Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough by Ludwig Wittgenstein

James Frazer’s Golden Bough is a now much-discredited work of anthropology, published in various versions between 1890 and 1915. The fundamental thesis is that societies move from a belief in magic, to one in religion, finishing in the knowledge that comes from science. Despite it being challenged rather harshly even from the early days of its publication, it has remained influential in literature. I revisited it because of the influence it had on Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Around 1930-31, Wittgenstein first had some of the Frazer’s work read to him, then made some notes on it himself, which have been published in this extremely short book (it’s only 18 pairs of pages with the original German on one side and the English translation on the other.

Wittgenstein challenges Frazer’s notion that the people (called ‘savages’ by both Frazer and Wittgenstein) engage in magic with a belief that it will cause a particular action:

Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.

One could also kiss the name of the loved one, and here the representation by the name would be clear.

The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut out of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy.

This last paragraph makes, what I think is a key challenge not only to Frazer, but also one that applies equally well to the modern ‘new atheist’ movement and their ideas about what religious people believe. In both the religious, and ‘magical’ sense people don’t truly believe that these ritual actions will directly cause change. They do it fundamentally because it makes them feel better. As such, when people pray in church a friend that has cancer, but also support them getting medical treatment, it’s not that there’s some sort of disconnect between the two actions. They are, fundamentally, different things. Science is not a replacement for religion.

Wittgenstein’s responses to the work fit quite well into his later work, especially the Philosophical Investigations. For example, Wittgenstein also challenges Frazer’s notions of how different these ‘savage’ cultures are from us. He uses an example in which Frazer refers to a ‘ghost’ since the important fact is that Frazer has the word ‘ghost’ to refer to. It’s still widely understood in modern times. Frazer did not need to explain this term:

A whole mythology is deposited in our language

This shows a strong kinship with this group. The early ‘magical’ savages, the religious thinkers or the scientists are wildly different from each other, they all share common thought patterns and approaches, and as in the previous example, are not as ignorant to the effect that their actions may have as Frazer would like to believe. It also links with the Philosophical Investigations as an example of the way that language develops (or doesn’t) based on use. We still have a use for the word ‘ghost’

If you have some experience of Frazer’s Golden Bough, Wittgenstein’s remarks are worth a read. Besides anything else, it’s unlikely to take much more than a few minutes and it contains some interesting challenges to the text. If nothing else, his forthright approach makes for an enjoyable read.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

I have mixed feelings about Dickens. At one end of the scale, Bleak House is a masterpiece and it’s hard to carry off a preachy anti-capitalist tale and make it heartwarming, but A Christmas Carol does just that. The other end of the scale is far from terrible. The Pickwick Papers is a fun collection of tales that never quite coheres (perhaps was never really meant to), and Hard Times takes that preachiness, removes the heartwarming and leaves a book I found a slog.

Nicholas Nickleby falls somewhere between those ends. Like a lot of Dickens, if he was publishing today, creating a complete work rather than a series of episodes, a good editor would have cut a lot of extraneous characters and sub-plots, perhaps leaving something that felt more like a single novel. This isn’t really a criticism of Dickens as a recognition of the world he was writing for, but as a modern reader familiar with the novel as a form, Dickens in general and Nickleby in particular, feels disjointed and flabby.

On the plus side the language, even in the worst of Dickens novels, is masterful, fun and a constant delight. More than enough to cover up the most tedious of plot diversions. Characters are generally well drawn, although in this case, male characters are painted with a wide-ranging palette (albeit with broad strokes) but female characters tend to be either idiots, or pure, chaste and in need of rescuing.

In summary, if you’ve never read any Dickens before, don’t start here (wait until Christmas and read A Christmas Carol, it’s short and delightful). If you’ve got a few under your belt, this is middle-ranking. Not as sublime as some of the later work, but more assured than some of the earlier work.

(Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash)

The Brady Heywood Podcast on Apollo 13

The Apollo programme seems like a good antidote to the politics of today. Putting aside the important facts that it was a show of strength against the USSR, and as a product of its time, it excluded (or failed to recognise) women and people of colour, it is still a major achievement of people working together for a common, peaceful goal.

The new podcast series that Brady Heywood has put together outlining NASA’s response to the problems of Apollo 13 really sets out the achievements of those who not only launched the crew into space, but also against all odds, managed to get them safely back to earth. Brady Heywood is a forensic engineering firm, and although Sean Brady doesn’t shy away from many of the technical details, this is perfectly understandable for the layperson. All technical aspects are clearly explained, and since it’s a story in which much of the tension derives from engineering issues, having an expert guide you through the story is very useful.

Those who have seen the film Apollo 13 will have a rough idea of the story, but I have to say that I found Brady more engaging and exciting than the (excellent) Ron Howard film. He captures the peril, the ambiguity, and thus the achievements of the team that managed to bring the crew back to earth safely and the end result is genuinely moving.

You can find parts one, two, three, four and five here, and subscribe on iTunes here.

Weekly Playlist 15: Spring Feeling

I did say on Twitter that I might not do blog posts about the weekly playlist anymore, but then I posted quite a lot on the blog this week, so here we are. At least it’s not the only thing on the blog.

The National have a new single out, so that’s got to be on there. It carries along the drum-beat heavy sound that I love. The classic acts for this week include Scott Walker, Prince and Bob Dylan (the latter’s Desolation Row being a response of sorts to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land).

I was introduced to Phoebe Bridgers’s Scott Street on one of my favourite podcasts, Song Exploder – I find that having the artist explain its construction makes me love a song all the more.

  1. You Had Your Soul with You by The National
  2. Spring Feeling by Toby Martin
  3. My Own Thing by Chance the Rapper feat. Joey Purp
  4. Montague Terrace (In Blue) by Scott Walker
  5. 2Shy by Shura
  6. When You Were Mine by Prince
  7. Comme si by Christine and the Queens
  8. Scott Street by Phoebe Bridgers
  9. Al-Mu’tasim by Cochemea
  10. Desolation Row by Bob Dylan

Apple Music Link

(Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash)

The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart

 

It’s a reasonable question to raise as to why an atheist such as myself would devote a significant amount of time to reading a new translation of the New Testament. It’s not even as if it’s a collection of books with which I’m unfamiliar, having been brought up first as an Anglican, then subsequently as an Evangelical Christian, the latter of which I thought I had a rather strong faith in as a teenager.

The main answer is that religion in all forms continues to fascinate me. The mysteries of Christianity perhaps more than most due to their familiarity. Secondarily, though, these books are the ones on which Western civilisation was founded. I don’t mean anything like the contention that our morality is entirely Christian (it’s not, although there’s a lot more with Judeo-Christian roots than many choose to admit), but more that in a literary sense, these books permeate our culture. Up until a century or so ago, almost everyone in the UK was familiar with these texts, they referred to them in novels, essays and poems. These books structured their lives and even when they chose to reject them, it was from the position of a society that accepted them, often unthinkingly.

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A new translation of books that are so familiar both to me as an ex-Christian, and to our society as a formerly religious one is an interesting sell, therefore. What could a new translator bring? Hart has chosen to write a translation that captures the strange, clunky and often ambiguous Greek. Most translations choose to iron out strange repetitions, odd phrasing, a poorly written sentence, or even a line that is entirely open to question, making into the books that, whether we’ve read them or not, reverberate throughout western culture. Hart’s translation avoids that polishing and retouching. To take an example, most translations of the New Testament translate ‘angelos’ as ‘angels’, but in the Greek, although it came to mean angels, at the time of the Bible it also had the meaning of ‘messenger’. Through translating each example of ‘angelos’ as ‘angels’, translators have created theology, rather than just replicating the holy text. Hart mostly chooses ‘messenger’ other than when the meaning ‘angel’ is unambiguous.

This theology through translation happens more than some would choose to admit. A footnote in 1 Corinthians points out that a verse saying that women should remain silent in church is quite clearly not part of the surrounding argument Paul is making. The verse itself is found in different places in various early versions of the text, and appears to be written in a different style than those surrounding it. Added to this Paul is quite clear that women do speak in church and refers to a women as an ‘apostle’ (another verse which has been translated and interpreted in order to remove its most obvious suggestion – that Paul was fine with women leading worship).

These sorts of diversions can be extremely interesting for an outsider looking at the arguments within the church, many of which both sides can use scriptural authority to support their position. Especially when some of this seeming authority comes from a subsequent translator, not the text itself.

Outside the translation itself, reading the New Testament is an odd experience. The synoptic gospels are recognisable enough to anyone who’s been to church or had a few RE lessons at school. Although, when you read Matthew, Mark and Luke as separate books, you realise that the story you know is actually a conglomeration of multiple stories, not one, single accepted work. In the nativity, for example, the Kings (Magi, magician is probably a better term) and the shepherds appear in two different gospels, never together. Mark doesn’t even tell about Jesus’s childhood at all, and finishes the story with the empty tomb.

Things immediately get weird with the book of John. Far from the preacher of the synoptics, the Jesus of John is well aware of his future crucifixion, and is a mystic, gnomic character. The opening of ‘In the beginning was the logos’ (often translated as ‘word’, but logos means a lot more than just ‘word’, having meanings of ‘ground’, ‘plea’, ‘opinion’, ‘expectation’, ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘account’, ‘reason’, ‘proportion’, ‘discourse’ – it’s for this reason that Hart chooses not to translate it at all) is a strange introduction to a book about the life of Jesus. It’s mystical and philosophical in a way that some sects adopted, but many brushed under the carpet, focusing much more closely on the synoptics.

Following this are the Acts of the Apostles (actually the second half of the book of Luke, who wrote a considerable proportion of the New Testament), letters, first those of Paul, some attributed to Paul, some unattributed, a few from John (not the previous John), then the Revelation of John (not that John, or the other John). But almost all of it is quite strange to a modern audience. Paul is somewhat more hung up on fornication than I’d remembered, but otherwise relatively sensible. More than anything he’s just overflowing with enthusiasm about this man who he’d never met, and whose followers he had, until recently, been persecuting. This glimpse into a small, insignificant sect is, from an outsider’s perspective, fascinating. They weren’t to know they were founding a religion that would take over 2/3s of the world and would still be in existence two millennia later. Indeed, most of them thought that Jesus’s return was imminent. Jesus said quite clearly it was going to happen within their lifetime. The books, to a degree, struggle with explaining this disparity.

All this said, I’m not sure I’d recommend reading it unless it’s something that particularly interests you. Even for the religious, the complete New Testament end to end is a bit of a slog, regularly repetitious, obscure, or just dull, albeit smattered with recognisable moments of beauty and clarity. Hart does extract something from this text that felt new to me though. Like an art restorer, he cleans off the years of additional grime and repainting that’s been added by translators through the years and reveals a series of books that are more obvious those of the tiny beginnings of a cult in a semi-literate society extremely different from our own. They are something alien, but nevertheless recognisably foundational for our culture, and that’s an intriguing combination.

You can buy the book on Amazon here.

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

 

This isn’t going to be a review. Not even sure what a 500 word review of The Waste Land would even say (“bit weird, rhymes aren’t as good as Pam Ayres, why are bits in German? Two stars”) Instead, this is more about why, when no-one was making me write an essay about it, I decided to dive into this important, difficult work.

I know poetry isn’t a thing most people enjoy. It’s something that’s shoved at them at school, or even at university, its complexity and ambiguity frustrating and intimidating. When it’s comprehensible it seems trite and when it’s not it seems purposefully obscure. I’ve shared some of these views in the past, but keep getting drawn back to poetry because I love the tight, beautiful language that reverberates around your mind for weeks and months.

I’ve dipped in and out of The Waste Land before. Mostly noting the odd phrase that I like (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust” or “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”) but then drifted away from it, scared by footnote references to Dante’s Inferno and the fact the poem drifts in and out of German, French, Italian and Sanskrit. It wasn’t a poem I studied at university, but joining The London Library made me realise that there’s a wealth of books I could read to replicate some of that experience and try and get my head around it. Further book reviews will almost certainly show that I’m a long way away from doing such a thing, but the journey of learning more about the poem, Eliot himself, and then branching out into other works of his has been hugely rewarding.

The poem is full of the best of echoing lines. Reading it and listening to multiple readings (Eliot’s own I find hard to love, but Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes and Fiona Shaw have all done wonderful versions), some many, many times has helped get the wonderful language lodged in my head.

I think the final thing that’s been helpful is the realisation that whilst I still don’t understand all the layers, the depth, the constant references to other works, or what I’m supposed to take from this modernist masterpiece, neither does anyone else. Indeed a poem’s meaning can only ever be what it means to the reader. There is no objective authority to tell you. Even the poet themselves can’t be objective about it. It’s like an unsolved, indeed even unsolvable, mystery.

But best of all, no-one’s making me write an essay about it.

Photo by Nick Perez on Unsplash

The Kindergarten Teacher

In The Kindergarten Teacher, the titular character, Lisa, is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Increasingly detached from her job and family, she finds a child in her class, five-year-old Jimmy, who appears to spontaneously produce poems while pacing the floor.

Jimmy’s seeming works of art allow her to relive the creative, bohemian life that she feels she never got to experience, but her fixation gradually becomes unhealthy and dangerous. The film also leaves us to decide for ourselves what this creative process Is. Is Jimmy really a budding poet? Is he just reciting poems from his uncle? Are these poems actually any good? Can he really be thought of as a creator at such a young age? If a five year old can create amazing poetry, then what is poetry itself?

Where the film itself is filled with ambiguity, Lisa’s insistence on Jimmy’s talent feels like it’s the only firm ground. Her belief in Jimmy increasingly causes her to destroy everything else around her.

It’s a film I’ve found hard to process. Gyllenhaal is outstanding, and the film itself is well-written, making for what amounts to a taught thriller about the odd topic of a pre-school poet. However, the film’s ability to project the deep discomfort Lisa feels about her own life, and the way that one follows the steps of her descent so closely, means that the relatively short running time is almost entirely excruciating. Sara Colangelo has made a film which pulls the audience into Lisa’s loss of grounding in a very uncomfortable way.

Although a film I’m not sure if I ever want to revisit it’s stuck with me in a way few films can, and is well worth watching.