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Archive for September, 2009

I was having lunch in a cafe this summer and went round the back to find the toilet. There were two doors facing me, and neither of them had any signs saying ‘Male’ or ‘Female’, or those stylised figures in trousers or skirts. Instead, fixed to one door, with a huge rusty nail driven through the toe, was a 4 inch stiletto; and on the other, with another nail, a black boot of the Doc Martin variety, looking as if it had spent a few years on a building site. I avoided the stiletto.

rεsılıεnt hεtεromogεnεous rhızomε . . by jef safi.

Prehistoric? Sexist? Certainly. But it embodied a cultural truth that Nicolas Sarkozy has been tiptoeing round most of his life: that women who want to be tall are allowed to show it, but men who want to be tall must pretend that they are not trying. At about 5 feet 6 inches, Sarkozy is well known for his ‘stacked’ shoes (you can’t say ‘high heeled’), and for the specially imported platforms he stands on when he speaks from a podium. But then the following story broke and made it worse:

A worker chosen to stand on the podium behind the French president at a visit to a Normandy factory last week has admitted in a Belgian TV report that she was chosen because her small stature wouldn’t make the president look short. The report on the Belgian state channel RTBF said a group of specially selected workers of smaller stature had been bussed in to stand behind the president at the Faurecia auto parts company.

“I am told you have been chosen because of your size, is this true?” the Belgian journalist asked one woman worker on the podium. “Yes,” she replied. “You must not be bigger than the president?” the journalist continued. “That’s right,” the woman said.

 

lilliput by kristinamay.The ‘sin’, for which he is being punished so mercilessly, is not wanting to be tall – it is wanting it so much that he is prepared to make others short (as it were). He, or his team, has crossed a cultural line. We all want to be beautiful, or strong, or tall, or thin, or whatever will make us more attractive to others. And not many people make absolutely no effort to care for their appearance (although it’s possible…). It’s not vain to want to present yourself in the best possible light, to want to fit in; even the desire to impress can go hand in hand with a certain humility of heart – if it is with the right motivations.

But there are two things you can’t do: try too hard, or do it at the expense of others. This is what turns an endearing human characteristic – the desire to please and to be attractive in the sight of others – into an unacceptable foible. It doesn’t at all mean that Sarkozy is more vain or insecure than the rest of us, perhaps it just means he is less able to hide it, or dogged enough to run the risk of disclosing it.

It makes one reflect: What are the hundred little things we do each day to fit in, to please, to attract? At least we can be more and more aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it. And that awareness might lead to a deeper simplicity and peace, so that we are glad to please others – for good and honest and ordinary reasons – without the desperation that makes us completely dependent on their being pleased.

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THE INTERVIEW by Akbar Simonse.My last post was about why Joe Public would ever want to step in front of a camera. This one, coincidentally, is about why a news camera would ever want to go in search of Joe Public when it could call on any number of experts instead. I’ve just read Edward Docx having a rant (‘If I ruled the world…’) in this month’s Prospect. The online text is subscription only, so let me quote a couple of paragraphs.

He is sick of the way that even serious TV and radio now spends so much time seeking out the opinions of ordinary people. Factual news and informed commentary are now being replaced by ‘feedback’ and comments left by ordinary people who choose to ‘join the debate’.

 

I don’t care what Andy from Cheadle thinks about the Gaza strip, the ice caps, Manchester City or even Cheadle. Nobody cares. Nobody except Andy, and presumably he already knows. When I turn on the radio or the television, or when I open a book or a newspaper, what I want is an expert. I want insightful commentary. I want stylistic elegance. I want eloquence. I want uninterrupted expertise.

I’m simply not interested in what the public thinks. Nobody is except pollsters and marketing research agencies (and they only do it for the money). Not even the public is interested in what the public thinks. That’s why they are listening to the radio and not stopping to inquire of one another in the street [p7].

He’s got a point, and we have all been bored at one time or another by the inane opinions of those who happen to be passing by a news team in the street. But he is missing a few points too. Let me list, in increasing order of seriousness, the reasons why we like to listen to the voice of ordinary people speaking about big issues:

(1) We like feeling part of a big conversation; and we would like to stop someone in the street and ask them what they think, but we are too shy to do it. (2) Opinions and ideas need to be embodied and not just discussed. A single ordinary person saying what they believe is more powerful than an expert telling us that a million ordinary people do actually believe this. This is why ‘Joe the Plumber’ (real name: Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher) became the focus of one of the Presidential debates between Obama and McCain last year. (3) Passionate personal conviction carries much more weight in today’s culture than objective truth. This goes back to Rousseau, and the whole Romantic movement, but it is part of ordinary life now and not just an elite philosophy. (4) We don’t always trust experts. Partly experience; partly cynicism; partly living in an age of conspiracy theories. (5) The nature of authority has changed. We won’t give someone a hearing just because of their status or title or qualifications. Everyone is equal now.

journalist interviewing people by Kewei SHANG.

How does this change politics, or society, or religion? I’m not sure – but I’m sure it does somehow.

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There is still a mystique about film sets. The idea of being involved in some great project, in the magic of cinema; of seeing the director at work, or of meeting the stars. For most of us, it will never happen. For some, the only way in is to become an extra.

ARD Film set by nicholas macgowan.

Richard Johnson writes here about the reality of life as a ‘supporting artist’. It’s everything you’d expect: lots of waiting around; endless worrying about whether you have the right look; the free lunch; the modest fee; if you are lucky, a smile from one of the cast.

I’ve never been an extra on a film set, but I have been an unwanted intruder on a photo shoot. When my brother and I were little, on family holidays, we would play a game of trying to sneak into other people’s photographs. When we spotted someone about to take a photo, we’d do whatever it took to get in the frame – there was more time in those days, when people struggled with the focus and the light meters.

We had two strategies: You could take a long, sideways run into the far background, and stand there innocently, unobtrusively, as part of the distant scenery. Or you could walk boldly just a few feet behind those being shot, at just the right moment. It you timed it right, you made a big splash; but there was always the risk of moving too soon. 

It was a bit of holiday fun. And perhaps something more. A childlike longing, not for fame, but perhaps for immortality. I used to imagine this photo sitting in a frame on a French coffee table, or a German mantelpiece, years later; our cheeky grins jumping out from the background; our new friends wondering who these strangers were, and what they were doing.

mantelpiece by carbide.

Are these normal thoughts? Maybe not. But I do think there are some simple and almost universal longings at work here in our childish pranks and in the pull of the film set: To be part of something bigger; to have a place in the lives of others; to be remembered; to leave a mark. It’s easy to scoff at the contemporary obsession with fame, and the almost compulsive need there is to connect in all sorts of superficial ways. But maybe we should try to understand more what is at the root of these human needs – the desire to belong.

It makes you appreciate what a revolution the first Christian communities were in those highly stratified ancient societies. Places where anyone, absolutely anyone, could belong. Where no-one was excluded because of race or sex or social status or economic power. Where a new and deeper kind of belonging was possible, because of what Christ had done for everyone, and because of the hope he offered to all.

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Conversion is a fascinating topic. What is it that brings someone to re-think the meaning of their life and take it in a new direction? I don’t mean those mad moments when we do something completely out of character and regret it soon after. Or the radical decisions we make to turn our back on something important, when deep down we know that it really is still important. I mean those rare times when we look at ourselves and at the world and somehow understand them in a completely new way, from a different perspective. Or when we discover a new truth so profound that it forces us to re-cast other truths that have been central to our lives.

Sartre by lord marmalade.

For Sartre, the possibility of conversion was the clearest sign of human freedom. It shows that we are not completely determined by the past, by the forces that have shaped us, or even by the people we have become. It shows that we always have the possibility of making something new of our lives. He delights in:

…these extraordinary and marvellous instants when the prior project collapses into the past in the light of a new project which rises on its ruins and which as yet exists only in outline, in which humiliation, anguish, joy, hope are delicately blended, in which we let go in order to grasp and grasp in order to let go – these have often appeared to furnish the clearest and most moving image of our freedom [Being and Nothingness, 1958 Edition, p476].

Eduardo Verástegui en DAV by HazteOir.org.These thoughts come to mind because Eduardo Verastegui was in the UK last week speaking at a Catholic youth festival and promoting his new film Bella. His is a classic conversion story. He rose to fame in a Mexican boy-band, became a huge TV star, finally broke into Hollywood, and then renounced it all when his English tutor (a committed Catholic) pushed him to think about where his life was going and what it all added up to. He realised that his whole lifestyle was taking him further and further away from God, poured his heart out in confession, and has spent the last seven years doing pro-life work and organising house-building schemes in Mexico. More recently, he has been trying to get back into Hollywood – this time to produce films that will have a positive influence on society, and to realise his dream of setting up a centre for Catholic culture there that would counteract the darker influences of that ambiguous world.

It’s an inspiring story. You can read a short article about his life and conversion here. And if you want more then see the video here – jump ahead to 2.25 for the interview where he tells his story.

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Kate Wong brings us up-to-date on the latest research into the Neandertals in this month’s issue of Scientific American.

I’ve always been fascinated by ‘Neandertal Man’ as he/she used to be called. We think about what it would be like to meet aliens. (Well, I think about what it would be like to meet aliens!) Would we be able to communicate? Would we be able to understand each other? Yet here in our own back yard, in Europe and the Near East and much of Asia, modern human beings were living side-by-side with another hominid form, meeting and presumably trying to communicate, only 30,000 years ago. I refrained from saying ‘another human species’ because the great and still unresolved question is whether we belonged to distinct species, and whether or not modern humans and Neandertals could interbreed. And despite the theories about genocide (by humans), climate change, and diet – we still don’t know why they became extinct about 28,000 years ago.

Grottes de Lascaux II by davidmartinpro.It seems that they had jewellery and bone tools and made sophisticated weapons; but modern human beings had the edge – in their social organisation, in the efficiency of their physique, and in their sheer intelligence and creativity. ‘The boundary between Neandertals and moderns has gotten fuzzier’, writes Christopher B. Stringer – but there is still a boundary. There is something radical and new about human intelligence, a leap and not just a lurch, that gives rise to art, creativity, sophisticated language, morality, and some more reflective kind of self-consciousness. And, interestingly, one of the key markers for paleoanthropologists is the emergence for the first time among human beings of symbolic customs surrounding the burial of the dead. Human intelligence seems to go hand in hand with an appreciation of the significance of death.

Neandertals, we presume, in some way asked questions about how to live; human beings, as far as we can tell, are the only creatures to ask questions about the meaning of that living, and the possibility of living beyond death.

Prehistoric Painting by Klearchos Kapoutsis.

[A wonderful book that first got me interested in human uniqueness in relation to Neandertals is Becoming Human by Ian Tattersall, OUP 1998. It’s probably a bit old now, but it is still in print]

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I was at a funeral last Thursday of a friend and fellow priest who died tragically in a car crash, Fr Edward Houghton. May he rest in peace; and may his family and all those who mourn him receive comfort and consolation.

So many thoughts remain, most of them too personal for a blog, but one stands out in reflecting on death and how we view it today. In the sermon, Fr Peter Houghton (Fr Ed’s brother) used a simple but powerful phrase: If we are afraid of death then we will be afraid of life. If we cling to life and its joys too powerfully, if we see death only as a threat, then life – paradoxically – will be harder to live. We will be crippled by anxiety and overprotective of all the good things that come to us. But if we are able to acknowledge the horizon of death, and to accept it as a possibility at each moment of our lives, then this will give us a kind of freedom and serenity: to live for the moment – not recklessly, but with gratitude and humility; to take risks – when there are good reasons; to realise that we are not ultimately in control of everything – and that we can learn to trust in something or someone greater; to hope in the possibility of life beyond the grave – not as an escape or a refuge but as a fulfilment of all that we are living through now.

Perhaps the opposite is also true: If we avoid thinking about death then it will be hard to find any peace in this life. If we immerse ourselves so completely in the reality of this present life, it could just be a way of masking an underlying anxiety about where it is heading, and an unresolved fear of losing it, a kind of hidden dread.

It is not easy to face death, but it is much harder (both psychologically and spiritually) spending a lifetime trying to avoid it. How we find the courage to face death, and then to accept it with some kind of serenity, and even to hope that there will be a way beyond death into another kind of life – that is another question…

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The five greatest time travel films of all, err, time: Twelve Monkeys; Terminator 2; Groundhog Day; Les Visiteurs; Planet of the Apes (the original version). Discuss.

TARDIS Bokeh by Capt. Tim.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, sadly, does not even make the top ten. It’s very silly, and very soppy, and full of plot holes. But it does play around much more than most films do with the idea of the traveller [proper English spelling now, as I’m not quoting the title] going back and forward in time to meet himself.

It’s bizarre, and utterly fantastical – but in fact we do it every day. I know that dogs and dolphins have memories, and plan for the future. But we human beings seem to have a distinctive ability to become present to ourselves as we were in the past, and aware of ourselves as we might be in the future. Memory and imagination seem to have a special power for us. We really go back in time and see ourselves as we were, and this allows us to learn, and to regret, and to be grateful – and so many other things. And we really go forward in time and imagine how we could be in the future, and this allows us to be creative and inventive and even visionary.

Out of time by Ross Chapman.

The key, according to Sartre, is not that we can go back or forward in time, it is that in the present we can step back from ourselves – from our own thoughts and feelings and desires – and take a look at them. A look that might be curious, or approving, or critical. This ‘presence-to-self’ is what makes us human, and makes us free, and allows us to time travel.

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