I had as lief have been myself alone

Just because something is missing, does that mean it should be there -or would be there under normal circumstances? Suppose someone does not realize it’s missing and has no thoughts about it. Under those circumstances, is it really missing -or does that description apply only when it’s noticed? Is the evidence of absence the same as the absence of evidence?

I have to say, this all reminds me of the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s teapot analogy that attempts to suggest that the burden of proof lies upon the person who is making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. ‘He wrote that if he were to assert, without offering proof, that a teapot, too small to be seen by telescopes, orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, he could not expect anyone to believe him solely because his assertion could not be proven wrong.’(Wikipedia)

Loneliness is something like that: a social expectation that in the absence of people, one should feel lonely. Value judgements are seldom provable, and yet it sits there like a normally hidden blemish under a shirt, just waiting for a morning mirror.

Perhaps it is important here to distinguish between solitude and loneliness, and an essay by the writer and historian Fay Bound Alberti in the online publication Aeon helped to delineate the boundaries: https://aeon.co/ideas/one-is-the-loneliest-number-the-history-of-a-western-problem

‘The term ‘loneliness’ first crops up in English around 1800. Before then, the closest word was ‘oneliness’, simply the state of being alone. As with solitude – from the Latin ‘solus’ which meant ‘alone’ – ‘oneliness’ was not coloured by any suggestion of emotional lack. Solitude or oneliness was not unhealthy or undesirable, but rather a necessary space for reflection… Skip forward a century or two, however, and the use of ‘loneliness’ [is] burdened with associations of emptiness and the absence of social connection.’

‘The contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West. Industrialisation, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology all served to emphasise that the individual was what mattered – not traditional, paternalistic visions of a society in which everyone had a place.’ But there has also arisen a social stigma associated with being lonely. ‘While loneliness can create empathy, lonely people have also been subjects of contempt; those with strong social networks often avoid the lonely. It is almost as though loneliness were contagious.’

And indeed, it has long been recognized that belonging to a community seems to be associated with mental as well as physical health. So ‘loneliness can exist only in a world where the individual is conceived as separate from, rather than part of, the social fabric.’ Only in a society, perhaps, where individual efforts are recognized as contributions, not anomalies. A bit of a mixed bag, isn’t it: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I like to think that I am selectively ‘onely’ -that there is a choice. But as I get older, and wear my years less confidently than my clothes, I find that the options are sometimes rescinded. People -strangers, often women- smile at me when I am sitting alone. And while I have always enjoyed a smile, lately I have come to see it as a harbinger of something else. Something more than just holding a door open for an older man: I hesitate to call it pity, so perhaps I’ll suggest that it is transference -in an almost-psychoanalytic sense. I don’t really think I look that fatherly, but perhaps sitting alone at a table in a restaurant, I evoke not entirely buried feelings of guilt for the infrequent visits to parents. Or is it a premonitory dread of my own anticipated fate?

I was coming back from a visit to some friends a while back, and decided to stop in a little town for some coffee and a snack. I suppose the place was too small for a Tim Horton’s or even a MacDonald’s outlet, so I opted for a generic version on the only main street. It wasn’t at all busy, and there seemed to be a wealth of tables available, so I chose one in the window overlooking the mildly busy street.

For some reason, a woman walking past on the sidewalk outside suddenly caught my eye and smiled at me. Short grey hair, with a dark red ankle-length coat, she seemed not unlike any of the others who had strolled past unaware of me on the other side of the glass, so I promptly forgot about her until I saw her standing beside my table with a coffee in her hand.

“You must be a stranger in town,” she said, not unkindly.

I smiled as an answer, hoping she was just on her way to another table.

She shook her head slowly, as if trying to decide what to do. “You look so much like my father,” she added. “I thought maybe he had decided to come out for a coffee again…”

“Come out?” I said, wondering if that was a good thing or not.

Her smile broadened. “I had to put Dad in a care home last year because he kept wandering off.” She performed a quiet sigh and sat down in the other seat at my table. “He still walks out occasionally. The staff say he gets lonely and decides to go looking for me.”

I nodded sympathetically. “There must be lots of other people there, though. Don’t they help with the loneliness?” I suddenly realized that sounded terribly naïve.

But she nodded politely. “With Alzheimer’s you can be lonely in a crowd, they tell me.” She stared at me for a moment and then had a sip of her coffee. “Apparently it can be more than just frightening for them,“ she added, glancing at me again. “It makes me wonder what it is about being alone that terrifies them -or the rest of us, for that matter.”

I shrugged. “Being alone isn’t always a bad thing,” I said, sitting back in my seat. “Sometimes it can be a choice.”

Her expression shifted just a little, and I could see she was examining my eyes. “Or sometimes what starts off as a choice turns into a sentence, don’t you think…?”

She smiled enigmatically, and after we engaged in a bit more small talk, she apologized for bothering me and then walked slowly over to another table filled with friends.

I don’t know whether she’d been proselytizing or just being kind, but I kind of envied her, you know…

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Saudade Considered

There is something bittersweet about the loss of a loved one isn’t there? Sorrow, to be sure: that feeling of floundering in deep, dark, swirling water, the ineluctable pain of absence, and the almost unbearable inability ever to see her, hear her, or touch her again. And yet, peeking through all the darkness and the tears, are the memories: the things she said, and that special smile she saved for you as she walked through the door after a day at work, the twinkle in her eyes when she noticed you across the room at a party, the smell of her clothes in the closet you haven’t yet found the need to use for something else…

The very presence of an absence can be a healing balm: a bower in the middle of a heaving city, a pew that creaks with a little sigh not far off a busy road. I had not heard of saudade before, I must confess; I had not even thought of such a thing until I came across it in an essay in Aeon, by  Michael Amoruso, a visiting assistant professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts: https://aeon.co/ideas/saudade-the-untranslateable-word-for-the-presence-of-absence  And, although it is claimed that the Portuguese word is untranslatable, the ‘presence of absence’ seems to capture the idea. As Amoruso writes, ‘There is a certain pleasure in the feeling. Though painful, the sting of saudades is a reminder of a good that came before.’ It is, in other words, the ‘desire for the beloved thing, made painful by its absence.’

Portuguese speakers ‘complain of ‘dying of saudades’ (morrendo de saudades), or wanting to ‘kill saudades’ (matar saudades) by fulfilling desire. Though hyperbolic, the word’s morbid poetics throw light on how affective ties make for a meaningful human life.’ Interestingly, ‘Saudosismo, an early 20th-century literary movement, was largely responsible for establishing saudade as a marker of Portuguese identity.’

But, although the word may be Portuguese, I suspect the concept, however abstruse on first hearing it, has a uniquely personal resonance for us all. More than nostalgia, and perhaps less than absence, it seems to have the ability to take on loss in different ways, and even at different times. It is not quite longing, and yet all three of these words are embedded like jewels in a ring each of us can wear. I love the idea.

And the more I think about it, the more familiar it seems. I’m retired now, but I spent over forty years as an obstetrician -there is something of the saudade in thinking of that alone, but it also reminds me of the grief I shared with some of my patients over the years. One in particular stands out, I think.

I’d always looked forward to seeing Jessica for her prenatal visits. Apart from early problems with nausea, and some blood pressure issues towards the end, her visits seemed as much social as medical. Sometimes she would arrive with a little bag of cookies for me, and once, a birthday card -although I have no idea how she knew. But that was Jessica: she made it her job not only to brighten up the office with her outrageously coloured maternity clothes, but also with her infectious humour and easy smile.

She never sat alone in the waiting room – she was always reading to some of my other patients’ children while they were being seen, or chatting up whoever was sitting beside her. I could tell when Jessica was there by the laughter.

It was her first pregnancy, and her enthusiasm was hard to ignore. Her eyes danced when she saw me, and if I happened to be behind time, and had come for another patient, they twinkled mischievously, as if she thought I might be teasing her.

I happened to be off call the night she delivered, and so I popped into the hospital the next day to congratulate her. Her short, auburn hair was a little messy, and the glasses she normally wore were folded on the bedside table beside her. The baby was asleep on her breast, but even so, her eyes didn’t disappoint, although they spent most of their time staring at little Matthew, and I could tell that even her smile was divided between us. She was obviously exhausted from the delivery and apparently hadn’t slept in the three or four hours since his birth.

I kept my visit short and after congratulating Jarod, her husband, left to finish my rounds.

“See you in six weeks,” she called after me, as the baby began to stir.

But it’s sometimes hard to keep track of time in a busy office and a call schedule that necessarily mixes deliveries of patients from other obstetricians so we can all have some time off. So I think it was closer to 6 months before I saw Jessica again.

She was smiling when I saw her sitting in the waiting room, but her eyes were not the same, although they warmed a little when she saw me, I think. My secretary threw a warning stare at me as I passed her, but I was too intent on Jessica to pay any attention.

Normally, a postpartum checkup is more of a formality, unless there are specific items to be addressed. So, a pap smear, a quick glance at the perineum to make sure things are healing, advice on contraception and then a bit of small talk about the baby and how things are going.

I was a little surprised that she didn’t bring little Matthew, but sometimes mothers need a break, I suppose, so nothing alarmed me… Until I asked about him, that is.

Her normally dancing eyes suddenly shut and I could see tears beginning to roll down her cheeks.

“He…” she couldn’t speak for a moment, and I offered her some tissue from my desk, afraid of what she was going to say. “He passed away, almost 4 months ago,” she managed to say through wavering lips and then buried her head in her arms.

I wasn’t sure quite what to do. I felt devastated in that moment, and although if I’d just been a friend I would have hugged her, I felt awkward -embarrassed, almost- just sitting behind my desk.

Then, before things became even more uncomfortable, she raised her head, took a deep, stertorous breath, and sent her eyes over to sit on my cheeks. “Crib death,” she said and withdrew her eyes again, to stare at her lap. “We made sure he was sleeping on his back, on a firm mattress in the cot… Nobody smokes in our house… I breast fed him…” She had obviously done a lot of reading about some of the factors that can be associated with SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and was listing them to me out of a still-felt sense of guilt. “I fed him about 3 A.M. and when I went back around 6…” She started to cry again.

But this time, she recovered more quickly. “Jarod and I have been going to grief counselling, and everything…” she volunteered as she saw me about to say something.

And then, there was an almost magical transformation in her face. “I remember he used to gurgle at me, and I think he was beginning to smile -you know, a for-real smile,” she added, to clarify it for me. “And his eyes…” She hesitated for a moment, relishing the thought. “They would twinkle at me -I’m sure of it… And then they’d slip right into my head, somehow, then dance their way out again.” She stared at the wall behind me. “Jarod says my eyes dance, too…”

She was silent for a while as she remembered Matthew. “He gave us so much, you know…” She sighed noisily -as if it helped her put things into words. Then, her eyes crept slowly back onto my face and stayed there. “It even hurts to talk about him in the past tense…” She fought for the right words. “But… His gift was just being in our lives -however short a time.”

Her eyes searched my own to see if I understood, and then suddenly she smiled. It was almost the smile I remembered. She blinked and nodded her head like the old Jessica. “Jarod wasn’t sure there was still a reason for a postpartum visit… But I knew you’d understand,” she said, gathering up her things to leave the room.

I stood up as she headed for the door when she suddenly turned, walked over, and hugged me. I didn’t have the words for it then, but you know, I think we both experienced saudade.

Yes, Jessica, I think I understand.

 

To wear an undeserved dignity

 

Lately, I’ve been worried about dignity -not my own, you understand, although I’m sure that could use a little work. I’m more concerned that what I assumed was an inherent quality possessed -if not always demonstrated- by us all, may not be as innate as I thought. An essay in the online publication Aeon, by Remy Debes, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis entitled Dignity is Delicate, helped me to understand some of its issues: https://aeon.co/essays/human-dignity-is-an-ideal-with-remarkably-shallow-roots?

The word itself is derived from the Latin dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, but as with most words, it can be used in different ways, each with slightly different meanings. ‘Dignity has three broad meanings. There is an historically old sense of poise or gravitas that we still associate with refined manners, and expect of those with high social rank… Much more common is the family of meanings associated with self-esteem and integrity, which is what we tend to mean when we talk of a person’s own ‘sense of dignity’… Third, there is the more abstract but no less widespread meaning of human dignity as an inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally.’

This latter aspect, which Debes calls the ‘moralized connotation’ ‘is the kind of worth everyone has, and has equally, just because we are persons.’ As Immanuel Kant wrote, in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785: ‘ whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.’ He also argued that we have a duty to treat other humans ‘always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’ -with respect, in other words. Unfortunately, ‘the Groundwork wasn’t professionally translated until 1836. And even that translation wasn’t easily available until a revised edition appeared in 1869.’

So, in terms of its moral and ethical aspects, the concept of dignity is a recent one. ‘[U]ntil at least 1850, the English term ‘dignity’ had no currency as meaning anything like the ‘unearned worth or status of humans’, and very little such currency well into the 1900s. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) used the terminology of human dignity to justify itself, this turned out to be a conceptual watershed.’

What am I missing here? As Debes illustrates in his essay, ‘the idea of human dignity is beset by hypocrisy. After all, our Western ethos evolved from, and with, the most violent oppression. For 200 years, we’ve breathed in the heady aspirations of liberty and justice for all, but somehow breathed out genocide, slavery, eugenics, colonisation, segregation, mass incarceration, racism, sexism, classism and, in short, blood, rape, misery and murder.’ So what is going on? Debes thinks ‘The primary way we have dealt with this shock and the hypocrisy it marks has been to tell ourselves a story – a story of progress… the story’s common hook is the way it moves the ‘real’ hypocrisy into the past: ‘Our forebears made a terrible mistake trumpeting ideas such as equality and human dignity, while simultaneously practising slavery, keeping the vote from women, and so on. But today we recognise this hypocrisy, and, though it might not be extinct, we are worlds away from the errors of the past.’

Of course, a still different way of explaining our abysmal lack of dignity is to suggest, not that we are getting better, but that we are getting worse -that there was a time when it was not so, and we need try going back to that ‘better time’.

Uhmm, they can’t both be correct. Perhaps, like me, you have noticed the presence of gerunds (verbs functioning as nouns with –ing endings), or implied gerunds, in the description: from the Latin gerundum –‘that which is to be carried on’. In other words, that which is not yet completed, or is in the process of happening, and hopefully will be so in the indefinite future.  As Debes writes, ‘facing up to the hypocrisy in our Western ethos requires resisting the temptation to scapegoat both the past and the present. We must not divorce ourselves from the fact that the present is possible only because of our past, the one we helped to create. Likewise, the existential question isn’t, are we really who we say we are? The question is, have we ever been?’

But why is everything so viscid? Humans have always been seen as valuable -the concept evolving through time. ‘The chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone, for example, praises man as the most ‘wondrous’ thing on Earth, a prodigy cutting through the natural world the way a sailor cuts through the ‘perilous’, ‘surging seas’ that threaten to engulf him.’ The word ‘dignity’ was not used, but it seems to me he was on the right track, although perhaps not in the sense that mankind’s value was incommensurable and couldn’t be exchanged for other kinds of worth as Kant had concluded.

Or how about Aristotle: ‘Dignity does not consist in possessing honours, but in deserving them’

Even Shakespeare’s Hector says to Troilus about whether Helen of Troy is worth going to war for: Value dwells not in a particular will; it holds his estimate and dignity as well wherein ‘tis precious of itself as in the prizer. In other words, value -dignity- isn’t subjective, it’s intrinsic.

So what has kept us from believing in that ‘inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally’? Admittedly we are children of our era, and very few of us can escape from the Weltanschauung of our time, let alone the political and social ethos in which we find ourselves embedded. There is much that conspires to homogenize and temper our views, I suspect.

Maybe it was as simple as a fear of the unknown, and fear of disruption, that kept the lid on the pot -better the devil we know than the devil we don’t. Moral dignity –ethical dignity- did not accord with the status quo: keeping slaves, or a class system that offered wealth and status to the powerful; women were trapped in a never-ending cycle of pregnancies and children, and so were themselves essentially biologically enslaved… A clock will not work unless all of the parts are in their proper places.

So many levels: civilization -well, at least culture– has always been a matryoshka doll –‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, as Winston Churchill so famously said about Russia. But maybe, concealed inside the innermost layer, the sanctum sanctorum of the inner doll, a flower lives, not a minotaur.

We can only hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anarchy loosed upon the world

It was a warm and sunny afternoon -a wonderful day to find a park bench and read my book. I had the perfect place in mind, too: a lonely meadow surrounded by trees overlooking the ocean just outside the city. I could divide my face between book and breeze, birds singing in the trees, and ships passing quietly on the horizon -retirement pleasures.

It was the middle of the week and the park was almost empty, except for a couple sitting on a bench while their child played quietly in the grass in front of them. They looked up at me and smiled pleasantly when I sat on the bench beside theirs and then continued their conversation. Their little girl, who had been talking to a doll she was holding, stared at her parents for a moment, and then stood up and walked slowly over to me.

She spoke softly, and I couldn’t really hear what she said, but she was obviously more curious than afraid. She couldn’t have been more than two or three years old and her long black hair danced merrily over a grey sweatshirt that was only partially still tucked into her jeans. I had to chuckle at the earnest expression on her face as she examined me where I sat. Finally, after a quick glance at her parents, she raised her ragged cloth doll to show it to me.

I smiled warmly, delighted at the gesture, and nodded my head to show her I liked the doll. Her eyes twinkled with pleasure and she touched the doll’s hand to my knee.

The father seemed nervous though, and I could tell he was watching me closely. “Sorry, mister,” he said when our eyes met. “She and mother just here,” he continued in a heavy accent. He beckoned to his little girl, obviously embarrassed that she might be bothering me. “Haya,” he called, and the little girl ran over to him, laughing, and then began to play with the doll again on the grass in front of them.

I settled in to read my book, but found myself too distracted by the gentle breeze, and the sun glinting off the white collars of waves rolling in from the open sea. When I looked up again, I noticed that another man was sitting on the only other bench and staring rudely at the couple. He seemed upset, for some reason.

“Where are you from?” he asked -although it sounded like the demand a suspicious policeman might issue, rather than a question.

I suppose I am naïve, or perhaps too accustomed to different cultures from my years as an obstetrician, but it was only then that it occurred to me that his wife was wearing a hijab, although the husband was casually dressed in western attire.

The father smiled to diffuse the man’s tone. “Aleppo,” he answered.

But the man screwed up his forehead as if the word meant nothing to him.

“Syria,” the father added, his smile less certain now.

“And do you make your wife wear the headscarf?” The man’s tone was not friendly.

The father seemed at once perplexed, and perhaps offended that a stranger would talk to him that way, but he managed to keep the smile on his face. “I… Eva only just here…”

The man was scowling at him now, and I could see he was about to say something about that, when the woman raised her eyes from her lap and stared at him. “I choose to wear the hijab,” she said in flawless English. “Is that a problem for you, sir?”

The man clearly did not expect that, and his expression changed from irritation to surprise. He shook his head slowly, a little embarrassed I thought. “No…” I could tell he was trying to think of something to say, now that he realized the woman was fluent in English. “But you’re in Canada now… Why would you still choose to wear it?”

She smiled a patient smile -as if she were a teacher dealing with a slow student. “Would you choose to wear something different if you found yourself in Aleppo?”

The man was clearly taken aback, and looked at the little girl for a moment as he considered his answer. “But… But the scarf-thing makes you stand out here…”

Her smile grew as he spoke. “Is it the ‘scarf-thing’, or is it my brown skin, or maybe my husband’s accent…? “ She glanced at her husband and said something to him in Arabic that I couldn’t hear, let alone understand. “We are different, sir.” The man stared at his lap, and I think he was blushing. “So, would you like us to choose a different bench, or a different country?”

He looked up from his lap and stared at her. “I… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“Yes, you did, sir. And isn’t it interesting that when you actually talk to one of us, you find another human answering back?” She whispered something to her husband and he smiled at her. “You know, we’re grateful to be in Canada, but in truth, we would have gone to any country that was safe if it had taken us in. We were just the fortunate ones that got chosen by your country.”

“I… I really didn’t mean to…”

The woman shook her head vehemently and the floral patterns on her maroon hijab jumped back and forth. “Yes, I think you did…” But at that point her face relaxed and her eyes softened. “I think we needed to have this conversation, you know. Sometimes you have to confront things head on, don’t you think? Clear the air…” She stood up and walked over to the man, her husband in tow. “I’m called Eva,” she said as the man rose to greet them. “And this is Rifat.”

Rifat extended his hand in greeting.

The man finally smiled and shook the proffered hand. “And I’m George. I’m so sorry I’ve been rude…” He was about to say something more when he noticed a tug on his coat. As he looked down to see what it was, the little girl stared up at him and touched his leg with the doll’s arm. Even from my distance away, I could see his eyes brighten and his entire face become a smile.

Are we unreasonable? I’m not a sociologist, but the recent upheavals in the public domain certainly do not reassure me. When the falcon cannot hear the falconer, things fall apart, as Yeats came to believe. And yet, although incivility seems to be spreading like a virus, does this really signal something bad? Something untenable?

I cannot say that the populist trends in societal discourse cause me to fear Armageddon, but I am old now; History is my companion, and Time has perhaps dimmed the consequences that may hide ahead. I was, however, both heartened and intrigued by the essay of Steven Klein, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida, in the online publication, Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/against-civility-or-why-habermas-recommends-a-wild-public-sphere

‘In democracies around the world, anxious commentators exhort their fellow citizens to be more open-minded, more willing to engage in good-faith debate. In our era of hyperpolarisation, social-media echo chambers and populist demagogues, many have turned to civility as the missing ingredient in our public life.

‘So, how important is civility for democracy? According to one of the greatest theorists of the democratic public sphere, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, not very. For Habermas, the function of public debate is not to find a reasonable common ground. Rather, the public sphere ‘is a warning system’, a set of ‘sensors’ that detect the new needs floating underneath the surface of a supposed political consensus. And if we worry too much about civility and the reasonable middle, we risk limiting the ability of the public sphere to detect new political claims.’

‘Consensus is not the highest good… Democracy, according to Habermas, requires a vibrant political sphere and political institutions that are able to respond to and incorporate the energy that arises from debate, protest, confrontation and politics.’

The more I think about Habermas’ contention that argument and disagreement are necessary bricks in societal progress, the more I understand importance of challenging what we have come to believe. We are all unfinished paintings, and unless we step back from the canvas from time to time, we lose perspective; we lose the ability to see what others see. We become the pentimento we are trying to cover up.

Fake Views

Don’t you think we try too hard sometimes? And yet, in our zeal to project minorities, or those less favoured in our community in a more favourable light, I suppose we could be forgiven for cherry-picking examples of their accomplishments, or glossing over issues in which they do not excel, so long as there is no attempt to deceive. No serious effort to hyperbolize. All of us are multitudes, and usually only context decides what face we show. And that can be a problem when we judge the past by current standards. The danger is, as Shakespeare’s Antony explained about men like Caesar, ‘the good is oft interred with their bones.’

We all do it, although often unconsciously. We pick situations from the past like apples from a tree, and assume that old flavours should accord with current tastes. They seldom match, of course, so the past risks being disappointing unless we paint it differently and demonstrate its relevance and connection to the present.

Usually this involves investigation, verification and interpretation -it is seldom possible to understand a novel by picking a page at random and drawing conclusions about its contents. Especially if the story is one that hasn’t even been written. An article in Aeon, an online publication, delves into the distribution of fake miniature paintings that purport to represent aspects of Islamic science that may be misleading: https://aeon.co/essays/why-fake-miniatures-depicting-islamic-science-are-everywhere

The essay was written by Nir Shafir, a historian of the early modern Ottoman Empire, at the University of California San Diego. And as he says, ‘The irony is that these fake miniatures and objects are the product of a well-intentioned desire: a desire to integrate Muslims into a global political community through the universal narrative of science. That wish seems all the more pressing in the face of a rising tide of Islamophobia.’ But he wonders just what science the counterfeiters hoped to find. ‘These fakes reveal more than just a preference for fiction over truth. Instead, they point to a larger problem about the expectations that scholars and the public alike saddle upon the Islamic past and its scientific legacy.’

But, Shafir does raise an important question of whether the ends justify the means. ‘Using a reproduction or fake to draw attention to the rich and oft-overlooked intellectual legacy of the Middle East and South Asia might be a small price to pay for widening the circle of cross-cultural curiosity. If the material remains of the science do not exist, or don’t fit the narrative we wish to construct, then maybe it’s acceptable to imaginatively reconstruct them… However, there is a dark side to this progressive impulse. It is an offshoot of a creeping, and paternalistic, tendency to reject the real pieces of Islamic heritage for its reimagined counterparts. Something is lost when we reduce the Islamic history of science to a few recognisably modern objects, and go so far as to summon up images from thin air. We lose sight of important traditions of learning that were not visually depicted, whether artisanal or scholastic. We also leave out those domains later deemed irrational or unmodern, such as alchemy and astrology.’

‘Perhaps there’s a worry that the actual remnants of Islamic science simply can’t arouse the necessary wonder; perhaps they can’t properly reveal that Muslims, too, created works of recognisable genius. Using actual artefacts to achieve this end might demand more of viewers, and require a different and more involved mode of explanation. But failing to embrace this challenge means we lose an opportunity to expand the scope of what counted as genius or reflected wonder in the Islamic past.’

It’s an interesting point that he makes. I wonder how many other things are slipping beneath our radars -information we never had occasion to investigate. We still use pictures to disguise our own histories, of course -to freshen them up, and portray otherwise mundane realities in rosy lights. It’s not the same as adding colours to improve an already vaunted past, I suppose, but we often try to dandy up what we’ve boasted about. And the pictures that we take usually seek to portray things as we promised they’d be. Confirm what we want people to think about our lives. A vacation that we hope others would envy, we picture in glowing scenes, that disguise those moments of disappointment in the sites we visited or the food we ate.

My grandfather used to describe his early years in glowing terms, and every photograph depicted triumphs or events that made me envious. But for some reason, my father saw them differently. Life was hard for him, and there were few luxuries when he was growing up. Clearly, history is contextual, and there are as many pasts, as there are participants in it.

But because there are discrepancies in its telling, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate what we’ve tried to illustrate in selected photos. True, it’s unlikely we’ve Photoshopped the pictures, or staged them whole cloth like the Islamic miniatures, but we’re still trying to sell an image of the past that embodies the story we want believed. A story that casts us in a favourable light despite the way our circumstances may appear today.

And yet, the camouflage itself can be a façade. It hides some things merely because there is a belief they need to be disguised -veneered. But it is sometimes the perspective itself that is deceptive -or, perhaps more accurately, selective. None of us see the world through the same eyes; ‘vanquished’ and ‘victorious’ can both describe the same event, and yet colour it with different adjectives.

I have to wonder whether, in the long run, it really matters. Once it is history, it is up for grabs anyway because there is no one, lasting view of anything in that dark and smoky room. As Shakespeare’s King Henry says, ‘Presume not that I am the thing I was’.

Ur Wisdom

Wisdom, as my Grade 5 teacher Miss Pollock use to say, is knowledge plus experience, and the judgment to be able to blend them together successfully -not the most scholarly way of defining it, perhaps, but useful nonetheless. I always took her to mean the ability to pick and choose from what was available -the ability to combine unrelated items to create a cake, say. Create synergisms that before were only facts. Ingredients.

Call me a flower-child -or a withering bouquet if you prefer- but there is something about the Gaia Hypothesis that has a whiff of the profound. Or at the very least, a soupçon of wisdom. Of course Earth is an organism -inasmuch as Life, and its substrate Earth, are both synergists that interact to each other’s benefit. Not very Darwinian -no apparent competition between individuals for reproductive success- I admit, but nonetheless compelling. Why does everything have to have a purpose anyway? I can’t help but remember Allan Watts, the Buddhist-leaning philosopher so popular in the 1960ies, who once asked what the purpose of dancing was -surely it wasn’t to get from point A to point B in a room… The purpose of dancing, he said, was dancing -it needed nothing else, not even music, to continue. And its meaning was embedded in the activity itself.

But why am I going on about Gaia now? Well, as these things happen, I was scrolling through some essays on Aeon online, and came across a thoughtful article that brought back memories of a more youthful, hopeful me: https://aeon.co/essays/gaia-why-some-scientists-think-it-s-a-nonsensical-fantasy

James Lovelock, a chemist and later, the main proponent of the Gaia Hypothesis, caught the attention of NASA in the early 1960ies when it was trying to detect if there was life on Mars. ‘Lovelock approached the problem indirectly, arguing that there was no need to send rockets to the red planet… He argued that  simply looking at the atmospheric composition of a planet would enable us to know whether that planet was likely to support life… This led to his great insight. The Earth is not just teeming with life. The Earth, in some sense, is life. Earth is an organism!’

His good friend, the novelist William Golding (The Lord of the Flies), suggested that his hypothesis be called Gaia, after the ancient Greek goddess of Earth, and Lovelock went public with the idea in the early 1970ies, and eventually published his book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979. He also teamed up with the microbiologist Lynn Margulis, who was particularly interested in symbiosis and had published a major work on the topic in 1967.

Of course, Gaia attracted major criticism and often contempt. Richard Dawkins (of The Selfish Gene) ‘could not accept that things could happen for the good of the group simply because they were for the good of the group. Plants don’t produce carbon dioxide, he said, for the sake of the Earth. Either it was a byproduct of their functions, or it must be of immediate benefit to the plants themselves. Any other interpretation was contrary to a Darwinian view of life.’

Some of the criticism even targeted their qualifications. ‘Neither Lovelock nor Margulis were evolutionary biologists nor, for that matter, geologists, paleontologists or academics from other disciplines with an expertise in Earth’s history and overall functioning… For them, the chief feature of life was balance, stability, or what is known as ‘homeostasis’ — that is, the maintaining of balance through dynamic interacting processes. Earth is in homeostasis so it is living. On the other hand, for an evolutionary biologist such as Dawkins, Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection is all-important. Life is produced by natural selection, by the competition between individuals for reproductive success. Evolution has no goal or ‘telos’ of making Earth a better place for life. What is more, as far as Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists were concerned, Earth was not produced by natural selection, and hence it is not itself a living thing.’

Gaia was almost more Religion than Science -more hope than fact, perhaps. I was entranced by the idea when I first came across it shortly after the book was published. I had received my Fellowship in Obstetrics and Gynaecology only a few years before, and I suppose that meant that many of my patients were younger, and more… open in those halcyon days -more enlightened, I suspect, than the several years in my training program had allowed me to be.

I still remember the day when an attractive young woman sat demurely in the corner of my waiting room. Short auburn hair and rather prominent horn-rimmed glasses, she was quietly reading a book she’d brought, thinking she’d have a long wait. None of these things would have attracted my attention had she not been wearing a fluorescent green tee shirt with a picture of an obviously pregnant female with flowers for hair. Not only that, but as I crossed the room to greet my patient, I saw that the pregnant bulge on the patient, as well as the flowered woman was actually a planet when she stood up.

I must have stared rather intently at the tee shirt, because the patient -Janna, I think it was- smiled and said “Gaia,” matter-of-factly -almost as if I were so old I needed an explanation. And yes, she was reading Lovelock’s book.

I have to confess that I’d never seen a tee shirt quite like hers, but I tried to pretend that things like that were all in a days’ work.

“I guess an obstetrician would know all about Gaia, eh?” she said with a mischievous little wink.

“The Mother Earth goddess, you mean?”

She was quite a short, slender young thing, and she nodded as she looked up at me with big brown eyes, no doubt magnified by her glasses. “More the symbiosis thing…”

I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I waited till we were both seated in my consultation room before I pursued the concept. “You mentioned symbiosis? “ I asked, wondering if she’d really  meant ‘symbolic’ -the Mother part, at any rate.

She nodded and sighed contentedly. “I’m 6 months pregnant,” she said and her big smile reappeared.

“Congratulations,” I responded with a smile of my own. “Very much in keeping with Lovelock,” I added, although I hadn’t read the book yet.

“More Margulis, don’t you think?” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh? Why’s that?” Although I knew Margulis was involved in the Gaia thing, I didn’t know much about her contribution.

“Symbiosis,” she answered, and then when I looked puzzled she added, “You know, organisms coming together for mutual benefit…?” At first, I don’t think I understood until she added “My boyfriend and I -we were both depressed…”

Then I blushed. Maybe that’s why I remember the episode after all these years.

So, the Gaia Hypothesis -is it scientifically valid: verifiable, refutable, quantifiable? Probably not, but maybe it’s a dream, a luscious metaphor, to get us through the ever darkening night of human meddling. We needed that in the 80ies… I think we still do.

Society is no comfort to one not sociable

The curse of modern society may be our need to discover patterns. Our need to explain everything could be an honest atavism, but the reasons we find may be way off the mark. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, is a common fallback position that is often useful when the gun is not smoking -or when there’s no gun.

I suppose societies have always faced threats, though. And whether from without or within, they have always looked for remediable causes; the death of a society means the termination of shared customs at the very least, and shared loyalties just as probably -the sense of an us pitted against an implacable them who do not understand us.

Just as frightening, however, is an adversary who does not share our basic humanity. In an interesting article written by Nabeelah Jaffer, who is a former associate editor at Aeon, https://aeon.co/essays/loneliness-is-the-common-ground-of-terror-and-extremism  she discusses ‘the inner dialogue’ which the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes about in The Origins of Totalitarianism. ‘We speak in two voices.’ Jaffer says of Arendt’s ideas. ‘It is this internal dialogue that allows us to achieve independent and creative thought – to weigh strong competing imperatives against each other.  You engage in it every time you grapple with a moral dilemma. Every clash of interests, every instance of human difference evokes it. True thought, for Arendt, involved the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. True loneliness, therefore, was the opposite. It involved the abrupt halting of this internal dialogue: ‘the loss of one’s own self’ – or rather, the loss of trust in oneself as the partner of one’s thoughts. True loneliness means being cut off from a sense of human commonality and therefore conscience.’

‘Loneliness is the common ground of terror’, as Arendt says. ‘It was loneliness, Arendt argued, that helped Eichmann and countless others … to give themselves over to totalitarian ideologies and charismatic strongmen. These totalitarian ideologies are designed to appeal to those who struggle with the internal moral dialogue that Arendt valued as the highest form of thought … Totalitarian ideas offer a ‘total explanation’ – a single idea is sufficient to explain everything. Independent thought is rendered irrelevant.’ So is the inner dialogue.

This got me wondering about what I see when I wander the streets of my city, and what I read and hear as people attempt to explain seemingly senseless crimes -especially violent ones- and attribute motive, usually in retrospect, to so-called ‘loners’. Not to loneliness, you understand, but to loners, an ostensibly different, more malignant, and ‘I should have guessed’ variety of human who does things of which you and I could barely conceive. But, I don’t know that the average person understands the difference between ‘loneliness’ and ‘loner’ -or even thinks it might be important.

As sometimes happens, I emptied the change in my pocket into a hat lying on the sidewalk in front of a young man. He was sitting quietly, eyes closed, in torn jeans and a dirty grey sweatshirt on a busy corner with his dog. The roughly printed sign by the hat merely said ‘We Are Hungry! Will You Help?’

He must have sensed someone stopping in front of him because he opened his eyes and smiled as I put the change in his hat. I was about to walk away when it occurred to me to ask about the ‘We’ in the sign. I don’t know why it mattered, to tell the truth; I suppose I was just trying to be friendly.

“Where’s the ‘We’?” I asked, trying not to sound too nosey.

His smile grew as he pointed to the sleeping dog at his side. I think I blushed at the naïveté of my question, but he didn’t seem at all surprised. “When the sign just said ‘I’m Hungry’ most people only walked by and pretended they didn’t see either me or Jason. I was only another runaway kid trying to get money for drugs, or something…” He shrugged resignedly, as if this was just life on the streets. “But they had no idea what it’s like -and even worse, they didn’t care.”

He reached over and patted the dog -a black lab, I think- and received a couple of tail wags for his effort. “I thought maybe letting them know I had a dog to feed might help…”

He wasn’t a menacing-looking boy -his auburn hair looked clean and combed, and although his face was definitely in need of a little soap, his expression was friendly and, well, innocent.

“And did changing the sign help?”

He seemed to think about it for a while, then nodded, and his eyes sought mine for a moment. “Well, you stopped to talk to me…”

That caught me by surprise. “Doesn’t anybody usually talk to you?” I felt foolish saying it, but the words tumbled out before I had time to think about them.

The expression on his face answered for him: ‘Are you kidding?’ it said. But I could tell he felt he should explain it to me. “I’m a beggar on the street -an eyesore for most people- so I spend my days in silence, just trying not to look frustrated. Trying not to annoy…”

He studied my face for a minute, obviously wondering whether or not it was worthwhile discussing it any further. Whether I would listen. “But I have Jason,” -he patted the dog again- “And he has me, so neither of us is lonely.”

For a moment, I felt I had entered his world. “And what about at night? Do you stay with friends, or…”

He shook his head and chuckled. “It’s just Jason and me. I’ve really never needed much more.”

I could tell by his face that he felt I was discouraging others from contributing to his hat, so I smiled and wished him good luck. But as I turned to walk away he looked up at me again, his eyes fluttered around me like little sparrows looking for a branch, and wondering if they should perch. “Loners are humans, too,” he said, and his face lit up with the joy of an inner dialogue he simply could not disguise. “Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, mister,” he added, just before he closed his eyes again to wait in daylong silence. But I was left with the impression that our words, as much as my money, were important in his world. And I couldn’t help wondering what those who never stopped to talk would think of him.

For that matter, I wonder what Arendt would have thought.