ON BEING: THE GAUGUIN QUESTIONS

On Being is the title of a small book by Peter Atkins, an English chemist and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, the author of a number of popular science books, including Atkins’ Molecules, Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science and On Being.

He addresses the fundamental “Gauguin Questions” of existence as a humanist and a scientist, eschewing religious and other supernatural attempts to provide answers to what we ask about our origins, our identity and our future. He has written and spoken on issues of humanism, atheism, and the incompatibility of science and religion.

Atkins realizes that many believe that the physical is not all there is, “but as we see no objective evidence for the non-physical . . . we cannot in all intellectual honesty accept its existence as plausible.” He views all supernatural religion as unsound thinking, and maintains that the only means of understanding reality is the scientific method.

The origin of the universe from a space-time singularity is a hypothesis that can account for the formation of galaxies, gravitational condensation into stars, stellar synthesis of atoms, and eventual formation of the solar system including our planet Earth. This is not a creation myth but a plausible account.

This is where we come from.

The biosphere with the appearance of organisms surviving and reproducing using the genetic code leading to evolutionary change by way of natural selection leads to species differentiation and eventually the present organisms that live on the planet.

This is who we are.

But like all organisms we are not immortal, and eventually die. With the end of consciousness we cease to exist and our bodies decay back into their constituent atoms. Atkins describes in detail the process of putrefaction of the body unless it is cremated. “We need to know that we are stardust, and are inescapably destined to decay”.

This is where we are going.

Belief in an “afterlife” is but wishful thinking. The author wonders how otherwise sensible and educated people cannot come to terms with the fact that death is extinction.

Like other stars, the sun too has a “life cycle” understood now in detail by astrophysicists. After the nuclear fuel is spent it will first expand and incinerate the earth, and eventually cool to a dense, black dwarf. What is more, the second law of thermodynamics envisages the eventual “heat death” of the universe, when energy has all been converted into heat and dissipated.

Atkins concludes by referencing his scientific faith, “that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate and elucidate. Its revelations and insights add immeasurably to the pleasure of being alive. The scientific method is a distillation of common sense in alliance with honesty, and its discoveries illuminate the world.”

I share his views, and believe his answers to the Gauguin Questions to be credible.

GLOBAL GAY

Global Gay, Comment la révolution gay change le monde, Flammarion, Paris 2012,2017 English translation 2018 by Patsy Baudoin, MIT Press. This comprehensive 262 page book by Frédéric Martel is the result of a long field survey conducted over some eight years in more than fifty countries, and though a fascinating and well written journalistic account, suffers from a sense of being dated, being written well before 2016. Times have changed since then, particularly in the US.

Apart from that concern, it lacks an index, list of references, footnotes, and graphs or tables, though it refers readers to a website, definitely not a handy arrangement.

The author reports that at least ten countries still retain the death penalty for same-sex activity, and many others have restrictive homophobic laws, noting that in the Middle East, India, and Africa these were often imposed on peoples colonized by Victorian England, by French settlers, and, even today, by American neoevangelicalists.

Martel feels however there appears to be a trend towards globalization of LGBT rights, attributing this wordwide phenomenon to the ubiquity of social media platforms. He affirms that same-sex desire and expression is truly a matter of universal human rights, and not as asserted by homophobic politicians, a decadence introduced into a nation from elsewhere.

His hundreds of interviews in every continent illustrate how LGBT persons cope within their own communities socially on group and interpersonal levels, circumventing official limitations where they exist. Revealing interviews from mainland China, Russia, Chile, Cuba, Egypt, India, Singapore, Brazil, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere paint a global picture of the state of affairs for gay people around the world and their adaptation to local circumstances.

Outside interventions complicate the situation in some countries, particularly in Africa. “An anti-gay law was adopted in Uganda in 2014. Ultimately, a strange American ‘culture war’ was being carried out, away from the US, by pro-gay and anti-gay groups, evangelicals facing off against gay organizations, all of whom support and fund their local allies.”

Martel visited an evangelical megachurch on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and found it was affiliated with a mother religious organization in Oklahoma City, from which it borrows its charismatic doctrine. Evangelicals have at their disposal, with millions of dollars, books and CDs ready to be shipped abroad, to convert Africa through sectarian and homophobic sermons.

And it isn’t only Christian homophobia: according to a West African lawyer, “The two most dramatic new things homosexuals face in Africa are, first, Christian neoevangelicalism, which is often inspired by the US, and, second, political Islam, modelled on Iran or Saudi Arabia.”

While the author has a sense of cautious optimism, and believes democracy and sexual orientation are coming together as though to support each other, now, in 2018, I wonder about that.

ECCLESIASTES & R. CRUMB

Words written millennia ago in the Hebrew Bible in the book Ecclesiastes affirms the futility of human desires.

Railing against the universal urge to acquire ever more, then, as now, the despair of one who perceives this endless wanting is scorned contemptuously as useless, the world goes on as always, “There is nothing new under the sun”, and desire is “Meaningless! Meaningless!”. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

The search for meaning has occupied philosophers from antiquity to the XXI century, from the pre-Socratics to the Logical Empiricists.

Most of us of course are not philosophers, and simply go about our daily routines without reflecting on considerations such as epistemology or ultimate questions about life or even our own futures. But the lust after money appears nearly universal among humankind, and described as the “root of all evil” by St. Paul (1 Timothy 6:10).

Punters enrol in the so-called college level” business schools” to learn applied greed, how to acquire ever more by employing algorithms to currency manipulations, and by creating desires to purchase goods we didn’t know we wanted by way of marketing and advertising. See https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/apr/27/bulldoze-the-business-school?CMP=share_btn_link

Dale Carnegie was the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), a bestseller that remains popular today. There’s nothing wrong with making friends, but the implication in the title is that friendship can influence people in such a way as to improve sales, increase profit, and lead to greater wealth. You too can have a solid gold toilet for your bottom’s line.

The American gospel promoting business has conquered the world, even the former Communist countries with a vengeance. China’s President Xi pretends that his version of state capitalism is “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but it’s the same sun shining on Asia as on Europe and the Americas, under which nothing is new, just the same old promotion of enrichment and greed, gussied up in a different vocabulary.

Masonic lodges and service clubs like Rotary International tout their promotion of good works, but their adherents attend to advance their business opportunities. Advertisements directed at medical doctors promoting pharmaceutical products are couched in language suggesting their drug is more effective in reducing distress and treating disease, but the information is always designed primarily to enhance sales, and thus the profits of the manufacturer.

Cartoonist R. Crumb’s sage Mr. Natural, asked by a desperate seeker after truth, “What does it all MEAN?” In the spirit of the writer of Ecclesiastes he replied, “Don’t mean SHEEIT…”

FINNISH CRIME NOVELS

Nordic Noir crime novels are primarily based in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, or Iceland, the Scandinavian countries. This is also a lively genre in Finland, a Nordic but not Scandinavian land, with a unique language unrelated to that of most other European countries.

Jarkko Sipilä is a Finnish author and journalist who has reported on the Helsinki crime scene in both TV and print and has written a series of novels featuring Detective Lieutenant Kari Takamäki of the Helsinki Violent Crimes Unit. A local TV series was made from them, and some have been translated into English. His Seinää Vasten (Against the Wall) was the winner of the Best Finnish Crime Novel in 2009. “A no-nonsense gritty police procedural that gives equal time to  the crooks and the cops”, wrote one reviewer.

Members of his team, such as the hard-boiled undercover cop Suhonen specializing in infiltrating criminal gangs, recur in all the novels, and the setting is realistically based in the capital city of Helsinki and surrounding area. Social and psychological issues colour the otherwise grim milieu. With the regular appearance of Takamäki and individual members of his squad, the series of novels resembles Simenon’s Maigret and his Parisian investigating crew.

Sipilä’s 2010 book Katumurha (Street Murder) begins with the brazen shooting of a businessman in the midst of rush hour traffic, and develops into a rat’s nest of sleazy white collar crime leading to more murders and undercover work by Suhonen.

When studying Finnish I translated it into English as an exercise, with assistance from a native speaker in interpreting slang expressions and idioms.

We find something completely different in Minna Lindgren’s Lavender Ladies Detective Agency series Death in Sunset Grove, described as a “devilishly funny and suspenseful story about old age, friendship and life in a relatively ordinary Finnish retirement home”.

Two octogenarian ladies investigate a suspicious death in the assisted living community where they live, and are drawn into a nasty scheme involving the board of directors of the establishment. It resembles the Miss Marple novels by Agatha Christie, with a similar sly whiff of clever inquiry by an aged sleuth.

An unusual murder mystery set in Helsinki with a serial killer associating each of his attacks with music of Sibelius is the setting of The Seven Symphonies by Simon Boswell, a British film score composer, conductor, producer and musician. Though written in English, the Finnish locale is fairly realistic and the tie-in with a musical analysis of each of the seven symphonies creates an offbeat and fascinating structure.

Brutal murders and bloody crime scenes aren’t what Finland is famous for – except in the world of fiction. With Nordic crime novels surging in popularity internationally, Finland’s contribution is unique. A hint of Russian seasons the exotic setting, for Finland was once part of Russia.

Nibelungenlied, Walhalla & Wagner’s Ring Cycle

 

the Nibelungenlied (Middle High German: Der Nibelunge liet or Der Nibelunge nôt), translated as The Song of the Nibelungs, is an epic poem from around 1200 written in Middle High German. Its anonymous poet was likely from the region of Passau. The Nibelungenlied is based on an oral tradition that has some of its origin in historic events and individuals of the 5th and 6th centuries and that spread throughout almost all of Germanic-speaking Europe. Parallels to the German poem from Scandinavia are found especially in the heroic lays of the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga saga.

As with the Greek epic poetry of Homer and with the Finnish Kalevala it was written down by one or more scribes following a long oral transmission by storytellers and/or singers. In written form it became the inspiration for both visual arts and for music.

The poem was forgotten after around 1500, but was rediscovered in 1755. Called the German Iliad, the Nibelungenlied began a new life as the German national epic. The poem was appropriated for nationalist purposes and was heavily used in anti-democratic, reactionary, and National-Socialist propaganda before and during the Second World War.

Named after the hall of heroes in the Nibelungenlied, The Walhalla is a hall of fame that honours laudable and distinguished people in German history, politicians, sovereigns, scientists and artists of the German tongue. The hall is a neo-classical building above the Danube River, east of Regensburg in Bavaria.

As successor to the King, the government of Bavaria decides on additions. Anyone may propose a name, but candidates must have died at least 20 years before becoming eligible (doubled in 1912). Only 31 busts have been added since its opening, on an irregular basis, for a total of 191, twelve of them female. A number of the additions since the Second World War are of people who had been opposed to the National Socialists, and an especially prominent place at the end of the series is allotted to Sophie Scholl, a Munich student who was executed in 1943 for her non-violent resistance to Hitler’s regime.

The legacy of the epic today is visible in Richard Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. The cycle of four operas is regularly staged around the world in major cities, as well as within Germany and Austria most years. The Bavarian city of Bayreuth has produced various cycles at the Wagnerian Festival House with mixed reviews over time, and indeed the work is such that it remains open to the vivid imagination of designers in staging, though the orchestral music and libretto written by Wagner are sacrosanct and unaltered in every production.

Many editions of Wagner’s text are available in print and online, along with video performances. My favourite lowdown on the story of the four operas is the video recording of the presentation by soprano and comedian Anna Russell. Her unforgettable analysis of the four operas may be found easily on YouTube.

Copernicus and Vesalius

A professor of anatomy who was familiar with my history of previously working in astronomy, once asked me what was the connection between astronomy and medicine. Thinking quickly I suggested perhaps it was related to the achievements of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius.

Copernicus of course was the sixteenth century proponent of heliocentricism, placing the sun rather than the earth at the center of the universe, likely independently of Aristarchus of Samos, who had formulated such a model some eighteen centuries earlier. This was a major event in the history of science, and felt to be undermining the whole system of the philosophy of science at the time. His book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) was initially rejected as a “false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture.

The Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation of the Index issued a decree suspending De revolutionibus until it could be “corrected,” that is, made to coincide with the creationist views of the Bible. The prohibition was finally dropped in 1835. Meanwhile, the consequences of Copernicus’s revolutionary cosmology had led to Galileo , Kepler, Newton, understanding of the structure of the solar system, gravitational theory, and the laws of motion.

Andreas Vesalius was a 16th-century Flemish anatomist, physician, and author of one of the most influential books on human anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). Vesalius is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy.

On the day of his graduation from medical school he was immediately offered the chair of surgery and anatomy at Padua, where he performed dissection as the primary teaching tool, handling the actual work himself and urging students to perform dissection themselves. Hands-on direct observation was considered the only reliable resource, a huge break with medieval practice, which prohibited human dissection.

Vesalius took residence in Basel to publish the seven-volume De humani corporis fabrica, a groundbreaking work of human anatomy. At about the same time he published an abridged edition for students, Andrea Vesalii suorum de humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome, and dedicated it to Philip II of Spain, the son of the Emperor. That work, now collectively referred to as the Fabrica of Vesalius, was groundbreaking in the history of medical publishing and is considered to be a major step in the development of scientific medicine. Because of this, it marks the establishment of anatomy as a modern descriptive science.

When I was asked for the connection between astronomy and medicine, I suggested Copernicus and Vesalius, because they both published their work in the year 1543.

The professor nodded solemnly, then replied, “That’s a very tenuous connection.”

The Voynich Manuscript and the Codex Seraphinianus

The Voynich manuscript is 600 years old, written in a language no one can read, and full of diagrams no one understands.  Two recent attempts to decode it have been publicized in the past few years.

The first claims that it is a form of gynaecological medical text. Since its discovery in 1912, it has been a mystery and a cult phenomenon. Full of handwriting in an unknown language or code, the book is heavily illustrated with weird pictures of alien plants, naked women, strange objects, and zodiac symbols. History researcher and television writer Nicholas Gibbs appears to have cracked the code, discovering that the book is actually a guide to women’s health that’s mostly plagiarized from other guides of the era.

The research that sparked other coverage is based on information technology. A paper named “Decoding Anagrammed Texts Written in an Unknown Language and Script” was published in 2016, and was presented at a conference last year. In it, computer science professor Greg Kondrak and graduate student Bradley Hauer describe a method for finding the source language of ciphered texts, before turning that method on the manuscript itself, and deciding that it was originally written in Hebrew, before being encoded in its current form.

Not all those who have tried to decipher the manuscript agree with either of these two attempts, and maintain that the meaning of the document remains an enigma.

The Codex Seraphinianus originally published in 1981, is an illustrated encyclopaedia of an imaginary world, created by the Italian artist, architect, and industrial designer Luigi Serafini during thirty months, from 1976 to 1978. The book is approximately 360 pages long and written in a cipher alphabet in a constructed language.

It has been compared to the still undeciphered Voynich manuscript. The illustrations are often surreal parodies of things in the real world, The writing system appears modeled on ordinary Western-style writing systems. The curvilinear letters of the alphabet are rope- or thread-like, displaying loops and even knots, somewhat reminiscent of letters of the Sinhalese alphabet.

The Codex is divided into eleven chapters, partitioned into two sections. The first section appears to describe the natural world, dealing with flora, fauna, and physics. The second deals with the humanities, the various aspects of human life: clothing, history, cuisine, architecture and so on. Each chapter seems to treat a general encyclopaedic topic.

The language of the book has defied complete analysis by linguists for decades. In a talk at the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles held in 2009, Serafini stated that there is no meaning hidden behind the script of the Codex. What he wanted his alphabet to convey to the reader is “the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand, although they see that their writing does make sense for grown-ups.”