Another story, and some additional words

Quite a long time ago I wrote a story about a girl called Krystal. Well, actually, it wasn’t so much a story as a series of facts about her life, and the lives of the people she knows. Sounds fairly obnoxious when put like that. Fortunately, I’m not really one for overt literary experimentation, except when self-doubt is especially clutching, in which case, like anyone else, I can become seized by the belief that what the world needs is an English David Foster Wallace, so please be generous with your understanding.

Anyway, the story, called ‘The Combine’, has been published by Burnt Bridge in their annual Gridiron issue (yes, the story deals tangentially with American Football, as well as facial symmetry and anal fissures, so I wasn’t even trying to be an English DFW with this one). You can buy the print edition here or the kindle edition here.

I travelled to the Shetlands recently, with the intention of knuckling down to work on my novel, but unfortunately the place was so beautiful, I got very little done. With that in mind, I should probably knuckle down now.

Recent thoughts #2

Has Gladys Knight ever put in a better vocal performance than ‘License to Kill’? I’m not sure she has. While I’m at it, I’m also pretty sure that LTK is also the best Bond film.

Yes, I spent most of last week listening to Wagner, and most of this week listening to James Bond theme tunes & the Carpenters. Roger Scruton would be proud.

Currently envying…

…Paul Auster. I’m reading Leviathan at the moment, and it is maddening how effortlessly fluid his prose is, even while it deals with some fairly tricksy material. Not quite as jaw-dropping as The New York Trilogy, but then again, you only have to pull off an illusion like that once.

Recent thoughts #1

I’ve been reading The Sorrows of Young Werther recently, and am struggling to imagine that human beings ever felt like that. I could be wrong though; perhaps I’m part of the unfortunate minority whose emotional lives are not a constant succession of ecstatic bust-ups with the sublime.

‘The Church of Scientology’ by Hugh Urban – Review

Publishing anything about the Church of Scientology seems to be a precarious business, potentially leaving the writer open to a host of legal shenanigans. With that in mind, it’s probably worth saying that anyone who attempts to grapple with L. Ron Hubbard’s legacy deserves a tip of the hat for bravery from the outset. However, if you’re so constrained by fear of litigation that it neuters your analysis, is there any point in having made the attempt?

Hugh Urban’s new book The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion is an almost painfully equivocal read. He explains in a very dryly phrased introduction that he intends to adopt ‘a hermeneutics of respect and a hermeneutics of suspicion’ as a way of dealing with the sticky ethical problem of analysing a religion whose very nature (protected, lest we forget by the First Amendment) demands that nobody analyse it. While for most people, this extreme secrecy might be suggestive of dark secrets and darker motives, Urban is scrupulously non-judgemental in his assessment of Scientology’s vigorous attempts to keep its teachings confidential, drawing comparison with Australian Aboriginal teachings, which are apparently proscribed from being known by outsiders. Throughout the text, whenever Scientology’s behaviour or beliefs are compared with those of another established religion, it is done on an equal footing, and this is where the problem with the book lies.

Knocking religion is a fashionable pastime, and I’m not above it myself. However, the challenge that relatively new religions face that the old stagers don’t, is that we have far more insight and evidence as to how they were originally conceived, structured and sold to their congregations. In the case of Scientology, there is a wealth of documentation, in the form of numerous policy letters (quoted at length by Urban), that show the evolution of Scientology from a form of completely non-religious therapy, to a religious organisation that loudly denounces all forms of psychiatric counselling. The change seems completely premeditated, and moreover, Hubbard’s explanations of his ‘religious angle’ even give a fairly good summation of the entirely quotidian reasons for the switch. However, Urban never acknowledges the different evidentiary standards available.

In the face of all this equivocation, Urban comes back repeatedly to the question of what defines a religion, eventually concluding that

‘…religion is better understood as a form of discourse that makes a claim to a particular kind of authority. Specifically, religious sorts of discourse make a claim to an authority that is believed to transcend the human, temporary and contingent, and claims for itself a similarly transcendent status.’

The problem with this definition as it relates to Scientology is that by their very nature, transcendent revelations (and the authority derived from them) cannot be seen to be mutable. The fact that Hubbard originally conceived Dianetics as being distinctly non-religious before making an abrupt about-turn when the scrutiny of the FDA and the IRS became too onerous is hugely problematic, but Urban never really engages with this ontological contradiction inherent in any attempt to identify Scientology as a religion using his definition. The book is riddled with this kind of cautious credulity. The manifest fabrications of Hubbard’s approved biography are excused as a ‘hagiographic mythology’ akin to the biographies of Madame Blavatsky and Joseph Smith, as if the existence of other dubious life stories is reason enough to give this one a free pass. The excesses of counter-attack operations against the Church’s critics both inside and outside the government are granted the possibility of being a legitimate (if extreme) defence of religious freedoms guaranteed by the US constitution.

The question Urban endlessly skirts around, refusing to look at directly (perhaps because he fears he’ll come down with pneumonia as a result) is that of sincerity. If there is any quality a religion must have in abundance, then surely it is sincerity, particularly on the part of its founders. It is here that Scientology and other modern-day religions find themselves being unavoidably held to a higher level of scrutiny than their more established counterparts. We’re unable to go back and interrogate the intentions of those men (divinely inspired or not) who founded the Catholic Church, or who first codified the tenets of Judaism. As such, the opacity of history buys them leniency of the ‘whereof we cannot speak…’ variety. However, there is no such veil over the foundation of Scientology. In quoted document after quoted document, Urban shows us that Hubbard’s concerns were of a relentlessly earth-bound nature, privileging power, influence and (tax-free) profit above all things. Conclusions are hard to avoid, even if Urban ultimately leaves that responsibility to us in the final chapter.

Perhaps on reflection though, the book deserves some admiration, despite its annoyances. For Urban to have maintained his scholarly impartiality in the face of the overwhelming evidence presented in his book, is a feat of quite incredible dexterity.


Been listening to the recent Gergiev/Mariinsky recording of Parsifal a lot lately. Absolutely incredible. Slight downside is that the opera is such an intimidating achievement it makes everything I’m working on seem a bit pointless in comparison.