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Archive for March, 2010

A few weeks ago Richard Dawkins changed the way the bulletin-board on his website functioned. He was shocked by the reactions left in the comment boxes, which were often abusive, angry, and even hysterical.

“Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, overreacting so spectacularly to something so trivial,” he wrote. “Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people?” There must, he felt, be “something rotten in the internet culture that can vent it”.

Why is the internet a breeding ground for such venom? It’s not just the anonymity afforded to those who respond, or the speed with which the responses can be posted. It’s also the feedback mechanism that allows members of internet groups to reinforce for each other both their best convictions and their worst prejudices.

lights and crowds by gaspi *your guide.

James Harkin describes the process:

 The paradox of the “wisdom of online crowds” is that it only works in clubbable, relatively small groups of like-thinking minds. The reason why the richest and most productive audiences online are for the most arcane subjects – on the relationship between economics and law, for example, or how to care for cats – is because everyone involved feels part of an exclusive club dedicated to finding out more about the same thing.

However, it’s for exactly the same reason that many of these clubs can become breeding grounds for vicious tribalism. The brevity required for communication on Twitter does not lend itself to decorous etiquette, but neither is it the soul of wit to circulate snide, snarky tweets to an enthusiastic group of followers.

Too often the online audience separates into a series of rival gangs, each of them patting each other on the back and throwing stink-bombs at the other side. In this environment civility can disappear, with the result that those who do not take an extreme approach in offering their views decide that online forums are not for them.

When everyone is reinforcing everyone else’s opinion in an online echo-chamber, there’s little need to state a case or debate one’s opponent. It’s easier – like the schoolyard bully – just to abuse them. The other problem with online “communities” is that decisions about quality often become snagged in a highly conservative and self-reinforcing feedback loop in which everyone queues up to follow the leader. 

So it’s hard to keep a website or blog running that will genuinely be a place of dialogue and discussion, rather than just a tribal meeting point.

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One of our Lenten ‘disciplines’ in the seminary is to eat Thursday lunch in silence. What this means in practice is: no talking; a spiritual book is read for about 15 minutes; and whenever the particular chapter is finished we spend the rest of the time listening to the ambient noises in the dining room.

I’m certainly not the first to write about this, but you do notice a lot of things when the noise of chatter dies down. The sound of cutlery on crockery, of the boiler in the basement, of chopping in the kitchen next door. The detailing around you: the grain in the wooden table, the words ‘stainless steel’ stamped into some (but not all) of the knives. Time itself changes. I’d never realised how long, in the silence, it can take someone to eat just half an apple.

Tenderly touch - Un delicado contacto - Zärtliche Berührung by alles-schlumpf.

People, above all, are transformed. In a strange way you can be more present, not less, to another person in silence. Words can sometimes become an unintentional smokescreen to meeting another, and the sheer physical reality of the human being (and even their inner life) can be appreciated in a new way. Yes, words can reveal a person; but a person is more than their words — and that’s easy to forget.

The book we are using, by the way, is The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints by Robert Ellsberg — which I highly recommend for personal reading.

Here’s a preview from the Macmillan website:

A noted spiritual writer seeks answers to life’s big questions in the stories of the saints. In All Saints –published in 1997 and already a classic of its kind –Robert Ellsberg told the stories of 365 holy people with great vividness and eloquence. In The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, Ellsberg looks to the saints to answer the questions: What is happiness, and how might we find it?

Countless books answer these questions in terms of personal growth, career success, physical fitness, and the like. The Saints’ Guide to Happiness proposes instead that happiness consists in a grasp of the deepest dimension of our humanity, which characterizes holy people past and present. The book offers a series of “lessons” in the life of the spirit: the struggle to feel alive in a frenzied society; the search for meaningful work, real friendship, and enduring love; the encounter with suffering and death; and the yearning to grasp the ultimate significance of our lives. In these “lessons,” our guides are the saints: historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila, and moderns such as Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Henri J. Nouwen. In the course of the book the figures familiar from stained-glass windows come to seem exemplars, not just of holy piety but of “life in abundance,” the quality in which happiness and holiness converge.

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Zadie Smith reads at the Ding Dong lounge by deenah moffie.

Zadie Smith giving a reading

I posted a few weeks ago about hedgehogs and foxes: Isaiah Berlin’s way of categorising intellectuals as ‘big thinkers’ with one key idea, or as feral creatures who scurry around picking up scattered ideas.

Zadie Smith has a wonderful article about the process of writing a novel. She says that there are two distinct approaches. The Macro Planner ‘makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page’. The security of the overarching structure gives him a freedom to adapt what goes on inside. The Micro Manager, Smith herself, starts at the first sentence of a novel and finishes at the last. The story can only emerge once the starting point is right.

It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forwards or backwards, their difficulties multiply with their choices. I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title. I can’t stand to hear them speak about all this, not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying. I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal—they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line. When I begin a novel I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first 20 pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing? It manifests itself in a compulsive fixation on perspective and voice. In one day the first 20 pages can go from first-person present tense, to third-person past tense, to third-person present tense, to first-person past tense, and so on. Several times a day I change it. Because I am an English novelist enslaved to an ancient tradition, with each novel I have ended up exactly where I began: third person, past tense. But months are spent switching back and forth. Opening other people’s novels, you recognise fellow Micro Managers: that opening pile-up of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the 20-page mark is passed. In the case of On Beauty, my OPD spun completely out of control: I reworked those first 20 pages for almost two years. To look back at all past work induces nausea, but the first 20 pages in particular bring on heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.

Yet while OPD is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. That’s the strange thing. It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter… When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months. Worrying over the first 20 pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters—all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

I always thought I was Macro Planner: I’m pretty organised and I like to know where I am going. But I recognise this experience of obsessing about a single sentence, or searching for a single idea or image. Often, writing a talk or a sermon, I will draft a whole plan — and it just doesn’t work. It’s only when I find a single thought that encapsulates what is important and what I want to say that it all falls into place, like a roll of carpet unfurling itself with a single shake.

It’s well worth reading the whole article and applying it not just to writing, but to thinking, and to life. I like especially step number 8: ‘Step away from the vehicle’.

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I don’t often post about trivia (although some of you may disagree…), but this online Flower Garden is so simple and so delightful that I can’t resist. You click with the mouse anywhere on the black screen and a flower appears; or you just hold down the left button on the mouse and drag the cursor across the screen for a splashier effect.

It’s a form of doodling. It’s an experience of playing God – walking through the Garden of Eden and saying ‘let it be’. It’s gardening without the digging or the waiting. It’s the Chelsea Flower Show without the £30 ticket. I know you are thinking this is beneath you – but click on the image above to open up the site, and have a go. It will distract you from hours of important business!

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Matteo Ricci SJ by Romanus_too.May 11th this year will be the 400th anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci, the great Jesuit missionary to China. “Li Madou” (his Chinese name) died in Beijing and was buried on Chinese soil, an honour not normally given to foreigners, but granted by the emperor as a tribute to his wisdom and love for the Chinese.

Ricci was a pioneer in the theology of ‘inculturation’: immersing himself in Chinese life, with a profound love and respect for the culture, in the hope of creating a genuine dialogue – so allowing the unchanging Gospel message to flower in a new soil and in a new way. He is also an example of how scientific genius and Christian faith can go hand in hand.

Here is a summary of his life that came out on Zenit yesterday, in connection with an international congress on “Science, Reason, Faith: The Genius of Father Matteo Ricci,” held in Macerata.

Born in Macerata on October 6, 1552, the future “Apostle of China” entered the Society of Jesus in Rome at age 18, where he soon heard the call to a missionary vocation.
 
In 1557, before he was ordained a priest, he requested to be posted to the missions in the Far East. Thus he left for Portugal, to begin preparations for the Oriental apostolate. Embarking from Lisbon with 14 Jesuit brothers, Ricci arrived on September 13, 1578 to Goa, India, where St. Francis Xavier was buried.
 
Ricci spent some years in India, teaching in the Jesuit schools, before his priestly ordination. He celebrated his first Mass on July 26, 1580.
 
Soon after, the Jesuit Visitor of Missions in the Indies (including China and Japan), Alessandro Valignano, asked Father Ricci to go to Macau, then a Portuguese colony in China, to study the Chinese language and to prepare to enter mainland China, at that time impenetrable to foreigners.
 
The much awaited entry took place on September 10, 1583. Father Ricci and his companion Michele Ruggiere arrived in Zhaoqing, where they began to build the first house and church, finished in 1585. The small Jesuit community later moved to Shaoguan.
 
Well received by the Wanli Emperor of the Ming dynasty, Father Ricci was raised to the rank of Mandarin, received in the Celestial Empire, and welcomed by top civil and military officials.
 
“To be Chinese with the Chinese” was Father Ricci’s innovative method of evangelization, which encompassed the ability to adapt himself to local customs and traditions in order to be closer to those to whom he proclaimed the Gospel.
 
The way of “inculturation” chosen by the Jesuit, joined to the tireless practice of charity, bore fruits as he was able to dialogue with both important dignitaries as well as poor people, all of whom were impressed by the missionary’s great respect for Confucianism and for the Chinese cultural patrimony.
 
Father Ricci’s scientific knowledge also aroused great admiration. He took to China Western mathematics and geometry, as well as the great contributions of the Renaissance in the fields of geography, cartography and astronomy.
 
In addition to teaching numerous scientific and humanistic subjects in Chinese, he left a great number of works, such as the “Treatise on Friendship,” the “Chinese World Map,” the treatise on the “Genuine Notion of the Lord of Heaven,” “Synthesis of Christian Doctrine,” “Christianity in China,” “Commentaries” and “Letters from China.” These works contributed in a decisive way to the foundation of modern Sinology and the spread of Western knowledge in China and the whole of the East.

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Congratulations to Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker for their six Oscars yesterday evening. I like to think that, if you read between the lines, I predicted this in my post about the film last September. Well, what I mean is that I gave it a good review.

Fish Tank should have got the best picture Oscar (see the Guardian review here), but by Hollywood standards this was a pretty good choice.

The Hurt Locker by Fan the Fire Magazine.

The Hurt Locker

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Andrew Marr examines three recent sci-fi films (Avatar, District 9, and Surrogates) and draws some conclusions about how people understand themselves in the West.

avatar 阿凡達 阿凡达 by 邪恶的正太.

Avatar image by Juehuayin

He detects a lack of confidence in the whole human project emerging from these films. It’s not just that we face particular problems and are not sure how to overcome them. It’s that we are wondering whether there is any point at all in trying to overcome them. So it’s not the present situation of humankind that is in question, but the very meaning and purpose of being human. “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”

[Plot spoiler coming] It’s interesting that the only way of ‘redemption’ for human beings at the end of Avatar is to renounce being human.

See if you agree with Marr’s assessment:

They are all anxiety films, even hysteria films, but they have a special edge. The bad guys seem to be human beings in general, and our corporate-capitalist system in particular. Avatar self-doubt pits a humanity that has ravaged their home planet against the indigenous blue pixies of the lush Pandora. There are “good humans” of course, a minority of geeky biologists and a disabled man, but we are left in no doubt about the insanely greedy and aggressive tendencies of most of the bipedal inhabitants of grey and battered Earth…

Though they are dark films, they are in a different category from the familiar cheery genre of apocalypse- soon movies, such as the recent (and hilariously awful) 2012. Nor are they like the earlier aliens-are-coming films, from Independence Day to Mars Attacks, in which it’s up to humanity to repel boarders. Indeed, that’s the point; recent film-making has switched the good guys and bad guys around. These films say that humans are greedy, stupid, rapacious and often lazy. They say we are infinitely suggestible, prone to being moulded by corporate interests, and at risk of being captured by our own technology.

They are, in short, films with a strong dose of human self-hatred running through them. This is anger and satire, directed against the main forward thrust of Western life, as mass entertainment…

But I do think the historians of a century ahead, writing about our times, will use the films in our cinemas right now to discuss the decline of the West. They will talk about a radical lack of self-confidence in the project of enlightenment-science-plus-corporate- capitalism, a spectacular loss of nerve. They will observe how fear about the coming “singularity” in computing power, remorse about wars in Asia and environmentalist horror about rainforest destruction and species extinction combined to shake the West’s belief in its destiny. And then they will contrast all that with the brash confidence, even triumphalism, of the Chinese film industry as a set piece contrast in how art imitates life.

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