Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic. This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.
The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.
Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.
Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:
All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.
Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and saying, no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.
O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,
Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.
Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,
A’for thy glory.
And no for ony guid or ill
They’ve done afore thee!
I bless and praise thy matchless might,
When thousands thou has left in night,
That I am here afore thy sight,
For gifts and grace,
A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,
To a’ this place.’
Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:
Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’
To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?
Thomas Piketty Capital quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.
Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right, and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.
Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.
‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’
Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?