Archive for Spirituality/Philosophy

The Myth of Night Magic

The original poster for Night Magic

Night Magic is a 1985 Canadian-French musical film written by Leonard Cohen and Lewis Furey and directed by Furey. The film stars Nick Mancuso as Michael, a down on his luck musician whose fantasies begin to come true after he meets an angel (Carole Laure). The film’s supporting cast includes Stéphane Audran, Jean Carmet, Frank Augustyn, Louis Robitaille, Anik Bissonnette, Nanette Workman and Barbara Eve Harris.

Article By Nick Mancuso

I starred in Night Magic. And I feel guilty about it. A marvelously original musical by two geniuses Leonard Cohen and Lewis Furey. Take a listen. Find this lost Canadian film.I say geniuses because there is no doubt that Leonard Cohen remains one of the great legends in music history, poetry, and writing in the latter part of the 20th century in the period known as the 60s. As for Lewis well take a listen.

Leonard Cohen. A legend. Night Magic the unknown unsung movie he wrote starring myself Carol Laure Stephan Audron Jean Carmet directed by Lewis Feury first time at the bat. Cinematography by Phillppe Rouseleaut. Choreography and dancing by Eddie Toussant Ballet de Montreal and Frank Augustine of the National Ballet of Canada.

A class act of a film and a complete flop.It reflected a time of mythic figures in cinema and music Fellini Kurosawa, Godard. the Beatles. the Rolling Stones, Jim Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, and from the frontier country of olden Canada Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchel, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, and all the other illuminated crazies that infused my generation with the sheer force and hope for a shimmering bright new future. It reflected the echoes of a time that would once and all-time end the war to end all wars.And bring about a time of peace and love.To my mind at least this was the subtext of Night Magic. Yes, it was to be peace and love and this unknown little film spoke about it all. Success. Fame. Love. Immortality

We started in Montreal Canada in the late summer of 1984. It was a wonderful summer that year in Canada in my favourite city. Night and Magic. The Baby boomers sing and dance.Just watch us.The Baby Boomers born from desperation and sprung from parents who had survived the worst event in human history and who were not one of the corpses piled in the millions into mass graves. Who had not been transmuted into hot ashes or evaporated by the nuclear flash of Hiroshima. We children were survivors and children of survivors. We had done something right to be alive and to stay alive and therefore had a purpose a reason to be.A reason to sing and dance.Leonard Cohen was to be the voice of our generation. He was one of these amazing children born in Montreal in 1934 a Jew who was not hatched in Europe but born into a safe harbor called Canada. His father was a successful merchant his mother the daughter of a distinguished rabbi.His teacher was one of Canadas greatest poets Irving Layton.His guitar teacher who was an immigrant Spaniard taught him some basic chords and then committed suicide. He was an artist through and through. A true Bohemian not a hippy or a yippie and certainly not a yuppie or the X generation. Leonard learned 3 chords and started strumming along to the song of the Universe.Leonard was a born poet but he wanted to be like David to play the harp and sing. To God and for God. And my character Michael was modeled on this modern cinematic David.These are the thematics of this little unknown orphan of a film shivering in a snowbound lane way. Lol as the theologically correct cynical children of today smirk.Buried and forgotten.

The film is in fact a very biblical and religious fairy tale and Carol Laure is not only a perfect angel but she is the Virgin Mary and Suzanne all wrapped up into one brunette Marianne. A modern fairy tale lost and forgotten in a Quebec winter.How odd in the Age of Beyonce and Lady Gaga and COVID to think that a film like this could ever be made.And yet it was.Another era.In 1964 Leonard was at the perfect age and the perfect time. And in the perfect country; Trudeaus Canada the land of peace.Hope and brilliance were in the air.One day in 1965 my old friend then young now-deceased Alex Gottlieb announced to me that Leonard was writing songs and singing.At the University of Toronto, we knew him only as a poet a protege of Irving Layton.Alex put on the scratchy disk.”Susanne takes you down to her place by the river/ you can hear the boats go by/ you can hear the river answer…”What?An awful voice tuneless like fingernails on a chalkboard…..hopeless he was. There was no future for this unknown Canadian poet. Who the hell wants to hear songs about razor blades in the age of the Midnight Rambler? Alleluia. It’s ironic and fitting that Night Magic which he wrote with Lewis Furey should remain unknown hidden in the amnesiac snows of Canadian Cultural History. Like all things Canadian which do not exist until they exist in the outside world until they are recognized and lauded by the Americans or the British or God forbid the French. Night Magic disappeared into the night. I feel guilty about Night Magic and this article is by way of an apology to make amends to this little gem of a film playing that singing poet. I feel guilty because I did not go to Cannes when the film was accepted into the Directors Fortnight Category. I feel guilty for not walking the red carpet with the paparazzi screaming “Over here! Over here!”. I feel guilty because I helped bury the film by not suiting up and showing up. Because you see, this film is a gorgeous work of art musically and visually imaginative and more than deserves to be remembered. The film is about lost love and love found and lost again and the egocentric selfishness of the artist and his obsessions with himself and the consequences thereof. In the context of the larger picture I was perfect for the part at the time. My Salad days though slightly wilted.When Carol asked me to star in it while shooting Bobby Roths Heartbreakers with Peter Coyote I balked.I’m neither a singer nor a dancer and Michael was both. Stage fright paralyzed me.” I know you can do it” Carol told me. We had worked together on several films going back to the time of John Hirch’s CBC and Gille Carl. So I took the leap.Rehearsals began in Montreal a month before principal photography and that time I learned to sing and dance. Somewhat. I did it all by the numbers with much help from some marvelous people.But my voice was to be Lewis. I had done this sort of dubbing thing before when I filmed the rock star in “Blame it On the Night” original story by Mick Jagger. I gave a concert for 3 days at the San Diego Sports Arena singing in Ted Neeleys Voice ( Jesus Christ Superstar) in a 4-octave range and blowing out my voice in front of 10,000 people I was on stage with Billy Preston and Mary Clayton. Faking it. Pretending. An actor’s utter madness. But no risk no gain. And here’s the kicker.No gain means no fame and vice versa. Cosmic law in showbiz.And as Charlton Heston once told me while shooting a film called Motherlode with Kim Bassinger directed by Heston and written by his son Fraser: ” The trouble with showbusiness is that its business that is show and show that is business.” Ya cant win unless you get the loot.Leonard never cared much about the loot.

Night Magic made neither loot nor fame.It cared not a whit.“It is to such as you /that we were sent/ to speak directly to your deepest shame/ and light the fires of experiment…” So sang Michael in Night Magic so sang Leonard Cohen.” we claim you now…in the name of that which/ you have never done before /the victim shall be smitten on his Sore/ The Haughty One shall have a Visitor” What language!! Not exactly Rocky Horror!! Almost Elizabethan. Chilling words. Michael loses everything including the Angel that loved him “I burned the House of Love tonight” . Again Leonard. This film is very much about the fires of experiment. To my mind the fires that electrified the 60s. My generation. And Leonard’s even more so born 14 years earlier. The hope of a generation that betrayed itself. Look around you and listen to the music in this film beat its heart out against the diminishing rattle of a shifting Schumann Wave, the heart sounds of Gaia our Planet. A cacophony of sound. Splintered chords in syncopated 7/8 time.The music of Shtokhausen divided by Bertold Brecht. And so it began.We had a nothing budget and Robert Lantos who had produced the movie ran out of money so we the principal players threw some of our salaries back in.So why would I not go to Cannes? That was the question. Was it indifference? No, I had massive stage fright. I hated the red carpet. How bizarre.” I never thought / I’d get this far: ” Michael ” we always knew you would! “ The Angels

Fear is an ugly thing. Fear of success. Fear of the red carpet. Fear of judgment.Leonard had neither fear of success nor failure. He was a free man. But the film did not liberate itself.Was the film afraid?It was afraid of its own genius.Afraid it would be captured and compared.Afraid of its novelty.Who was the villain in the story? No one. It was self-betrayal . It was treason which according to Dante was the greatest of all sins. Night Magic betrayed itself and I like a good Mephistphelian actor played along. But for Leonard it was different.His Buddhism and dharma and Sangha kept him balanced. He bought a small house in the immigrant section of Montreal. To which he returned every now and then to “renew his neurotic affiliations.” He chopped wood and carried water for his old Roshi on Mt Baldy In California. He knew the score. He was not afraid.He stayed humble because from the get-go he knew everyone was in trouble.He didn’t kid nor kill himself much as he sang about it. He loved women and he loved song and he loved life and he was grateful to his maker the Creator of heaven and earth.He understood the essential magic of the universe. There’s a crack in things. That’s how the light gets in.

I first met Leonard Cohen in a macrobiotic restaurant in Montreal at midnight.We became instant friends. He asked if he could come and watch us rehearse at the National Theatre School.Of course. Dancing and sweating every day with Edie Tousant Ballet of Montreal and Frank Augustine of the National Ballet he, asked if he could bring me water or a coffee. Thank you.He was of service to others at all times.When he offered me the rights to Beautiful Losers his first novel I accepted. I was a beautiful loser and did nothing with the rights.The film itself became a beautiful loser.”I burned the house of Love tonight/ it made an aweful ring” Michael/Cohen Night Magic

Leonard was kind and gentle and sweet with an impish sense of humor. There was no anger nor frustration in the man. He had the feeling of a man who knew the jig was up. With him, everything seemed possible because there was a smile at the end of the Universe. The cold razor blade reality was not his. Its something he wrote about.“everybody knows/the war Is over/ everybody knows/ the bad guys won:” So drink eat sing and dance deep into the night for tomorrow you will pay the bill.

Night Magic was originally entitled The Hall.I think it was Robert Lantos the producer of the film who gave it the name Night Magic. The Hall a classic Cohenism was too prosaic for Mr. Lantos. He went on to become along with Garth Drabinski Canada’s most successful producer and yet when I asked him years later how it felt to have succeeded he told me he felt like a loser. “Why?” I asked?

Because I wanted to produce….you know…films.” He was, of course, talking David Korda films, MGM …you know films. Gone With the Wind films, The Red ShoesStar Wars, The Godfather, Rambo. In a relative world, we are all of us…losers. It’s hard to believe Night Magic the film was ever made. Before the existence of MTV and music videos, a film totally ignored by Canada written by a Canadian legend. How utterly fitting. It’s a marvelous gem of a movie and I am happy to have been a part of it. Thank you Leonard Cohen. Thank you Night Magic.

Nick Mancuso, Paris 2020

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To the Universal Sound and Silence

 

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Foreword

I can only write for the future
The present is lost to me for I have lost the art of living in the moment.
I am bypassed. But as I watch the busy traffic pass I hold the slightest of smiles upon my lips
The future I can never know and yet I seem to understand this unknowable better than the present – better than reality
Dogs and Days are as Madmen under a strong sun
I will walk by the river stopping whenever possible to quench my thirst
I will never see the river’s end but carefully and with much concentration I shall fold a boat from strong paper and launch it into the river’s current
I am an optimist

New Beginnings
There is a rhythm in life. There is a natural rhythm – a vast collection of breaths; sea rising; sun pulsing; leaves dying – and there is the rhythm of Humankind
As we flow through time – squeezed by earthy banks into a fast coursing current or gently running over pebbles in a wide, white foamed stream – our rhythm will respond. Like a baby breathing in time with its mother – gently rising and falling on her soft flesh then, all being well, we will also breathe in harmony

Sometimes we push against the flow
Sometimes we find ourselves in a backwater
Sometimes we are drawn to an eddy – sucked in and down
Sometimes we are washed onto the crumbling earth of the river’s bank
Sometimes we sail proudly
Sometimes we swim through muddy water

Sometimes the river is dammed
Sometimes the river is polluted
Sometimes the river’s course is altered
Sometimes the river flows through banks of concrete
Sometimes the river cascades – water falling
Sometimes the river flows easily to the sea

What are we – but droplets in this current?

Part 1

For the Silent Place

There came a time when the world filled with people. And the people drove animals to extinction or into zoos or onto reserves. Only the rat flourished. And the insects. Industrious creatures both
The world teemed with people & rats & insects
The seas slowly died
Where then could I find silence?
Where then could I find peace?
Where then could I find my sound and silence within harmony?

As I took my foot from its boot it slipped snugly into your shoe
Where my breath ended – so yours began
We stood together in the wretched filth of our bodies
And the foul water of our flesh fed the drying seas
And still the world was filled
Movement ceased and noise gathered
This was the world I was born into, the world you created. Dropped into the gutter – many bodies falling like fleshy rain
Thanking our God for the rain falling from above – we turned our faces to His heaven and stuck out our tongues
O how the rain tastes even after falling from pregnant-dark clouds. Pitter-patter we squeal and squelch into the sewer. A sewer of beady eyed insects and nibbling rats
Where is the Silent Place?

Did you create this place?

Some of us hold hands and wipe each other’s brow
Some bite chunks of flesh and stamp out stomping ground
Some weep
Some cry out and up in vain

Rats and insects become food and currency for us teeming people. And we thought this so for all people. But there were some who could soar with the eagles or would range like the tigers of old.
Some who lived in houses ringed with barbs – not in flimsy huts or propped up by others or squatting down dreaming of fires and their distant warmth.

Brothers and Sisters – I am leaving your side and all our friends and enemies and I am going in search of silence and beauty.
Who will come with me? Who will come to find harmony and their place in the Universal Sound?

Those who wept as their bodies crushed together smiled suddenly and said to me, ‘Take us not with you Brother; we are needed here for the salt of our tears…for the salt of all our tears.’
To them I replied, ‘I will not force you to accompany me. How can beauty and peace and harmony be found through force? If you blow forcefully into a flute there is no beauty in its note. I offer you my company – for you to walk beside me. As notes gather in a chord.’
At this they backed off and closed in amongst themselves – squeezing the air from around their bodies so that not a hair separated them. Sound was sucked from their flesh.
‘Our labours keep the fires burning; the rats skinned and cooked. Who else would or could do this?’

Those who cried at the sulphurous sky, longing for rain to fall whispered to me: ‘Do not take us Brother for we too are needed here. We keep our ways and our people safe. Who else can pass swift messages or catch rain in their hair?’
I replied: ‘I will not turn your faces from the heavens but only guide you towards a simpler more silent place where the only noise is sweet music and where you neither need to cry your laments nor shout in desperation to Heaven.’
At this they turned from me and held their heads aloft – joining one and another with their thin fingers.

And then a voice from this multitude said: ‘I have stood so close to people for so long, these my Brothers and Sisters, I do not know if I can walk independently O Brother – and if I can walk – then how far.’
To this I replied: ‘You are both part of and separate from your Brothers and Sisters. Let your eyes seek the distant horizon – go on tip-toe – even though the throng is close you will see beyond. Where your eyes perceive the distance there your legs can carry you for first you must know where you are heading if not your destination. And if you say – “but my legs are weak, Brother” or “I have no legs to bear me Brother” then will not others without your desire or courage carry you? They will exalt your cause even if they have not the bravery to follow it. These Brothers and Sisters are heroic in their own way.’
And he replied, ‘I will look past and beyond you Brother and shall walk by your side.’

And then a Sister from the multitude said: ‘If we leave and follow you who will there be left to bear children? Who will nurture the young growing between the forests of limbs, in the wet at our feet?’
‘Not all will follow,’ I replied. ‘When we reach the quiet place then you can give birth in beautiful silence and peace.’
‘You spoke of beautiful music, Brother…’
‘The sound of a breeze through reeds and the gentle pulse of a drum. The soft tinkling of the stars.’
The Sister, bright-eyed, spoke again: ‘I must wait with my friends and loved ones for the world to change. For soon it will change. All will be well and we shall dance in ecstasy.’
I said, ‘Sister, I shall think of you when we arrive and keep a fire burning for you and your loved ones.’

A tall Brother – a head and shoulders above the multitude with eyes a piercing blue – was casting his gaze down upon his fellow folk.
I called to him to follow but he said: ‘I have all the peace and quiet I need. Around and below me I see trees swaying in the wind and the grass bending like a wave with the gentle breeze. The fragrances of flowers enrapture me.’
‘Look at me Brother,’ I said.
He, with his head bowed smiled slightly: ‘I both see you and feel you with me.’ He then raised his head and took a deep breath of air. ‘I can see to the farthest horizons of this world,’ he said.
To this I replied, ‘And can you see our destination, Brother?’
But he shook his head and a tear fell from an eye.

When the time came we departed from the great city of flesh – though our departure seemed never-ending. We appeared to travel constantly through the present, never leaving that – our – world at all. Some of the Brothers and Sisters melted once again into the hot flesh of their family and folk. But those who walked with me carried on resolutely.
My gaze was to the farthest point where the heavens made a fleck of blue sky – a celestial wink in the dark firmament. For I saw beyond my lofty brother who had learnt to grow so tall and who had great and beautiful inner visions.
For two days we travelled so.
On the third day something surprising happened.

As we walked through the great multitude we began to notice that the land under our feet was dry and firm and that every so often a Brother or Sister would be sitting down amongst the throng on a (well-crafted) chair in front of a table. We noticed that on these tables were sturdy piles of parchment (as old as our oldest memories) and by them quills held in slender vases with nearby wells of ink.
Had we forgotten that we teeming people were the heirs of language and literature?
In front of a Brother seated at a table I asked:
‘What is it Brother that you write so diligently sat amongst your Brothers and Sisters who standing together wait for the rain and also wait for the sun?’
This man seated replied:
‘You are at liberty to read what I have written Brother.’
But when I looked there was only a picture – a quite primitive sketch made by the quill and ink.
The Brother smiled at me. ‘We are givers of laws,’ he said. ‘We are at the forefront of this endless world. Can’t you see?’
As I stood by this Brother a Sister handed him food and drink. In her eyes she marvelled at the parchment and was filled with love for the Brother.

Gradually we saw more and more such Brothers and Sisters seated behind their tables.
After one day of walking and sleeping and eating the meat of rats and the crusts of insects (as we could find or were given) we were then startled by an even greater change.
There came a time when as we walked Brother behind Sister and Sister behind Brother all the folk of that unrolling land were seated. So that we passed a place where it was more unusual to see a folk standing than it had previously been to see a folk sitting.
On the desks of these Brothers and Sisters were placed boxes and on the front of these boxes were flickering lights. From behind these boxes serpents slithered and wound over the dusty earth. Lines like creepers from the days of forest and jungle shone and sparkled in the air. This was a curious place for us.
Before the flashing lights the Brothers and Sisters were held as if in a spell. Their countenance was of a kind of spell-bound trance but their fingers moved nervously.

‘O how long before we reach the place of quiet and peace?’ I was asked. But I hushed the questioner and went quietly up to a Sister sat motionless before a box. Turning back to the questioner I whispered, ‘What do you hear?’ For it was true that the sound of the multitude had receded into the background – like a swarm of distant insects. Nevertheless almost drowning my whisper was a great hum as if thousands upon thousands of crickets (that sometimes descended upon us) were swarming above.
The questioner smiled. As well he might.
‘But it is not quiet,’ I said, ‘and there is no peace – and there is no space for us here to sing and dance.’
‘Sing?’ said a Sister dancing.
‘Dance?’ sang a Brother.

Bending down to the Sister in front of the box I could see upon it writing and pictures. It was as if a brain had been opened and its mind spilt onto the surface of this box.
It was true.
We had heard of these things from long ago. All of us.
How curious that they should exist – or even be allowed to exist.
How curious that this device existed when our Brothers and Sisters scrambled for rat meat and insect crusts.
We had heard of these machines from long ago (so we thought) and of their flashing lights but we did not expect such orderly writing and images – both unreal and alien. My eyes tightened in concentration.
‘It is a spring from the godhead,’ she said. ‘All life can be viewed here.’
Our group of travellers gathered round. The machine hummed as if in prayer and we sprang back in reaction when words came from it. I looked around and heard all the boxes chattering as if a flock of gulls had descended to roost.
‘Can wisdom be found in its spirit?’ I asked.
‘All can be found,’ said the Sister.
I asked, ‘Then,’ thinking carefully and mindfully, ‘can it tell us what love is?’
‘It can show you love,’ said the Sister.
‘Then it cannot be wise as you say,’ I replied, ‘and cannot therefore spring from God.’
‘Are not all things and all knowledge sprung from God?’ asked the Sister
‘Only the hidden things,’ I replied, ‘as God is hidden and mysterious.’
‘God is no longer a mystery,’ she smiled.
‘Then God is no longer God,’ I said.
‘God cannot be “no longer”,’ she said.
‘Then God is certainly elsewhere,’ I replied.
The Sister hunched before the box. All the Sisters and Brothers sat so. Were they at prayer?
Then they all sang:
We are happy
We are wiser
We are growing one and all
We are unity
We are family
We are children from before the fall

‘Will any of you leave your machines and join us?’ I asked smiling.
But none came.

As we left the children of this multi-God a Brother asked me:
‘Will you explain wisdom to us Brother?’
I replied:
‘Wisdom is to know The Uncertainties of the Soul; to know that some and not all can and will be revealed. Journey is mystery.’
And I reflected upon the place and people we had left. ‘We each sit and watch the world through a window. And we know that we cannot see more but also that there are as many windows as grains of sand. These melt to create the clear glass of God. As God sees All, so we see our own grain. But even with a billion grains of sand we cannot see God’s form. A wise man understands his limitations.’

Another Brother wished to question me of the nature of God and Heaven – even though I had no knowledge of these things – for I knew my limitations. But as he asked so I allowed myself to meditate and was drawn to give him the answers I did.
‘My wife is dead Brother, many years gone; will we know each other when we meet in Heaven?’
I replied: ‘Heaven is without time – there is no movement in Heaven but for the Spirit and the Spirit we all share has no substance – none that can be found on earth except for that spark we each carry. The spark of spirit that is our soul has no earthly substance yet it can be carried within our earthly body. It is this spark, this point of light, this ocean drop that will soar to Heaven. You will join with your wife in Heaven and know her through this joining but you will also know all other sparks, other points of light and other drops in the Great Ocean..’
‘Forgive me Brother,’ he said, ‘but what is it that I will know of my wife – will I be able to kiss her tenderly after all these long years apart – will those who have lost children be able to hug them again and enfold them in a protective embrace?’
I replied: ‘These things will not be so Brother. There will be no need. In joining your wife or in apparent rejoining their son or daughter all will be healed and perfect – as God is perfect. There will be no division. There cannot be a kiss Brother for nothing of the flesh shall survive…’
He answered quickly: ‘But we show our love through our bodies…’
I replied equally as quickly: ‘Our love Brother, but not the love to be found in Heaven. If there is a kiss there is a hurt and if there is food to be enjoyed then there is waste to be defecated and if there is earthly love and the bonding of a man and woman then there is no children and only the withering of that flesh. Flesh is of this world as is the flesh of rat; in Heaven a kiss or the taste of fruit – yes Brother, a taste we all long to experience in this barren world – or that self-less love for a child – none of this will be found in Heaven. Heaven will be beyond our pitiful love, beyond the pleasure of our pitiful senses and even greater than the self-less love and sacrifice for a parent to their child. Your wife is beyond you as you – when you die – will be beyond your family and friends. And this will cause you no grieving but only joy in joining with the other sparks of light into the Great Illumination and other points of light into the Great Illumination and other drops of the ocean into the Great Ocean that reflects and is part of the Great Illumination. Light, Fire and Air exist within this Great Illumination as we transcend from our earthly state.’
He asked, ‘But will we know ourselves Brother? Will we know ourselves if we have no body? No desires? No feeling?’
I replied: ‘You will both know your spark, your point, your drop of ocean and you will not know the cares and experience of the world. Your earthly life will fade almost in an instant because you will wish it so. You will know the destiny of all souls even those who will live the cruellest of lives upon this teeming world. When you are joined in this timeless state you will barely understand what it is to feel desires – you will not understand a finite life in a cumbersome body as you did not understand timelessness when you dwelt on earth.’
He asked with great passion, ‘Then why I am I on this earth with its teeming people, with a short unhappy lifespan if all our destiny is to be joined as one?’
‘It is to show you that God exists. Once in Heaven you will know everything and need to know nothing. You will become part of God and therefore not know that you were separated. This is a trace of our soul that is never extinguished from our earthly time. Even the child that dies in the womb knows it is separated from God. Then it can return.’
He said plaintively, ‘But why? Why give us this pain when we could have existed for all time in timelessness?’
I replied: ‘Listen to your words Brother, how can you, live for all time in timelessness? We have to be born into time to know the horror of its finiteness – and the restriction of the flesh.’
He said boldly: ‘Why? Why not be and remain in timelessness?’
I replied, ‘Because we are all both unique and a part of the great whole – we are the spark in the fire, the point of light in the ray of sunshine and the droplet in the ocean – we have had to be born into flesh and time to know that we are a part of but not exterminated by the Great Illumination.’
The Brother walked away and back towards the teeming life from where we had travelled. I was sad that my words had not comforted him.
I thought.

A Sister called after us:
‘You search for peace and quiet?’ Her tone was rushed and pleading.
I said, ‘Yes Sister.’
She said, ‘What you are searching for is God’s presence.’
I said, ‘God?’ in a surprised tone.
She said, ‘’God is peace and stillness.’
I said, ‘Then I shall find Him.’
She said, ‘He is here, Brother.’
I said, ‘Here?’
She said, ‘Indeed Brother we find God in peace and stillness.’
I said, ‘There is neither peace nor stillness here.’
She said, ‘You must find these things within yourself.’
I said, ‘You are a noble being Sister but God cannot be found here. God has deserted this place if He were ever here.’
She laughed and I laughed.
She said, ‘Has God deserted us too?’
I said, ‘God has to be found. Living the life you lead in a place that is Godless – it will be difficult for Him to be found.’
‘But not impossible.’
I smiled. Was I in search of God or place where we could renew the Garden. In the seeds that we planted in our new land – would there also be the seed of the Fall? Would Brother turn against Brother and would Brother take a Sister to refill emptiness in God’s image?
‘Will you come with us Sister?’ I asked.
She replied, ‘I have no need,’ and returned in and amongst the cooling heat of humanity.

I considered. If we are to find the world that fits well with us – is it for ever over a distant horizon or in the planet dwelling skies? Must we confront difference and surmount conflict or take our difference and integrity to an isolated place? Doubt fell upon me as I cast my eyes upon the band of Brothers and Sisters who followed.

Farther on some Brothers and Sisters were gathered round a man stood proudly on a large rock. We heard cries lifting from the crowd. I walked towards them and as I did I had to step carefully over bodies lying in oozing mud. As I reached the crowd I heard:
‘We hate this man. We hate this man.’ They cried bitterly and as one. Some swore at him and some spat. His crime must have been heinous.
The man, standing above them on the large rock, said:
‘We must learn to live with one another in harmony.’
They cried, ‘We are not a Mass, a Flock to be driven or a Herd to be corralled.’ Then with much love and passion they spoke unanimously, ‘We hate you and we hate all you say.’
The man said, ‘I love this land, this stone that I stand upon.’
They cried, ‘We shall urinate at your feet until your land is despoiled.’
The man said, ‘And I love the land you stand upon.’
They cried and they howled and fouled the land at their feet.
I was surprised by the passion of their venom. Both shocked by and curious about them. Gently I turned the attention of a Sister to me. Without shame she had squatted down close to where I stood. Anger burnt powerfully and brightly in her eyes.
‘What is this man to you?’ I began, ‘that you revile him so?’
She said, ‘He is a hater of others.’
I said, ‘A hater?’
She said, ‘Listen to him speak.’
I said, ‘But he speaks of harmony.’
She laughed. ‘Are you to be hated too Brother?’
‘What does it take for me to be hated?’ I asked.
She eyed me suspiciously. ‘What do you speak of?’ she asked.
‘I speak of what I find within me,’ I said. ‘But I am not here to speak but rather to show.’
‘Do you challenge us Brother?’
‘What should I challenge? I speak my mind when it is wise to do so.’
This Sister turned to some of her folk close by.
‘Why are you so filled with hate?’ I asked.
‘Hate?’ she laughed, ‘why we are filled with Love Brother.’
The Brothers and Sisters gathered round the rock had fallen silent. I called up to the man who stood so resolutely. ‘Will you join us Brother? We are travelling to a place of peace, quiet and beauty.’
‘I cannot,’ this man replied.
‘Why?’
‘Because I am needed,’ he said.
‘You are unjustly hated,’ I said.
‘And that is my need,’ he said. ‘You speak of justice Brother but I serve justice here upon this rock.’
‘And how do you serve?’ I asked.
‘I am a siphon for their anger. I am a siphon for the injustices they face every day of their lives. And every day they scorn my words and they hear them too. And one day they will live in peace, quiet and beauty right here. For all their hatred will have been dissipated.’
‘Who gave you authority to be such a siphon?’ I asked.
‘I did,’ said the man.
‘And who feeds you and quenches your thirst?’ I said.
‘They do,’ said the man.
I looked at the Brothers and Sisters gathered round the rock with the man standing there so. Suddenly the quiet that had descended lifted and was filled with spits and sneers and shouts and foul language. Their attention was turned from me. I lifted my eyes once more to the man on the rock. He looked down at me and smiled.

We came to a place by the sea where people ate fruit. They ate meat from rats and crumbs from insects and they ate the soft flesh of fruit – though I could not see a tree. I sat with my back to a great grey rock both jagged and smooth. Easily I found a comfortable position and both watched and listened to the sea. Some Brothers and Sisters scavenged along the sea’s side – their movements furtive and apprehensive.

Before long my outward eyes closed and the eternal rhythmic sound of the sea lulled me into a day dream. And I saw in this dream:
A town from our memories. A town with golden cupolas and searching spires. A young girl was skipping down a pavement bordering a large cobbled square. In the middle of this square a fountain sprinkled water and around this laid out in a circle were beds of multi-coloured flowers.
The girl was alone and excited – she received disinterested smiles from passing strangers. Arcades flanked the square on all its sides and were decorated with a profusion of hanging baskets.
Into my dream came a dark voice. Not altogether an unpleasant voice but deep and resonant – with something of an inquiring manner; too confidential perhaps; smooth on first hearing but with a bitter aftertaste.
The voice said:
What is it that makes these people, these strangers smile?
Is it fear?
Poison can be carried in the most beautiful of packages – striking colours and shapes; if it wishes so.
I am observing your dream with interest but I am suspicious that this vision is built on the hard rock of Oppression.

I did not answer the dark voice but rather let the un-(sub)conscious day dream unveil itself with the honesty and integrity of a young bride. I felt no conscious interplay with my dream – simply I was the onlooker, or –in-looker.
A boy ran across the cobbles of the Great Square and its smooth stone pathways. Cheekily and yet gingerly he stepped through the circular flowerbed and into the pool where water from the fountain gently wetted his skin and clothes.
(All through this dream my sub-conscious mind must have been in awe at the images it created. For I dreamt of both the past and the future of what was and what might be and what might have been. Traces of the past still existed in our world and there were those who seeded our minds with forbidden treasures. In our world I hungered after more than rat meat and was more industrious then the creeping beetles when it came to grubbing out footnotes from the past. And yet also there were in my mind visions that could not have root anywhere or from anytime – unless that place be a parallel place and the time be from the future. But I had to be careful at all times. I was in some way no different from my fellow Brothers and Sisters and yet in other ways I dwelt in the land of chimera and spirit.)
Nimbly the boy climbed the statue from where the water spouted. The statue was that of a man with a wide smile and laughing eyes. The people of the town had built this statue of him in honour of his unflinching and determined struggle to bring democracy to them.
The dark voice spoke from its dark interior:
The boy insults the spirit of the statue. You see, the young have no care for their ancestors or for the world they have inherited.

The boy climbed to the statue’s bare head. He flung his arms around the head as he would his beloved grandfather. Then, balancing himself he cast his eyes beyond the town’s squares and the surrounding houses. Around the town, hills undulated peacefully – lush green with pockets of deciduous trees. Animals grazed and crops grew. The boy’s eyes traced a buzzard’s movement across the sky and in the distance a majestic gigantic aircraft sailed noiselessly.
The voice coughed in a smirk, sharpening its edges:

A sweet voice called to me. Turning in its direction I saw a child – a girl – with a heart-shaped face and with wild blonde licks of hair framing it. The child said: ‘I have many questions to ask you sir.’ I said: ‘Then ask me your questions child and I shall listen and answer as honestly as I can.’
But before she could answer a butterfly caught her attention and laughing gleefully she chased it, uttering cries of pleasure and excitement. Eventually the butterfly rose into the air and escaped her grasping hands.

By Tim Bragg
Tim Bragg is the author (amongst many books) of ‘Lyrics to Live By – Keys to Self-Help; Notes for a Better Life’ available from Amazon

Picture courtesy of Elaine Bampton

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Time-less-ness

‘Timelessness’ in a heightened state of mind

How many of us have felt this sense of ‘timelessness’ and in which manner? I experienced this recently in a heightened state of mind and was able – to some extent – to observe its nature, at least obliquely and on reflection. Along with this timelessness came a lack of sense of self. The problem for me is how to convey this state. The other occasions of timelessness I have felt have often come within music or playing music. Being ‘lost in music’ as the lyric says. When concentrating very deeply on playing an instrument both the sense of self and time (but not timing!) are diminished.

The first question I ask myself (and which you may well be asking) is WHY try and communicate this feeling; it is either something we experience (or have experienced) or not. If you have experienced it you know it and if you haven’t of what purpose does trying to communicate it serve? I can only answer that my attempts to convey this state of being might prompt others to REALLY consider if they have also – and in which particular manner – and if not, how they might experience such. And to offer insight.

Regarding the ‘heightened state of mind’ – this is achieved through drugs (frankly) or intense moments of BEING. By this latter I mean, say, a physical as well as mental moment – a car crash; a parachute jump; stepping off a mountain side wearing a wingsuit; an orgasm; being overwhelmed by a natural environment and perhaps giving rise to a quasi-religious experience. It might be through meditation. It might arrive in a semi-lucid dream/awakened state. It could be an NDE (near death experience) or an OBE (out of body experience). It might be a highly spiritual experience. I’ll try and give some examples.

Recently, as mentioned above, I had this sensation of time-less-ness. Now I only understood its nature when I REGAINED a sense of time. A part of this timelessness was a sense of non-consciousness too. This is where it gets hard to describe or even for me to comprehend. As far as I can tell when I was in the timeless and non-conscious state it really was a bit like the cliched ‘oneness’ we hear about. As I wasn’t seemingly aware in this state it took me being back in a conscious state to BECOME aware. Of course we might ask: how did I get from one state to another? If I wasn’t conscious then how could I switch back to consciousness? Perhaps it was simply a REDUCTION in awareness. Regardless of this, as soon as I entered into a defined state of ‘being and time’ I was aware of the peculiarity of the former state. I was aware that I had been – as it were – free. Did I continue to exist in that state in any meaningful way? If I was unconscious of ME and of my BEING in TIME then what was I experiencing? I can garner a feeling of being in that state but as with any memory it is but a shade of its former ‘reality’.

If I had continued in a state of non-time and being then that would have ‘continued’ for – well, for how long? Wrong question. It simply WAS. That’s the whole point, there was no time and little (or NO) awareness. Thus that state simply WAS. And even WAS is wrong because there was no sense of present/future or past. Those states were meaningless to its existence. And now I struggle to understand what it was I experienced – if indeed I can use ‘I’ and ‘experience’. This is the crux – this state I struggle to explain only came into existence as I changed from it back into my self-conscious temporal nature. Had I not changed back it would still BE. I would not have contemplated it nor written about it here. Because in that state there is no movement. Movement only occurs with time. In that state there is no sense of ME.

Okay, let me jump to an experience a number of you will have had: an accident of some kind. Let’s take a car crash, which I used as an example earlier. In fact, as I’m going to be specific, I’m using a couple of motorbike accidents I have had. One of these accidents was me simply ‘dropping the bike’ as I hit a pool of oil lying on the road at a T Junction. I still have the memory of this with quite a sharp visual of what happened. As the bike fell to the floor I recall a wing mirror smashing. It happened in slow-motion – or rather that was my perception of it! It was quite beautiful – I have a feeling that the glass shattered into many parts and I can almost see this happening and with this shattering there was a lot of colour; waves of colour. In fact the more I think about it though, the hazier the memory becomes. It was slow and beautiful – that much I can say. Time seemed to slow down. Maybe the crystals of glass reflected the colours of the oil on the road to give the colourful effect.

Now this isn’t a case of timelessness as such – but time slowing…and yet there was a hint of timelessness too because I was able to marvel at the beauty of the glass shattering as if it existed ‘out of time’. On another occasion I again dropped my bike – this was on a roundabout (traffic island) where the road’s tarmac had melted and the tyre grip slipped. I can still see my bike gambolling through the air. I became unaware of my bodily circumstance – just me watching the bike. I didn’t have any sensation of rolling or being hurt and, in fact, when a car driver (who had stopped) came to ask me if I was all right, I simply asked if my bike was okay. Again – I hadn’t fully gone timeless, though time had slowed, but I felt I had lost a sense of my being.

Is there Time in dreams? And are we truly present in them? It seems the laws of science we exist under in this waking state are not observed necessarily in dreams. And yet we take all for granted. Whatever happens in a dream is ‘normal’ and even if we consider things peculiar, that is the same reaction we might have to peculiar events while we are awake. So in dreams there is a ‘normality’ but certainly not a ‘normality’ we experience when not dreaming. We can say that Time doesn’t really seem to exist in dreams even when we experience movement. But does it or doesn’t it? When we are awake dreams are surreal ideas. When we dream we exist in that ‘other reality’ and usually have no concept of a ‘normal, awake state’.

We can have lucid dreams where we are aware of being in another dimension. This is a kind of cross-over, twilight existence. When I was a child I would have dreams where I’d wake up, go downstairs and eat breakfast – only to hear my mother calling me to get up. I think (but my memory is hazy) that this happened a number of times – repeating the same experience before I finally DID wake up and go downstairs. In these specific dreams time seemed to operate as normally – mirroring our usual perception.

And sleep itself is, of course effectively timeless. We can pass through the Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic states as we fall to and wake up from sleep and can often experience very lucid dreams. But normally the sequence is such:
We try to fall asleep.
We unconsciously fall asleep.
During sleep we have another dimension/experience – dream state.
We come awake as if no time has passed. (And yet we are fully conscious that time HAS passed.)

What is the opposite of Time? Is it STATES? Is Eternity a STATE rather than a TIME? We are caught in our preconceptions and perceptions of Time. Living forever and dying forever carry a kind of unsettled menace about them. If given a choice we might opt for ‘living forever’ (in the sense of temporal time) but any concerted thought about that would surely drive us insane? How can you live forever? Being in a STATE is different. As with my recent experience of timelessness it was ‘forever’ and ‘eternal’ in a sense. You could argue – no it wasn’t as you came out of that state. That is true – but just like a dream-state it was completely different when I was experiencing it. And this timelessness I felt was even  more extreme than a dream-state as there was no narrative. It didn’t feel threatening or dangerous…not at all.


A car crash – throwing us out-of-time or slowing down time and dislodging us from the reality of what we ‘should’ be experiencing; free-falling before opening a parachute, I can only imagine giving a feeling of weightlessness and freedom and possibly a lack of attachment (if surrounded by cloud) – also, although moving rapidly, no sense of TIME! Only with the earth rushing towards us (and I presume the rushing of air) would there be a sense of movement and thus time; an orgasm taking one out of one’s mind into a ‘petite mort’ – a different reality – a death of the normal and maybe of the self. Ecstasy. And an ecstatic experience – transcendental – religious/spiritual, maybe an OBE. And here I would argue for the poetic loss of self too and loss of temporal, earthly time. Indeed perhaps a poet’s soul enraptured by Nature. Fanciful? Read some Wordsworth. Or maybe ‘going inside’ intentionally through meditation or – in my case often – the ritualistic beating of drums creating a framework to lose oneself within. Or the blowing into a flute – breathing itself, along with the music, helping to escape ‘reality’. A kind of creative meditation.

Is REALITY defined by Time – as reality is a consensual construct and time a perception within it. Time has changed over the ages in terms of how it has been measured and divided. Has our notion of reality changed along with our notions of Time? How real is Time? And this last question either strengthens the idea of timelessness or makes it redundant. You see Time really IS the answer to life and death.

Many folk who have had ‘near death experiences’ report the feeling of lack of time and the scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg writes of the world of spirits he frequented as being ‘states’. These examples might seem fanciful to you – but we are all aware of the flexibility of time: compare an hour waiting in a dentist’s waiting room with an hour of listening to your favourite music. And time really does seem to speed up as we grow older. The keys to our continuation post earthly-life will fundamentally be: Time-less-ness and another form of Reality. Another form of consensual reality perhaps. A reality even more thought-driven than the one we inhabit now.

Many of the examples I have given for a heightened state of being are not to be advised. And you may have other experiences (please share). The important thing to consider is that being ‘out of time’ (and no drummer jokes here please!) and being ‘out of one’s self’ are highly possible and there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest such.

We know what we experience even when that sense of ‘we’ disappears.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

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Hail Satan?

Baphomet“Hallowe’en is coming
And the goose is getting fat.
Will you please put a penny
In the old man’s hat?
If you haven’t got a penny,
A halfpenny will do,
And if you haven’t got a halfpenny
Then God bless you,
And your old man too.”

That’s the wee verse my sisters and I used to rhyme off at this time of the year, annoying our neighbours in Rathcoole as we went from door-to-door in homemade costumes made from bin bags. We carried Jack o’Lanterns which our mother had lovingly hollowed out of turnips. That, believe me, was no easy task.

This was long before the coming of the commercial Americanised imported ‘trick or treat’ fashion and the appearance of readymade costumes from Asda or B&M. As we counted our pennies, bobbed for apples and hoped to get the slice of apple tart containing a silver sixpence we were just having some fun.

We never thought of it as a celebration of the triumph of evil, or devil worship or of horrible things. We were not conjuring up demons; not a bit of it. It was part of our inherited traditions; every bit as much as the Eleventh Night, The Twelfth, St Patrick’s Day, Easter or Christmas. To hear some religious people talk; you would think that devil worship is what it’s all about. Not at all.

Still, the season we’re in reminds me of a recent documentary I saw at the QFT. Penny Lane has made a hugely entertaining film about a recently formed religious group that is beginning to attract public attention. It’s growing quite fast in the US where it began, and in some parts of Europe.

This new religious group has published its Seven Fundamental Tenets. Let me share them with you…

  •  One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
  •  The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
  • One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
  • The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
  • Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
  • People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.
  • Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.

By and large, with a quibble over a word here and there, that sounds like something you might read in The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Magazine or in The Inquirer; it sounds like faith guided by reason. It wouldn’t be out of place in one of our churches.
Doesn’t it all sound grand?
Doesn’t it all seem reasonable?
Doesn’t it sound ethical?
At first glance, I’d say yes.

So, what is this new religious movement and where is it based? Well, significantly or otherwise, it’s based in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. Yes, that Salem; the group calls itself The Satanic Temple. Wow!

For a moment, when I read these Seven Tenets, I thought to myself, “My God. A lot of this sounds quite reasonable. Have I been batting for the wrong team all these years?” Not only is the devil reputed to have all the best tunes; it now looks like he’s beginning to run away with the best principles too.

In fact, however, the Satanic Temple does not worship the Christian devil. They don’t actually believe in a literal Satan; for Christians, Jews and Muslims the personification of evil and hatred and the adversary of truth. The Satanic Temple’s symbolic ‘Satan’ is based on the literary heroic character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; the wannabe challenger of arbitrary power and self-styled champion of the dispossessed.

They use their status as a recognised religious body to challenge conservative right-wing Christian theocrats in America who are trying to impose their own religious principles on others in violation of the US constitutional amendment separating church and state. They demand equal status for their own ‘deeply held religious principles’. When such groups try to place Crosses or Nativity scenes or stone tablets of the Ten Commandments on public property; TST then demand equal treatment in the courts for statues of Baphomet; their goat-headed symbol. Rather than allow that to happen, the Christian theocrats usually take their symbols down.

So, in the interests of peace, justice, empathy, mercy and equal treatment for all, should we prepare to ditch our Hallelujahs and start singing Hail Satan? Well, I’m sure (or, at least I hope) you’ll not be surprised to hear me saying, No.

John Milton’s literary Satan is not all he seems. He is not a man looking out for the common good of all humanity. He is a self-seeking immortal animated by a grudge against God to prey on humanity’s innocence.
Milton wrote at the time of the English civil wars. He thinks the common good is the most important thing about society. His opposition to kings is based upon his strong conviction that monarchies, being fatally vulnerable to the power held in the hands of one flawed individual, cannot benefit nations. To Milton; the only flawless king is God, therefore no human being should usurp God’s empty throne. That’s why he agreed with Charles I’s execution for treason and excoriated the Presbyterians of Belfast who protested against it.

He believed that republics, with their checks and balances, are a much better option; but Milton knew how naked ambition can pervert republics, too. He knew what happened to Rome and Athens. He had read his Tacitus, his Plutarch, and his Suetonius. From this, and his personal experience in the English civil wars, he concluded that the heart of tyranny is individualism.

Milton’s Satan personifies this individualism. Satan cannot bear to put the common good before his own personal desires. He exemplifies all that is dangerous about personal charisma, charisma, and his rhetorical dominance is bound up with that charisma.

When Satan makes speeches to other people, he is always manipulative, always instrumental. He uses people for his own ends. He lies. He is not a champion of the oppressed at all.

We might applaud the probably well-intentioned folk behind the Satanic Temple for the fine ethics in their Seven Tenets. Following them may indeed make them better people and good neighbours; but their champion has feet of clay.

As non-subscribing Presbyterian Christians, our champion is Jesus of Nazareth. I realise that some forms of religion can be a sly way for people to feel superior to others (we’re the chosen, God’s elect; you’re a reprobate sinner).

But we have no magic formula;
no Seven Tenets;
no 39 Articles;
no Westminster Confession;
no Four Spiritual Laws;
no Five Points of Calvinism.
We reject the insistence many professing Christians have, of insisting on doctrinal correctness, and concentrating on the afterlife and avoiding hell above all else.

We seek to nurture a deep and living faith in the goodness, grace, forgiveness and unconditional love of God as embodied in the life, the teachings, the death and the vindication of our Elder Brother, Jesus the Christ.

Hail Satan? No thanks. Instead, my cry will be
Kyrie Elieson. Lord have mercy. Alleluia and Amen.

This article was first delivered as a sermon in First Presbyterian Church, Belfast by David Kerr the Sunday before Hallowe’en 2019.

Picture: Eliphas Levi’s image of Baphomet

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Co-Void 19 Thoughts From a Rural Location Part 1

countryside-2175353_640Earlier today (as I write) I finished reading Colin Wilson’s second postscript to his book: ‘The Outsider’. This work has been with me before, and now during, the current pandemic. I think Mr. Wilson was probably something of an ‘outsider’ too. This was his first book and, for a young man, propelled him into some unexpected fame, the like of which had probably not occurred since Lord Byron and his ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’. It seemed both men woke one morning to find themselves famous (to paraphrase Byron).

I have a few books ‘on the go’ as they say, but browsed my untidy bookshelves and picked out Isabel Colegate’s: ‘a pelican in the wilderness — hermits, solitaries, and recluses’— it seemed fitting (and no capitals in the actual title!). There’s a bookmark just over half-way in so it seems I’ve been here before — but I am either blessed (as in ‘peak experience’ blessed) or cursed by being able to read a book/listen to music or watch a film as if for the first time on each occasion.

The sun was shining (I’m in France so we get it here first) and the cat was lying down next to me fast asleep (plus ça change) and as I was reading the introduction, I felt the shadow of indolence pass over me. It wasn’t just indolence though. I was content. It felt like a partially drug-induced soporific state. As if I wasn’t quite in the real world. It could have been an experience where I shifted into another reality or received a visitation. But neither. Yet it was perplexing. Here I was — like so many of us — in forced lockdown with so much TIME on our hands. ‘Eternity in an hour’ — well not quite but with such autonomy (apart from geographic constriction) we could/can do anything. I have a whole pile of books ready to be read. I have songs ready to be recorded and I can compose, play, record (each part), mix and master songs from home. I can write to my heart’s content. And yet, back then, I simply slumped in my chair.

It’s like being in a sci-fi ‘B’ movie (forgive the Americanism) but not quite ‘The Walking Dead’. On the latter, I really enjoyed most of the series though I gave up at one point as it seemed to have morphed into something quite different. That original ‘something’ was the essence of the series that appealed so much — the existential angst; the amoral threat of the zombies. The zombies weren’t even important — it was simply this uncontrollable (well, near uncontrollable) threat. In fact, a threat that HAD to be controlled in some fashion. In this current sci-fi film, I find myself in it’s all rather perplexing. The threat of the virus seems very abstract and that’s probably because I live in a foreign and rural community. Shopping is becoming more and more surreal but not at the stage of the UK. So — how do I guard myself against something that is an abstraction? In shops, folk are gloved and masked and cashiers are goldfish like, wrapped in perspex or polythene (or something similar which I haven’t identified). I don’t wear gloves or a mask — I find that faintly absurd. Perhaps I shouldn’t — but in my ‘bit-part’ in this unfolding ‘movie’ or ‘mini-series’ that’s how it feels. I’d feel very odd clapping at my doorstep too — it just isn’t me. I have expressed my appreciation to friends who are nurses ‘on the front-line’, besides no clapping in rural France — yet. Maybe this is just my misanthropic side. I remember in 1997 when the UK went mad regarding the death of Diana. It was an odd feeling for me, I was bewildered and unsure why I wasn’t (or hadn’t) been caught up in the hysteria. How should I have felt then and how should I feel now?

For the moment (as I shall keep these thoughts fairly short) I too am an ‘outsider’. I look in. I’m at the wings of the stage. Who are the actors? Who’s in the audience? Well, back to me slumping in the chair in the calming rays of the sun — something eventually stirred me and I went off on a walk (I’ll share a link at the end of this of some words I wrote, photos I took and music played and composed of this particular walk I enjoy.) While walking, ideas came to me and one of the ideas was writing — well THIS. Walking, like any form of exercise, often needs to be prompted — it needs to become a habit and so it is with writing. Writing has its own muscle. I’m flexing it now. Tomorrow I might well slump in the chair again — but I have got my guitar out a few times now and firming up those fingertips (ouch!). I’m playing a lot of bass too but am currently unmotivated with other instruments or recording. (In fact, I have recorded music for a brace of poems and some drums for — just about – ‘on-going’ projects.) One step at a time, eh? So if you feel yourself nodding off and sliding down the cushions of your chair — make a mental note and give yourself a start! There’s much to do in these (for me and perhaps you) idle times — you can be busy doing nothing or can shake off the automaton-skeleton and come alive. Zombies come in all shapes and sizes so prepare yourself!
Tomorrow — I shall take out my chair and read. Maybe play some guitar too. You never know. I’ll try and go on my walk and let ideas flow, then share it with you.
(Here’s a link to my new writing channel – with the aforementioned ‘rural walk’: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEw98UVm8HXamMj0NWsOgLg…

By Tim Bragg
Tim Bragg is the author (amongst many books) of Lyrics to Live By – Keys to Self-Help Notes for a Better Life available from Amazon
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay.

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The Romantic Rocker – Some Thoughts on Phil Lynott

Thin_lizzy_22041980_01_400

Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy, Chateau Neuf, Oslo, Norway

What made Phil an ‘outsider’? Well, was this rowdy rocker and party-goer, really an outsider? I think so. Of course, just the hue of his skin in Dublin at the time would have ‘marked him out’. A black Irishman in the 50s and 60s – there was a novelty. Either he had to live up to that difference or retreat from it – Phil, ostensibly, lived up to it. In fact, he had been born at West Bromich in the West Midlands of England close to where I grew up. But Phil was sent to Dublin to live with and be brought up by his grandmother and family. He pays tribute to her in one of his songs titled ‘Sarah’. He wrote another ‘Sarah’ for his first born.

Phil was ‘black’, living apart from his mother, with an estranged father. He was brought up in Catholic Ireland – so different at the time, say, from ‘Swinging London’ and more generally the ‘swinging sixties’ – the decade when he first began to play music. Phil was tall, very leggy and eventually grew an impressive ‘Afro’ hair cut. There was no mistaking him. But there was always a dichotomy about his nature. I met and talked with him a few times (I’m lucky to be able to say) even got to play drums along with him once! With his doleful eyes, lush Dublin brogue and gentle demeanour OFF-stage (I never witnessed his wild side) – this was contrasted with the posing rocker, ‘eye-for-a-lady’, ‘jack-the-lad’, ‘twinkle in the eye’ hard rocker ON stage. Thin Lizzy was a SUPERB live act. They made their reputation and career from their live performances. And they had (to quote a song and album title) a ‘bad reputation’.

There was though, more to this rocker than one would expect. Yes he could write heavy songs with swagger such as ‘The Rocker’: ‘I am your main man if you’re looking for trouble’ – but also some of the most beautiful ballads, such as ‘Still in Love With You’:

‘Think I’ll just fall to pieces
If I don’t find something else to do
This sadness it never ceases
I’m still in love with you.’

Or there were the songs of yearning, ‘Wild One’ being an example with its lines:

‘How can we carry on, now you are gone, my wild one.’

There were many songs imbued with Irish legend of myth and adventure and with more contemporary reference such as, ‘Freedom Song’:

‘I believe in the freedom song
Long live liberty
I believe in the freedom song
Doesn’t matter what you do to me.’

But there was also his religious/spiritual side. I’m writing these words now because the following lines often pop into my head, from the song ‘Dear Lord’:

‘Dear Lord, this is a prayer, just let me know if you’re really there
Dear Lord, come gain control, oh Lord, come save my soul
Give me dignity, restore my sanity, oh Lord, come rescue me
Dear Lord, my vanity, oh Lord, it’s killin’ me, it’s killin’ me.’

Phil had a sense of the Divine… a sense of the world beyond…I even think he had a sense of his impending mortality. This mix of rocker and romantic gave his songs a quality so often lacking from his contemporaries. Thin Lizzy’s songs had this mixture of Rock; Romance; Celtic History; Religion/Spirituality.

Phil was an outsider by nature not by choice. He was ‘Johnny’ the character popping up in many of his songs – he was ‘The Cowboy’, his childhood reflecting children’s awe then of the Wild West and he bringing these romantic adventures to life in the raw 1970s: ‘I am just a cowboy, lonesome on the trail…’

Well if you don’t know, Phil succumbed to the effects of drugs and their long-term use in the mid-80s. Perhaps that was always going to be his destiny. Never to grow old. Always remembered as the rocker, the gypsy with his dangling, hooped earring. His playfulness and talent. But it’s still a damn shame he’s gone. These words reflect just a slight insight into the man and his songs. If you don’t know him and Thin Lizzy check out their back catalogue. ‘Vagabonds of the Western World’ is a raw, solid, Irish, romantic flavoured album from the band as a three-piece; ‘Nightlife’ is a soulful peculiarity (and my favourite album); Jailbreak is the ‘Classic Line-up’ at its height, containing their most famous hit song, ‘The Boys are Back in Town’.

If you don’t know Thin Lizzy and you like your rock delivered with feeling and intensity and yet with some beautiful slow ballads and thought-provoking lyrics – you will be highly delighted when you do. If you already know them – you’ll understand everything I have written. Phil’s life was a romantic-tragedy – with all the paradox that those two words combining bring. I’ll leave you with this stanza from his song, ‘Spirit Slips Away’. Written when he and the band were on the cusp of real stardom.

And when the music that makes you blue
Unfolds its secrets, the mysteries are told to you
May the angels sing rejoice to you
That fateful day when your spirit slips away

By Tim Bragg.

Tim Bragg is the authour of ‘Lyrics to Live By‘, a book which looks at the life lessons in twelve song lyrics.

Picture: Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy, Chateau Neuf, Oslo, Norway by Helge Øverås [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

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Review: Sixties counterculture: A lecture from Dr. Greg Scorzo at The Academy 21 July 2019

gregscorzo

Greg Scorzo

Greg Scorzo is the director and editor of Culture on the Offensive and host of the Art of Thinking. I attended his lecture at The Academy which contrasted the counterculture of the 60s with the Leftist culture of 2019. Greg’s central argument was that the 60s counterculture was predominantly individualistic whereas the 2019 Left stressed collective themes.

For Greg, the 60s counterculture was in favour of pluralistic free speech and not only opposed government censorship of ideas but sought to foster a cultural environment that nurtured the expression of radical, even ‘dangerous’ ideas. Alongside this sat the belief that this could be done in a peaceful way and that such free expression led away from a view that violence was the only way to gain a voice or achieve change. Fast forward to the present day and that concept is linked explicitly with the Right. The Left instead now champion a ‘call-out culture’ which seeks to restrict free expression with symbolic prohibitions. Bans on words, symbols and even certain types of creative writing (for example writing with a cast of characters who are not sufficiently diverse). Additionally, Religions have been reclassified in terms of ethnic culture rather than seen as ideologies. This places them off-limits for criticism on the basis of the values they promote or their political impact. The Left today would view such criticism as an attack on the ethnic culture these religions now represent.

Whereas the 60s counterculture valued non-conformity the Left today engineers social incentives for people to stay ‘on message’. In Greg’s view whereas pluralistic free expression led away from violence the suppression of ideas favoured today was likely to create the conditions for it.

Greg also highlighted how the 60s counterculture appealed to universalism. It sought to persuade those who held a different view and emphasised to them the fairness of equal treatment. He accepted that there were those within the 60s counterculture who favoured equality of outcome as an aim but argued that this was not the dominant ideology of the movement. The 2019 Left emphasises equality of outcome which essentially looks at dividing power between rival groups and holds individuals responsible for the group to which they belong. Rather than appealing to universal values, it is divisive.

How the Left in 2019 has moved from the positive ideas of freedom expressed in the counterculture of the 60s to the promotion of a bureaucratic conformism today is a question worthy of further study? How they square this with an emotional attachment to the earlier counterculture is also a puzzle. I left Greg’s lecture full of these and other questions.

By Pat Harrington

#theacademy

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Review: Tribal Criminal Law and Procedure

tribalcriminallawTribal Criminal Law and Procedure is the second book in a series of comprehensive studies of tribal law in the US. This book examines the complexities of tribal criminal law utilizing tribal statutory law, and case law, weaving into the narrative Native cultural values. The authors discuss histories and practices of tribal justice systems, comparing traditional tribal systems with Anglo-American law, with a focused discussion on the various aspects of jurisdiction. They examine the elements of criminal law and procedure and alternative sentencing vs traditional sanctions. A valuable resource for legal scholars, this book was published in cooperation with the Tribal Law and Policy institute at Turtle Mountain College and the Native Nations Law and Policy Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Comparing Tribal criminal law and American criminal law

Foundations of Traditional law is discussed in Chapter 2 discuss the differences in Native systems. Mainly, that these laws do not come from man, they come from the Creator and are belief-based. Understanding this is critical to understanding the complexities of Tribal law. Traditional Native law based on values, deities, and responsibilities, linked to spiritual beliefs. Belief that the Great Spirit is the Creator and protector, the source of earthly blessings. The Great Spirit is given thanks for all things including preservation of native lives, social privileges, and prosperity. There is also a belief in the Evil-minded who creates monsters and poisonous creatures and plants. Humans stand somewhere in-between and are free to control their own destiny.

The framework stemming from this system of beliefs responds to problem behavior and how the system is focused on personal responsibility rather than prohibited activities; which American law focuses on. Tribal law focuses on how social harm affects the community rather than the harm done to or by a single individual. For instance, the Haudenosaunee Great Law based on beliefs about the Creator defines that a person’s duties and responsibilities are more important than their individual rights and privileges. Indeed, the principles of the League of the Iroquois address a similar idea that a man’s rights and privileges never exceed his duties and responsibilities. (1)

Tribal conceptions of social harm are more broadly interpreted compared to the American legal system. An aspect of social harm within tribes rests on community-based rights or duties, while other tribes might focus more on the individual’s responsibilities. One reason for the focus on community is that traditional laws address the responsibility of each to their family, clan, and tribe, since the strength of these groups, depends on the survival of its members. Decisions come down to whether a community or the individual will respond to the problem.

Behaviors are addressed according to the customs and the beliefs of each Nation and this dictates which entity will perform enforcement functions. The Iroquois Confederacy used social or political entities to resolve wrongdoing; thus, crime was rare with their lives revolving around the clan. The council of clans addressed problem-solving; however, if this did not resolve the issue, it might go to the Nation’s council. Councils were not the only entity enforcing laws. Parents enforced laws regarding disciplining their children. Additionally, Keepers of the Faith could act as censors of the people and possessed the authority to report evil deeds.

The Menominee and other Algonquian developed formal three-party judicial proceedings to prosecute crimes. A mike-suk would act as investigator and prosecutor, while a pipe-holder or sukanahowao, or even a warrior chief might act as a defense attorney. Additionally, a go-between acted as a mediator to negotiate settlements.

Native cultures focus on rehabilitation and restoration of peace and harmony to both the individual and community. One method of restoration might be banishment to protect the community from harm or could include gifts from the individual’s family to restore peace. The main point here is the emphasis is on restoring harmony to the community and not on proving someone’s guilt or innocence.

Some tribes focus on healing the wrongdoer and the Ojibway is one of these. Their point of reference was if they could heal the individual, they could restore him and peace to the community. This way people can forgive the wrongdoing as their notions of blame differs to more Western thought.

The Cheyenne focus as well on restoration and rehabilitation. While banishing a person from the community might restore peace, the individual might be introduced back after rehabilitation. Stigma, used as an enforcement tool, as well as social control, since a community’s ridicule served as a strong deterrent to social harm.

An interesting element to this book is the author’s use of native anecdotes to show an example of how tribal law might have been decided. This book serves as not only a comparative analysis of the differences between Western legal practice and traditional Native applications of the law, but it also gives us more cultural insight into various tribal practices and historic parables used to show an example of thought and practice.

Using American criminal law to control Indian Nations

Conflicts over land and resources led the American legal system (and their Spanish, French and British predecessors) to use criminal law as a tool of destruction against Native peoples. Western criminal justice systems were used to not only outlaw cultural practice and tradition but to punish those who wished to continue practicing their Native spiritual beliefs. Federal officials attempted to control the Native people. Western legal systems imposed their values of punishment to outlaw tribal mechanisms used to address problem behavior within the Tribe. Additionally, Western criminal law was used by the Feds to confine native people to reservations, however, it did not protect them from harm and was rarely used to protect them from the criminal conduct of the settlers, this author states.

The American system of law worked as a method of indirect rule over Native nations, leading to massive distrust of modern criminal justice systems and even to distrust of their own tribal systems in some cases when funded by the Federal government. Culminating in the Office of Indian Affairs, which later became the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the OIA created Courts of Indian Offenses or CFR courts. (Courts of Federal Regulations) and it was this code of regulations that outlawed many cultural practices. At least twenty of these courts still exist today. The Courts of Indian Offenses imposed federal regulations to prohibit misdemeanour offenses, as well as cultural practices that they deemed immoral. The author cites a Congressional report which lists some of these types of offenses from 1892.

This author also references other texts detailing technology used by the OIA for controlling Indian behavior, such as Thomas Biolsi’s “Organizing the Lakota: The Political Economy of the New Deal on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations.” While this book reviews additional literature on the subject giving anyone with an interest in this topic more resources to investigate for further reading.

Ultimately, federal agents under the BIA wanted federal courts to have jurisdiction over Native people using American laws in criminal cases. A decision made by the US Supreme Court called Ex parte Crow Dog in an 1883 ruling resulted in tribal exclusive criminal jurisdiction over a murder case. This controversial decision brought about the BIA convincing Congress to enact the Major Crimes Act in 1885, which imposed federal criminal jurisdiction on Tribal nations without their consent. For further reading on the Crow Dog case, see Harring’s Crow Dog’s Case (2)

Traditional law today and Traditional criminal jurisdiction

Chapter 4 discusses how traditional tribal values and beliefs have been included in contemporary criminal law. Introducing coercive American law enforcement disrupted tribal governance. This resulted in the Tribes developing their own strong criminal justice system. The biggest challenge is how to incorporate traditional indigenous principles. Many are working to restore traditional practices in a modern context. The author gives many examples throughout this chapter, which makes for interesting reading.

Chapter 5 discusses various types of jurisdiction and goes into detail about different tribal criminal jurisdiction and specific criminal code used by Tribal courts. Chapter 6 discusses in detail traditional criminal jurisdiction.

  • Limitations on Tribal criminal jurisdiction imposed by the US
  • Exercising jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indians
  • Criminal jurisdiction as defined by Tribal Courts.
  • Tribal restorative justice

Each chapter contains a section on terms used and suggested further reading which I found very interesting and useful for anyone interested in studying the intricacies of Tribal Law. Jurisdiction is defined in the traditional sense before Europeans settled in America and is detailed with examples from various Tribal Laws. The Haudenosaunee Great Law is referenced as well as Osage practices by the leaders known as the Little Old

Men who developed their laws and decided jurisdiction. The Choctaw Nation developed a constitution in 1860 dividing its government into three branches. The Treaty of 1866 and the Treaty of Separation (1859) which further designated Choctaw law and jurisdiction over other tribes residing within including Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles are discussed in detail. Many tribes had strict geographical boundaries, which they held jurisdiction over. So they did use and practice the concept of jurisdiction, which must have been problematic once the settlers and Federal government decided to impose their on jurisdictions both geographically and legally over the tribes.

Chapter 7 defines the limitation of tribal criminal jurisdiction as imposed by the United States, discussing ‘Indian Country’ as defined by Federal Law for the purposes of criminal jurisdiction; the General Crimes Act; the Major Crimes Act; Intrusion of State Jurisdiction in Indian Country: Public Law 280; upholding Tribal sovereignty with the United States v Wheeler435 US 313 (1978); Oliphant v Suquamish Indian Tribe et al 435 US 191 (1978); Duro v Reina 495 US 676 (1990) and the Congressional Duro-Fix.

Chapter 8 discusses jurisdiction over non-US citizens and Treaties as a basis for criminal authority, again using case examples, while Chapter 9 goes over jurisdictions as defined by tribal courts. Chapter 10 leads on from the two preceding chapters by detailing Tribal criminal jurisdiction reform citing The Tribal Law and Order Act and the Violence Against Women Act. Since 2006, the Federal law began to address criminal jurisdiction scheme in Indian country and the laws are changing slowly with tribal leaders pressing for inherent sovereignty. Chapter 11 builds on this topic discussing building collaborative bridges between States and Tribal courts. This only covers half of this comprehensive text, which spans 629 pages.

 

(1) Newell, W. B., 1965 Crime and Justice among the Iroquois Nations 47.

(2) Harring, S. L., 1994. Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge University Press. 129 – 141.

 

Authors:

Author Sarah Deer is a lawyer and professor of law at William Mitchell College, and a 2014 MacArthur fellow. She advocates in Native American communities and has been credited for her instrumental role in the 2013 re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act and testified for the passage of the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act. She received her BA and JD from the University of Kansas and is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Carrie E. Garrow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Syracuse University College of Law. She is the Chief Appellate Judge for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Court. Previously she served as the Executive Director for the Center for Indigenous Law, Governance & Citizenship at Syracuse University College of Law.

She received her undergrad degree from Dartmouth College and her law degree from Stanford Law School. She has a Master’s in Public Policy degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

She has worked as a deputy district attorney for Riverside County in Southern California, and a tribal justice consultant for several non-profit organizations, including the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, the Native Nations Institute, and the Tribal Law and Policy Institute.

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Free Will – Sam Harris (Free Press)

freewillbysamharrisThere’s a thought that strikes me in Sam Harris’ book Free Will that there is a kind of ‘fudge’ at the core of his argument. It’s as if he wants his ‘fudge cake’ and to get to eat it! Okay I’m going to demonstrate this, I trust, in this review – but this ‘fudge’ is my main problem with this otherwise very thought-provoking (and short) book.

Harris argues that we haven’t free will. Now, before going on, here’s a summary of where I am on this issue of ‘free will’. In the book he refers to an experiment I was aware of which seems to show the brain making decisions up to a full SEVEN seconds before the conscious mind appears to ‘decide’. That has had me thinking for some time and probably drew me to this book in the first place. I’ve also been looking at consciousness and am half-way through (probably not clever to admit that) Julian Jaynes book: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – It’s a fascinating work and has provoked much thought (thus far) on the nature of consciousness.

We certainly do much in our life that is ‘unconscious’. Imagine when we drive a car – most of our actions (once they are learnt) become ‘automatic’ and unconscious. If you were to consciously think about everything you were doing you would most likely crash. We learn one thing, then another – these two learnt actions then become ONE and then we can add another skill and these two can then become ONE etc. When playing the drums, for instance, the four limbs learn their parts in stages. And when playing a new rhythm everything can fall apart when you consciously think about what you are doing. Naturally in learning to drive a car or attempting a new drum rhythm, the amount of conscious effort begins at a greater level and then, gradually, becomes automatic. In certain conditions our conscious mind can be called on (by what/whom?) to ‘take the reins’. I have often gone out in my car and followed – say – a route to a workplace only to consciously realise that I’m not actually going to this place. My conscious mind takes over, manoeuvres the car and puts me back on track. And once I know where I’m going I can continue in an – at the very least – semi-conscious way.

There  is also the idea – I have read – whereby the brain takes in all the information from the various senses and collates them and then our consciousness presents this stimuli to us as if it were all happening ‘at the same time’ – as the speed of sound is slower than the speed of light etc. Because the brain has had to collect all the data then our conscious perception lags behind the ‘real present’. But what is doing this preparation and selection? How is it being done and where is the interface with our consciousness?

Harris introduces his thoughts on free will with a harrowing example of a brutal (and sexual) attack and murder of a family; only the patriarch surviving. This certainly concentrates the mind! (There is in fact a running motif  regarding crime and how we should deal with criminals.) Following on from this example he writes about popular conceptions of free will that:

Each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past. And that: we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions in the present.

He argues that free will is an illusion and that we do not have the freedom we think we have. That whatever we do is a state of mind we cannot (and could not) change – that it is the sum of many inherent factors. That thoughts and impulses APPEAR in our consciousness and do not originate in it. There is some compelling argument too – can we DECIDE our next mental state? How much control do we have over our thoughts? Do we create thoughts or are they presented to us? Try and think of your next thought!

Harris writes: ‘There is no question that (most if not all) mental events are the product of physical events.’ And were this NOT to be the case then: ‘The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does.’ Reflecting on this then, perhaps to have total free will, we need to say we control ‘everything’ – every thought. And, I suppose, to be totally aware of that! And if we have no free will where is this seeming will (idea of free will) coming from – where does our consciousness come from? Some argue that as our brains, our neurophysilogical processes, are deciding things at SOME level, then we have free will – it’s just not what we think of as our conscious ‘real self’. In response Harris writes: ‘As we have begun to see, however, this feeling of freedom comes from our moment-to-moment ignorance of the prior causes of our thoughts and actions.’

Now later Harris writes, ‘Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic – in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom.’ Here’s where the fudge comes in, I think. ‘A creative change of inputs to the system – learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention – may radically transform one’s life.’ But can we do that other than in a mechanical pre-determined way? ‘Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).’

Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings?

Recently I went for a walk with my son to a water-mill, now converted to a restaurant. Near-by there’s a weir and where part of the river has been channelled to the former-mill’s water wheels. It was a beautiful afternoon – butterflies flitting between plants settled and floating on the water’s surface; two châteaus close by keep silent watch. We were leaning on a small bridge when I noticed a large ant moving across the wood of the side of this bridge. I pointed to it and said, ‘Stop!’.  Now my conscious mind presented that ant to me, I pointed to it, and said ‘Stop!’ – which I think it didn’t! My son was watching me and we laughed about this. Now, evidently, this innocuous act seemed a conscious decision of my free will. Had it NOT been – then there are a number of things to discuss. Firstly: my son thought he was consciously reacting in the present and with free will (as did I). I deliberately pointed at the ant – that was operating in its own way in this world. I pointed to the ant at one particular point. For me to have decided that beforehand I would have needed to know that the ant would appear and that it would follow a certain path and arrive at a certain point that I could POINT at! Was that moment the sum of all three of our experiences of life? My son’s, to have unconsciously ‘decided’ all previous  moments to arrive at that point; mine the same AND the ant to have appeared and moved across the wood? At this point we could UNRAVEL every moment of our lives (including the ant’s) to track back down every event that brought us to where we were THEN. One pre-determined action following another!

Well, I guess that’s possible – a fait accompli if you will. We all WERE there and I certainly pointed and cried, ‘Stop!’. So in this ‘play out’ of unconscious direction EVERY consciousness is (must be!) part of the great PLAY we find ourselves in. Because if I am not aware I’m going to do something and I interact with someone else (who is also not aware) then we are part of some vast, intricate, script that unfolds, and is still unfolding, from the very beginning of time. We are here because of the actions of others.

Yet I could only point to the ant if the ant had been there – that was empirically so. I think Harris would say that no other person could have been in the place and with that mental state that I was in and that I would have been unable to be anywhere else or in any other state. Also – what is tricking our conscious minds to make us think we are doing things of our own volition? Where is the bridge between unintentional decision and apparent consciousness of that decision? When does ‘consciousness’ take over from the deeper decision?

Now the motif I described earlier that runs through this book is the idea of crime, punishment and guilt (or otherwise). We certainly look at crimes differently given our perception of the intentions of the criminals. And if someone has a brain tumour – say – we don’t regard their criminal actions in the same way as someone we believe acts with ‘free will’. And Harris continually argues that we cannot have had any other mental state but that which we had at the time and therefore we need to look at ‘guilt’ differently. He writes that criminals might have: ‘Some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas…’ Looking at this though – how can we introduce a moral definition (‘bad’) to these actions if what he says is true? There cannot be any ‘bad’ – only ‘what is’. Later he argues the idea that human behaviour can be modified by punishment and incentive…I am slightly confused. More cake? Or maybe it’s me!

In the chapter headed ‘Politics’ we get the ‘liberal’ idea that one must be ‘lucky to be able to work.‘ So it’s luck. I’ll get back to that idea. He writes, ‘Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition…’ Luck again? ‘But this does not mean we must be taken in by the illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change.’ Well he says they can’t change any past actions…and how are they to change? ‘We do not change ourselves…but we continuously influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us.’

Okay – so ‘we’ are influenced by our internal world – but how can we escape that influence or use it through volition. I THINK he is arguing for a kind of change through osmosis. Such that, as we are a product of things we have no control over (including our supposed free will) then our past, set actions, history, biological influences can only be added to. He writes: ‘Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. It can only change me.’ Maybe that could be highlighted or achieved say, for example, by forcing folk to have a good iodine intake, especially those living far away from the sea. The intake would have a subtle influence on their well-being and maybe influence their unconscious actions? An outside force would have an impact on their internal world. But someone would have to decide to do that! And that – one presumes – is also decided for them.

It is the concept of ‘free will’ that gave rise to sin – he argues. And, in this, perhaps he is correct – for Adam and Eve were seemingly given ‘free will’ (and not at the same time!).  Their actions have affected all of us – if we believe so. But God would have known the outcome. If he gave them free will knowing they would act the way they did, and take the fruit from the tree – how free were they?

What if you are controlled by others? Your actions and thought directed by others? Would that be a form of double ‘non-free will’?

Are we Beings experiencing this world from the point of view of our consciousness – with no control…as if we are on a roller-coaster that could take us anywhere it desires? Hold on…sit back…tighten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride. Are we puppets of a Greater Being? Are we a strand of conscious experience that snakes back to a greater, composite experience? In fact – even without free will – are we living a spiritual life? Are we simply the observers of our life?

I’ll leave you with two quotes from the book, one in the body of the text and the other in the notes.

Harris: ‘The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.’

And in the notes, Schopenhaur’s: ‘Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills.’

And finally – we may/may not have free will, we may/may not be fully conscious – but the life we lead APPEARS as if we have free will and that is the ONLY way we can lead it. Be thankful for whatever life you have – it’s a one and only experience.

Thanks.

Reviewed by Tim Bragg

Tim Bragg is the author of the recently published Lyrics to Live By: Keys to Self-Help, Notes for a Better Life

 

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Lyrics to Live By Keys to self-help – notes for a better life

IT’S often said that the best ideas are the simplest. And this is certainly the case with the idea behind Lyrics to Live By. Indeed, I’d go as far as saying that the idea behind the book is so simple it’s absolutely brilliant.

So what’s the idea, what makes it so simple and why is it literally a stroke of pure genius?

The idea’s so simple because it relates to something that we probably do every time we hear a song – and that’s to sing along to it and wonder what some of the lyrics actually mean.

This basic query about the meaning of the lyrics can also generate many other questions. For instance, how did the song come about, how long did it take to write, what is the writing process and what’s the idea behind the song? Why use the particular set of lyrics that appear? How personal is the song – and does it contain any hidden or subliminal messages?

With this in mind, the publisher of Lyrics to Live By has asked Tim Bragg to interpret the lyrics of a dozen songs. Ten songs were provided by the publisher whilst Tim chose Paul Simon’s Slip Slidin’ Away and one of his own compositions, Some Answers.

LyricstoLiveByAdamazonuk

For those who don’t know, Tim Bragg is a multi-instrumentalist and a writer of songs, novels and short stories. Indeed, he has several albums and books to his name. He also has a deep interest in English and green politics and is the founder of English Green – https://www.facebook.com/groups/167522623276444/?ref=br_rs – which describes itself as ‘a group interested in ecology and its relationship with all aspects of human activity. How we co-exist with the flora and fauna and how we conduct ourselves in an ecologically healthy manner and how we achieve a spiritual and material well-being are of particular interest’.

Tim is also a really deep thinker – he describes himself as “the eternal outsider” and has been described as “a provocative intellectual renegade”. He is also interested in issues relating to free speech and English culture, previously describing Stratford-upon-Avon as his “spiritual home”.

In his Foreword, Bragg sets the scene by highlighting the importance of music:

‘But we are drawn to particular songs and musicians who seem to speak to us. They really do help guide us through life and come to our aid when most needed. At our lowest, a song can be played over and over, and this repetition seems to heal. When we are blue a blues song seems to do the trick. And the very personal nature of a song makes it effective for our own personal situation – bad/good or otherwise. I am thankful to the musicians who wrote songs that helped me through difficult times: the end of a love affair … for instance’.

I’m sure we’ve all wondered, why certain lyrics have the ability to strike a chord deep inside us. Indeed, every reader could probably suggest the lyrics of several songs which have really touched them – almost in a spiritual way. To me, it simply illustrates the beauty and power of song. However, has it always been like this – and will it be like this forever?

The lyrics Tim comments on are really varied – they include those from Hey Jude, Stairway to Heaven, Wicked Game and Big Yellow Taxi. The musical genres covered are also fairly broad. Writers include Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

I’m not going to give you any details of what he makes of any of the lyrics (and I know that this is extremely strange for a review!) as I want to encourage readers of Lyrics to Live by to really think for themselves. That’s because we live in a world where all sorts of information is readily accessible and Wikipedia is king. Such easy access to information is very much a double-edged sword. On the positive side it enables folks to learn about more-or-less anything under the sun. On the negative side, I fear that many folks are – or have – lost the ability to question information and think for themselves.

Earlier I mentioned that Tim is a very deep thinker, and this is certainly borne out in how he interprets the lyrics. I must admit that I’d often sing along to a song and spend a few minutes contemplating what the lyrics mean. But to actually sit down and to probably spend hours really analysing the lyrics is probably an art form in itself!

This is the first time I’ve read an examination of lyrics to such a high level. Indeed, Tim noted that the process was ‘almost as if meditating’. I really do think that most people will be in awe of (or even shocked at) the depth of thinking employed here. Whether you agree with Tim is open to debate. However, it would really be interesting to know what readers think of his in-depth interpretations.

Lyrics to Live by also poses many questions in itself. I’m not too sure if this was the original intention or simply a by-product of the subject matter?

For instance, I’d particularly like to know how and why the particular songs – and more importantly, the individual lyrics – were chosen by the publisher? I also wondered if there was any sort of thread linking the artists? I presume they must mean something to the publisher, but what? Are they in some way personal, or do they contain any hidden or subliminal messages? Indeed, does Tim’s interpretation of the lyrics match those of the publisher, or are they wildly different? Furthermore, I found it interesting that Tim looked at the lyrics of one of his own songs – I wonder if this was therapeutic in any way?

The Foreword mentions Tim’s admiration for Phil Lynott and Van Morrison, who ‘have certainly helped me through my life’s journey’. Yet neither of them feature in the book. This got me wondering what artists would any of us choose to analyse– and why?

A couple of other things also came to mind whilst reviewing the book:

Firstly, Tim Bragg is a multi-instrumentalist and is comfortable with different genres of music. With this in mind, I presume that a Heavy Metal singer would be more at home looking at the lyrics of a Heavy Metal song. The same would presumably go for a Folk musician with Folk lyrics. However, what would happen if you gave the Heavy Metal and Folk singer the lyrics to a Country and Western song? Would the change of genre completely throw them – or would they both apply the same thought process, successfully analyse the lyrics and manage to overcome the change in musical style?

Secondly, this review has thrown up many unique and interesting ideas and questions. They all lend themselves to a series of books looking at various lyrics and their meanings. I’d love to read the thoughts of other artists – and, in particular, independent artists – in the very near future. Here’s hoping that the first follow-up book is at the planning stage already.

Reviewed by John Field

Lyrics to Live By is available as a Paperback or E-book from all Amazon stores

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