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Iain McGilchrist And Uvalde

Blockbuster new book by famed psychiatrist and cultural critic helps us understand our civilizational demoralization and impotence
Iain McGilchrist And Uvalde

Hello from Budapest. I had planned to fly to Vienna later this week with my son Matt, but when I called American Airlines last Friday to see if I could use miles to upgrade to the next class of service, I discovered that they had no record of me buying a ticket for myself. The error, alas, was mine. There were no seats left on Matt’s flight. The only way I could get to Austria before Matt, or on the same day as Matt, was to fly to Budapest early, spend a couple of days with friends, then take the train. Which is what I’m doing. A First World Problem if ever there was one! But at least I have the gift of being able to visit Budapest friends.

On the flight over, I finally finished one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read, or could ever hope to read: The Matter With Things, by Iain McGilchrist. It’s quite long — I don’t know how many pages it is (I bought it on Kindle), but the book itself, in two volumes, weighs 7.44 pounds — and it requires dedication, but it is hard to overstate the rewards of this book. I have been writing about it at length on my Substack newsletter, and will be devoting more attention to it there in the coming days.

How to describe it? First, if you’re interested in McGilchrist’s work — he’s a psychiatrist, neuroscience researcher, and cultural critic — go to his website, Channel McGilchrist, where you can read lots more, and watch videos. The Matter With Things is a book about brain hemispheres, the nature of matter, and how we know the things we know. On the Channel McGilchrist web page for the book, it says:

The Matter With Things, the new 2-volume book from the author of the widely acclaimed The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (over 100,000 copies sold worldwide).

  • Is the world essentially inert and mechanical – nothing but a collection of things for us to use?
  • Are we ourselves nothing but the playthings of chance, embroiled in a war of all against all?
  • Why, indeed, are we engaged in destroying everything that is valuable to us?

In this landmark new book, Iain McGilchrist addresses some of the oldest and hardest questions humanity faces – ones that, however, have a practical urgency for all of us today:

  • Who are we?

  • What is the world?

  • How can we understand consciousness, matter, space and time?

  • Is the cosmos without purpose or value?

  • Can we really neglect the sacred and divine?

In doing so, he argues that we have become enslaved to an account of things dominated by the brain’s left hemisphere, one that blinds us to an awe-inspiring reality that is all around us, had we but eyes to see it. He suggests that in order to understand ourselves and the world we need science and intuition, reason and imagination, not just one or two; that they are in any case far from being in conflict; and that the brain’s right hemisphere plays the most important part in each. And he shows us how to recognise the ‘signature’ of the left hemisphere in our thinking, so as to avoid making decisions that bring disaster in their wake.

Following the paths of cutting-edge neurology, philosophy and physics, he reveals how each leads us to a similar vision of the world, one that is both profound and beautiful – and happens to be in line with the deepest traditions of human wisdom.

It is a vision that returns the world to life, and us to a better way of living in it: one we must embrace if we are to survive.

Prof. Ronan Sharkey of the Institut Catholique in Paris, writing in The Tablet, said:

In a new book of remarkable inspiration and erudition, a retired consultant psychiatrist who lives on the Isle of Skye argues that we have become enslaved by an account of ‘things’ dominated by the brain’s left hemisphere, blinding us to an awe-inspiring reality that is all around us

Though not quite yet a household name, Iain McGilchrist is leading a quiet but far-reaching revolution in the understanding of who we are as human beings, one with potentially momentous consequences for many of the preoccupations – from ecology and health care to economics and artificial intelligence – that weigh on our present and darken our future. Not the least surprising aspect of this revolution is that it began in poetry and has now achieved its most complete expression in a monumental two-volume work, The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, just published, that ends in a form of undogmatic and heterodox theology.

I’m not sure how heterodox the theology is, but no matter. Sharkey is right: this is a BIG book, in every sense of the word. As I reached its final pages, I read this passage. I had to screenshot them from the Kindle version, so you’ll need to read them in slightly unusual order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s repeat the key line:

Indeed, if you had set out to destroy the happiness and stability of a people, it would have been hard to improve on our current formula: remove yourself as far as possible from the natural world; repudiate the continuity of your culture; believe you are wise enough to do whatever you happen to want and not only get aways with it, but have a right to it — and a right to silence those who disagree; minimise the role played by a common body of belief; actively attack and dismantle every social structure as a potential source of oppression; and reject the idea of a transcendent set of values.

About the “current formula” in that last, long sentence, I thought about Uvalde. And I thought about this great Bethel McGrew essay from her Substack, titled “There Are No Solutions”. Excerpt:

“We have to do something.”

“WE have to do something.”

“We have to do SOMETHING.”

Every single time.

And every single time, I ask, “Okay. Who is ‘we’? And what is ‘something’? And what exactly do you mean by ‘have to’?”

Less than two weeks ago, “we” were white Americans. Or white evangelical Americans, to be more specific, depending on which channels you were tuned into. And “something” was recognizing that we are all complicit in white supremacy. Or something.

This week, the Discourse shifted (because the latest evil psychopath to hijack the news cycle happened to be not-white), so now “we” are just Americans, and “something” is just agreeing with everyone’s half-baked hot takes on gun control. To prove that we care. Or something.

Of course, I could play this game too. I could say that if we’re going to talk about this sort of thing in terms of Grand Unifying Narratives, we could at least take the “How COVID-19 restrictions ruined at least as many lives as they might have saved” narrative for a test-drive. We know the Buffalo shooter first fell down the rabbit-hole of propaganda while trawling forums like 4chan in “extreme boredom” during lockdown. We know the Uvalde killer had become estranged from his father because the father spent the year prior minimizing contact to protect his elderly mother, who had cancer. So, this wouldn’t be hard. The problem is that like all Grand Unifying Narratives, it would be too easy, and so I’m not going there, because I’m not a hack.

Meanwhile, a few salient facts: In this country, we already have mandatory background checks. In this country, we already have bans on firearm ownership for felons, domestic abusers, and persons with specific mental health issues. In this country, we already have states (like California) that will not even allow you to transport a gun with ammunition in it. In this country, we already have cities (like New York) with restrictions so severe that the only people freely carrying and using guns are people willing to break the laws we already have.

We have laws. We have laws on laws on laws.

Now, it’s easy to go after the left in these moments, but this week has also provided opportunities for right-of-center disillusionment, as appalling details continue to emerge about the on-duty cops who stood down for nearly an hour while the massacre was ongoing. There’s no polite way to say this: While little children played dead, called 911 and begged for help, the good guys with guns did not do what the good guys with guns are supposed to do. They will have the rest of their lives to think about that, unless they despair and kill themselves sooner (which I’ve seen some people unironically suggest—as a periodic reminder, don’t do this, it’s bad for your soul).

Of course, in the end it was still a good guy with a gun who actually did his job and ended it all. So no, this case does not shatter the “good guy with a gun narrative,” as some have suggested. It simply means there are fewer good guys willing to bring their guns to a real gunfight than we all want to believe.

So, here we all are all over again, having to admit all over again what nobody wants to admit: There is no magical cure for the scourge of school shooting. There is no SOMETHING that WE can all be forced, collectively, to do. There are no solutions.

She is certainly not saying that we should throw up our hands and do nothing! What she is saying is that we are lying to ourselves when we comfort ourselves with the thought that if we just passed this law or implemented that policy fix or funded this government program, then these things wouldn’t happen.

It seems to me that she is making a point complementary to Dr. McGilchrist’s: that we have created a culture and indeed a civilization that produces unhappy, unstable people, and provides them with the means to stay hidden from the rest of us, and to inflict mass murder.

Before I left the US, I spoke at length to a conservative friend who lives in Northern Virginia and works at a senior level of the bureaucracy emanating from the Imperial City. He was telling me about how much worse the rot is at the elite level of US culture than normal people realize. I can’t give details without risking revealing too much about his work, but he was talking about seriously Orwellian levels of totalitarian dismantling of our sense of reality, imposed on the rest of us by elites, such as those in his workplace. Live Not By Lies tells the truth about what’s going on, he said — and this is a man who is in a position to know a lot more than most. In fact, he despairs that so many normie conservatives in America are so bound and determined to console themselves that it’s not all that bad, that we are still in some sense in normal times, that they won’t stand up and defend themselves, their culture, and their children. They are so terrified of facing reality, and so afraid of being thought ill of by others, that they are standing in the hallway, so to speak, allowing their children’s future to be murdered.

Iain McGilchrist’s book is not remotely a book about policy or politics, and it’s only about religion in a phenomenological sense (that is, “what is religion, and what does it have to contribute to our knowledge of reality and how to live in it?”. But the things that book talks about are things that we are going to have to recover if we want to survive as a people. This is also what my next book is about — and you had better believe that I will be drawing heavily on this miraculous McGilchrist book. For those who prefer to watch or listen on podcast, here is a 90-minute interview with Iain about the book:

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