The Old Razzle Dazzle

In reaction to the result of the 1975 EC referendum, Mr Enoch Powell described the ‘yes’ victory as a ‘provisional result’ which would require ‘the continuing assent of parliament’. He said of those who had voted in favour: ‘the people do not mean it,’ ‘they are mistaken,’ and ‘they have still not been able to credit the implications of being in the Common Market.’  Those who try to dismiss the result of the ‘brexit’ referendum – by saying the same things of those who voted ‘leave’ – should feel a strong sympathy with Mr Enoch Powell. This might be a sympathy they were unaware of. It might take a disaster such as an earthquake to draw from a person their heroic qualities; of course, not everyone has a hero hiding under the surface. The person who told me about Enoch Powell’s comments said

‘If you agree with Mr Powell’s comments and many on the Leave side regard him as a hero, you cannot object to Remain supporting MPs using those arguments in reverse. Why can’t they try and frustrate Brexit in parliament and also question the wisdom of the people?’

I voted ‘leave’ and I told him Powell’s comments were a disgrace. The question is one of principle. Do you believe in the basic democratic principle that something gets ‘put to the vote’ and the side with the most votes wins? This is a yes or no question. Enoch Powell would have to answer ‘no’ to that; those who are trying to ignore the ‘leave’ result would have to answer ‘no’ to that; many ‘celebrities’ and business ‘leaders’ and academics would have to answer ‘no’ to that. Facebook allowed billions of persons to show each other daily they have boring and empty lives, devoid of physical or intellectual adventure, and the EU referendum has allowed many humans to reveal of themselves they have a creepy disregard for basic democratic principles. These consequences were possibly unintended.

A singer, Damon Albarn, (pick any ‘celebrity’, there’s plenty to choose from) stood on a stage and told a crowd that those who voted ‘leave’ were ill-informed. How could he know that? Persons in their millions voted for ‘brexit’. It is unlikely Albarn could read one mind: the likelihood he could read millions is less likely still.  A man in my office told me exactly the same thing the day after the vote. He said of the ‘leave’ voters ‘I don’t think they really understood what they were doing.’ This attitude, one which implies the holder of it does understand the implications of leaving the EU, and is therefore better educated and in position of a more refined mind, is in equal measure snobbish and sinister and infantile. (One thinks of a foot-stamping, lispy school boy, marching off to throw stones at birds in frustration at not getting his way.)

When someone claims to know something they don’t know, that is one thing; but when someone claims to know something they cannot know, well, that is quite a different thing. Claiming those who voted a different way to you are mentally deficient is the sign of an extraordinarily unpleasant individual. The question I think interesting is how much more unpleasant, anti-democratic impulses lie under the surface of those who would happily re-run the referendum – or ignore the result outright – and refuse to implement a genuine ‘brexit’? If they were given the political circumstances which allowed them to express themselves fully, what kind of political figure would they most resemble? Ghandi doesn’t come to mind.

Men such as Stalin were not ‘monsters’ but ordinary humans who, if their circumstances had been different, would have been working in offices and factories and would not have done the things which made them famous. This view is unpopular with some, for reasons which are understandable. Many of us dislike the truth about our lowly origins and have no wish to know we are mammals: animals about which the universe cares not. Not everything is a matter of opinion.

The person who used Powell’s comments to justify the behaviour of the ‘remain’ crowd revealed more than his simple opinion about post-result conduct; in addition, he made a very sickly and servile appeal to ‘authority’:

‘We people do not always get it right. MPs are surely slightly better educated than the average man or woman in the street.’

I wished he’d had the wit to say we ‘the’ people, but never mind. The best one could say about the way he reveals his class-based inferiority complex is that he does it by making an unsafe assumption. I am going to assume this person can read minds with the same skill as Damon Albarn. What constitutes the ‘average’ man or woman?

Here is where language reveals more about the person than they might wish to reveal. He chose to use ‘surely’ rather than, say, ‘perhaps’ – which would have admitted a little doubt. Why is he sure MPs are ‘better educated’ than…well, we’re back to defining ‘average’ again. A person could say that, look, it was a ‘throwaway comment’ and therefore one shouldn’t ‘read into’ it more than is there. I say bet the other way. If you wish to know what a person really thinks, consider what their language presupposes – what do they already assume is true? One can find a person’s presuppositions very often in their ‘asides’ or their ‘throwaway comments.’

The journalist, Peter Hitchens, has suggested here and there that Philip Larkin might not have been quite as atheistic as some (presumably even Larkin himself) thought. One doesn’t need to read minds to make this claim, for there is textual evidence to suggest Hitchens might have a point. For my own little contribution to this idea, consider the second stanza from Aubade:

 

 

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse

—The good not done, the love not given, time

Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because

An only life can take so long to climb

Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;

But at the total emptiness for ever,

The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

The three words ‘be lost in’ seem to presuppose our continued existence after death. Larkin cannot hide the pea of hope under those mattresses of misery. Unless we exist, we cannot, in any sense ‘be’. Perhaps what we presupposes finds expression unconsciously, and we don’t see it to edit it out because we deny what we truly believe, thereby rendering these subtle clues to our unconscious invisible to ourselves? If this ‘sounds a bit Freudian’ then why not have some Freud? Consider this splendid paragraph from ‘The Future of an Illusion’. Here, Freud reasons that, if a person feels it certain that God exists, these internal feelings don’t necessarily impress someone who doesn’t feel them; therefore these feelings are not the basis on which to build a society. He says that

‘There is no authority higher than reason. If the truth of religious teachings depends upon an inward experience attesting that truth, what about the many people who do not have so rare an experience? Everyone can be required to use the gift of reason that they possess, but an obligation to all cannot be based on a motive that exists only for very few. If an individual has drawn from a deeply personal state of ecstasy the unshakeable conviction that the teachings of religion represent the real truth, what is that to the next man?’

There’s nothing wrong with his reasoning, but one wonders why, hiding in plain sight in the middle of the paragraph is the word ‘gift’. A gift from whom? Maybe the translator had a sense of humour?

Image result for two faced people

Oh My God It’s SO Unfair!

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round

  • Philip Larkin ‘Aubade’

 

I’m unsure Larkin was right about what we fear. On the surface of things he seems to get to root of the matter. The idea of not existing is a troubling one. But are there ways of thinking about not existing which might make the idea bearable?

One of the (so-called) ‘new’ atheists, Sam Harris, said – and was quite amusing when he said it – that if a person really can’t imagine the world without them in it, then it must be just from want of trying. There were a few laughs from the audience. In the example I’m thinking of Harris suggested the crowd think about the city of Paris, and how Paris was getting along just fine without anyone from the crowd in it. He certainly had a point. Another way of putting it is to ask people to think about the world before they were born. The person’s town or village was getting along happily, and so were the cities and other people in it. It seems correct to think about matters in this way, because the world was getting along nicely before you were born, but thinking this way doesn’t quite dissolve the problem.

The idea of not existing could mean several things to a person. That you can even have the idea means you exist. So it appears – after thinking about Paris and the years before you were born – that the problem isn’t quite a world in which you don’t exist, the problem is more a world in which you don’t exist after having existed. That seems to be closer to the point, and it’s that idea which needs examining.

Larkin was an atheist, and the last four lines are odd ones for an atheist to have written. The last line – especially the word ‘anesthetic’ – carries a thought which could have been pushed further. An atheist might fear what Larkin describes, but an atheist also knows he won’t actually experience being dead, which means there is no reason to have this fear: if you have fear you know you don’t need to have, then you are choosing to have it because you prefer having it. I mean to say, why fear something you know you will never experience? This ‘fear’ of something you won’t and can’t experience, then, might not be ‘our’ problem. It’s more likely that the real point is as I described it, or as the late Christopher Hitchens put it ‘You get tapped on the shoulder and told, “the party’s going on without you, and you have to leave.”’

(He then amusingly offered the religious version for comparison: ‘The party’s going on forever, and you can’t leave.’) But why do we care if we won’t know we’ve left? It doesn’t make sense to ‘fear’ not being at the party because we know we won’t know we’re not there: we won’t know we’re missing anything. Is what Larkin calls ‘fear’ really a form of cheap resentment, a type of childish foot-stamping? Is the ‘fear’ an expression from a part of the mind which hasn’t grown up? One can easily imagine an irritated child having a little tantrum ‘Oh my God it’s so unfair! when told that playtime’s over.

To ask a person ’Do you believe in God’ could get you any number of responses, though a common one is the one which says ‘Well, I don’t believe in God but I do believe in something. I don’t think this (motions to surroundings) is the end.’ It’s a barely disguised way of saying ‘I don’t like the idea of death, so have told myself we don’t die.’ Larkin’s fourth line is true of all religions. I don’t know any religion which says the universe was created by a loving god who answers prayers and what not, yet has designed things so that – although he loves you while you are here – death is the end. Such a religion wouldn’t catch on.

All religions are predicated on the survival of death. Licensing that idea, allowing it to be reinforced through groupthink (or ‘worship’ if you really must), is what you get in return for your critical faculties, money and obedience. Yet if Larkin’s ‘fear’ is a form of intellectualised, disguised tantrum, then it’s certainly true that atheism is not an automatically superior worldview to the religious one. One could say of the atheist that he isn’t confusing what he believes is true with what he hopes is true, but doing that, and on its own, might not make you the full grown up.

Is there a difference between knowing you are going to die and accepting it?