By Jerry Alatalo
r. James Boswell, editor at wall of controversy here on WordPress, has kindly agreed to accept an invitation to take part in our recently initiated interview series. Mr. Boswell is the 9th person thus far to generously share their perceptions in response to five fundamental questions we pose by way of an interview format. His distinct and remarkable set of insights builds upon, and shares the qualitative aspect with, those eight men and women preceding him in the series: that of provoking deeper, broader, and creative thinking on the varied ways human beings have perceived life on Earth.
Thank you James Boswell for sharing your unique and valuable perceptions, found in the following words.
Question 1: What was your primary motivation for entering the world of blogging – the internet?
The brief answer is that after years of insouciance following the end of the Cold War, I had a rude awakening upon realising where we were actually heading: the perpetual wars, the rise in surveillance, the hardening of the police state, allied to a correspondent immiseration of our already fractured and terribly unequal Western societies. After the initial trauma (trauma is really no exaggeration), I felt the need to speak out and the internet provided a platform. This is half of the story.
The other half is that I had been in the midst of writing a book when a friend suggested posting up chapters by way of a blog. Purely as a test run we set up a WordPress website and uploaded a short travelogue about my adventures in Tanzania. I kept the travelogue and began adding articles about current affairs and this is how the blog steadily evolved. Eight years on, the book (a quirky, stream-of-consciousness treatise on life, the universe and making things better!) remains a work in progress, and though some of its chapters have since been uploaded, I devoted my spare time instead to expanding the main content of the blog, which is journalistic, since this seemed a far more urgent project.
Question 2: How would you describe yourself with regard to spirituality?
Throughout most of my youth I was an ardent atheist. At university I studied physics and this early venture into hard science was no doubt an unconscious bid to prove the solid existential truth of a godless and soulless universe. It never occurred to me there might be viable alternatives to the bleak materialist worldview I had embraced. Metaphysics, I once joked (playing on a line from John Lennon), was just Greek for codswallop. But jokes of this kind were lame attempts to laugh off an unspoken dread.
Although belief in secular materialism (and it is a belief) means contemplation of the abyss, this seemingly courageous act deliberately avoids a worse terror waiting patiently beneath in the form of more astonishing depths of an ultimately unknowable unknown. After all, it is not the lack of light that makes anyone afraid of the dark, but what might be lurking unseen. And so, as with any adopted religious creed, atheism provided me with solace by chasing the darkness away. Yet this felt like a cheat, because it is one. The fact is that all suppositions of ultimate truth – whether comparatively sophisticated or otherwise – obstruct your worldview and cloud your judgment.
Spirituality is a funny word, however, and claiming to be “a spiritual person” always sounds a bit naff to me. What it means, I think, is that you have a religious longing (a god-shaped hole) but that religion has such a diabolical reputation, justifiably so, that you need to distance yourself from anything so moralising, so authoritarian, and so drenched in superstition. All these aspects of orthodox religion I detest of course and also find similar self-righteousness lingering in so many corners of the self-declared “new age” along with bountiful helpings of alternative mumbo jumbo.
Nevertheless, these days I am happier to say I am ‘spiritual’ (or even ‘religious’ – why should labels matter much?) if only because I no longer cling to the reductionist dogmas of scientific materialism. It is perhaps truer to say I’m a confessed agnostic! Appreciation of the wonder of life and the wider mystery of existence is more straightforward once the limits to human comprehension are firmly acknowledged. I might even venture so far as to say that I have a modicum of faith, but faith in what exactly?
This is such a huge and involved question that I am tempted to stop there. The greater half of the world’s finest literature devotes itself to matters of this kind, and effing the ineffable is the province of the great poets and other artists. But I will add just one last (albeit extended) point about an often overlooked aspect of ‘spirituality’ and how it relates to self-awareness.
Most of us go about our daily lives thoughtlessly presuming we possess autonomous free will. We presume indeed that all humans and possibly other creatures possess the same freedom to think and act at will. That is, we ordinarily presume we are not total zombies. This is an everyday act of faith. It is also the root to anything we might ever describe as ‘spirituality’.
Science sidelines free will as ‘a perception’; as if it doesn’t actually exist. Hard-boiled scientism goes so far as to actually deny the possibility of free will outright. Yet those who solemnly subscribe to this surprising opinion do not refrain from casting their own moral judgements. They congratulate, chastise and even punish behaviour (their own included) that is purportedly predetermined – I suppose praise and punishment do aid in the reprogramming of future behaviour!
The point is that we overlook many such minor everyday miracles. A whole gaggle of academic disciplines, taking their lead from science (which merely ignores the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness out of convenience), will tie themselves in knots by rejecting its priority. Surely it makes far better sense to celebrate consciousness and free will. Consciousness is the most blatantly obvious faculty distinguishing human beings from viruses, bricks and plastic waste. (Being merely “a carbon-based life form” just doesn’t cut the mustard!)
Without consciousness there would be no science; no world that is ever experienced. And being free agents makes us the architects of our own destinies. It also means accepting responsibility for what we do and don’t do. The Golden Rule is its unavoidable corollary. But then without kindness and respect for fellow creatures, claims to being “a spiritual person” are very hollow ones in any case. When the poet Philip Larkin realised he had accidentally killed a hedgehog after mowing the lawn he wrote “Of each other, we should be kind/ While there is still time.” In one sense there is nothing more spiritual than Larkin’s heartfelt sentiment.
So I suppose the problem with lofty words like ‘spirituality’ is that they have a tendency distract us. They carry us outwards toward the heavens or else inwards to contemplate our navels and this rather misses the point. The point itself is eternally here and now and often deceptively mundane.
Question 3: What were some of the most memorable transforming points across the years (world events, books, personal contacts, mystical experiences, etc.) in the developing of your current spiritual perspective?
Some of this background is already told above although I have forgotten to mention how my doubts about secular materialism were first seeded by two very close undergraduate friends; one of whom today works as a professor at CERN. Although both are physicists too, these friends are also Christians of different Protestant denominations. The coup de grace, however, came a little later, and mostly thanks to a poet and self-described pagan anarchist who I met as a postgraduate, and who introduced me to the joys of reading as well as to completely unfamiliar modes of thinking and being.
We soon embarked on a sort of spiritual journey together, which happened for many reasons, not least of which my friend’s scholarly interest in Jung and his consonant fascination with dreams. Regarding shared adventures, the term ‘mystical’ is befitting of more than a few occasions, the lasting effect of these remarkable experiences greatly amplified by a growing interest in literature on the subject. The strange collision of otherwise tangential life trajectories has always seemed fated to me. The friendship remains a cherished one.
It is a terrible cliché to include Aldous Huxley among any list of authors who helped to shape one’s spiritual outlook, but I must add his name because for a decade at least I read his works over and over. Later I became obsessed with Alan Watts (another cliché!). In between I began reading some of the canonical texts of the non-Abrahamic faiths and eastern philosophies. The traditional writings that still inspire me today are mostly those from Daoism and Zen Buddhist (sorry to be so predictable). Other significant influences include the poetry of Blake and Eliot; the visionary films of Tarkovsky; and more philosophical works such as, for instance, a lesser known book by psychologist and pragmatist philosopher, William James, titled “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. In this book, James distils the most concise and straightforward account of why atheism is unsatisfactory that I have read. His great advantage is that he writes as a genuine agnostic.
Question 4: What is your greatest wish for readers as a consequence after reading and considering your writings?
As a writer, the prime motivation is always a hope somehow to impel readers to think new thoughts. On the blog, where writing is largely journalistic, my general aim is simply to correct widespread falsehoods and to challenge received opinion, whether by appealing to reason or to the reader’s conscience. In fact the strapline to my website is “the other side of the story” and this is what I have consistently tried to present whilst taking pains to ensure that all stated facts are established ones and these are comprehensively referenced. The MSM generally misleads the public by omission more than anything else and so one of my lasting objectives has been to join up the dots from mainstream sources.
I am entirely candid about my own leftist political persuasion although very often I hope to write for people who have a different political outlook from my own. Party political conversion has never been a conscious aim, but it would be disingenuous to deny any wish to shift the readers’ political awareness in more fundamental ways. And it is nice to think that a few visitors to my site will take as much trouble considering why they disagree with me or else chasing down relevant facts that contradict the ones supporting my argument, as I did when writing it. Polite comments are always gratefully received even if I don’t reply.
Question 5: Can you offer any advice to people having a difficult time dealing with government and media lies, especially as it pertains to so many average citizens who hold erroneous perceptions on important events and situations around the Earth?
Aldous Huxley was fond of imagining that rather than windows open to the world, our senses instead operated as filters that narrowed the bandwidth on what we might perceive. I remain unsure of whether this notion carries much validity even in the mystical sense he intended, but it certainly provides an elegant metaphor for the role of the media, which ought to be society’s eyes and ears but instead provides a valve that inhibits the flow of too much dangerous information. This should not surprise us. After all the press isn’t free but bought and paid for a thousand times (to quote Gore Vidal). And the internet, once a refuge for genuinely independent journalism, is now undergoing a rapid shutdown as I write this. The gatekeepers on this occasion are the tech giants. For all its faults (the propaganda, misinformation and blind hatred that will always be the greater part of any truly open media platform) we should organise to save net neutrality before the internet becomes nothing more than a vast shopping mall and surveillance hub.
More personally, as my own worldview split away from the permitted mainstream narrative, I found that the instinctual refusal to let matters rest was having detrimental effects on my happiness and even my health. Not only was this leading me into a pit of my own despair but I was suddenly falling out with family and friends, and, as this vicious circle intensified, I felt more isolated and disempowered than ever. The blog turned out to be a godsend. It provided an invaluable outlet for expressing otherwise pent up fear and rage. Perhaps more curiously, the process of writing was enabling me to better handle my justified anxieties about the future. Trite as it sounds: action can indeed conquer fear.
One answer to your question therefore, maybe the most direct advice I can offer for anyone struggling on a psychological level, is to engage more directly in the fight against your oppressors. Participate actively in a pressure group for a cause you wholeheartedly believe in. Or organise a new campaign group. Meanwhile, those of us who are happier sat behind a desk might use this small and tightening window of opportunity provided by the internet to get our message out. Importantly, it is not that one person’s actions will change the world (of course to some degree all actions do), but that you are able to find a way to stop the world adversely changing you.
One last thought is this: if after scrupulous research, certain of the facts (facts you have independently verified so far as possible), you arrive at a position that is in direct contradiction to received mainstream opinion, it is better not to use your new found knowledge to assail unwitting opponents. The temptation to spread the message can be a forceful one, and the sense of urgency is often extreme. But it is disrespectful to force unpalatable truths on people ill-prepared to receive them. Rattling their cage will not release them from it. On the other hand, when challenged on the matter in question we should always try to hold firm to the facts. “When the truth is replaced by silence,” wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “the silence is a lie.” I thank John Pilger for providing the quote, the finest investigative journalist alive today.
Thank you again, James Boswell. Peace.