The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens

Notorious atheist Christopher Hitchens has written this short volume, subtitled “Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” as a critique of the enigmatic Catholic nun that everyone knows so well – or do they? My opinion of Mother Teresa, prior to reading this book, was stereotypically positive, informed only by the TV news. I don’t like Christianity, but regardless of one’s religion (or lack thereof), it is possible to live a life of selfless devotion to others. Few of us choose that path, but if anyone shines brightly in this regard, it’s got to be Mother Teresa, right?

Wrong. Hitchens shows how Mother Teresa’s fame began with a documentary made about her Calcutta orphanage – the director insisting that he had captured the first ever miracle on camera. This miracle was the strange quality of the light within the building, which the director believed could not be explained naturally. The media ran with this, giving birth to a legend. The cameraman, who attributed the “miracle” to the quality of the new Kodak film, had no impact.

Hitchens, with painstaking research, unearths records of people who have visited Mother Teresa’s “House for the Dying.” We find a woman who, instead of attempting to improve the lives of “the poorest of the poor”, is interested first and foremost in the advancement of a religious view that makes a virtue out of suffering. While millions of dollars in donations lie dormant in accounts, she insists on maintaining strictly ascetic living conditions, not only for the nuns of her order, but for all her patients. Dying men are not allowed a simple comfort like watching TV or receiving visitors. People languish in pain without freely available painkillers. There was a particularly horrific case of a fifteen-year-old whose life could have been saved if he had been taken to hospital to receive proper medical care, but this was not permitted. “They would all want it,” was the excuse.

Meanwhile Mother Teresa is immune to criticism from a media that fails to inquire deeply enough. Her actions are judged by her reputation, rather than her reputation being judged by her actions. Instead of being a compassionate person, she is motivated first and foremost by the advancement of her religious order.

It’s hard to argue against Hitchens’ dark depiction. From now on, when I think of the word “humanitarian,” it won’t be Mother Teresa’s face that comes to mind.


The Essential Jung by Carl G. Jung (edited by Anthony Storr)

jungcg-essentialjungCarl Jung, who is known for an approach to psychology known as psychoanalysis, was a very prolific writer. It would be nearly impossible for the interested reader to collect every volume he wrote, so Anthony Storr has put together this 400-page compendium of excerpts in an attempt to give the reader a comprehensive overview of Jung’s concepts. Some of these are: the idea of the unconscious, archetypes, and dream analysis.

I won’t kid you; I found this a difficult book, so difficult that my reading time spanned several years. Many of Jung’s ideas seem wildly abstract and speculative. However, there is definitely something interesting here, at least in part.

Jung coined the term “unconscious,” recognising that our minds contain information that we are not always aware of. This is undoubtedly true from experience. He also uses the term “collective unconscious.” This is sometimes misunderstood as a unified consciousness (in a mystical, metaphysical sense), but what Jung really meant was that our minds contain inherited information from the past – such as our natural fear of fierce animals. The common childhood fear of monsters may have its roots in our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ very real conflicts with wild beasts. This fear is collective in the sense that we all inherited it. Jung intended nothing spiritual or paranormal by the term “collective unconscious.”

Related to the collective unconscious is the idea of “archetypes” – recurring images in dreams that can be spotted across a multiplicity of cultures, hinting again at the notion of a collective inheritance. Jung named certain archetypes as anima, animus and the shadow. I found a lot of this material confusing, because I can find very little correspondence in my own experience. I do like the idea of the shadow, as a way of identifying the unsavoury aspects of our personality that we try to repress because they’re socially unacceptable. I can relate to that. But it’s important to realise that the shadow is not a thing, not an entity – just an idea, a way of representing an aspect of human experience in language. In man’s more primal prehistory, he probably wouldn’t have had a shadow, because he would have been more at one with his natural instincts, without the pressure of civilisation’s often unnatural ideals on his head.

Jung puts a lot of stock on dream interpretation – in therapy, using dreams as signposts to the root of a personality problem. From personal experience, I would say this can sometimes be the case, but more often than not my dreams are full of playful nonsense. How does a therapist avoid placing massive significance in an aspect of a dream that might be completely random?

Jung is essentially a mythologist of the psyche, in the way that ancient man was a mythologist about the material world – inventing a pantheon of gods and goddesses behind the forces of nature. Some of the words invented by Jung (such as unconscious, introvert, extravert) are still in common use today, which is a testament to his insight. Although this is a useful book, for me personally it was one that I had to laboriously dig through to find the nuggets of gold.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegutk-slaughterhouse5I started reading this novel because of its status as a classic, but I must confess I knew nothing about its theme. As the story got underway, I had the distinct feeling that this was going to be a thoroughly depressing tale about reflections on the horror of war. Not my cup of tea. Imagine my surprise when the story made a weird tangent into Twilight Zone territory. The narrator, Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time. What I mean is, one second he could be in the trenches of World War II, and the next he could be cuddling up to the woman he married after the war. Two days after that, he could be on exhibit in an extraterrestrial zoo, where he spent some time after being abducted by aliens. Then he might be back in the war. He has no control over what point in time his consciousness leaps into, or when these jumps are going to occur, but his weird condition gives him a perspective on time that allows him to see “the present” as more than just a single knife-edge that exists at only one point in time and is always racing forward. His alien captors, the Tralfamadorians, live in four dimensions all at once, seeing every moment of time as the present. When events happen, good or bad, their reaction is always “So it goes.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is a war story, an absurdist science fiction tale, and also an entertaining philosophy text on the nature of time – which might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is definitely mine. As someone interested in esoteric knowledge, I had my own eureka moment about time a few years ago. It’s a real delight when I’m reading a story and the author lets me know that we’re both privy to a life-enriching secret: the idea that no matter when you are in time, you’re always in the present.