The Big Five

So we here at CoG have all decided to write a post where we talk about five major influences on our thinking. Since this is a blog about Christianity in no small part, we added the degree of difficulty that Jesus is off limits. I don’t pretend that any of what I write should be considered as the definitive commentaries on these authors. Moreover I would not take this as a “required reading” list as much as I would a sort of intellectual autobiography – I wanted these to be authors who had changed my thinking in one way or another. Now that the caveats are out of the way, here goes:

dostoevsky11. Fyodor Dostoevsky: I don’t think there’s anything new or original that I can add to what has been said about Dostoevsky. Probably inferior to Tolstoy as a conventional novelist – but that’s not at all what he was trying for – at least I don’t think it was. Again to say that Dostoevsky’s grasp of human nature was profound seems cliche. Nonetheless like most people who encounter Dostoevsky for the first time in their late teens or early 20s, I was quite struck by these same observations. His characters are so real and yet so unreal – Shakespearian perhaps? Unlike so many artists who experience a religious conversion, Dostoevsky never got maudlin or sentimental. He did not spare the church or the faithful in his works. His observations on the human condition defy reduction the way those of a good writer should. I’ll end with one of my favourites:

“As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.”

2. Naomi Klein‘s No Logo: I know thisnologo book can feel stuck in the late-90s zeitgeist in which it was written. Why put it down on list of books that influence me? So here’s my case for Naomi Klein: In 2000 when I read No Logo my political sympathies were different than they are now – I thought that Mike Harris conservatism was a superb way to run a government – low taxes and laissez faire policies would let business improve everything on its own. The lasting effect of No Logo on my thinking has little to do with the whole “battle of Seattle” culture-jamming moment of its release (No Logo itself didn’t put too much stock in that kind of street theatre as a way to remake society). Rather it has given me an abiding suspicion of free markets – mainly because this book made it clear to me how much global corporations actually seek to use their power to undermine free markets. Changing the world is perhaps best done outside of both corporate and government structures as much as possible – a thesis that Klein would further develop in her film, The Take.

zizek23. Slavoj Žižek is a difficult one to argue for on this list since I’d never read anything by him until, say, about a year ago. That said, a lot of what Žižek says seems to have already colonized my thinking.

Here’s what I think I’ve learned from him: Žižek illuminates the falsehoods of those who claim that they are non-ideological or post-ideological. Such claims, according to Žižek, are nothing but attempts to smuggle in some kind of a priori ideology and silence critics by accusing them of being the ones who are ideological. Žižek also does a superb job of arguing that modern New Age movements are stalking horses for class-society and oppression. By appealing for harmony and inner peace such groups are really trying to get people to acquiesce to a system that Christians and Marxists can both see (albeit perhaps for not all the same reasons) as oppressive. In fact, Žižek believes that both groups are natural allies against the New Age since both teach that real transformation is possible in this world (as opposed to some immaterial underlying spiritual realm). Related to this refusal to acquiesce to the New Age’s harmonious world perhaps is Žižek’s analysis of violence. Acts of subjective violence: riots, terrorism, assassinations are carried out by individuals or groups that transgress the state’s rules. Meanwhile the state possesses the tools of objective violence, the violence of the system – police, army, prison system, et cetera. Since most of us take these powers of state for granted, these constitute a sort of “background” violence. Transgressing the state is violent, but often so is acquiescing to the state – this is a challenge to pacifism – Christian and otherwise in that our choice is often between different kinds of violence.

4. Robertson Davies was a surprise pick – to me at least, and I’m making the list! He’s the second author on thisDavies, Robertson list who is primarily known for his fiction, though I would argue that he’s the reason that there are fiction authors on this list at all. As a fiction author Davies captured that uniquely Canadian sense of being on the outside looking in at other people’s lives (Fifth Business). The entire Deptford Trilogy explores the idea that there are multiple narratives that apply to any story and that we almost inevitably tell our stories based around a narrative that centers on us – even when we, like Ramsay, try not to do so. From World of Wonders:

“Look at what the politicians write about themselves! Churchill and Hitler and all the rest of them seem suddenly to be secondary figures surrounding Sir Numbskull Poop, who is always in the limelight.”

The Lacanian idea that we are always telling stories about ourselves is something that gets explored in Fifth Business without all that Lacanian language. Stories and myths are of great importance in The Merry Heart, a collection of Davies’ works on writing. This gave me an abiding respect for myth as word that does not refer to a falsehood in need of “busting,” but rather one that denotes the narrative that explains us.

Taylor_Secular_comp5. Charles Taylor‘s book A Secular Age seems like a difficult one to justify being on this list. I mean, it’s only two years old and I only finished it a couple months ago. Nonetheless, Taylor’s conception of what it means to live in a “secular age” and his charting of Western society as it moves from the late medieval period through to the 21st Century is remarkable. Taylor dispenses with the typical “subtraction stories” that claim that the development of secularism and of an exclusive materialism was merely a process of taking away progressive layers of superstition. The story of how we came to be living in our current age is far more interesting and far more nuanced than most of us have been led to believe. As far as how this book has affected me, I think part of that still has to be determined. A Secular Age re-invigorated my passion for history – particularly the history of philosophy. I don’t know where that will lead, maybe I’ll revisit this one in a couple years.

So there you have my list, I’ll tag Andrew and Keith to go next.