The teenaged members of the household are all about the Marvel Cinematic Universe – so discussion of Ragnarok and Thor occasionally comes up. This got me thinking more about the origin stories for Thor, Loki and Odin. And down a rabbit hole I went. Firstly I binged 15 hours of Wagner’s Ring Cycle via Youtube. The Ring Cycle led to watching the rest of the Wagner operas and reading Wagner commentaries from Alex Ross and Roger Scruton. Wanting to know more about Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree, Sleipnir the 8-legged horse of Odin (Wotan) and Odin’s ravens Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) I went back to the Eddas, Sagas and the Nibelunglied. Along the way I took in Tolkien’s version of the the story of Sigurd and Gudrun. Noting some of the other sources for Wagner I then pivoted to Grail Lore and the Arthurian Romances, Parsifal. Along the way I also came across Arab tourist guides of the Rus lands – encounters with Vikings.
Some themes in these ancient and not so ancient texts:
- beware rings that bestow absolute power
- enchanted swords should also be handled carefully
- also keep an invisibility cloak or identity transforming helmet available on your adventures
- it is surprisingly easy to masquerade as a woman’s lover under the cover of darkness
- identity theft and identity non-disclosure ends badly
- the hero dies
- the heroine dies
- family: can’t live with them and can’t live without them
- avoid garrisoning yourself in a flammable building
- don’t make deals with tricksters and wise men
Of course there was more than this including more serious themes about power, lover and desire but the list propels the action.
I attempted to listen to a Piano Sonata everyday of the year and did so until August when Primephonic was taken over by Apple with promises of a new Apple classical music offering coming soon – in 2022. Primephonic was a fantastic classical streaming music service. It was so good because of its’ search function. You could search for a specific composer and composition and see literally every recording and how many recordings existed of a particular piece. The use of information/metadata about a classical piece on Apple Music and Spotify is incredibly poor. They also had great customer service – making timely corrections to the recording information when I notified them. Hopefully the new service will be up and running soon. Until the service shut I posted the daily sonata to Facebook and Twitter.
I came across a number of Jordan Peterson YouTube discussions with various psychologists and researchers including Brian C. Muraresku, Scott Barry Kaufman, and John Vervaeke. Muraresku and Kaufman discussed their work on transcendent experience but from quite different perspectives. Muraresku has written (see below) on the role of psychedelics in Ancient Greek ritual at Eleusis and how they were initially incorporated into the early Christian experiences. I love the ancient saying “If you don’t die before you die, you die when you die”. Kaufman approaches transcendence more from the the perspective of an update and further development of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I went on to read about recent research in psychadelics and transcendent, life-changing experience. The endgame hear literally is death and the failure to accept mortality – something I routinely come across in my occupation as a cancer specialist.
The John Vervaeke discovery was the real find of the year. I have finished all 50 episodes of John Vervaeke’s YouTube series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – whilst I used the rowing machine. This series concerns the rediscovery of the ability to make meaning in life (not the meaning of life) and living in the being mode not the having mode. It traverses historical themes, philosophy, some theology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, theories of wisdom, developmental psychology and principally cognitive science. There is a great supplementary video on the theory of zombies. I highly recommend this series which is a mini-course in mostly Western Civilisation but also strong reference to non-theistic religions of the East and their relevance to meaning making. A number of the books I read in the second half of the year are recommended through the series. The videos are on Youtube and the transcripts are here [https://www.meaningcrisis.co].
A reading list is here [https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/149801.John_Vervaeke_s_Awakening_From_the_Meaning_Crisis].
In the end Vervaeke doesn’t seem explicit about how to overcome the meaning crisis. I think this is in part because he hasn’t definitively solved the problem or at least he doesn’t wan’t to claim to have: he is very modest and self-deprecating but also as a philosopher he is loath to claim to know the truth, especially when a lot of what he discusses is the work of others. He also has the issue of distinguishing between the meaning crisis at the level of the individual and the level of society. With respect to the former he seems to advocate for the creation of flow states as per the work of Csiksentmihalyi and to create autopoetic states – to recreate the being mode. I extrapolate synergies with Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus – To Be – and also the need to accept (the) absurdity (meaninglessness) by being . At a societal level his problem is that he has provided a detailed explanation of how religion has failed to provide the meaning it once did and that it cannot revive itself and yet a community of people must embrace a religion-like ‘thing’ to overcome the meaning crisis. He hints at a non-theistic path. He has much more to watch and read beyond the series so I expect conclusions will be better articulated over time.
Aside from the above I threw in some history and political reading around China and climate change. I strongly recommend The Good Ancestor (see the reading list). For ‘lighter’ entertainment I read feminist fiction reinterpretations of the Homeric poems. These were fine and I don’t think fall into the work identified in Cynical Theories (see the reading list). Cynical Theories calls out, but doesn’t quite cancel, the problems of the extreme left views in educational institutions – reflecting the issue that some (not enough) commentators are making that both the extreme right and the extreme left use identity inappropriately and to no good end.
That wasn’t all I heard, watched, read but it’s enough to blog about. Now I need to go make some resolutions….
The 2021 Reading List
- Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World. Fareed Zakaria.
- Venus and Aphrodite: History of a Goddess. Bettany Hughes.
- Theogeny. Hesiod translated by Barry Powell.
- The Offense of Love: Are Amatoria, Remedia Amoris and Tristia 2. Ovid translated by Julia Dyson Hejduk.
- Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Alex Ross.
- The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioural Science. Cass Sunstein.
- The Story of China. Michael Wood.
- The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun. J.R.R Tolkien.
- Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why this Harms Everybody. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay.
- The Ring of the Nibelung. Richard Wagner translated by John Deathridge.
- Beowolf. Translated by Maria Dahvana Headley.
- The Ring of Truth. Roger Scruton.
- Circe. Madeleine Miller.
- Norse Mythology. Neil Gaiman.
- Sagaland: The island of stories at the edge of the world. Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason.
- The Prose Edda. Snorri Sturluson translated by Jesse Byock.
- The Saga of the Volsungs. Unknown translated by Jesse Byock.
- The Nibelungenlied – The Lay of the Nibelungs. Unknown translated by Cyril Edwards.
- The Song of Achilles. Madeline Miller.
- Ngal’s Saga. Translated by Robert Cook.
- The Norse Myths: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes Vividly Retold. Dr Tom Birkett.
- Sir Gwain and the Green Knight. Translated by Bernard O’Donoghue.
- Doom – The Politics of Catastrophe. Niall Ferguson.
- The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power. Niall Ferguson.
- Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Edda and Sagas. Jon Karl Helgason.
- Tristan, with the ’Tristram’ of Thomas. Gottfried von Strasburg.
- The Hero with the Thousand Faces. Joseph Campbell.
- Foundation. Isaac Asimov.
- Mauve – How one man invented a colour that changed the world. Simon Garfield.
- The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Neil Price.
- Voices of History: Speeches that changed the world. Simon Sebag Montefiore.
- Arthurian Romances. Chretien de Troyes translated by William Kibler and Carleton Carroll.
- Written in History: Letters that Changed the World. Simon Sebag Montefiore.
- Parzival. Wolfram von Eschenbach translated by Arthur Thomas Hatto.
- The Pandemic Century: A history of global contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19. Mark Honigsbaum.
- Ibn Fadlan and the Land if Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. Ibn Fadlan translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone.
- How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychadelics. Michael Pollan.
- The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name. Brian C. Muraresku.
- Abelard & Heloise: The Letters and Other Writings. Translated by William Levitan.
- Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. Jordan Peterson.
- Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. Scott Barry Kaufman.
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi.
- Transformative Experience. L.A. Paul.
- How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need. Bill Gates.
- The Dhammapada. Translated by Valerie J. Roebuck.
- The Good Ancestor. How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World. Roman Krznaric.
- The Digital Silk Road: China’s Quest to Wite the World and Win the Future. Johnathan E. Hillman.
- Utzon and the Sydney Opera House. Daryl Dellora.
- The Harbour: A city’s heart, a country’s soul. Scott Bevan.
- Mortals. How the fear of death shaped human society. Rachel E. Menzies and Ross G. Menzies
- The Myth of Sisyphus. Albert Camus.
- The History of Philosophy. A.C. Grayling.