Monday, May 14, 2018

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“A FIELD OFFICER’S NOTEBOOK – Selected Poems” by Dan Davin, edited with an introduction by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $NZ29:95); “THE QUEST” by Yannis Kyrlis (English language translation by Maria Georgala) (Austen Macauley Publishers, no price given); “WALKING TO JUTLAND STREET” by Michael Steven (Otago University Press, $NZ 27:50); “THE FACTS” by Therese Lloyd (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “ARE FRIENDS ELECTRIC?” by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “WINTER EYES” by Harry Ricketts (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); "WHISPER OF A CROW'S WING" by Majella Cullinane (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50)


Dan Davin (1913-1990) was best known as a novelist, short-story writer and academic publisher. He had only a few poems published in his lifetime and was not primarily known as a poet. Nevertheless, he did fill notebooks with poems and ideas for poems, none of which have hitherto been made public. Robert McLean has selected, edited and written a very informative introduction to A Field Officer’s Notebook, presenting what he sees as the best of Davin’s published and unpublished poems. The title was one which Davin himself considered for such a collection.

As McLean’s introduction explains, Davin wrote poetry in three periods of his life only, marked in this collection by the headings “Before”, “During” and “After”. The “Before” was in the late 1930s, when Davin was a young man in England, remembering New Zealand and considering a career. The “During” was the Second World War, probably the pivotal period of Davin’s life, when he served with the New Zealand Division in Crete, North Africa and Italy. The “After” was years later, in old age in the 1980s and in retirement from the world of publishing.

McLean speaks of Davin’s “inescapable minor key” in that so many of these poems are wistful, lamenting, accepting of death without eternal rewards and only occasionally finding pleasure in nostalgic, fragmented memories of childhood. In McLean’s view the poems written during the war are Davin’s best.  McLean characterises the poets of the First World War as moving from “idealism to cynicism”, whereas the poets of the Second World War moved from “cynicism to nihilism”. This, he says, was Davin’s course. Though inflected with classical allusions, the poems Davin wrote in North Africa are ironic and raw. They are, says McLean “insistently negative”. He contrasts Davin’s war poems with those of New Zealand’s two best-known servicemen poets of the Second World War, M.K. Joseph and Denis Glover. Davin, he notes, wrote his best wartime poems while the conflict was still in progress. The other two poets wrote in postwar recollection.

This is all the framework of A Field Officer’s Notebook, but what of the poems themselves? We cannot escape the fact that they are poems of their time. Many of the later poems are free-form – perhaps in an “unfinished” state – while the earlier ones tend to be in stricter traditional metres. It is impossible to ignore the dated diction that the younger  man often favours (“ponder” “chide” etc.)

The poems of the “Before” section present a young man’s anxieties, not just in having left comfortable childhood behind, but in the sense of having so far achieved nothing in his life (see especially the poem “In what diversity of sterile tasks”). Perhaps there is a touch of envy at those who got ahead of him academically, as in “Had I constrained my spirit then”,  written in 1937, where Davin claims to spurn Academe in favour of Bohemia. In its entirety, it goes thus:

Had I constrained my spirit then

To put on learning’s gown

I might have scorned the life of men

And walked with the scholar’s frown.

Well-informed I should have strode

Lettered and erudite

Subscribing to a college code

And mouthing maxims trite.

I might have lost humanity

And withered to a don

But I preferred profanity

Love and demijohn.

Well, perhaps Davin preferred cussing, shagging and drinking to scholarship, but the preference clearly wasn’t unmixed.

The general tone of the “During” section is less defensive. When Davin writes of the dead under snow, he sees no consolation. His poem “Haunted by mysteries, life, time, and death” does not accept the concept (so much a focus for Wallace Stevens) that living joys and sensuality are made more precious and wonderful by the prospect of annihilation in death. Davin won’t accept even that apologia for death, because death haunts and pollutes the joys of life, as in the lines “Wolves exiled from the light / Their jealousies prowl still / About the brief campfires of our love, / Living a ghoulish life / within the echoes of our laughter”. Davin cannot write a poem about soldiers enjoying an evening boozing and having a knees-up. Instead his poem “Morning Fatigue in the Canteen” depicts the morning-after clean up of cigarette butts and slops.

The most finished poems of Davin’s wartime experience are, it seems to me, three of the most confronting. “Egyptian Madonna” is a poem of disgust as the poet describes in horrible detail the sight of an undernourished child being suckled by an impoverished mother. “Cairo Cleopatra” is just as explicit in its view of a prostitute – or at least of a prostitute’s body being used by many soldiers. As for “Grave near Sirte”, the harshest poem in the book, it concerns the complete anonymity of death and the way we inevitably forget the dead, regardless of what the monuments say.

The imagery of some of the poems in the “After” section clearly sets them in the London of the 1980s. Some, dare I say it, are trite aphorisms. There are memories of Davin’s Irish-New Zealand childhood, and he babbles of the green fields, perhaps covered in gorse, of Gore and Invercargill. Yet he is still frequently referencing and re-imagining the war, with fragments of a poem about El Alamein, and quoted snatches of an ironic song about Ravenstein (the German general who was captured in North Africa by a detachment of New Zealanders). His envoi to the war is “Why not be dead?” which goes thus: “Why not be dead? / 
The old dead soldier said.
/ It’s really far less trouble
 / And there are no orders, no jankers, here, /  To be carried out at the double.”

This is the best epitaph the unhappy ex-soldier poet could write for himself.

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It is flattering when a man on the other side of the world writes and asks me if I could review on my blog his collection of short stories. When the Greek writer Yannis Kyrlis wrote from Athens to ask if I would review The Quest, I readily said I would. This slim volume (138 pages) consists of twelve short stories, many of them very brief. The longest is the title-story “The Quest” at 32 pages, followed by “Just Don’t Forget the Way” at 30 pages.

Most [but not all] of the collection’s shorter stories are written in the detached third-person voice and most take the form of fables, parables or visions – more extended image than sequential narrative. The settings are often unreal – I hesistate to say surreal – being both everywhere and nowhere. In “The Threat” a man defends his house from men who want to destroy it – or do they? “The Sceptre” has lovers quarrelling near a rubbish dump, where a walking cane becomes a symbol for antiquated patriarchal authority. “Some Black Birds” is a simple shocker while “Confessions in a Café” presents a rather convoluted discussion in a café between older and younger people of artistic pretensions, ending with a reconciliation between the generations. Symbolism – or extended metaphor – hangs heavily over some stories. “The Stranger” presents a literal foot race as the epitome of the urban rat race. “The Painter of St George” shows a painter’s confidence ruined by a hostile review. “Before the Dawn” is a soul journey story set among street people. “The Little Girl with Cloth Legs” plays with very heavy symbolism indeed as an alluring childhood memory is exorcised by a Witch (or is that Fate?). “The Course of a Crisis” is most definitely a parable, about our need for enemies in order to sharpen our thoughts.

            Thus I have name-checked my way through nearly all of this volume’s shorter offerings. They sound at least a little like the shorter pieces of Kafka in their arbitrary conclusions and not-quite-diagnosed sense of menace. I would advise that they be read carefully, one at a time, or their simlarity of style could become oppressive.

Far more interesting, I think, are the two longer pieces, both written in the first person and therefore perhaps signalling a greater engagement on the author’s part. Oddly, one is a dreamlike, almost surreal piece, while the other is strictly realistic.

“The Quest” is the surreal one, of the Alice-in-Wonderland variety with its abrupt transitions. The narrator has literally lost his heart and is fishing for it in murky water. People incite him to suicide. He is set before a sort of tribunal, convened in a tavern, which accuses him of wilfully losing his heart. His friend and protector is called “the Illustrator”. At one point his heart is a leaf hanging on a tree. At another he is confronted by a powerful female figure who accuses him of throwing his heart away on her. It is hard to read “The Quest” without plucking out symbols – the dead tree, the tower, and perhaps “the Illustrator”, symbolising conscience or art – something that can put the narrator’s experiences into words and can rationalise them. But as to what it means…. like most surrealism, it simply is not reducable to a formula. Kafka’s K. really would be at home in its atmosphere of meaningless menace – a nightmare in images.

Personal taste leads me to relate much more favourably to “Just Don’t Forget the Way”, a realistic presentation of the childhood memories of a man who lived in an impoverished village – not that the poverty is played up by the narrator, who would have been too young to diagnose such things. Poverty is implied by the fact that the narrator’s father has had to leave for Germany to find work and it is implied by the bitter quarrels housewives have over nothing – that nothing being the meagre rations they have to feed their families. At one point, the narrator’s gang of kids find the corpse of  a man who has committed suicide, presumably from despair. This is a robust and straightforward child’s narrative, and it gives a kid’s eye-view of (Greek) political events that the kid does not understand. Only towards the end do we realise that it is set just after the Colonels have staged their coup.

But there is one snag in this story. It has to do with the uncertain nature of the translation from Greek into English. The matter is not as evident in the volume’s more surreal stories, where unrealistic flourishes of language are part of the territory.  But in a realistic story like “Just Don’t Forget the Way”, it is jarring to find a kid saying “he will bestow me his bicycle” or “a new kid who came lately to our neighbourhood”, or for one quarrelling woman to use the word “foolish” as a form of address, as in “What can you tell me, foolish?” rather than something like “you fool”. To me, this unidiomatic English suggests that English is not the translator’s first language.

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            I have to provide a collective apology to the five poets whose work I cover very briefly in what follows. On this blog, I try to consider collections of poetry in detail, but given that I am now posting only fortnightly, this is becoming harder to do, so – not for the first time – I am here providing “notices” rather full-length critiques. I hope this is satisfactory. 

This may be a brash thing to say, but Michael Steven’s debut volume Walking to Jutland Street fills me with an odd sort of nostalgia. It situations itself in a well-established New Zealand tradition – as the blurb says, it’s partly under the influence of New Zealand poets Olds, Orr, Johnson and (maybe) Baxter. This is the realist poetry of blokes in hard circumstances, in the workshop or in the grotty Dunedin student flat, sometimes among bums, beats, hopheads [cor! listen to my dated slang!] – in a word Bohemians, trying to find some sort of karmic truth. I like the plain statement of all this and I note there’s another layer of nostagia here in that Steven himself is clearly looking back on his life as it was and not as it is. The excellent descriptive title poem “Walking Jutland Street” says as much, especially in its closing line “I am writing these lines from another life.” In saying it’s realist, I’m not dismissing this very arresting collection as a series of literalist snapshots. Steven peppers his verse with unexpected jabs of telling imagery, and he has a wicked ironic wit. Check out one of his best, “Educating SR-3781”, which uses a funny-sad story to point up the difference between machine and human being. In an odd sort of way, Steven moralises, too. The opening poem might be a wild childhood cavort with an excited tone of whoop-de-do, and later ones have rich descriptions of travel in Asia – but as for the Bohemian ones, Steven often admits that there was a destructive side to the Bohemian life.

Therese Lloyd’s The Facts is a book of withdrawal, of unhappiness, of a desperate attempt to find something positive in life. A number of her poems are [to use a word she herself uses in her notes] ekphrastic – that is, they are comments on existing works of art or images, and there is a section which plays variations on the poetry of Mallarme. I think I am justified in saying that some of them are fairly opaque. Central to the collection, however, is the sense of aging and, apparently, an account of a marriage that didn’t work. So the tone is often very confessional. I found myself most absorbed in two poems. The first is the prose poem “On Looking at Photographs in High School Yearbooks”, which negotiates cleverly the task of being at once dismissive of, and nostalgic for, what is now dead and gone. The second is the eponymous nine-page poem “The Facts”, a consciously candid view of a failing marriage written more in lucid dissection than in anger. Its imagery is both complex and engaging, but also often bleak. I have to agree with Hera Lindsay Bird’s comment (quoted in the blurb) that this book “won’t make you feel better”.

I am going to begin by admitting a prejudice. I am prejudiced in favour of the poetry of Helen Heath. When I reviewed her first collection Graft on this blog in 2012, I praised her for her humane clear-headedness and her engagement with science. I find these same qualities in her new collection Are Friends Electric?, although this is a volume that heads in some new directions. The first section (also called “Are Friends Electric?”) is heavily footnoted as it contains many “found poems” and many allusions to, or quotations from, other people’s texts. Often I find the concept of “found poems” offputting. Too often they become exercises in isolating, and implicitly being ironical or mocking about, what somebody else has written. But this is not Helen Heath’s style. What she finds she transforms. The sequence about “Strandbeests” really does become an engrossing reflection on human-made concepts and imagined evolutionary processes. Even more arresting, the prose poem “The Anthropocene” connects us human beings with bird-calls in a most unexpected and refreshing way. If I do not connect as whole-heartedly with the poems, in this first section, on love and relationships, it may simply be that they reflect the mores of a generation different from my own. The second long section, called “Reprogramming the Heart” is more confessional. Most of its poems are in the first person, dealing with pregnancy, birth, motherhood and (apparently) widowhood among other things. The matter of technology and science is not forgotten, however, for Heath has a consistent train of images linking us [human beings] to the cyber world and to artificial intelligence. Once again, her style is polished and her expression is clear.

I can take Winter Eyes only to mean the eyes of somebody who is heading into winter – that is, getting nearer to old age. In Harry Ricketts’ latest collection, the words come from the last line of the poem “Sansibar oder der letzte Grund”, which asserts “Things look different through winter eyes”. These poems are indeed elegaic and backward looking in the main. Many appear to reach back to mildly-raffish student years (listening to rock music and taking hols on the Continent) and the years of being an aspiring academic. There are a number of anecdotes concerning well-known literary identities either met or talked about, and of course there are references to canonical literature.  Some poems seem to allude to a youthful love (or do they?) and some are certainly about a lost relationship with a stepson. Not that this is maudlin. The tone is more often jocular , knowing and perhaps resigned. I am not sure that Harry Ricketts would necessarily appreciate the comparison, but I read this collection with the same sort of pleasure I get from reading the chattier, more relaxed poems of W.H.Auden’s mellow years. They are urbane and often witty.

Majella Cullinane’s Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is an extraordinary book and unexpected in the sense that it is a type of poetry rarely published in New Zealand now. Suggesting a strong awareness of earlier forms, the collection’s epigraph is, fittingly, a quotation from Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”. An Irish expatriate now resident in New Zealand, Majella Cullinane combines a romantic sensibility with a modernist sharpness. Her poetry has much very Irish (Catholic) imagery together with specifically New Zealand imagery. (The blurb tells me it is being published simultaneously in New Zealand and Ireland). There is much reference to a deep past. The whole section “The Hours” links the traditional monastic canonical hours with present day urban life. Much of the final section “Cut Away the Masts” (including the surging and terrifying poem “A Woman Was Seen”) is based on materials drawn from letters written in the nineteenth century. In the poem “Displaced”, it is as if Cullinane has inserted herself into the spirit of an immigrant from earlier centuries. Nature is numinous in the world depicted here.  And it is easily anthropomorphised. There is “a gust throwing the eucalyptus on the hill into a quandary” in the poem “First Light”. Crows are portents of death in the collection’s title poem; or they are linked to the human skill of literacy, as in “the black letters on this page / as they move across the white space, which remind me / of crows stalking frozen trees” (in “Finale to the Season”). I do not wish to be reductive, but the general tone of this collection is a sense of longing. Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is fey in the original and non-pejorative sense of the word – it senses the presence of things not quite seen (see the poem“Seeing Things”). There is much mist, much fog, much sea-coast. Am I resorting to racial stereotypes if I say it is very Celtic? Yet it is also confessional. The whole section “As Good As” appears to refer to a miscarriage in mythological terms and includes the wrenching line “I would fashion the smallest gap you could sneak through” . I’m impressed.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE CAMP OF THE SAINTS” by Jean Raspail (Le Camp des Saints first published 1973; American translation by Norman Shapiro first published 1975)

If you have never heard of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints – which I hadn’t until a couple of months ago – you will begin reading this notice with no preconceptions. If you have already heard of The Camp of the Saints, you will probably be wondering why I am giving space to such a notorious novel.
When the novel was first published in France in 1973, it was an immediate bestseller, and has continued to be so. Although known for his markedly conservative views, Jean Raspail (born 1925) was a respected travel writer who had been given, in 1970, an award by the Academie Francaise for his life’s work. Translated into English, The Camp of the Saints was at first published in the United States by a respectable mainstream publisher (Scribner’s) in 1975 and its paperback edition appeared under a mainstream imprint (Ace Books) in 1977. It received a few positive reviews, but most reviews were extremely negative. The mainstream publishers dropped it, but it remained a bestseller. Each of its many English-language re-printings since 1977 has been under the imprint of various right-wing organizations, respectively the Institute for Western Values, the Immigration Control Foundation, and most recently, in 2015, the Social Contract Press, in which edition I found a copy in the Auckland Central Library and took it home to read.
Now why is this novel, so wide-selling yet so controversial, shunned by mainstream publishers and despised by most reviewers? Indeed why, by merely noticing it, will I run the risk of being said to cover a book as poisonous as Mein Kampf or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?
Because The Camp of the Saints is essentially about the death of the West as it is inundated by Third World refugees from poverty, and as such it is (as the blurb of the Ace paperback puts it) about “the end of the white world”.
So it is very racist.
A synopsis won’t take long.
In about 2000 (remember Raspail was writing in 1972-73), a huge flotilla of ships, carrying about a million wretched and poor people, sets off from the Ganges in India, heading for Europe. As their journey is tracked, Western countries react in various ways. Most Western leaders secretly hope that the flotilla will head somewhere else or be destroyed by a storm. Some even tentatively suggest that the ships could be bombed discreetly in mid-ocean. But in public, leaders say encouraging and politically-correct words about welcoming their poor Indian brethren. Student radicals, mass-media opinion-makers and what remains of the church all speak of the West as waiting to be invigorated and renewed by the culture of the East.
Finally the ships beach themselves on the southern coast of France. Among the local French population there is panic as the best part of a million Indians land and begin to ransack town and countryside. The local French flee north. The President of the French Republic sends the army south to contain, and possibly repel, the invading masses. But the army disintegrates, as most units are young conscripts who have been infected with ideas of pacifism and universal brotherhood. Besides, many idealistic youngsters and the usual suspects (students, opinion-makers, the church etc.) have come south to welcome the invaders and set up militias to oppose what remains of the army.
Inasmuch as it has leading characters – for it is mainly composed of a generalised and highly satirical tracking of events – the novel focuses on a wise old retired professor, viewing the invasion from a village high on a hill, and the last remaining unit of officers and men who are loyal to the army, who join him up there. They are depicted as the last defenders of traditional French culture and, by implication, all of European culture. Before being wiped out by bombers from the new multi-racial collaborationist government, they make a last heroic stand. They are “the camp of the saints” (a phrase plucked from John’s Apocalypse) pitted against the forces of the Devil.
Okay. Paranoid racist fantasy – and believe me, parts of it are very racist. Raspail can never mention the Indian refugees without noting how filthy they are, how much they stink and how violent and libidinous they are. This is the nightmare of a European traditionalist besieged by the thought of his culture being swamped. It is also, unavoidably, very dated in some details. (The novel’s South Africa is still the apartheid state, the Soviet Union still exists etc.)
Yet Jean Raspail is not a complete fool – remember, we are dealing here with an Academie Francaise prize-winner. Many of the comments he makes about current European culture are shrewd. The two-facedness of political leaders like the President and his inner circle, secretly hoping that the flotilla will be destroyed but publicly mouthing fashionable pieties, seems credible enough. So are the student radicals, whose main impulse is to smash what actually exists without having any practicable alternative. (As many have pointed out, Raspail was writing only a few years after the Parisian student riots of 1968.) Raspail has great fun in showing the radical welcoming committees running for cover once they are face to face with real impoversished people – indeed he has even more fun showing many multi-culturalists coming to sticky ends. Raspail reserves special ire for the Catholic church which has, in his view, become soft, sentimental and vaguely humanitarian ever since Vatican II. He clearly yearns for former days, when the church exalted the nationalist cult of Joan of Arc and was a bulwark of traditional Frenchness. Now (in his view) it consists of guitar-strumming hippie-ish priests spouting left-ish slogans. So the West is spineless, limp, pacifistic and widely despising the noble profession of arms.
Let me admit that I read this novel with ease and a certain measure of enjoyment. It may be a bilious rant, but Raspail writes clearly, keeps up a tremendous pace, and has a tone of magisterial scorn for just about everything that is, in its own way, invigorating.
Now let’s consider the novel’s relationship with the real world.
The Camp of the Saints was written before there were yet major concerns about the number of Muslims entering Europe. Indeed Islam and Muslims are hardly mentioned in the novel. Note that the “invaders” are the poor millions of India, not refugees or economic migrants from Syria and North Africa. The nightmare that sends Raspail off on his rant is the nightmare of “overpopulation” in poor countries and falling fertility in Western countries – or to put it even more crudely, the fact that “the white race” is becoming even more of a minority in the world. When the novel was written, there was much alarmism about “overpopulation”, instanced in Paul Ehlich’s bestselling diatribe The Population Bomb (published in 1968). The nostrum usually proposed was to limit the fertility of poorer nations so that they would match the decreasing fertility of Western nations. In such propaganda, there was always an undercurrent of implicit racism. Raspail has simply taken what was an acceptable theory among those who saw themselves as progressives and liberals forty years ago, and given it a more explicit and French spin.
But for some people at least, the novel’s vision has easily been adapted to the present situation. When has there ever been such intensive debate about non-European immigrants into Europe as there is now? The Camp of the Saints is a favourite with the followers of Marine Le Pen and populists in other parts of Europe. It was also apparently a favourite of Steve Bannon (formerly senior advisor to Donald Trump) as he stressed over illegal Mexican immigrants. Ignoring the fact that Raspail is never concerned with Islam, the European populists now call this a “prophetic” novel.
Let me pause a little before my, or your, bile about this novel runs over. I will state where I stand on some of these issues. I love inherited European culture, Western democracy and the rule of law. But if a continent gradually depopulates itself with low birth rates, then it is only logical that people from countries with higher birth rates will come and settle there. And good luck to them. To put it another way, if white Europeans are really concerned about being overrun, they should (a.) find ways of getting on with, and accommodating, other cultures and peoples; and (b.) have more children… or stop complaining about other people having more children than they do. There is more to Europe’s current immigrant crisis than this, of course, and among those who would welcome all immigrants or refugees with open arms, there is often a naïvete about how well different cultures can relate to one another (Sharia law, anyone?) and an assumption that all newcomers will be only too willing to assimilate into a secular, democratic system. All indicators are that European society’s main culture will be changed profoundly and that some secular norms will be under severe stress. It is not racist to point this out.
One little slap before I sign off. Raspail’s novel has been denounced as an extremist presentation of an unlikely scenario. Probably it is. But then many dystopian novels can come under the same charge, even ones that are highly acclaimed. After all, is Raspail’s vision of non-Europeans swamping Europe any more extreme, and unlikely, than Margaret Atwood’s vision of a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship in The Handmaid’s Tale? The fact is, with novels such as these, critics tends to like or dislike them according to how well they respond to their ideology.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            Very well, patient reader, I know that putting one of my own poems in this “Something Thoughtful” slot is rather egotistical, but I’m carried on by my last posting in which I accused Steven Pinker, in his polemic Enlightenment Now, of ignoring the “law of mundanity”. By this I mean our tendency to accept our everyday reality as boringly normal while (often) assuming that other times and places were not only exotic and pcturesque, but far more entertaining and stimulating for the people who lived there. In this poem I suggest that the real people in such apparently exotic places would simply see them as boring normality, just as we consider our own time and place. I don’t wish to over-explain the poem, which I hope says many other things about history, but here it is (from my first collection The Little Enemy, published in 2012)

                 Law of Mundanity


Law of mundanity. The quinquireme

powered by Nubian slaves is just one more

patrolling ship. Re-paint it battle grey.

The busy port is commerce and raw deals.

Wide view, a backdrop; up close, men at work;

the rattling abacus a p.c’s. clack.

Toga or sari, burnous, roquelaure,

clothes for the rich – their suits and matching sets.

Loincloths and rags are jeans and last year’s shirts.

The tourist thinks the scene’s exotic. Those

who live from hour to hour on the same street

flick flies, scratch itches, hear a barking dog.


“Of humble birth he rose from cabin boy

to admiral and sailed the seven seas,

mapping and conqu’ring for his country’s good.”

(He waited on the ward room, was abused

by officers of rank and watched his chance.

He studied long between decks, gritting teeth.)

“He never lost his curiosity

about the nat’ral world. He was as fresh

and lively at eighty as at eighteen.”

(And the forced smile to quality. The hours

on watch alone, relieving rich middies,

upset of storm and boredom of the breeze).

“A pattern to all yeomen and town boys,

proof that true quality will rise and win

a place when equity’s the commonwealth.”

(In lace and epaulettes now, why complain?

All crews are politics and jockeying.

Pattern? But what he won was won by graft.)


The cheap Voltaire shot, then - no man hero

to his own valet, and sweat and pimples,

in hard close-up, trump nobility?

Law of mundanity. Work outwards from

the everyday, try constancy and see

spring water in the mud, quotidian good.

The flicked fly is a goad, the abacus

a measure of the real – that estate where

life falls and rises, easy as a breath.

The surface survey of an ancient street

pans its humanity and puts in place

an unreal antiquary theatre scene.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“ENLIGHTENMENT NOW” by Steven Pinker (Penguin/Random House – Allen Lane, $NZ40)

After I had finished reading Steven Pinker’s new big polemic Enlightenment Now (453 pages of text followed by 100 pages of endnotes, bibliography and index), I went back and checked on this blog the review I wrote, seven years ago, of his last big polemic The Better Angels of Our Nature. I found that I approved and had reservations about that earlier book in more-or-less the same proportions, and for the same reasons, as I do with Pinker’s new book. Put simply, Enlightenment Now (subtitled “The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress”) makes a very good case for the notion that the human condition has been greatly improved thanks to Enlightenment thinking and applied science. “Progress” is a great thing. But Pinker over-eggs his pudding by a very selective and partisan reading of history; and he has the dire habit of dividing our intellectual forebears into neat heroes and villains, a Manichaean view of history as simple black-and-white. As a lesser irritant Pinker also tends to see America as the template for the world – the copious statistics he quotes focus most on America – and there is a very hortatory tone to the book as if Pinker is not only the apologist for the Enlightenment but also its cheer-leader, much as he is a cheer-leader for liberal capitalism

But it is very unfair to arraign a polemicist for his sins before first presenting clearly the case that he makes.

So here, as I read it, is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s case.

Nature of itself tends to entropy – the degeneration of things into disorder and confusion. Only the human intellect can avert this pending state. The finest flowering of the human intellect began with the movement – initiated approximately three centuries ago – generally known as the Enlightenment. From the Enlightenment come nearly all the measurable material improvements in human life that can loosely be called “progress”. Progress and its handmaid technology have their intellectual enemies (see Chapter 4, “Progressophobia”). But, says Pinker, the case for progress is overwhelming. Thus in sixteen chapters (Chapters 5 to 20), and using his favourite tool, the statistical graph, Pinker sets out to prove how everything has got better in the last three centuries. On average, we live longer, have better health and enjoy plentiful and more varied food than we did in the un-Enlightened ages (Chapters 5, 6 and 7). Wealth has generally increased and this is not compromised by the fact that there is still great inequality (Chapters 8 and 9). Despite ecological fears, our environment is cleaner and there are means of dealing with threats like anthropogenic global warming (Chapter 10). Despite the image created by alarmist mass media, wars are fewer than they once were, as is social violence, and the dangers of terrorism are vastly overrated (Chapters 11, 12 and 13). Real democracy is growing, human rights are more respected and a greater number of human beings have education and access to real information than in any earlier period of history (Chapters 14, 15 and 16). Our general quality of life has improved, as have all measurable standards of happiness (Chapters 17 and 18). Yes, there may possibly be huge existential threats that could obliterate the Earth; but we are better equipped to deal with them than we have ever been (Chapter 19) and “progress” is far from being exhausted (Chapter 20). All this is thanks to science, the secularism initiated by the Enlightenment and the decline of religious belief.

In a nutshell, this is Pinker’s case.

For ease of your reading, I will now divide this notice neatly into two parts, to wit, the strengths and shrewd points of Pinker’s thesis; and the weaknesses and short-sightedness of elements of Pinker’s thesis.


There is much in this book with which any reader, regardless of ideology, should be able to agree. First, that the Enlightenment was a major turning point in human history. Second, that many of the scientific and social changes it encouraged have benefitted humanity. Of course I am grateful that I consult a modern doctor rather than a shaman, that medicine is now so advanced, that I enjoy electricity and easy access to learning and entertainment, that on the whole human and civil rights are expected to be observed, that more of the world is better fed and many other things.

Certainly Pinker’s relentlessly positive tone can become oppressive and tend to the Pollyanna-ish, as when, following a graph charting “Global well-being, 1820-1915” there comes the statement “although the world remains highly unequal, every region has been improving, and the worst-off parts of the world today are better off than the best-off parts not long ago. (If we divide the world into the West and the Rest, we find that the Rest in 2007 had reached the level of the West in 1950.)”  (Chapter 16, p.246). This seems to me to underrate a lot of human misery.

Certainly Pinker can come up with arguments that seem controversial; but on reflection they are quite tenable. For example, in Chapter 9 (pp.98-99) he argues that poverty is the world’s problem, not inequality and he agrees with Harry Frankfurt that “If a person lives a long, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much money the Joneses earn, how big their house is, and how many cars they drive are morally irrelevant.”  For Pinker, the important thing is that each has enough. His conclusion is that income inequality is not the same as lowering incomes and does not contradict his statistics on the general rise in standards of living. It is interesting to note, too, that Pinker is in favour of a universal basic income.

To Pinker’s great credit, however, he is not a utopian and he admits that he is dealing with averages rather than with absolutes. In the chapter called “The Future of Progress”, he quotes figures on the milions who still suffer from poverty, lethal diseases, war and autocratic states  and he states “progress is not utopia… and there is room – indeed, an imperative – for us to strive to continue… progress.” (Chapter 20, pp.325-326)

Like anybody who reads this book, I have to admit, too, that I warmed most to Pinker in those sections where he expresses views with which I am already in agreement.

            Pinker strikes many justifiable blows against various doomsayers. For example, in Chapter 7, and especially at pp.74-75, he shows how completely wrong Malthus, and alarmists like Paul Ehlich in his hysterical 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, were about growth of population outstripping food supply. Their predictions were, quite simply, wrong and they did not take account of the agricultural revolution which has vastly increased the yield of crops and made most of the world better fed than it was when total population was much smaller. Yet, as Pinker correctly says, there are still those who imagine, regardless of the evidence, that Malthus, Ehlich et al. have said the last word on the topic. In this same chapter, Pinker is – again justifiably - very hard on those environmentalists who oppose genetic engineering without recognising that human beings have practised it for millennia, and who thus show indifference to the alternative of mass starvation.

Chapter 10 tells us that the “Green apocalyse” has not yet happened. It argues that anthropogenic climate change is real but is capable of being reversed by wise policies and advanced technology. Hence Pinker argues strongly against Naomi Klein’s polemic This Changes Everything [reviewed on this blog in 2014], which said impending environmental doom called for the complete destruction of the capitalist system. Says Pinker:

Despite a half-century of panic, humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide. The fear of resource shortages is misconceived. So is the misanthropic environmentalism that sees modern humans as vile despoilers of a pristine planet. An enlightened environmentalism recognises that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consign them. It seeks to do so with the least harm to the planet and the living world. History suggests that this modern, pragmatic and humanistic environmentalism can work.”  (Chapter 10, p.154)

It is important to note that, considering “clean” and cheap methods of power generation, Pinker says some favourable things about nuclear power.

I warm most to Pinker when he attacks malign intellectual trends, some of which have taken root in academe. Considering measurable intelligence he says, correctly: “The myth, still popular among leftist intellectuals, that IQ doesn’t exist or cannot be reliably measured was refuted decades ago.” (Chapter 16, p.243) He is aware that the comforts and conveniences of life in an advanced state lead people to over-estimate the troubles they face. He quotes with approval the psychologist Richard McNally, who said “Civilians who underwent the terror of World War II, especially Nazi death factories… would surely be puzzled to learn that having a wisdom tooth extracted, encountering obnoxious jokes at work, or giving birth to a healthy baby after an uncomplicated delivery can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”. Pinker himself goes on to say “By the same shift, the label ‘depression’ today may be applied to conditions that in the past were called grief, sorrow or sadness.” (Chapter 18, p.281)

Most malign intellectual trend of all, of course, is the nonsense of postmodernism. In the chapter entitled “Reason”, Pinker is mainly concerned with what he sees as the enemies of reason. He indicts “the postmodernist credo that reason is a pretext to exert power, reality is socially constructed, and all statements are trapped in a web of self-reference and collapse into paradox.” (Chapter 21, p.351) He also makes the interesting point that when it comes to many issues involving science – such as anthropogenic climate change – people who admit to its existence and people who deny its existence are not divided by how well they understand the science, but by their political ideology and whom they trust. (Chapter 21, p.357). In effect, he is admitting a point I tried to make somewhat clumsily a few years ago on this blog, in a posting I called SecularSuperstition. To hold an allegiance to science is not the same as being scientifically informed, meaning that a great mass of people respect “authority” just as they did in pre-Enlightenment days.

Naturally Pinker is very angry at those who blame science itself for the world’s woes, and again this allows him to take another mighty whack at the postmodernist school. Thus he speaks of:

a demonization campaign  which impugns science (together with reason and other Enlightenment values) for crimes that are as old as civilisation, including racism, slavery, conquest, and genocide. This was a major theme of the influential Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, the quasi-Marxist movement originated by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who proclaimed that ‘the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant’. It also figures in the works of postmodernist theorists such as Michel Foucault, who argued that the Holocaust was the inevitable culmination of a ‘bio-politics’ that began with the Enlightenment, when science and rational governance exerted increasing power over people’s lives. In a similar vein, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman blamed the Holocaust on the Enlightenment ideal to ‘remake the society, force it to conform to an overall, scientifically conceived plan.’ In this twisted narrative, the Nazis themselves are let off the hook (‘It’s modernity’s fault!’). So is the Nazis’ rabidly counter-Enlightenment ideology, which despised the degenerate liberal bourgeois worship of reason and progress and embraced an organic, pagan vitality which drove the struggle between races.”   (Chapter 22, pp. 396-397)

I could cite many other proof-texts to show where I agree with Pinker, but this process will become wearisome to you, so I will add one last one. Though he is clearly very uncomfortable in Donald Trump’s United States, and though he has absolutely no time for the nationalist and racist populism of the extreme right, Pinker has the intellectual honesty to note that populism is an ailment of both left and right:

Populism comes in left-wing and right-wing varieties, which share a folk-theory of economics as zero-sum competition: between economic classes in the case of the left, between nations of ethnic groups in the case of the right. Problems are not seen as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious elites, minorities and foreigners.”  (Chapter 20, p.334)

I hope this is enough to show that I have read Pinker’s book with an open mind and, on many issues, with a willingness to agree with him.

Alas, we now come to the second part of this review.


            There is something in the very tone of Pinker’s work that should put us on guard. He is so determined to tell us how well-off we now are, in contrast with earlier eras, that he frequently rebukes us for not being more grateful. He is offended that so many people do not genuflect in wonderment at the technologically-advanced, humane, Enlightenment-influenced world we live in. He is doubly offended that so many people cannot make Enlightenment ideas themselves the focus and centre of their being.

            Why should this so clearly offend Pinker? Partly, I think, because as a devout atheist (he happily speaks at “Freedom from Religion” meetings) he is very loath to acknowledge the “God-sized hole” in modern human consciousness (a term which, of course, he despises). I must use my words very carefully here. I accept fully the idea that people can have fulfilling, meaningful and satisfying lives without in any way being religious. Indeed I accept that reasoned atheism can be meaningful and satisfying, and become a goal in itself. Even so, when personal autonomy is posited as the essential goal of life (see Chapter 18, p.265), we have a disconnect from our fellow human beings and much alienation. Much as we are grateful for them, all the material comforts in the world cannot solve this problem. Indeed, I wonder if Pinker would have even written this polemic if he had not been jibed by the fact that greatly improved material progress has still left many in advanced countries with a sense of emptiness which he is unhappy to recognise and which, for his own ideological reasons, he is unwilling to acknowledge?

            Further to this, I think Pinker is annoyed at the phenomenon I have elsewhere called the “law of mundanity”. In the chapter called “Quality of Life”, Pinker tells us we should be happy for having more varied diets, more leisure time, more access to great literature. He continues:

What are the people doing with the extra time and money?Are they truly enriching their lives or are they just buying more golf clubs and designer handbags? Though it’s presumptuous to pass judgment on how people choose to spend their days, we can focus on the pursuits that almost everyone would agree are constituents of the good life: connecting with loved ones and friends, experiencing the richness of the natural and cultural world, and having access to the fruits of intellectual and artisitc creativity.” (Chapter 17, p. 255)

But here the “law of mundanity” kicks in. In any era, no matter how well off we are, the daily reality we live with becomes taken-for-granted normality. This is as true in wealthy, well-fed, violence-free societies as in any other. (I do not say this to deny the desirability of material well-being.) Hence we do not sigh each day in amazement and gratitude that we have flush-lavatories and excellent plumbing, reliable medicine, good food etc.etc. “Law of mundanity”. It is a feature of being human, and Steven Pinker can neither reason nor hector us out of it by telling us, like a careworn mother, to eat our food and be grateful.

Pinker has a very skewed and limited view of history and of how what he would call “progress” actually happens. This is bound up with his view of religion. For him, religion (along with the Romantic movement) is part of what he calls the “counter-Enlightenment”, and is characterised solely by obscurantism, crusades, inquisitions, wars of religion etc. Of all the opponents of Enlightenment, he says, “the most obvious is religious faith. To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” (Chapter 3, p.30) He is therefore bound to assume that religion cannot go with reason, and by extension that religious people are prone to being unreasonable. They therefore cannot be part of his version of Enlightenment.

            But he is then forced into some fancy footwork when having to face up to the fact that avowedly atheist regimes in our own times have been responsible for huge atrocities. So he claims “obviously atheism is not a moral system in the first place. It’s just the absence of supernatural belief… the moral alternative to theism is humanism.” (Chapter 23, p.430) (In passing one notes that he uses the term “humanism” is a very restricted sense, never once noting that the term was first used in the Renaissance – a term that never appears in this book – of mainly Christian thinkers like Erasmus and Thomas More.) The result appears to be that Pinker approves of no religious believers and only of those atheists who share all his world view. There is a great defensiveness to this argument, as there is in Chapter 22 (“Science”) when Pinker attempts to extricate science from such negative movements as eugenics.

Most obviously, however, the result of Pinker’s bias is to expunge from his record such religious believers as have contributed to what we would agree is the betterment of humanity. Here is Pinker on evolution:

 “Organisms are replete with improbable configurations of flesh like ears, eyes, hearts and stomachs which cry out for an explanation. Before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided one in 1859, it was reasonable to think that they were the handiwork of a divine designer – one of the reasons, I suspect, that so many Enlightenment thinkers were deists rather than outright atheists. Darwin and Wallace made the designer unnecessary.” (Chapter 2, p.18) As one who accepts evolution by natural selection as the best hypothesis we have for the development of species, I find this statement incomplete, quite apart from its assumption that evolution spells the end of God. Remember, when Darwin and Russell first presented their hypotheses, it was not only hidebound Biblical literalists who criticised them. There was also a cohort of genuine scientists who said that neither man had explained the mechanism of evolution sufficiently for it to be credible. Their doubts were answered only when that branch of science known as genetics began. But there is no mention of this, perhaps because – oops! – the founder of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was one of those pesky religious people – a Catholic monk no less. Well we can’t let him into our story of the triumph of science and Enlightenment.

 On p.162, Pinker lists the major voices of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment who opposed slavery. The names he gives are Pascal, Swift, Voltaire, Samuel Johnson and the Quakers. With the exception of the deist Voltaire, all of these people were religious believers. [I noted this in my review of The Better Angels of Our Nature, where Pinker cited the same names in the same context]. Even more interesting, if you read James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (perhaps Pinker hasn’t), you will discover that it is the free-thinking man of the Enlightenment, James Boswell, who finds all manner of ingenious arguments for slavery, while it is the conservative Anglican Tory Sam Johnson who argues passionately against slavery. I definitely do NOT say this to absolve religious believers of all their many gross and manifest sins, but simply to show that one cannot attribute all the betterment of the world to one selected tribe.

I am wholly in agreement with Pinker when he damns the destructive philosophy of Friedrich Nietszche, with its Ubermensch fantasies and it thuggish “Will to Power”; but I do find it interesting that Pinker manages to discuss Nietzsche without once mentioning his militant atheism (“God is dead”). Let us be clear that Nietzsche was the first big-note atheist of the modern era. With similar selective delicacy (or amnesia), Pinker lists all the intellectuals who, following Nietzsche’s lead, have worshipped tyrants like Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Castro etc. , but he manages not to mention that the great majority of them [there were very few exceptions] were secular humanists and not religious believers (see Chapter 23, pp.446-447). Indeed most of these listed intellectuals would have regarded themselves as children of the Enlightenment. Don’t worry though. Within a few pages, Pinker is having a well-deserved go at the “theocons” (mainly fundmentalist and evangelical Protestants) who have exerted populist pressure on recent US elections, so he can console himself that only religious people do this bad stuff. His justified polemics against anti-Enlightenment, retrogressive Islam must have helped him affirm his anti-religion views.

My chief complaint here, then, is that Pinker is too prone to divide the history of the betterment of humanity into two teams, basically the saved and the damned. On this side there are all those good secular humanists who embrace humane values, love and understand science and use reason. On that side there are all those horrible religious people who are incapable of reasoning, contribute nothing to science and devote themselves to various forms of “counter-Enlightenment”. Oh yeah, and there are a few nasty atheists too (Marxists, postmodernists etc.)

To give one last example of Pinker’s tendency to create teams, take this statement, with which, in the main, I heartily agree. Pinker condemns “a long tradition of cultural and religious elites sneering at the supposedly empty lives of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Cultural criticism can be a thinly disguised snobbery that shades into misanthropy. In The Intellectuals and the Masses, the critic John Carey shows how the British literary intelligentsia in the first decades of the 20th century harboured a contempt for the common person which bordered on the genocidal.” (Chapter 17, p.247) True, but if you take the trouble to read Carey’s book, you will find that the people Carey most decries are the Bloomsberries, all of whom would all have (like those admirers of modern tyrants) regarded themselves as children of the Enlightenment opposing religion, tradition and so forth just as Pinker does.

But enough. You are weary of this by now, and my arguments are becoming as repetitive as Pinker’s own. I reaffirm that I find much to agree with in Enlightenment Now. Yes, material progress is beneficial, science and reason are good things and [probably] the mass of humanity are better off now than they have ever been, while admitting that there is still much poverty and strife in the world. Further, I enjoyed many of the swipes Pinker takes at postmodernism, hysterical doomsayers, Nietzsche and various other people who have exerted a malign influence. But by his own partiality and biases, Pinker paints a very limited picture of how progress and material betterment happen, assumes that everything beneficial in the last three hundred years has been achieved by secular humanists like himself, ignores anything beneficial in history before the Enlightenment, and divides humanity into neatly-competing teams of the enlightened and the unenlightened.

I hope I have enlightened you.