Showing posts from December, 2010

The Marionette

The Secret Life of Puppets reminded me of Edwin Muir’s short novel: ‘The Marionette’ that can be read comfortably in an evening (and was yesterday). Muir was a great poet, a fine perceptive critic but, by his own estimation, a disappointed novelist. Re-reading this, his first, you feel that it was a road of great promise not travelled, diverted into the two later, more realistic, offerings that have their many merits but never cohere as a whole and do not, unlike here, show his poetic , imaginative gifts in their best light.

The central character of ‘The Marionette’ is Hans who is, in the language of the day, feeble-minded. His birth was attended by the death of his mother and his father has retreated from him both because of his disability and for the painful memories his presence and his wife’s absence entails. Hans grows up in his own world, touched only by the sufferance of a succession of nursemaids and the pragmatic, compassionate, if uncomprehending, help of housekeeper, Martha.

The Secret Life of Puppets

Wandering along a street in Edinburgh last October, I found myself wondering why we were so obsessed with vampires whether being slain by Buffy or lingering doe-eyed in the twilight.

The next day I went to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (and their fabulous Surrealism show) and picked up a copy of Victoria Nelson’s ‘The Secret Life of Puppets’ that now, belatedly read, provides a partial answer.

Nelson’s argument is rich and complex (and does not focus on vampires). It argues, with a rich tapestry of supporting example, that, "In the current Aristotelian age the transcendental has been forced underground, where it has found a distorted outlet outside the recognized boundaries of religious expression". Our "repressed religious impulses," in a secular society, can be found in "fantastic novels and films." Hence, she writes, "we can locate our unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul by looking at the ways that human simulacra—puppets, cybor…

The Way Back

Peter Weir's latest film is unusual because it treats of the gulag. You are used to prisons on film (in the 'West') and prisoner of war and concentration camps but the realities (and meaning) of the gulag is little explored.

All three forms of imprisonment are represented here: ordinary criminals (with their privileged status),  captured Polish soldiers seen as politically dangerous and Russians (and others) accused of varied political acts - from espionage to sabotage.

The darkly surreal nature of imprisonment in Stalin's paranoid purges is lightly but effectively sketched. Infinitely more difficult is showing the hardships of gulag life: you simply cannot act yourself into that level of stripped, humiliated degradation and physical suffering.

What the film principally achieves (beyond Weir's signature ability to make you feel land (or sea) scape in its inexorable indifference to your (man's) purposes) is showing the endurance of the escapees. On they walk a…

Holding identities

First, before we get started, I am wondering what in the content of yesterday's post, 'The Atom of Delight' launched such a positive stampede of 'interest' from Pakistan! A mystery! A secret valley of Neil Gunn lovers exiled to the Hindu Kush!


To include a copy of Christ Mocked to a Christmas greeting might be seen as the first glimmerings of onrushing senility: confusing my festivals!

But it is a testament to one of this year’s most compelling moments: a guided tour through Hebron with two former Israeli soldiers both of whom had served in this deeply divided city during the period of the second intifada.

The tour began at the tomb of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob over which has been built both a synagogue and a mosque. They have separate entrances for Muslims (round the back through the security screening) and for Jews (and Christians and others…though one of our party’s ‘Hindu’ status created category confusion in the young Israel …

The Atom of Delight

‘The Atom of Delight’ is Neil M Gunn’s autobiography , though an unusual one, like Jung’s it focuses on the unfolding of his ‘inner’ life: His realization of an ‘essential self’ that transcended his everyday patterning of identities. It is a realization grounded in experience, key moments of illumination, that polished in reflection, transformed his way of seeing, allowing the world to rest in its creating, transfiguring light. The sheer ‘normality’ and simplicity of these moments, many rooted in childhood, and affirmed later are striking: breaking nuts by a burn side and ‘coming’ on himself doing it, witnessing himself in the naked sense of ‘being there’, what Gurdjieff would call, ‘self-remembering’. Gunn wanted to avoid and evade any charge of ‘mysticism’ as ‘fuzzy’ or ‘esoteric’ and he took markedly later to reading and contemplating Zen precisely for its matter of fact, embodied quality. Realization is seeing that there is another world but it is wholly enfolded, enfolds this one…


An uncanny day where every significant inner thought met a virtually instant (un-caused) external response!

The last example - eating my supper, thinking I must be more social (I have been a mite eremetic of late, an old tendency) and my mobile phone immediately flashes a text with an invitation to the carol concert at Christchurch this very evening!

I was reminded of an eight day silent retreat I took at St Bueno's when this phenomena got utterly out of hand. My favourite occasion, in this instance, was telling my director that though I liked our music at mealtimes, perhaps we could have a variation from the storms and stress of nineteenth century Romanticism (not wholly conducive to the cultivation of attentive silence)!

On my walk that afternoon, I found myself with Elgar's Cello concerto resonating in my mind (which is not untinged with late Romanticism) and there it was at dinner, on the turntable, accompanying the meal as if summoned by magic. The whole week was like tha…

Of monks and 'me's'

Watching 'Of Gods and Men' brought back to me vividly that for a long time the 'insanity' (as Dom Christian de Cherge calls it in the film, at one point) of the monastic choice was my question. The one that shaped and conditioned my choices even as it remained implicit. 'There is a place I cannot go in you,' one very close friend told me once, 'It is occupied by a lover I cannot compete with'! It was true.

In the film, the doctor-monk is talking to one of the young women who helps at the monastery. 'How do you know you are in love?' she asks; and, the old monk tells her. 'Have you ever been in love?' she gently challenges. 'Yes,' he replies, 'many times until I surrendered it for a greater one.' (I think I would say different and including).

Whenmy question finally became explicit, tested against an actual community, and the answer, mutually arrived at, was no, I feel rather than turn away in either disappointment or rel…

Of Gods and Men

Imagine you are a teenage girl on a bus, thinking you usual thoughts, as it carries you from school to home, and you are stabbed to death because apparently you are not wearing the 'hijab' which your murderer believes you should. Now imagine that your murderer may not have believed this, but only wanted the wider world to believe that this was his motivation. He is an agent provocateur of the security forces of an embattled state that wishes to full blacken its enemy, hoping to alienate the 'people' from them.

This was the reality of the Algerian civil war that erupted after a second round of elections were canceled in 1991 after the first were won by the Islamic Salvation Front. It was a strikingly brutal conflict where nothing was as it appeared. An army roadblock might be a 'terrorist' one, the 'terrorists' in disguise but who, more deeply, are terrorists and who the army? In all more than 160,000 people were killed including the seven Cistercian mon…

Being a genuine fake

Thinking of Merton that extraordinary energy of a man: monk and writer. A hermit who craved company; vowed to chastity, given to falling in love; and given to silence and charged with the burning need to communicate.

There is an essay by Alan Watts, a contemporary of Merton's, equally living in paradox, called, 'How to be a genuine fake.' I cannot remember its specific content but I have adopted it as a category of my own. I recall in Kuala Lumper being offered a 'genuine fake Rolex' and when I asked the difference between 'fake' and 'genuine fake' - I was told that the latter would actually work!

To return to Merton he strikes me as a' genuine fake'. A man with a real taste of the contemplative heart, a profound grasp of its intellectual credentials, articulate in its promotion and defence and yet by virtue of his position (and the projections of others) carrying a saintly image that often cost him his humanity, and the possibilities of hi…

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.

Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does …

On drinking a glass of wine

Drinking a glass of Gewurztraminer in celebration of good news from a critical donor (as if I needed an excuse), I was happily reminded of my first encounter with this Alsatian wine that has become my favourite. It was not sampled first in some street side Strasbourg cafe but in a German restaurant by the side of I-94 near Kenosha in Wisconsin, near one of the great 'outlet shopping' centres in the mid-West. Wisconsin is a state that was greatly populated by German immigrants in the nineteenth century; hence, the brewing industry of Milwaukee, a short drive north. The wine was a recommendation of a dear friend, and Dominican friar, Don Goergen, whose family origin is Alsace.

From a glass of wine at a particular restaurant to the reason for being in Wisconsin: a six month sabbatical at the Friends of God Dominican ashram (then in Kenosha, now in Adrian, Michigan) settled by the shores of Lake Michigan and a long stretch of public park down to the harbour and its lighthouse, the…

Garrow's Law

Based on the pioneering eighteenth century lawyer, William Garrow, this BBC series though it follows all the expected pathways of such programmes (a tortured love interest, backroom corruption by the elite and an implausibly noble lead) is wonderfully compelling.

It has a highly literate script that does give you the feel and texture of eighteenth century speech, context and mores. It powerfully evokes the difference between then and now - a child hung for thieving pennies, slaves thrown overboard as they are seen as chattels and the offence of sodomy as a capital one.

You find yourself giving thanks for progress and then are brought up short.

You recall the street children of Bogota who each night took shelter in drainpipes and sewers lest the police 'solved' the problem they represented by killing them (as I remember from a visit in the mid-90s). You know that somewhere now a leaky vessel, packed with migrants, illegals, is being transported across a treacherous sea. You kno…

Drinking deep at the well

I finished Neil M Gunn's 'The Drinking Well': stepping out of its world with the reluctance of leave taking.

It is a beautiful novel of one young man's awkward awakening and precisely captures the slow, stop-go, forward-back nature of growing awareness.

There are wonderful set pieces - herding the hoggs (yearling sheep) back through a late winter storm in which every detail is well-wrought: the effect of cold on the body of man, dog and sheep; how snow falls in deceptive blankets that yet with time and experience can be read; and, how close stalks death in such elemental encounters and how it can either spur or sap will.

As with all Gunn's work there is both a political edge, explicit here, about ownership of land and the depredations of landlords; and, a metaphysical subtlety that, as it developed, rather bewildered his readership, used to his earlier social realism.

Here it is partly carried by Mad Mairag - the local eccentric who speaks as easily with the dead a…

All not about sheep

It has been a long wait but finally I have found a second great novel where incidentally you learn a great deal about sheep!

The first is knowingly famous: Halldor Laxness' 'Independent People' that extraordinary exploration of the failure of 'independent living' in a world that requires community, and the intimacy of family.

The second is a more neglected book: Neil M. Gunn's 'The Drinking Well' which is a beautifully crafted story of a young man's coming to maturity in travelling away from and return to 'the land' and a recovery of community. It is a community known innocently at the start, later recovered in conscious experience.

Both books are utterly rooted to a place, in time - late nineteenth century Iceland in the former, between the Wars Scotland in the latter, neither strikes you as especially experimental in form, adopting a comfortable realism, even though both are tinged with the transcendent and the uncanny.

Both too are satura…

Christmas party

Annual party at the Prison Phoenix Trust -  

It is lovely, as always, to see what has been achieved and for the quality of the people involved: both staff and volunteers.

I could not imagine when we began in the lean-to behind Ann's, the founder's, house that we would grow into such a well-established organization.

I came home with a warm glow.

Fluted Enlightenment

You can play the Magic Flute in different ways with the central challenge being how to balance the initiation of Tamino and Pamina with the comedy of Papageno and Papagena.

This balanced tension was rather lost in last nights Welsh National Opera production and the whole was suffused with the atmosphere of pantomime (as perhaps befits the season). It was well executed (and beautifully sung) but both the sharper elements of struggle between dark and light, and the haunting elements of transformation clunked into and sat rather uncomfortably for a while before comedy reasserted itself!

The opera is often seen as Mozart's paean to the values of the enlightenment (of which Freemasons were implicated as the champions). The light of reason banishes the superstitions of the past (though the tendency to identify these with 'the feminine' is an ancient superstition of its own)! But it seems to me that the opera (and the history) is more complex than that. There is (or was) in this …