In the Critics this Week

Colin McGinn on Philosophy of Mind, Alain de Botton on James Miller, and Will Self on an Indian banq

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, ten pages of which are devoted to a philosophy special, our Critic at Large is Colin McGinn, professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami, who surveys the current state of play in the philosophy of mind and consciousness. Although McGinn concedes, in the spirit Descartes, the irrefutable existence of the self, he cautiously downplays the scope of the intellect: "Human intelligence is a local, contingent, temporal, practical and expendable feature of life on earth - an incremental adaptation based on earlier forms of intelligence that no one would regard as faintly omniscient." In Socratic vein, McGinn asserts: "There is more ignorance ... than knowledge."

In Books, Alain de Botton reviews The Philosophical Life: 12 Great Thinkers and the Search for Wisdom, from Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. What, says de Botton, sets these seminal thinkers apart is that they pursue salient experience rather than intellectual vanity: "Miller presents 12 philosophers, great names including Socrates, Seneca, Montaigne, Kant and Nietzsche. What draws Miller to them is that they are all, in different ways, utterly unlike what a modern philosophical academic is expected to be. They don't want to be clever, they want to know how to live. They want to be wise." Moreover, de Botton notes that Miller's prose is intended for the layman, not his fellow professionals: "He is to be commended for leaving behind the sterile practices of his colleagues and speaking to civilian readers."

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire speaks to Professor Charles Taylor about his latest work, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. The book responds to the need in modern western societies for political structures that accomodate the full breadth of moral and religious diversity: "The original model of secularism was one in which a very dominant religious group had to fight with other kinds of tendencies. That was the situation in France in the 19th century but doesn't at all describe modern-day Canada or the UK. The kind of secularism [advanced in the book] answers the question,'"How do we live together?'"

Also in Books: Giles Fraser reviews Simon Critchley's The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. Fraser notes Critchley's atheism, and his argument that Christianity's perennial relevance lies in its alter ego, politics: "Modern political discourse is sublimated theology. And the only way properly to get at the unspoken drivers of much political philosophy is to recognise them as expressions of theological desire". Other reviews: Edward Skidelsky on Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation by Richard Sennett; and Jennie Erdal on Humean influences in her forthcoming novel, The Missing Shade of Blue. PLUS: Sarah Waters pays tribute to Angela Carter on the 20th anniversary of her death.

Elsewhere in Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Antonia Quirke on Steven Spielberg; Kate Mossman on Paul Weller; and Helen Lewis on Contre Jour. PLUS: Will Self's "Real Meals".

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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war