Europe

Maybe I should visit Paris.
Potter up the Champs-Élysées.
Marvel at King Louis’ palace.
Drink wine in an outside cafe.

Maybe I should visit London.
Wander round Westminster Abbey.
Take a shopping tour of Camden.
Hitch a ride with a black cabbie.

Maybe I should visit Brussels.
End up in the Sonian Forest.
Hear half-brown, half-dead leaves rustle.
Hear as ghosts strike up their chorus.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

The Provocateur and the Pederasts…

Milo Yiannopoulos was a speeding car, destined to crash. The British controversialist has spun into his biggest scandal yet, as he has been charged with excusing paedophilia. Specifically, he claimed that older men sleeping with “sexually mature 13-year-olds” might be morally if not legally permissible.

Yiannopoulos claims he was abused as an adolescent and, if this is true, he deserves sympathy. Nonetheless, the idea of a “sexually mature 13-year-old” is obscene. Obscene, that is, but far more common than we like to think.

Yiannopoulos spoke of what has been called “man/boy love”, or, in formal terms, pederasty. “Relationships in which those older men help those young boys to discover who they are.” Ancient Greeks and Romans were of course enthusiasts for intergenerational relationships. They were also common across the Middle East and Asia.

Homosexual and heterosexual men have been attracted to adolescents. Lewis Carroll was in love with Alice Liddell. Charlie Chaplin married a child actress from one of his films. Jimmy Page kept a 14-year-old groupie in his rooms.

Nonetheless, pederasty has maintained a special status in the counterculture. Oscar Wilde and Andre Gide once roamed through Algiers in search of young boys to sleep with. William Burroughs bragged, in a letter to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, about paying “60 cents to watch two Arab boys screw each other”. Ginsberg was a member of NAMBLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association.

Even as our attitudes towards sex between adolescents and adults have hardened, some continue to romanticise it. Peter Tatchell, in a letter to the Guardian, maintained that several of his friends “had sex with adults from the ages of nine to thirteen” and it “gave them great joy”. Stephen Fry wrote a cheerful little play about a teacher exploiting and then eloping with a 13-year-old. George Takei claimed that when a young counseler at a summer camp touched him it was not molestation because “well, I thought he was pretty attractive”.

This disgusts me, but one should be grown up about it. There is of course a big difference between a paedophile who is attracted to infants and an ephebophile who is attracted to teenagers. Age of consent laws differ between European countries as there is no one objective point at which children mature.

Nonetheless, I think it is an eminently good thing that we have become more sensitive to adults exploiting young people. In an age at which sex is increasingly detached from any notion of commitment, times have never been so good for sexual predators, and there should be no weakening of our opposition to them. Milo should be condemned on those grounds but also contextualised. He is not alone or ahistorical.

Posted in Sex | 4 Comments

Colin Wilson, Thinking at Angles…

“[Colin] Wilson,” Clive James wrote, “Can’t think straight and that’s that”. I agree. Wilson, a novelist, critic, philosopher and esotericist, had no talent for rational thought. If he suspect that something was true, be it the existence of ghosts or the validity of Julian Jaynes’ ideas about the “divided self”, any evidence, however flimsy, confirmed it for him.

In his book on Alister Crowley, for example, he wrote of a letter from a young women whose claims about her life “left [him] in no doubt that she was another victim of voodoo”. He did not meet the young woman, as far as one can tell. He did not observe the happenings she claimed to have endured. He just trusted that she had been honest and assumed that there could be no other explanations. It was voodoo. That was that.

Given this, one sympathises with the critics who tip-toed away from Wilson after lauding his debut book The Outsider. It is easy to get overenthusiastic, and embarrassing to admit that one has been wrong. Yet was there nothing to the young, earnest and often astonishingly arrogant young writer? One should not dismiss him because of his kookiest ideas. Sartre, after all, was a communist, which is a far more damaging delusion than believing in the Loch Ness Monster, yet that is no reason to dismiss existentialism.

Wilson couldn’t think straight, but he could think at angles. This can be a valuable talent to have. People with sober, cautious and scientific brains can think narrowly and blinkeredly. It is good, sometimes, to be thrown off course, even if one then forges a straighter, firmer path.

Wilson wrote more than a hundred books, on subjects as diverse as philosophy, consciousness, wine, music, sex, crime, spirits and himself. At the core of his work, however, was his idea of an optimistic existentialism – one that held that men were not condemned to be free but blessed to be free. In our normal lives, he wrote, the inner “robots” of men blind us to the “infinite interestingness of things“. We glimpse it through what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences” – moments of intense artistic, religious and mystical satisfaction – but an evolutionary leap could make us more receptive to enlightenment.

That peak experiences exist is undeniable. What is at issue is their nature. Do they give us a clearer perspective on reality? To some extent, yes. Often, a concern or grievance that has bothered me is rendered trivial by moments of deeper, broader insight. Wilson gave a touching example of this change in perspective when he wrote of an abandoned suicide attempt. Just as he prepared to swallow chemicals he felt the sense of there being two Wilsons, “this silly, bloody little idiot called Colin Wilson who was in a state of self-pity and about to kill himself” and a Colin Wilson whose imagination, curiosity and cleverness offered enormous and exciting potential.

But there is an illusory aspect to peak experiences as well. The light of the world blinds us to areas of darkness, and the scale of the world obscures its complexities. I think Wilson would have found it difficult to maintain that life was “self-evidently good” if instead of becoming a professional author with a devoted wife and a beautiful home he had worked in boring jobs and endured broken relationships. Even this Colin Wilson would have been spared the violence and deprivation that afflicts other peoples. There is, indeed, a quality of our “robots” ignored: while they can make it difficult to appreciate goodness they can help us adapt to and, thus, tolerate suffering. If life was lived with the intensity of our keenest moments the pain of heartache, bereavement and physical agonies would be magnified so as to make them unendurable.

There is something to be said for the quotidian as well. Wilson compared the “worm’s eye view” of our everyday life to the “bird’s eye view” of enlightenment. Yet a bird watches the ground in all of its minute details. It must, of course, because it has to locate worms. Man has to feed and clothe himself. He has to work around the conflicts and compromises of relationships. Such mundane duties are as separable from life as the troublesome questions of equipment, routes and cardio are from mountaineering. Even Maslow accepted this, for in his famous hierarchy of needs “self-actualization” stood atop a pyramid that rested on a firm foundation of our basic physical and emotional needs.

Wilson might have argued that such charges will be made redundant by an “evolutionary leap” into a higher realm of consciousness. Perhaps I am too cynical but I see no chance of this happening. While I am not a convinced materialist I think consciousness, whatever it is, operates within the limits of our physical make-up. The most extreme “peak experiences”, indeed, are the result of material causes, by which I mean narcotics. (I remember being the only person at a party not on drugs, and hearing cries of “the shower curtains are amazing“.) Even these subside, of course, often with terrible effects.

Wilson’s unsceptical embrace of occult and parapsychological theories strikes me as an attempt to extend the boundaries of the human soul. I would defend (and have defenced) the claim that paranormal phenomena might exist, but his belief in almost any spiritual idea – including dowsing, ghosts, spoon-bending, poltergeists, astrology, levitation, ESP and life after death – speak to a need to make the universe more interesting and meaningful than it would be without them.

In a curious sense, Wilson’s optimism leaves one feeling pessimistic. It requires such implausible heights of the imagination, and such implausible rewritings of science and history, that it makes one feel that normal life has to be deficient. It can be. For some people it is. Yet between the pessimism of Emil Cioran and the optimism of Colin Wilson are millions of people living happily as children, parents, lovers and friends. That this does not satisfy the outsider does not make it any less true.

So what do I admire about Colin Wilson? Less his answers than his questions. He was right to challenge the austerity of Cioran and Samuel Beckett, who, for all their merits, were perversely pessimistic about human life. He was right to challenge the narrowness of philosophers who, tinkering with logic, ignored most of our existence. He was right to spurn the temptations of those forms of utopianism which pursued meaning through revolutionary change. He was right to oppose the encroachment of materialism into all areas of our social and personal lives.

Wilson, in his clumsy way, stoked our spiritual flames. His insistence on positive psychology, for all its faults, challenges our complacent inclination to take average minds for granted and focus all of our energies on the mentally ill. But just as physical health is not merely about avoiding illness but achieving optimal fitness and strength, mental health is not merely about avoiding mental illness but achieving optimal happiness, concentration and fulfillment.

Wilson, more than anyone, popularised the novels of Hermann Hesse in Great Britain, which are priceless inspiration for a more contemplative and curious existence. He kept alive the names of imposing eccentrics like George Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, who, whatever their merits, are intriguing fossils of the esoteric tradition. He was a voracious reader, and, even if we might hope to be more reasonable, we should take inspiration from such boundless inquisitiveness.

Posted in Appreciations, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A.C.’s Failings…

I am really enjoying the radicalisation of the once-complacent, smug and optimistic humanist elite. Seriously, AC Grayling’s thunderous tirades against “Brexit” are admirably spirited and engaging. True, they are still full of absurdities. Take this:

Too many people were disenfranchised: 16 and 17 years olds, UK citizens living abroad for more than a certain period and tax-paying EU citizens resident in the UK (who should have had a vote on this matter on the principle “no taxation without representation” as they would be directly affected by it).

“No taxation without representation” was a phrase of American colonists, in America, forced to pay taxes to Britain. This is not equivalent to Poles, Frenchmen and Spaniards in Britain paying taxes to Britain. Even the broadest definitions of this phrase restrict it to citizens. I mean, I am a British citizen in Poland and I do not feel entitled to vote on anything.

Still, I really do welcome this new embattled urgency in liberals. It makes them more eloquent and more sincere. Take this, from Grayling:

I like to be a citizen of a community which can boast in its heritage Beethoven and Goethe, Shakespeare and Descartes, Leonardo da Vinci and Newton, Einstein and Moliere, Kant and Vermeer, Dante and Diderot, Spinoza and Titian, Balzac and Milton, Faraday and Proust, Yeats and Fermat, and the rest of a pantheon stretching all the way back to Virgil, Cicero, Aristotle and Homer. I like to think that I am a citizen of region of our planet which stretches from the beautiful Adriatic coast to the equally beautiful Welsh mountains, from Greece’s Cyclades to the isles of Scotland, from the forests of Germany to the green hills of Ireland, from the Baltic coast to the beaches of Portugal. I like feeling at home in Rome and Prague and Amsterdam, because I am a citizen in each of them.

This stirred my love of Europe quite effectively. All I would say is that I do not feel “at home” in Belgium or the Czech Republic. More in my cousin’s home. We are related but we are not from the same nuclear family. The job of federalism, to the extent that it is valuable, is to unite us without obscuring our differences.

But I am infected with a touch of schadenfreude. Liberal humanist complacence has enabled the imperilment of everything a man like Grayling so deeply admires. As European people – who, not only in Britain, but in France, the Netherlands and Hungary, where Le Pen, Wilders and Orban have profited from the same popular grievances as Farage – were growing embittered towards the swelling European project, Grayling and his comrades were blissfully ignorant. He, like Alain De Botton, served liberal bromides with a veneer of philosophy.

Of the idea of a nation, Grayling was scornful. The English, he claimed, were “a mixture of so many immigrations over time that the idea of an English ethnicity is comical”. In fact, Bryan Sykes, Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics, has found that “by about 6,000 years ago, the [matrilineal genetic] pattern was set for the rest of the history of the Isles, and very little has disturbed it since“. No matter. Grayling warned us that national particularism, whatever its basis, “has produced discrimination, apartheid, Nazism, the Holocaust”. So let us not even think of good and bad nationalisms. Put away your flags, boys. That way lies the gas chambers.

It is ludicrous how pie-eyed Grayling’s universalist optimism has been. In an essay before the 2002 Six Nations, he said the singing of the national anthems were “stomach-turning”. “It is the connection of innocuous-seeming national ardour…with the ugly cancer of real nationalism.” There should be “a single anthem, in which all can participate for the joy of the game”. And video games should be about cooperation, not violence. And Twitter should conform to a Socratic ideal. At the risk of sounding like the lazier populists, it is this kind of ivory tower internationalism, which reacts violently even against the mildest, most good-natured expressions of clannishness, that is enabling nationalist radicalisation.

Nationalism, Grayling said, was “interrupting the great historical movement towards larger comities of peoples where loyalty is to peace and cooperation, and whose citizens are humans first and foremost, before they are Serbs or Aryans or Tutsis””

Grayling is, famously, a critic of religion. Indeed, he is an aggressive and insulting critic. For him religious belief shares “the same intellectual respectability…as belief in the existence of fairies”. Religion is “rooted in the superstitions of illiterate goatherds”. He loves this image, writing elsewhere of the “superstitious lucubrations of illiterate goatherds”. And again! “The beliefs of ancient goatherds”. Grayling! What on earth did a goatherd do you?

I hope it is obvious how crude and boorish these insults are. Whatever the epistemic merits of the concept, God is posited to explain the existence of matter, motion, consciousness and morals. Fairies are posited to explain the existence of folk tales. How a philosopher can reduce to theism to “goatherds”, ignoring Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Avicenna, Leibniz, Kierkegaard, Haldane and Plantinga is beyond me.

It is also absurd how Grayling ignores the human impulse towards religion: the attachment to narratives of intelligent creation, objective meaning and eventual justice. I am sure he thinks our brief existence in a heartless universe where bad men die in comfort and small children die in pain is far richer and more fulfulling than the narratives of faiths but many people disagree.

The act of disagreement baffles many liberal humanists, who think that their ideas are self-evidently true. So do people of all tribes, of course, but it is especially sad in people who praise rationality and independent thought. This leads them to irrational overconfidence in their ideas but also ignorance of other people. Men and women across the world are tribal and religious (religious in thought if not even in coherent belief). Even if one disagrees, such attitudes must be accounted for. Appeals for reason are paper darts on the walls of human behaviour.

Posted in Britain, Liberalism | 8 Comments

Jonathan Bowden, a Force of Nature…

Though the alternative right largely consists of young men, it draws on the ideas of old men and, indeed, dead men: long dead, like Friedrich Nietzsche and Julius Evola, and more recently dead, like Samuel Francis, Joe Sobran and an Englishman, Jonathan Bowden.

Jonathan Bowden was among the most influential figures on the far right. Author, artist, filmmaker and activist for groups including the Monday Club and the British National Party, Bowden was best known as orator. My first impression of him was unflattering: he sounded like Peter Cook’s fabulously tedious comic creation EL Wisty. Yet Bowden’s imposing style, combined with his broad reading, made him an impressive speaker, inspiring traditionalists, nationalists and racialists on both sides of the Atlantic before his early death in 2012.

A true eccentric, Bowden was impoverished and obscure, typing his essays in the comfort of a public library. His private life remains mysterious, not least as he was, it is alleged, an energetic fabulist. His novels were dense, abstruse and almost unreadable. His films were unintentionally comic. One suspects that his ambitions exceeded his opportunities and, indeed, his talent.

Nonetheless, he was talented. He instilled excitement and energy in his admirers, and offered, from the breadth of his literary, philosophical and esoteric knowledge, a counter-cultural canon of authors who reflected his elitist and essentialist ideals, running through Evola to Eliot to the “Angry Young Men”, like his friend and mentor Bill Hopkins. In doing so, he strove to, and to some extent succeeded at, energising and intellectualising the far right. One can see his influence in Richard Spencer, who was his admirer and friend. Bowden foreshadowed the “Alt-Right”, indeed, saying in an interview in 2009 that the far right would thrive as a dissident force, spreading its ideas less through politics and activism than through the Internet.

Bowden was not constrained by stuffy, tweedy attitudes of traditional conservatives, or the sour resentment of the Blackshirts’ successors. He was modernist in temperament and taste, believing that destruction and creation were essential to life. He opposed liberal guilt and right wing defeatism with his insistence on pride and the pursuit of glory. His speeches and his writings were mired in racial epithets and conspiracy theories. He wanted to renew the soul of Western civilisation.

What Western civilisation? One that was aristocratic, authoritarian and enamoured of its glory, and its power, and its strength.

Nature has become sentient in us which means we must incarnate natural law as a principle of being. It’s called becoming in my philosophy. The right, even if you don’t use that term, stands for nature and for that which is given.

What does that mean?

It means conflict is natural, and good. It means domination is natural, and good. It means that what you have to do in order to survive, is natural, and good. It means that we should not begin every sentence by apologizing for our past or apologizing for who we are.

The right believes that inequality, and conflict, and even domination are natural to some extent. But good? Less so, or Genghis Khan would be considered a greater man than any European. Bowden slides, throughout his work, from saying we should not be ashamed of past conquests and conflicts (which I agree with given that conquest and conflict have been ubiquitous) to implying that we should glory in them, which is less defensible. The right, as I imagine it, is at its best when nature (in its objective sense) is balanced with culture (religious, artistic and institutional) to maintain stable, mutually beneficial societies.

Bowden would have thought this tedious and bourgeois. He sought a life of vital, dynamic intensity. I think, perhaps presumptuously, that what animated him was less oikophilia or racial animus than boredom – intense boredom – with secular liberal and consumerist societies, where “people have an absence of belief” and are consumed by “McDonalds, Coke and Political Correctness“. I can sympathise, in two senses, but the importance of the distinction undermines his Weltanshauung.

Societies need radicals: bored, curious, energetic men and women who prod the boundaries of the possible. Artists. Scientists. Adventurers. Warriors. But they are exceptions to the rule. Most people need belief as a cohesive, consolatory force, uniting friendships, families and communities. Extreme ideologues of the left and right grow impatient with their small pleasures and simpler ways but attempting to unite them with great animating forces – racial, classist or religious – culminates destructively. They are too meaningful and too meaningless; exceeding the scale of a normal man’s imagination while also being too arbitrary and impractical to assuage ideologues. Thus, they lurch between conflicts, each violent effort to achieve their aims obscuring their essential hollowness. Sublimity is necessarily exceptional. Transcendence requires a basic ordinariness beneath it.

People with a thirst for meaning should avoid projecting their impatience onto people with more limited ideals. Ideologues who have dreamed of glory have, time and again, fuelled their ambitions with the blood of people who would have settled for less. Besides, any idea of martial glory died with weaponised warfare. Even if one can feel the romance of the sword and the steed there is none in the drone and the Massive Ordnance Air Blast.

Still, if that is a conservative critique of Bowden, Bowden had an intriguing critique of conservativism. He described its British form as “philistine” and “anti-intellectual”. There is something to this. Our limp liberal consensus has enabled such cultural incuriority that Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s adviser, is thought well-read for having skimmed The Art of War. Bowden was no scholar, as the notes of his republished books attest (he once conflated the names of Iain M. Banks, the Scottish novelist, and Ian Stuart Donaldson, the English Nazi) but he was well-read, versed in the literature of the left and the right, as well as horror novels, existential philosophy, true crime and comic books. Even literate conservatives can stick to well-worn classics (like Burke’s Revolutions and Oakeshott’s Rationalism) but Bowden took ideas and inspiration from everywhere. There are dangers to such an eclectic approach, such as incoherence, or ideological appropriation. Still, I think we should be open-minded and eclectic, not just as old and eccentric books can be relevant to our ideas but as they can become relevant to society. Who would have thought that Samuel Francis, a dead and, even in his lifetime marginalised, author would have been made so relevant by the Trump campaign.

Bowden was also right that conservatives can be too averse to theory. They enjoy the business of politics; of stalling or stabilising social changes. But what to do when it changes? They are split between people who pine uselessly for its original state and people who naively advocate for the preservation of the present. Bowden’s modernism, on the other hand, demanded that the present be transformed according to the values of the past. This was nothing new. It had been the spirit of Pound, Eliot and Lewis, who he described as “the classicism of the Old World coming back to the Old World via the New World”. It had been the spirit of fascism. On the other hand, it is not an essentially fascistic idea (having no necessary inclination towards racial fetishism, militarism, corporatism et cetera). It implies respect for historical accomplishments, awareness of the conditions of modernity and an attempt to bring the two together so as to avoid both empty nostalgia and crude presentism.

Bowden also held that conservatives were “afraid, terribly afraid”. Of what? Of being called a Nazi. This is somewhat true, of course, but what was his suggestion? If not quite agree then almost. If he was accused of being a fascist he would claim “there’s nothing wrong with fascism”. If asked about the Holocaust he would dismiss it as irrelevant. He would sympathetic to fascism and saw Hitler, at worst, as an extreme anti-communist phenomenon. How this can be squared with carving Poland and invading France is a question without an answer. Even right wingers with no attraction to leather and lebensraum find this idea appealing, because it is absolutist and because they think the left embraces its ideological extremists. That is false (as evidenced by the treatment of Noam Chomsky). Leftists have neatly disassociated themselves from Mao and Stalin, by portraying them as perverters of Marxism or by emphasising their liberal and democratic elements so as to make accusations of totalitarianism seem ridiculous. Conservatives with a sensible loathing of Nazism should not fear the charge but bluntly, firmly and with some finality emphasise its ridiculousness. After all, the Europeans who fought to beat the Nazis were, in general, to the right of latter-day conservatives. Even Eliot and Lewis, who Bowden so admired, had condemned Hitler long before the gates of Auschwitz had been flung open.

Bowden, who was such a passionate elitist, found it difficult to get on with the tattooed baldy contingent of the far right. He stormed out of the BNP after anonymous rumours charged him paedophilia, decrying its “low-grade lycanthropes and psychotic criminals”. (“The stench of this rabble, lumpen and canaille,” he carried on, “Is displeasing to me.”) He was a rather sad figure, and a rather comic one, but his voice resonates because it is both urgent and determined, unlike Cameronite complacance or the miserablism that hangs around Mail and Spectator columnists. That spirit, in an age of desiccated rationality and baffled relativism, is the preserve of extremists. Even if we dislike their ideas we should appreciate that fire. It can illuminate, and warm, and smelt, and burn. But it must be contained.

Posted in Fascism, Identity, Ideology | 5 Comments

This Be Another Verse…

It fucks us up, our DNA.
That is the sad but honest truth.
It makes our hair turn thin and grey
And sends our lipids through the roof.

It makes maths lessons wearisome,
And gives us dreadful allergies
It tortures little children
With its disorders and disease.

But it helped Beethoven to write,
And Isaac Newton to explore,
And it will never end the fight
To do, and be, a little more.

Posted in Poetry | 2 Comments

The Rise of the Right and the Triumph of Rhetoric…

My new article for Quillette…

Naïve liberals speak of the “marketplace of ideas,” suggesting that free and open public discourse allows people to judge theories before arriving at the truth. Yet are customers good judges of products? Often no. Salespeoples’ patter has convinced a lot of us to buy t-shirts that wear-out in days, fake watches and disgusting food. We are swayed, often foolishly, by presentation and appearances, and that is as true of ideas as it is of products.

If one is to enter the “marketplace of ideas”, then, one cannot be naive enough to think arguments sell themselves. One must make them appealing. One must use rhetoric: humour, irony, satire, flattery, bombast, eloquence, emotion and, yes, in the 21st Century, even memes.

Read the rest here.

Posted in Rhetoric | 3 Comments