Altared states

Like most people in modern, secular Britain, Will Self is not a believer. Yet he still feels awed a

During Lent, those with Christian faith enter a 40-day period of spiritual reflection that recalls Jesus's supposed period of desert reclusion. In our own triumphantly secular society - although sometimes I think this triumph a purely Pyrrhic one - a similar undertaking might be appropriate. Those of us who are without religious faith are, arguably, more in need than the believers of answers to the big questions that - try as we might to divert ourselves - continue to exercise us. Why are we here? What meaning does life have? What constitutes the Good? And what - if anything - will happen to us after we die?

But if we could all do with such a contemplative sojourn, how on earth are we going to find the time - let alone the space? We are increasingly hemmed in by our responsibilities and only the very rich can afford 40 days of desertification - and they tend to take them in the form of adventure holidays crossing the Sahara, with everything laid on, including "authentic" cultural experiences.

I have a proposal: why not spend the next 40 days in a metaphoric rather than a literal desert? It shouldn't be too difficult to contrive - simply remove all aspects of art and culture from your life. That's right, give it up for Lent: all pictures and drawings, music and books, television, film and radio. Eschew newspapers, and magazines; look not upon the glittery face of the worldwide web. Instead, stride out into the world protected only by the flimsy raiment of your own reason, guided solely by the light of your own conscience, and warmed by your own imagination alone.

Belief in belief

In a cultural desert, the mind begins to burrow deep within itself - just as, in an actual desert, a human body seeks shelter among the rocks. Perhaps in this harshly deracinated environment you will be driven to meditate upon the transcendent, a practice that has become dreadfully unfashionable in the present era, lacking as it does the requisite aestheticism.

Of course, it wasn't always thus. Here in Britain, as throughout the Christianised world, religion and art were once inextricably bound together. The churches were direct patrons of the arts, while the wealthy commissioned works the ulterior purpose of which was to effect their own salvation - or, at any rate, indulgence. And then, for the laity, there was art as decorative medium - the interior design of God's house - and art as a votive device: the transactional object by which the faithful drew nearer to His love. Still spookier, there were artworks that partook of the divinity through the fact of their veneration. One thinks of the many statues of patron saints, carried in procession on their feast days, then called upon
to prognosticate, heal the sick and work other such miracles.

As it was with the visual arts, so it was with literature and music; in the past, the belief in God may not have been omnipresent, but the belief in the belief in God certainly was. Right up until the 19th century, even the most daring and provocative dissenters continued to cloak their artistic productions in off-the-peg theism. Just as I remember, as a boy, reading Victorian novels and wondering whether or not any of the characters had sex - because there was no mention of it whatsoever although they still managed to procreate - so, as a philosophy student, I was perplexed by David Hume's blasé references to his creator even though every aspect of his scepticism disallowed any such faith.

I would argue that it was neither the Enlightenment nor the mechanised march of science and technology that finally put paid to this unquestioned belief in belief, but the man-made cataclysm of the First World War. If I were to choose a suitably iconic image of the impact of the war on faith, it would be the statue of the Madonna that stood atop the newly completed basilica in the town of Albert, immediately behind the British trenches of the Somme. Early in the war, shelling tipped this statue to the horizontal, so that it looked as if Mary was about to throw away the infant Jesus cradled in her arms. The satiric import of this was not lost on the British troops, who henceforth referred to the statue as "the Lady of the Limp".

As Paul Fussell - the historian to whose masterful work The Great War and Modern Memory I owe this vignette - so perceptively argued, after the carnage of the First World War, irony came to be the dominant form of modern sensibility and understanding. Against such devastating facetiousness, what chance had the Lady of the Limp?

It may surprise you to learn that I often visit churches - and not merely to regard them aesthetically, but also so that I can lose myself in spiritual contemplation. It may not be prayer as it is commonly understood by the great mono­theisms, but I find that by setting my own fears, hopes and concerns against the great span of the universe, their trivial scale is exposed. I choose churches because they are purpose-built for such exercises; it is difficult to keep your thoughts base and petty when you are confronted by the vertiginous upthrust of English Perpendicular. True, I like my churches to be old, or large, or both - I'm less likely to step into my local place of worship, because, in common with so many others, the great whirlwind of irony has sucked all the beauty out of it.

Holy watercolour

Since the First World War, then, and with still greater velocity after the Second, art has quit the temple precincts. We can picture this as if it were a frieze, seeing in profile all those painters, architects, musicians and poets bowed down under the instruments of their mysteries and heading for the exit.

Modern churches have lost their patrons and their punters; with a few exceptions, their interiors are bereft of the rich ornamentation of the past, and as for their architecture, well, if we thought the neo-Gothic was bad enough, what can we say of the warehouses of the Lord that have been thrown up in the postwar period? Such decoration as is commissioned for these churches tends to be the visual analogue of the Good News Bible - all primary colours, woody tones and paschal lambs that bear a family resemblance to the Teletubbies.

As it is with ecclesiastical visual arts and architecture, so it is with the wider cultural ambit. Yes, there are still men and women who write godly verse and score sacred music, but the real fixed point to which transcendent belief is tethered is the ironic stake modernity has driven through the heart of faith. A couple of years ago, I found myself in the locked vault of a jeweller's in Hatton Garden, in central London. I was there, together with the artist Damien Hirst and a couple of other hangers-on, to handle his piece For the Love of God, a human skull transmogrified into a colossal bauble that comprised a sheet of artfully shaped platinum embedded with hundreds of diamonds.

On the cusp of the financial meltdown, Hirst's skull was being valued at £20m; he told me he had named it thus because "For the love of God!" was what his mother had exclaimed when he told her about the piece. Two things struck me: first, the extreme ironisation of faith embodied in the diamond skull, and second, the effect it had on my companions when they held it. It was as if they had taken a lungful of nitrous oxide and were transported into a state of giggly and shameless devotion to Mammon.

For the Love of God crystallised my thinking about Hirst and contemporary art. He is, I think, a more primitive figure than we have come to expect artists to be; rather than merely representing the world, Hirst is a shaman who invests objects with a symbolic power that - under the right conditions - becomes real. Mostly this is the power of money itself - but he also employs the powers of celebrity, sex, death and intoxication. We shouldn't be too critical of the highest-earning living artist, because he got that way by perfectly exemplifying the sacred rituals that underpin the true religion of Britain today, aesthetic humanism.

During this Lenten period, few Britons will repair either to the desert or to the deserted churches, but they will descend in droves on the temples of arts and culture, many of which are handsome, beautifully maintained buildings chock-full of valuable votive artworks.

In the past 20 years, as church congregations have continued to dwindle, the art galleries and museums have increased their visitor numbers hugely. Exactly like the religion it has replaced, aesthetic humanism demands of its followers certain rituals - silence, rapt concentration, a catechism in the form of a catalogue; and certain beliefs - the holiness of the artistic vocation, the intelligibility of taste (its equivalent of divine grace), and the temporal authority of those curators, dealers and arts administrators who are its priesthood.

Shorn of any faith in God, the arts have become imbued with the qualities of a secularised religion. The only immortality anyone believes in now is the immortality of the artist, whose soul is encapsulated in his works for all eternity. The modern Medicis have great faith in the arts - they enrich themselves by speculating in scraps of canvas and lumps of metal, and by endowing the public temples, they too hope for immortality.

As for the laity, whether we reverence an index of approved works, or indulge in that liberty of conscience summed up in the credo "I-don't-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like", the important thing is that we believe: we believe in the superiority of man-made beauty over any other aspect of the natural world, and in the capacity of art to express all our thoughts and feelings. Our artistic faith also provides us with emotional succour and psychic balm. When we have retired, we go on pilgrimages to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, say, hoping to imbibe as much holy watercolour as we can before we are anointed with oil paint and die.

Like the Christianity it has usurped, aesthetic humanism has a Trinity - albeit one in which paternity is inverted, for it is Man who is now the father, and the old Roman goddess Fortuna whom we have made in our image, as our hidden hands manipulate the market in artefacts into being. As for the Holy Ghost, what could be more immanent (and yet transcendent) than the internet, which is everywhere and nowhere at once, transmitting our divine creative spark?

Art atheism

As I have proposed the existence of a new religion of aesthetic humanism, it is reasonable to ask whether I myself am a communicant. But I suspect you know the answer already: I may lack traditional religious faith, but I find myself an even more strident recusant - a heretic, even - when it comes to the arty church. It is an unpalatable fact, like an extra-dry communion wafer, that economic downturns can be good for the arts. During the last recession, the "Young British Artists" emerged as a phenomenon that at first satirised faltering capitalism, and then capital­ised on its resurgence. It might have been hoped that this recession would be deep enough to inaugurate a complete re-evaluation of the aesthetic humanist credo; that there might be a reformation to rival that of Christianity in the 16th century.

Sadly, or perhaps thankfully, it doesn't look as if this will be the case. Our deep faith in Fortuna's free market remains intact, and no dissident theses have been nailed to the doors of Tate Modern. Archbishop Serota sits secure on his throne. As for me, I find I do need a period of contemplation away from the hurly-burly of religious gallery observance. I feel strangely drawn to visit a modern church, where it's quiet and calm, and divinely ugly.

Will Self launches a series of six talks for Lent on Radio 4, 24 February (8.45pm)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood