A Week In Books
At the Edinburgh Festival
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 16 August 1997
However much the Edinburgh organisers try to gloss feng shui as a sort of turbocharged interior design, it remains a form of ancient earth magic, or geomancy. As a long-lived superstition, it ranks with (say) Tarot-reading and astrology, neither of which yet has a niche in Charlotte Square. It was Hume's own landmark essay "On Miracles" - itself one of Edinburgh's greatest gifts to European thought - that found the last word on the New Age, back in 1748. Hume shakes a wry head at "the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvellous" before accepting that this urge "can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature".
Acceptance is one thing; encouragement quite another. Yet Dr Jan Fairley, the Book Festival's new director, has arguably struck a useful blow for cultural glasnost by spotlighting "personal issues of belief and lifestyle" in her first programme. What the trade calls "mind, body and spirit" publishing still flourishes mightily. To the huge public that treats Hume's Enlightenment - especially in its scientific guise - as just another outworn creed, these works manage to refresh the parts other ideas cannot reach.
They fill acres of bookshop space (you can always find more books on astrology than on astronomy, Richard Dawkins often complains). They crowd the best-seller lists, propelled high into the charts by money-spinning serial deals with shameless middle-market newspapers. And they keep almost every intellectual charlatan known to European history solidly in print. No one save students and scholars now reads Hume's great forerunner, Michel de Montaigne - the only modern writer Shakespeare ever copied almost word for word (in The Tempest). Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands still pore over the gibberish rhymes of Montaigne's French contemporary, Nostradamus.
This vast bookish underworld - which keeps scores of publishers in funds, and armies of readers content - has almost no diplomatic relations with mainstream literary life. And that should bother mainstream literary folk more than it evidently does.
The Edinburgh "lifestyle" strand makes a gesture towards contact by welcoming the softer, therapeutic end of New Age thought (literally) into its camp. It nonetheless stays safely in a little ghetto. Punters who turn up for Roy Hattersley or Pat Barker, Kate Atkinson or Mario Vargas Llosa, need not know about the reflexology or "herbs for pets" advice going on across the square. Only Lynne Franks (unblushingly labelled by the brochure as "the inspiration for Edina" in AbFab) can be relied upon to straddle the gap.
Next year, perhaps, the Festival should bite the bullet and stage a full- scale debate between the deep-dyed mystics and the hard-core rationalists. If David Hume really had a ghost, it would surely float along to that.
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