*Populist.—Hypocrite. … —Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists. (Edinburgh International Book Festival, 2012): *—a review. …

*(… —the following originally appeared as a review of  Alain de Botton’s ‘What non-believers could learn from faith’ talk-event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival,  Sat 18th August 2012, 20.00-21.00, RBS Main Theatre,… over on the Edinburgh Spotlight website. …

… —I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing, & of… fiddling with it here, as today I discovered that Mr. de Botton has blocked me on Twitter, perhaps as a direct result of the substance of this review. … ).

 

They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. […] We other hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again[. …] Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessarily remains in one’s hands.

*(Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘G. Eliot’, in Twilight of the Idols, ‘Skirmishes of an Untimely Man’, §5)

 

 

Populist.—Hypocrite (—?)
—Alain de Botton, ‘What non-believers could learn from faith’ (—Religion for Atheists). …

By Mark Bolsover

 

The event with Alain de Botton took place in the Book Festival’s RBS Main Theatre. The venue was full to capacity, and de Botton spoke (performed?) to a predominantly white late-middle-aged, middle-class audience. Despite its inexplicable and corporate décor, the space proved an effective one, de Botton holding forth from an angular and imposing metal lectern-cum pulpit, to one side of the broad stage.

 

The event was chaired by BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz, an engaging host who, despite his obvious skepticism towards de Botton’s ideas, provided an interesting, useful and objective introduction to the speaker and warmed the audience well. The event took the format of a talk by de Botton, followed a brief interview with Gompertz and finally a question and answer session with the audience. This format worked extremely well given the obvious time constraints on the event.

 

The aim of the event was, in essence, to promote de Botton’s new book Religion for Atheists and drew its focus from a number of topics which he addresses in the book.

 

de Botton himself proved an extremely fluent, effective and engaging speaker. During the segue from the talk into the interview Gompertz rather shrewdly teased de Botton that he both ‘looks and sounds like a vicar’ and this is indeed the impression one gets listening to him, the talk somewhere between a lecture and sermon, which is ironic given de Botton’s self-characterisation as an ‘atheist’ and distaste for all things ‘academic’.

 

de Botton’s project in Religion for Atheists is, by his own admission, to cherry-pick from the ‘buffet’(?) of world religions, extracting key ideas, concepts and practices, in order to provide ‘replacements’ for religion for a ‘secular society’. Drawing on his book, de Botton began his talk by summarizing a few key claims on the nature of education. He argued that ‘atheists’ dismiss religion out of hand as superstitious nonsense and that ‘secular society’ and ‘secular’ education have therefore abandoned traditional forms of the transmission of what, somewhat problematically, characterises as universal human ‘wisdom’. In this regard, de Botton was particularly vociferous in his attacks on academia. Gompertz had begun by introducing de Botton as a ‘populist’, and these attacks could be seen to be evidence of his uneasiness with this status, a certain self-styled demagoguery and inferiority complex with regard to academia.

 

Whatever the underlying causes, de Botton wants to oppose his ‘neo-religious’ ideas to those he sees at large in ‘secular’ society. In answer to the potential objections that it is either unethical or simply not possible to cherry-pick from religions, he drew a parallel to ‘culture’ (—as he conceives of this term), and to reading. If one were reading Austen, he argued, it would be ridiculous for anyone to suggest that one ought not to read, say, Dickens, or Woolf. In the same way, de Botton argued, one can ‘read’ (or, in fact rather,—extract) from any number of religious texts. His conception is one of ‘culture’ over ‘scripture’. And this is, I believe, reveals the crucial problems with de Botton’s ideas…

 

de Botton positioned himself as speaking out against what he argued is ‘our’ conception of art,—deriving from the art for art’s sake philosophy of art of the late-nineteenth century.

 

Frankly, de Botton crudely mischaracterised late-nineteenth and Modernist art and literature for his own rhetorical purposes.

 

However, it seemed to me at least that his crude reductivism found its foundation in a genuine misunderstanding of art and a lack of understanding of literature and the art of reading.

 

Against what he characterised as a false conception of the autonomous artwork and of art as not needing to deliver any ‘moral’ message, de Botton put forth his own conception of art as ‘propaganda’.

 

—According to de Botton, art can, and ought, to deliver a ‘moral’ message.

 

Apart from the obvious and rather sinister connotations of the term ‘propaganda’, this conception depends on the assumption of a smooth transmission of the (moral) intentions of the author, through the work, to an uncritically receptive readership.

 

If de Botton were to perhaps put aside his distaste for academia and put himself through the soulless ordeal of a literature degree, he might discover some key ideas in literary criticism, such as the ‘intentional fallacy’ or Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’, which clearly set out the problems of any attempt to read back from a work to the intentions of the author (and, indeed, de Botton gave such a reading in his example of not being able to ‘understand’ Rothco’s work until he had heard the artist discuss it).

 

The crucial problem, however, lies in the notion of art as solely a vehicle for the transmission of ‘moral’ lessons and this is the reason for the epigraph with which I began this review.

 

—In the passage I quoted from Twilight of the Idols (—an attack on George Eliot and late-nineteenth century Religious Humanism), Nietzsche astutely argues that one cannot be rid of God,… —cannot be rid of the metaphysical (that is,—be an atheist), and yet still… hold on to (maintain) the system of moral values which find their foundation in or on that—metaphysical—ground. And yet this is precisely what de Botton, despite his own claim not to believe in: ‘what  I broadly call the “supernatural”’, very blithely attempts to do.

 

Despite his claim to ‘atheism’, de Botton clings to a recognisably Judaeo-Christian moral world view, perhaps with some badly appropriated and rather cliché ‘Eastern’ ‘mystical’ notions thrown in for breadth and good measure.

 

In mischaracterising all developments and movements in literature as ‘art for art’s sake’, he fails (not entirely deliberately) to recognise that a great deal of the art which he is thus dismissing, arose precisely in reaction to a loss of faith and a recognition that with any claim to a metaphysical ground for values gone, those values themselves become objects of contention and debate.—Hence the lack of moral didacticism and the artistic experimentation he so evidently deplores.

 

Though some of his ideas are interesting, de Botton is, for this reason, condemned to remain a somewhat shallow and misguided populist. For example, he argued fluently and persuasively for the adoption of the Catholic notion of ‘original sin’ in which all people would be regarded as broken creatures, in need of redemption, and that education should be reconceived as having to have a humanising effect, rather than as a process for the acquisition of vocational ‘skills’. However, this is where (at least in his talk) his point broke off, and this left the impression that he was merely vaguely retaining the notion of sin, despite having dispensed with any notion of extra-mundane justice. If we dispense with a notion of ‘natural’/automatic and inalienable ‘humanity’ (as perhaps, we ought) what are the practical political consequences of this for (debates on) ‘Human Rights’ and indeed, Humanism more generally?—de Botton offers us no clue. …

 

Also telling is de Botton’s uncritical retention of terms such as ‘inner self’ and the ‘soul’, which he used liberally. … —Surely anything characterising itself as thoroughgoing atheism must involve a thoroughgoing critique of these terms and the metaphysics they imply?

 

In the end, de Botton cannot avoid two charges: either, he is simply using the term ‘atheist’ far too loosely, or—in his dismissal of the metaphysical, and retention of religious values—he is guilty of a form of intellectual hypocrisy. …

 

—In the end, de Botton is a populist. … —His pulpit-style demagoguery can come across as pompous, narrow-minded and patronising to anyone who does not already share his convictions, but he is able to work his audience extremely well, and is impressively effective at preaching to the choir. …

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*a plan, then…

*(—follows on from ‘part II. —toward some sort of (provisional plan. …’ ).

*an… outline for the project, then. …

 *and so then (and, good God,—why not…—?),… —the-a plan (provisional, of sorts…).

*I. in the first… section-chapter (…—sequence of fragments) here, I want to lay the groundwork for my reading of Birth and of neo-classical Modernist aesthetics.

—I will make the argument that the opening (rather obscure and, apparently, insignificant) gambit of The Birth of Tragedy *(—on: gods—vs. concepts. …) can be illuminated by comparing it to the analogous terms of Nietzsche’s critique of language and the intellect, and championing of ‘intuition’ as a new philosophical and artistic method in the later ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’ essay. …

*—I will lay out the terms of the rejection of the metaphysical in the essay, linking it to Nietzsche’s (very) early critique of Schopenhauer (and Kant).

—drawing on a comparison of the key terms of ‘On Truth and Lies’ *(—as simplifying and clarifying those of Birth), with those of Henri Bergson’s philosophy (—‘intuitionvs. the concepts of the intellect), I will argue that the ‘primal unity’ (Ur-Eine) of Birth, though seemingly, perhaps, straightforwardly Schopenhauerian, is, in fact, much closer to Bergson’s concept of ‘duration’ and Nietzsche’s own later formulation of the ‘will to power’. …

*II.— *(the core of the thing). …

Nietzsche’s conception of Apollo and Dionysus and, particularly, his claim that the Dionysian artistic drive affords access to the ‘primal unity’, may appear straightforwardly Schopenhauerian and Romantic.

however, drawing on the first chapter, in my reading of Birth I will thus be able to place myself in a position to argue that it is the key contrast between the concepts of the intellect and ‘intuition’, clarified in ‘On Truth’, which truly underpin Nietzsche’s conception of Attic theatre and aesthetics: *—of the gods vs. concepts, and to demonstrate that Birth is (therefore) implicated in Nietzsche’s pre-existing and continuing critique of Schopenhauer and rejection of metaphysics. …

*—I will read the Apollinian and the Dionysian as two modes of the sublime, embodying (in art) the natural drives to the *incorporation and *purgation of lived experience, respectively. …

*—and, for Nietzsche, art reaches its apogee in the form in which these two art impulses (—*modes of the sublime) are conjoined.

(and,—don’t worry (if, indeeed, you were),… —I’ve got a whole damn line on conjunction vs. any idea of (dialectical) ‘synthesis’. … )…

that is,… —the need to purge everyday experience and to experience the ecstatic release and free play of all the desires-drives harnessed,—channeled, or repressed within(-beneath) it, characteristic of the Dionysian, gives birth to a further need (felt) not to lose that experience in the—ineluctable—fall-return (back.—down) into the everyday that follows hard upon it…

—this leads to the drive to retrieve everyday experience in the form of a register from which to draw (discrete, comprehensible) images with which to thus incorporate the experience of purgation. …—in effect,—to the Apollinian. …

*—the conjunction of the Dionysian and Apollinian in the incorporation of the experience of purgation represents the fold in the ironic self-(re-)creation of the artist. …

and, for Nietzsche, this Dionysian-Apollinian conjunction takes place in the birth of tragedy. …

—I will argue that the terms of Nietzsche’s reading of the Dionysian-Apollinian relationship represents his account of the process from artistic inspiration to creation, and, in essence, an ironic appropriation of the terms of Romantic accounts to a fundamentally anti-Romantic aesthetic. …

 

*(II(a).—…).

in the second part (portion) of the chapter, I want to move on, then, to clarify what I think is at stake in the account of the creative process in Birth by drawing a parallel to the terms of neo-classical Modernist aesthetics, in particular the ‘classicalvs. the ‘romantic’.

*—I will ground my reading of Modernism in an examination of the incarnations of Stephen’s aesthetic theory in Joyce’s fiction from Stephen Hero, through Portrait, to Ulysses, and their relationship to the ideas in Joyce’s own critical writings.

in particular, I’ll focus on the use (and abuse) of Aquinas and Shakespeare in the development from the early concept of the ‘epiphany’ to that of the ‘image’.

—this development is marked by its incorporation of (or, rather,—into) a conception of the ‘classical’, and I’ll seek to clarify this by comparing the terms of Stephen’s and of Joyce’s definitions of art with the critical writings of T.E. Hulme (in particular, drawing on the material in the first chapter, Hulme’s reading of Bergson on ‘intuitionvs. the intellect), and those of Ezra Pound, contrasting the terms of neo-classical Modernist aesthetics with those of Yeats’s self-styled late-Romantic aesthetic metaphysics.

*—I’ll use my reading of the fold of the artist in Birth *(—anti-metaphysics and Romantic—anti-Romanticism) to illuminate what I believe to be at stake in neo-classical Modernist aesthetics and, in turn, locate Birth in far greater proximity to neo-classical Modernism than readings of its relationship to Romanticism have (thus far, to the best of my knowledge) allowed for, or considered.

and, in what remains of the chapter, I will finish by using my reading of the philosophical naturalism of Birth, the fold, and the ‘classical’ to give a reading of Nietzsche’s account of the structure, relationship to audience, and (most importantly) the effect of tragedy.

*III— in what will, effectively, constitute the second half (or—portion) of this… project,—everything-all (from here-on in) starts to become—to get—all too sketchy and—speculative. …

(hmm).

having reworked the material from thesis, and presented my theory of the fold (and, as such, then, achieved my original purpose here), I propose to move on to examine some of the philosophical, political and ethical implications it… kicks up (so to). …

*—I want to reproduce and rework some material from Notes of a Vanishing Quantity (such as it is at the current time (of writing)), which I originally prepared for a blog post for a reading group on early twentieth century political thought, which I organised with my very good and dear friends Dr Christos Hadjiyannis (now Research Fellow in English Literature at Wolfson College, The University of Oxford), Dr Silvia Villa (at this time attached to The University of Edinburgh), and Dr Sarah Humayun. …

*(Christos is now, incidentally, involved in running a new reading group—on the History of Ideas, at Wolfson…).

 

*—I will seek to develop my readings of Nietzsche, Bergson and Hulme, and, using E.M. Forster’s essay ‘What I Believe’ as a foil, to lay out the terms—emerging from the rejection of metaphysics and ironic appropriation of Romanticism—of what I see as neo-classicism’s rejection of Humanism. …

 

*—and it is here that I envisage—building on the substance of a review originally written for Edinburgh Spotlight—my criticism of Alain de Botton and of Jo Clifford (as exemplifying certain… problems in contemporary thought and the arts) sitting. …

*in conclusion. …

—I envisage (at the time of writing this) the main substance (so to) of this project concluding in a review and restatement of the ‘classical’, Romantic—anti-Romanticism and (above all) my concept of the fold (of the artist), and, taking issue particularly with Robert Pippin’s ‘On “becoming who one is” (and failing): Proust’s problematic selves’ (in Nikolas Kompridis (ed.)—Philosophical Romanticism), in light of these, to end with a set of reflections on the fate of the Romantic aesthetic of the ‘fragment’ and on fatalism.  …