ashwednesday: (spilled milk)
I am, at long last, finally reading The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis, having merely read extracts from it before. I've long been a fan of Lewis; raised on the Narnia books and then finding myself uncomfortably wriggling as I read The Screwtape Letters, seeing in them many of my own sins reflected, I find his presentation of Christianity and the Christian life to be intelligent and humane. The Four Loves is one of those books that if I underlined things in books, it would be full of scribbled lines. There are several ideas in it that I'd like to discuss at some point, but for now I'm interested in the chapter on friendship. Lewis's ideas about friendship in particular reveal his sex, class, and the age in which he grew up. Friendship is homosocial (although certainly not homosexual - he dismisses "pansies" in a way one would not expect of a Fellow of English Literature today!), and it is curiously dispassionate and intellectual. His idea of what constitutes friendship makes this chapter for me the least convincing of the work. But what he says about what friendship should not be resonated with me a great deal.
Among unsympathetic companions, I hold certain views and standards timidly, half ashamed to avow them and half doubtful if they can after all be right. Put me back among my Friends and in half an hour - in ten minutes - these same views and standards become once more indisputable... Theirs is the praise we really covet and the blame we really dread... A circle of friends cannot of course oppress the outer world as a powerful social class can. But it is subject, on its own scale, to the same danger. It can come to treat as 'outsiders' in a general (and derogatory) sense those who were quite properly outsiders for a particular purpose. Thus, like an aristocracy, it can create around it a vacuum across which no voice will carry... The group will disdain as well as ignore those outside it... A coterie is a self-appointed aristocracy.

This is an area that seems to receive little attention from anyone nowadays, beside some fretting over 'peer pressure' (which only ever seems to be applied to teenagers - as if we were not all affected by our peers!). But I think it is - or should be - a pressing moral issue in our lives. It is a sin of which I am guilty, and which I see regularly happening in my peer groups generally and in my friendship groups specifically. The joy that can be found in shared ideals and interests can so easily be transmuted into contempt for other people. It is very easy for a group of liberals, for instance (choosing this example because I would class myself as politically liberal), to one the one hand speak very sympathetically and passionately about the necessity to be compassionate and unjudgemental - and in the next breath be contemptuous of those who disagree with their politics, assuming them to be uncharitable, thinking their conservatism is monstrous. Human beings are very rarely monstrous - even when we find their opinions distasteful or even morally repugnant - and to see whole swathes of the populace as either mindless brutes or selfish machiavellians is dangerous. Moreover, it encourages a fatuous and contemptible sort of self-satisfaction, and self-satisfaction encourages stagnation and self-absorption.

Some degree of self-satisfaction is perfectly fine - and it's hardly like I can forget that I am, essentially, a vain human being - but an absorption with a group of people in itself that encourages myopia, a lack of interest in human beings outside of those who share their particular world view? That is a danger indeed, and it can mean that very good, very clever people end up cutting themselves off from the world, because the satisfaction they get from a small group of people is better than attempting to engage with the wider world and taking their ideas beyond it.

I don't mean to say at all that we shouldn't seek comfort and solace in our peers. Particularly if we are from marginalised groups, or we differ particularly from the norm in any way, a group of likeminded friends is like a safe harbour. But the temptation to stay forever in those shallow, still waters is a temptation toward never discovering anything. True friendship of like minds lets us traverse wider waters, knowing we always have a port in a storm.

Another danger is that if we have a very tight knit group of friends, we can shy away from conflict with them. We don't want to rock the boat, to continue the watery analogy! And so we can keep quiet when our morals or social consciences or whatever names we want to give our ethical lives do not mesh with our friends, and sometimes we can go so far as to abandon what we have so far considered to be 'right' because our friends do not agree. Some degree of mutation in outlook in inevitable when one finds good friends. Friends influence us, and it is often for the better - and if one's morals are not strong enough to withstand a little outside contradiction, they were probably not worth very much. But I think that sometimes - and I know I am guilty of this - we can turn away from contentious topics because we are afraid of getting into arguments with friends, or we are afraid of what they will think of us, learning that our accord on certain matters may be marred by disagreement on others. This is partly caused, I think, not only by a desire to avoid awkward scenes (and that is a very human and understandable impulse!), but also by a modern preoccupation - particularly amongst the kind of liberal people to whom I belong - with being 'nonjudgemental'. We mustn't judge one another, we must all give equal space to each other's opinions as if they were all equally valid. This all sounds very nice, but in the first place we all judge people and to pretend we do not is patently ridiculous, and in the second place what use are one's values if one does not think they are better than anyone else's? To be tolerant is a noble thing; to be nonjudgemental is moral cowardice. And to be afraid to disagree with a friend is a sign of a lack of confidence in your friend or in yourself, or in the friendship between you. A true friendship can withstand some debate.

This is not to say that every difference should be brought up and debated, every difference between you and your friend analysed. What a bore that would be, and a waste of time besides. But it is not a sin to sometimes not like the way your friend thinks, nor is it that your friend does not love you if they do not always like the way you think. And more importantly, it is not a sign your friendship is fundamentally flawed. Friends can disagree on quite profound things and still be friends. The axiom "hate the sin, love the sinner" is often nowadays interpreted as a way for people to cloak their prejudices, and so it can be. But it can also be an acknowledgement that we are human beings, and thus imperfect, and not everything we do can be right. In life, your mileage may vary. If we don't discuss with our friends, those people whose hearts sing a song most like our own, the places where our values vary, with whom can we discuss them, test them, strengthen or discard them?
ashwednesday: (Academic at work)
I posted these on eljay, so I may as well share them here as well since I have not updated on dreamwidth in a while...

A couple of weeks ago I read Pashazade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. This is the first novel by Grimwood that I've read, and I get the impression that he's a cyberpunk writer. There are certainly elements of cyberpunk in Pashazade; however, one issue I have with cyberpunk is that it's often very slick, very stylish, and quite cold, but this novel is a bit grittier and warmer. more here; not very spoilerish, but cut in case you're cautious )

Overall, this is really energetic, well crafted and intelligent sf. The murder mystery ends up actually not being that interesting, but that's not really the point. A reviewer says the book is "Raymond Chandler for the 21st century" and although it's a lazy sort of journalistic comparison, they have a point. Marlowe's stories often aren't about the denouement - they are about the drawing of a culture and a particular time, and following the hero's world-weary journey through it. Ashraf Bey isn't a gumshoe, and he's not as disillusioned as Marlowe, and Iskandryia isn't like sultry, rain-slicked LA, but Grimwood's evocative future noir and smart-talking hero are perhaps successors of a sort to the Chandler mantle. I am definitely keen to read the next two books in the Arabesk series.

As a complete contrast, I have also re-read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall recently. Anne Bronte is overshadowed by her sisters, but this novel is so brave and bold - and in places really rather funny. Charlotte is my favourite Bronte sister, but I prefer Anne to Emily. Wuthering Heights is a work of genius, but its central characters are (for me at least) so unlikable that it's hard to engage with their wild emotions. Tenant I would describe as an early feminist novel. Helen makes a very thoughtful decision to leave her emotionally abusive husband. She doesn't flee in hysterics, and her husband isn't beating her, and so she doesn't have either the excuse of "feminine emotion" or a need for safety to fall back on. She leaves, and she has utter conviction that it is the moral choice for her and her son, and at the time that the novel was written this was an incredibly bold thing to write. I think I'd like to read a biography of Anne Bronte and get inside her head a little more - I know a lot about Charlotte, but I think from reading all the sisters' novels that Anne may have been the most cool-headed and the staunchest in her convictions.

So it goes.

May. 6th, 2009 09:20 pm
ashwednesday: ocean (Default)
His situation, insofar as he was a machine, was complex, tragic, and laughable. But the sacred part of him, his awareness, remained an unwavering band of light. And this book is being written by a meat machine in cooperation with a machine made of metal and plastic.... And at the core of the writing meat machine is something sacred, which is an unwavering band of light. At the core of each person who reads this book is a band of unwavering light.

- Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

I finished reading Breakfast of Champions on the train home today. It seemed to fit, somehow, with the occasion, which was returning from my grandmother's funeral. Not because Grandma ever read any Vonnegut; I doubt she would have liked him. She certainly wouldn't have liked his theologising. But in Breakfast of Champions, whilst Vonnegut may describe both the grotesque absurdity of man's inhumanity to man, and the painful absurdity of his own struggle with mental illness, there is all the same at the heart of the novel a belief in the sacred. "I don't want to throw away any sacred things," says Vonnegut in his foreword. "What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance. And all music is." So many bands of unwavering light.

Today, at the cemetery, as we looked down at the coffin sitting in its open grave, and we sprinkled holy water onto it and so framed a life opened with the water of baptism, the clouds parted, and for a moment there was a band of unwavering light.


ashwednesday: ocean (Default)

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