Wednesday, July 11

A Philosophers Guide to The Crying Game


Synopsis
IRA member Fergus bonds with Jody, who is a British soldier in their   custody, despite the warnings of cohorts Jude and Maguire. Jody makes Fergus promise, should he be executed, he'll visit his girlfriend, Dil in London. When Fergus flees to the city, he seeks her out. Hounded by threats of retribution by former IRA colleagues, he finds himself now in love with her, only to be shattered by the truth. The violent ending is reminiscent of the fabled ending to the frog and the scorpion; a lack of regard to the nature of things and in revealing that truth.   
 
The Crying Game story and its themes.
The Crying Game is a meditation on issues facing society and has layered levels of existential themes ripe for discussions. An action packed beginning portrays the betrayal of a local soldier Jordan, seduced by the IRA member Jude, who is then scurried away, to be held captive to be exchanged for the release of one of their members held in custody. Fergus is the far less militant member, and has the task of standing guard over the hooded prisoner Jordan in their hideout. He is totally different to cohorts Jude and Maguire. There are limits to how far he will go to achieve the revolutionary aims which are played out in the film.
Fable of the Frog and the Scorpion.
Jordan introduces the story of the frog and the scorpion to Fergus. The scorpion hitches a ride on the back of the frog to cross the flooded stream on the basis the scorpion tells him he will not sting the frog as both will then drown and perish.
But the scorpion cannot help himself, so he stings the frog halfway across and the frog asks the scorpion why he has stung him as both will now perish. The scorpion replies it is in his nature.  He cannot help it.
One might say the frog is to blame because it was known it is in the nature of a scorpion to always sting those in close quarters. But what of the Scorpion ?, The answer to the fable is the Scorpion says it is in its nature to sting, so that one might think it is not his fault. But as the scorpion said it is in his nature to sting and he cannot help himself, surely he also was at fault because he was untruthful in saying he would not sting the Frog. Even so the disaster was not because he did not tell the truth, but rather the frog relying on the scorpion when he knew it was in his nature to sting. This is one of the underlying themes to the film.
An unlikely Bond.
Jordan convinces Fergus to take off his hood, complaining he cannot breathe, to which Fergus agrees, after conferring with the other terrorists.  Already we see the essential essence of Fergus, who feels for his prisoner’s discomfort, to ignore the consequences of possibly being identified later.
A deep relationship is then established between the two who talk about common interests in life, cricket and the like, whose images then recur throughout the film. Fergus agrees (taking Jordon’s photo) to tell his sweetheart Dil, he is thinking about her in this dark moment in time, if he was to subsequently loose his life.
The is in stark contrast to the other members of the group who become worried Fergus may lose his commitment to the IRA cause, for in the morning he will probably have to execute Jordan. They shield themselves from the emotional impact of what they are doing with the hooded face and by treating the personage of Jordan as a disposable object subservient to their unlimited commitment to the IRA clause.
However Jude is well aware of the nature of Fergus. But where Jude goes off course is in thinking she will be able to sway Fergus into adopting her way of thinking where there are no limits to her commitment to the cause.  
In the morning Fergus takes Jordan out to be executed, but he runs ahead knowing that it is not in Fergus’s nature to shoot him in the back. The ensuing result is Jordan is killed as he runs in front of an oncoming army vehicle and the two central IRA members escape as their hideout is discovered and bombed. 
 
Relationship with Dil
Fergus flees the scene and in due course makes contact with Dil  to whom he finds himself both romantically inclined and at another level her protector. So, just as Jordan was, so now he feels that responsibility and his feelings are reinforced by the prior shared images that flash before his eyes. But the love he feels is subject to a dramatic end in an explosion of shock and horror when he realises Jill is in fact a man. This raises all sorts of questions about love and how we relate to that from an existential basis. At the very least it provides ample room for discussion on both the physical and mental aspects of both and how it plays out in societal attitudes. 
Fergus finds an uneasy way through the relationship just as his two cohorts from the IRA  again make contact and force him to agree to execute a judge as otherwise they will seek retribution.
Fergus has told Dil about his past association and she becomes aware of the plan and ties him to his bed. In the closing scenes Maguire guns down the judge, but is killed in the cross fire with police. Jude, on returning to the flat is killed by Dil but Fergus takes the wrap and is sentenced to prison. The film closes with Dil visiting Fergus in prison.
Conclusion
This evocative film shows the Satrean idea that our lives (essence) are the product of our life choices, and, during this time there are endless transformational possibilities.
The different layers to this complex film take one into a brief foray of racial issues to the political (IRA versus English) to pose many existential questions. There is ample opportunity to discuss these existential themes outside of the usual black and white categories, the physical and mental aspects to love and the fable of the frog and the scorpion.  

Saturday, July 7

A phlosophers guide to 'It’s a Wonderful life'


Frank Capra’s film has become a warm favourite firmly ensconced in western pop culture. But on further analysis one finds any number of implicit philosophical existential themes.
 
Synopsis     
We are introduced to the likable protagonist, George Bailey, who as young boy rescues a younger brother from drowning. George outlines his future dreams which are thwarted by a series of obstacles which see him opting to make choices always in the best interest of the citizens of Bedford Falls. His choices prevent the ruthless slum landlord and hard nosed banker, Potter, from gaining control of the local Building and Loan firm. George has to give up his grand plans to see the world to run the firm, after his father has a stroke, to wrestle control away from the acquisitive desires of Potter. So that the condition of the board to back George is contingent on George staying on to run the firm.  Subsequently he faces a series of hurdles that culminate in the climax to the film as George experiences deep feelings of despair. Contemplating jumping from a bridge to end his life, Clarence, an angelic figure, yet to earn his wings, appears on the scene. He knows if he jumps into the water George’s good nature will prompt him to follow and attempt to save him. So the two end up in the water and Clarence later listens to George as he despairingly says he wishes he never would have been born. Clarence grants him his wish and shows him all that would happen in what has become of his renamed town now called Portersville in his absence. George realises the shocking results in his absence. That contrasts with all of the positive effects his choices have made and finally shouts in jubilation. I am alive. I want to live! I want to live! as the film ends on this high note     
Analysis of existential themes
George’s future aspirations
 I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then I’m coming back here and go to college and see what they know . . . and then I’m going to build things. I’m going to build air fields. I’m going to build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m going to build bridges a mile long . . .
 
But Georg’s plans are thwarted as he rushes in to prevent a proposal by Potter to take over the firm following his father’s stroke which will end the more generous policies to the folk at Bedford falls.
Although George wins out it is conditional on George staying on and to run the firm. With a heavy heart George reluctantly agrees and gives the money he has saved for college, to his brother Harry.
Here we have an example of what Jean Paul Satre meant when he talked about experiencing anguish. George feels compelled to be true to himself and the citizens of Bedford Falls, so he must accept that responsibility. We can also draw a parallel to the story of Abraham referenced by Satre and Soren Kierkegaard. Both conclude Abraham must choose on the basis Abraham is the law maker for both himself but also for all of his people, to whom he feels a deep responsibility.
 
Subsequently, in the film there is a run on the firm just as George is about to set off on a honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary. Potter offers 50 cents in the dollar to shareholders of the firm to take it over.  George uses the $2000 saved for his honeymoon to partly satisfy some clients and quell the fears of the angry mob.  
You’re thinking about this place all wrong, as if I have the money back in the safe. The money’s not here. Well, your money’s in Joe’s house, that’s right next to yours. And the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Maitlin’s house, and a hundred others. You’re lending them the money to build, and then they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can…. Now, listen to me, I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets a hold of this Building and Loan Company , there will never be another decent house built in this town…. Joe, you had one of those Potter houses, didn’t you? Well, have you forgotten, what he charged you for that broken-down shack? Here, Ed, remember last year, when things weren’t going so well, you couldn’t make your payments? Well, you didn’t lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would’ve let you keep it? Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Potter isn’t selling, he’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicking and he’s not…. Now, we can get through this thing all right; we’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.
Whilst George is again successful in turning the tide against Potter he nevertheless laments the decision. He realises Mary has left and their honeymoon money is gone. He also would have liked to have given all of the money owed to the people of Bedford Falls but that is outside of his control. This illustrates Sartre’s point about our freedom and the angst that comes with it in the decisions we are free to make. For this is not something human beings relish as we prefer stability, and only seek out that freedom when we feel it is comfortable to do so. So Satre talks about how people search for strategies that avoid the inevitable anguish of freedom experienced by George deciding to remain true to his authentic self and to continue to have a deep responsibility to the citizens of Bedford Falls.
A further scene occurs on Christmas Eve which gives rise to a feeling of despair. This is the films climax as citizens welcome home George’s brother. Harry was a heroic fighter pilot who saved a troop transport by gunning down a Bomber. But meanwhile a crisis is looming since Uncle Billy absentmindedly mislays $8000 to be banked.
George, in desperation, asks Potter for a loan, but he refuses.
But Potter discovers George has a life insurance policy.
“Why, George, you’re worth more dead than alive!”
The chilling moment of despair is depicted in the scene on the bridge as George thinks about jumping into the raging water below.
At that very moment, guardian angel Clarence Odd body appears and jumps into the river knowing George’s good nature means he will try to rescue him.
George carries out the rescue and learns Clarence is really a second class wingless angel sent to help him and in the process also earns his wings.
Then George tells Clarence he is wasting his time since he wishes he’d never been born.
This inspires Clarence to grant George his wish. George then gets a guided tour of Pottersville (what Bedford Falls has become) in his absence and sees all of the shocking outcomes first hand.     
George then begs Clarence to give him back his life and in the emotive scenes that follow he jubilantly returns prepared to embrace life, good or bad, with a new sense of gusto. On returning home he is astonished to find the townsfolk have raised the money he needed. The film depicts George as finally believing he has indeed a wonderful life.
 
In these later scenes we can see how George struggles for life affirmation as in Nietzsche’s questioning of the state of the spirit.
Rather obviously George in his statement that he wishes he was never having been born is lacking in spirit. But the intervention by Clarence, convinces George he should return from whence he wished to exit. So that George wants to return to life and accept the good with the bad. This is in accord with Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal recurrence’ so that we return to the same state that preceded all of our life experiences. In a life to be lived to the fullest, in life affirmation that gives us that zest for life. ‘Whatever cannot kill me can only make me stronger.’     
  
So this the film is not just very popular western pop culture but rather one that gives graphic support to the ideas of those existential philosophers we seek to understand.

Wednesday, June 27

An introduction to the existentialists

What is Existentialism?
Existentialism is a philosophical movement of like-minded philosophers, principally of the modern era. It arose from early fundamental roots in the 19th century and its s popularity peaked after World War 2 to a worn torn audience searching for existential meaning.  The philosophical underpinnings are based on the idea we must face the brutal reality we are all trapped to some degree in a meaningless world of which we can only create our own personal meaning from the decisions we take and the subsequent actions undertaken

Although it influenced contemporary philosophy its impact was more pronounced in culture and in the arts. Its exponent, Jean Paul Sartre, for instance, summed the position in his novel entitled ‘Nausea’; to face that bleak existential position but relish the freedom to undertake the choices before us. 

Early Roots 
Soren Kierkegaard (1813- 18550 was a theologian and philosopher who rallied against rationality in religion and philosophy. He categorized the types of life decisions we face as religious, aesthetical and ethical. He posited each required different responses. and suggested a form of desired enlightenment, when knowledge was lacking. He held the view the single individual is higher than the universal.

This was a radical departure from the accepted orthodoxy and state based church dogma at the time. 

He talks about the paradox of Abraham, as Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard contends this was not a command that he could obey, but nor can one lay down the law to others as to how to act in complex matters that involve difficult choices where there is a lack of knowledge. Rather one can only individually have a desire to make an enlightened choice in faith. This involves a leap in faith that is necessary in an irrational world to figure out what to do and to face the consequences of such decisions.

Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900), followed on from Kierkegaard ideas to warn against the dangers of entrapment to revert to abstract values which risked descent into nihilism. 

Nietzsche rejected much of the orthodoxy at the time and is best known for coining the term ‘God is dead’. Nietzsche did not mean this in a literal sense, but rather pointed to a world he regarded as over reliant on religion as a moral compass and as a source of meaning. Nietzsche sought to find a way to live life to the fullest and in the process saw fit to take away the idea of divine sanction which he believed was life denying and could, in effect, lead ultimately to nihilism.

Nietzsche’s view, at that time, was that state power and money underlined a state of stupidity, so that he saw himself as a man in the mold of Goethe, having the courage to suffer for the sake of the truth as he perceived it. He did not suggest a political point of view but rather believed his philosophy underpinned noble leadership, so that became sufficient in itself to ensure a happier and superior moral system of governance.

He was not against organized Religion, maintaining it could be of comfort for the masses. His concern was for its application as bad faith, predicated on false notions that bad health arose from sin. He also thought religion tied its followers to a slave mentality, to enslave the followers to mediocrity and meekness, which ultimately could lead to nihilism. In other words the abstract values of a perceived GOD, born of jealously or envy, confirmed in meekness and in mediocrity, were in essence simply the shadows of a poet’s imagery which could lead (if taken literally) to unintended bad consequences. 

Culture to Nietzsche was the means of aspiring to the higher self, which is a spiritual dimension quite separate to the instinctive forces, but arises from self-enlightenment in the service of the will, to give rise to the new metaphors of life. This is not, however, as most people view "spirituality”, Nietzsche relates spirituality more as a self-realization, as in a ‘’love of fate‘’ to live for the moment, to grasping life with gusto as in life affirmation, regardless of one’s physical condition. However I think Nietzsche’s idea of a love of fate may go against the later existentialist’s views on freedom.

Neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche summarized these ideas or insights in a systematic way, but nevertheless remain firmly ensconced in most philosophical papers as the principal precursors to the 20th century existentialists

The 20th century existentialists
The philosophers of the likes of Heidegger Satre and Camus were humanistic and who wanted to engage meaningfully with the contemporary issues that confronted society.

It has to be noted however Heidegger‘s works are not readily associated with existentialism, but rather some of his thinking might be loosely associated with the movement.
Its principal exponent Paul Satre had served in the French Resistance and after the war he was immensely popular and formed a key contributor to the movement. He was the first use of the term and posited that we come into this world, without any consent and it is up to the individual to create one’s meaningful life. Sartre also championed the idea, ‘existence precedes essence’.  He explained this idea by confirming it is only objects where essence precedes existence. An example is by way of a chair.  Now we know one decides to build a chair to a certain specification so that the idea of the chair is in effect the prior essence before it is built. Rather obviously it comes into existence once it is constructed whereas our essence (humanity if you will) is the product of our existence dependent on the choices we make.   

Others such as Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus followed on to present a humanistic and socialistic approach to a world thirsty for answers. They jettisoned the prior ideas of specialization inclusive of even philosophical categorization itself.  Those war ravaged audiences relished the opportunity to consider radical alternative, to a way of thinking that had them despairing of a vile past bathed in the recent blood of war. It is hardly surprising such fresh new ideas of freedom, would be taken up with gusto to the extent they attracted a cult following amongst a substantial section the European youth and intelligencer.     

But the far greater appeal however was to come from their Novels and plays which give insights to the existential way of thinking.

Although Sartre was an avid atheist the idea of Existentialism does not mean the movement was confined to humanism. For instance Gabriel Marcel, posited from the Christian perspective matters of doctrine were to be derived from human experience and not from an abstract eternal essence. 
As the existentialists work became known its ideas were adopted in art by painters such as Jackson Pollock and filmmakers Ingmar Bergman who linked their work to existential themes. By the 1970s such existential themes were also adopted in the numerous books and films by Woody Allen
 


Friday, June 22

Fifties nostalgia

After reading Bill Bryson’s book entitled “Thunderbolt Kid” about his boyhood experiences growing up in the USA, I was reminded of my own childhood experiences. I grew up in the picturesque small dairy farming town of Kyogle situated on the NSW side of the border with Queensland.
The back fence was all that separated our house from fields of grazing cattle and the river; an endless source of entertainment and excitement for me. I was scarcely ever indoors, coming in only to listen with bated breath to the daily radio broadcast of “The Search for the Golden Boomerang” and other popular radio serials broadcast then. Radio, books, comics, making sling shots, bows and arrows, climbing trees or exploring the river banks kept us actively interested. I can never recall feeling bored. In later life when I watched the same radio script on TV, I was sorely disappointed, actors and sets seemed surprisingly insipid and imprisoned on the tiny screen.

I loved the weekly visit to the movies. Afterwards we feasted on chips, smothered in salt and dripping with fat, wrapped up unceremoniously in old newspapers; pure mana from heaven.  When I returned home it was time to reenact the scenes, embellishing the story line to make it more exciting as I playing in the bush outside.

Supermarket shopping didn’t exist, so there was a constant stream of merchants and visitors to our house, the milkman at first light, filling your jug with fresh milk and cream, a baker carrying his basket under his arm of freshly baked bread exuding its enticing aroma, the postman’s shrill whistle, ice from an ice cart for your ice chest, an insurance man collecting the premiums and a salesperson selling encyclopedias.
Each week the faithful ‘Dunny man” had to carefully exchange your full dunny for an empty one which was an operation that required a combination of brute strength (as they were rather heavy when full) and skill to ensure you didn’t spill any of the contents out while lifting on to the truck. The contents were respectively referred to as “Night Soil”. The sign ‘Night Soil’ was emblazoned on the side of the old truck that excuded copious amounts of blue smoke as its engine groaned under the strain of its heavy load.   

My best pal conveniently lived next door; he was several years older and the wrestling champion of the local neighborhood. I soon leant that I was not going to be strangled and die when he engaged me in wrestling contests on our front lawn. There seemed no point in complaining since my parents seemed totally disinterested in my dire predicament. The wrestling experience turned out to be invaluable when I went off to school, when dealing with an older school bully. As he launched his attack on me on the way home; as he had promised, I thought I was a goner. To my surprise and that of the small crowd gathered around to watch (fights were usually premeditated to give everyone the chance to come along and watch) I managed to get a decent head lock on him and wrestled him to the ground with all my strength. To my astonishment and relief it was soon over; as he heeded the chant of the crowd. He’s got you!! , He’s got you!! Give-up, Give Up!!

Christmas time was always an exciting time. Receiving a bike for a Christmas present eclipsed all known joyous experiences in my life. My parents, sensing my excitement had laid a string throughout all of the rooms of the house and back down the stairs to be attached to the bike situated on the front lawn. Christmas morning at first light they invited me to follow the string and see what was on the end of it. Needing no encouragement I tore through the house and in a state of heightened excitement finally surveyed the wondrous sight, I immediately hopped on and cycled away. It didn’t matter a fig to me that it was a very old bike, where rust had been carelessly painted over with bubbly paint and made to look new with a false “Malvern Star” sticker on it. To me it was simply the best thing that could have ever happened and I was far too excited and happy to pay any close attention to such things.  It was only in later life when I recalled those images more carefully that I realized those bubbly painted surfaces were the result of paint failing to bond on rusted old surfaces. A few splashes of paint and a brand new shining bell was all that was needed to transform that rusty old bike into the gleaming new machine I had long dreamed about. Freedom is an elusive state but I never felt as carefree as riding that bicycle around in the country. Taking my lunch with me and cycling off to a destination of my choice, stopping for a drink for at a little shop I was totally ensconced in my own world of adventure.   

One must remember growing up in the fifties was a time when the country was fiercely loyal to the Queen under the guiding hand of Prime Minister Robert Menzies. During Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation we all made up scrap books as school projects. When she visited Australia no one really knew why we should all be excited, it was as if we were all swept along with this national bout of infectious enthusiasm and delight for the Queen. The cheers of the schoolchildren echoed everywhere as she was greeted with unanimous delight.

But tragedy was to strike us and the close knit Kyogle community in 1954. Our family house had been purchased on the basis it was flood free. As an added precaution it was built on high stilts. Even so, despite the cyclonic rain on that fateful day, it was thought our house would not be flooded. As the floodwaters entered our backyard I imagined myself as fisherman and unconcerned dangled my fishing line in the brown waters. However soon the rising waters were inching their way up our back steps so we evacuated to a neighbor’s on much higher ground. My father told us he was staying on to protect our furniture and effects.
That night I peered out over the murky waters to see my Father swimming around in the flooded house, placing objects onto higher vantage points in a futile attempt to avoid the ever rising floodwaters. The waters were rising at an alarming rate and it was with some relief, we watched in silence as my father finally wearily swam out through the bedroom window and with measured strokes struck out for the bank and safety at last. Fully clothed, cold, exhausted but determined he slowly hauled himself up onto the bank to join us on the veranda, in time to see our house disappear under the cruel raging waters of the Richmond River.
I can still recall that dreaded smell from the flood with its endless mud. There were pieces of corrugated iron from rooves around and it was soon turned to good use in makeshift canoes, folded over and sealed both ends with tar, to deliver milk and supplies. I remember search parties each morning looking for bodies and everyone helping one another. There was the drone of the old DC3 aircraft parachuting supplies to a stricken community cut off by floodwaters the likes of which had never been seen nor  have since.      

My parent’s sold their house at a tremendous financial loss and decided to leave Kyogle not long after.


The flood left my parents bankrupted so we moved to Ballina and stayed with my maternal grandparents to give my parents a chance to recover financially. We then moved to Wollongong for a short period until finally settling in Coffs Harbour.

My memories of Coffs in the fifties was of a town where you could leave the door of your home unlocked as there was virtually no crime helped no doubt by an alert police force that new everyone’s business. One of my fondest memories was of our pet dog called Rexie , a very intelligent foxie who was given the keys to the town. His daily routine, after breakfast, was to visit the Red Cross Snack Bar and then morning tea at my father’s work followed by lunch at home and then a final goodbye to the Red Cross workers in the afternoon. If there was any event on in town he was always around to check things out as an accepted observer.  He was always very careful crossing the street and would wait patiently for a lull in the traffic, or wait for the traffic lights once they were installed in the town. He even visited the golfers during the North Coast Open observing the professionals and crowds of people. I recall walking along the fairway when I overheard a conversation: ‘what’s that dog doing on the course’ only to hear the usual chorus of answers, ‘that’s Rexie, he turns up everywhere, always welcome and always well behaved!!  

Umm I thought – yes that’s exactly right!!
We were spoilt for choice at Coffs with beaches to the north and south of the town. I recall eating oysters of the rocks and on the odd occasions catching good sized bream with my mother cheering me on.          

Thursday, June 14

An Existentialist question on the future of technology


It would be interesting to imagine how the various philosophers of that era proposed how one should dealt with some of the contemporary problems of today. One question that comes to mind is: 

Does the progression of artificial intelligence and robotics endanger our freedom and ultimately the ability to make wise choices to sustain our existence as highlighted by the late Stephen Hawking?

To reiterate, as  per my previous post, Kierkegaard’s call was to reject doctrinal imposition at that time. He talked about different types of choices we can make such as ethical, religious or aesthetic. He suggests we need to confront our anxieties head on. This in turn will enhance our self-awareness and personal responsibility. Kierkegaard was the forerunner to usher in a more human response to existence and freedom from the yoke of predetermined doctrines based on abstract values.
In a similar manner he may have asked us to confront our fears and ensure the technology only advanced as far as it allowed for various choices and the even possibly the option to opt out.
Nietzsche contended society was on the verge of nihilism; existential nihilism argues the case that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. The subsequent horror of war and mass extermination proved his prophecy (assuming you allow for the flexibility to call it that) correct. His ideas were never fully realized as his work was unfairly discredited by a sister incorrectly ascribed his ideas as supporting the Nazi regime.  I think Nietzsche would have scoffed at the idea of artificial intelligence taking over as he championed the idea of being of sufficient strength to create one’s own values.

Could Nietzsche’s philosophy be applied to overcome the current fears about artificial intelligence? How can we reverse the idea of becoming slaves to technology and instead become its master?   

Like Kierkegaard Jean-Paul Sartre contended individuals become more aware of their potential as human beings as they experience anxiety; that involves a realization of one's true identity and freedoms.
Sartre's ideal of an authentic existence incorporated both historical and political underpinnings; as for instance he entertained an uneasy tension even with the idea of Marxism.

Conclusion
There is no escaping the conclusion the imposition of values is what is missing from the architects of two days technology. This is essential if we are to survive and prosper rather than fall slaves of technology.

Thursday, June 7

Walking in the shadows of the mystics.

Introduction

Mystical type experiences or a sense of wonderment have always held a sense of fascination. As a child what comes to mind are memories of a kind of a dreamy state of wonder which came over me at bedtime. My room with its long row of glass louvres over one side, adjacent to the giant hypnotic eucalypts behind our family home, was the perfect setting for imagined other worlds.


The rattle of glass window louvers shimmered in the pale light to the sounds of wind or rain and the incessant buzz of cicadas or the more strident cry of - “mowpoke!, mowpoke!" of the mowpoke owl before drifting off into sleep where strange creatures good and bad inhabited my dream world.  

Although I’m a more practical and skeptical type person that mystical dreamy imaginative sense of wonderment has also stayed with me to emerge in later life. This is manifested itself in the form of a recurring day dreaming state from which I imagined nothing whatsoever existed; but once it became uncomfortable I would return to my everyday perception. In some sense the mystical will capture our imagination and none more so than those who have shaped our thoughts throughout the ages and have become as the mystics.  This is a paper that explores this interesting topic and attempts to form some general conclusions. 

Declining church membership and increased interest in spirituality.

In Australia over several decades we have seen a minor renaissance in spirituality in contrast to declining church attendances. This is evident in increased environmental awareness and in added interest in the wisdom streams of ancient societies. Many older cultures, although beholden to magic and lacking scientific knowledge nevertheless were more attuned to harmonious co-existence with nature as a consequence of mystic wisdom streams.
But firstly I should define mysticism which is, according to the definition of my Oxford dictionary:

1. Chiefly the Christian church, the beliefs or mental tendencies characteristic of mystics; belief in the possibility of the union with or absorption into GOD by means of contemplation and self surrender; belief in or reliance on the possibility of spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect.

2. Religious belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought; belief based on the assumptions on occult qualities or mysterious agencies.

3. But for the purposes of this paper I will define a mystic as one who has had a mystical experience(s) so profound that distinguishes such an identity from all others; to that extent and subsequent revelation it is transformational to societies in their practices and beliefs. We might say for instance, in that context, Augustine was "the founding father" of western mysticism, which later also became our theology. Just as he built upon the prior transformational revelations of St Paul.

Knowledge inaccessible to the intellect.
Adherents of mysticism may posit it to be potentially a method of knowing separate to the knowledge or the knower in question. Aligning that idea to something more tangible one might posit the idea of a mystical experience can be the actuation of our various gifts, which applies universally to everyone.  

This is the idea we are all mystics and have the choice of sharing in those gifts conferred upon us to varying degrees or otherwise according to our freedom. But that is not to say we have mystical experiences which we can rationally refer to at any time or that mysticism is a method to potentially override other methods of acquiring future valuable knowledge.

Rather we might feel energized or mindful that we are engaging our gifts in the manner as was intended which will allow us to freely change our minds and to gain new knowledge without the restraint or imposition of ideologies presupposing necessary outcomes.

Aborigines mysticism
It behaves us to explore mysticism as it is embraced by the oldest known continuous culture of the Australian aborigines. Their ancestral origins of mysticism reside in the dreamtime creation where all living things were believed to be made co-dependent and reactive to one another in one inseparable land.
So it was in the beginning the dreamtime was to dominate every facet of their rich life; in mythical creation stories, ceremonial art, music, ritualistic practice; initiation rites into adulthood; and in the repository of knowledge of the law handed down from one generation to another. Within the tribal system adolescents were isolated away from the rest of the tribe under the control of elders who provided tutelage on all matters of their law until they were sufficiently aware to make the positive transition to adulthood which carried with it the responsibility towards their tribe and the environment upon which they were dependent - Charles P Mountford – The Dawn of time.
The very idea of mysticism may be of interest to secular philosophers because of the strength of unity such a system has on members of the tribe and to the wider nations; to hold what things and ceremonies are sacred for life existence, to apportion responsibilities on attaining adulthood, to be seen fit and able to support a partner, to embrace life without a fear of death to return to the creative dreamtime and to share in all things.

The extent of this bonding and the ramifications of rejection became evident to me as a child, as I recall the inexplicable death of the Aborigine named Kimiko from bone pointing for tribal transgressions. Speculation was that his extreme fear caused his untimely death just five days after admission to hospital, as Medical Authorities were unable to find any injury, poison, disease or medical condition that could be held responsible. The theory is the offending person was considered dead by his tribe and family at that moment of bone pointing and would die in reality because his life was no longer supported. In essence, the man would die of heartbreak. The opposite end of that spectrum would be the continued mystical experience to feel the love of the tribe, its ritualistic confirmation in affirming ceremonial practices so that to be cut off from all of that, for some individuals, leads to a corresponding physical collapse and death.
Eugene Stockton is a priest who has spent many years with the aboriginals and talks about their tribes gathered around the campfires at night experiencing a mystical oneness with the environment.
Like many religions, aborigines were interested in the meaning of dreams which unlike other cultures were perceived as a mystical return to the past rather than to interpret the future.
Aborigines often interpret dreams as being the memory of things that happened during this Creation Period. Dreams were important because they were considered the time when one was transformed back into prior ancestral time. This linking of dreams to the Creation Period has led people to adopt the general term “The Dreamtime” in order to describe the time of creation in their religion. The term “Dreamtime” in Aborigines mythology is not really about a person having a dream, but rather, a reference to this Creation Period.

Ineffable mysticism and reverence for life
In modern day terms the divide between mysticism in religion and philosophy has become blurred since the
perennialists,’ attempt to identify common mystical experiences across various cultures and traditions. In that sense, it does seem possible to me, to generalize about similar experiences and say they are of philosophic interest as I have subsequently undertaken in the essay. For although the experiences of mysticism may be claimed to be ineffable (Incapable of being expressed; indescribable or unutterable), nevertheless for those traditions to take root and be successfully handed down from one generation to the next required a teacher able to coherently convey what is meant to ensure a future survival.

In the Taoist religion “The Tao” was considered with such reverence that any references made could no longer be considered the true Tao-Lao Tzu (Taoist), since such supremacy in spirit is also ineffable.

GOD was also ineffable in early Judaism
In early Judaism coherency in teachings was described by reference to GOD’S ways or actions in the mystical stories of the Old Testament. The Jewish approach to mysticism is complicated but generally it is agreed the mystics are to be interpreted in terms of allegory and imagination, a not dissimilar view held by scholars today in relation to the parables contained in the New Testament.

In the end any inherent complexity must become mundane for its future survival, as the old story goes of the student and his understanding of the various contemplative mysteries of the mountain whose enlightened state reveals it is a mountain.

In more recent times the definition of mysticism has also tended to be expanded to include the ecstatic experience of oneness found in Indian religions such as Hinduism or Sufism in Islam which aims at unity or absorption of the divine.

A similar theme is evident In Tathagatagarbha Buddhism to proffer the idea of an enlightened indestructible nature for all beings, obscured by moral and mental contamination but whose enlightened essence is the Buddha Nature, present also in Tibetan Buddhist texts and traditions. Nothingness does not mean an absence of anything but rather the enlightened state from which attachments bringing moral and mental contamination are removed.

Christian mysticism
Turning to Christian mysticism we find an amazing labyrinth of different strands from the medieval Christian mystics included St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Teresa of Avilia and Meister Eckhart and all of the other successors.

But by far the greatest of all of the Christian mystics is the apostle St Paul whose 13 letters make up half of the New Testament, although most scholars contend that only 7 were actually written or under the direction of Paul. Paul was a scholar, sail maker and mystic whose epic journeys established Christendom throughout the Mediterranean and ensured its spread throughout the world. Paul was seen as an apostle for the gentile’s yet in typical Judaist tradition frequently uses allegory by way of Old Testament references in his letters to the recently established infant communities.

Paul remains an enigmatically unique character – virtually unknown in a historical sense other than to be remembered in Jewish disagreements amongst followers, but one who professes to be willing to understand all things and become ‘as one’ to all men to further the cause of being “in Christ”. This arose from his mystical experience on the road to Damascus. I think this factor had led many to interpret his work in a more complicated manner than need be the case.

Many scholars remained unconvinced St. Paul was a mystic. A "mystical" experience does not a mystic make - at least not according to St. John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart.

But, a redefined meaning for mystics and mysticism emerged amongst many leading scholars from the mid-19th century onwards to firmly lump Paul in with the mystics. To reiterate, for the purposes of this paper I define a mystic as one who has had a mystical experience(s) so profound that distinguishes such an identity from all others; to that extent and subsequent revelation it is transformational to societies in their practices and beliefs. Under that more broad definition St Paul clearly meets that criteria. There can be little doubt Paul experienced a mystical experience which was continually subtlety evident thereafter, notwithstanding on face value his writings differ markedly with the more traditional mystics.

Although mystical experiences are said to be ineffable recipients gain insight and knowledge unavailable otherwise to the intellect which raises the question of contradictions since the experience is said to be ineffable. But this seemingly contradictory ineffable nature of the experience is coherently expressed in knowledge by reference to a metaphor or allegory or as is the case of St. Paul's to be mystically 'in Christ'.
The counter argument of course, is his letters bear no relevance whatsoever to mystical experiences but rather were simply inspirational to incorporate rational thinking.
Such an assertion however will lead us circuitously back to mysticism since Paul’s mysticism is evident in his frequent reference to this “In Christ” mystical experience. He uses the expression over 200 times but scholars are unable to unearth exactly what he means. The best one can interpret the oft repeated idea is it is meant to signify a mystical union, or existential bond made possible through grace. To reiterate what could be argued is this mystical experience gives way to the actuation of various gifts, in this case the gift to provide revelation in text and scripture to become representative of much of the church as we know it.
Much has been made of the abstract nature of Pauline theology as a bridge from the more individualistic Judaism into Christianity with the idea of justification by faith. But I think the primary aim of Paul was one of universal freedom from the law under the Jewish covenant about which he disagreed with Peter. His letters are best read simply as letters, not necessarily to be held as always Paul’s specific views but more to be understood as an encouragement and call to the fledgling communities to co-exist with love and respect for one another without the need for the prior ritualistic imposition of Jewish law.
St Paul is of significant interest to secular philosophers because his ideas carry with them the idea of a universal unencumbered system of unity which presupposes through grace existential philosophical aspects to life; to hold our life existence as sacred, to ascertain and acknowledge ones gifts for the benefit of the whole community, to joyfully exist in a state of grace without fear of death, to be free and remain free from guilt, to share in all things and to place love and affection ahead of all other known things. In the process Paul acknowledges our humanity and the imperfect cradle of existence which will continue to see communities straddle the idealism that is encapsulated in their new understanding and freedom from their law only to fall prey to the usual earthly failings.

Paul sends his letters of encouragement and hope in the expectation that the experience of freedom from the law will bring joy to existential living to transcend earthly suffering and sorrow.

CONCLUSIONS
Mystical experiences have been crucial in providing the creative imagination which helps shape our philosophies and give us that sense of self that gives rise to our humanity.

What is strikingly apparent from many of the mystics is the similarity in ideas about oneness and interdependence for all living things. Another is the wonderful philosophies which are suggested, through grace, as being available to all regardless of belief, to be simply experienced by engagement in mind and spirit. To find your own meaning to life (as opposed to seeking a meaning for life) as I see is in the use of one’s gifts in the way that was intended for a more complete and energised happy life for oneself and community. In that respect secular philosophers’ views often unintentionally reflect religiosity just as the more skeptical views of some religious commentators can be more secular than religious.

In another sense, in a more generalized universal viewpoint my personal philosophy leads me to believe that all life is sacred. We can learn from the mystics but ultimately we all determine what philosophy and life meaning we personally adopt. If you agree with me that all life is sacred then a call to arms must always be viewed with suspicion, except in extraordinary circumstances.



Monday, April 30

Warrnambool

We recently holidayed with a group of friends who are part of a walking group which had planned a number of walks and sightseeing excursions at Warrnambool, Victoria.  Warrnambool is a pleasant 4 hour drive from Melbourne, located in the South West region of Victoria. Although we only  participated in the shorter walks we enjoyed some memorable sightseeing and convivial company over evening meals. One of the key attractions are the whales which can be seen off the coast, from July to September. There are viewing platforms along Logans Beach

The picture below was taken at dusk not far from where we stayed.  Next is a picture of Hopkins Falls. 
We also visited a wonderful old property whose roots go back to the 1850’s, owned by a friend of one our friends. Set on 150 acres , located on the outskirts of nearby Terang , with some Arabian horses and Scottish Highland cattle. The property has links to the early days. Inside was magnificent with exquisite carved rosewood panelling and stain glass windows coupled with Chinese and antique furniture brought out with migration from HK to Australia.


























Sunday, April 29

Warrnambool  


Not far out from the city of Warrnambool  is Australia's most extensive Volcano Province and Tower Hill, which we visited. It is one of the worlds largest Nested Maars - a  maar is a broad, low-relief volcanic crater which fills water. Below is a painting of the perimeter of the Tower Hill as it was in the 1850's. Below a real life Emu standing guard beside a welcoming sign to the park. 

Below are pictures of Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village which is a reconstruction of the 1800s port village. There is an interesting  collection of material salvaged from some of the shipwrecks in the area. There are over 30 buildings, including an inn, newspaper office, blacksmith and tearooms serving refreshments.
During our visit to the Botanical Gardens we spotted a very tame white faced heron at the edge of the large duck pond.  
 
Below more pictures of the wonderful old property whose roots go back to the 1850’s, owned by a friend of one our friends. 
Notice the spinning wheel in the corner.     

 

Friday, April 6

Trumping a deal with China

Australia, given its free trade agreement with China and exemptions from US Tariffs, is well place to weather any ensuing storm over trade in the unlikely event it becomes a full scale trade war.    
One might ask the question how come such intended actions happen so quickly.

Well, under section 301 of the Trades Act; the provision allows presidents to impose tariffs on imports considered injurious (as in restrictive) to US commerce. Previously the tariff was imposed on washing machines, steel and aluminium. More recently it is extended to include IT, aerospace and machinery. The total of $50 billion effected sounds a lot, but in an economy the size of the USA it’s not much. Excuse my rusty mental arithmetic but I think it’s about 2%. However, the President recently ratcheted up the ambient claims to $150 billion.
The Presidents aim is to restore a more equal trade balance between the two nations, but I think he is working on several false notions to appease those angry over loss of jobs in the rust bucket seats that swept him to power.

From an economic point of view one could argue the US is in the late stages of economic recovery (albeit there is a lot more poorly paid jobs) with record low unemployment not seen in many decades. Inevitably, during such cycles, it is natural enough for there to be increased demand met from imports. The fact is the worsening trade deficit is a consequence of firms needing to source cheaper imports from abroad and from China. It is true you could increase tariffs to such an extent that you force a structural change but this would have dire consequences such as massively driving up costs which would stifle investment and lead to a severe recession. 
The notion that  China’s trade surplus has been at the expense of poorer outcomes for the US is false, since an economy benefits from trade and having a deficit is not necessarily a bad thing.  

From China’s first moves to adopt a more market driven model, one might argue mostly this has been beneficial to its trading partners and particularly to the US tech sector.   

Asian surpluses have been re invested into US treasuries, underpinning lower interest rates and covering over consumption with massive government deficits. The buying of Treasury notes by China, when frozen credit markets (GFC) threatened to take the US deep into recession, averted a very deep recession. The buying restored liquidity during those challenging times. The US tech sector is also very reliant on low cost inputs from Asia. Tariffs, if they stay in place, will drive industry to migration. Loss of jobs is principally due to technology replacing the old traditional blue collar workers. But a lot more can potentially be lost from the imposition of tariffs.

According to recent polls many Americans concur with the president’s rants in general and endorse the standard approach to discredit rational debate, to be met with a response it’s just “fake news”.  In a recent poll more than three in four among American respondents, or 77%, said they believed major traditional television and newspaper media outlets report “fake news”.

But as an aside the US economy looks now to be in better shape, particularly as a consequence of going from a large scale importer of oil to become the biggest net exporter of oil in the globe within the next 4 years, due to fracking. That does not of course cover any remediation cost that may become necessary to ground water supplies that fracking may cause, assuming that is indeed possible. In the short term however it’s added to Governors state coffers where it has taken the pressure of ballooning deficits.

There is also the likelihood of a large scale capital flow back into the US as a consequence of the recent corporate tax cut as multinationals return most of the $3.5 trillion held offshore or in US Treasuries. This will only serve to strengthen the US dollar and drive up imports, which will be cheaper than local production inputs.  

The real case against China. 
Intellectual property belonging to the US has allegedly been stolen on a massive scale in breach of US laws. Restrictions by China on foreign investment prevent investment yet China can invest in the US.

There can be no question China has been restrictive and its lack of openness to foreign investors which has irked multinationals and others seeking reciprocal trade. However, China has recently stated that in an “orderly” fashion they intend to open up all of their markets to foreign investment in what is a major change in policy.
Conclusion & Sealing a deal  
Having said all of that there are grounds to be mildly optimistic a conciliatory deal can be negotiated. China might, for instance, say they are ramping up measures to crack done on intellectual property theft and opening their economy for more trade, with some exclusivity to the US to pamper to the ego of Trump. You begin to see possible ingredients for a deal. Trump would look as if he has gained a major victory and could boast he is a king deal maker.  China could continue to do what it always intended to do and its leaders would not lose face with the party officials.  

That is the purely speculative deal I envisage might get over the line but don’t hold your breath.