Singular First Person

26 Oct

Many years ago, as a student of English Literature I was told to go and write an essay about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

I tend to feel quite smug about that essay, because I got a pretty good mark for it and (just for a change) my tutor seemed to think I was being quite perceptive. (Her normal feeling seemed to be that I was quite good at identifying interesting issues and then veering away from them without managing to say anything very interesting about them).

One of the insights I had to offer was in my essay was the suggestion that Conrad’s decision to write Heart of Darkness as a first person narrative was crucial to the success of the novel as a whole.

(It should be noted that there really isn’t any such thing as a typical Joseph Conrad novel. He often wrote stories about the sea, but having said that he ranged freely across different styles, techniques and themes and if you’ve read one of his books and you didn’t like it, then it’s probably worth having a look at some of his other stuff, because you never know your luck).

In particular, I suggested that Conrad’s use of a first person narrative not only allowed him to be suitably vague about the exact setting of the story, but also allowed him to leave out a lot of the boring scene setting stuff and concentrate on what he really wanted to write about.

These points might not seem very important, but I think they are.

Heart of Darkness is a very short, economical story and one of the key elements of the novel is a sense of disorientation. A key scene in the novel occurs when the river boat is travelling through a heavy fog and Marlowe describes his feeling of losing any sense not only of place, but also of time. Earlier in the story, Marlowe also talks of being feverish at times and there’s something of the hallucination about the whole story.

Had Conrad settled for the third person narrative, which he used to great effect elsewhere, it’s difficult to believe that he could have achieved either the brevity or the dreamlike quality so essential to this novel.

So first person narrative is a useful device for creating atmosphere and also for limiting the amount of information available to the reader. By definition that reader can only be told what the narrator knows and what the narrator chooses to tell. (By contrast a third person narrator is effectively omniscient and attempts by authors to create uncertainty about ‘perhaps this’ or ‘maybe that’ always seems pretty artificial to me).

This makes first person narrative particularly effective for thrillers that depend on a careful balance between what is concealed and what is revealed to the reader in order to build towards a (hopefully) unexpected denouement. So it’s no big surprise that Raymond Chandler used first person narrative in all his novels and most of his short stories or that Dashiell Hammett used it in his ‘Continental Op’ stories (although, surprisingly not in some of his best novels eg The Maltese Falcon).

Even Agatha Christie (who generally used 3rd person narrative) used it from time to time and most memorably in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in order to produce a really nice little plot twist that I must admit I didn’t see coming. (No spoilers here – if you want to know what happens, read the book).

Another useful effect of a first person narrative is to make a character who might seem bland to most observers much more interesting by revealing his, or her, inner life in a particularly vivid manner.

Adam Hall does this especially well in his ‘Quiller’ novels, which are based on a highly professional ‘spy’ (he refers to himself as an ‘executive’) who cultivates anonymity as a key tool of his trade. (He works for ‘The Bureau’ – which has no official existence and unlike James Bond he’s not specially handsome, doesn’t cultivate a particularly glamorous lifestyle, doesn’t drink, smoke, gamble or get on first name terms with bartenders and head waiters).

What makes Quiller distinctive is his perverse, quirky, often bloody minded and possibly borderline psychotic personality. What is also innovative about the Quiller novels in contrast with the James Bond books is that Quiller has little trust and no affection for his employers. They give him what he needs, the kid of work he lives for, but he tends to refer to The Bureau as ‘The Sacred Bull’ (from which so much sacred bullshit flows). The clear implication of this term being that The Bureau is some kind of dark and oppressive deity that demands its regular tribute of

blood sacrifice.

Much like the classic PI in a hard boiled detective story, Quiller goes into his missions with just enough information to function – and often having been misled or manipulated into taking a job that he would never have taken on if he’d known what was involved. He often describes himself as a ferret who’s been sent down a rabbit hole, but usually with the implication that he might well run into something a lot more dangerous than a rabbit. All in all this setting creates an edgy, contrast between the concrete reality of what Quiller does and how he does it and the uncertainty of the background to what he’s doing. (This always includes the possibility that Quiller will be betrayed by his own people).

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this kind of effect using a 3rd person narrative, but where Adam Hall is particularly innovative in his use of first person narrative is in his action sequences. He has written some of the best fight scenes in popular fiction in my opinion, so much so the Eric von Lustbader was clearly inspired ( if that’s the word) to use a very similar style in thrillers like The Ninja).

What Adam Hall does in his action scenes is to use a fragmented, kaleidoscopic style that allows a very concise, immediate style and also reflects the vivid confusion that most people experience in a violent situation. (Most of us haven’t been involved in terminal confrontation with a professional killer, but if you think of any time you might have played a contact sport, or been involved in a car crash, you’ll probably get the idea).

It has to be said that Charlotte Brontë (whatever her other virtues as an author) is not generally noted for her vivid and innovative action sequences, but in Villette she did use first person narrative to achieve some of the same effects I’ve been describing in Adam Hall’s work.

Villette is a novel told from the point of view of Lucy Snowe. (Who, on the face of it has very little in common with Quiller, but she is also an individual who is somewhat at odds with her environment and the people around her. In addition, she tends to have a very low profile, although in her case this is not always a matter of choice, and she has little trust or affection for her employer. She is also stubborn, perverse and has a distinctly rebellious streak at times).

So what we have in Lucy Snowe is a not desperately pretty heroine who is really quite peripheral to the lives of those around her. She may depend on them to some extent, but for the most part they could get along quite nicely without her.

What, perhaps, makes her most like Quiller is the disconnect between her public persona and her private personality. The people who think they know her would be shocked rigid if they only knew what she was thinking and feeling. (Some, in fact, might be surprised to discover that she thinks and feels at all).

Where Lucy Snowe shows her character most clearly is where she hides and distorts information. For example, there is an idyllic, extended description of her passage across the English Channel that comes to an abrupt halt with the instruction to ‘cancel’ all that. Snowe then goes on to describe the truly miserable crossing that she actually experienced. She is also not above concealing significant information for a chapter or two for no obvious reason than her own perversity.

Of all the women in Victorian fiction, I think Lucy Snowe is my favourite.

Of course the last, and possibly best, reason for using first person narrative is simply that sometimes your characters speak in more interesting voices than you can.

This was certainly James M Cain’s reason. (For those who don’t recognise the name, James M. Cain vies with Ross MacDonald – author of The Moving Target, which was filmed with Paul Newman as Harper – for the title of The Other Great Writer of Hardboiled Crime Stories – alongside Raymond Chandler and Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Or to be a little more factual, he was the author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice).

Allow me to quote from the Author’s Preface to Double Indemnity.

…for ten years (I) resigned myself to the conviction that I couldn’t write a novel… I didn’t seem to have the least idea where I was going with it, or even which paragraph should follow which. But my short stories, which were put in the mouth of some character, marched right along, for if I in the third person faltered and stumbled, my characters in the first person knew perfectly well what they wanted to say.

So there you are; James M. Cain found that his characters were better storytellers than he was and he stepped aside to let them do the talking.

Of course there are problems with using a first person narrative. You can’t really jump from one character’s perspective to the another without using some kind of device. (eg Wilkie Collin’s use of written testimony from a series of characters in The Moonstonea device that I think he pulled off quite well but which I felt Bram Stoker struggled with in Dracula).

There is also the fact that if you’re writing from a first person perspective you have a certain theoretical lack of tension in as much as the reader ‘knows’ that the narrator can’t really get killed until he/she has fished telling the story. (Although you can get round that if you really try – see Sunset Boulevard). Of course this lack of tension is strictly theoretical. What a reader knows intellectually has little to do with how they respond to fiction, otherwise they wouldn’t respond to fiction at all.

Another problem is that in writing a first person narrative, you can feel quite exposed. Essentially you can maintain far more detachment from your central character as a 3rd person narrator.

On the other hand, to paraphrase someone I used to know; the more personal your writing is the more universal it becomes. And of course, you can’t make your writing personal unless you’re willing to take a few risks.

Stuck in the Middle with Who?

19 Oct

A story appeared in the media some time ago about what was reported to have been a near riot between rival groups of fans when two conventions, one of Dr Who fans, the other of Star Trek fans, were booked into adjoining facilities.

On closer examination it seems that, while there may well have been some tensions between some of the attendees at the conventions, the whole thing was actually something of a non-story. (Concocted, one assumes, by some tedious media hack who wouldn’t have known an Andorian from an android or a Sontaran from a Silurian.

Having said that both Whovians and Trekkers can certainly be quite intense, and those who get their jollies from soaps and ‘reality’ TV programmes are not very likely to understand them or to sympathise. (Although some of them can be equally intense about their favourite TV programmes).

To a degree I do understand both Whovians and Trekkers, I like both shows and I have no interest in running down either in order to praise the other. So I sympathise with both, although I wouldn’t identify myself as either and I suppose that, kind of, leaves me stuck in the middle.

Which, pursuant to my persistent tendency towards heresy, leads me to make a confession.

You see, the sad and shameful fact is that I really like Babylon 5.

As I’ve already said, I have no interest in running down anyone else’s favourite show, so all I really want to do is to say a little bit about why I like Babylon 5. If that encourages someone else to take a look at it, then that’s fine. If you’re still not interested, then that’s also fine. I don’t proselytise.

I’d have to admit that my initial reaction to Babylon 5 wasn’t necessarily one of immediate, rapturous immersion. I seem to recall making some comment along the lines of ‘first episodes are always tricky’. (It was a quirk of Channel 4 scheduling that they started off with Episode 1 ‘Midnight on the Firing Line’ as opposed to the feature length pilot ‘The Gathering’ – and in a way I’m glad they did, there were some pretty serious changes made between the pilot and the first season).

With hindsight I’m not sure why I was quite so lukewarm about this first episode, because having watched it again (more than once) I now find that I like it quite a lot. I suppose it does have a lot of characters and a relatively complicated setting to introduce in it’s 50 minute running time and that takes time that can’t be used for other things. On the other hand it’s well written and well acted, with interesting characters doing interesting things for reasons that pretty much make sense. It also look pretty good, although I have read comments from viewers who were distinctly unimpressed by the special effects. (My years spent watching classic Who and Trek were not wasted, I’ve learned to be tolerant of iffy special effects if only the ideas, the story and the characters are interesting).

So maybe I was just being a bit over cautious.

But I suppose it doesn’t matter, because I decided to stick with the show and over the next few years I did a pretty good job of catching each episode as it was broadcast, in spite of Channel 4s increasingly erratic scheduling decisions. I suppose Channel 4 never really valued Babylon 5. Initially it had a discreet slot on Monday evenings just before the news at 7.00 pm. (This was quite convenient for me, because it gave me time to get home from work, make something the eat and sit in front of the TV munching away as I caught up with the latest from the last of the Babylon stations). Later on B5 was moved to the wee small hours of Sunday night, which is when my VCR came into it’s own. (Yes, this was pre DVD or iPlayer and its equivalents). And this is how I came to miss the only half episode that I didn’t manage to see during this one and only complete run of all five seasons on terrestrial TV.

Essentially there was a spot of confusion as the scheduling of one of the episodes which resulted in the loss of about twenty minutes of the programme. Irritating.

By the time the last season was being broadcast, regular viewers (and I assume I wasn’t the only one) were having to play ‘hunt the schedule’ to find the next episode.

When Crusade (the short lived spin off) was shown, I suspect only a handful of us managed to see any of it because it appeared in the early hours of the morning with exactly no fanfare or publicity at all. I suspect Channel 4 bought it as part of a job lot or something and had no interest in promoting it at all.

Since this original showing on Channel 4, there has been a brief rerun of some of season 1 in the early morning over the Christmas period one year and since then nothing at all on terrestrial TV. I believe it was shown on one of the digital channels a few years ago, but if you live in the UK and you’re interested, you’d probably better watch it on DVD or maybe you can download it.

So Babylon 5 is a bit of a minority interest. And this extends even to one of the BBC’s Sci Fi nights where a good deal of time was spent (quite rightly) on Star Trek and Dr Who and time was also devoted to Sapphire and Steel and Lost in Space, but Babylon 5 was never even mentioned. (The irony here is that they had an interview with Bill Mumy – who was a regular as a child actor in Lost in Space, but who also featured in Babylon 5). Bit odd that.

But anyway, rather than griping about all this, maybe it would make more sense to suggest why the uninitiated might care to take an interest in the series.

To start with Babylon 5 depended very heavily on CGI and this gave the series a very distinctive look. A look that I always liked, but I suppose not everyone would.

There was also a decision made at a very early stage to avoid having aliens with ‘crinkly foreheads’. (Possibly a reference to Michael Westmore’s work on Star Trek Next Generation). This is a decision that may well have been regretted later on, given the amount of work involved in creating the aliens for B5, but I think it paid off.

There were some attempts, notably in the pilot and season 1 to use CGI and animatronic aliens. These attempts were largely abandoned as the series developed because humans in prosthetics gave better performances. (This is where it’s worth giving an honourable mention to Wayne Alexander who seemed to build a whole career out of playing a variety of aliens on B5 and consistently delivering nuanced and complex performances generally from under thick layers of latex).

It’s also worth giving an honourable mention to Christopher Franke (of Tangerine Dream fame) who scored all 5 seasons after Stuart Copeland (notable for his contribution to Police and the sound track of Rumblefish) was unavailable after providing the score for the feature length pilot.

Basically what Christopher Franke provided was effectively a separate score for each episode. (He did re-use some themes etc so that amounted to an average of 25 minutes of original music per episode. A lot of this work was based on his own keyboards but he was also innovative in his use of digital technology in order to incorporate the Berlin Symphonic Film Orchestra as and when the budget allowed).

But that’s all just technical stuff and it doesn’t address the question of why Babylon 5 is the TV Sci Fi series that I keep going back to again and again.

Well, the reason for that I suppose, is because in my view J. Michael Sraczynski and his

collaborators created a remarkably complete and complex universe.

(Doubtless Trekkers and Whovians will make the same claim for Star Trek and Dr Who and I do recognise that this is all very nebulous and subjective). But the point remains that Babylon 5 somehow created a sense of a universe that you could live in and in which you could hop onto a space ship and fly off somewhere and see some really amazing and unexpected things.

This B5 universe is not necessarily as optimistic as the one created by Gene Roddenberry. It’s a universe where humans aren’t much more enlightened (if at all) than they are now, and it’s a universe where humans aren’t by any means dominant.

In B5, humans rank somewhere in the same ballpark with the Narn and Centauri, at least in military and economic terms. That puts them somewhere about two thirds of the way up the totem pole, which is somewhere above most of the non-aligned worlds, somewhere below the Minbari and well below the Vorlons, who start off scary and get distinctly scarier as the series progresses. (And that’s before we even start on the Shadows but we’re not getting into spoilers here).

This is in marked contrast to Star Trek where there are certainly older and more advanced civilisations, notably the Vulcans, but somehow humans tend to be dominant. (This isn’t a criticism, just a comparison).

Another of the key differences between B5 and Star Trek can be summed up in the question asked by Galen of Mathew Gideon in the spin off Crusade.

“Who do you serve and who do you trust?”

Gideon has no answer to this question (it’s partly this lack of an easy answer that persuades Galen to join him). Obviously the exchange does not come from B5 itself, but there are times when many of the key characters in Babylon 5 would be equally hard pressed to answer these questions.

By contrast, these are doubts that you seldom find in any Star Fleet officer (Ro Laren being a rare exception).

Essentially Gene Roddenberry had faith in Star Fleet as a benign institution. Fair enough, he created it and he created it to be a ‘good thing’.It seems that Gene Roddenberry had faith in institutions, or perhaps he simply wanted to and this was reflected in his writing.

Straczynski’s, on the other hand, seems to be much more ambivalent about institutions. He, and most of his characters tend to put their faith in individuals.

A further contrast is that Roddenberry very largely excluded religion, politics and economics from Star Fleet and from the Federation. (This may have been because he believed that humanity would just have to transcend all that stuff if we were going to make it in the longer

term, but I suspect that he just wasn’t very interested in those subjects and didn’t want to write about them).

Starczynski, by contrast, is much more interested in politics and economics and especially religion.

In fact, one of the key themes of B5 can be summed up in Ambassador Delenn’s dictum ‘faith manages’.

Having said that, B5 story lines condemned religious bigotry and intolerance just as consistently and vehemently as anything you’d find in Star Trek. It’s just that the overall ethic of the show accepts that some kind of faith can sometimes be a good thing and that religion will not necessarily whither and die as cultures develop an scientific progress is made.

And this is a bit of an oddity. As an atheist I don’t especially like heavy duty religious allegory mixed in with my Sci Fi. In fact I tend to find it irritating. But I have to say that the religious, not to mention mystical, aspect of B5 does add a certain depth to many of the story lines.

Another of the other key characteristics of B5 is its huge story arc. (Arguably much of this story arc was resolved by the end of season 4 and, in spite of still having much to enjoy in it, season 5 does tend to seem a bit like an add on).

This long story arc allows a degree of character development which would be difficult and probably impossible in a potentially open ended series like Star Trek. (Trekkers will doubtless have examples they can cite of character development within the series, but I stick to my thesis. The job of regular characters in a series like Star trek is very largely to be consistent, the job of many key characters in B5 is to change).

The most obvious examples of character development in B5 would be G’kar who starts as an angry, ruthless and sometimes dangerous character (albeit still capable of generosity at times) who becomes a far wiser and gentler character as he progresses. (One of the more perceptive points made in B5 is that G’kar grows in stature, he attracts more and more adulation from his people and becomes more and more frustrated by their persistent drive to force his message into a form that they’re already familiar with.

The other obvious example is Londo Mollari, who starts as a somewhat cynical and dissolute character with no real power, whose ambitions are largely drowned in booze, gambling and womanising. He makes something of a Faustian deal, which grants him everything he ever thought he wanted and costs him everything he had. Mollari’s story is made that much more poignant by the fact that, by the time he has to pay the price for his deal, he has grown enough to understand exactly what it’s going to cost him.

I could go on, but why bother?

It’s not a perfect show, some episodes were stronger then others, and there are moments (usually attempts at humour) that I’d rather fast forward over. Humour, as Emperor Cartagia would tell you, “is such a subjective thing”.

On the other hand, it was a highly intelligent and complex series that’s probably worth a bit more attention that it often seems to get.

If you’re interested, watch the show, if you’re not then do something else.

Either way, Straczynski and his team did a far better job of telling the story than I could.

Why Mandlebrot?

12 Oct

Why Mandlebrot?

Good question.

Although, as a matter of fact, it actually breaks down into two questions.

The first question is quite specific, ‘why choose the name Mandlebrot?’ and the second is the more general question ‘why use a pseudonym at all?’

So let’s take each question in turn.

1/ Why choose the name Manldebrot?

Well, Benoît Mandlebrot (1924 – 2010) was a Polish born mathematician with dual French/American nationality who is best known for his discovery of the ‘Mandlebrot set’. (Described by Arthur C Clarke, no less, as ‘one of the most astonishing discoveries in the entire history of mathematics).

Briefly, the ‘Mandlebrot set’ is the mathematical basis for generating fractals. Fractals, for anyone who doesn’t know, are a form of geometric repetition (to quote Stephen Wolfram) “in which smaller and smaller copies of a pattern are successively nested inside each other, so that the same intricate shapes appear no matter how much you zoom in to the whole. Fern leaves and Romanesco broccoli are two examples from nature”.

Fractals are remarkably useful and have applications in various areas of technology including soil mechanics, signal and image compression, heat exchangers and the creation of really cool and trippy posters.

Mandlebrot in addition to being a highly gifted mathematician, was also something of a maverick and a visionary who wrote about mathematics in a passionate and informal style which made his work surprisingly accessible to non-mathematicians. He also published papers in applied fields such as information theory, economics and fluid dynamics.

I wish I could say that I chose the name as a tribute to the man and his formidable achievement. Unfortunately, the plain fact is that I must have read, or heard his name, probably while I was studying the history of mathematics a few years ago, and somehow the name stuck in my memory without necessarily connecting with anything else, although I suppose I must have known something about who Mandelbrot was, because I don’t quite see how I could have come across the name without knowing something about the man and his work.

However, the main point is that I wanted a name for the narrator of a story and the name ‘Mandlebrot’ kind of stuck.

I can only hope that Benoît Mandlebrot had a sense of humour.

2/ Why use a pseudonym at all?

I suppose lots of people use pseudonyms for lots of reasons. George Eliot used a masculine name because she believed, with good reason, that if she’d been known to be a woman, no one would have taken her seriously as an author.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson an Anglican deacon and academic wrote his best-known works as Lewis Carroll. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that Queen Victoria was a big fan of Alice in Wonderland and eagerly asked Deacon Dodgson to send her a copy of his next book. History does not record exactly what she made of the inscrutable tome on mathematics that she duly received in response to her request.

But neither of these cases apply to me. I have no particular reason to hide my identity. I’m not a member of any kind of minority group that might result in my work being prejudged and I have no standing in the community that might be I undermined if it were known that I write stories.

So why bother with a pseudonym?

Well, I suppose the reason is best explained by illustration.

Donald Westlake was a prolific author who wrote in a variety of styles and genres. Many of his books were crime stories and while there are many kinds of stories you can write about crime one of the major distinctions is between ‘capers’ and ‘heists’.

If a ‘caper’ is essentially a light-hearted and generally non-violent crime story, then a ‘heist’ typically more violent and less humourous.

The structure of a caper would typically consist of two parts, the first being the exposition of an elaborate plan for a crime, typically theft, and the second part is a description of how the plan is implemented and how it goes hopelessly wrong.

In a heist the actual crime tends to proceed like clockwork and the complications typically occur in the getaway or in dividing the spoils or because of interference by other criminals. As a general rule, the law enforcement community are, at most a minor inconvenience, and more often completely irrelevant.

So Donald Westlake wrote capers about John Dortmunder, a genius and criminal mastermind who always seemed to work with highly eccentric confederates and had no luck at all and he wrote heists about Parker. Parker has no pretension to be a genius or a criminal mastermind. He is simply a ruthless, violent, career criminal. On the other hand, his plans work.

The key point for my present purpose is that when Westlake wrote about Dortmunder, he wrote under his own name and when he wrote about Parker, he wrote as Richard Stark, and I think the reason for this is pretty obvious.

Fans of the Dortmunder capers might, or might not enjoy the Parker books as well, and vice versa, but it obviously makes a lot of sense to make it quite clear that these are two very different series of books. If he failed to do that, he would have risked disappointing his readers by allowing them to come to his work with expectations that would not be met. And the simplest way to make a clear separation between the Parker and Dortmunder books is to use a different name on the cover.

Having said all this, it should be pretty clear that the reason I chose to write Fekesh and Mattie and What They Did under a pseudonym is because I want to separate it from other things I might want to write. There are a couple of reasons for this.

1/ It’s a, sort of, children’s story. It’s about missing dragons, talking cats, flying on items of furniture etc. and I’m not sure I’m going to continue to write children’s stories. My previous, and almost universally ignored, work has involved zombies, vampires and a fair degree of violence. Not exactly suitable for small children.

2/ I’ve used a very distinctive narrative voice for this collection of stories and it’s not a narrative voice that would be suitable for other kinds of stories. It’s specifically tailored for these stories.

3/ These stories take place in a very particular world and they conform to a specific set of rules.

The rules are as follows:

a) No violence. (I’m following the excellent example of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin here).

b) Magic isn’t the solution, (magic can be included but only as part of the background, problems

are solved by thinking and doing and sometimes by talking, not by casting spells).

c) No one is a hero(ine) by virtue of their birth. Mattie, the central character is a little girl

growing up in a single parent family and her mother has to work hard for a living.

d) Things are true (or not) according to reason and evidence, not by virtue of authority.

e) No one is just born evil. People can be stupid, selfish, arrogant and so forth, but I’m not

having any characters who do what they do simply by virtue of being ‘a wicked witch’ for

example. People have reasons for doing what they do and while those reasons may, or may not,

be very sensible, but they have to have some kind of plausibility.

I think these rules are pretty good, and I may well stick with (most of) them if I write any more children’s stories. But I won’t necessarily stick with the same narrative voice and I probably won’t stick with the same world that the Fekesh and Mattie stories take place in and this, ultimately, is the reason for using a pseudonym.

 (Fekesh and Mattie and What They Did is available to download from Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing).

A Paradox of Cats

24 Mar

We all know that a male cat is called a ‘tom’. Traditionally a female cat was called a ‘molly’, but the term ‘queen’ seems to have been widely adopted these days. I think this is a shame because the term was originally used by breeders and I think cats need breeders the way a fish needs a bicycle. I’d like to see a revival in the use of the term ‘molly’. I think it’s a nicer word.

What’s less well-known is that the collective noun for cats is a “clowder”, or alternatively a “glaring”, but I think the term “paradox” might be more appropriate.

It’s generally accepted that the term ‘pus’ or ‘pussy’, when applied to cats, derives from the name Bastet or Pashti, the Egyptian cat goddess. Oddly enough this term also applies to hares, but, other than superfecundity (the ability for females to bear young sired by more than one male in a single litter), it’s hard to see what the two animals have in common.

Or at least it’s hard to see what they have in common in terms of natural history. In terms of their position in human folklore, cats and hares have quite a lot in common. Essentially they are both considered to be strange and unaccountable creatures. (It’s  matter of fact that wherever we now find a rabbit in modern, sanitized versions of folklore –  eg the Easter Bunny, we would once have found a hare, this is because rabbits look cute and they’re relatively well understood, while hares seem wayward and enigmatic creatures even now.)

I should point out that there is a degree of exaggeration about the position of cats  in both Ancient Egypt and in Medieval Europe. Cats were certainly revered in Ancient Egypt, but so were a number of other animals and arguably some, notably cows, were held in higher esteem.

It’s also true that cats were reviled in Medieval Europe as being the familiars of witches, but once again, a number of other animals, weasels for example, were also seen in a similar light.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that cats do occupy a curious position in many cultures and it’s not just a simple matter of cats being valued in some societies and disliked on others. Traditions within any one culture also vary as to whether or not cats are benign or malign. The only thing that seems to be constant is that cats are never entirely neutral.

An instructive comparison here would be with the position of dogs.

I would never underestimate the bond between dogs and their owners, and dogs have often been vital collaborators in all manner of human activities, but no one seems to feel that it is either good or bad luck to have a black dog cross their path.

Don’t think I’m ignoring mythical creatures like the gytrash, the legendary canine who will doubtless be familiar to readers of Jayne Eyre and the Harry Potter series, but the gytrash is a specifically supernatural creature – who can also appear as a horse or a mule according to the traditions of Northern England, he is not a normal, everyday kind of dog and my point is that in folklore its common for all cats to have a preternatural aspect attributed to them.)

I think part of the reason for this contrast is that dogs and humans understand each other very well, incredibly well considering that they are completely different kinds of species, but this level of communication does not generally exist between cats and humans.

For example, everyone knows that if a cat walks into a room full of people, and there is one person in the room who dislikes cats, the cat will invariably approach that person.

To some this may seem like the natural perversity of the feline, but in fact it’s due to the difference between feline and human body language.

When a human looks at you it is generally an invitation to approach, but part of feline greeting protocol is to look away. So when a human looks away from a cat because he doesn’t want anything to do with it, the cat takes this as an invitation. (Some humans can be stunningly obtuse when it comes to communicating with their dogs, but this kind of generalised misunderstanding simply doesn’t happen.)

So the behaviour of cats can seem unaccountable because we don’t understand then as easily as we can understand dogs.

But even aside from this, cats also have a variety of odd habits, notably that of staring into empty space. And it’s not as though they’re simply gazing absent-mindedly into the middle distance, it’s more like they’re intently watching something incredibly important and fascinating that we can’t see. It’s not surprising that some people think they’re in touch with some kind of spirit world.

So even when you strip away the folklore and superstition, cats are still puzzling creatures. Elegant and comical, intelligent and ridiculous, aloof and affectionate, playful and lethal. Even the lowliest of moggies is a dialectic clothed in fur and whiskers.

Perhaps the simplest way to illustrate this dialectic is to hold a cat’s paw in your hand. (If it will let you).You will find that paw is soft and warm and covered in silky smooth fur. But within that paw there are wicked sharp claws that can slice effortlessly through your skin and what you will also find, if the cat wants its paw back, is that cats are surprisingly strong. (Pound for pound cats are the most powerful of mammals).

Incidently this is the reason why I consider the practice of declawing cats to be tantamount to blasphemy. Aside from cruelty (no vet in the UK will perform the procedure) there is also the fact that cats are climbers and predators and that’s why they have claws. If you want to share your home with a cat, or perhaps more precisely if you want to share a cat’s home, you should accept them as they are, claws and all. If you can’t do that, then get yourself a soft toy and play with that.

So there you have it. Some people can’t understand why anyone would want a cat in their life, others can’t understand how anyone could live without them. No animal loves its creature comforts more, and yet they can tolerate extremes of discomfort. (I have known a cat with a back leg hanging loose and useless due to a compound fracture jump five feet in order to reach a favoured sleeping place, then curl up and purr. After some treatment, he later made a full recovery.)

In conclusion, I would suggest that whether their toms or mollies, mogs or felines, whatever else you might want to call cats, I think the term ‘paradox’ has to apply somewhere and it’s certainly as good a collective noun as any.

Whenever There’s a Doubt (There’s No Doubt).

16 Mar

Every now and then I write something that I think is pretty good.

Sometimes, when I come back to something I wrote some time ago, I still think it’s pretty good.

I also have an interesting and varied collection of rejection letters from a selection of agents, publishers and magazines.

Having become a little discouraged with publishers and agents I indulged in a spot of self publication on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing a while ago.

The advantage of this kind of self publishing is that it costs nothing and you don’t have to slip past someone else’s hang ups to do it.

The disadvantage is that there’s an enormous amount of material out there and it’s no easy thing to get your work noticed by the people who might actually want to read it.

So in spite of a couple of encouraging comments from various people, I would have to admit that so far my career as an author could be described as a bit of a damp squib.

This is largely my own fault. I dislike self promotion and I’m not very imaginative or persistent about it. I also have a bad habit of writing things that are too long, too short or otherwise just not very commercially attractive.

But here I go again.

I’ve written two novels out of a trilogy (the third installment is in draft form but still in need of extensive revision). Having reread (and further revised) the first two I still think they’re pretty good.

So having come to the conclusion that someone else might also think they’re pretty good, I’m going to have another shot at getting them published.

Where to begin?

Well, the traditional place to start is The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook, so that’s where I’ve started. (Call me a traditionalist if you like).

I went through the UK agents section with a highlighter and market out the likely prospects. This gave me a list of 56 possible agents based on what they had to say about what they wanted (or more precisely what they said they wouldn’t consider).

My policy on who to select for submissions is reasonably straightforward. If the agent provides me with sufficient information to be sure that they won’t be interested in my work then I won’t waste my time or theirs. If they provide sufficient information for me to think that they may well be interested in the kind of work I do, then obviously I’ll send them a submission.

If, on the other hand they make it difficult for me to find enough information to make a decision, or if the information they provide is too vague (There is one agent who claims he will consider ‘anything with wit and intelligence’ and as far as I’m concerned he deserves everything he gets – including a submission from me) then I take the view that ‘whenever there’s a doubt, there’s no doubt’ and send them a submission anyway. (See Robert De Niro in Ronin) The agent concerned may be annoyed about this, but in my opinion it’s their own fault for not being specific enough in their submission guidelines.

As an aside, I’d have to say I get a little irritated with some agents (and some publishers and even a few published authors) because of their attitude to unpublished authors.

Essentially I am a little tired of hearing, or more often reading,  complaints about schizophrenics with hypergraphia, hopeless boobs with delusions of talent, people who can’t spell, who don’t understand the basics of grammar and punctuation and won’t do anything about it, people who send submissions in exotic fonts and garish colours or who simply don’t bother to do basic research into who is likely to accept what.

Part of this irritation stems from the fact that I fall into none of these categories, but essentially I get tired of hearing the same gripes over and over again from people who are actually in pretty good jobs and don’t seem to properly appreciate their good fortune.

My suggestion to such people is to try an 8 hour shift in a call centre. I suspect that after this experience their slush piles, or whatever else they’re bitching about, would all of a sudden start to look quite attractive.

Incidently, can anyone tell me what, exactly ‘literary’ fiction is?

I can understand what other genres are because the names are fairly descriptive, so if you’re looking for a western or a detective story, or science fiction, you can be pretty sure of what you’re going to get. The term literary fiction, on the other hand, tells you nothing at all about what the book is about, or what kind of book it is, it simply makes a claim about the quality of the work.

Maybe it would be more honest to call it ‘non-genre’ fiction.

As a matter of fact the only thing I really understand by the term ‘literary’ is that it means that the people who claim to handle it are liable to take a very long time to reply and probably not be very courteous when (and if) they ever do.

So, having had my little rant, I then took a massive trawl through the internet looking for further information on submission guidelines, likes and dislikes etc and this gave me a shorter list of 26 possibilities. (Incidently this represents progress of a sort 2-3 years ago hardly any of the agents listed in the Writers and Artists had websites although most publishing houses did). 

17 of these candidates were willing to accept email submissions (Some actually insist on them, this is more progress, as until recently email submissions were obviously far too hi tech for most agents). While 9 still insisted on postal submissions.

So 17 email submissions later, I have had one rejection (it arrived 2 days after the submission) and 2 acknowledgements. (In previous years I have waited months, sometimes nearly a year to get any response at all from agents). The stated turnaround time  for most of these agents seems to be 6 – 8 weeks (more progress, it’s not so long ago that they were talking in terms of months, one agent even suggested that if no reply had been received within a year, it might be worth making a polite enquiry).

The next step in the project is to print off hard copies of the submissions to the 9 possible candidates who want postal submissions and send them off.

I’ve always tried to ensure that my submissions were of a reasonably professional standard and that any correspondence was courteous (at least on my side). Now I’m trying to be a lot more systematic and even to operate on an industrial (albeit a cottage industry) basis.

I’m hoping that if I do it right this time, maybe I won’t have to do it again.

The Nail That Raises Its Head

15 Jul

The nail that raises

Its head, is the very one

Which gets hammered down.

(©Kenneth Verity 1993)

If you stand out from the crowd, you take a risk. Sometimes you choose to stand out, sometimes you don’t get to choose, sometimes you just stand out because of who you are. Being hammered down may not be a pleasant experience at the time, but it’s worth remembering that the nail is not destroyed by being hammered down. It’s actually fulfilling its purpose.

Maybe you don’t agree with my interpretation of this poem, maybe you do. What you take from this kind of writing depends very much on what you bring to it. (Bit Zen? Maybe not, I’m paraphrasing an idea written by Friedrich Nietzsche).

Some years ago, almost by accident, I bought a book called Breathing With The Mind. It was written by Kenneth Verity and it carries the subtitle Verses in Senryu & Hiaku Style.

(This qualification is important; you can’t really write Haiku in English. The Japanese measure the on represents a sound, so while it is analogous to the syllable in English, but is not the same. It’s a shorter measure. Besides a metre that works in one language won’t necessarily work in another. For example, iambic hexameter is the basis for epic poetry in Latin and Ancient Greek where it works very well, but poetry written in hexameter in English tend to sound ridiculous, hence Pope’s use of hexameter in The Rape of the Lock and other mock epics).

So Verity isn’t locking himself into the rigid structure of 17 syllables arranged in the expected 5-7-5 format (and incidentally the Japanese write their Haiku in one line, not three), but he does respect the discipline and purpose of Haiku and Senryu. (Essentially Haiku tends to be more formal and is usually about some aspect of the natural world. It generally tends to evoke sensory perception. Senryu, on the other hand tends to be less formal, often humourous and usually concentrates on some aspect of human behaviour or psychology.

(A quick search of the Internet reveals that there is something of a ‘Haiku scene’ and, depressingly enough, there seem to be all sorts of factions and rules and all the other weary dross that pops up when a ‘scene’ develops).

So anyway, I opened the book and started to read.

The first verse goes like this:-

Strutting around the farmyard

The cockerel-

When did HE ever lay an egg?

(©Kenneth Verity 1993)

 

Which made me laugh out loud. Possibly not the most appropriate thing to do in a bookshop, but it reminded me so much of someone I knew.

Kenneth Verity, I gather, has studied yoga, meditation, Sufi philosophy and Zen. He’s also apparently an initiate of the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes (How cool is that?).

But that’s not really the point. The point is that this is one of those books that’s been important to me ever since I first picked it up in a bookshop all those years ago.

Other books that have been similarly important to me have included Albert Camus’ The Rebel, the Tao Te Ching and Watership Down by Richard Adams. But I suppose Breathing With The Mind is different for me because it isn’t just a book that I read, it’s a book that I have a sort of history with.

That history started with the unusual occurrence of finding myself in the poetry section of a bookshop at all. For a sometime student of English Lit, I tend to be surprisingly unliterary and I seldom read poetry. As a matter of fact it would probably be true to say that I’m not, generally speaking, a huge fan of poetry, and you could probably argue that I don’t understand it very well.

(I’m willing to make an exception for Gerard Manley Hopkins. He had a real feeling for the shape and texture of words).

I think part of what puts me off poetry is that it often seems to me to be sloppy with gushing emotions and spurious passions and in general it just seems to me like a perverse means of expression. (By which I mean that it’s a means of expression that seems to deliberately obscure about what is supposedly being expressed). Maybe that assessment says more about me than about poetry, but then again whenever you say anything about anything you reveal something of yourself and if you can’t be perceptive or witty then at the very least you can try to be honest.

Having brought my unlikely purchase home, I spent some time reading it. I’d have to say that the verses vary. I found many of them to be witty, insightful, and often very funny, but there were others that didn’t seem to work for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t as good, it may simply mean that I don’t connect with them in the same way or to the same extent.

Having read through the verses I came to the final section of the book which is essentially about composing your own Haiku. This was something new. Someone who writes poetry trying to encourage other people to write their own verse and offering some practical guidelines about where to start.

Naturally, being somewhat conceited, I gave it a try. I won’t bore you with any of my efforts, I don’t think they’re very good, but I did have some fun writing them, and if nothing else the discipline involved in writing Haiku style verse is a good training for developing precision in your writing. A skill that any aspiring writer should try to develop.

Some years after I bought this book a friend of mine was ill in hospital. She was undergoing some pretty aggressive treatment and while on the one hand she needed some kind of distraction, she was also having difficulty in concentrating for any length of time. She’d always been an avid reader so I gave her a couple of books. One of them was a collection of tales about Mullah Nasrudin and another was Breathing With The Mind. I hope they helped.

Unfortunately my friend died and I suppose after she died I could have retrieved the books I had given her. (They were really only supposed to be on loan). But somehow I didn’t quite feel able to do that. So those books went on their way. I don’t know where they ended up, but hopefully they became a part of someone else’s life.

In the time since then I’ve occasionally thought of replacing my copy of Breathing With The Mind, but somehow never managed to do anything about it. Then, finally I bought a second hand copy on Amazon. (It’s still in print, you can buy it new if you want to, it’s just that I’m a little short on spare cash for books at the moment).

So my new, second hand, copy of the book was delivered yesterday and I must admit to a certain trepidation as I opened it. Sometimes when you revisit something you enjoyed a few years ago you find yourself wondering what you’d ever seen in it. On this occasion I wasn’t disappointed. The magic is still there and it looks like I’m back to writing verses in the Hiaku/Senryu style that I don’t suppose anyone’s ever going to read.

So I suppose I’ve come full circle in a way.

If you want to write your own Haiku, or something approximating to it, then try the following.

1/ Look around you. The subject matter will suggest itself.

2/ Try to make a brief comment about your subject. Just a few words will do.

3/ Typically Haiku/Senryu start with an observation and concludes with a contrasting statement. It’s a bit like the punch line of a joke, and it’s the tension between the two parts of the Haiku that is compelling when it’s done well. The Japanese talk of it in terms of cutting.

4/ Rewrite and rewrite again. Experiment with synonyms and then when you think you’re finished, polish it a bit more until you have your seventeen syllables over three lines. (Don’t fret if you’re out by a syllable or two. What you’re aiming for is brevity and precision, as I’ve said before you can’t really write authentic Haiku in English anyway, so your paying respect to the tradition not trying to slavishly copy it.

5/ Read Basho (In English his name sounds as though it should belong to a clown. But there’s a reason why he’s the best-known writer of Haiku in the West. And one of the best loved in Japan).

6/ Don’t worry if you’re not very good. Neither am I. It’s not about being the best, it’s about being the best you can be. Attempting to write Haiku can be as much about sharpening your perception as it is about writing something that might impress someone else.

We can’t all be artists but we can all try to make the best of what we are.

He Died for our Sins?

1 Jul

Part way along Victoria Road in Glasgow there is a building bearing the legend, ‘He died for our sins’. It’s some time since I’ve been in that part of the city, so I could be wrong, but I seem to recall that the letters are picked out in neon lights although I don’t recall ever having seen them lit up.

Given the context, the ‘He’ in this message can only refer to Jesus Christ and the reference to dying for our sins obviously refers to the crucifixion.

I’ve given quite a bit of thought to this message over the years, probably much more than you might expect from an atheist, and I’d like to offer a few of the fruits of that thinking, for whatever they’re worth.

At this point you may want to think about whether or not you want to go on reading because, although it’s not my primary intention to offend anyone, I’d have to be pretty stupid not to recognise that much of what follows is likely to be offensive to Christians.

Or then again you might want to keep on reading. After all, I’m not trying to undermine your faith. (Not that I think I can, or have any right to try). I accept that everyone has the right to believe what seems true to them. But I also think it’s good to examine what you believe and what basis you have for believing it.

There seems to be a general consensus that there was a real historical figure corresponding to Jesus Christ and it seems to be equally certain that he was a religious reformer or teacher and that he was crucified.

He was far from unique in this, of course, crucifixion was a fairly common punishment in the Roman Empire. It was also commonplace in feudal Japan and probably elsewhere as well.

Crucifixion, it also has to be said, is an extremely unpleasant form of execution.

Essentially the cause of death is asphyxiation. When you’re hanging by your arms, the weight of your body acts against the action of the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles, making it very difficult to draw air into the lungs.

As long as you’re conscious you can try to take the weight on your feet, but this is going to become exhausting over a period of time and sooner or later you’ll go back to hanging by your arms and the process of asphyxiation would start all over again. And in the meantime, you would be steadily dehydrating and that on it’s own could cause death in a matter of days.

A curious historical aside is the fact that a Sicilian minor criminal was subjected to a very similar treatment much more recently. His name was Salvatore Lucania and someone decided to string him up by the wrists in a barn, presumably over a business dispute. Just by chance, someone came along and cut him down in the nick of time. After this people called him Lucky. Later on this young man went to the United States where he took the name Charles Brown, but he was also known by the anglicised version of his name Luciano. So he was sometimes called Charlie Lucky, but he’s better known as Lucky Luciano. (A name that Salvatore Lucania, as his mother named him, detested).

So crucifixion is an extremely cruel form of execution and these days, most people, Christian or not, recognise this fact.

What is possibly less well understood is the degree to which crucifixion was also considered an ignominious, even shameful death in the First Century CE.

It’s hard to think of an analogy that really helps to illustrate this point. Time has moved on and we seem to be more given to compassion these days. If we see shame in crucifixion now, it tends to attach more to those who ordered it, or carried it out, than to anyone who suffered it, but that really wasn’t the case for most people during Christ’s lifetime or for some considerable period of time afterwards.

This change in perception is a good thing, it is a definite sign of progress and I’m glad of it. But I think it does cloud our perception of how the Christian narrative of the Crucifixion may have developed.

Picture the scene.

One of the early (and I mean, one of the very earliest) followers of Christ is explaining Christ’s teachings to a potential convert. This potential convert is interested, possibly impressed and becoming sympathetic to the ideas of this charismatic young teacher.

Then he (or she, many of the early converts were women) asks the killer question.

“Whatever happened to Jesus?”

“Well, he was crucified.”

There follows an embarrassed silence.

Why embarrassed?

Well, as I mentioned before, crucifixion was a terrible way to die, but it was also perceived as an especially ignominious way to die.

This is where it’s hard to find a modern analogy. The closest I can think of is being convicted of some particularly loathsome crime, something like child abuse. (Just for the sake of clarity I should stress that I’m not equating anything Christ did or taught with child abuse, I’m simply trying to illustrate the way that crucifixion would have been viewed in the First Century CE).

In fairness I should say falsely convicted on trumped-up charges. Christ may have seemed threatening to the Jewish as well as the Roman authorities, but (aside from the minor matter of that fracas in the Temple with the money changers) I’m not aware that he committed anything that we would now recognise as a crime.

Nonetheless, the reaction of most Roman citizens in the First Century CE to the news that Christ had been crucified would not have been compassion; it would probably have been embarrassment, maybe even contempt.

This is where, Christians would doubtless say, the early Christian would have played his (or her) trump card.

“No, no,” he (or she) would have said. “This wasn’t a bad thing. This is what made Jesus so special and it’s why you should accept his word. He died for our sins. He died so that we could be redeemed.”

Of course I have no idea what the men and women who actually knew and loved Christ while he was here on Earth really thought or felt about his crucifixion. My guess would be that they felt an enormous grief and probably anger at the injustice of the whole thing. I also have no idea whether or not they really believed that he was the Son of God in the sense of being divine (or semi-divine) or if they believed that he rose from the dead.

I do suspect, however, that Pontius Pilate never had any suspicion that Christ rose from the grave.

Far from being the decent, if weak, man of the Gospels, independent historical accounts suggest that Pilate was an Imperial hatchet man sent by Rome to keep a lid on the troublesome province of Judea at a time when the Romans were expecting trouble.

If he’d ever heard the slightest whisper that Christ was alive and well after the crucifixion then I think it’s safe to say the occupying Roman forces would have turned the province inside out with a view to finishing the job they’d started. He would have been peevish enough if one of the thieves had survived, but if a man suspected of threatening Roman authority was believed to be alive after he was supposedly executed, then I suspect he would have gone berserk. (He would have been unlikely to see this as proof that Christ was the Son of God, he would doubtless have seen it as a botched job on the part of the soldiers charged with carrying out the execution).

Incidently, I don’t imagine it would have been impossible to survive being crucified, depending on how long one was left on the cross. Asphyxiation could have produced unconsciousness, even a coma, from which one could recover, if one was taken down from the cross quickly enough, and methods of determining whether or not someone was dead were pretty crude at the time. (Methods of determining death were remarkably unreliable until surprisingly recently, in historical terms. Many Victorians took elaborate precautions to minimise the risk of premature burial).

So Pilate probably never thought that Christ rose from the dead and we don’t know if anyone else did at the time, because no one living at the time left any written account of having done so. (Which isn’t to say that no one did, only that authenticated contemporary evidence is lacking). The detailed accounts we have of Christ’s life come from people who were writing long after the events they were describing.

According to some the Gospel of St Thomas sets down what Christ actually said during his lifetime, but this is one of many non-canonical Gospels, (i.e. those that are not included in the Bible and are therefore not widely known by Christians and are ignored by most Christian Sects).

I have actually read the Gospel of St Thomas and it has nothing to say about the Virgin Birth, or indeed the Resurrection. Nor does it contain any claims about raising the dead, turning water into wine or walking on water. (Why would it? If any or all of these miracles actually occurred then why would Christ boast about them? They’ve been used as reasons for accepting Christ’s teachings, but they’re not actually a part of those teachings. If you think what he has to say is good and wise and gives you something to enrich your life, then why would you need a miracle to convince you?).

So then we come to heart of things.

I’m a storyteller, not a theologian, or a historian and certainly not a Christian.

So what draws my attention are those parts of the Christian narrative where it seems to get itself tangled all up.

One of those places is where the essential nature of Christ himself is discussed. The early Christians took a long time to reach any kind of agreement on this point. Some held that Christ was entirely divine others that he was entirely human. The current position, as I understand it, is that Christ is believed to have been both human and divine.

To me this seems like an uneasy compromise, but I think I can understand why the Church would have settled on it. It’s not about explaining the nature of Christ for the intellectual satisfaction of scholars, it’s about making the story work on an emotional level.

Let me explain.

If Christ was entirely human then his death on the cross was terrible. But why should it be a matter of any significance to anyone other than Christ himself and his friends and family? In what way could it change the cosmic order and redeem all mankind?

There would have to be something very special about Christ in order to make this event sufficient to change the essential position of humanity in relation to God and, presumably, the universe.

(One way to resolve this problem is to claim that there was nothing special about Christ himself and that his resurrection and the redemption of mankind was simply an act of grace on the part of God. But this has the drawback of making God seem arbitrary, i.e. any crucifixion would have done just as well, and it also reduces Christ’s significance. He would become a prophet rather than a saviour).

Another way to address the problem would be to claim that Christ was entirely divine. If that was the case then there would be no difficulty about Christ’s role as saviour. If he’s a God, or perhaps an aspect or an expression of God then nothing would be impossible for him.

On the other hand if Christ is truly divine in nature then his crucifixion would be unpleasant, to a degree, but essentially trivial.

After all, if Christ is a God then he can’t really die and any discomfort he suffers is transient and without any great significance. (This assumes that a truly divine being would actually suffer at all).

So in order to evoke feelings of compassion (and guilt, Christians may claim that Christianity is based on love, but to me it has always seemed to run on guilt in much the same way that bus runs on diesel), then Christ has to suffer agony and death on the Cross. Christ can’t fake it, the suffering has to be real, and that has to be real blood flowing from his wounds. Otherwise the story becomes abstract and, well, anaemic.

But the Christian narrative isn’t just about guilt. As any Christian would tell you, it’s also about hope. It has to be, if the Christian faith was ever going to survive it had to offer something more than just guilt.

So after you’ve been made to feel good and guilty, you’re offered the hope of salvation.

But for that to work, the Crucifixion has to be about more than just one man’s death. As I’ve already mentioned, a great many people have been crucified, so why should Christ’s crucifixion be any more significant?

So in order for the Crucifixion to have a cosmic, as well as a purely human significance, Christ also has to be divine.

But how can you be both human and divine?

I have no idea how much ink (and even blood) has been spilled over this question and, to be honest I’m not that interested. The solutions that have been offered to this question are less interesting to me than the fact that it is raised at all. Why would the founding fathers of Christianity (or God,if you prefer) have created this problem in the first place?

Of course there is another closely related problem.

We’re told that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross has saved us, but just exactly how saved are we?

The Bible tells us that various punishments were heaped on Adam and Eve as a result of The Fall, which were then passed on to the rest of us because of the sinful nature we’ve all inherited.

Eve was told that she would bring forth children in sorrow, while Adam was told that the ground was cursed for his sake and that he would eat of it in sorrow, that it would bring forth thorns and thistles to him, that he would eat bread in the sweat of his face all his days until he returned to the ground.

What this seems to boil down to, making allowances for the archaic language, is that women would suffer pain in childbirth, while men would have to work in order to make a living, that the soil will produce weeds and that we are all going to die.

Well, that was the state of play prior to the crucifixion and it still seems to be the case even now. Where women suffer less in childbirth and where people have to endure less backbreaking toil in growing food it has been the result of human ingenuity over a period of centuries and it seems to have nothing to do with Christ or the forgiveness of God. (Unless you want to claim that developments in science, technology and medicine are God’s means of alleviating the suffering He caused as a punishment for original sin).

Christians would doubtless say that I’m missing the point. They would probably claim that Christ’s mission was about saving souls and not about giving people an easier time on Planet Earth.

Well, maybe.

But if we were all sinful, fallible and mortal prior to Christ’s mission then it seems that we still are and whatever form you think Christ’s Redemption of Mankind actually took, the plain fact is that Christianity tells us that we’re still all in need of forgiveness and salvation.

So even taken on Christian terms, I still have to ask what the point of all that pain and misery actually was? In what way are we any more saved now than we were the day before the Crucifixion?

I doubt if anyone’s going to offer me an answer to that question, but if you do have an answer, I would be genuinely interested in hearing from you.

And I suppose this brings me back to one of the reasons why I find life much simpler and easier than I think I would if I believed in God. Whether or not God is real, the pain of crucifixion would have been all too real and the grief of Christ’s friends and family would have been just as real.

To me that’s quite bad enough if it was essentially an accident of history, the savage outcome of a meeting between religious innovation and military occupation. But how much worse would it be if it was all part of someone’s plan? You’ve got to ask what kind of mind would come up with a plan that inflicted so much misery for so little observable benefit.

And the same basic principle seems to me to apply to a great deal of what happens in life.

If it’s all the result of a confused mingling of cause and effect with no overall plan or purpose, then it’s bearable, more than that, it can be wonderful. You can appreciate the many extraordinary and beautiful things that exist in the universe as being a gift of time and chance. And as for the suffering? Well, that’s just part of the whole thing. You avoid it when you can and put up with it when you have to. No explanation is required.

But if it’s all part of the divine plan then you have to account for how an allegedly benign and omnipotent God could cause, or allow, so much evil in what is supposed to be his creation.

 

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