Monday, May 11, 2009

the end of the journey: chez nous

I've continued reading Journey of the Magi, and sure enough it has only irritated me the more. In this passage he gets more blatant, and ridiculous.

Freedom without divine laws results in, to paraphrase Shakespeare, humanity preying on itself like monsters of the deep; and progress has brought us to the brink of doing to the world what God promised he would never do to it again himself.
First, to exonerate Shakespeare. The beauty, and to some the frustration, of the reflections expressed in Shakespeare's plays is that none of them can be pinned on the bard himself. The words belong to Albany, in King Lear, who mordantly asserts that, without the 'visible spirits' sent down from the heavens to tame us 'humanity must perforce prey on itself, like monsters of the deep' - and yes, he uses the plural, just as Gloucester does when he famously says, 'as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport' - which gives an idea of what he thinks of divine law, a view not dissimilar to that of Mark Twain. King Lear is a pagan play, so what is asserted here about 'divine law' is hard to ascertain, suffice to say that humanity needs taming - something we can perhaps all agree on.
As to progress, that long-suffering whipping-boy, if we define it, uncapitalized, as positive change, or improvement, it reflects a thoroughly human and indispensable striving. The notion that we're on the eve of destruction, going to hell in a handcart etc, is as old as civilization itself, and hardly needs any effort expended on it here.
It might be pointed out, though, that divine laws, whatever they are, are inimical to the notion of progress, because of course they're eternal, as divine stuff tends to be. How can anything which is eternal change? This is, of course, a big problem, bigger than is recognised, for all proponents of 'divine law'. If you think biblical injunctions, or sharia laws, really are divine, then you're stuck with them for ever and ever. Hardly any wonder then that so many experts on divine law, imams and rabbis and so forth, have sprung up over the centuries to 're-interpret' the laws for changing times. Not that they've done a particularly impressive job - sharia law, in particular, continues to be a gross insult to anyone who has any respect for human rights [that construction of miserable, despised human beings].
Of course, there are no divine laws. Roberts should have written 'freedom without laws leads to humanity preying on itself', as, basically, Hobbes asserted. But that would've been way too prosaic, I suppose.

I feel almost guilty about getting stuck into Roberts like this, searching for 'gotcha' moments, or passages. I remember Glenn Gould, the pianist, saying that he gave up concert performances because he felt that the audience was only there to hear him fail, to wait for that 'gotcha' moment when the whole performance might collapse on a bum note. Roberts' book, which he sees as an entertainment, is contradictory, muddled, funny, angry and occasionally inspired. He has apparently written acclaimed reportage on both gulf wars, and he has some of the footloose, rambling quality of a Hunter S Thompson. Also, I read on his website that he has gone blind in both eyes, a fate I don't even want to begin to imagine. Yet I also feel something like a duty to challenge sentences such as the one quoted above. To not let people get away with hazy-lazy religious talk, to show up the emptiness at its heart. Human laws are imperfect, but they're all we have, and if we accept they're always going to be only human, we'll accept the challenge of constantly modifying them. Unlike the mysteriously misplaced ones given to Moses, they're not written in stone.

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