Reason, Faith and Revolution by Terry Eagleton

This polemical text takes aim at the New Atheism. The lecture-based piece is scathing about the popular efforts of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Professor Eagleton is particularly rude about the work of Dawkins, even condemning him for his unpolished prose style.

Eagleton is really harsh about the political company kept by Hitchens and Dawkins. Neo-conservatives and liberals do not persuade Eagleton. However, the thrust of his male-centric argument is that the New Atheists missed the point about religion. They used science to try to understand religion, which is like attempting to use physics to comprehend poetry. Eagleton is less dismissive of the more complex analysis of Freud and Marx.

While much of the material is serious, humour is employed to sharpen the reception of the content. The comic digressions skewer parts of postmodern culture with deadly accuracy:

“Such a cult of the will characterises the United States…For some in the USA, the C-word is ‘can’t.’ Negativity is often looked upon there as a kind of thought crime. Not since the advent of socialist realism has the world witnessed such pathological upbeatness.”

 

 

 

 

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The Writing on the Wall by Will Hutton

This book grapples with the economic and political prospects of China. However, its thesis that China is particularly unstable does not convince the reader. Since its publication, the economies of the West have had to resort to unorthodox monetary and fiscal policies to avoid collapse. Further, the European project has become controversial due to the crisis in Greece. And the legitimacy of the USA has been challenged by Occupy Wall Street.

Despite tensions in Hong Kong, it has been hard to see cracks in the hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party. While the economy of China has endured a sticky patch, experts like Martin Jacques remain confident that muddling through will permit stabilisation around a more sustainable growth rate.

The problem with the analysis is that it is based on wishful thinking which does not respect Chinese orthodoxies. Many of the values of the Enlightenment are laudable. Nonetheless, the relevance of Enlightenment philosophy to understanding the way we live now is controversial. This is partly because of the divergence in thinking between Enlightenment figures. Further, Hutton depends too much on late Habermas when making fuzzy policy prescriptions.

In a world of competing interests, environmental crises and major economic contradictions it seems unrealistic to expect that practical politicians in China or the United States will put aside their ideologies in exchange for unproven musing based on questionable assumptions about human nature.

Virginia Woolf by Professor James King

This penetrating biography of Woolf might not be as encyclopaedic as that composed by Hermione Lee. Nor is it as beautifully written as that produced by Lyndall Gordon. And it does not have the advantage of being put together by someone who was acquainted with Woolf like Winifred Holtby had been. However, it is still an intriguing work despite these problematic comparisons.

Nonetheless, the book has been criticised for several specific reasons. It has been accused of highlighting the feminism of Woolf excessively. Further, it has been knocked for its psychological approach. And it has been attacked for building scandalous theories from fragments of evidence.

While the biography should be acquitted for stressing feminism over modernism, and defended for its psychological focus, it is awkward to be comfortable with the degree of detail with regard to actual and potential incest. However, this is still such a small part of the massive whole that the work cannot be condemned.

The narrative of the life of Woolf makes for thrilling reading. It is always interesting to be thinking about people who thought deeply about thinking. And to be reminded of the toil and pain behind their pioneering achievements is to be connected with the mud of life. The sharp wisdom of Woolf shines through the text:

“if your father & mother die you have lost something that the longest life can never bring again.”

Romeo and Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann

Shakespeare, despite the astringent criticism of Tolstoy, has continued to have a profound impact on cultural production. This has not been confined to the stage. Numerous attempts have been made to translate Shakespeare into efforts appropriate for films and television. One of the bard’s most enduring tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, was attempted by director Baz Luhrmann during the last decade of the twentieth century.

The extravagant visual extravaganza was a clear example of postmodernism. There was a playful abandon about the spectacle. The timeless narrative was broken up by a powerful soundtrack, unsubtle imagery, and framed as a story within a story. Despite the gallant diligence of Pete Postlethwaite, the actors struggled to achieve coherence amid the colourful chaos. The tragic element of the tragedy was almost drowned out by the style of the Miami-Rio carnival.

However, the inherent weaknesses of postmodernism are more evident from a contemporary perspective than they were then. The film was made when the political projects of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were still alive. Many ordinary people were taken in by the compromises those manipulative politicians made. The ostentatious display of wealth as shown in the movie was a reflection of a postmodernist perspective which did not see the selective gaps in its own metanarrative.