Sunday 30 January 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Last week I asked readers and fellow bloggers to participate in a debate about religion and today I'm pleased to announce the two posters who rose to the challenge and who will be contributing to our discussion.

But before I give way to today's post, I would like to add my own thoughts to the debate.

It seemed to me, both from the comments left last week and the feedback from the contributors, that religion and God are two separate issues. It also transpired that some people prefer to see God as a personal entity and not as part of an organised movement headed by a (usually male) leader. Another element that caught my eye was the word 'faith' and how it's used (wrongly in my view) as a byword for religion. For instance, I would say that I am a person of faith, even though I don't worship. I have faith in my fellow human beings, hence my being a 'humanist'. It wasn't surprising to read how many bloggers had grown up against a religious background - after all I follow your blogs, so I've read your stories. It was, nonetheless, revealing to read how many of you had given your religious faith the heave-ho. Lastly, it was interesting to see some posters highlighting the spiritual side of their religion, or their relationship to God. In a post I wrote about a year ago, I expressed concern about how spirituality has somehow become an equivalent of devoutness, stripping the concept of its more innate human aspect. In my opinion, we're all spiritual, religious or not.

And now, without any further ado, let me introduce you to the two bloggers (and writers in their own right!) who will lead today's post:

Judith Mercado (JM) writes the blog 'Pilgrim Soul'. She was born in Puerto Rico and moved at a young age to the U.S., where her parents became Pentecostal ministers. Her multicultural fiction frequently explores the tensions among conflicting religious perspectives, as well as those between the Latino and Anglo cultures. selected her novel 'Choosing Sides' as a quarter finalist in its 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. "Asunder," a short story, won the literary category of the 2010 Literary Lab Genre Wars competition. Other short stories have been published in literary magazines. She has just had two short stories published in Gemini Magazine (click here to read it) and Rose and Thorn (you can read it by clicking here).

Jodi MacArthur (JMA) writes the blog 'Fiction Writer ~ Jodi MacArthur'. Exiled in deep southern Texas, Jodi MacArthur is a Seattle author hoping to write her way back to the Pacific Northwest. She writes omnivorous fiction favoring fable, suburban punk, horror and bizarro.

The three questions were:

1- Complete the following sentence: Religion is... and expand on your definition, please.

JM: Religion is, on a personal level, finite humanity’s endeavor to explain itself vis-à-vis the infinite. On a social level, religion establishes codes of morality and behavior. Culturally, it facilitates expression of cultural norms. Politically, it can serve as a tool for creating and defending the political unit. It is paradoxically both unifying and divisive. In other words, religion is a protean concept.

That is my answer through a cognitive filter. But, if religion appealed only to the mind, it would not have achieved its enduring quality. It would also not explain why, despite significant differences, the overwhelming majority of people associate, formally or loosely, with religion in all its variants.

The opening line of my favorite hymn says, “Oh, Lord, My God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works Thy hand hath made.” Am I a churchgoer? No. Do I believe that there is a Creator responsible for bringing our world into existence? No, at least, not in the anthropomorphic sense. And yet that hymn moves me every single time I hear it. Is that because it is a relic from my childhood? Perhaps. Or could it be that the hymn appeals to an unknown and unknowable part of me that wants to connect with that dimension of life which, science’s efforts notwithstanding, we fall short of grasping in all its beauty. Of science’s efforts, Max Planck himself said that future progress in understanding liminal conditions “…will never enable us to grasp the real world in its totality any more than human intelligence will ever rise into the sphere of ideal spirit: these will always remain abstractions which by their very definition lie outside actuality.”

Rather than try to understand or judge the human predilection toward embracing religion, I simply accept that it exists. Indeed, I respect that religions seek coherence and order in a world that intrinsically may be incoherent and chaotic. I also embrace religion’s attempt to connect with the numinous, which has little to do with the mind. Of course, my respect and tolerance do not extend to the use of violence and oppression.

I come to this stance having experienced the full spectrum of religious belief. As the daughter of evangelical ministers, I grew up in a theistic environment. I then became an atheist, only to later shift to an embrace of the numinous. In my fiction, I spend a lot of time in churches, with characters who embrace, characters who flee from, but always characters who try to make sense of religion and spirituality in their lives. In this, they reflect my own life's journey. In a larger sense, they may reflect humanity’s journey as well.

JMA: Religion is a practice, a belief, a faith, a lifestyle, sometimes and often transformed into a denomination or a means of control all centered on or about a higher power or deity. That is what I think of when I think of the word religion. I believe the original Latin meaning has something to do with the word ligament, to be attached to God.

2- Do you think that religion has a role to play in modern democracies? Why?

JMA: Although, I do believe that morals support and uphold a family, society, and therefore a country, religion should be chosen (free will) by each individual, and should have no place in the government. I believe government should be there strictly to protect people, not to direct and control their lives.

JM: When religion embraces the individual as the ultimate arbiter, it is consistent with democracy. When, however, religion asserts that the social group or deity is the ultimate arbiter, religion may not cohere with democracy. Conflict, even warfare, may result when democracies and theocracies then seek to impose their differing values on each other.

3- Many of the ills visited on contemporary societies nowadays such as individualism, rampant consumerism and unchallenged materialism are usually paraded as the result of the erosion of religious values in the west. However, countries under theocratic rule still suffer from a similar erosion of human rights whilst displaying very intolerant attitudes to women, gays and other groups. What's your take on this?

JM: This is essentially a question about what determines human behavior. Religion can foster intolerance, yes, but it can also promote compassion and respect. Some religions encourage, through prosperity consciousness, the accumulation of wealth. Others uphold poverty and charity as the highest ideals. That all these practices thrive in both religious and nonreligious environments essentially proves the point that religion or lack of religion is not their cause.

JMA: This is something I’d like to think on for a while before spouting out an answer. But my first thought is this, mixing religion and power is never a pure and pretty thing. It is always a corruption and will lead to corruption under any circumstances (history proves this).

Thank you very much, Judith and Jodie for agreeing to participate in this discussion. It was great having you both on board. One last thought from me. If I was a religious person, it's very likely that my prayers to God (whoever that deity might be) would echo the lyrics of the song in today's clip because this melody pretty much sums up my vision, not just for me, but also for my fellow human beings. I hope you enjoy the music today, even if you need to speak, or at least understand Spanish very well. Ta muchly.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum’, to be published on Wednesday 2nd February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Body Language)

Maybe you belong to the two-fingered peace sign brigade à la Paul McCartney (as long as both forefinger and middle finger are facing out to your adoring audience). Or, perhaps, you're part of the raised-eyebrow Ancelotti's tribe (Chelsea's manager). Or, how about lifting up your left leg at the same time one of your political foes hoists his in the middle of a television debate? That would surely show your supporters your power for 'joined-up' thinking. Alas, it didn't save Gordon Brown's premiership, whose choreographic movement with Lib-Dems leader, Nick Clegg, was caught on camera. The latter still plumped for the Tories when it came to choosing a political dance partner.

But regardless of what your gestures or facial expressions say about your affiliations, one aspect is beyond doubt: like the rest of humankind, you speak 'body language'.

We're capable of learning as many languages as we want to, even if certain aspects of them might fall without our reach (grammar, syntax, pronunciation and so on), but there's a lingo we can always fall back on: the one spoken by our bodies.

Whenever we, humans, are not displaying our natural skills for rhetoric, we tend to replace words with movements. Sometimes we fold our arms in what could be inferred to be a defensive stance. Or we acknowledge the person talking to us with a half-smile. We even do that when said person is boring us to death.

We also use gestures to back up our speech. In this case our verbal arsenal is given a boost by the physical component. Cuba is a good example where this approach has been woven into a nation's identity. Even on radio we gesticulate wildly, and as someone who spent an awful long time promoting dance and art on that medium, I've got enough evidence. I remember a particular DJ who was banned from carrying anything resembling a mug or a glass into the studio. He'd caused many an accident with his body language.

Corporal expression is also a way to convey our inner world to others even when words fail us. I still remember when we came across Stanislavski's 'The Method' at my uni drama group. We all jumped at the chance of finding our inner truth and subjecting ourselves to a process of rigorous self-analysis and reflection. The results were mixed, at least for me. I recall our drama teacher inviting once a famous actor to one of our sessions. We did various exercises and at the end of the rehearsal the guest spoke to each of us, giving us feedback on our pluses and minuses. When my turn came, he asked me quite a lot of questions: Did you mean this when you were acting out this scene? Were you worried when you were carrying out this particular exercise? Was there something on your mind other than the speech you were given when engaging with this other actor? His conclusion was that, although I had natural thespian skills, my face was a kaleidoscope of expressions, many of which were unrelated to the task set by my tutor.

It was a valuable lesson on the importance of our body language. It also brought back some of my more memorable moments in movies; when the protagonist(s) does/do not utter one single word and yet their expressions say more than what you could convey with a thousand words: Glenn Close removing her make-up at the end of 'Dangerous Liaisons' (from 1:34 onwards), Al Pacino squaring up to Kevin Spacey in 'Glengarry Glen Ross' (between 0:47 and 0:59, then, of course, body language goes out of the window and Al goes all 'Carlitos Brigante' on Spacey) and Antoine Doinel in 'Les Quatre Cents Coups' (3:18 to 3:24).

With all this in mind, I have often wondered what response the late John Lennon would have given to his former The Beatles pal, Paul, when the latter suggested some years ago that their collaborations together be named McCartney/Lennon and not the other way around as we had come to know them. Again, body language would have been handy. A two-fingered peace sign would surely have been the reply from the writer of 'Power to the People'. But this time it wouldn't be hard to guess which way the forefinger and middle finger would have been facing.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be posted on Sunday 30th January at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 23 January 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Recently The Observer newspaper conducted an interesting debate on the role of religion in today's world. Under the heading 'Is religion a force for good... or would we be happier without God?', the publication asked five leading figures in the fields of academia, politics and religion for their opinions about an issue that has become highly polarising in recent years.

Based on this - at times very emotional - exchange, I am intending to open up my blog for a similar exercise. But before I lay down the terms and conditions (or the T&Cs, as they're usually spelled out nowadays) for the next public debate I would like to put in my twopence worth. I don't agree with the title of the article.

First of all, religion is an abstract noun that comprises the set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe and very often includes the role of a superhuman force. This is the force tasked with the creation of the aforementioned universe. Religion also involves a set of devotional and ritual observances and a moral code by which all believers must abide. To ask the question of whether religion is a force for good or not, is like wondering if the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 was caused by football. Religion has no material form other than the one given to it by humans. The only way I can see it becoming reality is through public worship, ritual, prayer, recitation, meditation; namely, liturgy. My choice of heading would have been, 'Is the use of religion by human beings a force for good?'. But obviously, that long title wouldn't have 'sold' the debate. Which is why I'm not a sub-editor. In my opinion, though, the sub who thought up the heading left the human factor out.

However, he or she tried to include that human element in the second part of the heading with the hypothetical question '... or would we be happier without God?'. Again, in my opinion the phrasing is wrong even if I can understand the intention. We won't be happier without a God because there will always be a God. Let's break that statement down to the bare essentials.

According to the latest figures (The New Statesman, 5-18 April, 2010 issue), in the world today there are 2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims, 900 million Hindus, 376 million Buddhists, 23 million Sikhs and 14 million Jews. I've excluded other religions on purpose due to lack of space, but I guess you get the point. There are an awful lot of people who worship. To contemplate a future where these many believers will suddenly stop practising is ridiculous to say the least.

The other reason why the phrasing of that question is wrong, methinks, is that there was a time when almost every person - if not every person - had religious beliefs. Whether it was an Abrahamic faith or a pagan one, up until the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 19th century the word atheist (which we now use for someone who neither believes in God nor in evidence of its existence) referred to people who denied pagan notions of divinity, i.e., Jews and Muslims were atheists as they had faith in just one God.

Therefore the idea of a Godless future is as naïve as the notion of science solving all of life's mysteries. Religion, whether we like it or not, taps into parts of the human brain that are connected to, amongst other functions, language, understanding and emotion and its effects can be felt both externally and internally. The same person who weeps at the thought of Christ's virgin birth is not any different from the individual who tries to become aware of his/her inner world through yoga techniques.

Why am I organising this debate now, then, besides the prompt from The Observer? Because we live in interesting times as far as religion is concerned. Secularists and religious believers are at loggerheads over the role religion should play in contemporary societies and whether there's space for mythos in representative democracies. Personally speaking, as an atheist, I would like to see a modicum of decency when discussing religion. It's true that I don't think that a religious body, whether it be the Church of England, the Board of Deputies of British Jews or the Muslim Council of Britain, should be making executive and/or legislative decisions on behalf of the whole country. At the same time, I wouldn't lobby to end R.E. (Religious Education) in schools either.

The other reason for this debate is that when talking about religion, we, atheists, secularists and humanists, sometimes behave in ways that are better suited to religious fundamentalists. For instance, we look at the reaction in Pakistan to the assassination of Salmaan Taseer as an example of Muslim bigotry, but overlook the role played by Islamic parties in Indonesia and Malaysia in ushering in much-needed democratic change to societies plagued by corruption and dictatorship. We like to think of born-again Christians as people with narrow-minded views (and former US president George W Bush perfectly conforms to that stereotype), but ignore the many followers of Jesus and his teachings who go about their business daily without showing off their faith. Recently the journalist Victoria Coren, a must-read for me on Sundays, 'came out of the religious closet' as a Christian. So what if she worships? Does that diminish her intelligence? She still cracks me up everytime she goes on 'Have I Got News For You', the BBC's flagship, satirical, light-hearted, political-themed news quiz.

I hope I have been clear as to why I'm opening the (virtual) doors of my blog to believers and non-believers; people who hold politheistic beliefs and people for whom there's only one God; individuals who think there can be a divine being as long as its existence can be proved and others who don't think there can ever be a deity nor evidence to support such claim. All are welcome.

The terms and conditions are the same as the two previous debates I conducted on my blog. First, you need to read the article that apppeared in The Observer (the link is included in the opening sentence of this post). If you're interested in participating in this debate, please, send me an e-mail to the address on my profile and I will reply to your message with three questions. Please, enclose a short bio and a photo of you or let me know whether I can use your blog byline image. I am intending to post questions and answers at 10am on Sunday 30th January, that is, next week, so, please, be prompt and send me your responses as soon as possible. In an ideal world, I would like to have a variety of contributors, both religious believers and non-believers. But we don't live in an ideal world, so first come, first served. That also means that previous participants are more than welcome to take part. There's no need for ground rules, as I trust fellow bloggers and readers to treat each other with respect. However, any derogatory remark(s) will be removed and the person(s) addressed by e-mail. If you wish to reproduce the debate on your blogs, you're more than welcome to do it.

I look forward to your contributions. Many thanks.

© 2011

Next post, ‘Living In A Bilingual World’, to be published on Wednesday 26th January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Let's Talk About...

... pets. Dogs, specifically. Actually, let's narrow that down even more to this week's column's target. Let's talk about dog owners.

But before I start, a small disclaimer. If you're a responsible dog owner, who clean after your playful mutt when you take it out for a stroll, keep it on a lead, or at least next to you when walking in areas teeming with children, and attend to its regular grooming regime, then, good on you! Thanks. You're my kind of dog owner. The one I wave my hand at in the park and whose health I enquire after. The one whose pet becomes my daughter's object of affection for a few minutes.

If, on the other hand, you belong to that other category of dog owners, the ones who see every canine as a would-be David Haye, or those who leave a trail of their pooch's faeces behind them, or those who don't look after them properly, to the point where their pets could be the double for Charlie Chaplin's famous on-screen alter ego, 'The Tramp', without anyone spotting the difference; if you're in that group, then read on.

It's hard for me to write about dogs without including owners. Because at the end of the day, on many occasions our so-called best friends are nothing but a reflection of their proprietors.

I've lost count of how many times I've borne witness to the following scene: man or woman is walking dog around the park when his or her little pet feels the call of nature. Next, it stops, squats and leaves a beautiful and oh, (ever) so cute, massive brown gift behind it. On the ground. In the middle of a park. And man or woman, carries on, totally oblivious to what their poochie-pooch has just done. He/she knows - of course they do! - but they'd rather not face up to their beige/off-white/creamy reality. Is this what they're like at home? Crapping all over the gaffe? Walking around piles of excrement with soiled underwear on? Because, really, if that's not the way you behave in your own house, why comport yourself differently outdoors?

Another case I've come across quite often is the dog-and-owner-as-twins scenario. It never ceases to amaze me how remarkably alike some owners and dogs look. What I've never been able to find out (and not because of lack of curiosity, but mettle) is whether the act of finding an animal companion includes physical resemblance amongst the desired traits. There is a man who lives near my house whose dog's visage is almost a copycat of his face. Down to the canine's handlebar 'tache. I kid you not. I presume that he has fashioned his pet's whiskers to resemble his. Maybe they even share the same kennel. If that's the case, I won't be surprised when the RSPCA knock on his door. Already he is liable to end up at the Hague accused of crimes against humanity on account of his facial hair. Why torture his poor pet like that?

But jesting aside, I've left for the end the most dangerous species. They are characterised by aggresive behaviour, hostile attitude and reckless and immature personality. And that's just the owners. Because, who can fault the dogs? After all, they are what their masters want them to be. They are irrational animals, can't think beyond their onomatopoetic 'woof, woof' and are expected to roll around on the grass and chase sticks all day long. If I was Home Secretary, rather than handing dog asbos or canine control orders to abusive owners, I would lock these transgressors up in a 2x2 cell with a pack of hungry hounds that haven't been fed for a week. That would teach them. I'm sure that the National Union of Dogs (if such a body exists) would bark in agreement.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 23rd January at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 16 January 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Some years ago, when I still worked for a local arts organisation as a project manager, I walked to work almost every day (or else I biked). Every morning I made the same short journey, accompanied only by the sound of my CD player (these were pre-mp3 player days). And on every occasion I ran into the same familiar face: the road-sweeper who kept our streets clean. Sometimes I would stop to ask him how he was, or to enquire about the music to which he was listening (he, too, wore headphones whilst doing his job). His mood was usually cheerful, his demeanour humble, his features youthful, although a few wrinkles on his face pointed at an older age than the one I accorded him.

In my mind this road-sweeper was a hero of some sort. Yes, I know that he was only fulfilling his professional duty, but the way he went about his work, not only making sure that the pavement was litter-free, but also that there was no rubbish anywhere near the kerb, was a spectacle to behold and praise.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I grew accustomed to heroism with a capital 'H'. We, Cuban students, were educated in the shadow of all the men and women (especially the former, less attention to the latter) who'd given up their lives fighting for our independence. Our pledge ran thus: '¡Pioneros* por el comunismo, seremos como el Che!' ('Pioneros for communism, we shall be like Che!'). Of course, there was always the joker at the end of the line who whispered: 'What? Asthmatic?'

Hence my change of mind when I hit my twenties. I began to see more heroism in the modest woman who turned up to work at my local cinema everyday, despite the lack of viable transport options, than in the general speaking on the telly about courage and selflessness, then retiring to his big house in the suburbs where a table full of food awaited him.

My initial scepticism about all things heroic was given a boost when I moved to the UK. I realised very soon that I shared the same cynical British attitude towards what sometimes was nothing but emotional blackmail. A lot has been said and written about the Blitz spirit, and occasionally the idea of people going about their business as per normal after an atrocity (for instance the London bombings on 7th July 2005) might be viewed as defiant, but really and truly, did people have an option? I'd sooner believe that Britons' famous resilience, no-nonsense attitude and deadpan, dry sense of humour are more influential factors in how they deal with emergencies.

In my opinion there are many scenarios that beget heroes and heroines. One of them can be the one-off event, for instance tsunamis and terrorist attacks. The unpredictability of the situation, plus our own survival instinct make us behave in ways of which we were probably unaware before. Just as there are many cases of human cowardice in the face of disasters, there are plenty of tales of courage and bravery. I would like to believe that the latter outnumber the former.

Another scenario involves everyday life and mainly people at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. It's called daily grind. Bread and butter. Nine to five. We come up with words to describe this kind of contribution: menial, rut, toil. There's no glamour in it. And yet, in my book, I view it as important as, or more important than 'one-off heroism'. Right now, outside my kitchen window I see men spreading rock salt on the pavement in almost subzero temperatures. The postman/woman delivered our correspondence today as if the Arctic weather was merely a blow of the nose. In a couple of days the refuse collection people will arrive at my door (I'm writing this post before Christmas) and empty our recycle bins in their lorry. As I mentioned before, you might think that these people are just doing their job, but let's consider that idea for a second. The post office faces an overhaul which could leave thousands of its workers without employment. Local authorities have been told to cut back their budgets, which begs the question: how many of those refuse collectors will be facing the sack in 2011? And still, they go about their business as per normal, in the face of an uncertain future.

Around the same time I met this road-sweeper, I found out through my local volunteers' centre that my borough had decided to award prizes to 'local heroes'. I picked up a form without having any second thoughts as to who I wanted to nominate. But I had to let the candidate know beforehand. One day, on my way to work I saw the cleaner early in the morning and stopped to explain to him why I thought he should get the red-carpet treatment. His response still resonates in my ears after all these years: 'Me, hero? No, mate! I'm just doing me job'. I smiled, shook his hand and chucked the form in the next bin.

*Pioneros: literally, 'pioneers'. From age six to eleven, all Cuban children belong to the Organización de Pioneros Jose Martí.

Image taken from Studio Arts

Disclaimer: The clip this week contains some strong language but I have not seen many cover versions of Lennon's 'Working Class Hero' as beautifully sung and heartfelt as this one. I hope you enjoy it.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Let’s Talk About...’, to be published on Wednesday 19th January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I was recently on a train, travelling from Gatwick airport to London with my earphones and mp3 player on. Up until then my little device had behaved itself, sending up tunes that were suited to my mood: I'd just said goodbye to my mother, who had stayed with us during the summer. I wanted music that was neither of the weepy type, nor of the uplifting kind. My mp3 had seemed to copy my brain's instructions fairly well; I did not have to press once the 'skip' button as I made my way to the train station.

The book I'd brought with me to read on my way back to London also fell in the 'neutral territory' category. It was 'A History of God' by Karen Armstrong, a British author who has written extensively about religion, its origins and influence. However, whilst I welcomed the distraction the book brought me, how it took my mind off my mother's return to Cuba and the fact that I would not be seeing her again for some time (years maybe?), I had no reason to suspect that both my brain and my mp3 player had colluded, unintentionally, to give me a little surprise.

Halfway through my journey Gil Scott-Heron's 'Did You Hear What They Said?' kicked off on my mp3 player. This song is a powerful lament about the loss of a young person's life, the circumstances surrounding it and the author's blatant refusal to believe something like this could happen. Precisely at that moment I was finishing the first chapter of my book, 'In the Beginning'. To be even more exact, I will quote the fragment I was reading as Scott-Heron's melody reverberated in my ears:

"Despite his earthbound approach and his preoccupation with scientific fact, Aristotle had an acute understanding of the nature and importance of religion and mythology (...) Hence his famous literary theory that tragedy effected a purification (katharsis) of the emotions of terror and pity that amounted to an experience of rebirth."

Unlike Karen's 400-page treatise on religion, Gil uses only twenty-six lines to express his incredulity and anger. Out of this twenty-six verses, though, nine are repeated throughout the tune. This renders his song poignant and cathartic, especially as it crescendoes towards the end. Listen to the final stanza and I dare you to remain dry-eyed: "Did you hear what they said/Yeah did you hear what they said/Did you hear what they said/About his mother and how she cried/They said she cried, 'cause her only son was dead/They said she cried, 'cause her only son was dead/Woman, could you imagine if your only son was dead/And somebody told you, he couldn't be buried/hey, hey, come on, come on, come on, come on/this can't be real."

Reading and listening to music at the same time are like the coloured lines I see in those charts in The Economist magazine. One indicates domestic growth, whilst the other points at per capita spending. At some point they will cross paths, but this happens very rarely. I admit that I like listening to music whilst I read, usually of the non-intrusive variety. Jazz and classical music get thumbs-up whereas anything with words in it is either skipped or muted. However, this attitude puts me in the pro-Muzak group, an association I strongly dislike, as I'm all for listening to music with intention, not as if one hated it so much, that it has to go and stand in a corner like a child that's been grounded. There's another quandary when you listen to music (with words) whilst reading. In the best case scenario the lyrics will add value to the book you're reading. Yet, do you really need that addendum? After all, the reason to read a book is to immerse yourself in the plot (in the case of fiction). The downside, on the other hand, is that you might end up paying more attention to the music - that's what usually happens, doesn't it? - and will forget about the plot. Then, why bother to read at all?

But occasionally, especially when I'm on the go, book in one hand, mp3 player in my pocket, I don't mind tunes with words in them. In fact, sometimes the phrases on the page complement the lyrics in my ears. That's what happened with that Gil Scott-Heron song. I've listened to it many times; it's one of my favourite tracks by the so-called grandfather of rap. And yet, on that train journey from Gatwick to London, I was moved by it more than at any other time. Mathematically speaking, it was the combination of both 'neutral' and real elements that did it for me: non-fiction book about religion+electronic gadget churning out high-quality pop+my mother's return to Cuba=reflection about the end of polytheism and the start of monotheism in the world and the consequences of this transition.

Gil's song builds rapidly due to its short duration. Still, even after having heard it countless times that second verse is probably one of the more distressing ones I've ever heard in my life: "Did you hear what they said/Did you hear what they said/Did you hear what they said/They said,they shot him in his head/a shot in the head to save his country/a shot in the head to save his country/Come on, come on,come on,come on/this can't be real." Involuntarily, as I listened to these lines, I somehow created an internal debate where on one side I had Scott-Heron's harsh, poetic reality playing against Karen Armstrong's explanation of Nirvana on the other side: "We are told that Nirvana is a permanent, stable, imperishable, immoveable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and unbecome, that it is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter and the place of unassailable security..." Well, no, it isn't, if you get shot in the head and then can't be buried.

I already anticipate posters leaving their comments this week to be split between those for whom silence should be the only companion when reading (or writing) and those who don't mind the nasal intonation of an Amy Winehouse or the drunken inflection of a Tom Waits when diving into the depths of Borges, Munro or Chesterton's works. What I've personally found is that when I listen to music whilst reading not only does the world around me change slightly, but also the one inside.

© 2011

Next post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 16th January at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 9 January 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

"I sometimes feel indulgent doing what I'm doing". It's not often that I hear my wife expressing an opinion so laden with self-doubt. After all, she is a pretty confident woman who deserves the success she's earned in her chosen field: the performing arts. But her comment came on the back of a discussion we had around the dinner table that touched on her master's degree, the current financial situation and the bleak future that arts and humanities courses face in years to come.

Last September my wife began a very challenging course on dance. Although she'd been a performer for many years and has taught creative dance extensively in primary schools at local and regional level, she'd never had the opportunity to delve deeper into the subject that had brought her so many plaudits in her professional career. Having majored in English at university years ago, she realised that it was hightime she devoted her time to conduct a comprehensive study of an art form that still eludes many people. She was also bolstered by a strong desire to teach dance at secondary school level. Enough reasons, you'd believe, to pursue her goals. Yet, reality has a way of encroaching on people's ambitions, making them doubt decisions that will be, in the longer term, beneficial to society.

The current funding landscape in the UK is confusing, to say the least. At the time of writing (early December) the government has just won the battle to hike up university tuition fees in England to up to nine thousand pounds per year. However with a majority of 323 votes in favour against 302 opposing the measure, you could argue that this is a Pyrrhic victory for Cameron and co.

At the heart of this run-in between students and university staff on one side and government policy-makers on the other one, is the question of who should pay for higher education: the state or the pupil? Yet, there is another, subtler argument that is also worth having, even if it doesn't capture people's imagination as much as the battle over tuition fees has. Are some degrees more important than others? More specifically, do exact and applied sciences bring more benefit to society than humanities and arts?

First, a disclaimer. I'm not being argumentative for the sake of it, nor am I advocating for a schism - alive and kicking as it happens - between sciences and arts/humanities. It'd be counterproductive and downright dumb to belittle the role that physics, engineering and chemistry, for instance, play in a nation's economic development. But it seems to me that whenever the need for a financial rethink about higher education arises the first subjects to be put in the firing line are those that fall squarely within the confines of the humanities and/or social sciences (with the exception of economics, then again, how did we get into this mess if it wasn't lack of acumen into our economic situation?).

I think it's easy to snipe at humanities in times of penury. Whereas with sciences the investment made is almost immediately recouped, in the case of subjects that are more abstract, the payback takes longer. One of the areas with which my wife has dealt in her master's is philosophy within dance, a relationship that is closer than one might think, acoording to her comments. However, if a government economist is expecting my spouse's exposé to this alliance to affect the UK's GDP at once, he or she might be in for an unpleasant surprise. It doesn't work like that. Saying that, though, I should point out that in the last decade the impact of the creative and cultural sector on the UK economy has been very noticeable (£57.3 billion contribution in 2006).

The beauty of the humanities is that they touch on and develop parts of one's brain of which one is not even aware. The effect is holistic, broadly speaking, as opposed to immediate. The transformation is wholesome in that it unites the psychological with the physical. As I told my wife after she made her comment, her contribution to society is as important as the person (or persons) who built our house. My consort works with primary schoolchildren, not only teaching them dance, but also using curriculum hours to instruct them on numeracy and literacy through the medium of dance. That the children she coaches are also evolving into confident, self-assertive beings should not be downplayed either. It's one of the many benefits the arts and humanities have to offer. For example, whether you have studied fine arts, work as a professional painter, or have chosen to join the ranks of amateur painters up and down the country, you've probably noticed the manifold positive effects exposure to drawing or painting have had on you as an individual. Is the government so myopic that it doesn't realise that by pulling the plug on several social sciences and humanities under- and post-graduate courses, it is shooting itself in the foot?

Science works on the basis of two-plus-two-equals-four (albeit with plenty of space for trial and error). Philosophy, for instance, is far from that approach. This is a discipline where the (practical) investigation of the (abstract) principles of being, knowledge and behaviour don't lead to a conclusion, or at least, not a definite one. The arts (both visual and performing) engage the human brain both at an emotional and rational level.

When and where there have been collaboration between sciences and the humanities, the resulting studies have benefited from the former's pragmatic approach and the latter's wide-ranging, creative contributions. The outcomes, as the recent experiment between the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Music in Human and Social Development and the London-based chamber group Nash Ensemble showed, indicate that there's only one winner in this modus operandi: the public.

Indulgence should not be what my other half should be blaming herself for. After all, the same bankers who botched up the economy a couple of years ago, are already salivating at the prospect of laying their dirty hands on yet more bonuses. Contrast that attitude with that of a person who has pledged a year of her life to gaining more knowledge about a subject whose long-term effects reap more social benefits and I ask you, fellow blogger/reader, who is contributing more to our general well-being?

Knowledge of what a hypotenuse is today will probably translate into tomorrow's bridge. In the same way, a student leaping across an empty stage somewhere in the UK right now and the philosophical analysis as to the whys and wherefores of that jump, might just metamorphose into a CEO having second thoughts before wrecking our economy a few years hence.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts’, to be published on Wednesday 12th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


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