The Joy of Words

Francis Bacon once wrote ‘It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.’ Why this is an ‘error’ is a question for advanced Baconians, which I am not. We kind of like writing  about or hearing the good stuff about ourselves, as well as about the rest of the world, and most people think that it’s good for us to hear and pass on positive thoughts, comfortingly reinforcing our sense of bien-être, or well-being. But, more foreign phrases anon. Meanwhile, confirmation bias, for those who don’t know, refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s worldview, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts it. We get uncomfortable when confronted with cognitively dissonant ideas. As a regular commenter on the pages of the Times of London, this is a self-evident truth which one sees every day. Political leaders have their online detractors and those who cannot argue a point successfully usually write a stream of vituperative bile, often about people who own golf courses or wear beards, or more recently, have wives old enough to be their mothers without much reference to any factual content.
On a parallel, not altogether unconnected thread, Messrs Macron and Trump recently met in what some are calling the ‘dandruff diplomacy summit’ which turned out to be quite the touchy-feely lovefest. I rather wonder if they were overcome by a distinct frisson of ‘hygge’ – the last word in joy.
 Speaking of which, as my tongue descends into the nether regions of my cheek, hygge is really quite passé, apparently, all its little books notwithstanding. The Danish term, which means “a feeling of great smugness that you are not in fact Swedish”, was all the rage for a while. Not any more. It has been superseded by the Norwegian ‘peiskos’ which refers, apparently, to that rather cosy feeling one gets when sitting by a roaring fire, or the Dalmatian ‘fjaka’, which means ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’.  My other half will simply look bewildered at this point since such a state is entirely beyond her comprehension. The Croatians believe it can actually cure diseases. I can say this with perfect certainty since I know nobody who is capable of correcting my Croatian, but since I read it in Croatia Week, it must be right. Excellent. Here are a few other words from different countries, shamelessly plagiarised from the Sunday Times. These words have no English equivalent, but they are all suggestive of bien-être.
From France, we have ‘etranger-plaisir: the feeling of contentment occasioned by pretending not to understand when a foreigner is asking you for directions. Since Paris is full of impatient Chinese and grumpy Parisians, the contentment level on the Champs-Elysées shifts up a notch when a busload of Oriental tourists disgorges near the Arc de Triomphe.
 Germany has lots of words which are just joined up fragments of others, such as ‘sudetenmarschierenfreude’ meaning the warm feeling of national wellbeing occasioned by annexing the Sudetenland. Variants might be polenmarschierenfreude, frankreichmarschierenfreude and so on, dependent on one’s degree of wishful thinking.
 Spain has ‘ladoza’ which is the pleasure gained by going back to bed at eleven in the morning and not resurfacing until dinnertime.
 The Scots have an accent as thick as treacle and even those who actually speak the same language are often quite uncomprehending when asking for directions on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. The phrase ‘seeyousestitchthatjimmie’ is a feeling of intense satisfaction when you have just stoated someone between the eyes on licensed premises in the east end of the city.
 Greece has the ubiquitous ‘gamoforous’: the delight experienced in not paying your taxes and in Italy the rather unlikely ‘bambinificio’ is the adolescent pleasure experienced by fully grown men in eating ice creams while wearing sunglasses and riding around on mopeds.
 Japan’s rather formal ‘ken-shi-yorokobi’ is apparently a bewildering sense of euphoria that occurs just before you ceremonially disembowel yourself. Not altogether tempting. There must be less painful ways to get high.
 Russia has few words to express satisfaction of any flavour, except the grim kind which revels in the capture of one’s next door neighbour for selling secrets to the Americans. There is, however ‘yadernoy-radost’, literally ‘nuclear joy’, which is a warm feeling of satisfaction that occurs when you have made an enemy of the state light up like a Roman candle through the covert application of plutonium. OK, I made that one up but ‘radost’ is Czech for ‘glee’ so, hey, close enough.

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The Vocabulary of Genius

Being quite good, or even, moderately bad, at most things one attempts  is either a cause for commiseration or an art to be celebrated. My mother used to remark in that particularly snide fashion that sticks like Thai rice in the bowels of memory, in the rare moments that I crept into her consciousness: ‘Jack of all trades’ – then, very quickly, with the trademark sniff – ‘master of none.’

For centuries, cultures have wagged their heads at the generalist – he of the non-specific, butter thinly spread over the entire slice of bread: “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warned the Chinese. In Estonia, it goes, “Nine trades, the tenth one - hunger.”
Not very ambitious thinking, you’d have to agree. Not quite the vocabulary of genius.
I once wrote a piece praising the joys of mediocrity; sometimes I rather wish I hadn’t. So sorry for the slip into narcissism – who else will toot my flute but me? Being interested in lots of different things doesn’t necessarily mean that one isn’t particularly good at any of them, in fact, quite the reverse. Many of the world’s most impactful individuals , both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman – he played a mean bongo – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci – his helicopter blueprint actually helped when the real thing came along five hundred years later.

If being a generalist was the path to mediocrity, what about these?  Newton. Galileo. Aristotle. Kepler. Descartes. Huygens. Laplace. Faraday. Pasteur. Ptolemy. Hooke. Leibniz. Euler. Darwin. Maxwell …is there a collective noun for  polymaths? Learning or indeed developing original ideas across academic domains is like travel, it broadens the mind. It seems to then act as a lightning conductor to attract left-field kind of thinking, a probing intellectual workup in the subject’s particular specialism at that time. Newton confirmed the inverse square law for gravitation – twenty years later he wrote a book on optics.

Modern polymaths go against the grain. They capture half an idea at the water fountain, gleanings from cast aside conversations; they build atypical, asymmetric patterns then – and herein lies genius – develop them in the arid space where competition is weak. Elon Musk is primarily an engineer, like half the Stanford graduates who work for NASA. Had he just concentrated on that, he’d be just as well-off as an average NASA high flyer. However, he was able to use his business training as well, hence Tesla and SpaceX. An image search turns up thousands of images of the man, not his achievements, so a gift for self-publishing is a helpful addition. Plus getting stupidly rich.

Being a Jack of at least a few trades seems like quite a healthy option. Being retired often leaves a black hole of guilt – perhaps I should go and learn Icelandic, just because I happen to  have time to do so. (Perhaps I should clean the guttering instead.) I used to spend a lot of time thinking about mathematics and physics – these days, I think about literature, theology, art, music and even poetry sometimes, none of which will, alas, make me rich or extend my Icelandic vocabulary. Nevertheless, what fun to trace out the beauty in the twinkling mathematics of Euler, or the symmetrical, Persian carpet perfectionism of a Mandelbrot set. That satisfaction of completeness where circles become squares. Yes.

Marching to Zion

6 for artistic impression

The British Labour Party, and in particular its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has become mired in controversy once again, this time over anti-Semitism. First, he praised an unabashedly anti-Semitic cartoon, then was seen in the company of those whose opinions can only be described as ‘non-mainstream’. He claims not to be an anti-Semite, the default position for a good Socialist, but his background in far-left ideology, where the rich and secretive cabal of Jewish bankers props up the cancer of capitalism must surely lurk at the back of his mind, as his defence of a mural depicting Jewish bankers controlling the world clearly demonstrated. As an atheist, he must, of course be an anti-Zionist – the idea of a Jewish land for a chosen people and holy nation is anathema to him. A simple Passover seder with some far-left ‘friends’ with revolutionary opinions casts doubt at the very least on his judgement. Implausibly, his defence was he was there on his own time and in a private capacity, which actually makes it worse. Either Corbyn understood what he was doing by spending Passover in the company of Jewdas, a splinter group which has compared Israel to a ‘pile of steaming sewage which needs to be properly disposed of’ and belittling  the accusation that Labour has an anti-Semitism problem, in which case he is unashamedly malign. Or – let us be charitable – the more likely explanation is that he did not realise the problems that his attendance would cause, at the end of a week in which the story dominated his political life, in which case he is myopically foolish and completely unsuited to the mantle of leadership should the country abandon all hope and elect a Labour government.

But, what is it about the Jews? Originally, relations between the Jewish Christians and the Jews were fairly cordial. The followers of the Apostles, as well as the Apostles themselves, recognised the sanctity of ancient law; they observed the rites of Judaism and as yet had not placed the worship of Jesus side by side with that of the one God. The development of the dogma of the divinity of Christ drove a wedge between Church and Synagogue. Judaism could not admit to the deification of a man; to recognise anybody as the son of God was blasphemy and as the Jewish Christians had not severed their connections with the Jewish community, they were disciplined. This accounts for the flagellation of the Apostles and other new converts, the stoning of Stephen and the beheading of the Apostle James.

Do I look like a young Jeremy Corbyn?

The Church Fathers, brimming with Pauline fervour, added fuel to an already out-of-control fire. Justin Martyr, in his ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ argued that the Jews were originally selected because of their lack of spirituality – they needed the constraints of the Law to keep them in line. He blamed them for rejecting Jesus as Messiah and asserted that the destruction of the Temple was God’s punishment for such rejection. If this sounds strange, it was not so long ago that Pat Robertson blamed the AIDS epidemic on the sin of homosexuality.

By contrast, Rabbi Tarfon who lived and worked between about 70 and 135 CE was equally forthright. writing at a time when Christianity was considered to be a rather bizarre offshoot of conventional Judaism, he said ‘the Gospels must be burned, for paganism is not as dangerous to the Jewish faith as Jewish Christian sects. I should rather seek refuge in a pagan temple than in an assembly of Jewish Christians.
If nothing else, the current debate has raised awareness in a Gentile population of the depth of animosity that still exists towards the Jews, as well as clearing away some of the muddled thinking where anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are conflated. At best, it will sharpen minds to the historical realities of anti-Semitism, at worst, it will provoke another Kristallnacht.

Stories of Doubt and Hope

Which way?

Reading newspapers encourages a rather juvenile partisanship where we seem to almost develop  crushes on particular journalists whose work we agree with and wordsmithing we like – regardless of gender or pulchritude . It’s impertinent to name names, so I won’t. It’s customary for some of them to write something ‘religious’ and even those specifically tasked to do so tend to be vague about  matters where they have to nail a particular theological position to their masts because if they’re a bit too strident , evangelical even, they get in trouble with their editor and have to endure raucous jeering in the comments section. But, at least they get to ask the hard  questions and  therefore, as their readers, so do we.

It’s Easter – or Eostre – again so if there were a day in the year on which cultural Christians might think about the possibility of eternal things, it would be today. Easter Day and the week running up to it tell the central story of our civilisation, a story of suffering, humiliation, redemption and ultimate triumph. Many people believe fully in the revealed truth of that story, others hold their doubt uneasily. One Passover, Douglas Murray (The Strange Death of Europe) once – rather rudely, I thought – asked a rabbi:  would he agree that a fair proportion of his congregation did not believe in God? Demonstrating a masterly ability at wrong-footing, he replied calmly, “Oh most of them, I expect.”  I know a lady who attends synagogue with scrupulously virtuous regularity who unhesitatingly admits to her non-belief.  As those of us from a Christian background arrive at one of the holiest days in our own tradition, if so many dared to be honest, they might cough sheepishly and say the same. We reluctantly belong without believing.

Screen Shot.pngAll surveys show a sharp decline in traditional Christian religious belief in Britain. In the 1980s, 40% of our population said they were Anglican Christians, mumbling ‘C of E’ when fillling out a form at the hospital. Today the figure is 15%. In her history of religion in Britain since 1945, the sociology professor Grace Davie identified our preferred practice of “believing without belonging”. But over recent decades Britain’s Christians have increasingly shown themselves disinclined either to belong or to believe. We don’t believe in God, don’t go to church and decreasingly wish even to acknowledge membership of that funny little club. Yet our awkward attitude towards our historic faith often asserts itself, usually frivolously, at this time of year since we seem to belong to a culture that has little idea of what to do with Easter other than to  give chocolate rabbits to children. Over recent years, however, if we’ve kept on top of the cultural tensions that fuel our thinking, this humanist-atheist view of modern liberalism has taken rather a beating. More and more of us have travelled around the world and noticed what some religious leaders had unpopularly insisted: that what we have developed in western Europe in our culture of rights, including human rights, is not just historically unusual but unusual at this present moment. Today, there is a growing admission that what we have did not emerge from nothing but grew largely from the philosophy and foundations of the faith we’ve all spent recent decades shrugging off. Whether we like it or not, we have embedded in the warp of our own intellectual history truths we’ve spent a long time either excusing, denying or resisting: that our political liberalism, sensitivity to racism and homophobia, our acceptance of others – the laissez-faire we enjoy – and even the existence of a welfare state derive not from lofty enlightenment but from our faith. Perhaps we are Christians whether we like it or not, having a hard time, as Bob Dylan remarked, accepting things that overwhelm us.

Many devout Christians will be attending church this morning. But what might be the approach of those who cannot literally believe or are actively disinclined to believe, but who are just as much products of Christianity as a rabbi’s congregation are products of Judaism? Not all doubters and non-believers adopt the sneeringly hostile stance towards their historic faith that celebrity atheists do. Although some believers may scoff, and other atheists may frown, to have some engagement with the Easter or Passover narrative is not only to seek a relationship with our past but to engage seriously with the questions of our present and future. There’ll be those who brave the crowds and squeeze into a pew this morning – were I robustly healed I would have been among them – joining the ones who are not believing, and not quite belonging. But are not filled with rejection either, instead making room for hope.