Saturday, 23 March 2013

Easter in Quito

A post for Holy Week. In 1991 Easter fell at the end of March, as it does this year. I was in Ecuador. Sacked from my job, I had decided to leave a recession-hit London winter and learn Spanish at a language school in Quito. I stayed for several months and travelled widely in the country. This is an extract from the Ecuador chapter of my new book, The Nine Horizons. The names have been changed.

IT WAS now the week before Easter. I had a new teacher. Adriana was very small, clever and gentle with a round face and enormous brown eyes. She was about my age (I was 33) and was married with a daughter. That week, she tried to force impersonal, object and direct pronouns into me with great tact and charm, and I learned much. Instead of switching at the end of the week, we decided to work together for a little longer. I found myself looking forward to school in the morning.

One day Dave and I sitting in a bar (we did a lot of that). It was somewhere in the mountains south of Ibarra, on the Pan-American Highway. I think we had gone up there looking for places to hill-walk. We had not found any. (The Andes, unlike the Himalayas, are rather conical; one is either on a mountain or off it, and they are not such good walking country.) At night, in search of beer, we had walked down to the main road from the village where we were staying, along a narrow country lane, across a little steel bridge that clanged back at us in the dark, the sky a mass of stars.

“I like Adriana,” I said.

“You like Adriana,” he repeated.

“Looking into Adriana’s eyes,” I said, “is like sinking into a hot bath on a winter morning.”

“Oh, good Lord,” he exploded, with something between mirth and exasperation.

Dave was not a romantic, although women certainly liked him. At the time he was just embarking upon a relationship with one of the teachers at the school, but he said nothing about it and I did not ask. He returned to England at the end of summer, but in 1993 he moved to Quito, where they started a family; he went to work for a bank. I last heard from him in 1995. I suppose he is still there.

Adriana and I remained in contact for a little while but there was nothing between us; she was married, anyway. Two years later she travelled with her husband to Belgium, and thence to London, where she did look for me; but I was no longer there. One day at school she had asked me if I had a dream, and I said that it was to see the Himalayas. That was where I had gone. Later Dave told me that she got divorced. I do have a picture I took of her on the roof of the school one afternoon. The wind is blowing her very dark brown hair. She is wearing a blue denim shirt and jeans and smiling, and I have bounced a little flash into her eyes, but I wonder if they needed that. Behind her is yet another white church with twin towers; beyond it, the green of the Pichincha range can just be made out below the startling blue of the sky. But I am older now.

“If you drink tonight, you’ll turn into a fish,” she said one Thursday afternoon. “That is what our people say of those who drink or dance before midnight on Good Friday. And I know that the English students are always drinking on the Amazonas after school.” This was true. There were only a few of us but we had teamed up with the German dropouts.

“Will you go to the processions tomorrow?” she continued. “You should do. You’ll see the cucuruchos.”

I said that I would certainly go to the processions, although I was sure it would be raining. The weather had been bad lately; the previous day had been cold and wet. Walking home at dusk down the Mariana de Jesus, I had turned and looked up at the Pichinchas to see patches of snow creeping into the higher gullies. Today had been grey and cold. But it had not rained.

After school, I headed for the Scottish Bar in the Amazonas. The Scottish was kitsch. A six-foot plastic figure of a Scottish piper towered over the entrance. Waitresses wore short tartan skirts, rather fetching tartan waistcoats and tartan cardboard eyeshades; they dashed about between the gloomy interior and the cluster of blue tin tables on the wide pavement outside. Now and again, when it had been raining and the air was cold, we would be forced inside; more usually we sat outside and watched the world go by while drinking good local lager at 25 pence a pint. The clientele included young American tourists, clearly identifiable from their locally-made sombreros, which Ecuadorians rarely wore in towns. The Germans wore frayed jeans and tee-shirts. There was a scattering of Ecuadorians, mostly smartly-dressed young people. Now and then one of the tables would be taken by a pair of young women in risible skirts and vertiginous heels, mouths glistening red, earrings like hula hoops and big hair to the waist, dyed blonde, a little black showing at the roots.

Every night, Maria would pass by the tables. A middle-aged indigena woman in hat and shawl, she brought a large wooden box, lined with felt, of the sort in which one might expect to see rows of butterflies, transfixed with pins. In this she displayed the jewelry she sold to the tourists on the Amazonas. She said she made it, and perhaps she did; I rather liked it, buying earrings and pins as presents from her before I left. There were beggars too. One, a thin man of perhaps 30 with dark skin stretched tight across his wide cheekbones, came most nights, hauling himself along the pavement, his bent distorted legs dragging inertly behind him; now and then one of us would give him something and he took it without thanks. The poor do not thank you for being rich.

I did not stay long in the Scottish that night. After a beer or two I left alone and hailed a taxi on the Amazonas. The driver was about 60; unusually, he wore a suit and tie and was very polite, even switching on the meter. “Hasn’t rained today,” I remarked. “No. First dry day in two weeks,” he replied. “It’s a miracle,” I went on. “A miracle!” he confirmed with enthusiasm. “A miracle, for Semana Santa. Will you go to the processions tomorrow?”

Carlos asked me the same question as we drank our coffee after dinner. He had studied in a seminary for some years before abandoning the priesthood because the church took too much from the poor. In fact, the Second Vatican Council at Medellín had changed much, and in South America these changes had taken root, leading to a more liberal, compassionate church that was closer to the people. Carlos had a new occupation anyway, running an all-night off-licence. But I do not think he had lost his faith.
“Have you seen the uniforms of the Ku Klux Klan?” he asked. I nodded. “That’s what you’ll see tomorrow. The cucuruchos are purple – well, sometimes brown – and they’ve got those same high pointed hoods that cover their faces. The hoods are pretty heavy, they’re lined with card. They’ll parade slowly through the city for some hours, carrying heavy crosses. It’s an act of penitence for the suffering of the Señor. Sometimes they will whip themselves and those without hoods may wear crowns of thorns that make them bleed. One year, instead of a heavy cross, one man carried a huge cactus instead of a cross. He bled. And they will walk in bare feet.”

“Good Lord,” I said. “Do they heat up the surface of the road as well, just to make things more interesting?”

“Oh, no,” he replied without smiling. “If the sun shines it should be hot enough.”

My flippancy was out of order. The custom of penitence is an accepted part of Catholicism. Its expression in this form arrived from Spain with the conquistadores, who in 1534 founded the city of Quito on the ashes of the old Inca capital, which had been burned by the retreating forces of Atahualpa’s last general, Rumiñahui. The penitents’ parade endured, but got out of hand, as those who sought public office chastised themselves mightily in order to curry favour with the faithful. So the Church had insisted that all the participants disguise their identity. Today, it was said, many a senior politician might be found beneath the sinister pointed hoods. “Including President Borja?” I asked an Ecuadorian acquaintance. “I doubt it,” he replied, “though God knows he’s got plenty to repent.”

The penitents inspired the respect of many, but the puzzlement of others. With 61% of Ecuadorians attending church regularly, this was still a deeply religious society; but it was not monolithic. Agnosticism and Protestantism were gaining ground. Amongst those who did believe, the strict tenets of the Church were no longer law; the Church in Rome had turned its back on the liberalizing spirit of the 1960s, but in South America it had not. Adriana was not unusual in getting divorced, and many priests no longer opposed contraception. The public observance of Holy Week lacked the deep solemnity of 30 or even 20 years ago. Today, the cucuruchos had their critics. They were aware of this.

“Why make fun of us?” one penitent asked a journalist from the daily paper Hoy. “It really worries me that people of some faiths should think they have the right to deny us our manner of worship.” He added that he wished more young people would take part. “This year, I’ll do their penitence for them.”

But the cucuruchos weren’t all old. Another article quoted a 23-year-old driver as saying that, ever since he began taking part, he felt more secure behind the wheel. Many a near-accident, he claimed, had been suddenly avoided without explanation. He was not alone in believing such things. The bus traveller in Ecuador soon got used to the stickers of Jesus in his crown of thorns, displayed above the seat of almost every driver; around the figure was written the words Dios guia mi camino. I wished at times that the drivers would rely on more than divine intervention.

“What, really, do you think of the cucuruchos?” I asked another Ecuadorian. “I think they’re very religious,” he said cautiously.“But these guys whipping themselves?” I pressed. “Oh well, I think they’re sadicos.”

The next morning we met at the Monastery of San Francisco to see for ourselves.

*** *** ***

BROTHER JODOCO Ricke arrived in Quito in 1536, hot on the heels of the conquistadors, and started work on the extraordinary Monastery of San Francisco. Built over the succeeding 50 years, it now stands proud above the Plaza of the same name, its white twin towers shining in the direct equatorial sun, the structure clearly visible from the Panecillo far above. Inside, its finery is a tribute not only to its artisans, but to a culture that was prepared to expend such monstrous sums in the name of God that nothing of the sort could be built today; even the basilica of Yamoussoukro in Côte d'Ivoire cannot quite be judged in the same context. It was said that if just two of the gilded columns in the church of San Francisco were stripped, they would pay off Ecuador’s burgeoning external debt. But there was no chance that this would be done, for the treasures of colonial Quito were a source of justified pride. Here and there one saw notices or stickers proclaiming Quito – Patrimonia de la Humanidad; UNESCO apparently agreed.

I did. One day I wandered quite by chance into one of the lesser-known colonial churches in Quito’s Old Town. The church was lit by beams of sunlight that streamed through arches around the nave, creating patches of vibrant light and cool, dim shadow; a priest swung a censer on a rope, and the smoke from the censer drifted in and out of the sunbeams, which caught the metal of the censer so that a dull gleam flew backwards and forwards with the rhythm of a hypnotist’s pendulum.

The magnificence of the San Francisco was not solely a product of Renaissance Europe. Its founder, Brother Jodoco Ricke, arrived in Quito just 44 years after the Moors had left Granada. The craftsmen who accompanied him brought influences that were as much Islamic as they were Christian, influences reflected by the courtyard within and its alabaster fountain. The Islamic and Christian traditions had combined Islamic decorative and Christian figurative influences to form one of the most striking buildings I have seen.

At ten in the morning on Easter Friday, I stood with Ellen and Dave in the courtyard of the San Francisco. It was not raining. It was a miracle. For Semana Santa. Knots of soberly-dressed worshippers were holding spontaneous services in the courtyard, sheltered from the sun in cloisters that looked out onto clumps of bright red flowers, contrasting with the white stonework and the brilliant blue of the sky. Deep within the building, in the headquarters of the Brotherhood of Jesus of the Great Power, the cucuruchos prepared body and mind for the six-hour ordeal ahead. Outside the Brotherhood’s door, a sign pointed to the studio of Stereo Radio Jesus del Gran Poder, the sign surmounted with a cartoon of a monk DJ in headphones with a turntable. Through this medium, the Brotherhood spread its message; but the sign pointed, too, to the dispensary, a boon in a city where the public hospitals lacked basic things like needles and sterile dressings.

We shouldered our way through the crush and out into the Plaza below. Here the faithful ambled across the cobbles, pausing now and then to inspect stands selling hats and craftwork. In the cat’s-cradle of ancient streets behind the San Francisco, market traders sold everything from digital watches to brightly-coloured rucksacks, stereos smuggled from Colombia, jewelry, cheap jeans and whole roast pig. On the steps of the monastery itself, four or five peddlers provided devotional images of the Virgin, votive candles, and postcards of Christ. Two aged beggars sat against the great, open wooden doors of the main church, hands outstretched for alms. No-one bothered them, the odd priest or monk stepping around them with something like respect. We sat on the steps in the growing heat. Everyone was waiting for the same thing – gringos, city families and the pious Indigenas of the Cordillera, for some of whom there was Christ alone and not much else.

At midday, the penitents emerged. The first one saw from the Plaza below was the high purple cones of the cucuruchos; they advanced slowly, two by two, preceded by a military band that belted out stately music, the brass notes with that curious Hispanic balance on a knife-edge of melody and atonality. The rims of the trumpets and tubas caught the fierce sunlight and refracted it, hurting the eyes. And very slowly, the huge statue of Jesus of the Great Power was borne shoulder-high from the doors of the San Francisco, ablaze with gold.

We made for the Calle Guayaquil. Here, an hour or so later, the procession moved slowly down the slope towards us, still escorted by the band, which would continue until the end at half-past six. Behind them came the first cucuruchos. They had a strange humanoid appearance. I raised my camera; normally shy about photographing people, I felt strangely detached from these curious creatures with their high pointed heads, their eyes just visible behind slits in the hoods. Then, as I focused my lens on the leading figure, I saw the eyes staring back at me, distorted by the fresnel screen in the viewfinder. My finger froze over the shutter and I did not take the picture, waiting until he had gone by before raising the camera back to my eye.

Many cucuruchos passed by, some carrying vast crosses. Later I was to hear that one cucurucho, Humberto Bautista, who was 89, was carrying a three-metre cross that weighed a quintal – about 46 kilos, just over 100lb. Many were even bigger. One or two of the cucuruchos, stripped to the waist beneath their hoods, whipped their backs. Behind the cucuruchos came 15 or 20 Roman centurions, driving before them Jesus figures who they were beating with cats-o’-nine-tails. Others walked past in simple robes, patches of blood showing as crowns of thorns bit into their foreheads. They too were lashing their naked backs with the same short, evil little whips. I saw more than one man who already had what must have been stinging weals between neck and waist. There were children in the procession, too, although certainly no-one was whipping them. Some were dressed as Christ; a few wore purple robes to match their fathers, and one, three or four years old, was a mini-cucurucho complete with cornet hat and cape. Some of the children carried small crosses.

The procession moved slowly, and stopped often. It must, for a man with a 100 lb. cross on his shoulders does not run, even if he is not 89. The number of spectators grew. In the Calle Bolívar, just after two, I had one of the very few ugly moments I had in Ecuador; part of the crowd, which had swelled to 500,000, which was 200,000 more than expected, rushed the statue of Jesus del Gran Poder in a display of mass piety. We were forced backwards and forwards and half-crushed as a moan of devotion arose from the worshippers. Gringos were now less in evidence.

Later we walked through the quieter streets of La Ronda, further behind the San Francisco, where beautiful houses of neat square proportions with white walls and blue window-frames recalled the elegance of colonial Quito. But the paint was flaking. An indigena, one of the new urban poor, lay against a dirty white wall in the sunshine; he was insensible, but his hand still clutched the neck of an empty rum-bottle. A teenage girl passed us. “They rob you here,” she warned us, whispering. Later I would hear that the fine streets of the Old City, hamstrung by planning and conservation laws, had become havens for the poor, and that people slept in shifts so that up to six could use the same bed. But maybe they were lucky. The following week an unexpected hailstorm caused the collapse of some corrugated-iron shacks on the edge of the city, killing nearly 30 people. Many Ecuadorians, whether religious or not, believed that religion was the cornerstone of the country’s tranquility, preventing it from going the way of some of its neighbours; and perhaps they were right.

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.

Monday, 18 March 2013

It's the science, stupid. Or is it?

Thoughts on what we know, and what we don't, and how we tell the difference

Science is under attack. From the right, sceptics attack climate science; from the left, molecular biology and its products inspire deep suspicion. Science no longer seems to inspire the young or the progressive, who espouse mysticism or retreat into homespun philosophy.  Meanwhile both Left and Right cherry-pick from its conclusions; they accept or reject climate science or advances in biotechnology according to their prejudices, and examine the evidence on neither. This is dangerous, for all of us.

It’s a bad time for us to misunderstand science, because it isn’t going to go away.  Al Gore writes: “The… multiple revolutions in biotechnology and the life sciences will soon require us to make almost godlike [decisions]… Are we ready to make such decisions? The available evidence would suggest that the answer is not really, but we are going to make them anyway.” 

Science should come with a health warning. It only tells us so much, and it does not tell us what it has not told us. But I am also going to suggest that in a deeper sense, scientific principles should underpin our beliefs to a far greater extent than they do now.

Averroës: Study of creation
A word about what this post is not about, which is science vs. religion. For some, to teach evolution in a school is to deny the role of the Creator. Others use the cudgel of rationality to attack religion. Both sides would do well to remember the words of Andalusian scientist and philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), known in the West as Averroës:  “The more perfect becomes the knowledge of creation, the more perfect becomes the knowledge of the Creator. ...the Law urges us to observe creation by means of reason and demands the knowledge thereof through reason. “ The deeply religious, and strongly irreligious, should both think hard about that quote, but they won’t. In any case, this post is mostly not about religion. It is about the way we see science and interpret its findings; what it tells us, and what it doesn’t; and where it should stand in public discourse.

Let’s start by giving science a good kicking.

Induced belief?
In arguments about policy, especially but not only on climate change, one side or the other is usually saying: “It’s the science, stupid!” But they are almost never completely right.  Science rarely falls neatly to one side or the other.

Science is inductive; that is to say, I observe a single object or phenomenon, and decide that my observation allows me to infer something about other, similar or connected, objects or phenomena. An induction is therefore different from a deduction, in which I observe a number of objects or phenomena and know that a certain fact applies to each one; I don’t have to infer it.

The question of what one may reasonably infer from observation is hardly new. The most reliable form of inference is the syllogism. A syllogism is, in effect, deductive logic. I will say, A working bicycle must have wheels; my bicycle works; it therefore must have wheels. Change this proposition to: A working bicycle has wheels; other bicycles have wheels; therefore they work too. This is not a syllogism, because we don’t know it to be true; all the other bikes might have some other broken part, so might not work. However, we know from observation (of other bikes) that it is probably true, so we may infer that they work. This extrapolation of the general from the particular is inductive reasoning and modern science depends on it.

Why this dependence, if it is not foolproof? Bertrand Russell explains that an induction “has less cogency than a deduction, and yields only a probability, not a certainty; but on the other hand it gives new knowledge, which deduction does not” (A History of Western Philosophy, 1945). This is demonstrated by modern advances in astrophysics; dark matter, for example, is theoretically verifiable and falsifiable but we cannot field-test it. But its existence is a rational probability – one that we would not discover through a deductive process.

The problem with this inductive process is that it excludes the unknown; you cannot include in your reasoning a factor that you do not know to exist. This may be because one could have no reason to suspect its existence. One can argue, in the case of climate change, that the causal mechanism is clear, but what if there is some unknown factor acting upon it, or about to do so? The philosopher Moritz Schlick (of whom more later) spotted this danger in the inductive process when he warned that an inductive inference could not easily be reduced to a syllogism by establishing causality. “There are infinitely many circumstances that might possibly enter into consideration as the cause, since, theoretically, every process in the universe could make a contribution,” he wrote (General Theory of Knowledge, 1925).

Isn’t this all rather theoretical? No. Climate science, for example, is based on a massive induction.  We do not know, in a literal sense, that human activity is changing the climate. We have inferred it from the fact that we are releasing a certain tonnage of greenhouses gases and know that some of it is accumulating in the atmosphere. We also know that that accumulation will make the atmosphere retain more heat. Neither of these facts are inference – we know them to be true; we can (for example) measure the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and know that it has increases from 280 to nearly 400 parts per million since the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century. We also know the extent to which these gases will increase the propensity of the atmosphere to retain heat; this was demonstrated by John Tyndall in 1859. What is inference, is that this process will lead to climate change.  That is because we cannot be sure there is no third factor that would cancel out the interaction between the two.

The history of science and technology is littered with failures that were not predicted due to such a “third factor”. In the 1990s I worked for an agricultural research centre that bred a chickpea variety that was resistant to blight, and could therefore be planted earlier in the season, taking better advantage of soil moisture from Mediterranean winter rainfall. However, within a few years farmers started to report that it wasn’t actually resistant to blight. At least part of the reason turned out to be that farmers were trading seed between them and were often buying, or selling in good faith, seed that was not of the latest release.

A famous example of the unexpected comes from aviation history. The first jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet, entered passenger service in 1952. Very soon, several aircraft exploded in flight. The Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough put an intact Comet in a water tank and pressurized and depressurized it until it suffered the same failure. Pressurization of the cabin had searched out a point weakened by metal fatigue. As the aircraft had been tested to twice its maximum cabin pressure in trials, this should not have happened. In fact it was the cycle of pressurization and depressurization that was the agent of failure, not the cabin pressure itself. As Geoffrey de Havilland was to admit in an autobiography published after his death (Sky Fever, 1979), the Comet was so close to the frontiers of technology that there was nothing in existing experience to predict this. The cause could never have been hypothesized.

The failure of an inductive process to apprehend an unknown factor can also arise because its evidential base is limited in time or space. Conclusions drawn from observations of natural processes are especially suspect in this respect. The social-science theorist R. Andrew Sayer cites one of the Paradoxes of the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea:

One of Zeno’s famous paradoxes showed that on an atomistic conception of time as consisting of discretely distinct points, movement is unintelligible. If an arrow can only be at a single distinct point in space and at no other discrete point in time, then it cannot move. As Georgescu-Roegen argues: “That which is in a point cannot be in motion or evolve; what moves and evolves cannot be in any point.” …So, if we [describe] the growth of a plant [in] distinct stages occurring at discretely distinct times we can hardly expect to learn how it happens.” (Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach, 1984.)

Again, this seems theoretical; but it has implications for the modelling of environmental processes.  A simple example is that of the naturalist E.P. Stebbing, who observed environmental degradation in northern Nigeria in 1934 and concluded that the desert was moving southward.  In a sense it was, but Stebbing might not have known that it had also moved north in recent times, because his observations were temporally inadequate. However, Stebbing’s views started an ongoing narrative on the desertification menace that at one stage threatened to oversimplify land-management issues in Africa.

The problems of the inductive approach become acute in the case of climate modelling, where the number of different phenomena that would be material is so great that they cannot all be known; so great, indeed, that some may be simplified or excluded even when their existence is known. Thus at least one major climate model was drawn up in the past on the basis of single rate of decay for soil carbon – although mineralization of organic matter, and its release as CO2, is highly variable and non-linear.

Does this mean we should ignore the outputs of climate science? No. It is based on an induction, but as we have seen, all good science is. There can always be new evidence coming from left field, but I have yet to hear of anything that would really invalidate the climate models that we have so far.  In any case, as the historian of science Naomi Oreskes has pointed out, science rarely provides absolute proofs; rather, a consensus arises between scientists based on what is known, and provided that consensus is wide enough, the majority will ignore the doubters and move on. This is where climate science now stands.

What I am trying to do, however, is to make a deeper point about the rights and obligations of science, the limitations on what it demonstrates, the need for evidence, and the need for humility when its conclusions are questioned.  Failure to find that humility will itself politicise science and throw its objectivity into doubt. It may even bring it into disrepute.

Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado, who has written widely on the links between science and politics, demonstrated this in a 2004 paper in which he discussed the furore that erupted over Bjørn Lomborg’s 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist.  Lomborg had argued that environmental threats were exaggerated and that proposed measures to address them were uneconomic. He was subjected to intense and often savage criticism, with one critic going so far as to compare him, by implication, to a Holocaust denier.  Pielke quotes Harvard scientist John Holdren attacking Bjorn Lomborg’s 2001 book because it had “wasted immense amounts of the time of capable people who have had to take on the task of rebutting him. And he has done so at the particular intersection of science with public policy... where public and policy-maker confusion about the realities is more dangerous for the future of society than on any other science-and-policy question excepting, possibly, the dangers from weapons of mass destruction.”

This frustration with Lomborg is understandable (and Holdren is in fact a scientist of distinction; he is now senior science advisor to the White House). However, Pielke’s point is that by taking this view, scientists are themselves politicising science. This is a wise observation in itself, but there is surely a deeper danger. The critics (many far ruder than Holdren) were, in effect, saying to Lomborg:  Science says you are wrong, so shut up. The implications of this will be obvious to anyone familiar with the abuses committed in the 20th century in the name of “scientific socialism”, and the revolutionary doctrine that because we are right, we may behave as we see fit. The fact that Lomborg was wrong is not the point. As we have seen, science is a flawed instrument, and is not in a position to claim absolute truth. One is reminded of John Stuart Mill’s contention (which I quoted in an earlier post) that no opinion should be suppressed “lest it aught be true”.

There is a further implication. If science can provide at best a broad consensus about climate change, how on earth is it to demonstrate the existence or otherwise of God? We can hardly put the cosmos in a water tank and compress and decompress it until the truth is revealed. (Averroës would say, I suppose, that the Large Hadron Collider was doing just that; but I think the “God” particle is a physical phenomenon.)

We have now given science a good kicking. However, there are dangers in this.

“Science Wars”...and a Viennese legacy
Giordano Bruno (Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons)
Science has always had its enemies.  When I lived in Rome some years ago I would often visit the Campo de’Fiori; it had the best bars. In the centre stands the rather threatening statue of Giordano Bruno. (Not to be confused with Bruno Giordano. One was burned at the stake; the other played for Lazio – though, for Roma supporters, that may mean he should burn too.) Bruno was burned on that spot in 1600. His quarrel with the Inquisition was basically theological, but also concerned his science; like his younger contemporary, Galileo Galilei, he believed the earth revolved around the sun. Further, he posited the existence of other life in other worlds, which challenged the Church’s view of creation. Bruno led a life of principled intellectual endeavor. He was also, by all accounts, a disputatious pain in the arse.  His fate reminds us of what might then have befallen Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins.

It would be easy to see Bruno’s fate as something of another time, but attacks on science are with us still. The arguments about creationism, and the teaching of evolution vs. intelligent design, are an example; so is the funding by lobbyists of research to discredit the consensus on climate science. However, there have been other, more subtle attempts to undermine the rational, sometimes with good intentions. The best example is the “Science Wars” that began in the 1960s and ran on into the late 1990s.

The “Science Wars” can trace their origin back to a seminal 1962 work by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Very crudely stated, Kuhn’s argument was that what we accept as “scientific truth” is the result of a consensus that is in part a product of society and its preoccupations at any given time, and that certain conditions must occur for that consensus to be reformed (a process he referred to as a “paradigm shift”). Kuhn’s arguments are interesting and complex. A physicist by training, he did not so much question the value of science as try to illuminate how it proceeds, and under what circumstances a scientific consensus will admit of major revisions. However, post-structuralist critics have since interpreted his work as meaning that there is no “scientific” method of inquiry and that what we take for scientific knowledge is actually moderated by a society’s culture and history.

Thus by 1986 the philosopher Sandra Harding could define the radical feminist position as a claim that science is “not only sexist, but also racist, classist, and culturally coercive”.  (Professor Harding also, notoriously, referred to Newton’s Principia Mathematica as a “rape manual”.) There is no reason why there should not be a feminist critique of the scientific world, which remains very male-dominated. However, science is hard to do, and scientists understandably felt that they did not deserve this from critics outside its disciplines. Perhaps more seriously, some of what academic critics have written about science has been quite meaningless. Richard Dawkins has quoted, with glee, such statements as Jean Baudrillard’s:

Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes.

What? In 1994 the physicist Alan Sokal was sufficiently irritated to write a spoof paper that he titled Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. Dawkins later described the paper as “a carefully crafted parody of postmodern metatwaddle.” The paper included passages such as the following:

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and ‘pro-choice’, so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality).

Sokal submitted the paper to the journal Social Text, which published it as part of a “Science Wars” special issue. Sokal then admitted that it was a hoax. What Sokal, and others, were in effect saying was, look, it’s not OK to just talk complete rubbish.

They were not the first to make this point. The classic example is that of the logical positivists, and their leader, Moritz Schlick. In principle, logical positivism holds that a statement is meaningful if it can be verified. This springs in part from a distrust of metaphysical philosophy. The Vienna Circle – a group of thinkers centred on Schlick who met between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s – argued that philosophy could only be a part of science. In a 1982 memorial volume on the centenary of Schlick’s birth, Eugene Gadol explained that philosophy “could not compete with science because there was only the natural world which the sciences, with the support of observation for their theories, already wholly covered – all it could do was analyse the information which sciences provided…”.  In arguing for this essential unity of science, Schlick and the Logical Positivists were undermining the claims of philosophy, theology and the humanities, which in early-20th century Germany and Austria had, as Gadol put it: “alleged that there were special ways of enquiry (hermeneutics) and special ways of understanding (intuiting, Verstehen) which transcend the ordinary operations of the human mind as it manifests itself in the natural sciences.”

In other words, the theory of the unity of science propounded by the Vienna Circle challenged the right to write anything that did not make sense. The Logical Positivists said that for a statement to be meaningful, there must be some way in which its truth could be demonstrated, at least in theory –  even if the tools to do so were not/not yet available. Schlick once used the example of the dark side of the moon; we could not see it, but might one day be able to (as indeed we did). So a statement about what was there was meaningful, as it might eventually be verified.

On the morning of June 22 1936, as he climbed the stairs to his lecture room at the University of Vienna, Schlick was shot and fatally wounded by a former student, Johan Nelböck. This has often been presented as a political act, but Nelböck was simply deranged. However, Nelböck defended himself in court by arguing that Schlick’s rejection of metaphysics had somehow deranged him.  In the weeks that followed, Nelböck received increasing press support as someone who had rid Vienna of a pernicious left-leaning foreign Jewish philosopher, who had sought to destroy the nation’s moral compass.  He used these arguments to secure a pardon after the Nazis took power in Austria (his sentence had in any case been only 10 years).

An enlightened, West-leaning philosopher murdered by gloomy irrational Central Europeans untouched by the Enlightenment? It’s exactly the gulf expressed by the characters Settembrini and Naphta in Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Indeed Schlick fits the role; a German aristocrat (and not in fact Jewish), he was married to an American and spoke good English. The British philosopher A. J. Ayer, who met him in Vienna in 1932, said that he “made on me above all an impression of urbanity – like an American senator in a pre-war film.”

Arguably this conflict was resolved by the second world war: the rational won. But this is not so clear. The “Science Wars” showed that the validity of science is still under attack from those who do not wish to be bound by its conclusions.  But perhaps even more important, both Sokal and Schlick – in their very different ways – were insisting that it is not all right to make meaningless statements and offer them as knowledge.

This is the real point. As we have seen, the scientific method is flawed. But any alternative is worse. In the first part of this post, I argued science does not always deliver final truths. Therefore those who see themselves as rational should understand that science should not be used as an excuse to berate those who do not agree with them. In the second part of this post, however, I have tried to show that despite its limitations, the basic scientific method is essential, and our public lives must be the realm of disciplined, secular, rational thought. The reason is simple; it is sometimes a short step from talking shit to doing it to other people.

Mike Robbins’s novel, The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail, 2014), is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK). The full range of his books can be found here. Enquiries (including requests for review copies) should be sent to

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Saturday, 2 March 2013

To Seville, and to Kôr

Reviewer at work (pic: S. Ligabue)

It’s February but I’ve been at a beach resort in the Turks and Caicos, on an inactivity holiday. Not the sort of holiday I would normally choose, but my companion felt it would be good for me and she does seem to have been right. I took about 10-12lbs-worth of books with me. They include Al Gore’s latest (modestly titled The Future), the much-praised Diaries of Count Harry Kessler and J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy. (Her first adult book.)

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All may be the subject of a future blog, but I didn’t read them. I was diverted by two books that have proved oddly apposite. The sea was a vibrant turquoise, the bougainvillea brilliant, the air balmy etc. Yet the resort was strangely divorced from any sense of time or place, and the two books had the odd effect of opening a wormhole to a past that was more real than the manicured lawn in front of me. One is the last book by the travel writer Norman Lewis, and was published soon after his death in 2003 at the age of 95. The other is a book of short stories by Elizabeth Bowen, of which more later.

First, the Lewis. 

The Tomb in Seville
Norman Lewis was born in London to Welsh parents in 1908. I have heard him referred to as the prototypical modern travel writer, but I wonder if that is true; his contemporary V.S. Pritchett wrote of his own travels in Spain before Lewis did, and there are other names from the 1930s, not least the adventurer Fitzroy Maclean. However, the sheer volume and quality of Lewis’s work do mark him out, and although he is no longer fashionable, he remains very widely read. He is remembered today mainly for his writing on Indochina, on the Mafia and on Spain. In 1968 he became one of the first writers to publicise the situation of the tribal peoples on the Amazon, an effort that led to the founding of the NGO Survival International. But it was not a new interest for him; he had been struck by the treatment of indigenous people in Guatemala 20 years earlier.

Lewis’s upbringing was odd; his parents were ardent spiritualists. As a young man he pursued various ventures including the motor trade and motor racing (he was the possessor, at one time, of a secondhand Bugatti). He was married, quite young, to the daughter of a Sicilian of noble Spanish descent, Ernesto Corvaja, and although the marriage was really over after a few years, his relationship with the family was to influence him deeply.

In September 1934, the young Lewis embarked on a mission to Seville in search of his father-in-law’s ancestral tomb, which Corvaja hoped would be found in the cathedral. Lewis was accompanied by his young brother-in-law, Eugene. The trip was bankrolled by Corvaja senior. In retrospect it seems odd that Corvaja would dispatch his son and his son-in-law on a long journey across a country that was already unstable to find a family tomb, the existence of which was uncertain. Lewis’s account of the journey, A Tomb in Seville, does little to explain. Indeed the lack of context is such that one suspects Lewis had originally intended to include the account in his 1985 autobiography, Jackdaw Cake, then held it back, so that it remained unfinished business for years. It eventually appeared nearly 70 years after the journey it described, and it does have rough edges. Yet it has the freshness and warmth of a diary entry. Thus Lewis and his companion Eugene Corvaja cannot find transport to Madrid because of the disorder in the country, and walk over 100 miles through the late-September countryside from Pamplona to Zaragoza:

…the rich gilding of summer returned to the Navarran landscape. …We moved across boundless plains of billowing rock purged of all colour by the sun. Distant clumps of poplar seemed to have been drawn up into the base of the sky in an atmosphere of mirage and mist. Behind the mountains ahead symmetrical and luminous and symmetrical clouds were poised without shift of position as we trudged towards them for hours on end. At our approach an anomalous yellow bloom shook itself from a single tree, transformed into a flock of singing green finches. Lizards, basking in the dust, came suddenly to life and streaked away into the undergrowth.

Elsewhere Lewis describes the Spain encountered along the way. In San Sebastian, he and Eugene join the paseo, the evening walk when the town emerges to greet itself. He quotes for us a leaflet that advised them how to do it:  “always smile, but laugh with caution… Gestures with the finger are to be avoided. Do not wink, do not turn your back on a bore in an ostentatious manner, and, above all, never spit.” One wonders who printed this leaflet, and who handed it out. There are bleaker moments. After their long strange walk from Pamplona, the pair arrive at Zaragoza. “Old Spain,” writes Lewis, “was a country of white cities, but Zaragoza’s outline was dark”:

I could not remember ever visiting a town in which poverty presented itself in so stark a contrast with wealth. The number of Rolls-Royces in its streets could only have been exceeded by those in the West End of London. The poor were …sifting through rubbish bins and dumps, and …even guarding the sewer mouths for the nameless garbage vomited at intervals into the river. Communist propaganda posters were abundantly on display.

Even in Zaragoza the pair have their lighter moments. (“We were staggered to learn that the city was in the grip of a purity campaign …we were encircled by young Leaguers of the Pure Lily who tried to pin flags on our shirts and to explain how best to keep ourselves unsullied by the world.”) Even so, it’s October 1934 and it is not the best time to be in Spain, as they discover when they secure a place on an armoured train that takes them to Madrid. Here they alight to find themselves in the middle of a firefight, and as they dodge bullets to leave the station, Lewis notices a poster that assures them, in English, that “Spain Attracts and Holds You. Under the Blue Skies of Spain Cares Are Forgotten.”

Therein lies this book’s great strength; besides being well-observed and well-written, it is an almost covert glimpse of a world that has been forgotten. To most, the civil war in Spain began in 1936; few outside Spain would remember this earlier conflict – I did not; I knew of the insurrection of the miners in the Asturias in the autumn of 1934 but had no idea that the violence had spread across the country, presaging the horrors to come. Lewis and Eugene find themselves taking cover in Madrid, running from one street corner to another with their hands up. They are assured, however, that it’s safe enough in the morning, as people need to do their shopping. Sitting in a café, they overhear a well-to-do businessman describe how he and his friends had been chased out of a fashionable billiard room by police who mistook the click of cues for firearms. But in time the left-wing forces are driven from the streets. It is not yet their time:

With nightfall, a searchlight that had been mounted on the highest building in Madrid – the Capitol Cinema – came into play. In view of the non-appearance on the streets of any organised socialist forces, the Government had decided to declare war on the snipers. …The Guards and the soldiers followed its beam with their rifles. In the morning they went round collecting the bodies of those who still believed in the revolution.

The book is packed with bizarre incident. As the fighting comes to an end, the Lewis and Eugene Corvaja attend a bullfight, and see the rejoneador­ (a lead bullfighter who fights with a lance) apparently gored to death (“it was given out that he was dead”).  They then decide to investigate a reported mania amongst Madrileños for drinking animal blood. They visit a slaughterhouse, but are “deterred by a woman on her way out, made terrible by the smile painted by the blood on her lips.” Later, on their way through Portugal, the pair hear of a witch-burning, no less, in a small village in Porto called Marco do Canavezes. They travel there to find that the story is substantially true.

Was it? Marco do Canavezes (actually Canaveses) is real enough (and is, oddly, the birthplace of the singer Carmen Miranda), but I can find no mention of the story although that does not make it false. As for the rejoneador, Don Antonio Cañero was not dead, but Lewis does not say that (true, he may not have known; but that seems improbable). But does that matter? Why strain at a story of witch-burning in 1934, when a much larger outbreak of atavistic savagery was just beginning? For the most part, the narrative seems heartfelt; the journey clearly left an impression on Lewis and, like Laurie Lee a few months later, he was struck by the poverty (in Andalusia, they “pass through settlements of windowless huts consisting of no more than holes dug in the ground with branch and straw coverings …to take the place of roofs”).

To find out whether the two young men reach Seville, and find the tomb, one should read the book. The point for me is the way this book opens a wormhole into the past. This is in part due to the vivid simplicity of the writing; Lewis was good. But there is a further dimension to A Tomb in Seville: it was written in our own time, not the time that it describes, and we are reading modern English and seeing the scene through 21st-century eyes.

I can remember being very startled, some years ago, by The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling, by Eric Hiscocks; a First World War memoir, it was published in 1976 and had clearly been written in the tranquillity of retirement, using modern idioms. It thus packed a punch that many memoirs of the Western Front, including Robert Graves’s, did not. Moreover the author is able to say things that would have been left unsaid at the time; for example that there were homosexuals in the army, or that the Royal Army Medical Corps was sometimes known as Rob All My Comrades – we see a stretcher-bearer taking valuables off a corpse in the Flanders mud. (The book is long out of print and Amazon appears to list it under children’s books, which is about the last place it should be.)

There are other examples. Laurie Lee’s extraordinary account of his participation in the Spanish Civil War was not published until 1991, and has a straightforward style, and a ring of truth and frankness (though its accuracy has been challenged). Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, recounting a walk across Europe that also began in 1934, was written well over 40 years after the journey it described, and has a readable and contemporary feel. Lewis’s own masterpiece, Naples ’44, was written in the 1970s. The author, having experienced the past, describes it for us in the present; they are our wormhole.

The Demon Lover: Elizabeth Bowen and a sense of place
The wormhole can also open through the agency of quite trivial human experience. Elizabeth Bowen does that superbly in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, published at the end of the Second World War – in which the stories were mostly set. Most had been published during the war in various magazines that were then famous but have long disappeared, though they did include The New Yorker.

Bowen was an Anglo-Irish writer who died in 1973 at the age of 73. She is, perhaps, a little like her contemporary V.S. Pritchett; a writers’ writer, whose books are sometimes still in print and are admired by the cognoscenti, but wouldn’t now be widely read. Her atmospheric 1949 novel of wartime London, In the Heat of the Day, is an exception – and was adapted for TV, very well, by Harold Pinter in 1989. However, her work is not modern. The short stories are written in the English of their day, and are rooted in a world that no-one under 80 would remember, and no-one under 50 would understand.

But they bring that world very much alive. They do it not through “powerful” descriptions of air raids or bereavement, but through human experience that is common to all. Thus The Square begins with a taxi arriving in a London square at sundown; a man alights and calls on a woman, in a house where he sometimes used to dine; little of note happens in nine or ten pages – he is admitted, there is a disjointed conversation, a nephew of the woman appears and disappears – but there is a powerful sense of lives disrupted. The household arrangements are ad hoc; there is dust; the parquet no longer shines.

He looked at the empty pattern of chairs around them and said: “Where are all those people I used to meet?” “Whom do you mean, exactly?” she said, startled. “…Oh, in different places, different places, you know. I think I have their addresses, if there’s anyone special?”

The nephew, sixteen, wears slippers, smokes openly, and goes out in search of food:

“I expect I’ll pick up something at a Corner House.” …When he went out he did not shut the door behind him, and they could hear him slip-slopping upstairs. “He’s very independent,” said Magdela. “But these days I suppose everyone is?”

In one of the shortest stories, Careless Talk, Joanna arrives from the country and has lunch with friends in a crowded restaurant in which “every European tongue struck its own note, with exclamatory English on top of all.” The male friends arrive late and in uniform. The conversation is disjointed. Joanna is told she is missed in London; why does she not come back? She explains she has nowhere to come back to. ““Oh, my Lord, yes,” he said. “I did hear about your house. I was so sorry. Completely?”...” Nothing more is said of this. Brief references are made to absent friends who are involved with Poles or Free French. “I hope it didn’t matter my having told you that…” It is careless talk, but not really in that sense; it is bright, brittle and inconsequential, and the men leave early to attend to business, while the women worry about three eggs that Joanna has brought from the country, which they have given a waiter for safekeeping. Bowen herself worked through the war in the London bureaucracy and the scene would have been familiar to her.

In another story, Green Holly, Bowen uses a different technique. Several individuals are gathered together in a house in the country; it is Christmas, they have been together some time, and they are bored with each other; indeed they are unprepossessing (one has a large boil; another has baggy, shapeless trousers). As they irritate each other, one sees a ghost.  The ghost’s provenance would appear to be a crime of passion committed in the house some years earlier and it is thus a counterpoint to the drabness of the living. The whole thing is done with a strong sense of the absurd – it would scarcely work otherwise. But we are told little about the living, or the reason why they have been cooped up together in the country for so many months. We learn only that they are “experts” (“in what, the Censor would not permit me to say”); and now and then one or other is called away, it seems to decode an incoming transmission. Their work is secret but their lives are drab. The story is meant to, and does, amuse, but it also conveys a strong sense of the drabness of war – especially in its later stages, which is when one senses this was written.

But the high point of this book is its final story, Mysterious Kôr. Pepita meets her soldier on a night when London is flooded by moonlight. It is clear that they have only tonight. They must spend it in the two-room flatlet that Pepita shares with Callie, another young woman but one with which she plainly has little in common, and who has not troubled to leave for the one night. Instead, Arthur will sleep on the sofa where Pepita normally sleeps, and she will share a bed with Callie. They are in no hurry to go there; but Callie, needy, and filled with a sense of occasion, has set out cocoa for them and is waiting up. As they stand in the bright moonlit night, Pepita recites to Arthur fragments of a poem about a pristine abandoned city, Kôr:

Mysterious Kôr thy walls forsaken stand,
Thy lonely towers beneath a lonely moon...

Bowen does not say where the poem is from, but her readers would have known. Kôr is a lost city in H. Rider Haggard’s work She, then still very popular; it influenced the young Bowen greatly, and she was to name it in a 1947 BBC interview as a favourite book. The poem Mysterious Kôr was not in fact by Rider Haggard himself but by his friend the Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang; however, it was printed in several editions of She, and 70 years ago a young woman like Pepita might well have known it.

The night does not really end well. They make a late and awkward entry to the flatlet; there is no privacy; they have not even been able to sit quietly during the evening, as every bar is very full and the very pavements so crowded that they are jostled. Wartime London is packed with the soldiers of every nation, and there is no room at the inn. As Pepita finally falls asleep she imagines them walking through the pristine deserted city, untroubled by other humans:

With him she looked this way, that way, down the wide, void, pure streets, between the statues, pillars and shadows, through archways and colonnades. With him she went up the stairs down which nothing but moon came...

Bowen’s narrative and descriptive skills are considerable and her sense of place superb. A nightclub, for example, is “not quite as dark as a church... what lights there were were dissolved in a haze of smoke... on the floor dancers drifted like pairs of vertical fish.” She also has a gift that she shares with another distinguished exponent of the short-story form, V.S. Pritchett – that of equipping her reader with the information they need for the story and no more; there is not an ounce of fat in any of these. A few sparse keys are enough. Bowen is a master of allusion.

Yet the real skill here is the depiction of a time and place that is in no way crass or obvious; rather, it is through a private sense of dislocation. Arthur may soon be dead but we don’t need to be told that, and we’re not – it is Pepita’s yearning for Kôr that tells us, far more vividly, how they feel. Joanna’s London house is a smoking ruin but that is not discussed; her friend frets that the three eggs she has brought her from the country will be stolen, and somehow that tells us more. Magdela and her caller say little, but it is clear that their relation was in a time and place that is gone, and it is now hard for them to communicate.

Spain in 1934 and wartime England have been brought vividly alive. In the first case, the past is written in the idioms of the present; in the second, it is brought alive by the mundane. The methods are different but the effect is the same: to see the yesterday today and to be reminded that the past was in colour. They are us, and we are them, and no part of history is unique.

The Demon Lover and Other Stories has been out of print since the 1960s but all the stories, plus many more, are in Vintage’s Elizabeth Bowen: Collected Stories (in the US, The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Anchor). Lewis’s The Tomb in Seville is published by Carroll &Graf Publishers Inc.; oddly, the paperback, although available in the US, appears already to be out of print in Britain.  A wide range of other work by both authors remains in print in both the US and the UK; however, neither author is widely available for tablet or e-reader, though there are exceptions. The other authors’ works referred to in this post are also still in print, with the exception of The Bells of Hell.

A collection of Mike Robbins' travel pieces, The Nine Horizons, will be published in spring 2014

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