Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Robert Graves?

Eric Kennington: Robert Graves (1929)

I suppose that the upcoming anniversary of the outbreak of war in August, 1914 has got me thinking again about the literature of the First World War. Having recently read Harry Rickett's excellent book Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War (2010), I realised just how little I knew about so many of the writers he mentions. Some, admittedly, sound more interesting as people than poets: Robert Nicholls, for instance. It did get me daydreaming of a systematic re-reading of some of my favourites, though.

Probably first and foremost among these is Robert Graves. Just last year I managed to acquire the missing volumes of his nephew Richard Perceval Graves' rather soupy (but nevertheless indispensable) biographical trilogy about his uncle. I'd read them before, but they did remind just how long and complex - and strange - a time "old Gravy" (to quote Siegfried Sassoon's nickname for him) had of it: all those books, all those projects, all that basking in the sun in the Balearic Islands (or, rather, sitting inside reading and typing in Deyà, Majorca).

In fact it was rereading Sassoon's own (lightly fictionalised) autobiographical trilogy, Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston's Progress that got me going again on Graves (whom he calls, in context, "David Cromlech"). They were very different people, and their friendship did not long survive the war - though it was really the advent of Laura Riding, Graves's principal model for the "White Goddess" that clinched it. That, and some rather tactless demands for money on Graves's part ("Why keep a Jewish friend unless you bleed him?" as Sassoon rather chillingly remarked in a verse letter to RG).

George Charles Bereford: Siegfried Sassoon (1915)

Rather than personalities, then, I thought it might be best to concentrate on Graves's undoubted successes, his unequivocal masterpieces, if you like. In my opinion there are (at least) five of them:
  1. Memoir: Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography (1929)
    • Revised edition (1957)
  2. The concensus of opinion now seems to be that the best version of this "early autobiography" to read is the 1929 one, published shortly before Graves's departure for Majorca with his new muse, Laura Riding. The 1957 revision, which is the one I first read myself (and which is most readily available) tends to soften the abrupt and eccentric typography and sentence structures of the original text, althrough it does expand on certain details (notably Graves's relationship with T. E. Lawrence). The awkward truth is that neither version is entirely satisfactory on its own: you really have to read both to appreciate the full force of Graves's imagination in full cry.

    Robert Graves: Good-bye to All That (1929)

  3. Fiction: I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius (1934)
    • Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina (1934)
  4. Ever since this book was dramatised by the BBC in the 1970s, it has needed little introduction (there was an earlier attempt to film it in the 1930s, with Charles Laughton as claudius, but that ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately). It remains by far the most convincing and entertaining revisionist history of the early Caesars, despite all the myriad attempts to supplant it since. It's also the most immediately accessible and readable of Graves's historical novels, despite the fascinating material included in many of the others.

    Robert Graves: I, Claudius (1934)

  5. Speculative Non-fiction: The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948)
    • Amended and Enlarged Edition (1961)
  6. It's hard to describe this book accurately without making it sound like the work of a raving lunatic. Graves's speculations take him from the stone age to late antiquity, and include "solutions" to any number of unsolveable riddles and conundrums. It has to be experienced to be believed, but there's no doubt that no-one has ever written a more explosive book on the true nature of the poetic imagination.

    Robert Graves: The White Goddess (1948)

  7. Translation: The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass (1950)
  8. It may seem a little surprising to include a mere translation here, but I do feel that this one stands out from Graves's many solid achievements in this genre. There's something about his deadpan delivery which enables Apuleius' masterpiece to shine out, unimpeded by the clumsy literalism which so many of his other modern translators have clung to. It stays in print for a good reason: because people enjoy it more than any of the rival versions.

    Robert Graves, trans.: The Golden Ass (1950)

  9. Classical Scholarship: The Greek Myths (1955)
    • Revised edition (1960)
  10. The successive editions of this work incorporated more and more of Graves's increasingly out-there conjectures about the ancient Greeks (the contention that "ambrosia" was magic mushrooms, for instance), but for sheer concision and completeness, it's hard to fault this work. It offers multiple versions of most of the stories, together with clear source notes and - admittedly speculative - explanations of some of their stranger features. In other words, it emphasises the dynamic and fluid nature of myth, rather than clinging to a single interpretative paradigm. That's one reason it's still of use 60 years after its first publication.

    Robert Graves: The Greek Myths (1955)

Some would add to this list his bizarre series of speculations about Christianity, culminating in the massive Nazarene Gospel Restored (1954) - and including along the way such eccentric works as My Head! My Head! Being the History of Elisha and the Shulamite Woman; with the History of Moses as Elisha related it, and her Questions put to him (1925), King Jesus (1946), Adam’s Rib and Other Anomalous Elements in the Hebrew Creation Myth: A New View (1955), Jesus in Rome (1957) and Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (1964).

Robert Graves & Joshua Podro: The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1954)

For me, that's a step too far. But I certainly acknowledge that this was - first to last - one of the subjects which most consistently interested Graves, from the very first poem in his Collected Poems, "In the Wilderness," about Jesus's meeting with the "guileless young scapegoat," to his later works of Biblical reconstruction, many of them written in collaboration with Talmudic scholar Joshua Podro.

But why no poetry? Graves was, after all, a poet first and foremost. I have to say that my enthusiasm for his poetry has waned over the years, though I still like a lot of the pieces included in his own successively winnowed-down volumes of Collected Poems, culminating in the 1975 volume which was the last he personally oversaw.

This has now been supplanted by the three-volume Carcanet edition of his Complete Poems (also available as a single volume, without the apparatus and textual variants). I suppose there would be an argument for including that, too, among the "indispensible" works of Graves. There's a lot there to take in, though, and certainly a lot that he personally repudiated along the way.

Robert Graves: The Complete Poems (2000)

As a supplement to my usual habit of listing all the books which I, personally, own by Robert Graves (and there are many), I thought it might be best to begin by discussing Manchester poetry publisher Carcanet's fifteen-year Robert Graves project.

Beginning with the three volumes of Complete Poems mentioned above, they've reprinted, in handsome, well-edited new editions, the following texts - often in new, definitive versions. I've put in bold the ones that I myself own - or have on order at present:

Robert Graves: Selected Poems, ed. Patrick Quinn (1995)

  1. Selected Poems, ed. Patrick Quinn (1995)

  2. Collected Writings on Poetry, ed. Paul O'Prey (1995)

  3. Complete Short Stories, ed. Lucia Graves (1995)

  4. Complete Poems, Volume I, ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward (1995)

  5. Complete Poems, Volume II, ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward (1997)

  6. The White Goddess, ed. Grevel Lindop (1997)

  7. I, Claudius & Claudius the God, ed. Patrick Quinn (1998)

  8. The Sergeant Lamb Novels, ed. Patrick Quinn (1999)

  9. Complete Poems, Volume III, ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward (1999)

  10. Some Speculations on Literature, History and Religion, ed. Patrick Quinn (2000)

  11. Complete Poems in One Volume, ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward (1999)

  12. Homer's Daughter & The Anger of Achilles, ed. Neil Powell (2001)

  13. Greek Myths, ed. Patrick Quinn (2001)

  14. [with Laura Riding] Essays From 'Epilogue' 1935-1937, ed. Mark Jacobs (2001)

  15. [with Laura Riding] A Survey of Modernist Poetry & A Pamphlet Against Anthologies, ed. Patrick McGuinness and Charles Mundye (2002)

  16. The Story of Marie Powell, Wife to Mr Milton & The Islands of Unwisdom, ed. Simon Brittan (2003)

  17. Antigua, Penny, Puce & They Hanged my Saintly Billy, ed. Ian McCormick (2003)

  18. The Golden Fleece & Seven Days in New Crete, ed. Patrick Quinn (2004)

  19. Count Belisarius & Lawrence and the Arabs, ed. Scott Ashley (2004)

  20. [with Raphael Patai] The Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis, ed. Robert A. Davis (2005)

  21. King Jesus & My Head! My Head!, ed. Robert A. Davis (2006)

  22. {with Alan Hodge] The Long Weekend & The Reader over Your Shoulder (2006)

  23. Goodbye to All That and Other Great War Writings, ed. Steven Trout (2007)

  24. Translating Rome: Apuleius' The Golden Ass; Lucan's Pharsalia; Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, ed. Robert Cummings (2010)

  25. [with Joshua Podro] The Nazarene Gospel Restored, ed. John Presley (2010)

Robert Graves & Joshua Podro: The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1954 / 2010)

It's a terrfiyingly ambitious project. They've republished all 14 of his historical novels; all his short stories; all of his poetry; a substantial selection of his essays, works of non-fiction and translations; as well as the most substantive of his collaborations with Laura Riding.

I'd really like to own the entire set, but one must be sensible - and, after all, I have most of the others in their original editions. The only serious deficiency in my own collection is their new edition of The Nazarene Gospel Restored (with significant revisions and additions). It seems to have gone out of print almost as soon as it was published. They do list it as "reprinting" on their website, though, so I do have hopes of being able to purchase it soon at a non-prohibitive price.

Mati Klarwein: Robert Graves (1957)

Robert Ranke Graves


  1. Graves, Robert. Over the Brazier. 1916. Poetry Reprint Series, 1. London: St. James Press / New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975.

  2. Graves, Robert. Poems 1926 to 1930. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1931.

  3. Graves, Robert. Collected Poems 1965. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1965.

  4. Graves, Robert. Poems 1968-1970. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1970.

  5. Graves, Robert. Poems: Abridged for Dolls and Princes. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1971.

  6. Graves, Robert. Collected Poems 1975. London: Cassell, 1975.

  7. Graves, Robert. Complete Poems, Volume 1. Ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward. Manchester & Paris: Carcanet & Alyscamp Press, 1995.

  8. Graves, Robert. Complete Poems, Volume 2. Ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 1997.

  9. Graves, Robert. The Complete Poems in One Volume. Ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward. 2000. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003.
  10. I have the two remaining volumes of Complete Poems on order, but haven't received them yet. Volume I is certainly impressively scholarly (if a little overwhelming), though.


  11. [Graves, Robert. My Head! My Head! Being the History of Elisha and the Shulamite Woman; with the History of Moses as Elisha related it, and her Questions put to him. London: Martin Secker, 1925.]

  12. Graves, Robert. I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius. 1934. London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1936.

  13. Graves, Robert. Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina. 1934. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1947.

  14. Graves, Robert. ‘Antigua, Penny, Puce’. 1936. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

  15. Graves, Robert. Count Belisarius. 1938. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954.

  16. Graves, Robert. Sergeant Lamb’s America: A Novel. 1940. Vintage Books. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. / Random House, Inc., 1962.

  17. Graves, Robert. Proceed, Sergeant Lamb. 1941. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1946.

  18. Graves, Robert. Wife to Mr Milton: The Story of Marie Powell. 1943. Chicago: Academy Chicago Limited, , 1979.

  19. Graves, Robert. The Golden Fleece. 1944. Pocket Library. London: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1951.

  20. Graves, Robert. The Golden Fleece. 1944. London: Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd., 1983.

  21. Graves, Robert. King Jesus. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1946.

  22. Graves, Robert. King Jesus. 1946. London: Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1983.

  23. Graves, Robert. Seven Days in New Crete: A Novel. London: Cassell & Company Limited, 1949.

  24. Graves, Robert. Seven Days in New Crete. 1949. Introduction by Martin Seymour-Smith. Twentieth-Century Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

  25. Graves, Robert. The Isles of Unwisdom. London: Readers Union / Cassell & Company Ltd., 1952.

  26. Graves, Robert. Homer's Daughter. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1955.

  27. Graves, Robert. They Hanged My Saintly Billy. 1957. A Grey Arrow. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1962.

  28. Graves, Robert. ‘Antigua, Penny, Puce’ and They Hanged My Saintly Billy. 1936 & 1957. Ed. Ian McCormick. Robert Graves Programme. Ed. Patrick J. M. Quinn. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2003.

  29. Graves, Robert. The Big Green Book. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. 1962. A Young Puffin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  30. Graves, Robert. The Siege and Fall of Troy: Retold for Young People. Illustrated by C. Walter Hodges. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1962.

  31. Graves, Robert. Collected Short Stories. 1964. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

  32. Graves, Robert. Complete Short Stories. Ed. Lucia Graves. 1995. London: Penguin, 2008.
  33. I think there are a few more children's books, and an early novel written in collaboration with Laura Riding - No Decency Left (1932), not to mention his "re-written" version of Dickens, The Real David Copperfield (1933), to collect, but otherwise I think that's all his published writing in this form.


  34. Graves, Robert. Poetic Unreason and Other Studies. London: Cecil Palmer, 1925.

  35. Graves, Robert. English and Scottish Ballads. 1927. Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. 1957. London: Heinemann, 1969.

  36. Graves, Robert. Lars Porsena, Or The Future of Swearing and Improper Language. 1927. London: Martin Brian & O'Keeffe Ltd., 1972.

  37. Graves, Robert. Lawrence and the Arabs. Illustrations ed. Eric Kennington. Maps by Herry Perry. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1927.

  38. Graves, Robert. Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography. 1929. London: Jonathan Cape, 1929.

  39. Graves, Robert. Good-bye to All That. 1929. Rev. ed. 1957. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

  40. Graves, Robert. Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography. 1929. Ed. Richard Perceval Graves. Providence, RI & Oxford, UK: Berghahn Books, 1995.

  41. Graves, Robert, & Alan Hodge. The Long Weekend: a Social History of Great Britain, 1918-1939. 1940. London: Readers’ Union Limited, 1941.

  42. Graves, Robert, & Alan Hodge. The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1943.

  43. Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. 1948. Amended and Enlarged Edition. 1961. London: Faber, 1977.

  44. Graves, Robert. The Common Asphodel: Essays on Poets and Poetry, 1922-1949. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949.

  45. Graves, Robert. Occupation: Writer. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1951.

  46. Graves, Robert, & Joshua Podro. The Nazarene Gospel Restored. London: Cassell & Company Limited, 1953.

  47. Graves, Robert. Adam’s Rib and Other Anomalous Elements in the Hebrew Creation Myth: A New View. With Wood Engravings by James Metcalf. 1955. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1958.

  48. Graves, Robert. The Crowning Privilege: The Clark Lectures 1954-55; Also Various Essays on Poetry and Sixteen New Poems. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1955.

  49. Graves, Robert. The Crowning Privilege: Collected Essays on Poetry. 1955. A Pelican Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959.

  50. Graves, Robert. Greek Myths. 1955. Rev. ed. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1958.

  51. Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. 2 vols. 1955. Rev. ed. 1958. Rev. ed. 1960. Pelican Books. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  52. Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. 2 vols. 1955. Rev. ed. 1958. Rev. ed. 1960. Introduction by Kenneth McLeish. Illustrations by Grahame Baker. 1996. London: The Folio Society, 2000.

  53. Graves, Robert. Steps: Stories; Talks; Essays; Poems; Studies in History. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1958.

  54. Graves, Robert, & Raphael Patai. Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis. 1964. An Arena book. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1989.

  55. Graves, Robert. Mammon and the Black Goddess. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1965.

  56. Graves, Robert. The Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects. 1969. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1970.

  57. Graves, Robert. Difficult Questions, Easy Answers. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1972.

  58. Graves, Robert. Collected Writings on Poetry. Ed. Paul O'Prey. Robert Graves Programme. Ed. Patrick J. M. Quinn. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited / Paris: Alyscamps Press, 1995.

  59. Graves, Robert. Some Speculations on Literature, History and Religion. Ed. Patrick Quinn. Robert Graves Programme. Ed. Patrick J. M. Quinn. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2000.

  60. Graves, Robert, & Laura Riding. Essays From 'Epilogue' 1935-1937. Ed. Mark Jacobs. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2001.
  61. This is the hardest genre of Graves-iana to collect - he wrote so many books of essays and miscellaneous non-fiction, sometimes with different titles (and even different contents) for the UK and US editions. As you can see, I have been fairly assiduous, but there are still many gaps in my holdings.


  62. Apuleius, Lucius. The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass. Trans. Robert Graves. Penguin Classics. 1950. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950.

  63. Apuleius, Lucius. The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass. Trans. Robert Graves. 1950. Rev. Michael Grant. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.

  64. Alarcón, Pedro Antonio de. The Infant with the Globe. Trans. Robert Graves. Trianon Press Limited. London: Faber, 1955.

  65. Galvan, Manuel de Jesus. The Cross and the Sword. 1882. Trans. Robert Graves. Foreword by Max Henríquez Ureña. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1956.

  66. Sand, George. Winter in Majorca. 1855. Trans. Robert Graves. With José Quadrado's Refutation of George Sand. Mallorca: Valldemosa Edition, 1956.

  67. Lucan. Pharsalia: Dramatic Incidents of the Civil Wars. Trans. Robert Graves. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956.

  68. Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Robert Graves. 1957. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

  69. Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars: An Illustrated Edition. Trans. Robert Graves. 1957. Rev. Michael Grant. Ed. Sabine McCormack. 1979. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

  70. Graves, Robert, trans. The Anger of Achilles: Homer’s Iliad. London: Cassell, 1960.

  71. Graves, Robert, & Omar Ali-Shah, trans. The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam: A New Translation with Critical Commentaries. 1967. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

  72. Graves, Robert. The Song of Songs: Text and Commentary. Illustrated by Hans Erni. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., Publisher, 1973.
  73. The only translation I'm aware of lacking is Georg Schwarz's Almost Forgotten Germany (1936). There may well be others I don't know about, though. There's a good deal of translation in some of the books on mythology.


  74. Richards, Frank. Old Soldiers Never Die. 1933. Uckfield, East Sussex: The Naval & Military Press, Ltd., 2009.

  75. Richards, Frank. Old Soldier Sahib. Introduction by Robert Graves. 1936. Uckfield, East Sussex: The Naval & Military Press, Ltd., 2009.
  76. Graves is alleged to have done a good deal of editing work on both of these books of war memoirs by "Frank Richards" (born Francis Philip Woodruff).


  77. Seymour-Smith, Martin. Robert Graves: His Life and Work. 1982. Abacus. London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1983.

  78. Graves, Robert. In Broken Images: Selected Letters 1914-1946. Ed. Paul O'Prey. London: Hutchinson, 1982.

  79. Graves, Robert. Between Moon and Moon: Selected Letters 1946-1972. Ed. Paul O'Prey. London: Hutchinson, 1984.

  80. Graves, Richard Perceval. Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895-1926. London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, 1986.

  81. Graves, Richard Perceval. Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926-1940. Viking. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1990.

  82. Graves, Richard Perceval. Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940-1985. 1995. Phoenix Giant. London: Orion Books Ltd., 1998.

  83. Seymour, Miranda. Robert Graves: Life on the Edge. 1995. Doubleday. London: Transworld Publishers Ltd., 1996.
  84. Probably the best of these biographies is Miranda Seymour's - there's no getting over the completeness and detail of Richard Perceval Graves' rather family-centred version of his uncle's life, though. Martin Seymour-Smith's is well written but (I'm told) unreliable on details. Probably the letters give the best sense of the man himself.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Agnostic vs. Atheist

Michelangelo: Creation of Adam (c.1511-12)

There was an embarrassing moment at our house this Christmas when I opened up one of my presents only to find that it was a copy of Richard Dawkins' autobiography. My mother - who is religious - made a few muttered remarks about Dawkins' general arrogance and "refusal to debate," and even my brother - who isn't - started in on poor ol' Rich.

What is it about Richard Dawkins? Why is he such a bugbear? I guess there's a certain intransigeance in his defence of the strict Darwinian party line, but it's interesting that other equally inflexible ideologues don't seem to generate the same amount of heat.

Richard Dawkins: An Appetite for Wonder (2013)

I was reading his book The God Delusion last year - "The statements was interesting, but tough," as Huckleberry Finn remarked of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress - when I had a little epiphany (so to speak).

Essentially, I suddenly understood the true meaning of the word "atheist," and the reason why people who label themselves thus are so resistant of the apparently more placatory term "agnostic."

An atheist, I'd always been taught, is someone who asserts the absolute impossibility of the existence of God. Given that providing an absolute proof of the non-existence of anything is a virtually impossible task, Thomas Huxley's compromise term "agnostic": one who simply refuses to claim definitive knowledge on the subject, had always seemed more intellectually defensible to me.

Dawkins, however, asks how many people nowadays would claim to be "agnostic" on the subject of the existence of Zeus, or Odin, or Osiris, or any other member of the traditional mythological pantheons? Not many, if any (to paraphrase our local rapper Scribe). In other words, we don't take the question seriously enough to bother with entertaining the notion that Hermes or Aphrodite might actually be hovering about, listening in on our thoughts and conversations.

They could be, mind you. It's ridiculously improbable, but not by any means impossible. So perhaps one should declare agnosticism on the question of the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction also ...

Why don't we? Because (I suspect) in these cases, at least, we don't feel that the burden of proof should lie on the unbelievers. It should lie firmly with the true believers (if there are any). If Odin is real, I'd need to see some proof of it. And it had better be pretty convincing proof.

David Hume, in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748) reminds us that "A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence." This principle has been popularised by Carl Sagan (among others) in the form: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." In the absence of that extraordinary evidence, I'm going to go on assuming that there's no Odin. I don't know there isn't - but I see no legitimate reason for postulating the possibility in the absence of really compelling evidence.

Allan Ramsay: David Hume (1711-1776)

How does this apply to the atheist / agnostic debate? Well, my epiphany (if that's what it was) consisted simply of the recognition that the term "Atheist" should be taken to apply to a default position, rather than being confused with a statement of belief.

I don't know that there's no God. But my default position is that there isn't - since no-one has yet shown me the extraordinary evidence required to substantiate such an extraordinary claim (and not for want of asking, either). Occam's razor states that "It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer": in other words, as a basic postulate of argument, one should always go for the most economical of the various hypotheses available, the one which requires fewest assumptions.

This default position seems to me best labelled "Atheism". Like a Huxleyan Agnostic, I claim no special knowledge, assert no conviction of non-existence: just as none of us bother to with Odin, Thor, Hermes and the rest. They could all be real, but there's no particular reason to suppose so. The real problem with the Huxley position, however, is that it implies an equal probability for the existence or non-existence of God (in whatever form one wants to conceptualise such a teleological being - or "law of the universe", impersonal ethical principle, etc. etc.)

I don't think that it's reasonable to see these positions as equally plausible. Given two models of the universe: one naturalistic, subject to verification by scientific experiment, and deducible from phenomena which do indeed demonstrably surround us; the other dependent on a nebulous Catch-22 notion called "faith," which by its very nature precludes the necessity (or even possibility?) of objective verification, there's really no contest for me.

History, too, is on my side in this, I'm afraid. When one looks at the number of people throughout the millennia who have claimed to have a hotline to some almighty spirit who just happens to be in accord with everything they're planning to do, while being irrevocably opposed to everything their opponents are up to, I would ask simply how many of those people you actually still believe in? The rivalry between the twin tribal deities "God" and "Gott" on the Western Front in the First World War is one classic example, amusingly outlined by Robert Graves in his war memoir Goodbye to All That.

Robert Graves: Goodbye to All That (1929)

I really don't want to be unnecessarily provocative on this subject, obviously a sensitive one. I simply want to explain why atheism is a perfectly sensible intellectual stance, and does not imply that one is automatically an adherent of a complete alternative belief system comparable to a religion. Nor, I would argue, does it involve any assertion that one is in possession of absolute proof of the non-existence of God (or any other supernatural entity, for that matter).

In the absense of convincing proofs, however, one has to position oneself somewhere. Virtually all of us moderns have already decided, willy-nilly, to take up an "atheistic" position on Ishtar, Amun-Re, Tangaroa and all the others. If you think for a moment, I think you'll acknowledge this to be so.

Why, then, should you be indignant if someone takes up the same position vis-à-vis any other belief system? You may well be making an exception in one particular case - and you might even be correct in doing so. But until you can actually prove it, can't we just continue to examine the evidence of the natural world - which should be a complex enough task to satisfy anyone?

Fantasy literature can be fun, and rewarding in many ways, but you don't have to believe in the objective existence of the Kingdom of Westeros to enjoy watching Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones (2010- )

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Ghostseer

I saw a ghost on Monday night. At least I think it was Monday night - the event is getting a little blurry now, a few days later. It might have been Sunday night, the end of mid-semester break, with the alarm clock set for the new working week, but I'm pretty sure that it was Monday.

When I say "saw a ghost," I have to admit that I was in bed at the time, and was definitely in that state of drifting in and out of sleep when most apparitions are seen. It might be better to say "I saw a hypnagogic hallucination of a woman on Monday night" instead, then.

I was lying in bed, as I say, and I saw a woman walk past the door of our room, up the corridor towards the bathroom and the stairs. My impression of her was that she had dark mid-length hair, and was wearing a trench coat or some other kind of dress coat. I think she was wearing a skirt, and had reasonably dressy shoes on too. I only saw her for a moment, though, so I could be wrong about that.

She definitely looked in at me as she passed, and I think she smiled at me - not a particularly warm or reassuring smile, as I examine it now in my mind's eye, but not a clearly threatening one either. A bit of a grimace, really.

I knew at the time that I should get up and go and check if there really was a woman in the house. The bed was very warm, though, and I felt somewhat reluctant to venture out into the cold dark hall. I did hear a few thumps and scrapes later on which (again) should probably have got me out of bed, but didn't. Such things are fairly typical in an old house built in the 1940s, anyway. It wasn't Bronwyn. I could see her lying asleep beside me.

Once before I've had a similar experience, half-waking in a motorcamp unit with the strong impression that there was a strange woman in the room, leaning over the bed. On that occasion, though, there actually was a woman (or so I conjecture). Our neighbours in the motorcamp had been having an uproarious time of it next door, and presumably this was just one of them who'd mistaken the door and walked into the wrong unit. I was wearing my earplugs to shut our the racket they were making, so it would have taken a fair amount of noise to wake me.

On this occasion, though, there's no reason to suppose that the woman was real. The front door was still snibbed with its chain next morning, and the back door was bolted. I don't have any clear guesses who she was, either. She wasn't my sister, who did die in that house: wrong hair colour, and quite a different face.

I record the event for what it's worth, then (not a lot in evidential terms). I've seen hypnagogic phenomena before in that half-asleep / half=waking state: grey cats coming at me across the bed-covers; other animals, friendly and threatening - never a person or even a human face before.

I should add that I'd been reading a book about ghosts before going to bed (Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof), so no doubt I was primed to see something. I have read an awful lot of books on that subject, though, and even slept in allegedly "haunted" houses and rooms, but there's never been so much as the hint of an apparition before - certainly nothing as clear as this.

So is our house haunted? Who can say? There's been no repetition of the sight in the nights since then, and I suspect there won't be - it was an unusually concrete dream manifestation, that's the best I can do. I have no idea why it took that particular form, though.

Woman in trench coat

[She looked something like this: only without the bag and the styly boots:
she had straighter hair, too, and her face was turned towards me]