Camus’ L’etranger and Kayne’s ‘Power’: loving the hate, hating the love

Listening to Kanye West’s opening section of his song ‘Power‘, I immediately thought of its similarity with the final words of Camus’ novella, L’etranger (The Outsider). First, from L’etranger:

For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.

No, the opening verse from ‘Power’:

I’m living in the 21st century doin’ something mean to it
Doing it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music

What do these two very different takes have to teach us about hate and about the haters? I’ve written on this subject before but here there seemed a much more complex relationship between L’etranger‘s main protagonist, Mersault and the Kanye-narrator ‘character’ in ‘Power’. Hate, rather than simply a by-product of difference or success, seemed intimately entwined with how to live one’s life, a reflection of a sophisticated relationship with oneself and one’s society.

Mersault explains why he encourages the hate: ‘for the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely.’ The final consummation, the latter meaning complete or finalised, points to the end of his life: he will soon be executed. This echoes his belief that death will be final, without hope of an afterlife. Here it is worth noting its echo of Hamlet’s ‘to die, to sleep / No more […] ‘Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished.’: both hope for that finality, that complete and utterly irreversible ending.

Consummation also suggests that the hatred of the crowd will provide some kind of closure, a rise in tempo in the rhythm of the final moments of his life. It summarises a new phase in his understanding of his morality and that of the world in which he lives: that is, he has experienced an epiphany that shows him how one might live, how one might die.

This epiphany is linked to his loneliness and therefore his place in the world, the place for his beliefs and behaviours. When one thinks of Mersault’s loneliness – or more broadly, his relationship with the world – there is a growing irony to the idea at the centre of his desire to be hated.

On the surface, he says shortly before the end of the novel that he experiences a ‘fraternity’ with the universe, since they share a ‘benign indifference’ towards human affairs. Yet such fraternity does not appear to stave off the human, urgent sense of loneliness he feels in his cell, awaiting execution. The baying crowd will permeate that loneliness because they will provide him with ‘attention’, an intense focus on him as an undivided object of their focus, and more – with hatred, that most intense and immediate of emotions. It is, in this sense, a palpable and very human desire.

Yet, the notion of ‘object’, which I use advisedly, should alert us to the problems inherent in the crowd’s reaction, as should the complex irony and duality at the heart of Mersault, especially in the later scenes.

Because Mersault has become an object of derision for the crowd, he understands that they do not fully grasp his particular humanity, his agency. For them, he is merely a vessel into which to pour their malign engagement. The crowd, unlike either Mersault or the ‘benign indifference’ of the universe with which he feels so closely bonded, is intensely aroused and judgemental. They have found a type of meaning in directing their anger towards a person, an idea – even if it is a false one. He, and the universe in which he has finally found a brotherhood, has been fatally misunderstood.

Throughout the novel Mersault has behaved in a way that is at odds with societal norms. This culminates in the powerful subtext, that he is tried and found guilty not for the crime of murder, nor for his lack of regret (although they are central factors) – but that he didn’t love his mother. Morevoer, he does not judge wordily affairs: we’ve already learnt, shortly before the final passage of the novella, that he recognises his mother’s need for a new beginning despite her age and the impossibility of a long-term marriage to her partner. At the end of the novel he understands that his seemingly strange behaviour, even to himself, has found an allay in the fundamental law of the universe.

Mersault will stand ‘alone’ only in the sense that he remains steadfastly outside of human affairs, but at one with the universe. In this respect, their hatred means that he has been right about his fraternity with the benign indifference of the universe: it is, paradoxically, their hatred that makes him feel at home. In short, he has become a friend of his enemies’ enemy, a member of a club that wouldn’t have the crowd as a member.

Kanye West’s ‘Power’ also lingers on hate and the haters that make it possible. On the surface, encouraging such haters (or ‘haterz’, the ‘z’ a strident visual reminder, a blade cutting a zig-zag through cloth, an ending) is bravado: it says ‘I don’t care what you think – I’m better than you and everyone’.(Missy Elliott’s 2003 ‘Gossip Folks’ assumed this sole function memorably.) Here, Kanye tells us that the ‘Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music’. It’s a forceful reaction to the contemporary idea, spread through blog comments, message boards, Twitter and so on, that HGH, or Haterz Gonna Hate. If you’re successful (or increasingly even if you’re not but you just happen to be online) you are a target.

In this sense, like Mersault, Kanye’s endorsement of the haters only serves to show him that what he is doing is right: artistically valuable, morally upright and commercially successful (I use Kanye for shorthand to refer to the ‘narrator’ in ‘Power’, who, given the subject of fame, music and power in the song, is a fair approximation of the song writer himself). In a world of bland uniformity, eliciting a reaction, especially one as powerful as hate, is success. If Kanye feels hated, he feel successful: he is encouraging a reaction in his audience. Like Mersault, on a superficial level, hate at least means you’ve made a difference, an intense one, too: when the haters disappear, so do the lovers.

Of course, it depends on who is hating you, as we’ve seen for Mersault. For Kanye, that sometimes means parts of the establishment. He includes Saturday Night Live in ‘Power’, who have ridiculed his ill-advised interruption at the MTV Video Awards. If those who you don’t respect or value hate you, then you are doing something right. In this case, it’s less profound than Mersault’s epiphany but not less specific: SNL are name-checked and dismissed in brief and vulgar word play. But, as we’ve seen, hate can give way to love in this complex world: when Kanye performed live on SNL, he removed the offending lyrics from ‘Power’.

Two repeated phrases reinforce the complexity of Kanye’s sophisticated relationship with himself and those who love and hate him. The first is the refrain, borrowed from King Crimson’s titular song, ’21st Century Schizoid Man’. Like Mersault, who is torn between societal norms and his, albeit largely unexplored, indifference towards the world of human affairs, Kanye is ‘schizoid’, a divided self. The song explores this division as one between the private and the public self, between his natural creativity and the pressures of fame, between his younger more authentic persona and the new one, ostensibly undermined by celebrity. Taken with ‘All of the Lights’, which follows ‘Power’ on the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and forms with it something of a musical diptych, Kanye laments the extent to which fame has changed him and in doing so has driven his family away.

Such divisions create the potential for hate. But it is only when Kanye appears to hate himself, as he does periodically throughout the song, that he can rejoice and endorse the ‘screams’ of the haters. In such instances, when he hates himself, they are right to hate him. The music of their hate chimes a note of ambivalence: when they hate him, they are jealous; when they hate him, they are right – he deserves it.

The second key phrase is: ‘No one man should have all this power’. The obvious identity of the man is Kanye. Again, it is a dual symbol: it reinforces the notion of him being an immensely powerful figure whilst at the same time undermining its legitimacy. For Kanye, that power comes from a complex relationship between those who hate him – including, at some point, himself; and how he might use the notion of those who hate him as a way to understand that he is taking the correct path. If Kanye, in ‘Power’, doesn’t share a direct and entire comparison with Mersault, they do possess a similar duality that means that they both love to hate and hate to love.

Two arguments on the limits of reason

Trying to live and think as a rational human being is my goal. But perhaps the project is doomed. I’ve been reading David McRaney’s book You Are Not So Smart, which playfully (but no less convincingly) undermines the cherished belief that we are rational human beings.

For example, he writes about priming – “When a stimulus in the past affects the way you behave and think or the way you perceive another stimulus later on” – which leads us to an idea about how our thoughts maintain mental equilibrium without necessarily being grounded in reason, called the adaptive unconscious; and eventually, with a little research from Wikipedia, we find ourselves at the introspective illusion:

The introspection illusion is a cognitive illusion in which people wrongly think they have direct insight into the origins of their mental states, while treating others’ introspections as unreliable. In certain situations, this illusion leads people to make confident but false explanations of their own behavior (called “Causal theories”) or inaccurate predictions of their future mental states.

In short, we cannot be sure of where some of our mental states – and the beliefs, ideas, thoughts and feelings that accompany them – originate. The following experiment illustrates the potential for people to lack insight into their preferences and the ability, in the absence of a rational explanation, to ‘confabulate’, or invent, the reasons for doing so:

Subjects saw two photographs of people and were asked which they found more attractive. They were given a closer look at their “chosen” photograph and asked to verbally explain their choice. However, using sleight of hand the experimenter had slipped them the other photograph rather than the one they had chosen. A majority of subjects failed to notice that the picture they were looking at did not match the one they had chosen just seconds before. Many subjects confabulated explanations of their preference. For example, a man might say “I preferred this one because I prefer blondes” when he had in fact pointed to the dark-haired woman, but had been handed a blonde. These must have been  confabulated because they explain a choice that was never made.

The large proportion of subjects who were taken in by the deception contrasts with the 84% who, in post-test interviews, said that hypothetically they would have detected a switch if it had been made in front of them. The researchers coined the term “choice blindness” for this failure to detect a mismatch.

In this case, any perceived (by the subject) rational explanation for making their choices was undermined by the sleight of hand. Despite this, most subjects didn’t notice; and of those, they offered what was to them a rational justification for their choice. One explanation for our difficulties with understanding our preferences, for example, is the sometimes unknown significance that objects possess for us. As McRaney suggests:

Just about every physical object you encounter triggers a blitz of associations throughout your mind. You aren’t a computer connected to two cameras. Reality isn’t a vacuum where you objectively survey your surroundings. You construct reality from minute to minute with memories and emotions orbiting your sensations and cognition; together they form a collage of consciousness that exists only in your skull. Some objects have personal meaning, like the blow-pop ring your best friend gave you in middle school or the handcrafted mittens your sister made you. Other items have cultural or universal meanings, like the moon or a knife or a handful of posies. They affect you whether or not you are aware of their power, sometimes so far in the depths of your brain you never notice.

When we interrogate the extent to which we are rational beings, the perceived dichotomy between religious belief and reason needs to be renegotiated. Julian Baggini, in his ‘Heathen’s Progress’ blog, argues that those who believe themselves to be rationalist need to recognise the ways in which their reason might be compromised:

Humanism [secular rationalism] is faced with the bind that its existence depends on maintaining a tension between finding what is good and worth celebrating in the human and having the intellectual integrity to see our species warts and all, which means being open to the possibility that we are not as great as we’d like to think we are.

‘Not as great as we like to think we are’ chimes with the notion of the illusion of introspection and our ability to make rational decisions, as we’ve seen in the ‘choice blindness’ example above. He goes on:

No self-respecting humanist can fail to have “doubt over humanity”, and although that need not occlude all the light, it is a dark cloud we have to live under.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The doubt over humanity that is an inevitable corollary of secular humanism cannot be neatly contained and eventually it spills over into doubt abut the capabilities of human reason. Indeed, the more you know about how the human mind works, the less reason we have to trust our rational capacities. For instance, Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism claims that secular reason leads to evolution, but evolution removes any reason we might have to trust secular reason. There is no reason to believe that a brain that evolved to help us survive in the pleistocene is a reliable tracker of truth. Darwin himself had this concern, writing that “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy”.

Baggini summarises:

What all this suggests is that in practice there is no neat distinction between the logical and the psychological. Those who attempt to use pure reason cannot expect to succeed, while those who willingly allow psychological factors to affect their reasoning may be being more self-aware about their rational capacities than those who do not.

Despite this, we need not throw out the rational baby in the bath water of reason. Even if we are not completely rational beings and do not possess the kinds of intellects and cognitive apparatus to make us what we might sometimes aspire to be – rational human beings – we must continue using reason, whilst noting its limitations:

Kierkegaard saw the limits of reason as themselves a reason to make irrational leaps of faith. In a more modest form, his insight could help explain the rational non-rationality of much religious belief. […] We choose faith so as not to be lost, because the alternative, reason, cannot enable us to find ourselves.

As an atheist, I’m not convinced by this. People who have a point are often nonetheless wrong, and often it’s precisely because of that point that they go wrong. Reason has its limits but we need to go right up against them, and for my money faith sees these limits and gives up on reason too soon.

Nonetheless, the mere fact that a serious argument can be made against the coherence of relying on human reason alone not only gives us atheists a way of understanding religion more sympathetically, it also suggests that the limits and role of reason has been a relatively neglected area of debate between believers and non-believers.

In rational discourse, it is not enough to simply immerse yourself in the ideas and arguments of others, but to understand – where possible – the extent to which your ideas are influenced by unconscious processes. You must know thyself as well as know thy enemy.

Tolerance is not indifference: International Day of Tolerance

Yesterday was the UN’s International Day for Tolerance. But what does tolerance mean? It may be the case that our immediate and instinctive definitions need some rethinking. The Guardian‘s Madeleine Bunting draws attention to a new study of tolerance by Frank Furedi:

The problem is that tolerance – understood in its classical liberal sense as a virtue essential to freedom – has been hijacked and bankrupted, argues Furedi. Dragged into the politicisation of identity, tolerance has become a form of “polite etiquette”. Where once it was about the tolerance of individuals and their opinions, it has now been “redeployed to deal with group conflicts”. Once it was about opening the mind to competing beliefs, now it is about one that affirms different groups. Along this slippery path, much of the original importance of tolerance has been distorted or lost.

Tolerance has segued into meanings of nonjudgmentalism, recognition, acceptance, even implicitly, affirmation and respect. It has frequently slipped into a vague indifference – “you do what you like” type attitude to the people you live amongst.

The definition of tolerance and how it is practised is further complicated by competing perspectives. Bunting goes on:

Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim thinker, loathes the contemporary rhetoric of tolerance as the “intellectual charity” of the powerful, part of the vocabulary of “cultural domination”. He says it is grudging and patronising. A left critique argues that tolerance is a discourse of “depoliticisation”. And the critiques from the right argue that tolerance has fatally weakened European identity; David Cameron even blamed the riots on tolerance. The right associates it with its twin evil, relativism.

The UN’s Declaration of Principles of Tolerance necessarily discusses the broadest notions of tolerance, between states and as a legal responsibility, in its discussion of what tolerance means and doesn’t mean:

Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty, it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace.

The Declaration of Principles also say what tolerance is not:

Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. In no circumstance can it be used to justify infringements of these fundamental values. Tolerance is to be exercised by individuals, groups and States.

What appears important is that tolerance calls for engagement, not inaction. It arises as a result of contact and communication, even where disagreement exists. Returning to Bunting’s analysis, she suggests tolerance should not be characterised by indifference and withdrawal but means instead: ‘putting up with views and opinions you may deeply disagree with; [and] does not require abdicating judgement’. Echoing the UN’s declaration, we have a social responsibility to be tolerant, as Bunting suggests:

Judging is about using, to our best abilities our reasoning and empathy, to discriminate and discern; not bothering is a form of, literally, antisocial behaviour, a withdrawal from our responsibilities and obligations to other people.

That ‘not bothering’ is an unwillingness to engage with those who believe in ideas and attitudes that are different from ours. In everyday day use, tolerance is a term which has become difficult to grasp and more difficult to perform. Eventually, its meaning has slipped in many areas into a kind of ‘nonjudgemental indifference’. What Bunting’s article and the UN’s International Day of Tolerance invite us to do is rethink the idea, and consider how far it appears that tolerance calls for a more committed and considered engagement with those with whom we may share fundamental differences.

Cultural relativism and uncertainty – Julian Baggini’s ‘Heathen’s Progress’

I’ve been interested for a while in cultural relativism, especially that found in morality and aesthetics. Julian Baggini, in one of his excellent ‘Heathen’s Progress‘ series of articles on belief for the Guardian, outlines an extreme form which he calls ‘dogmatophobia’:

What I call dogmatophobia is the liberal fear of being judgmental of the beliefs of others. Because everyone has a right to her opinion and no one has a monopoly on the truth, there is a tendency to think that any kind of assertion of a truth, other than of the blandest factual kind (“Paris is the capital of France”), is intolerant and morally imperialistic. Hence, people who assiduously avoid factory-farmed meat will go out of their way not to condemn ritual animal slaughter that causes needless suffering. People who would not tolerate even the sniff of sexism in their workplace bend over backwards to allow religious traditions their “right” to systemically discriminate against women.

This leads to the undesirable consequence that because we cannot be certain about everything, then we can be certain of nothing, an assertion which he takes to task:

Accepting that the world is full of uncertainty and ambiguity does not and should not stop people from being pretty sure about a lot of things. To criticise people who express a firm belief as suffering from a lust for certainty is therefore to see the speck in another’s eye while missing the plank in one’s own: an excessive lust for uncertainty that makes any conviction appear misplaced. The mark of a mature, psychologically healthy mind is indeed the ability to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, but only as much as there really is. Uncertainty is no virtue when the facts are clear, and ambiguity is mere obfuscation when more precise terms are applicable.

My interest has been particularly focussed on aesthetic relativism, which you might call an ‘anything goes’ attitude to arguing about the value of specific works of art, where, at its extremes, the infant squiggle could mean as much as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’m ambivalent about its use. On the one hand, the dizzying possibilities of challenging dominant forms of culture, such as the questioning and dismantling of the literary canon, are very welcome. On the other, I think the notion that culture, including science and belief, is merely opinion has damaged the ways in which we think and the values we hold.

Book review: ‘Sum: Tales from the Afterlives’ by David Eagleman (in the style of David Eagleman’s ‘Sum’)

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives

When you die, you spend your time re-reading through all the books you read when you were alive and think more carefully about them. You explore all the possibilities they offer, follow all the narrative threads, contemplate the characters, plot themes and writing style. In short, you’re given as long as it takes to read and digest only the books you’ve already read. This might be a shorter afterlife for some than others. Reading books at all, let alone contemplating them, might have been a problem when you were alive because – well, we’ve all been busy. We sometimes skip pages, even chapters. But when you’re dead you have more time. As much time as you need, in fact.

You re-read and re-interpret the books in death in the sequence that you read and interpreted them in life. This has the advantage of gently easing you into your long-term past-time because the books we read as children are quite easy to grasp. You may have forgotten that you’ve read ‘Spot is Missing’ or a ‘Dr Seuss’ story, but there it is. Take your time.

Aeons, books pass. You have to squeeze all the meaning and effect out of them. It is tiring. Sometimes it is a blessing, sometimes a curse. Millions of years pass before you start on your first ‘Famous Five’ story and work begins on those teenage novels.

By the time you reach David Eagleman’sSum: Tales from the Afterlives‘, you’re an old hand at reading and thinking about books. You’ve done it before. You’ve read some heavyweights in your time, too: Shakespeare, ‘Moby Dick’, a handful of Russian novels. You think there is little that can surprise you. Given the time you’ve spent reading and thinking, you can be forgiven for being a little jaded. So you’re relieved to find ‘Sum’ quite short and in big type, too. This won’t take long, relatively speaking.

But you find that when you’re reading the forty different stories about what happens when we die that you’re more impressed than you thought you might be. This really is something, you think. These short stories – imaginings, really, thought pieces that speculate with great originality on worlds that lie beyond death – are quite unlike anything you’ve ever read.

Take, for example, the story called ‘Circle of Friends’ that describes an afterlife in which the only people who exist for you in your afterlife are those you remember from your life. At first it seems great, because all those people you were meaningfully connected with while you were alive – your lovers, family and close friends, your schoolmates and teachers – they are all there, just as they ever were. But after a while you realise that there are so many other people you are destined never to meet, because you don’t remember them from life. You complain about it but no one listens or sympathises because ‘this is precisely what you chose when you were alive’.

When you’re reading ‘Sum’, you start to think – just how do these stories make me feel? Mostly, they make you feel that you should have done more when you were alive. ‘Circle of Friends’ makes you feel like you should have gotten to know more people, those people that were on the outskirts of your life, or even those you saw every day or lived near or shared a workplace with.

In other stories, you read about god, or gods – sometimes they are frail and ‘human’, at other times unrecognisable from the tales you learnt when you were alive. Another story outlines how, in the afterlife, you can choose to be any animal you like when you live again. Someone chooses a horse- for the simplicity, the grace, the uncomplicated sense of ‘being’ one imagines – but immediately regrets doing so, as they feel the inevitable and irreversible emotional and intellectual decline that having a horse’s mind and intellect brings for someone human.

Your head begins to spin as you wonder if you’ll ever have enough time to think about all the ideas this book touches upon. At the same time, you’ve got an idea that these forty very short tales tell more or less the same message. And you find yourself wanting to go back to being alive so you can share that message: that your life means ‘precisely what you choose when you were alive’. It is how you will be remembered, how you will remember. You wish you had read more books, listened more, thought more carefully about the stories that open at each instance of your life – all so the sum of your (after)life would be the greater.

In the afterlife, at the end of reading each book you are asked if you would recommend it to others, knowing they might have to read and think about it for centuries. For ‘Sum: Tales of the Afterlives’ the short answer is a definite ‘yes’. The long answer will take a lot longer to explain.

Three types of atheist spirituality (with an interlude)

The pope has just left from a visit to the UK, my home country, so it’s timely to think about some of the issues he has raised. One of those is the notion of spirituality and how important it is when leading our life. With this I can agree. However, the notion of spirituality is perhaps (for now) more simply and widely understood within the framework offered by Catholicism in particular and religion in general. But spirituality nevertheless exists for all humanity, whether they believe in a god or not.

This is because there’s little doubt to me that humankind is partly a spiritual being. That is – and I’m going to be a little imprecise here, since we need to start somewhere – we may experience glimpses into an unusual and powerfully emotive alternative reality; a sense of transendence or other-wordliness; we may feel awe or wonder; or, perhaps when times are bad, a longing to reach out to someone – something – greater than ourselves. I’m going to refer to these phenomena collectively as ‘spiritual’. How we arrive at them and what they mean for us is the subject of the three types of atheist spiritualism outlined below.

The recent growth of what has become known as ‘new atheism’ has sought to consider a spiritual life free from religious belief. For the three atheist thinkers here, atheist spirituality is not just a possibility, but an inevitability, and one that is core to human experience.

Sam Harris: consciousness and sustained introspection

The first kind of atheist spiritualism we find outlined at the end of Sam Harris’ infamous attack on religion, The End of Faith. If you thought that finding a section on spirituality in a book reknowned for its hard and unrelenting rationalism is incongruous, then you’re making the kind of mistake that reckons spirtualism must inculcate a supernatural diety. Harris is prepared for the error. He writes about the difference between ‘mysticism’ and ‘spirituality’. Mysticism, he tells us, is the brand of spirituality that depends upon the supernatural and is the one most readily associated with formal religion.

He suggests there there is an alternative and that is to be found in what he calls a rational, material, spiritualism. For Harris, this form of spiritualism is grounded in an exploration of human consciousness: the path to spirituality without mysticism is through meditation. He writes:

Investigating the nature of consciousness directly, through sustained introspection, is simply another name for spiritual practice.

The focus of such ‘sustained introspection’ includes a mediation on the notion of an individual identity, the ‘I’ which we call ourself. Harris argues that the notion of ourselves as subject (the totality of our body and mind, the lens through which we see the world) and ourselves as object (a person who exists with others in the world, the lens through which the world sees us) dissolves once given to prolonged and rigorous meditation. We fail, he says, to recognise thoughts as thoughts, one appearing after another, and instead use them to construct a sense of stable identity which is ‘the string upon which all our states of suffering and dissatisfaction are strung’.

For Harris, then, an atheist spirituality is based in personal meditation and reflection which aspires to a connectedness to the world at the expense of the disintegration of the self. One can feel the influence of Eastern thought on his ideas, and he acknowledges this directly. But he is equally careful to ground his ideas in rationalism and in an area in which the West has long been interested, including contemporary scientists: consciousness. Harris recognises that consciousness is mysterious, immense and ultimately unknowable. You can see why it appeals to him (and to us, perhaps): consciousness remains deeply sophisticated and a source of personal wonder that both ‘belongs’ to us but exists strangely outside of ourselves, too.

As such, the idea and experience of consciousness appears uniquely suited to rationalist spirituality. That such a seemingly unpromising physical material, that solid, slightly sagging and heavy-looking grey lump we call the brain, could produce an immaterial world we sustain and develop, populated by thoughts and feelings, love and grief,  inspiration and sensation. It is a spirituality that calls to mind the ineffable qualities of spiritual experience whilst being grounded in the most material of objects we carry around in our heads.

Atheist spirituality video: an interlude

For many, the possibility of a spirituality free from religion is found in the everyday – even prosaic – moments of life. The following short video describes one person’s experience of atheist spirituality.

Comte-Sponville: embracing the mysterious

The French philosopher André Comte-Sponville has devoted an entire, albeit shortish, book to the subject of atheist spirituality. Like Harris, he is interested in Eastern thought, but clearly grounds his work in terms graspable and familiar to a Western audience. He begins by telling us:

A society can do without religion in the restricted, Western sense of the word […] It cannot, however, do without fidelity or communion.

Unlike Harris, Comte-Sponville is comfortable with the idea of mysticism. For him, this means not a supernatural faith, but an understanding that some questions will always remain unanswered, that mystery lies at the heart of an atheist spirituality.

However, such reflections are not always readily found. Comte-Sponville echoes the notion found in Harris that we are often ‘locked up’, trapped in our own bodies and minds, ‘prisoners, in a word, of ideology and habit’; and this prevents us from having spiritual experiences. How does one escape this? For Comte-Sponville, it is the difference between the night and day:

This is something anyone can experience by looking at the night sky […] If the sky is very dark and clear, and you are in the country rather than the city, and you turn out all the lights, look up, and take the time to contemplate in silence… Darkness, which separates us from what is close at hand, bring us near to what is far away […] As long as the sun was shining, it locked us into the prison of light that is the world, our world.

It is only when free of the shackles of light (or thought, or self) that we are able to think about the immanent fact of our universe, of which we indissolubly a part, and which is: ‘our home; the celestial vault is our horizon; eternity is here and now’. To be spiritual is to open yourself to its possibilities.

Comte-Sponville recognises, too, the possibility of a painful spiritual experience. For some, like the philosopher Pascal, our acknowledgement that our lives are infinitely tiny compared to the vastness of space and time is a source of anxiety. Comte-Sponville thinks differently. For him, such grand perspectives are the source of inspiration and a direct route to spirituality. Our aim is to arrive at what Freud called (after Romain Rolland) the ‘oceanic feeling’. This describes that moment when we experience a sense of limitless interconnectedness; when we are in a ‘sense of indissouluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universe (Freud)’. The metaphor aligns us with Harris’ meditators: we are ourselves but simultaneously connected with everything else, just as a single drop of water or a wave are unique but also ‘belong’ to the ocean.

Typically (and in the specific case of Rolland’s use) this ‘oceanic feeling’ is often described as a key element in the personal motive for sustaining religious belief. Finding it in Comte-Sponville’s short book is a touchstone, a small but striking reminder of a phenomena we find elsewhere in the work of many of those who think about the reality of an atheist spirituality: that the ways in which we think and write about, experience, share, remember and cherish spirituality may use the language of religion in some cases, but it never uses its supernatural beliefs.

Just like our moral life, the spiritual life does not need religion: such spirituality is not religion-less, but religion-free.

Is photography art? All you ever needed to know is in this portrait

Identical twins - 1967 - Diane Arbus (Copyright Arbus Estate)

For some, photography isn’t quite art because it simply captures reality. There is no artifice in many shots, no craft: the world comes together in a moment of specific configuration, more or less outside of an artist’s intent, and a photographer simply points the camera and – click! Art is made. Or isn’t, since the artist has very little to do. There isn’t the sheer hard work that goes in to, say, a painting or a novel. We might feel – ‘I could have done that!’ And indeed we could, if all photography means is to point and click.

Diane Arbus‘ photo ‘Identical Twins‘ shows us in a very immediate way that photography can do more than that. On one level we have a photo of two very similar girls. However, despite their clear resemblance we quickly notice differences: one girl is frowning a little while the other smiles; one pair of eyes is hooded, the other clear and open; the hands are slightly different, the hair; and so on. And as we notice those differences, we interpret those them as significant and meaningful: we might say that one child is happy; one less prim and proper than the other; one more dominant, and so on. We might then go on to think about the nature of identity, of how uniqueness triumphs uniformity. We find meaning in gaps, the differences between the two girls.

This process of finding ‘meaning in the gaps’ also lends itself to discovering the ‘art’ in photography. In this way of thinking, the similarity is not between two subjects but between the photograph and the reality it represents. The gaps are those elements where the photographer has introduced an element of creativity, artifice, illusion, call it what you will. In the above example, there are many examples. First, the photographer has assembled the two girls in a certain pose, emphasising the same hairstyle, clothes and so on. This helps us in seeing the differences – and finding the meanings – between the two subjects. It’s clearly not just a slice of life, although it might include that.

But note the junction between wall and floor: it is at an angle, higher on the left compared to the right. This is deliberate. We might interpret this as saying: what seems a balanced portrait is actually askew; although seemingly identical, our immediate perceptions are upset by the uncertainty that their differences bring; that the photograph wants to destabilise our preconceptions about what it means to be the same and yet not the same; that ultimately what seems to be a simple capturing of reality is really the product of the artist-photographer intent.

Reading photographs like this is underpinned by two central ideas. The first is that there is no such as thing as an ‘innocent’ photograph, that is, one taken without any kind of artifice or creativity. Even when taking holidays snaps we don’t just point and click: we might frame the face so the top of the head of our subject is not cut off; we’re told to put the main subject to one side to promote a sense of harmony, create some interest. The second central idea, following from the first, is that even the smallest details are often there deliberately. In ‘Identical Twins’, the slant of the junction between the wall and floor is deliberately significant, as we’ve seen.

What we have in this photo is a metaphor for the relationship between art and reality. Where two very similar images (ideas, symbols, techniques) are placed in close proximity it is likely that we will find differences between them. It is in those differences that the meaning lie. ‘Identical Twins’ (it’s title at once both plainly descriptive but, as we’ve seen, highly charged with meaning) by Diane Arbus is one of those key photographs that tell us more about the relationship between photography and reality, and between photography and art.

If you find this image a little unsettling there are good reasons for it. Our minds are programmed to identify the human face. When we see slight discrepancies between the real and the near-real, as we might most often in Japanese ‘humanoid’ robots or ultra-realistic computer games, we enter the ‘uncanny valley’, that phase of interpretation where an image appears strange,   Here, the differences between two ‘identical’ twins remind us of that disjunct. It is also the starkness of the black and white; the unfussy background which focusses our attention; the confrontational quality implied by the pose and gaze direct to the viewer. The film director Stanley Kubrick would later use a similar image for the murdered twins in his ‘The Shining’.