Intermission: Reading and Writing
Some holiday recommendations
Summer greetings to you all. While I’m away on on essay hiatus for a few weeks, I wanted to offer you a few other things to read which have made me think recently, plus a couple of new podcasts of mine which might be of interest.
I should say that none of this is exactly light summer beach reading. But then you probably didn’t expect that here, did you …?
Ed West writes about Islamic court philosopher Ibn Khaldun, a sort of 14th century Spengler, who charted the rise and fall of civilisations. Khaldun wrote a lot about ‘asabiyyah’, a sort of group-will, which he believed was the key to a culture’s strength or weakness. Once a culture loses its asabiyyah, he suggests, it is on the way out, however many armies or factories it commands. This essay is also good for offering a sense of perspective on our current travails. Covid and the response to it may have been difficult, but they pale in comparison to the Black Death.
Speaking of asabiyyah, Angela Nagle writes about the importance of ‘moral confidence’ for institutional survival, which seems to be another way of saying the same thing. Nagle is writing particularly about the Catholic Church, and trying to get to the bottom of its shockingly swift collapse in Ireland. Losing its own self-belief, she suggests, was the key.
From Ireland to the continent, where American Rhyd Wildermuth is writing about his new life in Luxembourg, discovering the complexity of European culture from the perspective of a recovering US ‘progressive’. His observations about the mapping of a simplistic American race narrative onto the old and ever-shifting cultures and ethnicities of Europe is spot-on, I think. I have long felt that the language in which British and some European cultural elites now talk about race - dividing the world artificially into ‘whites’ and ‘people of colour’, for example - is a form of American colonialism which both obscures the reality of European culture and history, and increases or introduces racial tension. Rhyd writes about this sensitively and sharply.
Elsewhere, I’m pleased to see that Farasha Euker, a stern critic of the modern deviation and a scholar of one of its finest adversaries, D. H. Lawrence, has begun a Substack of her own, serialising her forthcoming book on Lawrence as a lodestar for our time. ‘The modern world is a hell,’ she writes, promisingly, by way of introduction to The Machine Will Never Triumph, ‘and this text will first take us through inferno so as to demolish the metaphysical essence of modernity. We will then proceed through the long purgatorio of change, and will finally, Gods willing, arrive in paradiso, a new world free from the chains of modern technology.’ I’m along for the ride.
If ‘the modern world is a hell’ seems like overkill to you, this recent Guardian interview with transhumanist author Elise Bohan may wake you up, for Bohan is quite clear about where it is leading, and she can’t wait. The aim of transhumanism, she explains, is to allow us to move beyond the ‘ape-brained meat sack’ otherwise known as the human body, so that we can beat death, remake humanity, perfect nature and ultimately, in her own words ‘build God’ anew. Bohan, of course, like her interviewer, doesn’t believe in God. If she did, she might recognise that the argument she is making is precisely the same one that was made by the serpent in the Garden of Eden - which is to say that, as I suggested in my last essay, it is literally Satanic.
What is the alternative to this future? Neuroscientist Erik Hoel, in a long and interesting essay on his own Substack, suggests that the answer might lie in Shakespeare. Humanity is messy. Nature is complex, and not under our control. The likes of Bohan, who are designing our future, can’t cope with this mess, just as they can’t cope with loss, death, humility, the unknown, the transcendent or anything else they can’t turn into an equation or replicate in a lab. The ‘coming inhuman future’, as Hoel calls it, can only be fought with a defence of the irrational, messy, dark, light and mysterious complexity of nature, which includes our human nature. Arm yourselves.
Another alternative to the demonic future that the transhumanists are designing for us, of course, is to take religion seriously. If Nietzsche’s death of God leads us directly into the transhuman abyss, then maybe those old traditions we have so lightly discarded in pursuit of our ‘liberation’ had something to them after all. I recently discussed this with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, on the Unbelieveable? podcast. We have our differences, but we both agreed that what the world needs now is not more tech or more politics, but more saints.
I also had a very enjoyable conversation along similar lines with one of my favourite podcasters, John Heers, whose programme is called, for some reason, Why Are We Talking About Rabbits? I love John’s manner and openness and lack of an agenda. We talked about Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Georgian food, the universal vs the particular, obedience, love, beauty, American lawns, and all sorts of other things.
There are more talks and conversations available on my Youtube channel, if you’re really a glutton for punishment.
Finally, a little postscript: I began reading an article recently on Front Porch Republic, one of my favourite American online publications, which remains a bastion of sanity in the political maelstrom. It started out as a review of novelist and historian Peter Ackroyd’s new book about the history of England and then, much to my surprise, segued into a long essay on my own work here at the Abbey and elsewhere. It’s an essay about the desperate need to re-enchant England: a notion which makes my heart sing. Sometimes other people write about your work better than you ever could.
That’s enough for now. I hope you find some of this nourishing. I’ll be back with my next essay for paid subscribers in July.