Tuesday 4 August 2009

Five words

Bob is peeved that I haven't responded to his 'five words' meme. My excuse? I was away last week, and anyway, his invitation was buried in a comments thread which I've only just found.

Anyway, here are the words that Bob has chosen for me, and my response to each of them:

One of the interesting aspects of this game is trying to guess why your 'tagger' has chosen the words that s/he thinks say something about you. So I'm not sure if Bob is responding to my habit of linking to tracks by classic soul singers, such as Solomon Burke and Sam Cooke, or to my continuing, conflicted interest in religion and spirituality. Since religion comes up later, I'll opt for the former. When I was a teenager in the Seventies, a white grammar-school boy on an Essex housing estate, soul music was definitely not de rigeur. First we were partisans for progressive rock, then for Bowie and glam, and finally punk - all very white and (as the NME used to say) 'rockist'. I didn't really get into soul and black music generally until the Eighties - when I was working in a mostly-black area of north London. Then it became a matter of working my way through the racks of 'best of' CDs - Al Green, Percy Sledge, Marvin Gaye, and so on. I'm sure the reason my teenage son is such a soul aficionado (though, like the rest of his generation, he insists on referring to the music as 'R 'n' B', an appellation that my generation associates with Muddy Waters, BB King, et al), is that this was the music we were playing around the time he was born (playing a certain Percy Sledge track is guaranteed to reduce H. and me to tears, evoking as it does that precious time).

I used to say that the veteran Portuguese writer was my favourite novelist, until I remembered that I've only ever finished one of his books. However, that book - The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis - ranks as one of the best (if not the best) works of fiction that I've ever read. In this phantasmagoric exploration of Lisbon, Saramago's usual quirky and meandering prose is held in check by an intriguing plot and aborbing sense of place - not the case in the other novels of his that I've tried. When I first read the book some fifteen or twenty years ago, its author's politics - he's a lifelong Communist - were an added enticement to me. That was before my own disillusionment with 'democratic centralism', and before I discovered that Saramago's involvement in the Portuguese revolution, far from being heroic, revealed the Stalinist tendencies of his (and his party's) politics. Not to mention my disappointment that a writer capable of such great prose and historical imagination could make such foolish, naive and offensive comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, as he did notoriously on a trip to the West Bank. A shining illustration, then, that creative genius and political stupidity can and often do co-exist.

It was reading Saramago, and then moving on to the writings of Fernando Pessoa (Ricardo Reis was one of the latter's many 'heteronyms') and thence to other fictional depictions of Lisbon that made me fall in love with the Portuguese capital before I'd even visited it. Our visit there a few years ago, to celebrate a special birthday, only deepened my attachment to the place - and to the language, music, literature and history of the city and the country. OK, so I had my camera stolen while riding on a tram to the Alfama, and there are other aspects of Lisbon that leave a lot to be desired - the number of disabled people begging in doorways is (or was then) truly shocking. But the faded beauty of the tree-covered squares, the jumble of back streets, the mournful sound of fado, entered into my soul.

As I've mentioned on this blog a number of times, I had a brief flirtation with Buddhism a few years ago, and though I was quite deeply involved for a while, in the end it didn't 'take'. From time to time, when I'm particularly stressed or under pressure, I remember some of the meditation practices I learned, and still find them helpful. But the underlying philosophy - of detachment from the world and heroic, individualistic spiritual effort - finally clashed with my deeply-rooted interests in politics, history, culture. I think a lot of westerners who are attracted to Buddhism are like me: refugees from the 'Abrahamic' faiths looking for a purer, simpler, less cluttered version of the religion they've rejected, and projecting their own needs on to a thought system which is actually hostile to taken-for-granted western ideas, such as notions of historical progress. And I now find the influence of Buddhism, and the 'New Age' generally, on disciplines in which I have some involvement - such as psychology - generally negative.

Having run the gamut of Christian denominations (baptised a Congregationalist, brought up a Methodist, attended Anglican churches, then became a Catholic) and then explored eastern alternatives (see above) I finally realised that what I am, deep down, is a humanist. That's not to rule out the possibility of a return to religion - as regular readers will be aware, I have a continuing love-hate fascination with Christianity, and particularly with Catholicism - but it would have to be a Christian humanism that I espoused. I have a great respect for the tradition of Christian (and Jewish) humanism, and one of my arguments with much contemporary religiosity is that it seems to have forgotten this heritage and sees humanism not as a partner for dialogue, but as a sworn enemy. The same thing goes for secularism, which is a close cousin to humanism in my book. One of my constant themes on this blog is that secularism, rightly understood (as allowing faith and civil society their separate, rightful spheres of action) is essential not only to the flourishing of a humane, tolerant, dynamic society - but to the health of the religious sphere also.


Anonymous said...

Hello Martin, I'd be interested to hear about your views of the place animals have (should have?) in humanistic thinking. I have often doubted humanism because it does not address other highly sentient beings in the world.

bob said...

A wonderful response Martin. I'm off to Lisbon for a couple of days next week, so I might try and take Saramago with me! And sorry if I sounded peeved; I wasn't!

Martin said...

Thanks for the comments.

F.i.g.: when I use the word 'humanism' I don't mean some exclusively homo-sapiens-centric view of the world, but rather a belief in people working things out for themselves, etc. I think a respect for other forms of life, and the planet, can grow out from this...

Bob - Enjoy Lisbon - I look forward to hearing what you think of it...You might want to pack Pessoa as an alternative to Saramago - you can read him in small chunks, and his ghost still seems to haunt the cafes and squares of the old city