Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin

Ecology and Nature Mysticism

Growing up in the countryside gave me a different perspective on life. Life around me changed with the seasons. As a child I was aware of the change with the seasons, but the reason for that change remained largely inexplicable. In spring I eagerly waited for the first signs of change in nature. The solitary snowdrop hiding under a tree, the bursting into bloom of the ma and the appearance of hazel nuts on the trees, each indicating the onset of a different season. Although I knew at an early age this was due to changes in the position of the sun, the process of change in nature still seemed a mysterious process. Primary school science was not sufficient to explain the changes in the moods of nature. None of the adults I knew could explain the sudden changes in the weather, why did a bright summer’s day suddenly darken with storm clouds which would erupt into a sudden downpour. An uncontrollable force which could disrupt people’s lives. The eruption of the storm would instantly change people’s lives. In a fierce thunderstorm people would take cover, as the fierce rain made work impossible. Storms demonstrated not only the power of nature and the insignificance of man, but also its mystery. How did the cows know long in advance that a storm was coming? Hours before it arrived they would sit down in a group, nobody could explain to me how the cows knew or why they sat in a group? Was it some primeval instinct that was necessary for the survival of the primeval wild cattle that roamed the land. Living the country you learned to accept the mystery and power of nature, us dwarfish beings had no choice to the live and work according to the rhythms of nature.

Our village church steeped in human history as it was, also gave testament to the power and majesty of nature. The purpose of the steeple I was told was to show distant travellers that there was human habitation here, a civilised Christian place, were shelter could be found in a storm. At the entrance to the church, at the lych gate were two ancient yews. Planted we were told to provide yew for the English bows, used by the archers at Agincourt and the other battles of the Hundred Years War. In fact this was a lie, concealing there real purpose, a purpose dating back to pre-Christian times. Now thought to either provide protection against evil spirits, or more likely due to their great age, seen to provide a link to the underworld and the Gods thereof. Just their survival and purpose added to the mystery, as when planted these yew trees would have served little practical purpose, as their berries were poisonous to livestock.

Rather than being frightened I grew to love the power and magic of nature. I loved being out in storms witnessing their power. How trees bent, swayed and buckled beneath the wind. Being careful to avoid elms, as they were notorious for shedding their branches without warning. Even in good weather countrymen were wary of elms, often keeping a safe distance from them.

Heraclitus to me sums up the essence of nature, when he said that ‘nature loves to hide’. Nature or the essence that is nature hides in plain sight. I know yet don’t know nature. To the Greeks nature was a Goddess Isis, who hid behind her veil. This was how I experienced nature, I could see the changes taking place, trees getting leaves in spring and shedding them in autumn, yet feeling that I did not really understand what was happening. Possibly I have too much of the country mans’ acceptance of what is, knowing that I cannot change it. Although I have an understanding of biology, quantum physics, chemistry, I cannot shake to the belief that these come together in a something that is both unknowable and knowable. What I have to admit to a knowledge of a thing that I cannot express in the language of ordinary or scientific discourse. Poetry with its ability to give a sense of what lies behind the words is perhaps better suited for this task.

Goethe expressed this sentiment far better. When he wrote “A.Humboldt sent me the translation of his Essay on the Geography of Plants with a flattering illustration that implies Poetry, too might lift the veil of Nature.” What he was referring to was an illustration in the book of the God Apollo unveiling the Goddess of Nature at whose feet lay a copy of Goethe’s book ‘The metamorphosis of Plants’.

What I believe is that there are many valid modes of understanding. Jaspers and Benjamin expressed this in similar but different ways. Jaspers said there are many ways to the truth. He was thinking of the stories, parables and myths of Christianity that can express the truths of that religion in a manner that is impossible through the use of reason and rational discourse. When writing of the task of the translator, Benjamin said there was but one universal language, but one that could be expressed in different senses according to which spoken language was used. He gives the following example the French call bread pan and the Germans call it brod. They are both describing the same thing, but subtle differences in what they mean when they use the respective terms. Can not my nature mysticism and biological discourse be equally valid, are not the both expressing equally valid senses of what is understood as nature? What is being described, explained or understood are two different sensory experiences that need not be contradictory. Does not ecology suggest a reconciliation of the two experiences. Ecologists have a sound scientific understanding of nature, yet they also experience a sense of the wholeness of nature. A natural order that they wish to preserve through application of their scientific knowledge to prevent the catastrophe that the anthropocene threatens. A threat that can be simply illustrated in the words of my father a former old countryman. He said looking at a field full of cattle, does not the farmer realise that there are too many cows in that field and that many cows will destroy the drainage system and turn the field into a muddy mess. He was right the industrial farmer inflicted irrevocable damage on that field significantly reducing its value as pastureland.

Why are our leaders so stupid?

What puzzles me is why are people such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson so popular. The first advocates the policies of a clown and the second pretends to be a clown to achieve political success.

When I was at school in the 1950s I remember being told about Columbus’s voyage to America. The Headmistress told us that it was a particularly daring adventure, as people at the time believed the world was flat and thought that Columbus was in danger of falling off the edge of the world. The  truth was very different as I discovered later. Columbus was an experienced sailor who knew about the fishing grounds off North America that European sailors visited each year that the Atlantic Ocean was bounded by a large landmass to the West. Also it was known at this time that the earth was round. The classical Greeks had realised that the earth was round because they knew there was a horizon, beyond which the eye could not see, therefore  the earth surface must be curved.If was the geographer Eratosthenes (276BC to 195/4 BC)  who calculated with an incredible degree of accuracy the earth’s circumference. It is highly unlikely that Columbus was unaware of that the earth was round. My teacher was typical of those of the time that believed that people of the past had a childlike understanding of the world, whereas in fact the opposite was true.

We assume today that our knowledge and understanding is superior to that of the past. Yet our politicians constantly disapprove this notion. In the USA Donald Trump is likely to become the Republican Party’s candidate for the Presidency and Boris Johnson possible future Conservative Party leader What both these leading politicians have in common is an anti-intellectualism, both of them in their campaigns seek to  appeal to most primeval of voters instincts. Trump blames the Mexicans for crime and wants to erect a wall to keep them out, and Johnson believes that Obama’s part Kenyan ancestry makes him anti British, because of the injustices the British inflicted on Kenyans during the days of Empire. To say that both these politicians are intelligent men who are just using anti immigrant and anti foreigner feeling to win support and that they don’t really believe what they are saying does these two men a disservice, they believe what they are saying. They are both populists who believe in simple solutions to difficult and complex problems, both of them personify the  anti-intellectualism which is dominant in the our society. The political dialogue in both countries is dominated by the anti-intellectualism of those such as the Tea Party whose policies are moving closer to the mainstream in both countries. UKIP a party that gets much media coverage seems to be campaigning for things such as ending the smoking ban in pubs. Sam Goldwyn once  said a movie never lost money for underestimating the intelligence of the average cinema goer, now in politics the belief is that no politician ever fails for underestimating the intelligence of the average voter. There is a change in society that has made stupid politics the dominant strand. Possibility it is linked to Walter Benjamin’s insight (when writing about the cinema) that contemporary media  leaves little time or scope for reflection, as the media image is all involving leaving no opportunity for distancing necessary for reflecting on the projected image.

If I was to compare contemporary England with medieval England, I would say that the former is technically sophisticated but intellectually unsophisticated. This is not to say that there are not a community of intellectuals whose thinking is far superior to that of those of the medieval era, but these people are excluded from the public debate, which is dominated by the advocates of stupid politics. Obviously Trump and Johnson are not stupid men, they just find a politics of idiocy the most effective means of self promotion. What is most disturbing is that these men intend to pursue the policies they advocate, without regard to the damage caused to society through the introduction of their simplistic policies.

As an economist I can see the dangers of practising stupid politics. Britain has endured years of austerity because the government believes in a nonsense called ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, that is cutting government expenditure will increase growth. Despite this policy having no economic credibility the opposition’s chief economics spokesman, a man who had a top class degree in economics from Oxbridge immediately signed up to the policy. Knowing it was fallacious economics made no difference, he did not want to appear out of step in with all the others who were practising stupid politics. Bonhoeffer said that the success of the Nazi’s was due to fact that good people did not speak up, similarly stupid politics is prevailing because the intelligent do not speak up. In England it is the noise and abuse made by the practitioners of stupid politics that scares of the intelligent when we most need them.

Intelligent women for example are put of entering the English Parliament because of the sexist behaviour in the bear pit that is the House of Commons. When female opposition MPs speak, male MPs on the government benches often  make crude sexual gestures with their hands and shout sexist abuse. Also any show of intelligence is likely to get a politician pilloried in the tabloid press as a geek, as happened to the last leader of the opposition. Anti-intellectualism is rife in the English political culture and it’s preventing intelligent government.

What really provoked me into writing this article was a tweet by the illusionist Derren Brown, in which he referenced a You Tube in which two evangelical preachers explain why it is necessary for them to own private executive jets. One says it is so he can get some quiet time in which to talk to God, as he would be unable to do that on a flight with other passengers who would disturb him. Christ when he wanted a quiet place for meditation found a quiet spot in a garden or in the countryside, surely these two men could have done the same. These two men are Christian literalists they believe that the bible is the word of God and that all should to obey the word of God as explained in the bible. These two Christian literalists are following a practice condemned as being wrong as far back s the early Middle Ages. St. Augustine in his book on Christian teaching explained that the bible should not be taken literally, the word of the bible required explanation by the Christian teacher. Following St. Augustine’s advice all medieval bibles contained commentaries on the page side by side with the biblical text. These commentaries were there for the preacher to help him explain the text to the people. What these evangelical preachers are doing is practising a type of Christianity that even the least educated of medieval priests would have recognised as wrong. If these men had been medieval clerics they would have been relegated to some obscure rural parish where they could have done little harm. Yet these men are seen as representative of true Christian belief, religion seems to mirror the practice of stupid politics.

This simplistic religious view of the world that divides the world up into good and bad guys is very influential. George Bush’s crusade against the evil of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is representative of good versus bad guy politics. Isis and other Islamic fundamentalist groups embody the same good bad guy philosophy. A philosophy that justifies the cruel treatment of all unbelievers whether they be Christian, Yazidi or Shia Muslim, as they are already condemned by God for rejecting the true religion and as such are wordless people. One of the main targets for Islamic fundamentalists are the Sufi Muslims who practice a more sophisticated and humane religion. The simplistic belief of the fundamentalists contrasts unfavourably with the sophisticated Islam of the medieval  period as demonstrated in the poetry of the Rumi  (1207-73) or the philosophy of Averroes (1126-1198). Christian thinkers owed much to these men, Francis of Assisi’s thinking was greatly influenced by the poetry of Rumi. Depressingly anti-intellectualism is not only a feature of Western politics but also in the politics of much of the Muslim world.

There are many sophisticated and intelligent clerics today but they do not get a hearing in today, because their speech is too subtle and nuanced for a world that wants simple truths. Rowan Williams the very intellectual former Archbishop of Canterbury was pilloried in the press as a bearded weirdy. They were not interested in the message from an educated Christian, for them Christianity is that of the simple minded fundamentalists.

There is no doubt that the public appetite is for stupid thinking, there is a wanting for people offering a few simple homespun truths that they claim will solve the world’s ills. Does not the constant diet of super hero films coming out of Hollywood demonstrate that something is very wrong in our culture? Hollywood appears to have opted out of making adult films, as it has correctly judged that the audience for its films want simple child like stories. The only hope is that the world particularly the Western world will tire of simple childlike stories and politics. When politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson get chance to put into practice their childlike policy solutions and those policies prove to be a resounding failure, the pendulum will surely swing in favour of a more grown up politics.