Category Archives: literature

30 Aug

The art of the impossible

I have long wondered what makes Janet Daley’s writing so tenebrously dull. A recitation of the fat stock prices would have more interest, the speaking clock subtler nuance. If she were to write about a kaleidoscope, it would be in black and white.

It can’t be because she’s American. Mark Twain was American and he wasn’t dull. Neither was Ezra Pound who wrote, “The reader deserves from time to time to be refreshed by shards of ecstasy.” Daley’s prose is as refreshing as a lorry-load of slurry.

Happily my puzzlement has at last been dispersed. Writing (about herself) this week in the Daily Telegraph, Daley says,

“Political argument and debate seem to me to encompass – or at least affect – almost everything that matters in the human condition. How we are governed defines our social relations, our life opportunities, our moral choices and our civil responsibilities. In democratic societies, there is a particular responsibility for people to make informed decisions, not only about who is  to be in power but about the limits and function of government itself.”

See what I mean?

What does she know of politics who only politics knows?

Political conversation  is not everything – not even “almost” everything – that matters in the human condition. What scope, beyond that of leisurely diversion, does her definition of what matters leave to art, literature, music, philosophy  and even, God help us, theology?

We practise these things, Ms Daley, so that we do not die of politics.

Politicos themselves sometimes acknowledge this truth. Even Ken Livingston has his newts, John Major could be not inconsiderably interesting on the subject of motorway cones and Matthew Parris has written gaily about his exploits on Hampstead Heath.

I wonder if there is a cure for Janet’s political monotony?

I think there is. She could try writing her memoirs. Suggested title: Homage to Catatonia

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15 Jun

Hilary is bunk

You don’t need much in the way of wits to see through the phenomenon Hilary Mantel.

Her biographical novel Wolf Hall is a book only literal-minded and forensic. Its author tells us that every smallest movement of the plot was first checked against what could be discovered as the most accurate historical account. The result is not a novel but artifice, the literary equivalent of painting-by-numbers – a technique which surely pre-empted any reluctance on the part of the literal-minded judges to award Mantel the Man-Booker Prize. Mantel regards Cromwell, the plunderer of the monasteries, as a principled man and an idealist – but then her original idea of what constitutes a man of principle must be set beside her description to Sir Thomas More as “a fanatic.”

And now here comes the Great Dame again to give us the Reith Lectures on the relationship between history and fiction. She does not betray the reputation for fatuity which she first revealed in Wolf Hall. In fact she exceeds it, particularly when she begins with an astonishing remark concerning historical persons: “We can know what they did but not what they thought.”

If this were the case, we could know what Nelson had for breakfast on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar but we could never know that his battle tactics were dictated by his earlier thought: “I will sail my fleet in a straight course directly through the middle of the enemy’s lines of ships.”

But that thought is precisely what we do know. We can infer Nelson’s thoughts from his deeds. What we may be conflicted about is whether he had one egg that day or two.

Or again: we know what the Roman commanders were thinking before they sailed to invade us. They were thinking, “We can succeed in this operation.” Or they wouldn’t have come!

Nearer home, we can know that Dame Hilary Mantel gave the Reith Lectures because we have recordings of her giving them. We can also know that, some time before the lectures began, she thought, “I will agree to give this series of lectures.” And if we ourselves, give the matter more attention, we can come to know in more detail her train of thoughts as she was making up her mind to give the lectures, what she would entitle them and what she would say; and even why she would say what she did say.

We can learn the meaning of historical study from R.G. Collingwood who wrote: “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.”

There is a widespread and foolish notion that what we call history is the past in, as it were, a long stream of events going right back to earliest beginnings. This is delusional thinking for there is no such past. It exists only in the minds of present day historians as they think about the past.

Dame Hilary takes the forensic view of the past and forms of it a kind of museum culture. This too is delusional.

Collingwood again: “Nothing capable of being learnt by heart, nothing capable of being memorised, is history.”

Rather, history is our present thoughts about the doings of our predecessors. 

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13 Jun

Ill met by moonlight

There is a noxious composition by Harrison Birtwistle called Endless Parade, really an extended noise, the very antidote to music. It’s one of those many pieces written by avant garde composers to irritate regressive people who like their music to have tunes and even to have something to do with beauty.

Endless Parade has its verbal, intellectual and philosophical companions in most of the discussion programmes about history, ideas and the arts on such as the BBC, the Arts Channel and the History Channel. With notable exceptions  – such as Leonard Bernstein’s remarkable series The Unanswered Question or Bryan Magee’s Conversations with Philosophers – these programmes are at best uninformative and misleading and at worst mere fatuity and claptrap.

Typically the format consists of a presenter who pretends ignorance – when this is Melvyn Bragg the pretence is undetectable – who asks faux naif questions of “experts” on behalf of the  ignorant and idiotic listeners or viewers. What follows is the spectacle of academics attempting to talk for long enough to generate in themselves the hope they might accidentally discover something interesting to say.

They hardly ever have. And this is not least because they can’t speak English. They speak only academic jargon. They might be reading from the text book or, more likely these days, the “study module.” They also speak “hand- me-downs” which are really only the unexamined universal prejudices of left wing university types turned media sages: The Renaissance a good thing; the Enlightenment a jolly good thing; French Revolution a pretty good thing; universal rights – bang on; democracy, modernity, diversity, feminism, multiculturalism, equality etc…

No need to flog it to death

And I mustn’t fall into the same trap and waffle as these illustrious persons do. Let me offer an example.

Yesterday on his Radio Four programme Beyond Belief the genuinely likeable Ernie Rea was asking a panel of three “experts” about humankind’s relationship with the moon over the millennia. Amid the usual catalogue of infelicities and desecrations, there was offered the insight that it was only with the coming of the Romantic Movement that we “…began to talk not just about the city but about the wilderness; about women and the feminine as well as males and the masculine; about the night and the dark as well as the day.”

By heck, whatever did we do for conversation before the time of Shelley, Keats and the other boys (and girls) in the 18th century band?

Had we really never come across Moses who led the Israelites forty years in the wilderness of Sinai? Of Jonah in the darkness of the stomach of the great fish? Or, “Yea the darkness hideth not from thee” (Psalm 139:12). Or the fact that St John of the Cross (1542-1591) wrote of “the dark night of the soul” centuries before Mary Shelley gave us the benefit of her nasty dreams? In my ignorance I had thought women had always featured prominently throughout our religion, mythologies, history and culture yonks before The Lady of Shallott turned up. Or perhaps Eve, Ruth, Naomi, Deborah the prophetess, Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba were only men in drag? Same goes for Ophelia, Desdemona and Lady Macbeth, I suppose?

Did we have to wait for the Romantics before we could talk about women? For heaven’s sake the dumbos on our panel of “experts” were discussing the moon! Wouldn’t you have though that even academics might notice that from ancient times the moon has always taken girls’ names: Selene, Artemis, Diana?

Beyond Belief indeed

PS It never stops. That doyenne of the purple patch and the non sequitur, Hilary Mantel, has just been on previewing her forthcoming Reith Lectures by telling us, “The spoken word differs from the written word.”

Gerraway!

Give her the Nobel Prize somebody!

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01 Feb

The dummy-suckers

It is a pleasure to discover a good restaurant and even better to come across a talented writer. I have been reading Alexander Boot’s books and blogs for ten years and I have always found him sustaining. He is scholarly, informed and frequently amusing. Consistently he writes what is recognisably the English language – which makes a nice change from most of the stuff we read in the national newspapers. Recently Alex was wondering aloud on his blog why 1.3 million British subjects have signed a petition to deny a state visit to Donald Trump. What is it about this democratically elected president which irritates so many people to such a degree that they refuse to extend the president the courtesy of hospitality?

Perhaps it is because Mr Trump is deficient in the qualities possessed by foreign rulers to whom we did grant a state visit? Alex names a few of these in case we had forgotten, among them Messrs Mobutu, Suharto, Xi Jinping and Ceaușescu – all of them tyrants, dictators and some of them mass murderers. Donald Trump has been in office less than a fortnight and so he may plead in excuse that he has not yet had the time to set up the apparatus of mass slaughter. The petitioners should give him a little breathing space, and then perhaps he will live up to the standard set by the tyrants and dictators who were welcomed here with little protest?

Alex goes on to ponder the wider issue of what it is that attracts the mob in their millions to genocidal tyrants. And not least of the virtues in Alex’s writing is that you can see the pondering even as he writes. Here is that rare thing: a man thinking things out as he goes along, as the thinker and the writer should. Our present literary and journalistic malaise is all owing to the fact that, though we have plenty of thinkers and writers, the thinkers can’t write and the writers can’t think.

Back on the subject of the petitioners, Alex thinks this sort are the natural consequence of society’s lapse back into paganism. I dare say there is something in this. Certainly, the case of Hitler is evidence on that score. I wouldn’t want to dispute Alex’s judgement here, but I would venture another explanation – one which is not inconsistent with paganism.

When she was a toddler, my sister used to suck a dummy which had been dipped in something sweet. My mother and father tried to wean her off this comfort, as it would not have appeared seemly for my sister to turn up at Mrs Lillyman’s dancing studio in posh Roundhay, Leeds for her grade two ballet examinations with what my dad called “that thing” in her mouth. But every time they tried to remove the dummy, my sister screamed the bloody place down.

The petitioners are like my infant sister.

Since 1945 they have inhabited a political culture much to their liking: a politics of high taxation and regulation, a dispensation in which there is the appearance of democracy but not its reality. For while it is possible to chuck out the government and put another one in its place, the new lot are the same as the the old crowd. Added to this pretend democracy there is the relatively new ingredient of political correctness which tells the infantilised petitioners what to think and, just like nanny, controls their behaviour. They want to be looked after by nanny and allowed to suck their dummies. Well now the dummies have been taken away and they are screaming the bloody place down. They want to be overtaxed and over-regulated. They don’t want personal responsibility. They want the state to tell them what to do. Moreover, they have become so habituated to this politics that they long since developed a culture of entitlement. They imagined they would be allowed to suck on their dummies forever. The last thing they want is to grow up.

Listen, and you can hear them screaming the bloody place down.

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31 Dec

Dear Arthur…

An open letter to my teacher and friend Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Dear Arthur,

I don’t know whether you’ll be able to read this – or,. as today’s quaint phrase has it, “access this” – where you are. And, of course, I don’t know where you are or even if you are. In your great work Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, you drummed it into us that the secret of life is to extinguish the relentlessly insistent will – including the will to live. So perhaps you don’t want to be anywhere. I can’t quite get my head around this. (Another of our irritating modern phrases). You wouldn’t like it here. That incoherent upstart Karl Marx, who was only just getting going in your day, has been tremendously influential all over the world: even so-called “conservative” governments pursue socialist policies these days.

But really I want to tell you about something else. In Britain today there is a national organisation, paid for out of taxation and called the BBC, which tells us what to think and which things to regard as valuable politically, ethically and aesthetically. It doesn’t use books or newspapers to achieve this. Instead every home has a device which enables families to hear, and even see, the BBC propaganda. (I know you will find this far-fetched, but it’s true) The BBC is particularly keen on three things: that we should all be socialists and like crap – excuse my language – “music” and celebrate dead nihilists.

A very rare occurrence: you, dear Arthur, got a mention on the BBC yesterday. It was like this…

There is a feature on the BBC called A Good Read in which celebrities – usually ones who know nothing about literature – talk about the books they are reading. Yesterday, one of the participants mentioned a book by a psycho-thoroughpissed. (It was about death, so I thought you would be interested). The participant was impressed by this book and he praised the thoroughpissed author in  words such as the following, (I paraphrase, but here’s the substance of what he said):

“This is a wonderfully interesting book. The author writes about philosophers such as Nietzsche (worth reading, Arthur) and Sartre (a nihilistic narcissist and not worth reading) and…Schopenhauer. He provides a superb three pages summary of Schopenhauer’s writings. It might encourage you to go on and read Schopenhauer for yourself. But you don’t have to read him: these three pages are adequate in themselves for an understanding of him.”

So, Arthur, finally I come to my reason for writing. I want to apologise. You see, the BBC is not only full of socialists with bad taste in music, it is also – to use another of our tiresome modern expressions, irretrievably “dumbed down.” The very idea – the offence! – that your many thousands of penetrating and entertaining insights in Die Welt  and Parerga und Paralipomena can be distilled into three pages written by a throughpissed is a travesty and an insult.

So, wherever (or if) you are, please accept my renewed thanks for all your glorious works and my embarrassed apology. For I know you won’t get an apology from the BBC. There the philistines are proud of their ignorance and casual in their rudeness

With the best will in the world, I am your devoted pupil and friend

Peter

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31 May

Darkness Visible

We have a terrific capacity for producing trash: nearly everything in Tate Modern, so-called Britart, “poetry” so banal it wouldn’t even serve to be adapted for the chorus in a happy-clappy “worship song”; voyeuristic nuts ‘n’ sluts shows and such as Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing for pleb telly; and, as a constant backdrop – like a toothache – to daily life, ubiquitous audible filth in the form of amplified electronic pop music; and everybody in thrall to self-promoting narcissists such as Prince and David Bowie.

All this is bad enough, but what is truly satanic is our penchant not just for producing wall-to-wall muck, but infiltrating work of outstanding quality and perversely appropriating it to the general junk culture. This is the gesture – akin to sprinkling a Rembrandt painting with bleach or pissing in the chalice – which turns out a version of Don Giovanni with a cast of leather-clad punks and druggies in a New York skyscraper apartment or importing pop and rock into The Promenade Concerts.

Here, for example, are a few extracts from a review by Vicki Power, The Daily Telegraph’s TV critic, of a recent BBC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“The director has re-invented the play as a children’s action adventure full of scary fairies, chase scenes and rousing Indiana Jones style music…Theseus is rebranded as a dictator and the warrior Hippolyta is his prisoner rather than his willing bride…he has also taken a scythe to the text and reshaped lines…the action fizzes along…the verse-speaking is uneven…”

Now what I find interesting about this review is that the Telegraph’s critic doesn’t conclude: “So it’s crap then – an atrocity.”

She entirely approves of this scurrilous travesty: “It is a production that might well direct a younger generation to the Bard.”

How could it possibly do that, except by false pretences? Ms Power thinks that we might be attracted to Shakespeare by what is not Shakespeare; by something to which Shakespeare is the antidote.

This sort of corruption is everywhere perpetrated by those who think it clever – charlatans who, being unable to appreciate and give thanks for the wonderful creations of artistic genius, resort to doing dirt on them instead.

Waste and void, waste and void. And darkness over the face of the deep.

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20 Feb

The death of the American dream

The death is announced of the American literary divinity Lee-Harper Salinger, author of The Mockingbird in the Rye Sh*thouse, aged 487. In Harper-Salinger, also known as Dylan “Adenoidal” Bob Kerouac and, in some southern states, Martin Luther Ginsberg, American littricher achieved its greatest right-on-ness. Ms Ginsberg-Burroughs – who occasionally liked to be known as Malcolm X (and on Sundays Christopher Hitchens) – was the only American fraud never to have been interviewed by John Humphrys who commented on hearing the news, “S/he was truly iconic, like where it’s at, right on and the true spirit of the millionaire American protest industry.”  Once, when described by some fawning media groupie as unique, Ms Mailer-Vidal replied with characteristic modesty, “No way. There’s f****** millions like me in the States! That’s what makes America the greatest nation on earth. Goddam! I did not have sex with that coyote.”

S/he also enjoyed the approbation of her distinguished contemporaries. The long dead Ernest Hemingway was distraught upon hearing the news and went out and shot himself – again. The young Tom Eliot was so overcome that he simply put his head in his hands and exclaimed, “Oh the moon shines bright on Mrs Porter – and on her daughter!” Henry “Circumloction” James was last heard saying, “If, peradventure, Miss Salinger-Dylan-King had never existed, and the issue, even in the great chain of serendipity, must remain in doubt, for perforce, even the elements which men mostly ascribe to chance have their own inner momentum towards necessity, then I myself, in a fit of syntactical periphrastics. would have been obliged to invent her.”

Through her tears, Norman “Napalm” Sontag issued a statement, “ Hey! Little Rock, Easy over with grits. I have a nightmare, the civil rights movement, where it’s all at, tell me about it at this moment in time. Put your pecker away Bill and – Hey, right now – pass me that joint brother Barak.”

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31 Jul

Rite me a poim, Megan

“Now then Megan, I want you to write a poem. And when you’ve finished, please compose a forty-part motet, cook me a cordon bleu supper and show me your designs for a new cathedral.”

If it weren’t so depressing, it would be risible to note that anyone – borderline illiterates included – are expected to be able to write poetry. What is a poem? I recall C.H. Sisson’s definition of its meaning today in the schools: “A composition in which the words do not quite extend to the margins.”

But never mind the dumb schools, this is what The Spectator offers us as an example of a poem:

“None of the teachers who taught us

Were around that final afternoon at

Grammar school – probably frightened

Of being assaulted after giving us so

Much grief for five years, no more of

That though. We sat around unsupervised

Playing cards and smoking a bit and then

It seemed so simple, so absurdly easy to

Just walk down the drive and out of the front

Gate for the last time.”

I thought it must be by poor Megan who is troubled by learning difficulties and dyslexia issues, but it turns out to be by Paul Birtill, a contributor to The Morning Star. Before we get started on thinking about your “poem”, Paul, do you mind if we just deal with something pretty basic? I mean it’s not frightened of but frightened by. It’s afraid of, as any poet no. They don’t teach you that at grammar school – ‘cos it’s grammar, innit? And, while I’m at it, none takes was not were. 

There’s no call for dogmatism when it comes to saying what counts as poetry. There is room for all sorts: for Homer, for Alexandrian metre, Augustan austerity, lyrical ballads and Uncle Tom Eliot’s inability to make connections on Margate Sands. And the sentiment doesn’t have to be hifalutin or sham antique, as in gay Hesperion’s golden whatsit. It can be slight, light-hearted, whimsical. Let me cast the net as as widely as possible and say that a poem is just a few words in a particular rhythm.

Birtill’s poem has no discernible rhythm. Dare I suggest that a poem should also be about something? It doesn’t have to be the Trojan wars or the salon of Madame Sosostris but, for crying out loud, it shouldn’t be utterly banal. Birtill’s poem doesn’t say anything except the blindingly obvious. It’s a ten-lines cliche.You go to school for a few years and then you leave.. There is no insight, nothing produced by an actual imagination, no verbal facility. In fact, it isn’t a poem. It’s prose pretending to be verse – and lousy prose at that.

Poetry is not, as the modern educashernists vainly believe, about expressing yourself. You have no self to express until you have ingested something, until you have been taught something. The true poet is usually to be noticed with the works of the great  poets of the past in his hands, not filling notebooks with verbal trash. The composition of poetry requires also concentration and, above all, practice.

You can no more write a poem without at least some understanding of what will go into ordinary English than go out and score a century against the Aussie pace bowlers when you’ve never wielded a cricket bat in your life before.

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09 Nov

The cloud of witnesses

I have never been much  of a one for praying to the saints. Not that anyone should pray to the saints anyhow, but instead ask for their intercession. I do say the Marian prayers, such as the Ave Maria gratia plena. And I take much encouragement from the verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews which says, Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.

And when I seek help from this cloud of witnesses, I don’t confine my search to the saints who occupy the Red Letter days. I talk to a great variety of dead people and I believe they talk to me and that:

The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

I have talked to Mozart since I first heard one of his piano sonatas when I was thirteen. And the music answers. I feel certain that Mozart is always close by and that he has been very close on many occasions in my life, for example at my Ordination in 1970. This took place in my own parish church of St Bartholomew, Armley, Leeds with 800 people in the congregation including many of my family and friends, people I had grown up with. It was, to say the least, an affecting occasion. All the more so then when I was handed a chalice brimful and told to administer it to a section of that vast congregation. I had to walk from the altar, down through the chancel and into the nave. I was doing pretty well until the choir began Mozart’s Ave Verum K.618 – the motet he composed in Baden, where his wife was taking the waters, in the afternoon of 5th July 1791. Fear and trembling. I managed somehow not to spill the sacramental wine.

I talk to St Augustine and he answers in the words of his Civitas Dei which are as pertinent to our age as they were in his for, as C.H.Sisson wrote, Augustine  attracts us because he lived through times which were very much like our times – and rejected them.

Dr Johnson tells me about the fear and love of God. R.G. Collingwood taught me metaphysics. Coleridge reassures me regularly that I am not alone in feeling frail. Schopenhauer comes along now and then and shows me how to make philosophical jokes. Shakespeare for terror and pity. Giotto for making visible what otherwise would have remained invisible: Christ on the cross. Eliot for holy dread in the rhythms of the English language: Come with me under the shadow of this red rock… 

Eliot for pretty much everything actually.

By the way, the original Greek word translated as witnesses in that Epistle to the Hebrews is marturwn – martyrs.

And not one of them a suicide bomber.

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18 Oct

Escape from the ideas factory

Recently I wrote a piece about the impenetrable pedant Peter Strawson and received a comment from a friend, a literary critic. He said he had some history with Strawson who had once told him he shouldn’t write about the jargonising linguistics guru Noam Chomsky because he, my friend, is not a professional in the study of linguistics. I shall refer to this as the Academic Fallacy – the notion that those formerly referred to as “scholars” but now as “academics” each has his own “field” or “specialism” and he should not stray beyond it. Well, I admit there are specialities: quantum physics for example or endocrinology. But if a man writes about the use of words – as Chomsky does – then anyone else who is a competent user of words must be allowed to comment on what is being said. The test is not based on what academic faculty a commentator hails from, but the sense of what is being said.

The definition of an academic is someone whose mind is so fine that it has never been penetrated by a single idea, and consequently academic prose is the death of thought. There is a widespread superstition that some people are so clever that no one can understand them. Rowan Williams’ groupies frequently give him as an example. But Williams deserves the Regius Professorship of Obscurantism or to be head honcho in the Circumlocution Office. It is said of him that he speaks ten foreign languages; and indeed he writes English as if it were one of them. This belief that some people are so clever that they are beyond our ken is part of the Academic Fallacy: for the mark of cleverness is the ability to make oneself understood. It is erroneously imagined that there are such objects as “ideas” which may subsequently be “put into words.” Not so. The words themselves, in the order in which they are spoken, are  the ideas – because the choice of words determines what is being said. There is no distinction between the substance of a piece of writing and the style in which it is written – as if style were some sort of additional ornamentation.  A good style simply means clarity and immediacy of expression. Style and idea are one and the same. the word made flesh. And you can achieve style only by the constant effort to think clearly. Williamsese exists because the former Archbishop’s mind is a muddle.

Orwell – he was talking about politics but what he says applies to literary endeavour in all its forms – satirised academic prose. He took the sparse line from Ecclesiastes: “I looked and saw…” and translated it into academy-spk: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion…” Too many people aspire to write in the putrescent style of that translation.

The best writers never were or are academics. They were learned and wise, which is not at all the same thing. In better days, we referred to them as men of letters. Francis Bacon in his Essays; George Berkeley in Three Dialogues; Newman in his Apologia. T.S. Eliot, R.G.Collingwood and Ian Robinson in everything they produced. Women of letters too. Jane Austen; George Eliot (except when she is tempted to write the positivist utopia); Christina Rossetti; Janet Frame and Muriel Spark. But not Elizabeth Anscombe who complicates and so corrupts the obsessively subtle Wittgenstein or Hilary Mantel who renders Thomas Cromwell as if he were already the leading man in a Sunday night adaptation on BBC2.

In The Book of Common Prayer, truth is delivered with sublime simplicity: “With this ring I thee wed”; “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live…” The divine economy in words of one syllable.

Here’s a bit of Robinson to end with:

“The world is not the same as planet earth; astronauts take the world with them. The world is made by and made up of human beings, in co-operation, I believe, with the divine. About that, Professor Hawking has nothing to say. He has therefore no grounds for declaring either any particular thing, or everything, either significant or insignificant.” Holding the Centre by Ian Robinson.

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