Thursday, June 15, 2017

Mastering trauma



Olga Kharitidi's first book, "Entering the Circle" http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2016/12/entering-circle-psychiatrists-shamanic.html had its psychiatrist author stepping into the world of Altai shamanism. It is a journey of self-discovery beautifully told and grounded even when it demands much of your imaginative sympathy for the magical. 

Her second book, "Master of Lucid Dreams" traverses similar territory except now we step out of the territory of the familiar - shamanism - into the territory of the 'secret brotherhood' and if the former raised the spectre of Castaneda - what is testimony and what imaginative extrapolation? The latter brings us into the realm of Gurdjieff - charlatan or wise trickster, delusion or sagacity beyond our usual ken? 

What keeps the book on the side of the possible (to this reader at least) is Olga's transparent humility. She never pretends to be anything other than an overworked, vulnerable, often skeptical psychiatrist who finds herself, in her openness and gift for healing thrust into extraordinary encounters - and Russia and Central Asia (as I can attest) has huge reservoirs of belief both indigenous, folk and esoteric that seventy years of Communism, however hard it struggled, never eliminated - though it and modernity may have fragmented it. 

In the 1990s Olga finds herself at an unusual research institute in Novosibirsk, Siberia where the mysterious Smirnov is researching consciousness and the psychic (not an unfamiliar place even under the Soviets indeed the KGB were, and their successors maybe still be, deeply interested in such matters) and is enticed by one of his young subjects, Masha, to attend a lecture by a man named Vladimir. 

It is on a subject close to Olga's heart and her medical practice - the spirits of trauma. For Vladimir this is no metaphor - trauma is best configured as the actual practice of spirits (or memory demons as a later character, Michael, will call them) and they are not simply personal, you can inherit them from past generations, even places, and hand them on into the future. They manipulate memory and behaviour to secure their hold. The path free is through creating the right kind of internal space, reinforced by the right kind of remembering and storytelling, such that you win back their energy, making it, and them, your own, turning darkness into light. You can do this not only for yourself but for others - here in this world and in the next - as Olga will discover when she finds herself in Samarkand. 'Prayer' for the dead is not only for the 'living'!

Interestingly I was reminded of the work of the clinical psychologist (and expert on Swedenborg), Wilson Van Dusen, who, in his clinical practice, had great success by treating the multiple voices of his patients as real personalities, with agendas, if with agendas at odds with the true well-being of the patient subject to them, such that owning and responding to those voices, and transforming them, health was reborn and the patient regained control. Different traditions but similar underlying patterns.

However it is to Samarkand where Vladimir invites Olga (in a suitably esoteric and roundabout way) and it is here she meets the even more mysterious Michael, the master of lucid dreams. It is he who will lead her through the process and have her confront one of her deepest traumas - the failure to respond to a depressed friend's last cry for help, the friend subsequently committing suicide. 

This ritual has Olga journeying in imagination to the realm of the dead and finding her friend and helping release her on her journey. It is beautifully told and even if it were fictive (and I have no reason for believing it so) is one deeply resonant with multiple, over lapping traditions of afterlife - shamanism is here (and to the fore) but so to was Swedenborg (and, to my mind, though I expect not to the authors, George MacDonald). 

The book would be a disappointment if you imagined one was going to 'learn' how to lucid dream (and there are many texts for that) but not if you wanted inspiration as to why. As with her first book, Kharitidi paints a powerful picture of a deeply interconnected world of many mansions where consciousness flows, if not with ease with definite practice, and where both time and space is relative and relative to moral and spiritual imperatives. It is a deep reminder too that we all carry brokenness, that brokenness it suggests is not simply what we accrue in a particular lifetime, we inherit 'sin' and pass 'sin' on but it is also a reminder that this cycle can always be broken, now, in the past and in the future, for time and space are simply moving images of eternity; and, potentially that all will be well.

To quote another Russian, from a different but not unrelated tradition, St Silouan of Athos, when asked whether there would be anybody in hell at the end, he simply replied, "Love could not bear it" and for bearing the beams of love, to quote Blake, is the reason that we came. The Lord's hands are our hands, to interpose St Theresa of Avila, so that work of love is 'ours' too. This book is an invitation, if a somewhat esoteric one, to one of its many works.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Gardening soul




Robert Pogue Harrison's 'Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition', like his 'Forests' http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2014/08/if-you-go-to-woods-today.html, is a penetrating exploration of how a particular aspect of our world has been seen down the ages and how that seeing reveals key aspects of humanity and how it has changed from place to place and from time to time.

It begins with the most famous garden of all: Eden and suggests how Eve's eating of the apple was not a rebellion from a perfect state but an escape from a state too static, fixed, in which it was impossible to realise human(e) possibility. The core of this possibility is the ability to practice 'care', the ability to take a set of given conditions and navigate with and through them to achieve a dynamic, living reality, part shaped, part given, always vulnerable yet one's own. In fact, a real garden, actually loved and known, shaped by one's own hands. One that is always learning from the past and open to a challenging future.

The essay goes on to explore the ways in which 'the garden', real and imagined, has interacted with key moments of our unfolding culture and what it might reveal about humanity within that culture.

Of the two best chapters, the first is a defence of Epicurus who famously retreated to a private garden but not to cultivate that narrow hedonism with which he has become fixed in the modern mind but to practice the arts of friendship, gratitude, patience and serenity that would allow a person to face their mortality equitably and live a good life before that. It was a 'retreat' that was a political act - consciously taking oneself out of a given situation, the failure of Greek politics - to revaluate values and propose not 'a solution' but ways of life that might point to better possibilities in time.

The second is an exploration of the garden with relation to Christian and Islamic views of paradise. The latter place is concrete, realistic, a place of serenity and reward, a reward that can be continuously enjoyed. It is relaxing. The former is depicted only by way of analogy and metaphor, eluding description and is a place of renewed ecstasy where there is no completion only the prospect of further joys. It is restless.

In Islam, paradise is the Garden of Eden, reimagined. In Christianity, famously in Dante, Eden is a place one returns to (after purgatory) only to leave in a leap towards the ever receding fulfilment of the heavenly. God is all present in an Islamic paradise of fulfilled desire. God remains the target of desire in a Christian heaven.

Is it possible, Harrison speculates, that Islamic discomfort of 'the West' is not of our professed values but of our fundamental restlessness, of ever wanting to be somewhere other that, from an Islamic perspective, can only be evidence of a fundamental inability to be 'islam' - surrendered to the ever present God?

This thematic, however, is amplified throughout Harrison's text - the garden as a potential antidote to restlessness, providing an option for care within a nurturing environment, and our inability to recognise it fully, being deeply attracted, yet increasingly elusive, as we nurse our 'lack' and try to fill it with distraction rather than attractive activity, with consumption rather than care.

Harrison begins quoting Voltaire in Candide, the famous last line, that we should cultivate our gardens as the most meaningful response to the world's chaos. Three centuries later it continues, suggests Harrison, to be sensible advice. For in gardening is an ethic of recognising limits, postponing complete satisfaction as you advance modest goals in the face of the world's uncertainties. Not an 'heroic' ethic but maybe a liveable, sane one.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Good and evil, a world embraced and denied: Milosz's life


"Wherever I am, at whatever place on earth, I hide from people the conviction that I am not from here. It's as if I'd been sent, to extract as many colours, tastes, smells, to experience everything that is a man's share, to transpose what is felt into a magical register and carry it there, from whence I came"! 

A task achieved in ripe abundance!

I remember reading the Polish Nobel Laureate, poet, essayist, philosopher, Czeslaw Milosz, first at university. I was introduced to him, as was so often the case, through reading the review, 'Temenos'. It was, I think, my parallel and also primary education to that offered by my apparent university course. Fittingly I encountered him through the lens of his own introduction to the man he considered his master, his distant cousin, the visionary poet (and successful diplomat), Oskar Milosz.

To Czeslaw Milosz, I owe too, amongst other things, my introduction to Simone Weil through an essay of his in 'Emperor of Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision' that was the first book of his I read.

Like Weil there was a Manichaean element to Milosz as the above quotation implies. This world is not our home and whatever our necessary purpose here, we belong elsewhere, to another perception. This tension between love of the world that, even when created good, has gone astray, disfigured by evil is a notable tension in the poet's work.

This is unsurprising if you consider his biography and I have been reading Andrzej Franazek's masterly account, recently translated from the Polish. As a child, he was sufficiently old to register on his childhood sensibility the throes of the Russian Revolution, civil war and wars of national liberation in the febrile borderlands between Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. He entered a pause - and idyllic mid-childhood so hauntingly described in his novel, 'The Issa Valley' before growing up into a world slowly unravelling out into the apocalyptic conflict, most especially for Poland, of the Second World War and the subsuming aftermath of Stalinist totalitarianism. This tortuously, because his sympathies had always been leftist though never Communist, led him finally into a literal exile in the United States until with a final twist Communism collapsed and as a man in his eighties returning to live and finally die in his adopted city of Krakow.

It was often a life of both socially/politically imposed and personal suffering - both his wives predeceased him even when the second, Carol, was thirty years his junior, and one of his two sons suffered from bipolar disorder but he was triumphantly resilient and consistently curious, questioning, learning and transforming what he found into poems of great beauty, intelligence and, for want of a better word, toughness. 

His journey too was one from the lofty peaks of an intellectual superiority, a swiftness to criticise, even condemn, towards a gathering compassion. It was a journey too from scepticism to faith - though a Catholic faith that never lost a necessary quality of doubt. A doubt both about the reality of the sacred as such as well as a doubt as to the 'orthodoxy' of his Christianity. A doubt too of his significance as a person (though never as a poet) for who would be interested in his sins, told with self-deprecatorily irony in the poem, 'At a Certain Age':

"We wanted to confess our sins but there we no takers
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
Was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom.
It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess their what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: "That's me."

For me, however, Milosz greatest achievement - both as poet and essayist - was a spirited incorporation and defence of the metaphysical of the world that was enchanted and though scarred with suffering was both worthy of celebration and of recognition that the suffering breaks us open to deepening questions of meaning - most especially for Milosz of good and evil - rather than huddling us out into passing pleasure surrounded by grey seas of indifference and a stuttering end. 

For me his greatest book, much as I love the poems, is 'The Land of Ulro' his sustained defence of such a sacred world where he jousts with 'Ulro' - William Blake's guiding, enchaining spirit of a levelling, self-contained reason. For Milosz poetry is ultimately essential because it brings into focus a sensual, celebrated world saturated with meanings to which there is never a complete closure, transcendence always beckons, where the invitation is always to remain vulnerable to new revelations, gifts of grace.

In passing, he also gave one of the best pieces of writing advice, I have read. You cannot write if you doubt. As the word hits the page, no doubt can be permitted. Five minutes afterwards yes but not before!


Friday, May 12, 2017

That Wondrous Pattern



When I was at school, a friend encouraged me to read both the poems and the (three volumes) of autobiography of the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine. By one of those happenings of synchronicity, I had come to her work simultaneously whilst looking, in my local library, for someone who could help me understand Blake - the poet I was reading so compulsively, haunted yet with little conscious understanding. I had found her collection of essays, 'Blake and the New Age' and had devoured them as they illuminated a landscape from which I have never since retreated.

When subsequently I saw, as a student, a copy of Temenos (its second edition), a journal she edited on arts and the imagination, I struck up a four year correspondence that culminated with our first meeting.

This was at the first Temenos Conference at Dartington Hall in 1986. I remember standing close by whilst she carried out a conversation with another participant, hovering uncertain as to what to say as an introverted, nervous twenty three year old. She span round and that rich, sonorous voice of her's declared, "And you must be Nicholas! I am carrying your last letter to me around in my handbag as a talisman"! I cannot recall my startled response but it confirmed a friendship that was one of my life's great blessings. She turned a beam of light upon me and I unfurled. I remember how at that conference, and the second, she would come up to me at random moments and ask, "And how Nicholas do you think our conference is going?" as if I were her most intimate collaborator! This I was not but her generosity (that I can only confess not everyone saw or was treated to) was life giving and deeply confirming.

I was reminded of this reading the recently published selection of her essays, 'The Wondrous Pattern: Essays on Poetry and Poets' edited by Brian Keeble, one of her fellow editors on Temenos. Many of these I have in other forms but it is wonderful to have them gathered here and newly available to future readers.

Reading them I was struck by the searing intelligence, clarity and profoundly counter cultural nature. For Kathleen was a thoroughgoing neo-Platonist convinced that the fundamental nature of the world is mind and that the best path to knowledge is the exercise of the Imagination. This tradition (for such it is) represents an excluded pattern of learning and wisdom to which the most significant English poets had access and of which they were exemplars (to a greater or lesser degree). Top of her tree of wise greatness were undoubtedly Blake, Shelley and Yeats on which she writes perceptively and through which she engages in a critique of ways of seeing that are constrained by a reductionist materialism. Here too, however, are Keats and Wordsworth, Manley Hopkins and Eliot, Edwin Muir and Vernon Watkins. All defenders of the world as a sacred place, a temenos, where beauty abounds and seen aright is a mirroring of a transcendent order.

The essays, however, not only lay out an intellectual position (and criticism), they also resonate with reflections on the poet's art. How do you wait upon inspiration, how do you work with it, how does one wield symbolism into a coherent whole that resonates with a truth that lies beyond speech (and for which number and music might be purer counterpoints)?

Each poet emerges through her seeing a renewably valuable and more clearly seen. For example, her treatment of Keats is masterly. It is often suggested that he was cut off in his prime, only getting started, before tuberculosis intervened. What might he not have written had he survived? This is a legitimate speculation but it detracts from Keats' achievement as a shaper of what he described as 'the chamber of maiden thought' of the innocence of youth and its particular shaping of insight and knowing, the clarity of its perceptions as it treats the world out of its idealism. A view of the world too often obscured in latter struggles; and, a view of the world that ought to be held up as a continuous counterweight to our too easily succumbing to 'experience'. For as St Benedict says God often puts truth into the youngest member of a community (his reference here being to a monastery) and we should always allow them space to speak. Keats work is a continual remembering of these innocent paths of seeing, a renewing freshness.

The essays, also, like all fine criticism return you to the sources - to rereading or reading anew the poets treated thereof - and of those she treats the most sorely neglected is the Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins, friend of Dylan Thomas, and by Thomas' own admission, the better poet. Kathleen shows both why this is so and why he is so neglected. His work is so musical, so precise in its lyrical yet symbolic forms, that very few readers - even if they recognise the music - can easily arrive at the meaning yet the meanings are precise drawing on a depth of symbolic knowledge that is profound. It is as if we all lost a particular power of speech (and listening) that closes to us worlds, upon worlds. Herewith to close one of Watkins' most beautiful poems capturing the heron as both bird and ancient symbol of contemplation.

The Heron

The cloud-backed heron will not move:
He stares into the stream.
He stands unfaltering while the gulls
And oyster-catchers scream.
He does not hear, he cannot see
The great white horses of the sea,
But fixes eyes on stillness
Below their flying team.

How long will he remain, how long
Have the grey woods been green?
The sky and the reflected sky,
Their glass he has not seen,
But silent as a speck of sand
Interpreting the sea and land,
His fall pulls down the fabric
Of all that windy scene.

Sailing with clouds and woods behind,
Pausing in leisured flight,
He stepped, alighting on a stone,
Dropped from the stars of night.
He stood there unconcerned with day,
Deaf to the tumult of the bay,
Watching a stone in water,
A fish's hidden light.

Sharp rocks drive back the breaking waves,
Confusing sea with air.
Bundles of spray blown mountain-high
Have left the shingle bare.
A shipwrecked anchor wedged by rocks,
Loosed by the thundering equinox,
Divides the herded waters,
The stallion and his mare.

Yet no distraction breaks the watch
Of that time-killing bird.
He stands unmoving on the stone;
Since dawn he has not stirred.
Calamity about him cries,
But he has fixed his golden eyes
On water's crooked tablet,
On light's reflected word.
By Vernon Watkins

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Leonora Carrington: art and fulfilment

The Old Maids by Leonora Carrington

A prophet is not without honour save in their own country. 

Leonora Carrington as an artist has a journey to go before she is recognised as one of the most significant English artists of the twentieth century. She is significantly resonant not least because she resolutely, as any English eccentric ought, was a determined follower of her own path.

This course is admirably described in Joanna Morehead's 'The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington'. Morehead had an advantage in coming to know the artist in the final years of her life (though that advantage was not immediately apparent) for being Leonora's cousin. It was not apparent as advantage because Leonora had resolutely walked out on her parents' expectations in 1937 when defiantly going to live with Max Ernst in Paris. Ernst's artistic status were of no interest to her parents more important was that he was a foreigner, poor and married. These were characteristics that counted a great deal more to Leonora's very wealthy, conventional parents; and, the complex estrangement that virtually disappeared Leonora from family view had kept Leonora hidden from Morehead until very late in the artist's life.

But, thankfully, not too late for the last few years' of Leonora's life, Morehead could visit her in her Mexico City home, become friends, and over what appears to be endless cups of tea, help Leonora connect with her past in renewing ways. From these conversations, supplemented by the necessary research, this sensitive book emerged.

Leonora was always and everywhere herself- resilient to a fault - who voyaged far both inwardly into the halls of madness and spirit and outwardly from English Upper Middle Class wealth to a feted, if always deeply private, position as an adopted daughter of Mexico. 

She was a continuous crosser of boundaries - in search of freedom and in pursuit of always better questions to the mysteries of life that surround us. The freedom was intimately bound with her position as a female artist, fiercely defended and wholly real.

The value of the book, as well as evoking the life, is to show ways in which that life informed the subjects of her art - both painting and writing. You see anew the significance of recurrent themes in her art -  for example of her family's Irish and Catholic background, of the importance of horses as symbols of potential freedom and of the 'crone' (a word she loved) the symbol of an ancient inexhaustible feminine wisdom.

If there are faults I suppose they are twofold. 

The first is that the biography leans towards memoir - the full apparatus of biography is missing.

The second is the depth of intellectual background that too must lead us beyond memoir.

Carrington was resolutely opposed to interpreting her art- what mattered was the felt responses of the viewer. This is a wholly legitimate view yet at the same time Carrington describes herself as a 'carrier' or 'conduit' through which meaningful art flows. Thus it behoves us to ask what shaped the conduit and, as Morehead notes, Carrington was, in fact, highly intellectual and liked nothing more than a resonant philosophical discussion. Here we only get tantalising glimpses - the importance of Jung and Gurdjieff and of Robert Graves' 'The White Goddess' described as the most important book the artist had read but quite why and how that becomes reflected in her art is left danglingly open.

Nevertheless this is a moving and finely written testimony to both a fabulous artist and a remarkable woman. A person who lived their life to the uttermost and who, as Morehead notes, is admirable not least because, though often afraid, never allowed it to determine their actions and a person for whom the last word was always allowed to wonder.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Time is strangely wonderful

Time is a River without Banks by Marc Chagall

In Edwin Muir's poem, 'Adam's Dream', Adam beholds a vision of 'time' and 'time is strange for one lately in Eden'. The time Adam sees is the familiar one - time as passing, the present disappearing into a past that no longer exists except in memory and physical evidence and the future as simply a container of projected hopes and speculation with no real existence. A mechanical time with no meaning. 

Adam is, of course, however, perceiving a notion of time that, in truth, only came into existence with the seventeenth century. Solidified by Newton, it has become the accepted cultural norm. A norm unshifted by either Einstein's relativity or the quirks of quantum mechanics (where causality appears often to run backwards from the future into the present). 

But as J.B. Priestley marvellously demonstrates this view of time would neither be recognised by any of Adam's descendants before the seventeenth century nor, with any scrupulous, open minded examination, of how time is experienced now. Time is (whatever else) culturally flexible in how it is discerned and, in fact, may be multi-dimensional.

Priestley's 'Man & Time' (long and scandalously out of print) has a twofold task - one is to introduce us to the many ways in which human cultures have configured their understanding of Time and to advance his own argument (or speculation) as to what Time is (in, at least, some of its many mansions). Both seek to rescue us from the mechanical 'passing time' that appears to be our present cultural lot. This 'passing time' is remarkably deadening. If it were true, we might imagine that it would encourage everyone to seize the present moment with unyielding relish but, as Priestley shows, this ain't necessarily so indeed this is exactly the cultural moment when we invented the notion that time is something to be 'killed' (as if our unconscious recognised that if the flow of time is meaningless perhaps it were better dead)!

The first part of the book is a wonderful act of compression - time as cultural artefact explored from many angles with concision, illustration both verbal and visual (the book is laden with fabulous illustrations) and wit. His summation of the Medieval period, for example, is masterly - you come away, through the lens of time, with a renewed understanding of the age. Narrow certainly but intense, a world in which to quote Rowan Williams, 'everyone had selves with knobs on' - vividly individual even (or because) they found their place in a community - and colourful. Priestley slyly contrasts Chaucer's Pilgrims with a gathering of travellers at the airport gate much to the advantage of the former. This ability to locate oneself was, in part, a gift of a view of time that allowed you, however, difficult your present, a firm track into a located eternity. 

The second part of the book is grounded in Priestley's own quasi-research project. The presenter of a BBC cultural program, having interviewed Priestley on his concern for time, invited readers to contact the author with examples of when Time appeared not to behave in a simply linear, passing fashion. Priestley was inundated with hundreds of letters, mostly concerned with precognitive dreams. These he sifts, explores, brings into dialogue both with skeptical criticism and theories of time, most prominently those of J.W. Dunne, and through which he develops his own speculation on Time rooted in the possible, his experience and the evidence his interlocutors (laced with a few historic examples) presented him with. All through he tries, and succeeds, to keep on the side of the balanced, the sober, the seriously empirical (if by this we include giving real space for people's actual experience).

Some of the examples are compelling whether the famously historical whereby a passenger evades a voyage on the Titanic or a woman dreaming of her drowning child corrects this potential future into a happy ending. Cumulatively, I think, they elude skepticism - and Priestley, faithful to the dictates of Thomas Aquinas, gives the skeptics the best possible run for their money.

I came away with a renewed sense that (at the very least) the future is accessible, that the mind, while linked to the brain, surpasses it and that not only precognition is real but that we live in a cosmos saturated with meaning and that our participation in it is not limited to this one 'mortal coil'. That Time is a house with many mansions (and that it may be moated and grounded in eternity though Priestley does not go that far). 

What is remarkable about Priestley's text is that his fathoming is so faithful to the contours of his experience and that in this he wants to marry the spiritual, the psychological and the scientific. He indicates a direction of travel away from either religion or science as 'received wisdom' and both as an ongoing, exciting adventure that is always enterprising after new truths and always vulnerable to the new, what presents itself.





Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Redeeming through time

Eugene Vodolazkin did not expect anyone except his wife and his immediate, curious colleagues to read his novel 'Laurus', set in fifteenth century Russia, describing the life of a healer, holy fool, pilgrim and monk yet, to his surprise, it not only won awards but became a best seller in its native Russia and is now in the process of appearing in no less than fifteen languages. The English version, that I read, faithfully translates Vodolazkin's blend of archaic and contemporary language as it seeks both to recreate its 'past' 'life world' and simultaneously undermine your sense of time itself.

This is a hugely ambitious novel in which we follow Arseny, the grandson of a healer, through four distinct phases of his life, each one with its own setting and place. The accomplished healer succumbs to a deranging melancholy on the death of his beloved (and of his child) in childbirth and takes on the mantle of a 'holy fool'. The fool, in turn, becomes a pilgrim to Jerusalem and on his return to Russia, a monk. In each guise, he seeks not his own redemption but that of his wife and child. The expiation of his sins focus on earning of an afterlife or them that is blessed, in which their names and faces are known to and in God.

Through each life we are introduced into a detailed picture of what such a life might look like and into the worlds of those with whom Arseny interacts. We see the faith invested in folk medicine, even when it fails to work, suggestive of a world created for man even if, in its Fall, it is far from always beneficent.  We see the workings of plague. We see the strange admixture of admiration for holiness slipping into its violating opposite - the demands of holiness can be difficult to bear for the unholy- so they punish it. We see the comforts of a communal world and its dangers when it encounters the stranger or the simply the estranged.

Each phase of life for Arseny brings him a new name ending in the monastic name of Laurus. Each phase of life brings speculation as to what it is in us that maintains a continuity of life and is that continuity our personal stories or yet something other perhaps in Arseny's case his binding commitment to his beloved and his faith in God's ability to grant her a restful home.

If this was 'all' the novel contained it would be an elegant sufficiency but there is another, deepening strand that runs through the text, gathering pace, and that is its questioning the nature of time. Arseny acquires (and loses) in the second half an Italian friend, Ambrogio, who visits Russia because it is friendly to prophecy and Ambrogio, through a glass darkly, sees the future and is puzzled for he has seen that in 1492 a new world will be discovered but too that (in Russia) the end of the world is expected. Both cannot be true (at least literally). Ambrogio's character allows Vodolazkin to unfurl speculations on time - its subjective changes of pace, the ability to stand outside of it, the thought that it is fundamentally unreal: everything simply is present in an eternal instantiation to which having, imperfect access, one can, from time to time, see effectively into the future (and presumably the past). And so on and so forth.

This speculative undercurrent too places a question mark over the whole because at one level the text can, and is, read as the faithful rendering of Arseny's multiple lives that inhabit not only an historically authentic frame but also one undoubtedly inspired by the Orthodox faith of the author.

As one, enthusiastic reviewer in the American Conservative put it, the book can inspire you to prayer (and it does). Indeed it might even help you unravel that mysterious 'object' the Russian soul and have you yearning for Holy Mother Russia reinvigorated (which would show, sadly, that fantasy trumps anything proximate to an historical reality).

But how 'Orthodox' is the novel in practice?

Foreseeing the future in an instaneous present places strains on traditional defences of free will. Meanwhile, Arseny seems strangely uninterested in Christ (for a holy fool or a pilgrim or a monk) even though Christ does appear briefly, in vision, and make a crucial intervention in Jerusalem. Finally, none of his spiritual mentors/companions seem to challenge, Arseny's strangely morbid fixation on redeeming his beloved. This seems to occlude (until the final recapitulating moments) any true surrender of self: his guilt is subtly too fascinating.

This may, ultimately, of course, be its primary orthodox point. We are redeemed only through passing through time, and all its messiness, to an elsewhere that is the timeless. Both namely having and inhabiting a history and then losing our history are essential to becoming fully human and thus an image of God. It is by entering that paradox fully that we find our life and the connecting thread to of our multiple selves.



Mastering trauma

Olga Kharitidi's first book, "Entering the Circle"  http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2016/12/entering-circle-psychiatrists-...