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.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Undiscovered Country or how the Dead have a will of their own

Carl Watkins, a medieval historian at Cambridge, has written a marvellous book about dying, death and the dead across the ages in England (with a side excursion to Wales) from the Medieval period to the First World World. It is accomplished by the quality of its writing, its choice of illustrative story and its generosity of spirit. This latter enables you to sense what each, changing, perception of death truly meant to that cast of particular protagonists in their time and place.

So, for example, we start in the Middle Ages.  Here a belief in purgatory and the journey of the dead from first dilemma to hoped for bliss, meant that the task was to secure active remembrance, informed by prayer, for the transiting soul. A whole panoply of mechanisms grew up to ensure this. The sculptured tomb in a church reminded the viewer of their mortal state and elicited sympathetic prayer for the depicted's post mortem state. The dead party offered a variety of good works - repairing and naming a gate, opening an almshouse or distributing bread to the poor - to keep them in the praying eye. And, the professional apparatus of chantry and guild that kept masses and prayers circulating to the benefit of the generous dead.

All of which was disrupted by the Reformation. Salvation being by faith alone, it became 'instantaneous'. Purgatory disappeared. You were either destined for heaven or hell and no post-mortem help was possible. Yet no rupture is ever complete. You could still remember the dead in your prayers but now the efficacy was not their eternal destiny but a recapitulation of their virtue as a stimulus for your own.

The book beautifully illustrates that what we believe will shape, at the least, how we interpret what we see and, at the most, what we actually do see. Our responses to dying, death and the possibilities of an afterlife do shift as our patterns of belief and expectation change. Yet strikingly through the book, you also notice that, first, certain patterns of belief, however differently tinged, persist and that the dead themselves, in spite of the latest 'theory', continue to behave with stubborn consistency.

Thus, purgatory having been 'abolished' by goodly Protestant theologians keeps reappearing - both in the stubborn folk traditions around burial that imagine that what you do in terms of burial matters to the future of the deceased and, more explicitly, in the nineteenth century the birth of spiritualism imagines that post mortem survival provides and demonstrates opportunities for a renewing conscious life beyond the grave.

Thus too ghosts (in varied guises) continue to behave in manners continuously consistent, irrespective of the theologies that swirl around them, indeed ghosts seem happily resistant to our expectations and beliefs, behaving as they have always done, for good or ill. It rather reminds me about a moment in Stephen King's 'Salems Lot' where the local priest is earnestly questioning the validity in 'modern thought' of evil just as he is being swallowed up by the vampire!

This is social and cultural history of a high order. It describes the phenomenon of how death has been seen across the span of a given history allowing for that testimony to speak for itself, leaving the audience to reflect on what it may mean for their own understanding both of the past and the reality that each person will face, namely their own death.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Well at the World's End

A professor of Ancient History, whilst walking in the Highlands, encounters, with his wife, Fand, a well whose water is so clear that they are momentarily led to believe that it is dry. Where does the water end and the air begin for there appears to be no boundary?

This triggers in Peter Munro, the professor, a quixotic desire to go a wandering in search of a particular kind of adventure and to find 'the well at the world's end'. The adventure is to allow himself to meet all kind of folk and by paying them a certain kind of attention to tease from them stories when, like the well, they found that their ordinary boundary between self and world had disappeared and they had peeked into another world, though one wholly enfolded in this one.

This is then not an 'ordinary' novel - and one that quite baffled its readership. For its author was an accomplished writer of social realism - of the complex history and life of the Highlands - not notably regarded as a metaphysician (or indeed a mystic). But Neil M Gunn, the novel's author, was, in fact, all three and as his life and writing progressed, he attempted to ever more deeply intertwine the three, looking for the signals of transcendence amidst the everyday. Indeed in 'The Well at the World's End' he actually makes use of both his own experience and those related to him by friends of, for want of a better name, 'mystical experience'.

The novel has no especial guiding narrative - episode follows episode, loosely connected by the sense of a quest - and in the different ways, people step beyond the threshold - when close to death by drowning, at rest after an arduous day wrapped in twilight, by the simple grace of a Spanish garden drenched in the stillness of the midday sun, when encountering a storm at sea or in speculation over a shared myth. Many are the possibilities of being surprised by delight and of becoming made whole in the delight's grace, if only for a moment but then how long is that?

What Gunn gives one, through the text, are continuous opportunities to pause, ponder over life's meaning, taste it, without ever suggesting explanations. Indeed thought, whilst valuable, is often the hindrance to true seeing, revolving as it does so closely around 'my' purposes, the ego's self-referential dance, rather than being opened out and made vulnerable by the presence of what is, momentarily unnamed, unnameable.

It is, also, a meditation on those famed lines of T.S. Eliot's in Little Gidding where the explorer arrives where he started yet knowing the place for the first time or in Munro's case, where he beholds his wife, after a nearly deadly adventure saving a sheep, and wholly refreshes his knowing of her, made pristine again out of his renewing experience.

But never does Gunn stray too far from the wholly ordinary, otherwise he would defeat his purpose. His 'mysticism' is woven tight to his characters and their everyday lives - their hopes, loves, humours and struggles -  such that the 'well at the world's end' is everywhere, for the world's ending is placed in every particular being, every person, as their birthright.

The novel was written, in the post World War II world, at a time when 'realism' appeared to demand 'pessimism' and a shedding of the possibilities of transcendence for a secular making do (preferably gathered around the kitchen sink or assembled in a bar) and where the predominant emotion might be 'anger'. This may account for its poor reception but takes nothing away from its quality as a heart felt rejoinder and reminder of a better world.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Wild Geese Overhead: Where does reform begin?

"Wild Geese Overhead" is an atypical novel for Neil Gunn. It is not set in the Highlands that were his home but in Glasgow. It is a Glasgow deeply divided between the world of the bourgeoise and the working class. A world teetering on the edge of renewed conflict and one broken by the scourge of Depression of the 1930s.

In the life of its central character, Will, a sub-editor at an evening newspaper, Gunn explores the 'age old' question as to where does social transformation begin? Does it begin with the individual or with society? Like many age old questions, the answer is often not 'either or' but 'both and' but by temperament, drawn to one or other end of the equation, we continue to argue it out.

Will wants to suggest, whilst recognising in his conversations with his socialist friend, Joe, that we are products of our circumstances, that there is another dimension to our selves that brings them to a completing wholeness. It is a wholeness he has tasted. One day, when observing wild geese navigating the sky, he has stepped out of the world that spins around his own ego into the world of the self that opens out to all that is present with a mixture of detachment and compassion. Learning what this means and how you might cultivate grace by falling into it by attention and by will is a core component of the book.

Will wants to maintain that it is through discovering this renewed self that we find the genuine energy to reach out and help others, not as pieces on the board of social progress, but as particular persons in their own right, to be enjoyed as such. The world, this world now, is an end of enjoyment in itself, never simply a means, and to see it aright always carries this potential for enjoyment.

This is not a position that can be argued for and if, like Mac, an older sub-editor at the paper the realism of the world is 'mud' or, like Joe, the socialist, clay to be moulded and only the product to be enjoyed, then there is little that you can do but point to the possibilities of a different way of seeing, and hope.

This seeing as a renewed self, a person, has the capacity to correct the tendency of ideology to become the ever postponed promise of a liberation that never comes and to neglect the contours of actual life A reminder that the world is inherently messy yet also deeply connected and at one.

Whatever the action of the novel (and this perhaps is its least successful part), the book is a beautiful exploration of what in Zen would be called 'polishing the stone'. For it describes, well and with telling observation, what happens after an illumination (the Wild Geese). Something is different but it needs to be worked out in and through one's everyday consciousness. Grappled with, felt into, and thought through. After the ecstasy, comes the laundry.

What is striking is how remarkably thoughtful Gunn is to the dimensions of this - the opportunities and the perils - after all being taken out of your habitual self can lead too great a detachment from real living or to an inflation - and to its spiritual corrective: 'the dark night of the soul'. It is no wonder that when later Gunn actually encountered Zen in his reading, it rang so true as a conforming instance of a pattern of being and experiencing with which he was deeply familiar. A Zen novel from Glasgow.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Koestler not quite indispensable but compellingly interesting (and topical)!

Amongst many of the dilemmas that face a would be biographer of Arthur Koestler is the realisation that externally the first half of his life is much the most colourful, action packed and celebrated. Here the journalist of genius, and novelist, was forged amongst the calamitous events of the mid-twentieth century and here was a man who had a knack of being exactly in the right place and the right time.

It was a rollercoaster ride of reinvention from Zionist to Communist to anti-Communist scourge. In the course of which he had been imprisoned three times by three different states, faced death at the hand of Franco and from his own hand as he flees the advancing Germans. Here he watched his own reputation soar with the publication of his masterpiece, the novel, 'Darkness at Noon', laying bare the psychology and culture of totalitarianism. Here he awaits eagerly, given his expansive egotism, for his well deserved Nobel Prize (that incidentally never came)!

But then, he turns to science and ultimately what is worse unorthodox science. This is both extrinsically less compelling, not much dicing with death here, and if your view of the world is comfortably mainstream, disconcerting! This is where Michael Scammel's fascinating biography, "Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual', sadly, falters. He cannot disguise his genuine puzzlement - and his attempts to slot Koestler back into the acceptable narrative of the culture is a touch feeble, haunted by the wishful thinking of the indispensability of its titling.

This is a pity because in doing so, he fails to sufficiently address why Koestler took this turn and what it might mean for either him or for the culture at large. After all here was a man with an unerring ear for what was important, what was coming next, why our current fashions might be an emperor parading in the nude? Did he just lose this ability or was he still on the trail of the future?

Here are three reasons why he might still be sounding out the future rather than trapped in an echo chamber of his own making?

First because, like many of his prescient contemporaries, he did not believe the then current assumption that the secular was progressively on the march. Religion was not in the process of simply withering away; and, even if you thought its current dogmatic structures were unsustainable, what religion points to, engages with and involves, remains a critical, if not the critical, aspect of what it might mean to be human.

Second, if this is so, it would be important to trace historically when the practice of science and religion parted company as explorations of cosmic wonder and patterns of meaning making and wonder whether that splitting into technocratic materialism, of science increasingly fracturing into narrow specialisms; and, religion travelling inward justifying itself by faith alone, began and whether that beginning was inevitable. Were there tracks back to more holistic, systemic ways of thinking that remarry contemplative intuition and reasoning, purpose and science?

Third, if we are to look for signs of a re-emergent connectivity between the scientific and the religious enterprise after knowing, we cannot expect it necessarily to emerge from the mainstream. Everything he had learnt about politics was how easy it was for a mainstream to become a rigid orthodoxy, imposing patterns of thinking by subtle, and not so subtle, pathways of authority gone authoritarian. Yes, the byways and outliers undoubtedly contained the wacky and the crazed but also perhaps the weird and the wonderful. If Koestler became a crank, a 'crank' as his acquaintance, E.F. Schumacher, noted is a 'small, useful tool and it creates revolutions'!

This, at the very least, makes Koestler's explorations into creativity, cosmology, and evolution interesting and, for his reminder, that science is as messy a business as any human endeavour, salutary, even if it does not make him indispensable (who is one wonders)! Scammel's failure to read Koestler's interest against a broader understanding of the 'counter-culture' that Koestler was recognising is the book's one principal flaw.

But too, even if the biography was only published in 2009, events, the stubborn refusal of history to end, and the swing back towards authoritarianism in politics (and the playing fast and loose with the truth, that, in truth, is nothing new) should make Koestler's life and thought current again - even if the deeper questions he poses about what we take to be the nature of things does not. If people are pouring over Orwell's '1984' for clues of navigating Trump land, they might like to add, his friend's, Koestler's 'Darkness at Noon' not least because, unlike Orwell, Koestler had been 'inside the belly of the beast' and is the better, more forensic, psychologist.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Other Place

A politician attempts to give a speech but is distracted on realising that his audience are either asleep or are the 'living dead'. A schoolteacher is convinced he has seen the last man alive from the future and a harbinger of apocalypse. A troubled married couple slip in time to meet their anima and animus and it is an encounter that initiates the potential healing of their marriage.

Such are some of the story lines in J.B. Priestley's collection of short stories, 'The Other Place'. It is a collection of 'weird tales' and demonstrate convincingly that whatever Priestley was it was not simply confined to his persona as a bluff, no nonsense Yorkshireman and purveyor of social realist, traditional fiction and well-crafted plays. Social criticism is never far away - neither of the inequalities of class nor the emergence of the 'mass man' of the post War era, swayed into consumption by the lure of advertising and the slow fracturing of community into the more amorphous state of a 'society'.

But behind or within this is a deeper, metaphysical concern after meaning.

What does it mean to be a human being, awake in the world and alive to purpose and the possibility of flourishing? Traditionally this would be the field of religion but striking in Priestley, this is a domain that is almost wholly absent. None of his characters have it in their field of reference. They are, to all appearances, throughly secular. This is interesting because several of his most obvious contemporaries still have it in their sights - even if only as a point of departure - the Scottish novelist, Neil Gunn, comes to mind as does Aldous Huxley.

Be that as it may, all three have a critical concern to rediscover plausible pathways for transformative experience that allows for transcendence - both of conventional reality and as a destination for human wellbeing. In Priestley's case, the two most obvious influences are Ouspensky & Maurice Nicoll and C.G. Jung. All three were dedicated explorers of the potential of the human person (and in Nicoll overlap - he was Jung's first English disciple and a subsequent student of Ouspenksy (and of Gurdjieff).

If you want a flavour of the complex ideas of all three (or four) thinkers, these tales might be an excellent place to start. The politician's demise in front of his realisation is both a satirical and haunting take on Gurdjieff's claim that we are, most of the time and on the whole, 'asleep' performing all our actions mechanically below the threshold of any genuine awareness. The forthcoming apocalypse (though indebted to H.G. Wells) is an invitation to reflect on the world's trajectory and imagine that 'progress' is not inevitable but a complex earned good, always fragile. Meanwhile, Luke and Betty's potential redemption at the hands of encountering their ideal 'male' and 'female' archetypes is an invitation to recognise that all transformation may be accomplished by a touch of grace but that grace is led to and comes away with a significant task of work.

Indeed this might be the meaning at the heart of most of the tales - meaning is not conferred except through diligent, conscious work, of the extension of awareness, the deepening of consciousness, nothing contrives to condemn us like our own complacency.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Weaving art inside 'madness'

As a young man of twenty four, Angus MacPhee left his home on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides to go to war. He was a member of Lovat's Scouts and was posted in 1940 to occupy and protect the Faeroe Isles. He did not see combat because, before the Lovats fought in Italy, Angus had succumbed to what was diagnosed as 'simple schizophrenia'. This form of schizophrenia presents all the passive symptoms without the accompanying, more familiar, active ones. It debilitates rather than excites, saps rather than disturbs. After a brief spell at home, he found himself in a mental asylum near Inverness.

Unlike the subsequent crafted images of such places, popularised in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest', this was an institution of benign care where the continuing mysteries of mental illness were addressed with the limited techniques at hand broadly in an environment of safety. In Angus' case, it was an environment enhanced by its ownership of a farm on which he worked and where he cared for the animals, especially the horses, that he loved.

He would have remained unknown to the wider world if it had not been for his compulsive attachment to creating things either from woven grass or fragments of wool taken from fences and woven into objects both recognisable and exaggerated, often with humour, like the woven grass boots (above) for an eight foot tall occupant!

His work, especially with grass, was ephemeral and he appeared not to care - what mattered to him was the making - that it subsequently faded and indeed was often destroyed or folded into compost, mattered not.

Had it not been noticed by the pioneering art therapist and collector of 'outsider' art, Joyce Laing, it would have all disappeared.

Roger Hutchinson's 'The Silent Weaver: The Extraordinary Life and Work of Angus MacPhee' tells the story of Angus' life and explores the questions to which it gives rise. He shows how Angus' choice of method was rooted in the culture and work of his homeland - horse bridles in Uist were often, for example, woven from the marram grass that lines the island's shores. He asks whether an 'artist' must be consciously so (and create for an audience) or can he simply 'unconsciously' be a maker as appeared to be the case with Angus and with many other makers of 'outsider art'? This he places in the history of the growth of interest in such art and its challenge to the assumptions that underlie 'the arts'. He touches on the continually vexed question of the relationship between creativity and madness. He, also, touches on the story of mental health care in twentieth century Britain and how the much maligned asylum might have, in truth, often have deserved its name.

It ends beautifully in a meditation that they may be something about the nature of the Celtic art tradition that resonates throughout MacPhee's work - quoting Renan, Matthew Arnold and Yeats to good effect. That it carries within itself a love of nature for itself, in its very materiality and ephemerality. Nature is something mysterious that you abide in and navigate, not something you simply admire from a distance. It breathes you, you play and work in it, it ever changes - and like MacPhee's workings decays to take on new forms.

In this, it reminds me of the Chinese - and the wonderful story of the poet who inscribed their work on leaves so that the wind could carry them up, away, and ultimately dissolve them back into the substances from which they continually emerge.

Redeeming through time

Eugene Vodolazkin did not expect anyone except his wife and his immediate, curious colleagues to read his novel 'Laurus', set in fi...