crutch. I observed to this agnostic acquaintance that Dawkins optimism is very selective. We are commendably less misogynistic, racist and (in some parts of the world) less homophobic but I am very far from persuaded that we are making progress when it comes to caring for the poor, the elderly and the disabled. He agreed. What makes Harris’s belligerence frightening is that if you are sure that things are inexorably moving in the right direction then it is very easy to be blasé about those aforementioned exceptions to the rule.

If you want an intelligent response from a ‘fundamentalist’ Christian (which is to say one who might well be appalled by my theology) then you could do worse than to look here:

http://www.tektonics.org/gk/harrisletter.html

Else you could try here:

http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/news/lecture-dr-edward-feser-what-we-owe-new-atheists

Or you could read John Lennox’s God’s Undertaker. Lucky you if you do as it’s not in audio format!


Hitch 22: A Memoir
Hitch 22: A Memoir
Price: £4.19

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Alternately engrossing and self-indulgent, 11 May 2013
I don't wish to be overly frivolous but reading Hitch-22 it's hard not to be reminded of a seventies prog rock album. There's no disputing the talent on display but the feeling can't be ignored that a good single LP is to be found within its gatefold two discs. If the analogy fails in any way it's that the `flab' elements, which make up at least a third of Hitch-22, are glaringly obvious. I'll come to them shortly but before that I must make a few points.

I was given this book back in 2011 but delayed reading it until now. That is in part because Hitch is part of nonbeliefs lunatic fringe known as the new atheists. These people depress me with their mix of sanctimony, hypocrisy, self pity and indifference to factual accuracy or logic so I will keep matters brief and simply make these three points while recognising that reasoning with Fundamentalists whether religious or atheist is counter-productive.
1. I allude to my feelings about God is not Great in my amazon review of Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism.
2. Christianity like Islam troubles me as its redemptive nature, with everything pointing to Heaven, compromises its capacity for immediate compassion. Substitute in place of Heaven `a post-Liberal Democratic socialist utopia' and you have my feelings about some forms of socialism. Substitute in place of Heaven `a post-religious atheist utopia in which even metaphysical musings are viewed with distaste and you have my views on the new atheism of Harris and possibly of Dawkins. If you think that I exaggerate then read the conclusion to Letter to a Christian Nation.
3. It is near-certain that Hitch would agree about Christianity and socialism and notwithstanding the conclusion to this memoir, there is a good chance that he was less fanatical than Dawkins and Harris and was simply happy to settle with a separation of church and state.

So now to Hitch-22. Far and away the most interesting parts are those concerning 9/11, its build up and aftermath. This includes the rise of Saddam Hussain, the Rushdie affair, the attacks on the twin towers and Pentagon and the subsequent wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. I was one of the millions who marched on 15th February 2002 and am not altogether persuaded by his case for war on Iraq but he does make strong arguments. I was never as dogmatic as many n the anti-war movement but simply felt that it violated international law and therefore set a very bad precedent.

Also of interest are the sections on the various socialist struggles in which Hitch was involved and in which he gave his support and solidarity. I have never been one of those people who thought that he drifted to the right as he got older and it was hard not to read these sections without admiring his commitment and feeling mild shame about my own (comparative( political apathy.

Less informative but much more moving and well worth including are the sections on his education and on his Father and mother. The latter is particulary affecting and as someone who has read The Rage Against God (so-so) I also enjoyed the points where Hitch discusses his relationship with his brother.

If you can excuse sentences such as "these people are not called nihilists for nothing", then for the most part the memoir is beautifully written, And had Hitch-22 consisted exclusively of the above then I would have happily added an extra star or possibly two to my rating. However to put it mildly it does not. The post-Iraq postscript would have been the perfect place to end this memoir but Hitch feels that this chronicle of events has not given a clear picture of what he is like as a person. Consequently we get his answers to a questionnaire, a series of pretty vacuous aphorisms and musings on his Jewishness that are far less interesting than they should be. Last year I enormously enjoyed Mark Kermode's autobiography It's Only a Movie, and while that is very patchy in terms of a chronicle of the author's life, it still conveys a far clearer picture of its writer than does Hitch-22. I blame the Christian Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation who once described his friend Hitch as a philosopher and thereby encouraged him to take himself too seriously! If Hitch really had to include all this stuff then he should have published it in a separate volume.

Also far less interesting than they should be are the sections on the literary luncheons and on Hitch's friends including Martin Amis and James Fenton. There is good reason to believe that Hitch was far more likeable in person than is apparent in his writings, but he did have the knack of making quite possibly likeable people sound spectacularly unappealing while attempting to do the opposite. I fail to detect the genius in James using initials for the names of his aunts. Nor was it strictly necessary for Hitch to explain a confusion by CLR James of the words "fraternally" and eternally" when it was perfectly clear first time round what was being got at. "I am aware at all times" writes Hitch "of the `perhaps you had to be there element' in a memoir." Well I think that applies to the entirety of this section and I suspect I'm not alone in finding the whole literary lunch stuff a bit too alpha male for my liking. "Don't introduce even your most reliably witty acquaintance as someone who set the table on a roar" warns Hitch. It's a pity he didn't heed his own advice before writing about Kingsley Amis.

So not bad overall then, but a bit of a shapeless mess part memoir, part massive exercise in egotistical navel gazing, right up to the slightly pretentious title. Maybe what is hinted at is even more interesting than what is on the page.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 2, 2013 10:05 PM BST


Blindness
Blindness
by Jose Saramago
Edition: Paperback

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A disastrous failure as a novel, 8 Mar. 2013
This review is from: Blindness (Paperback)
In order to specify just what's wrong with this really quite abysmal novel, I may have to reveal a few spoilers. For those who are keen to give the book a try - which is understandable but regrettable - I would avoid that they jump the next two paragraphs and continue reading at paragraph 3.

Midwayy through the novel, our heroine of sorts, which is to say the doctor's wife, needs to make use of a cigarette lighter in order to start a fire. Now this poses a problem for Saramago. After all, neither she nor her husband smoke. We have no reason to believe that she would have a cigarette lighter on her, even less know how to use it in order to start a fire. Coming as the scene does straight after one in which the group of good blind people launch an unsuccessful insurrection against the blind hoodlums who have been terrorising them, this sudden brainwave of the doctor's wife looks faintly laughable. How convenient that the idea came to her head at that precise moment! True, she had been responsible for gathering up the possessions of the good blind people earlier in order to give them to her tormentors, but a great deal had been made of the scissors which she had retained and subsequently used to kill the hoodlum ringleader. So why no previous mention of the lighter?

The irony is that there is a very easy way for Saramago to solve this narrative dilemma. We do in fact have a character whom we can quite easily believe is a smoker, namely the girl with the dark glasses. She could have discreetly handed the lighter to the doctor's wife, breaking it to her that she had twigged that the latter can still see. This girl could then have offered to show to the doctor's wife how to start a fire. It could have been explained, for example, by the girl with the dark glasses that she learnt this years ago as a girl guide. In order to do so we would in part bypass the quite extraordinary implausibility that none of the blind characters at any point in the entire novel feel a flicker of resentment towards the doctor's wife for concealing her sight from them for so long. We would equally bypass the again quite alarming fact that the doctor's wife, effortlessly passes from traumatised observer to earth mother to abuse victim to avenging angel and finally to serial killer without apparently feeling more than a flicker of guilt, remorse or post-traumatic shock. Remember that in the process of starting a fire in which the blind inmates escape she not only leads to the death of the hoodlums but of several innocent good blind characters. Later on she refers to having killed a man, and then quickly changes the subject, her more significant act of mass killing (including innocent collateral) apparently having slipped her memory. We would not exactly bypass but slightly null the suspension of disbelief necessary in order to accept that the doctors wife is somehow able to walk on an uncarpeted surface, barefooted or otherwise, without being heard. Yet we know that this approach would not suit Saramago's ends for a number of reasons. Firstly it would be touching and would humanise, even worse empower the blind girl with dark glasses, and thereby disempower the doctor's wife. It would suggest that the blind characters were capable of something beyond even the most basic of initiative, and would go against the idea that their loss of sight had seriously blunted their lucidity of thinking. Obviously many people, myself included, would find the latter view of blind people to be viciously offensive, and point out that sight loss exists on a gradient with even some `sighted' people not having 20/20 vision, but it is a free country and Saramago has the right to express such extreme opinions. However it is very bad news when a `serious' writer is ready to sacrifice even the remotest psychological plausibility in order to support his philosophical assertion. Good writers let their characters direct the narrative rather than counting on the narrative to beat their characters into a pulp!

At this point it may be necessary for me to come clean and to specify that I am blind myself. Now to anyone who shrugs and assumes that I am biased against the novel because it portrays blindness in such abject terms I have a number of points to make. The first one is that I have not always been blind and for many years lived as someone with good sight who gave scant thought to blindness or disability politics. Secondly I do understand the objection, especially given that (as I understand it) America's National Federation of the Blind objected strongly to the movie version. In fact it could be claimed that in one sense Saramago's vision is not grim enough. Do none of the characters feel the urge for onanism, and do none of them have nicotine, alcohol or narcotic cravings? How is it that none of Saramago's characters express any religious or political viewpoints? Obviously this is a very different scenario to that of lived blind people in the world today. However it is also common sense that in a group of blind characters who suddenly lose their sight, that some of them will completely fall apart, some will cope middlingly well and a small percentage will cope surprisingly well. That all this happens within a world of the blind is completely irrelevant unless Saramago believes that blind people are literally less than human. While I definitely do not want saccharine or politically correct depictions of blindness, it is logically questionable (though I go no further than that) whether the asylum inmates would choose to live in a pigsty rather than to live in reluctant, acrimonious co-operation with one-another.

Saramago may utter vague remarks about celebrating the human spirit, but to anyone who has read his previous work such as The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, it seems hard to contemplate the scenario without considering the expression `in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king'. Now Saramago has every right to make an argument in support of this assertion but if he is to do so, he has to do so honestly and not to counter-balance a group of one-dimensional blind characters with only the most basic of common sense against quite literally the most `together' woman whom I have ever read in any novel in my entire life! He has also to recognise that leading the readers to recognise that this is the expression being explored is harder than it looks. Assuming that the doctor's wife has retained her sight while everyone else around her has gone blind, the logical conclusion to be drawn would be that something in her genetic makeup has immunised her from the white evil. The second logical conclusion to be drawn would be that she is not the only person to be fortunate enough to have been born with this genetic immunity. So the narrative trajectory would in part involve this atheistic follower of science seeking kindred sighted people and the emotional breakdown as she discovers that she is literally alone as a sighted person in this world of the blind. How convenient, then, for Saramago that neither she nor any of the blind people show more than the mildest curiosity as to whether there may be other sighted people in this city. It is also worth adding that even were we to assume that Saramago's assertion holds true - that insofar as blind people had previously shown initiative it was borrowed from their sighted peers - that would still not stop the psychology of the narrative from being nonsensical. After all these people were once sighted and have recollections of living among the sighted on which they can draw in order to activate the reasoning part of their brain.

How would you, though, dear reader, I wonder, feel about a novel where a white colonial visited a dimwitted African tribe and saved their bacon against a more lucid thinking but viciously wicked rival tribe. You might well wonder about the morality of equating lucidity of thought with viciousness in this context, especially when the only exception to this rule comes wrapped in a white skin.
You might consider the broader social context and recognise that blackness is a political as well as biological condition. You might wonder whether the doctor is not in fact imposing her own cultural paradigm on them and whether far from liberating them she is in fact infantilising and thereby disempowering them. Of course at this point some readers will object that the comparison does not stand, but to reiterate what I wrote earlier, our knowledge of human nature shows that some people will cope with an epidemic of blindness appallingly badly, and others surprisingly well.

Another defence at this point might be to agree that Blindness: A Novel is viciously offensive but that this offensiveness serves a higher goal. There are precedents. Some can excuse perceived racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness since he was seeking to make a critique of colonialism. What equivalent, however, can we find here. Even if you reject the idea that it seeks to support the old adage about the kingdom of the blind, it certainly does not work as a celebration of the human spirit since these characters (especially the doctor's wife) bear so little resemblance to ordinary human beings.

Nor can it work as a philosophical tract on blindness since Saramago constantly juxtaposes viewpoints in a way at is at best unhelpful and at times downright irresponsible, even dangerous. What are we to make of the assertion that blind characters have exceptional mobility skills given that the example used is the doctor's wife? Even a Fascist would in reality be hard pressed to deny that some blind people in fact do have above average spatial awareness. If Saramago wishes (presumably borrowing from Bunyan) to dispense with names, that is his choice but it is self evidently absurd to suggest that blind people have no actual need for names - they signify not just identity but class, nationality and personality. At one point Saramago suggests that one man struggling to get to the toilet in his deepest heart did not really wish to do so. More likely his subdued response is, as it is in the real world outside of this novel, down to sheer exhaustion and a desire not to lose his temper. As for the idea that a blind man might well forget that he is holding a white stick as he can not see it in the haze of whiteness that blocks his vision, I can only despair and assume that Saramago has never felt the need to get up in the middle of the night! In fact at one point Saramago gets himself in such a mess in his determination not to say anything nice about blind people as to actually render the omniscient narrator unreliable - the assertion that the girl with dark glasses would have no reason to believe that the maid who first spotted herwas also in the asylum.

There are plenty more absurdities in this novel and I alluded to some of them in my amazon review of Meirelles's film version, so I will close by asking one last question and that is what type of book this is meant to be? Is it a fable? The magic realist style and dialogue would suggest as much but that assumption is countered by a passing allusion to the Red Cross. So even in this fable there is an aspiration to social versimilitude. Then is it imaginable that such atrocities would be permitted without a whiff of objection from opposition political parties or from Amnesty International? There is no reason to believe that the tale is set in a Fascistic dictatorship but if it is then its characters would react very different - moving from a social to a bodily prison. Even in a fable, psychological and narrative plausibility are still necessary, yet it is unimaginable that none of the characters ever feel a moments resentment towards the Government for their incarceration. The dialogue is clearly biased towards the philosophical and non-naturalistic but even heare absurdities abound - characters completely bypass the usual stages of trauma after losing their sight and declare "I am blind".

To conclude, what makes this novel so quite appalling is not the conflict within it, but the nature of that conflict. I don't object to the blind characters being porgrayed behaving badly but do object that Saramago exaggerates in order to make his case, and compounds this with the profoundly dishonest representation of the doctor's wife, and of their relationship with her. She never loses patience with them, nor they with her. She never has a moment of existential despair, which is completely unimaginable in a clearly intelligent woman. The blind characters are quite happy for her to disempower them by reading for them, choosing clothes for them and generally keeping them firmly rooted within a sighted paradigm. Saramago probably expects us to be touched that while they happily fornicate with one another, they never touch her. On the contrary it indicts her and suggests how subliminal has been her disempowerment of them. That rather than dreaming of happier times when they could see, they instead dream of her is both preposterous and sinister.

This is a one-star review and please believe me that nothing would give me greater pleasure than to declare that Blindness: A Novel is a politically incorrect masterpiece. Indeed there is a possibility that I am being too harsh. The novel does have the odd moving passage such as the declaration of love from the girl with dark glasses. Provided you can ignore the near constant narrative and philosophical absurdities, it is pacy and gripping throughout, and I would go as far as to observe that until the characters are incarcerated, the novel is actually quite good. Yet what is most depressing about Blindness is that notwithstanding inevitable risks (there are people who sincerely believe that blindness is contagious) the central premise of the novel is a brilliant one. In other words, produced by an author willing to logically explore the ramifications of his scenario rather than to simply send a gigantic Valentine to sighted people, Blindness could have been really interesting.
Yet quite clearly Saramago's ambitions massively, massively exceeded his creative ability in a failed literary experiment, and I fear that his hardcoare approach is designed to traumatise the sighted reader out of noticeing the preposterousness of his story. Read it if you must but otherwise I would suggest Meirelles superior film adaptation or John Wyndham's similarly themed Day of the Triffids.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 18, 2013 10:36 PM BST


Lying (Kindle Single)
Lying (Kindle Single)

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Likeable, but lightweight, 10 Aug. 2012
I read this essay twice before writing this review. Strictly speaking that's not true. As a blind person, I relied on computer synthetic speech to read it for me the first time. The second time round it was the even uglier speech of a talking book player that read it to me. Now you, the Amazon reader, may have various responses to this. One would be to wonder why Lying isn't available as an MP3 file. A second, alas, would be to pat yourself on the back that blind people can read this essay at all. A third might be 'too much information' - resentment at having your time wasted reading all of this. If so I'd like to state that I resent having to write it. Like you, I'm busy!

However I do so because it points to one of the problems in this otherwise likeable essay. The fact is that lying isn't just saying untruths - it's also saying less than the full story. By doing so I not only miss out on the opportunity to advance things (your knowledge of the problems faced by blind people seeking to read may have been increased) but give the idea that half truths are acceptable. Being honest, however, is hard work and you may find yourself wishing I had been a little less honest!

Sam seeks to distinguish between lying and simple deception but I don't think the distinction is altogether clear. Unlike Sam, I think there can be problems where wearing make-up is concerned. Personally I like to look smart, and so does my wife, but what about the dead? There exists arguments that embalming simply seeks to eradicate the truth of death. What about artificial fingernails, or Botox injections? What about the actor on stage? I'm writing a novel at the moment and I certainly want to dupe my readers into forgetting their realities for the short time it takes to read my work. The danger with all of these is that the illusion ends up deceiving the illusionist - hence the frequency of breakups among actors (and I have discussed this with a professional actor friend of mine).

I am lucky in having a Line Manager at work who is very likeable and so I often ask 'how are you?' when I come into work, not expecting a fully honest reply. However I know that I would be compassionately concerned but also deeply flattered were she to trust me enough to say 'to be honest, Stephen, I feel awful today'. Of course there are issues of status at play but what should she reply if in fact she does feel bad one day. `Fine' might be the polite reply but surely it has to be seen as a lie. Having seen the marvellous film My Dinner With Andre, I know that I'm not alone in sometimes finding quite exhausting the pressure to stick to socially regulated modes of conduct.

I hated Sam's Letter to a Christian Nation, so it saddens me to admit that politics and Western religion are especially good at ordering people what to feel - you are duty bound to love both God and your country. However this problem goes beyond politics and religion. When Albert Camus wrote his classic The Outsider he stated that lying wasn't just saying what's not true. It is also saying more than you feel. So Meursault, his anti-hero, loses his life as much for showing insufficient sorrow at his mother's death as for killing an Arab. Real life equivalents are everywhere to be seen - Princess Diana's death is an obvious example but as I write this there is mass hysteria over Team GB's unusually strong Olympic performance - despite the fact that it's not rocket science that they might do better on their home turf.

The other problem that I have with this essay is that there is no social context. As a disabled person, a number of years ago, I received a great deal of help from an able-bodied friend. Grateful as I was to him, it made it very hard for me to admit that inside I was seething. The fact was that he was at times both controlling and patronising, at other times unsentimental to the point of frank insensitivity and had politics to the right of Donald Rumsfeld. We have since completely severed contact but it was him who ended the friendship and the memory is still slightly unsettling to this day. It's all very well for Sam to say that I should have been more frank with him, but I wasn't in the position to do so. I think we can find similar situations where issues of race, gender, class, poverty and so on are concerned.

If Letter to a Christian Nation left me wondering whether Sam might want to consider forming a punk band then Lying leaves me searching for Dolly Parton's contact details. While I am sincerely grateful to Sam for not turning in another tirade against religion (although I suspect that other readers will not share my gratitude), I can't help finding Lying's anecdotal approach drawing on the lives of Sam, his family, friends and his readers, a little homely. I have sought to return the compliment with this review but had slight unease about doing so. Where Sam's examples are concerned, at least, they give the essay an easy likeability and a `home grown common sense' feel which troubles me as in fact his arguments are frankly over-simplistic.


The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
by Sam Harris
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £23.38

2 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Worrying, 28 July 2012
I'm still getting counselling after reading Sam's truly appalling Letter to a Christian Nation - an object lesson in how to confront a real problem (Protestant fundamentalism) with a mix of sanctimony, condescension, hypocrisy, insult an apparently inexhaustible supply of half thought out arguments, and just enough sinister throwaway remarks to suggest to me as a left-leaning physically disabled person that I might not wish to live in his utopia.

Finding himself in uneasy agreement with religionists about the dangers of moral relativism, Harris has drawn up this alternative moral code based on utilitarnism/consequentialism and neuro-science. Now I won't go into what's wrong with this argument since William ("Bill") Lane Craig pretty effectively destroyed it when debating with Harris at Notre Dame University. To anyone liable to dismiss Craig out of hand due to his Christian beliefs, I would simply urge them to watch the debate again (on YouTube) and see how many of Bill's arguments could not have been made by a non-religious agnostic. Not many as I recall. Bill's arguments appeared to be these:
1. If wellbeing for the masses is the key arbiter then it could equally apply to a libertine society which encourages not virtue but viciousness.
2. An `ought' means nothing unless it derives from a `can' but Harris does not believe in free will.

To those who claim that Harris tackled the first objection through discussion of the Dobu tribe, I would advise them to read Sade's Juliette which does not rely on superstitious savages as an example! The mafia is also a microcosmic example of honour among thieves.

What interests me more, however, is Harris's assertion that morality can be deduced from neuro-science - a haard argument to sustain,, not least as in order to make his case he has to bring in philosophy. Besides, moral considerations may well affect even as banal a decision as whether or not to buy a CD by Bach or Beethoven, and the moral balance may be so subtle as to be borderline unmeasurable. Staying on the subject of that great composer, I couldn't help thinking of one of his more infamous admirers while listening to the section on A World Without Lying. Only one thing would be more amusing than watching The Omen Trilogy with Richard Dawkins (come on Damian!), and that would be watching A Clockwork Orange with Harris ("Yes but it works!).

The idea behind Harris's `wellbeing' paradigm is that no-one questions the fundamental basis of medicine - which might come as a revelation to the Deaf and autistic communities, as well as to members of the Mad Pride movement.
To put it mildly, however, Harris does not preoccupy himself with the moral dimension to buying CDs, or even to more obviously moral conundrums such as whether it is ever permissible to smack a baby. Instead he focuses on the most ghastly extremes -corporal punishment, forcing women to wear the Burkha, blood feuds and genital mutilation. His reason for this approach is threefold. Firstly, such examples simply demonstrates that the argument can be made in favour of neuro-scientific morality based on wellbeing, even if in most cases the scenarios will be less extreme. Secondly, many of these atrocities are given legitimacy through religion. Thirdly, liberal moral relativists refuse to condemn such atrocities. There is something inherently suspect when so many excuses are given by Harris,and inevitably they can not stand. After all, he also elaborates in detail on child abuse practiced by Catholic priests which would appall even some paedophiles and which neither the Pope nor moral relativists would defend.

If I can digress for a moment, the section on Catholic child abuse is a rare slip by Harris back into Letter-style moments of lunacy. For sure the Catholic Church hierarchy behaved atrociously but in the main their cover-ups were an attempt to save face, not to give a seal of approval to paedophilia. Yet of course sexual abuse does not just take place in religious educational establishments. So should everyone who occupies any role whatsoever in a school step down lest by continuing in their jobs they give cover to paedophilia? After all they are clearly sending out the message that secular educational establishments are a good thing and risking entrapping vulnerable children in abusive situations. Can we assume that Harris will not collude with this duplicity and will personally educate his child at home? Who decides when individual malpractice should be seen as emblematic of the whole? I hope it's someone more balanced and fair minded than Harris.

Harris makes a quite preposterous case for suggesting that marriage is natural, yet in a debate which I heard a few years ago the point was made that among mammals, only thre percent are truly monogamous, and humans are not among the three percent. Even if they were, there are ample marriages where force, coercion or political or religious machinations are involved to make Harris's assertion dubious.

Harris refutes the charge of arrogance sometimes laid, generally by religious people, at the foot of scientists. He claims that in scientific forums the tone is invariably one of modesty, caused by the pperfectly reasonable desire not to be seen making a fool of oneself. In fairness the same point has been made by far more reasonable people than him. Yet Harris's claim here has to be seen alongside another quote taken from Letter to a Christian Nation, to wit "there have been some incredibly arrogant scientists". Now it is true that the two statements are not self contradictory but it does suggest that Harris has in The Moral Landscape not been altogether frank.

Now here is potentially offensive thought experiment. If my logic is faulty then I would be sincerely interested to know in what regard: Being gay does not affect one's social skills, but it severely reduces one's chances of finding a sexual partner. Even if primates are congenitally bisexual, they are also likely to have preferences and this is likely to be fore the opposite sex. However there are no counter-balancing aptitudes that explicitly derive from homosexuality such as greater creativity or an aptitude for science.

Autism reduces one's social skills, and one's chances of finding a sexual partner are massively reduced, since the condition affects one's ability to engage in `normal' modes of social conduct. However at least for some autistic people there are very real counter-balancing aptitudes that derive explicitly from the condition - phenomenal power of concentration and memory. So how would Harris feel about abortions for autism? Remember that at the heart of the MMR vaccine scandal was the fear of children developing autism. How would Harris feel about attempts to detect a `gay gene'. I'm not a gambling man but I'll wager he would be quite appalled by even the suggestion. Either as I believe both are equally abhorrent or both are equally acceptable. So, to conclude,can science determine human values? Probably not given Craig's objections, but also given how many ingrained assumptions are processed in our minds as `common sense' (and protected by a veil of taboo) and are therefore liable to affect our interpretation of that scientific information. Harris is not like a sailor in a yacht being led by the wind and tides of science but is rather like a man who is sufficiently confident that he knows what is right to defy the wind and fix an outboard motor to take him to the `correct' place. In that, he is like the rest of us. However it is in his belligerence and closed mindedness that he is genuinely dangerous.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 13, 2013 9:46 PM GMT


Letter to a Christian Nation
Letter to a Christian Nation
by Sam Harris
Edition: Audio CD

8 of 34 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Ugly little rant, 28 July 2012
This is a truly shockingly bad book - the first by an atheist `philosopher' to get me genuinely angry. I despise its hectoring tone, its hypocrisy and its one-sidedness, not to mention Harris's willingness to airbrush away any broader social factors. I won't go into detail listing all the cases of over simplification or false logic. Were I to do so this review would be very (and I mean very) long.
However I would like to focus on a few choice remarks that frankly left me gagging in disbelief:

"There is no question that there are times when making enormous sacrifices for the good of others is essential for one's deeper wellbeing"
Were the Marquis de Sade to read this he would tilt his head back and roar with laughter? Yes indeed, Harris endorses the very point that the Divin Marquis made, that the altruistic urge is much if not most of the time simply disguised self-interest. So the logical question to then ponder is whether there are not indeed times when cruelty rather than kindness might not be a more effective tool for self-advancement. Nietzsche, an atheistic thinker who has earned his place in history recognised this, as did Stirner but Harris seems to have no interest whatsoever in philosophy. It might be understandable if deplorable that Harris seeks to airbrush away figures such as Sae, Nietzsche and Stirner from the history of atheistic thought, but what is his excuse for blacklisting Camus, Sartre, not to mention Comte-Sponville and Onfray. Just for the record, have Harris's followers even heard of those guys?

"One can reasonably wonder whether most aborted foetuses suffer their destruction on any level. One can not reasonably wonder this about the millions of men, women and children who must endure the torments of war, political torture or mental illness"
This is a brief descent into linguistic gobbledigook. What on earth can this sentence mean? What on earth does mental illness have to do with this? All these are political issues but in very different ways where mental illness is concerned - is Harris not aware of the social model of disability and of the Mad Pride movement?

"Insofar as there is a crime problem in Western Europe it is largely the problem of immigration"
That might come as a revelation to anyone affected by last year's riots. Noticeing that Harris focuses exclusively on working class crime, can I assume that he is not a member of the Socialist Workers Party?

"The United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious adherence. It is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and infant mortality."
It takes quite some cheek to place homicide in the same sentence as the above social ills, especially as Harris has been bemoaning the equation of abortion with murder. However for the record I think the question of whether people go to church because life is hard, or whether they carry out muggings at the incitement of the pastor is a bit of a no-brainer. It's a subject of contention in the same way that whether the world is round or flat is a subject of contention. John Humphrys by the way has a bit of a chuckle over this one in his book In God We Doubt.

"The human response to the ensuing disaster {of hurricane Katrina} was tragically inept but it was inept only by the light of science."
This remark caused my jaw to drop. Rather than go into a redetailed response I'll just direct readers to Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke. There is something seriously wrong with Harris's moral conscience if he is more critical of the victims for retaining their faith than he is of the Republican government for their response to the disaster.

"This is the age old problem of theodicy of course and we should consider it solved. If God exists either he can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities or he does not care to. God therefore is either impotent or evil."
Firstly, the `wrath of God' response is not theological, for reasons clear to anyone who has read the New Testament. Secondly, I would just like to assure readers that over the course of two millennia there have been more than two (that's one, two) possible explanations put forward for the problem of suffering. For those who wish to explore this subject, I would recommend the agnostic Bart Ehrman's God's Problem as a start. Also Keith Ward makes the case for how an omnipotent, omnipresent deity may nevertheless be incapable of creating a logical impossibility - a world without natural suffering.

Last of all, I have to ask what on Earth Harris hopes to achieve with this rant? If he sees the UK as the ideal secular state then his out and out attempts to create a world of universal atheism is unnecessary and a distraction since all he really needs is a separation of church and state. In that case a more conciliatory tone addressed at moderate Christians should be the obvious first move. He might also want to note recent polls which show that while church attendance might not be all it could be, the spiritual and religious heart of the UK population is very much alive. I do understand Harris's argument that moderation gives cover to extremism but can't help noticeing that this concept could just as easily be applied to socialism or to capitalism. So should we abolish politics? This is a more serious point than it might sound. I actually have heard people maintaining to me with a straight face that by holding moderate left of centre ppolitical views I am giving cover to communism!

If on the other hand, Harris truly wants to change human nature in a way reminiscent of Sade or Nietzsche then he should recognise that the `slavery' analogy is to put it mildly wanting. It has been argued that ancient world slavery appears more akin to serfdom, and the discovery that `slavery' was abolished might come as a revelation to workers in sweatshops! Sade mused on how to purge religion from the world, and believe me, the ways of doing so weren't pretty and had more to do with decapitated limbs than changed minds!

Make no mistake, I recognise the problems of fundamentalism, and some of the implications of its rise in the US are truly scary. I also see how conflating cultural Christianity with metaphysical belief can be problematic - and I was aware of that long before 2001. I agree that automatically associating faith with morality can be problematic - creating emotional cripples who feel guilty at not being able to believe. Yet noting that according to Harris atheism is the only 'reasonable' response to the problem of suffering, one so obvious that the word shouldn't even exist, I can only assume that not just theists but also agnostics and sceptical agnostics are seen by Harris as morally sub-normal. I just hope that his daughter won't be emotionally crippled in years to come at not being able to share her father's hardcoare atheism. Given Harris's apparent misanthropic contempt for the vast majority of the human race, might I suggest that he form a punk band? If nothing else it might be a release valve and result in better books!

I have read all four horsemen, as well as the above atheist philosophers with the exceptions of Nietzsche and Stirner and it was only time constraints that stopped me reading the former. I was sincerely moved by Camus and Comte-Sponville and have qualified admiration for both Sade and Onfray. For what it's worth, I have found far more challenging critiques of Christianity from Richard Holloway, Alan Watts and Karen Armstrong, and their strength lies precisely in the fact that they are not hostile to religion per se and that it is possible to imagine a respectful conversation with them. In fact I can testify first hand that when I played devils advocate as an audience member at a Q&A with Karen Armstrong last year, she answered my comments thoughtfully, courteously and at length. On the basis of this book, a conversation with Harris would be as productive as one with a brick wall. Harris takes an indirect dig at Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion but funnily enough she is a bit of an idol for a Humanist friend of mine and in seeking jaw-jaw rather than war-war, she is definitely part of the solution whereas Harris is most certainly part of the problem.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 23, 2013 10:56 AM GMT


Letter To A Christian Nation
Letter To A Christian Nation
by Sam Harris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.99

7 of 39 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Hypocritical, ill informed and just slightly sinister, 21 Mar. 2012
A few years back I wrote for this site a review of Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism which I compared to Christopher Hitchens God is not Great. With hindsight this may have been a tad unfair. True I wasn't especially impressed by either book but `Hitch' was from all accounts a lot more likeable and fair minded than was apparent from the latter's book. Indeed my Dad, a retired vicar, was quite moved on hearing a final interview which he gave for the BBC. However not only can I not imagine my Dad being moved by Sam Harris' shockingly inept rant but nor I imagine would be a good friend of mine who describes himself as a Humanist, and quite possibly nor would a couple of very dear friends of mine, both atheists. The sort of `new atheist' whom I suspect that this book is aimed at has no interest whatsoever in factual accuracy, balance or fair mindedness. They won't for example think `pots and kettles' about Sam getting upset at abusive emails after calling for less automatic respect to faith. Nor will they care that the confrontational approach is deeply offensive to more reasonable and thoughtfully religious people. They will have little to no knowledge of either theology or philosophy and even less curiosity to do any research.

I won't go into detail listing all the cases in this book where Sam uses over simplification, false logic or plain old fashioned factual inaccuracy. Were I to do so this review would be very (and I mean very) long. Suffice to say that a sometimes insightful rebuttal lasting nearly 50 pages can be found at:

However I would like to focus on a few choice remarks that frankly left me gagging in disbelief:

"There is no question that there are times when making enormous sacrifices for the good of others is essential for one's deeper wellbeing"
Were the Marquis de Sade to read this he would tilt his head back and roar with laughter? Yes indeed, Sam endorses the very point that the Divin Marquis made, that the altruistic urge is much if not most of the time simply disguised self-interest. Yes, and if Sam were a logical thinker he would then ponder whether there are not indeed times when cruelty rather than kindness might not be a more effective tool for self-advancement. Nietzsche, an atheistic thinker who has earned his place in history recognised this, as did Stirner but Harris seems to have no interest whatsoever in philosophy. It might be understandable if deplorable that Harris seeks to airbrush away figures such as Sae, Nietzsche and Stirner from the history of atheistic thought, but what is his excuse for blacklisting Camus, Sartre, not to mention contemporary atheist thinkers such as Andre Comte-Sponville and Michel Onfray. Just for the record, have Sam's followers even heard of those guys? Oh, and just to make it clear, I am in a monogamous relationship with my wife and am not remotely violent as a person.

"One can reasonably wonder whether most aborted foetuses suffer their destruction on any level. One can not reasonably wonder this about the millions of men, women and children who must endure the torments of war, political torture or mental illness"
What on earth does mental illness have to do with this? Is he endorsing abortions where mental illness is detected? Is he not aware of the social model of disability? Yes he is because he has practiced discrimination. In conversation with Richard Dawkins concerning The Moral Landscape he made this remark
"No-one ever attacks the philosophical underpinnings of medicine".
That might come as a revelation to Deaf people, autistics and members of the Mad Pride movement. He cites El Salvador where abortion is illegal under any circumstance and the cases cited are truly heartbreaking and I agree that equating abortion with murder creates moral chaos and absurdity as well as being deeply cruel. However noting that he is a utilitarian and observing that he appears to be in favour of aborting to avoid cases of mental illness, I have to ask whether he agrees with two utilitarian philosophers whom I recently read about who called for the legalisation of after birth abortions (it means what it sounds like) where Downs Syndrome is detected. If like me he finds this repellent with overtones of fascism then I take it that he will disown not just those scientists but utilitarianism wholesale. After all, he is giving cover to extremism. In the UK calls for legalisation of assisted dying were passionately opposed by the majority of disabled people but in spite of this the British Humanist Association saw fit to ignore their opinions and come out firmly in its favour. I agree absolutely with a Catholic commentator on the radio who warned about a genuinely frightening creeping utilitarianism in the UK.

"Insofar as there is a crime problem in Western Europe it is largely the problem of immigration"
That might come as a revelation to anyone affected by last year's riots. By the way, in a soundbite culture where words are taken out of context was it wise for Richard Dawkins to say that respect is over-rated?

"The United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious adherence. It is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and infant mortality."
It takes quite some cheek to place homicide in the same sentence as the above social ills, especially as Sam has been bemoaning the equation of abortion with murder. However for the record I think the question of whether people go to church because life is hard, or whether they carry out muggings at the incitement of the pastor is a bit of a no-brainer. It's a subject of contention in the same way that whether the world is round or flat is a subject of contention. John Humphrys by the way has a bit of a chuckle over this one in his book In God We Doubt.

"The human response to the ensuing disaster {of hurricane Katrina} was tragically inept but it was inept only by the light of science."
Allow me, Sam, to introduce two new concepts to you: political expediency and racism. Black people generally don't vote Republican.

"This is the age old problem of theodicy of course and we should consider it solved. If God exists either he can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities or he does not care to. God therefore is either impotent or evil."
It takes a certain hubris to assert moral superiority over two millennia's worth of thinkers but we have already gathered that modesty is not Sam's forte. Nor apparently is philosophy as both Augustin and the atheist Stephen Law (he of the Evil God challenge) don't accept the above assertion.

I consider myself an open minded person. While I Sincerely believe on the basis of intellectual ratiocination that the case can be made for God's existence, I have not always had a happy relationship with religion, so this can not be put down to wishful thinking on my part. I have indeed read all the above atheist philosophers except Nietzsche and Stirner and it was only time constraints that stopped me reading the former. I was sincerely moved by Camus and Comte-Sponville and qualified admiration for both Sade and Onfray. Yet Harris's book is the first `philosophical' book, including by the New Atheists, to get me genuinely angry. I despise its hectoring tone, its hypocrisy and its one-sidedness, not to mention white, able-bodied, middle class Western intellectual Sam's willingness to airbrush away any broader social factors. Sam takes an indirect dig at Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion but funnily enough she is a bit of an idol for my Humanist friend and in seeking jaw-jaw rather than war-war, she is definitely part of the solution whereas Sam is most certainly part of the problem.


Juliette
Juliette
by Marquis de Sade
Edition: Paperback

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intellectually consistent, 5 May 2010
This review is from: Juliette (Paperback)
Great works of art have been produced by atheist philosophers in the past and where France is concerned at least, Camus' The Outsider and The Plague and Sartre's Huis Clos come to mind. Unfortunately this(and I suspect the rest of the output of the Marquis de Sade) can not join this distinguished list. With little of the nuance and shade that makes for great art and with its unremitting tone, Juliette feels principally reminiscent of the film Baise Moi or a film by John Waters or Russ Meyer stretched over 10 hours. The freewheeling narrative has little dramatic arc and while there is some curiosity value in this "encyclopaedia of inhuman lewd practices",it is still very hard going at over 1,100 pages.

In fairness, the Marquis de Sade is a better writer than is sometimes credited. At more than one moment in the novel, Juliette is in genuine danger and De Sade proves surprisingly effective at building up tension. He also does seem to be able to gauge the response to his readers at individual moments. So for a novel that for much of the time consists of endless scenes of libertinage, De Sade knows when to go into detail and when to rely on short summaries. As a novel,
Juliette is far funnier than is sometimes acknowledged and some of the violence is so extreme as to descend into surreal black humour. Additionally there is irony such as when one character observes that she can handle ample stallions (my paraphrasing) before her morning hot chocolate. It is true that most of the characters are cut from very similar cloth, but the one truly virtuous character Monsieur de Losange is given a proper opportunity to expound his argument in
favour of virtue. The fact that he met Juliette in a house of ill repute is not presented as a source for mockery. He represents a truly nuanced character in a way that De Sade does not manage with the likes of Princess Borgese (a libertine prone to bouts of guilt).

If this was all that there was to De Sade's Juliette then it would have to count as a pretty mediocre romp, livened by the author's insanely gothic and uninhibited imagination but severely flawed by its insanely over-bloated length. However it is as a philosopher that the
Marquis de Sade is most worthy of note and it is that which makes Juliette worth reading. We are not accustomed to finding lengthy philosophical expositions in works of pornography but I suspect that De Sade would agree with those who argue that the end goal of all man's activities is the spreading of his genes, and this could be seen as validating his hardcore approach. De Sade's philosophy may have been refined into a more palatable form by Nietzsche but it is hard
not to admire the former for his intellectual consistency. A deeply pious philosopher like Blaise Pascal (in his Pensees) acknowledged that morality is based on custom rather than being innate. De Sade builds on this, arguing that since there is no God, we should deconstruct everything that we see as virtuous and recognise almost all of it (friendship, love, loyalty, respect for the lives of others, altruism) as disabling and stifling of our individual happiness. Nature holds no more value for a lump of mud than it does for 10,000 human beings, so if the genocide of 3 million people gives no more satisfaction than that of a good dinner, this should not bar the man
with power from practicing this mass murder. Man may derive pleasure from altruism but it is unlikely to be recognised by others, unlike cruelty, and the 'kick' provided by the latter is more piquant.

My problem with this viewpoint is threefold. Firstly I would question whether it is a certainty that we derive more pleasure from cruelty than from pleasure. To those who suspect wishful thinking, I would direct them to Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor's book On Kindness. However, more importantly perhaps, what goes around comes around. It is certainly true that there is honour among thieves, and I can quite easily believe that the same applies for libertines. However when they respect the life of their fellow libertines, they are acting virtuously. In fairness, De Sade and his anti-heroine is aware of this, and recognises that if she strays from the true path of vice for even a moment then she faces a far greater risk of losing her life (in
an exceptionally unpleasant manner) than were she among virtuous people. Yet as De Laclos demonstrated in his brilliant Dangerous Liaisons, this then places the libertine or sadist in just as much of a straitjacket as the virtuous person. It is for that reason that I felt cheated by the ending of De Sade's novel (I'll say no more). Again, as Shakespeare showed through the character of the atheist Aaron in Titus Andronicus, it is possible for a libertine or sadist to
have agendas beyond his own self-interest, yet De Sade's philosophy would require him to forfeit them thereby reducing his freedom.

De Sade is also wrong to portray nature as endlessly creative and to see it as welcoming destruction as a prompt to further activity. The writer can not be blamed for his mistake as Juliette was written long before Darwin's On the Origin of Species but we now know that nature
does not come out of nowhere but evolves. Were we to wipe out a million humans the damage would be questionable (and might in fact benefit the planet) but the wholesale extinction of the bee population would definitely not be beneficial.

With the intensity of its violence, Juliette is a novel that challenges the tolerance of even the most liberal reader who might wonder what a disturbed person would make of it and of its message.
Yet as it happens I recently started Bart D Ehrman's God's Problem where he passionately objects to those intellectuals who tackle suffering as an abstract concept without exploring precisely what it means and the intensity of its existence in the real world. We can certainly not accuse De Sade of looking away from the practice of cruelty or of its consequences, nor of the potential meaning of living in a Godless universe with no sense of absolute right and wrong. I would argue that however problematic De Sade's writing may be, it is no less dangerous that the strand of 'new atheist' (you know whom I am talking about) who like ostriches stick their head in the ground, argue that morality is innate and that there is no logical route from atheism to violence. If this book gives those thinkers a very bad day then it will have been worth it.

As a heterosexual male, I may not be the best person to comment on the book's feminist politics, but I'd like to chip in a word or two on this subject. I don't think that Juliette can really count as a feminist novel since there is little sense that our central heroine is motivated by anything beyond her own pleasure. Consequently, her role as a male fantasy (sluttish but beautiful and sexually insatiable) appears to be her real personality (and remember this is a first person narrative). The sheer intensity of the violence inflicted on women also plays into the hands of those who would wish to portray Sade as a woman hater. Yet freedom for all, male and female, is what he seeks, and in recognition of marriage as state-approved bondage, he pre-empts feminist thought by at least a century and a half.


Black Sun [2005] [DVD]
Black Sun [2005] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Gary Tarn
Price: £12.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good but not perfect, 19 Sept. 2009
This review is from: Black Sun [2005] [DVD] (DVD)
This is a very good film and one well worth shelling out for, since it rewards repeated viewings. The music is beautiful, the insights that it offers are (for a sighted viewer at least) likely to be fresh and revealing and it is pleasingly without a trace of patronising or sentimentality.
That said, it isn't perfect.

I first saw this film at a screening where director Gary Tarn was available for a Q&A afterwards. The film's almost Zen like state of serenity and its purity (ethereal music and just one voice) risked sending the viewer to sleep but also rendered it criticism-proof. Yet on a second viewing, as a blind person myself, I can detect faults.

As I understood it from the Q&A (and I may be mistaken), Hugues de Montalembert is a friend of Gary's, and the dialogue came from 4 hours worth of conversations. As someone who studied journalism, I can't help feeling that this is surprisingly little, and I do wonder if Gary might have benefited from being a little more probing. Of course this is just one man's experience, but as a visual artist with visual artist friends, how did Hugues retain a frame of reference
so that they could still have satisfying conversations? How does he feel about his attacker? While many blind people (myself included) have experienced hallucinations, were there catalysts such as previous drug experiences or religious background? Last of all, I am intrigued by the eccentric decision to write pages and pages of handwritten manuscripts. To what did these
relate and did it represent an attempt to hold onto a sighted paradigm? I'll take Hugues
at his word on this, but can't help cynically noting a similar scene in Jose Saramago's worryingly over-rated novel Blindness.

The comparison with Blindness (the novel and film) is appropriate as I write this shortly after having seen Fernando Meirelles adaptation of Saramago's novel. The film improved on its source material and while neither version of Blindness came close to Gary Tarn's accomplishment with
Black Sun, it has to be noted that Hugues de Montalembert does represent a blind stereotype, namely the mystic. For all the implausibilities in the characters developed by Saramago / Meirelles, they remain neither symbols nor stereotypes.

So then, these are a few qualifiers to my appreciation of Black Sun. However I would hate them to put people off seeing what is still an exceptional film and one that I highly recommend.


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