Top positive review
Still relevant twenty years later!
on 15 November 2016
In this book, written in 1999, Dr. Rowan Williams reflects unsentimentally on the loss, during the 1980’s and 1990’s and within North Atlantic (UK, American) society, of certain deep-lying cultural assumptions or ideas which are necessary to our proper understanding of ourselves as social beings.
The book comprises four fairly short essays, each one exploring this ‘cultural bereavement’ in one key area. The essays are interlinked, and each one builds on the foundations laid by those before it.
In the first essay, ‘Childhood and Choice,’ Dr. Williams perceptively shows how the move towards ‘free choice’ in education is in fact necessarily a myth in a world of limited goods, one which not only undermines free choice but also causes us to view our children, and our children to view themselves, as competitors in society. Coupled with this is the loss of real childhood in the forcing of responsible, adult decisions — with adult consequences — on our children in areas such as consumerism, sexualisation. We need, argues Williams, to recover for our children a space in which to play, a space in which the world can be explored and understood precisely by their not being bound to the consequences of their decisions.
The second essay, ‘Charity,’ explores the loss of a particular concept of charity, best understood in terms of the carnival, or festival, of the Middle Ages: a place in which rivalry and competition could be laid aside, opening up new possibilities of conversation and mutual recognition. It is precisely in viewing myself as a competitor for limited goods, i.e., in failing to be ‘charitable,’ that I fail to recognize the substantial integrity of the ‘other’ in society.
In the third essay, ‘Remorse,’ Williams shows how our social conception of remorse has become devalued, defective. What this has led to, aside from the inability of political figures to show genuine remorse and the incessant baying for blood on the part of a sophisticated media, is the common idea that remorse must entail reparation: someone must somehow ‘make good’ my loss. Williams argues for the recovery of a model in which remorse is seen as a shared conversation, in which both victim and perpetrator recognize the loss of moral presence experienced by both.
The final essay, ‘Lost Souls,’ considers how a society which actively encourages the reaction of panic, causes us to lose something of what it means to be a self, or ‘soul’ (understood as actuated in the questioning which arises in recognizing my lack, or frustration, my inability to be a closed system existing without reference to the lives of others). This is perhaps the least convincing of the four essays, leaning heavily as it does on a particular theory of psychoanalysis which may, or may not, be correct.
This book is an invitation to think deeply. Reading this almost twenty years after its initial publication, it is interesting to see how relevant it still is today: indeed one can easily see the cultural drifts identified by Williams here, extrapolated yet further in today’s society. Since this was first published, the world has seen the arrival of Facebook and Twitter, phenomena which have only served to intensify the presence in society of the ‘instant’ and the ‘shallow’ voice.
Dr. Williams’ tightly-argued writing style is such as to require the reader’s full attention in order to follow his line of thought; indeed he can occasionally be rather impenetrable. Nevertheless, the careful reader of this book will find his or her attention to it amply rewarded.