Tuesday, 22 November 2011


The wellbeing, 'arts inclusion' event Play's The Thing yesterday was at Toynbee Hall, the organisation where John Profumo worked quietly after the Christine Keeler affair ended his more public life as Minister for War (those were the days). The organisers, Escape Artists, work with excluded groups, such as prisoners, to improve their chances of not re-offending. I opted to join the London Shakespeare Workout, led by Dr Bruce Wall, who gave us some statistics about how many people are in prisons in the UK and how much their incarceration and re-offending costs us. Bruce works all over the world, in prisons from Bangkok to Malta, at universities such as Cambridge and with directors - notably Jonathan Miller and Peter Brook.For over two hours we played games based on developing group communications, including three exercises directly based on Shakespeare. One which involved us all was shouting out at random five-footed (iambic) phrases - the rhythm favoured by Shakespeare. Three volunteers (all actors) played out a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and one other volunteer (ditto) did an exercise with Bruce himself, based on a passage from King Lear. At the end, as we were gathered round, I said how odd it was that in premises established by 19th century Church of England reformers (Toynbee Hall http://www.toynbeehall.org.uk), engaged on an exercise profoundly informed by Christian principles such as 'judge not, lest ye be judged' and 'let him who is without sin cast the first stone', the King James bible and indeed Shakespeare himself, Christianity was nowhere mentioned; the only religion mentioned on the agenda was Buddhism. There was a silence, broken by the awkward, sympathetic comment: 'faith sits better with me' - a remark that merely served to underline the curious black hole into which Christianity among the intelligentsia in general and the C of E in particular has fallen.

I'm indebted to the Writer's Almanac for alerting me to the fact that today's the birthday of pop philosopher, historian, and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht, born in Long Island in 1965. Hecht holds a Ph.D. in the history of science, a subject that fascinates her -- and simultaneously convinces her that art trumps scholarship. She inhabits each world -- teaching, studying, and publishing both poetry and historical, analytical nonfiction -- but ultimately pledges allegiance, she says, to poetry. "If you look at a testimony of love from 2,000 years ago, it can still exactly speak to you, whereas medical advice from only 100 years ago is ridiculous," she said in an interview with the Center for Inquiry. "And so as a historian, I write poetry. I'm profoundly committed to art as the answer. Indeed, I don't put science really as the way I get to any of my answers; it's just helpful. It's poetry that I look to. It's the clatter of recognition. Everybody has different ways, but I attest that poetry works pretty well."
Hecht was speaking on the topic of her latest book, called The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn't Working Today (2007), in which she argues that happiness is a phenomenon influenced far more by culture than by what we think of as scientific fact. In it, she writes: "We think our version of a happy life as more like physics than like pop songs; we expect the people of the next century, say, to agree with our basic tenets -- for instance, that broccoli is good for a happy life and that opium is bad -- but they will not. Our rules for living are more like the history of pop songs. They make their weird sense only to the people of each given time period. They aren't true."

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