The Good and the Generous

I just ordered a great pair of earrings. I got them at the Richard Dawkins website (A Clear Thinking Oasis) for $22.95. They are beaded, amber, in the shape of double-helix-es, and they are also available in other groovy colours. Being a spring natural, amber looks great on me. And they go with most of my wardrobe.

Richard says we don’t need religion to be good and generous. I agree with him. What we do need is a good heart. But has this always been true? For someone who understands so much about evolution, where does he think humans learned to be good and generous?

I don’t think there is any reading of history that presents evidence that human beings are innately good and generous. In fact, there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary. It seems we have attained the virtues of goodness and generosity that we now take for granted very, very slowly.

We seem to have forgotten that the idea of loving one’s neighbour and turning the other cheek were once radical concepts that went viral two thousand years ago. The fact that they are now thoroughly embedded in a secular society is due to great hardship and suffering on the parts of many of our ancestors who were willing to go to the lion pit to defend these concepts, and change the trajectory of history.

And of course, whenever human nature is involved, things become very complex. The corruption of the good and the generous into institutions that oppressed and tortured it’s fellow human beings was to be expected really, considering that oppression and torture were de rigueur (and still are in many places where human nature reigns unchecked). The crusades and the inquisitions were not a Christian idea. They did not appear as an isolated event against a backdrop of people going about their business, cooperatively building a better world. They were a continuation of a long tradition of humans trying to get it over one another.

Richard Dawkins claims to be evidence based, and there is much evidence to show that goodness and generosity are religious ideas. Although we no longer need religion as a vehicle, without it, who knows where we would be? For me the more interesting questions that go to the heart of things are about what we really are under the veneer of civilisation we take for granted?

Ghost in the Routine

I have painted for more than 20 years. I’ve done oils, acrylics, canvas, paper, board, large murals, collages, assemblages, installations, sketches. Now I’m 40 (plus GST) and still have several works on the go at any time. I don’t particularly enjoy it. In fact, mostly it’s torture (they don’t call it pain-ting for nothing).

Since the early days I haven’t  really sold much work, apart from participating in the occasional group show. And yet the drive to continue to make marks on surfaces has never abated, not for longer than a few months.

Continuing to practice something in the face of the lack of tangible reward seems to contradict human nature, at least as it is usually described. There is no economic rationale, no improvement in my ability to attract sexual partners – even the process itself is not particularly satisfying. It’s messy. And expensive. The results? Well, most of my paintings are stacked around the house, looking towards the walls.

So what is it about? Instinct? An expression of innate biological factors, like sucking, walking, and mating? Somewhere, buried deep below consciousness, there are these needs that manifest themselves as a series of connected thoughts that lead to this seemingly random action. It’s a bit creepy really. A bit like being possessed or inhabited by a ghost.

And yet. I am descended from 15-20 000 generations of people who made stuff. In fact, the products of their ‘urges’ are the only way I know of their existence. They were ‘resourceful’. They made marks on the walls of caves, tombs and palaces. They wove and stitched and glazed and forged and sculpted and chiaroscuroed, cross-hatched and crocheted. Some of them (like me) just did it. But some of them did it really, really, really well. Every parent knows how hard it is to pass information forward to one generation. Some of my ancestors made things that are meaningful thousands of generations later.

Even alone in my living room I cannot get away from my culture, the sweep of history I am a tiny part of. Many have said  the urge to create is what makes us human.  Others are now saying it’s the very thing that makes us almost extinct.

I know that the relics I can see and hold and contemplate from the past are a rare glimpse, not just into the past but also into what it is to be human. They are the only tangible answers I have ever found to the eternal and infernal question: What, for god’s sake, is it all about?

Give Reality a Chance

I had my two babies as a public patient in Katoomba, Australia. The birthing unit was run by midwives, with several doctors on-call to intervene if the need arose. The birthing room was cleverly lit to give the appearance of soft candlelight, with spotlights to allow the professionals to see what they were doing. There was a large bath filled with warm water. I was encouraged to bring my favourite ambient music. My children’s father was supported and given the option to participate at his discretion. After the birth I was given round-the-clock support by lactation consultants during my stay. Back home, these well-trained, compassionate, bossy, experienced women were available to come to my home whenever needed. All on the public bill.

After my babies were born, a theme arose in the social commentary surrounding the care of newborns. Many people told me of a time in history when we lived as a village, when mothers were supported by extended family, when raising children was as much a part of life as harvesting crops and celebrating the change of seasons. This utopian period stood in contrast to the present day, when the mechanistic medical model of the west had co-opted the wonders of natural childbirth and turned it into a production line of mothers churning out babies, factory-style.

I hear about this utopian village so often, in many different fields, such as home-birthing, complementary medicine, environmentalism, feminism. It seems a little daily comfort is  needed to foster the luxury of idealism. I have come to think of it as a kind of medieval Avalon, or Brigadoon. In other words, located entirely in cultural mythology. It seems to serve the purpose of allowing us to feel that we may, someday, stumble upon the magic formula that will allow the mists to part, at which time all will be well.

It is possible that the supportive village may have existed sometime or place, for a nanosecond in human history. The reality of childbirth and parenting in our cultural history, and nearly all others past and present, is so completely different it’s almost impossible for the modern human mind to comprehend. It is understandable that we could have created the utopian myth to protect ourselves from the psychological impact of reality.

In fact humans are pretty much unique among primates in our practice of infanticide within our own species (Broude, 1995). Abandonment, slavery, sexual abuse and battery are far more common parenting practices within our species than care and nurturing, a relatively modern development. A feature of life in Europe until the rise of foundling homes in the 17th century (the first established by St Vincent de Paul in France) was stepping over babies abandoned in the street, frothing at the mouth as they died of malnutrition. This would have been as frequent, and acceptable, as the sight of homeless male adults present today in the streets of most cities.

A history of child-abuse is not unique to developed countries. There is little evidence for humans treating children with the care and love we now take for granted, from anywhere around the world or through the ages. Note: Read Robin Grille’s book “Parenting for a Peaceful World” for some mind-blowing research into the history of parenting. I don’t agree with his conclusions, but his research is fantastic.

Somewhere in the last 200 years we have invented the idea that children are precious. To treat them with love and care is a fundamental principle going to the heart of our humanity. We have integrated these ideas to the point where we take them for granted and imagine they must be part of our ‘nature’. We have developed systems of child protection which, though fallable, would have seemed foreign in a history where most children were disposable.

We have changed the very basis of our human consciousness in a very short period of time. During the same period of evolution we have polluted and out-fished our water systems, over-exploited our soil reserves, over-populated, changed the climate of our planet.

If we insist on identifying ourselves with myths about who we really are as a species, we run the risk of needing to learn these lessons again, god forbid. As we hurtle towards an industrial environmental calamity, let’s take an honest inventory of who we really are and where we’ve been.

We Need to Talk About Western Culture

This is what got me thinking seriously about the need for education within the arts of western society:

I was attending a workshop for adult educators. One of the facilitators was an indigenous Australian. Another participant, whom I knew socially from here and there, put up her hand and addressed the indigenous facilitator. She said:

“As an indigenous woman, you have thousands of years of culture to draw from in your teaching. As a western woman, I am bereft of culture. I have been displaced and dislocated from my culture, and feel a huge sense of emptiness because of this.”

I was shocked to hear this. The speaker was an attractive woman in her mid-fifties, with long red hair. I had seen her playing both guitar and flute at various events around town. I knew her to be an outspoken community leader, educated in psychology, a confident public speaker and excellent educator. No-one, including myself, commented on her comment. However, it got me thinking.

Western culture, as I understand it, includes five thousand years of scholarship and creativity. Why then would a woman, the recipient of the best of western learning, feel “bereft of culture”? What inspired her to express envy towards a woman of a cultural background that included displacement, not to mention outright cultural oppression, in it’s recent past?

I started talking to people, floating the idea of starting a website with direct links to education in the western canon. These are some of the responses I got:

“What western culture?”

“Oh, yes. Western culture. What a disaster.”

“Why learn about white people?”

It began to dawn on me that although I had studied visual arts for four years in the late ninties, at a major university, in a major city, in a developed country, I could not tell you anything about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the origins of the Italian Renaissance, or in what year the Romans had withdrawn from England (the country of my most recent genetic heritage).

Trawling through my old university reading list, there was not a single reading from a publication dated more than twenty years previously. In fact, we had been expressly informed that anything written before the advent of 1960-70’s feminism was “located in patriarchal and colonialist assumptions and subjugated by hegemonic concepts”. Therefore, no longer relevant.

I began to feel I had identified a gap. Definitely in my own learning, but perhaps in that of my similarly dis-educated peers.

So began a journey of discovery that has been the most fascinating, sustaining and meaningful process on which I have ever embarked. The path is well mapped and illustrated, guided the elders of my ancestral story, many of them geniuses. Along with knowlege I have claimed a sense of belonging, wholeness, and, perhaps, the beginnings of wisdom.

You are invited to participate.

Read:

Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. Simon & Schuster.

Hughes, R. (1990). Caravaggio. In R. Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical (pp. 33-37). Harper Collins.

Paglia, C. (1992). The MIT Lecture: Crisis in the American Universities. In C. Paglia, Sex, Art and American Culture (pp. 249-298). Penguin.