Tag Archive | literature

The Fiction Shelf

From time to time I will point readers to websites that I think might interest them. It just so happens that this one was set up by my good friend Liam.

Do you like reading? Are you a budding writer?  Liam has been working on this project for a while now and it has just officially launched. Check out the website, where authors and readers can share high-quality fiction, poetry and more in all manner of on-screen and printable formats. And if you fancy sharing the link with others, we’d both be eternally grateful.

The Fiction Shelf

We are The Fiction Shelf – an entertainment site for readers and writers, and a free one at that. All of the stories and poems here are of excellent quality and are available to you however you want them.

If you would like to read some of our fiction use the buttons at the top of page. If you’re a writer and want to have your work featured click here to learn how. If you have any ideas on how the site could be improved then please drop us an e‐mail.

Giles Fraser on Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”

Giles Fraser, canon chancellor of St Paul’s cathedral, and his take on Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”. Taken from the Guardian. Enjoy:

We are caught in a battle between those who believe too much and those who believe too little – so Terry Eagleton was saying at St Paul’s cathedral the other day. In the one corner are the fundamentalists for whom certainty can be pulled off the page of ancient scripture, and in the other are the “whatever” generation for whom the continual introduction of the word “like” is the perfect expression of anxiety about certainty per se. (Conversation with my daughter: she says “It is, like, raining.” “No,” I reply, “there’s no like about it. It is raining.”)

Sam Harris struck literary gold having a go at those with too much certainty in The End of Faith. Now he turns his attention to those with too little. His target is moral relativism. For too long religion has sheltered behind the popular idea that you can have your truth and I will have mine. Harris wants a more muscular form of God-denying liberalism, attained by tearing down the familiar idea that science does facts (where truth is possible) and religion does meaning and values (where relativistic respect is essential). With this fact/value distinction – inspired by no less a figure than David Hume – religion and science have announced the terms of their peace treaty, each claiming for themselves a non-competing jurisdiction. But Harris will have none of it. Science has sold itself cheap. The peace treaty must be torn up. Science can indeed tell us about morality. Indeed, science can determine morality.

First, the atheism. On that useful quadrant – interesting and right, interesting and wrong, uninteresting and right, uninteresting and wrong – Harris is mostly in the uninteresting and right category. Uninteresting because he is concerned only with the narrowest definition of religious belief, and right because the moral and intellectual crimes he pins on this form of belief – its ignorance and prejudice – are so obvious to the western secular imagination that they do not require argument, and certainly not a PhD in neuroscience. Given his definition of religion, his attack on it is the philosophical equivalent of taking sweets from a baby. These things are wrong: “female genital excision, blood feuds, infanticide, the torture of animals, scarification, foot binding, cannibalism, ceremonial rape, human sacrifice”. The list goes on. With regard to the god Harris describes, I am a much more convinced atheist than he – even though I am a priest. For Harris asks constantly for evidence, with the implication that if he discovered some, he would change his mind. My own line would be that even if the god he described was proved to exist, I would see it as my moral duty to be an atheist. An all-powerful eternal despot is still a despot. Blake called this wicked villain “Nobodaddy”.

Nonetheless, the attack on relativism leads Harris into much more interesting territory, but interesting and wrong. His astonishing lack of humility leads him to claim too much for what science can achieve in the realm of morality. The key concept is that of “wellbeing”. It is, he suggests, both a fact word and a value word, like “health”. So, for example, to suggest that a thing contributes to wellbeing is to make of it a positive evaluation as well as to claim something that can be measured scientifically. On this Harris has invoked the wrath of countless philosophers. But I’m with Harris here. As Mary Midgley argued years ago in her brilliant Beast and Man (a book with a comparable intention to Harris’s, though more modestly expressed), an apparently neutral description – “natural” or “human” for example – relates to the empirical world and contains a moral charge. But to extend this point to the idea that wellbeing can shoulder all the work of morality is breathtakingly hubristic.

What is presented as Harris’s big new idea is really just reheated utilitarianism with wellbeing in place of pleasure. Where this idea breaks down is where utilitarianism breaks down. Let me start with Harris’s defence of torture. If the sum of general wellbeing (whatever that means) is increased by the torture of a terrorist suspect, then torture is not even a necessary evil – it becomes a moral duty. Worse still: discussing Robert Nozick’s ingenious idea of a “utility monster”, Harris asks “if it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings”. His answer is astonishing: “Provided we take time to really imagine the details (which is not easy), I think the answer is clearly ‘yes’.” For me this is back with the evil Nobodaddy. I will not worship superbeings nor sacrifice to them. Once again I am more atheist than he.

There are so many problems with utilitarianism, it’s a pity Harris does so little to address them. How can one quantify the sum total of wellbeing produced by a single action when the potential consequences of any particular action are infinite? So keen is he to turn morality into science that Harris presses on regardless. His demand is that all morality be calibrated on a single scale. Yet if one observes what it is that people call good (and isn’t observation a scientific golden rule?), instead of assuming what good ought to look like, one surely recognises very different sorts of moral value. Can the moral value of freedom and equality really be measured in the same way? Can a conflict between love and duty be resolved by some scientific calculation? No. As Isaiah Berlin rightly pointed out, moral values are often incommensurable. Not all things are good in the same way and for the same reasons. Thus they cannot be measured against each other, however attractive that seems to the scientific mind.

For all this, it is not so much that I disagree with Harris. Rather, I am scared of him. And not his atheism, which is standard scientific materialism with the volume turned up. But scared of his complete lack of ambiguity, his absolute clarity of vision, his refusal of humour or self-criticism, his unrelenting seriousness. Harris sees the great moral battle of our day as one between belief and unbelief. I see it as between those who insist that the world be captured by a single philosophy and those who don’t. Which is why I fear Harris in just the same way I fear evangelical Christians, to whom he looks so similar. Like them, he is in no doubt about his faith. Like them, he has his devoted followers. Like them, he wants to convert the world. Well, I’m sorry. I am not a believer.

Beauty in The Arabian Nights

I was looking through my Facebook notes a few weeks ago and discovered some poetic lines from Richard Burton’s (d. 1890) translation of “The Second Kalandar’s Tale” in The Arabian Nights/The Thousand and One Nights, and I simply had to share them with the world. If you are interested in reading them in context, the full text of “The Second Kalandar’s Tale” can be found here, and a full version of this translation of The Arabian Nights is available here.

“Mine eyes were dragonmans for my tongue betied,
And told full clear the love I fain would hide.
When last we met and tears in torrents railed,
For tongue struck dumb by glances testified.
She signed with eye glance while her lips were mute,
I signed with fingers and she kenned th’implied.
Our eyebrows did all duty ‘twixt us twain,
And we being speechless, Love spake loud and plain.

How many a lover with his eyebrows speaketh
To his beloved, as his passion pleadeth.
With flashing eyne his passion he inspireth
And well she seeth what his pleading needeth.
How sweet the look when each on other gazeth,
And with what swiftness and how sure it speedeth,
And this with eyebrows all his passion writeth,
And that with eyeballs all his passion readeth.”

From “The Second Kalandar’s Tale” in The Arabian Nights, translated by Richard Francis Burton (d. 1890)

These lines are so evocative and beautiful that I didn’t want to lose them once I had completed my honours course on “The Body in Islam”. However, whilst they are beautiful in themselves, they are even more striking in context, and I would encourage all of you to read the short (10 pages or so) tale in its entirety by following the link above.

For the benefit of those who don’t have time or the inclination to do this, I shall attempt to place these lines into context as quickly as possible…

An exiled prince discovers a mysterious door under a tree which, upon opening, leads him into a sumptuously decorated underground cave filled with food, drink, jewels, silk and all manner of luxuries. Here he meets the most beautiful maiden he has ever seen (described with similar poetic prowess to my chosen excerpts above). She tells him that she has never seen a man before, and is being kept prisoner in this luxurious cage by an ifrit (a kind of demon), who visits her every tenth day in the form of a Persian, and has his wicked way with her.

Whilst this is unpleasant news to the prince, she invites him to stay with her and keep her company for the next 9 days and then leave before the ifrit comes back. So he stays, they eat, drink, make love and have a great time for a few days, but of course, being a bloke, the prince gets drunk and jealous. He isn’t satisfied with seeing her only for 9 days out of 10, and runs to the wall and strikes an emblem which summons the ifrit to the cave, believing he will be able to defeat him in battle.

As the ifrit begins to appear, the prince realises what he has done and flees in terror, leaving some of his personal possessions in the cave. The maiden tries to placate the ifrit, telling him that she fell against the emblem accidentally, but he notices the prince’s possessions, tortures her cruelly, and tracks the prince down, dragging him back to the cave.

Then comes the poetry. The ifrit presents the prince to the woman, who denies ever having seen him, and tells her he will spare her life if she strikes the prince dead with a sword. Agreeing, she goes to do so, when the “mute tongue of the prince’s case” says:

“Mine eyes were dragonmans for my tongue betied,
And told full clear the love I fain would hide.
When last we met and tears in torrents railed,
For tongue struck dumb by glances testified.
She signed with eye glance while her lips were mute,
I signed with fingers and she kenned th’implied.
Our eyebrows did all duty ‘twixt us twain,
And we being speechless, Love spake loud and plain.”

The maiden refuses to kill the prince, who is then presented with the same ultimatum, and similarly agrees to kill the maiden. However, the mute tongue of their case “wrote in [their] hearts these lines”:

“How many a lover with his eyebrows speaketh
To his beloved, as his passion pleadeth.
With flashing eyne his passion he inspireth
And well she seeth what his pleading needeth.
How sweet the look when each on other gazeth,
And with what swiftness and how sure it speedeth,
And this with eyebrows all his passion writeth,
And that with eyeballs all his passion readeth.”

For each refusing to kill the other, and for refusing to even acknowledge their indiscretions, the ifrit kills the maiden, and turns the prince into an ape.

Whilst the tale itself continues both after and prior to this brief summary, I just wanted to attempt to convey the gravity of the situation in which these beautiful verses are revealed. Presented with a situation where to acknowledge their love would mean certain death for both lovers, and given an opportunity to save themselves at the expense of the other, the lovers communicate their passion to each other with the only means available to them… their eyes, their eyebrows, their fingers.

Whilst these verses appear in a particularly gruesome tale, and are immediately followed by bizarre and gruesome punishments, they strike me as being perfectly fitting to any modern story of forbidden love. That a piece of literature from outside our modern “Western” context, and from a collection originating some time between the 9th and 14th centuries, could be so powerful, touching and relevant in the 21st century, is just one of the beauties which the study of literature, history, religion and more can bring to light. There must be thousands of similarly amazing discoveries waiting out there… and I find that truly stimulating!

Or maybe I’m just being overly sentimental…