Archive | May 2018

Gothic Nightmares

Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination is the book of an exhibition I never went to. I’ve had it for so long I’ve forgotten where I got it. I first started reading it about ten years ago but didn’t get very far with it because it is too big to carry around and I don’t read much at home. And finally I’ve finished it, thanks to my miracle morning routine.

Fuseli’s The Nightmare is one of my favourite pictures and there are several others in this collection that I was taken with. I’m not such a fan of William Blake. The book explores Fuseli’s position on the divide between neoclassical and romantic art. The use of neoclassical forms in new ways with new themes to produce something that reflected the changing times of the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th.

I enjoyed looking at the pictures and learning a bit more about art history. Maybe one day I’ll know what it all means.

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not by Robert N. McCauley is an exploration of how cognitive processes predispose us to religious thought and feeling, and make science very difficult for us.

I picked up the book after visiting the excellent Living with Gods exhibition at the British Museum. I find the psychology of faith, superstition and religion fascinating. McCauley’s book is not for the faint-hearted. This is a difficult read. The first half, where McCauley lays out the theories of cognitive processes that underpin his argument, is especially hard going. I don’t have much knowledge of the work in this area and I think it is quite hard to make it accessible to a layperson.¬†Once you get through the theories of cognition, the second half of the book is relatively more digestible. I still found myself having to re-read most of it, but there were whole pages I could absorb in one go.

The argument is that, although some form of religious belief appears to be present in every society for which we have archaeological or anthropological evidence, there’s no specific thought process for religion. Instead it is a by-product of processes we use for much more mundane things like dealing with other people, not getting eaten by predators, and avoiding contamination. Religion comes from possessing a theory of mind and a tendency to ascribe agency to everything. Science, on the other hand, has only appeared in a few societies and requires writing and substantial expensive infrastructure to survive. It requires us to learn how to think in a way that is continually challenged by our natural cognition.

McCauley draws a distinction between everyday religion (what people actually practice) and theology, and a distinction between popular understanding of science and the practice of it by people who dedicate their lives to it. He also draws a distinction between science and technology, and gives many examples of where humans develop technology they can use without understanding how it really works. The argument also explains why we’re so fond of conspiracy theories, prone to ascribing intention to others without evidence, and why we make both science and atheism into a form of religion. Science requires us to be perpetually uncertain because even when there is a lot of evidence to support a theory there always remains the possibility that new information could change that. Human brains aren’t keen on uncertainty.

This is a very interesting book and I would recommend it, with the caveat that, unless you’re already working as a scientist, it’s a tough read. I do feel much cleverer for having read it, which is a quality I enjoy in a book.

 

The Thirst

At the moment I am mostly reading non-fiction, because I’m working on a novel and it seems to go better if I don’t get caught up in stories. However, I am reading a few novels and The Thirst by Jo Nesbo is one of them.

Jo Nesbo is one of my go-to easy reads. I know what I’m getting and I know I’m going to enjoy it. I’ll get swept up in the story, and it will be engaging without being hard work. The Thirst did exactly what I wanted from it when I bought it.

A rapist and killer that Harry Hole failed to catch in the past is now active again and seems to have raised his game. There are plenty of twists. The identity of the killer is known from fairly early in the book; he even has point of view chapters, but even so, Nesbo manages to cast doubt at various points, making the reader question what they think they know.

I like way the theme of addiction in the Hole novels. Hole is an alcoholic which is a cliche for detectives these days, but it is lifted by Nesbo with the parallel with addiction to his work. Is alcohol really Hole’s addiction? Or is it his coping strategy for his addiction to chasing serial killers? This has been present in all the novels, but becomes much more central in The Thirst. Harry has retired and is now a lecturer at police college. He doesn’t drink. His life is satisfying and orderly and things are going well. But the reappearance of this killer and his return to the chase throws everything into disarray. All the elements in his life that represent success are threatened.

I feel like it could have done with a bit of an edit. It was overly long in places. Even so, I enjoyed it and if you’re already a fan, it won’t disappoint. If you’ve never read any Jo Nesbo, I’d start at the beginning of the series.