May 01, 2010


I found this article from Ben Goldacre fascinating. A group published a study in the journal Political Behaviour, their study was focussed on an article that restated an opinion from President Bush that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. The article was shown to a group of people, some who were pro-war, some anti-war. One group of people were given an article with a correction stated that the opinion was based on incorrect evidence, they other did not. What is so interesting about this is that whilst the correction had almost no impact on those who disagreed with the statement that Iraq had WMD, for those who did believe that the statement was correct, the correction reinforced the evidence. I don't think this is anything to do with the political bias of the people involved; it could easily have been the other way round, but it reminds me of something I increasingly think about human beings. Humans like clear distinctions and don't like facts that muddy the waters, we tend to think in big categories not qualifications and this I suspect effects our politics, but more importantly our own epistemologies- the explanations we prefer to use to explain the mysteries of our lives and those we discard.

April 30, 2010

Jose Saramago's Blog

I wish I could read Portugeese: unfortunately I can't. If I did, I'd be reading Jose Saramago's blog. Saramago's blog explodes two virulent myths. The first is that the internet is only for the young. Saramago is voyaging into the latter half of his eighties, indeed if anything he is a model for a future in which noone stops working until they stop being able to work. Secondly there is the idea that great writers- academics, novelists etc- should stick only to the book or article forms. Obviously a blog is different from a book or an article- I'm currently writing an article about 1653 and the Barebones Parliament which I would never publish here (partly as I don't know how to do footnotes on blogger), but that doesn't mean its impossible to do useful stuff up here. Useful stuff both in the sense that it is useful to read- I have learnt a lot from a variety of blogs- and in the sense that it is useful to the writer, it refines what you think. Saramago is a new blogger but I hope many more writers and thinkers join him, the internet is too valuable a place to be left to those currently on it!

The Numan Option

Augustine's interest in Roman theology is largely to condemn: he has some fun at the expense of the Roman gods and their peccadillos and enjoys attacking the gods for abandoning Illium and going to Rome. Perhaps more interestingly, he asks a question about Numa, king after Romulus. Numa guarenteed peace for 40 years, as Augustine points out Rome only afterwards suffered peace for one year (after the first Punic War), all other years the gates of war remained open. So Augustine asked 'if so great a good was conferred upon Rome or Pompilius by the Gods, why did they not bestow it upon the Roman empire even at the times when Rome was most worthy of praise?' (III 9). This question is important- for it underlays Augustine's critique of Rome's entire project, furthermore a critique of all imperium and all nations.

Augustine mocks the military pretensions of the Romans, 'why must an empire be unquiet to be great' (III 10). Augustine knows the classical historians well enough to know that empire caused decline: he wonders about why an empire was neccessary, 'was so great an extension of empire worth the state of things that Virgil so deplored when he says 'Little by Little, there came a baser, paler age, bringing both the fury of war and the love of gain'' (III 10). Rome might argue it had expanded through the injustice of its enemies: but why then, Augustine asks, did not the classical gods protect their city against such insults. Here we have a question that no Roman believer in the old gods would have asked, Augustine committed to peace asks the question both because it is a way to undermine any providential guidance from the gods, and also because it is a serious question. If empire brought luxury, power brought luxury, then why seek either empire or power?

It is not an easy question to answer.

April 27, 2010


Dogtooth is one of those films- Holy Mountain is another- that I have watched in my life and struggled with. Dogtooth is about a family based somewhere in Greece. The father and mother have three children who appear to be somewhere between their late teens and early twenties. They have imprisoned these children inside their country home, with only the garden and the inside rooms to navigate and taught them a bizarre system of knowledge where words do not mean what they mean outside (seemingly on an arbitrary basis). Furthermore they have left these kids with very little sense of what the world is, the children beleive that aeroplanes drop out of the sky and that you can catch them like toy planes, that fish appear from nowhere into a swimming pool, that you cannot walk out of the gates of the house but you have to drive. There are two daughters and a son. The parents have decided that the son needs some sexual stimulation, so they have hired a security guard at the father's place of work as a prostitute, she comes in drops her trousers and has mechanical sex with the boy before she leaves to the outside world.

Lots of things happen in the world that we see- including the prostitute asking one of the girls to perform oral sex on her in order to obtain a hair band and various competitions (at one point the children compete to see who can hold their hands under a hot tap for the longest time, at another they compete to see who will wake up after an anaesthetic first). They are told by their parents that they will be ready to leave when their canine teeth- their dog teeth- fall out: but that they will not be ready to get in the car (the prelude to actually leaving) until the said tooth jumps back inside the mouth (that is a prospect whose occurence would justify a miraculous literature). So the children are trapped in a world that does not really change. Its a bizarre world for the viewer to see, summed up I think by the perfect quote from the father who tells them that their mother is about to have kids, two children and a dog. Perhaps it demonstrates something about the ease with which people are convinced of things that are not true, perhaps not.

It shatters though, like all Edens (and this may be a perverse Eden) under the influence of sex. Christina the prostitute creates conflict, not between the young boy and the parents- the boy's sexuality is undeveloped and stilted- but between the eldest girl and the parents. Christine's offer of a hairband for oral sex means that the girl becomes fixated on oral sex herself. Christine leaves the scene and the girl is commanded to have sex with her brother- this leads to a further revolt. Sexual desire and repulsion rends the hermetic family apart- and in a sense could be read for an allegory of how sexual desire rends the real family apart. Afterall sons and daughters leave the family to fall in love and marry. Perhaps that is what this film is getting at- the natural processes by which love and revolution step hand in hand to the alter and consumate a marriage which creates the next generation.

I am still not convinced by any of my attempts to get at an explanation though. Sometimes I wonder whether the film was not designed purely to shock. It has some fairly boringly explicit sexual scenes- the least exciting in the entire film- in which we see all the bits. Perhaps they are designed to be unerotic deliberately: the director portraying a sexual act which has lost all its meaning and hence is meaningless and signifies nothing. I think there is a laziness here at work though as well. There are some scenes of violence- in which for instance a cat (incidentally did I mention the children live in fear of the so called monster cat that lives outside the walls) is pinioned by a trident- but again they don't shock they bore. Like Holy Mountain or the art of Tracy Emin, you are left wondering whether this is just immature, the potterings of a fourteen year old who never learnt that being shocking and being good were not synonyms. The film is definitely tainted by someone who has no sense of the importance of not showing things.

The film confused me and perhaps I have missed a masterpiece. The acting is solid and there is a sense in the camera work that we are supposed to be noticing something- lots of shots of people from odd positions, lots of cameras that don't move during a conversation. The characters are not real characters but ideas of characters- cutouts. The parents' behaviour is never explained, neither is Christina's. Everyone is left mutely in flux- a bit like I felt coming out of this film. It neither wound me up, nor did it inspire me, perhaps there are some themes to it that merit attention but to be honest, and perhaps this was just not a night for me to see an experimental film, I was a little bored. Dave Cole was also there and I'm looking forward to his review- I'd suggest you read it as plenty more intelligent critics than I thought this was a great film. However I won't be rushing to see it again.

April 26, 2010

St Augustine and suicide

Augustine wrote the City of God against the Pagans in order to make an immediate political point. Rome was sacked in 410AD by Alaric and the Goths and some pagans argued that it had been sacked because one hundred years before, under Constantine, the Empire had finally opted for Christianity against paganism. Augustine's purpose was therefore to make a point about the sack of Rome and whether it was caused by Christianity. For a moment though, I want to leave the main point of Augustine's work, which was actually much greater than a mere defence of Christianity against its pagan opponents and became a positive statement that guided Christians in their interpretation of their own faith for the entire Middle Ages and still does even to this day.

The first book of the City of God, (the City of God is organised in books and subdivided into sections- this organisational structure is owed to a medieval scribe and probably not Augustine himself but as it makes different editions comparable I will stick to it), as I was saying, the first book of the City of God describes the fates of various people at the sack of Rome. It attempts to suggest the Christian answer to various exigencies. One of those that Augustine is very interested in is suicide: he is interested in it from a very particular perspective. One of the great stories of classical antiquity (discussed earlier on this blog) concerns Lucretia who committed suicide after she was raped by Servius Tarquinus, Augustine wants to distinguish himself from those pagans who admired Lucretia. Lucretia committed suicide because of the shame that she had had sex with a man who was not her husband, her suicide became moral because it was a way of convincing the outside world that she had not wanted to commit adultery.

Augustine contrasts that to a Christian morality. Lucretia being forced to have sex, could not have committed adultery. 'Who of sane mind' he asks 'will suppose that purity is lost if it so happens that the flesh is seized and overpowered' (1 18 see also 1 16). He goes further suggesting in the same passage that continence i.e. chastity is not a bodily but a mental thing. In the case of Lucretia, Augustine turns the example on its head. She committed suicide to demonstrate her innocence. He argues that if she was innocent, she had no reason to commit suicide. He asks his audience 'if she was an adultress, why is she praised, if she was innocent why was she slain' (1 19). Furthermore even if she had been guilty and slain herself, she would merely have committed an extra sin. Like Judas who slew himself and added to the sin of betraying Christ, the sin of murder: 'he ended his life guilty not only of Christ's death but of his own also' (1 17). The only legitimate murder for Augustine is contracted by the state in order to obey either a general law of God's or a particular order from the divine throne (eg. Abraham and Isaac) (1 21).

Augustine thereby is replacing a cult of shame with a cult of conscience. He is arguing that moral worth is an internal concept, therefore that the suicide of shame (beloved of classical culture) is actually a sin because it evidences not virtue but pride. The Christian move against shame, against the verdict of society, and in favour of the conscience of the individual is complete in this early passage in the City of God. Augustine imagines suicide as an analogy to just murder: the latter occurs to punish often, but he argues that there is no mandate from God for such self-punishment. Rather he suggests men must await redemption (see his discussion of Judas in 1 17) and it is only for the state obeying God's general rule to use force to end someone's life. This perspective takes us far away from those who thought Lucretia's death was justified: Augustine makes her death evidence of her pride or her guilt, not of her virtue, and he directs his audience who suffered much in 410 to think of the soul inside, not the appearance on the outside.