Sunday, February 27, 2011

I Know Where I'm Going

I watched "I Know Where I'm Going" by Powell and Pressburger. It is a beautiful film with their striking marks, not least the remarkable dream sequence depicted here. Every time I see one of their works, I am struck by how 'modern' and 'experimental' they are and yet wholly woven into the fabric of contemporary cinema. They manage to be both serious and entertaining.

Within the fabric of a romance, they manage here to set two sets of values starkly against each other: a traditional culture of  the Hebredes and a way of being modern (of knowing where one is going) that is both narrowly individualistic and stratified by class.

There are lovely set-pieces - most notably a ceilidh celebrating a diamond wedding celebration that quietly celebrates both a marriage and one rooted in community, made in community. It speaks of a community that is shaped by a common inheritance of shared life and art.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ovid made real in exile.

I re-read David Malouf's Imaginary Life on the plane back from Nairobi. Originally, it was given to me by a friend suggesting I would not realise fully why until completion.

It is so lyrical and on the surface simple. Ovid is in exile. He lives on the very edge of the empire, amongst 'barbarians' in rude simplicity. He meets and befriends a child, the Child, nurtured by animals: wolves or deer, it is never made definite. After months of mutual tutoring and failing to lay the suspicion of the tribes people towards the Child, he goes with him into the steppes and dies.

It is, however, a profound meditation on language and its ability to create humanity and to veil direct contact with the suchness of things. They offer each a gift - the shaping creativity of language is the poet's gift, only slightingly realized before his death. The wholeness of a shaping world made of particular things, sounded and tasted, felt and sensed is the Child's gift to the poet.

It is crafted with a poet's precision (Malouf is a fine poet) and sings with embodied thought. How does language both connect and separate? Is language essential for humanity? Do other animals have their own language shaping different visions of the world? What status do our dreams have: do they
bring the future to us, carry hopes of transformation seeking life?

At heart is a refined play between expression bringing out forms to make our own, a world created, and dissolution into the suchness of things, a world given. Knowing and not knowing, creating and being are essential to each other and to a true poetry that speaks truly, not the formal play that was Ovid's previous life. Malouf remarks in an after word that he wanted to imagine how Ovid might have lived into a reality that in his actual life he had only played with.

It was Ann, the founder of Prison Phoenix, who gave it to me and it reminds me always of our repeated conversations on how to show changes of consciousness (as opposed to describe them); how to image them rather than symbolize them.

I was reminded this time of leaving Athos after a summer of silence (one weekly conversation the only words over seven weeks). I sat on the boat assaulted by words, people speaking in all the common registers of a pilgrims' boat, and watched my own words utter forth with momentary care, singing across an inner silence. They lived more than usual it felt because they were bound by silence: they formed and dissolved, carried precision, but lived only as necessary.

Malouf's book captures in words a way of seeing beyond them, showing this, not saying. It is a beautiful achievement: a world that is poetry becoming poem.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Disruptive change

As part of the innovation event I was helping to run this week, we were given an introduction to a process of encouraging disruptive social innovation.

As part of this, we were given the tool of a graph. Across the vertical access we listed all the organizational forms we had imagined addressing the problem (we had chosen) and along the horizontal access all the characteristics the organization would need to present an optimal solution.

This helps you identify, as you plot the organizational form against the characteristics (on a scale of optimal to not), under utilized opportunities. An example would be the 'netbook' where people recognized that current computing left a space where simplicity and accessibility and inexpensiveness were not occupied by any current offering.

My partner and I and another couple chose 'big themes'. We chose inequality and they chose our consumerism and its ecological consequences.

Both recognized similar gaps - current solutions are not sexy, virile or viral. They are not presently, in a nutshell, social movements - to which we want to belong, that are amplified by membership and acquire members by infection.

Both of these couples represented people from the UK (though one lives in Kenya) and I was left contemplating our absence of social movement, especially in the West. We can campaign for discrete things - the government will not privatize our forests for example - but we appear unable to assume ideological infection and campaign for grand themes - equality or a new ecological lifestyle. I tend to think of this as an impoverishment even when I recognize the peril of mass movements and ideologies not tempered by either humanity nor pragmatism.

We were both defeated by a sense of what precisely does constitute a change (a form of change) that advances our two core goals that appear to require changes of heart and consequent behaviour.

Answers on a postcard to...!!!

Gratitude to a poet

I first wrote to the poet, Kathleen Raine, at university. 

It was one of her books on Blake (Blake and the New Age) that had at school given me a key to understanding him. I used to feign colds, when bored, and take the odd afternoon off and lie on my bed reading this alluring, powerful and incomprehensible poetry, and getting shards of understanding. It was Kathleen's work that enabled me to begin assembling the shards into some resemblance of the whole I sensed but had yet to see (and to this seeing, as Yeats said, there is no end for Blake is a prophet: one who speaks out of the divine).

I loved her poetry and her autobiographies too. They spoke of a world that was mine: a common inheritance of all, obscured to us by our own limitations and that of the world's common, materialist assumptions.

I wrote and she replied and in her reply left the door ajar for further correspondence. For three years it flowed and then at the first Temenos conference at Dartington Hall, we met.

She was the central presence, I was a twenty something shy introvert of utter obscurity. I hovered near by on the first day until she, noticing me, turned and said, "And you must be Nicholas, I am carrying your last letter to me around in my handbag, like a talisman"! To which I had no obvious reply apart from gratitude (and surprise). For the remainder of the conference, she came up to me from time to time and asked: "How do you think our conference is going?" as if we were its sole architects! It was an extraordinary performance designed part consciously, part not to nourish a fragile young person's sense of self and it worked. It was part of a process of coming into myself, of flourishing.

I loved the way subsequently when asked a question I was never asked if I knew something but if I remembered. There was a dual matter at play here. On the surface the courtesy of assuming a common culture: who has not read Dante, for example? And if you have not would it not be better for you if you had. This enabled you always to pass off ignorance as forgetfulness. It is a delightful pattern of inclusion. The second underlying reality of the question is a Platonic one: all knowledge says Socrates is remembered: seen by the soul, obscured by the body (though Socrates actual threefold perception of our human reality is more complex than this simplification). We see beauty because we have known it - the world mirrors in part its know archetypal form. 

I used to go for tea, as well as continue to write, and it was a significant part of my education, my mentoring. I owe her a deep debt that I am now recovering after several years of partial neglect - like Dante part of me has been adrift in a dark wood (while another part of me has been nurtured into life - time for the two to come together methinks).

My favourite poem of Kathleen's:

The Wilderness

I came too late to the hills: they were swept bare
Winters before I was born of song and story,
Of spell or speech with power of oracle or invocation,

The great ash long dead by a roofless house, its branches rotten,
The voice of the crows an inarticulate cry,
And from the wells and springs the holy water ebbed away.

A child I ran in the wind on a withered moor
Crying out after those great presences who were not there,
Long lost in the forgetfulness of the forgotten.

Only the archaic forms themselves could tell!
In sacred speech of hoodie on gray stone, or hawk in air,
Of Eden where the lonely rowan bends over the dark pool.

Yet I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,
Knowledge under the leaves, tasted the bitter berries red,
Drunk water cold and clear from an inexhaustible hidden fountain.

Kathleen Raine 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Not the ideal city but hopeful

I went today on a programme visit to a Nairobi slum.

They are tight packed, of corrugated iron houses, often owned by slum landlords with deep pockets and political connections. Narrow lanes wind between blocks of houses with dirt packed walkways now dry, later to be flowing mud. Rubbish is strewn everywhere including human waste, collected in 'flying toilets' - plastic bags with ties, dispensed with by hurling onto nearest designated (or customary) dump, hopefully.

They are violence wracked - both domestic that is amplified by the stresses of living in such uncertain and difficult circumstances, criminal as gangs proliferate; and, political as the tensions between political blocks remain, co-habiting uncomfortably in government.

Yet it is a place where hope emerges.

A cluster of youth groups who have come together to recycle plastic, navigating the perceptions of city government and the general  populace as idling sources of threat, to produce a credible source of income generation and a potential enterprise. They were full of dreams: realistic, robust and considered. They pressed the NGO facilitator hard on representation on the organizing committee (something we urged upon them) and for recognition that formal educational qualifications were not the only criteria for recruitment for NGO jobs. In this latter context, I said that though education was important (and on this I have multiple reservations) capabilities and informal skills could be equally so. (I think I scandalized some of the Oxfam African staff on this, many of whom have made significant sacrifices to secure their schooling)!

A group of women who have used $20 a month cash transfers to start small scale enterprises, often food related, outside their homes, weaning them off dependency on cash transfers and enabling them to go to bed, as a family, with full stomachs. They too dreamed dreams: one wished to be a singer, and demonstrated a beautiful voice, haunting sound, wracked by surrounding bustle and industry; another wanted to see her children and grandchildren through school. One or two had gone beyond simple trading and cooking to simple manufacturing, and I have a jar of peanut butter as evidence of her work, and hope.

Finally, a youth group who were setting up a bio-digester, providing toilet and washroom facilities and consuming human waste to make gas. At full utilization it could produce cooking gas (replacing damaging charcoal) for 600 homes. Toilets would fly no more and the waste product would be fertilizer. Above the washroom was a meeting room, where installing a satellite television and charging per match was to be a second source of income. I asked one of the elders of the group what happened if a 'bad person' joined the group. 'They become good,' he replied, 'by example'! I could believe him!

But outside this particular work, sponsored by us, the other sign of hope that strikes me again and again in these contexts is the children returning from school - in uniform - a defiance of order and hope in a grim setting. It is an affirmation of humanity, time may unwind it, but many will navigate their way through to lives honourably lived, and some dreams fulfilled.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Imagined healing

It was a early morning, and the mist was clearing at Great Zimbabwe. At the exit sat a fallen tree that was being carved by an extrovert sculptor willingly sharing of his work in progress. It was to be an image of the Zimbabwe king, sheltering his people, a king after the order of David, restoring peace to his country. A king out of time, redeeming time. Peace would descend if the statue were shaped, raised and honoured aright.

This effortless blend of traditions - African and Biblical - creating a sacred harmony, embodying Tradition is what Yeats found in Ireland.

The sculptor reminded me of Paddy Flynn, from whom Yeats gleaned most of the stories in The Celtic Twilight:

"A little bright eyed man who lived in a leaky and one-roomed cabin in the village of Ballisdore...He was a great teller of tales, and unlike our common romances knew how to empty heaven, hell, and purgatory, faeryland and earth, to people his stories. He did not live in a shrunken world, but knew of no less ample circumstances than did Homer himself."

I have been reading Katheleen Raine's last book of essays on Yeats: "W B Yeats and the Learning of the Imagination". It makes for compelling account of Yeats' learning in traditional wisdom. By tradition here we mean that atemporal imaginative vision of the truth of things that becomes embodies and re-embodied in particular patterns of living, ways of living naturally orientated to the sacred.

That embodiment can be so natural, so much a part of the shared reality of life, touching all its aspects, that it cannot be separated out from everyday life, and that life can be seen operating at many levels, seamlessly. A simple poem, enjoyed as such, can be seen, with different eyes or the sames eyes looking differently, as a metaphysical statement compelling because of its absorbed simplicity and rightness.

Yeats, by his own acknowledgement, was:

"We were the last romantics - chose for a theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness;
Whatever's written in what poets name
The book of the people; whatever man can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in the saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts on the darkening flood."

Pegasus, the horse of inspiration, appears riderless, without guiding into accepted form and the swan, soul's symbol, is adrift in a dark sea.

That easy connection between sacred reality and everyday is cast asunder - Yeats' prophesied it, and yet also called forth its eventual return, when materialism (as a premise) withers and mind is seen as the root of reality (and all that flows from this in configuring a sacred universe).

But as it withers 'here' in the 'West' that homed Yeats' three provincial centuries of matter's dominance, it lives elsewhere - in a wood carver in Zimbabwe who knows the power of imagination to offer healing.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

East is West and West is East and n'er the twain will meet

In England all Thai restaurants strive after the ambiance of the exotic 'East': all carved wood and paintings on silk and low ambient lighting.

In Bangkok many Thia restaurants seem to strive after replicas of 60s cafeterias: all brightly lit fluorescent places of utilitarian eating.

We each pursue the image of the other and miss!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

By Nightfall

I read in my insomniac state, in the early hours, Michael Cunningham's 'By Nightfall' appropriately given that the central character, Peter, is an insomniac.

It is very beautiful and soberly sad.

Peter is in his forties, a modestly successful gallery owner in New York with the compulsory loft in SoHo. He has never been able to possess or be possessed by beauty neither in the art that he has dealt in nor in his wife, his disappointing daughter or, fatefully in his encounter with his wife's much younger brother who is fragile yet, as we discover, swiftly manipulative.

The leitmotif that resonated with me is Peter's 'failure to imagine the lives of others' - and the recognition that such imagination is not delivered in bold brush strokes, in the grandiloquence of  yearning desire but in the painterly attention to the lived particulars, the listening to other's lives that liberates cumulative shared insights into the grain of things.

I was reminded of a discussion between the poet, Kathleen Raine, and the painter, Winifred Nicholson, about the importance of individual strokes (in a painting) and of the placing of prepositions or conjunctions or similar small, connective words (in poems). This Nicholson demonstrated by standing up, covering a particular small brush stroke of that day's work in progress and both painter and poet watched the composition fade and break before their eyes.

I was reminded too of a Rembrandt exhibition (of drawings) that I saw in Bilbao - the same themes repeated in variations, over and over, the craft of assimilating, understanding the thing seen: the patience of a certain kind of realism, the necessity of compassion to actually create art worth seeing.

But Peter is subject to the devilment of beauty - in Greek - devil and beauty share the same root.  A certain kind of it lures you with an aching desire. It does Peter, in an absence in the art he has failed to find to show, and in prsence in Mizzy (his wife's brother who comes to stay) and it is ultimately disillusioning and the disillusionment can both break or redeem.

It will break Mizzy, the gilded, ill-starred youth who has never emerged from under his family's misplaced hopes - it makes his manipulation of others too easy, too emptying - and it may make Peter.

The devil may be necessary but woe to you if you dance with him too long! His beauty is transient - it breaks out and over in youth but will not rest and stay. It cannot be possessed only enjoyed and is fatefully taken too seriously. Peter's 'disappointing' daughter is knowingly called 'Beatrice' but Bea, unlike Dante's muse, has grown up without retaining her early parentally projected promise, no wonder she takes refuge in a second rate hell: a hotel bar in Boston.

The book did not make a great advertisement for owning a gallery! I could recognize from my own limited experience that sense of how you tolerate the 'good enough art' and how your liking for the artist can so easily distort your judgment; and, how you hope that you maintain a certain consistency of judgment and yet fail!

But I came back to that sense that good art is in the imagination of the life of others - and here it is betrayed by 'concept' and 'affect' and indeed 'scandal' - the world you imagine may be populated by 'imagined others' as in Leonora Carrington or actual others as in Rembrandt but as in life, so in art, what makes it work, is being able to take that step beyond 'self-expression' into an embodiment that compassionately embrace s others and in doing so discovers a self worth inhabiting.

This is, I expect, a path of continual disillusionment (in life as well as art) but one through which we do receive glimpses of glory (both glamorous and ordinary).

It is, in fact, the trajectory of Rembrandt's self-portraits from the self-expressed youth eagerly foolish to the wise clown, knowingly foolish, compassionate for self and others!

Monday, February 14, 2011

William Morris ponders Rick Owens

Standing in the designer Rick Owens' London store (not overwhelmingly familiar territory), I found myself thinking of William Morris -that great Victorian designer, poet and political activist.

If evangelical Christians can ponder 'What would Jesus do?', I find I ponder what would Morris think - especially when confronted by good design, well made that is recognizably itself.

I expect he would take its 'androgynous' feel, its fluid sexual boundaries in his stride.

But the questions that Morris would ask, I think, would include - who has made the clothes, with what level and intention of craft, how have they been remunerated and do they share in the fruits of their sale? Does the designer concern himself that the fruits of his work can only be enjoyed by an elite few (though many are the imitations available at much reduced cost) and does that matter in the moral and political scale of things?

Morris, in his own work, ensured the former (the conditions of his workers were good) and failed on the latter (so crafted were the goods that they could only be afforded by an elite, with the exception of some of the wallpapers, mass produced for a wider audience) - a reality that continually troubled him.

Do they trouble Rick Owens? I have no way of knowing. You hope that they do, even if the solutions continue to elude.

But if history is a guide, they may not, and this is what ultimately leaves me uncomfortable about 'fashion'  - that it exists simply as a status differentiator, rather than as a celebration of craft even if, in the current economic system (that confronted Morris and continues to confront Owens), craft means expense, though it has not always been so, for in traditional societies craft has been more widespread, and the barriers to entry lower (no elusive need to acquire a 'designer' mystique to make things individual and well)!

It is this paradoxical marriage of craft and graft that discomforts - prevents simple celebration.

They are, I suppose, curious questions but ones that as a community we need to ask more, rather than less, often; and, they cover the whole spectrum of things made, not only the well-made.

The answers would no doubt make us more uncomfortable than we would like.

They are questions that pursue me to Bangkok where so many work in factories supplying the cheaper versions of this season's fashionable dreams; and, if we care at all, we tend to only in passing! And that such manufacturing sits alongside an older, deeper, tradition of making, everywhere imperiled, that haunts by its beauty (even seen in the traditional houses that miraculously survive within Bangkok's high rise, American imitation, business district) makes the questions doubly troubling.

Meanwhile, back in the London store, aesthetics trump morals: the clothes are edgily beautiful and utterly urban and make me wish I were more flamboyant (and richer)!

Finally, by way of digression, I possess for art a 'What would Winifred Nicholson think' and for literature a 'What would Edwin Muir think' as internalized icons of discrimination and taste. All three I imagine testing works first by striking them gently (with the possible exception of Morris) against the fibres of their feeling being before thinking them through and about as is my own wont. I am struck by how only Morris of this company is by profession an atheist (as both Nicholson and Muir were essentially Christian Platonist(s) of whose party I am one). But then Morris professed a number of things that his practice denied, amongst them orthodox Marxism): he wrote a utopia (the only one I have read that I could imagine inhabiting) that is anarchist in conception and saturated in the light of Paradise!

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Horses

The Horses

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
'They'll molder away and be like other loam.'
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads.

Edwin Muir

This is Muir's most anthologized poem.

It captures both a moment in history: the fear of nuclear armageddon and its aftermath and eternity: a restorative relationship between man and beast that is as much myth as practice. Muir was a natural Platonist whose use of symbol at its best makes of them integral images that flow in time as they arrest time creating a window into another reality.

Our distancing from a world well lived is attributed to the power of our technologies that now have failed us by war it is implied, though other patterns of failure beckon us now. Our restoration is through a renewed relationship to earth and ways of working it that are harmoniously built within nature rather than against it: "Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads."

But there is a subtler wisdom at work here: a deeper reconciliation. For the 'horse' in Plato is a symbol of our embodied desires that unruly and misplaced undo our possibilities for harmony; that ridden well take us to the fullest expression of our potential selves, that bring us to Eden.

The poem works beautifully both on a communal level and a personal (rather akin to Plato's own constructed networked images of the ideal state that is, also, our 'ideal state': the necessary practice of our enlightenment).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

She who hears the cries of the world

Kuan Yin is a Bodhisattva, an emanation of Avalokitsevara, the embodiment of compassion, of whom she is the female form in East Asia: a goddess of mercy in the traditional folk traditions of both China and Japan.

I am reading John Blofeld's charming book on her, "Bodhisattva of Compassion : The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin". Blofeld is a wonderful writer - an English convert to Buddhism who encountered China in the 1930s and 40s before established traditions were swept away.

As a teenager he had encountered a statue of the Buddha and developed an intense urge to possess, venerate and lay flowers at his base (a curious reaction for a middle class English boy of the 1920s with no obvious familial connection to Asia). It was an experience that later made him ponder the possibility of reincarnation: imagining for himself a previous life as a Chinese Buddhist monk. If nothing else this imagination suffused his descriptions of both Buddhist and Taoist hermitages in China (of the 30s) with great empathy and a sense of nostalgia and longing. In this incarnation he was, however, robustly 'unmonastic' savouring many of the sensual delights of East Asia and marrying a Chinese woman and playing the full role of a householder.

It set him on a path that led to his discovery of China - its three religious traditions, most especially Buddhism and Taoism - and both his career as teacher and scholar and his own spiritual path. He brings to his writing an empathy for the subject and its different embodiments - from high metaphysics to mystical practice, from living form in saintly practitioner to the humblest forms in folk tradition and hope. He is always aware of his modern, potentially skeptical audience and yet does not allow it to corrode the fullness of his exposition and his willingness to entertain stories of other dimensions of reality not counted for in our dominant materialist philosophy. He blends personal anecdote and recollection of a living tradition with lucid exposition of complex ideas.

One marring presence is the occasional side swipe at Judeo-Christian tradition (though not always wholly unjustified) as mainstream expositions of Christianity had clearly not grafted well! It is a pity, however, that he does not appear to have truly tasted of Christianity in its mystical, contemplative form.

One of those possible points of comparison and difference is around notions of forgiveness. Kuan Yin is the Bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world and responds with compassion: she tends tears, binds wounds, and gently, playfully nudges us towards the paths of enlightenment.

One of the differences between this and the apparent realities of Christianity, as was noted by the great 'Catholic' Japanese novelist, Shusaku Endo, is that in this there is no acknowledgment of sin and forgiveness. Kuan Yin embraces all without the demands of judgment in the embrace of compassion that loosens the binds of ignorance: no reparation is demanded of the supplicant, only the offer of transformation is extended. She is an ever present mother whose love is unconditional. This appears in contradistinction to Christianity with its language of judgment, even potentially final in its verdict. However, there is strand in Christianity that comes close to Kuan Yin exemplified (by amongst others) Mother Julian of Norwich who writes that in Christ there is no forgiveness for in Christ, our true home, there can be no separation. Forgiveness implies a time when love was withheld waiting a choice of bestowal and in Christ this is impossible for His very nature is love (a love that Julian makes maternal in her image of Christ as our mother).

Here the two traditions emphatically touch and greet.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Silver Bough

Neil Gunn's 1948 novel treats, amongst much else besides, of the hoped for restoration of a man to life after the horrors of war.

In the case of the laird, Martin, this is not simply the case of re-finding his place - the familiar story of a lost pattern of intense friendship forged in the intensity of shared courage, fear and impending death. It is of the rediscovery of meaning in daily life that in its fragility (and inevitable loss) can be seen as resistant to carrying such meaning: how can something so easily destroyed (and we discover callously destroyed in Martin's wartime experience) be the place of man's delight?

That it can (or be hoped for) is shown by the last scene where Martin takes Anna and her child, his child until now disowned, into his boat and make away on a calm sea.

This being Gunn amongst the beautiful described 'action' of the narrative is a series of 'metaphysical strands' - of which Martin's is the one that arrested my attention. Martin has served in 'the East' and witnessing the flaying of the wife of a planter pursues her five Japanese persecutors, killing each in turn, a guerrilla in the wilderness of the forest, he is a hidden pursuer, able to avoid capture by an intense identification with his place, charged by its 'mana' (to use the anthropological term): a unity that is beyond any moral identification, and from which, Gunn suggests, the gods are born as workmanlike metaphors.

This intensity of experience detaches Martin from the normal round as much as the trauma he has seen.

It reminded me of Adrian Hayter, the first man to sail around the world, single handed, in both directions. A remarkable man, he had served with great distinction in the Second World War, winning a Military Cross. During that war, he had received more than one striking, life unsettling, mystical experiences, the intense unity that Martin describes in his own wartime experiences. His subsequent quest was both to recapture that intensity and find a way of expressing it. Part of his desire to sail single handed was to recreate the conditions of wartime - intense physical exertion and danger - as a trigger to release from ego into unity (and Martin does likewise).

It struck me when I met him, already in the grip of the cancer that would kill him, that this quest had been both deeply rewarding but oddly detaching, and ultimately a source of frustration. No one he felt quite understood what he had experienced and periodically he would discover a writer on the interior life who had seen, only to come away ultimately disappointed. Alan Watts, in a different context, wrote that once you got the message, you should hang up the phone. Repetition itself is no release.

There is required of us in responding to such experiences the necessary task of what Zen calls 'polishing the stone', finding a way to allow that underlying sense of unity to be a well-spring of engagement rather than a barrier of detachment. Martin's return is the arresting of his attention back to the ordinary world first in being saved from tragedy by the intervention of the woman he has abandoned and second by encounters with the unselfconscious play of his child.

It is a beautifully constructed testimony to the restoration of life by the joy of its domestic loves, loving.

Gunn is remarkable in being able to weave this theme into a complex tale - of an archaeological dig at an ancient cairn that yields a 'crock of gold' artifacts that no sooner is rediscovered than they disappear taken, it would appear, by Andie, a young man 'simple' in the then current parlance, who has a fondness for the glittering. This find becomes a local sensation and sets in motion a series of events that lead to Andie's death and Martin's rebirth but where neither are even the main character - that falls to Simon Grant, the archaeologist, whose actions, conscious and unconscious, drive the plot yet the transformations are not his own, as if he reveals in the life around him new patterns, without himself being changed.

Whirling Rumi

Something I wrote a while back introducing a volume of Rumi's poems, sadly yet to see the light of day...

It was the eight hundredth anniversary of his birth and Istanbul was alive to his memory. At night, lasers painted colourful dancing forms on the dome of the Blue Mosque. During the day, people flocked to Hagia Sophia to an exhibition celebrating his life and that of the Mevlevi Sufi Order that he had founded.

But it was in the incongruous location of the No1 exhibition hall at the railway station that had once hosted the Orient Express that Rumi came to life. Here members of the Galatta Lodge of the Mevlevi Sufi Order were to perform their ritual, circling dance: the famous 'whirling dervishes'.

I confess an element of scepticism played within me: was this to be transcending ritual or public performance? Could the two be combined? The music began, haunting, repetitive refrains, seeking to tease you out of thought as 'doth eternity'. The dancers appeared, concentrated yet subtly aware of their audience. My scepticism, ebbing to the music as it was, held sway. Until in the dance, you slowly witnessed transformation. It was more remarkable and convincing for being a gradation between the barely transformed, yet yearning, self-consciousness of the youngest dancer to the complete absorption of the eldest.

The eldest was transformed in his meditation, allowing the breaking in of a new world that is always present in this one for those with ears to hear, eyes to see, souls to dance. He glowed with transfiguration.

The ritual ended. This world rolled back into its place. The gate into the garden closed. Yet I had seen, glimpsed, an invitation to join the dance.

These poems invite us on that self-same journey from tentative yearning for the divine turned to holy desire, from a homeless, distracted soul toward our fulfillment in beholding the Friend, the face of the Beloved and dwelling there: our true home.

We are asked to step out of the everyday 'world of dust' and dance through an ascending hierarchy of gardens that restores one's soul to the heart; the heart to the spirit; and, in finding spirit, transcending all, remembering that we 'are the King's falcon/a spark of the Beloved/a divine wonder'!

In this selection of poems of Jalaludin Rumi - the 'Gardens of Splendour' - there are four gardens. These are the four states through which we travel on the inward journey: the Garden of the Soul, the Garden of the Heart, the Garden of the Spirit and the Garden of the Essence.

Each garden has at its centre a flowing fountain in an arbor of fruit trees. The fountain represents our perception of worlds of forms and ideas: the archetypes through which the divine fashions the worlds we see. The water is the Light that higher knowledge that flows from the Fountain of the Spirit into the Garden of the Heart and from there feeds our intuitions in the Garden of the Soul.

The water gives life to the fruit of the trees. An image that is a constant reminder that all we are, every gift we are, is a fruit of grace. Our existence is continuously made possible, right at this moment, because we are gifted into being, born continuously out of divine grace, beloved into being.

From this remembering, we learn humility. Humility is an unpopular virtue in our world. It seems to speak of something demeaning, self-effacing in a world of self-assertion. In truth, however, it speaks of what is essential.

"If you do not know yourself,
even in my presence you will be far away..."

It tells of knowing where we are, where we stand: a clear-eyed perception of ourselves from which learning is born. The mystic way is a craft and like any craft requires the sweat of practice out of which the grace of performance can break through.

Gardening too is a craft and the garden is a recurring image in the language and practice of mystical paths. A garden - traditionally an enclosure surrounded by trees, is a mandala with a centrifugal movement: outward into the paradise of nature and inward to the spiritual centre symbolized by flowing water, generating constant ripples in the fountain: the in breath and out breath of the divine awareness encompassing all.

But the garden too is a practical image of what we are called to in being human, bearing the divine image.

For the garden is the place where all that is given is shaped into an harmonious whole. As any good gardener knows, this is achieved not by imposition, but by careful study of the potential of any particular place and, over time, the patient cultivation of all these latent possibilities into an unfolding glory, each responsive to its season.

Each of Rumi's poems is a thought filled act of cultivation, tending our potential, nurturing it to unfurl. Each poem has its place and its season in our unfolding journey. Each poem addresses an essential aspect of our selves and our journey to the Beloved.

Any creative gardener knows too that though our own attention, care and love is necessary, all that we finally achieve is born through grace: the gifting of the garden's own nature and heart.

For we come to God by love and not by navigation. These poems are an act of love that celebrates this love and nurtures it to reality.

A love most fully expressed in the dance: where the lovers become as one.

Once again music is rising in the air
and my soul opens its arms inviting my heart to dance.
The whole world is smiling, wrapped in a luminous glow.
The table is set, the guest has arrived,
the scent of new Spring over the green meadows
is overwhelming and I am drunk with love.
The Beloved is the whole sea, I a curl of mist on its surface;
He is a precious treasure,
in His light I am just a dust particle, no one.
But please forgive my boasting
for I can split the moon in two with the light of my Beloved.
I am wild with love!

Shall we join the dance?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Telling

I have re-read Ursula Le Guin's "The Telling". It is a cliche to say 'this is the book that changed my life' but like many cliches it happens to be true.

I read it twice during the critical process of discernment to a Dominican vocation and it twice forestalled the saying of a 'yes'.

The Telling is the process by which the people of Akan bring the world into being. People, unlike animals, need the guidance of words, shaping narratives, bodies of knowledge. This is what the Telling provides but as guidance, enterprises after truth, neither as infallible command or certainty. The Telling is a hallowing of this world and is rooted in cumulative experience: it cannot be definitive, it cannot create boundaries of belief. It does not ask that anything be sacrificed for a hoped for future. Its model in Le Guin's mind is Taoism, especially in its philosophic and empirical forms - an aid to contented living, here and now.

On Akan it has been repressed as 'unscientific' a halt to the progress of reason, the newly enshrined god. The new order has echoes both of communism and of religious fundamentalism.

Reading it (and trusting that its vision is proximate to my own) made Dominican life impossible. This is not because in itself Dominican life bears any of the intolerance of that new order but it does participate in an institutional pattern of certainty that is not my own. It does claim truth, and certain exclusive rights to that truth; and, I discovered I could not. All I had was my own experience tested against that of trusted others, essays after knowing, always falling back into question.

I realized I could not represent more than this - and that the value of such representation is significant in a world where clashing certainties are only too real. This dwelling in question, tentative answering is surprisingly hard work but it would appear where I belong, mostly.

It is not that I do not hold beliefs (I think I am a Christian neo-Platonist with Taoist tendencies) but I do so quizzically. I certainly sense/know what I value and care for and will always try to embody these, often undoubtedly failing.

There is a beautiful passage that tries to capture the posture of identifying with yet not being captured by your perspective on the reality presented that any 'Observer' (of which the central heroine is one) needs:

"A yielding, an obedience, a willingness to accept these notes as the right notes, this pattern as the true pattern, is the essential gesture of performance, translation, and understanding. The gesture need not be permanent, a lasting posture of the mind or heart; yet it is not false. It is more than the suspension of disbelief needed to watch a play, yet less than a conversion. It is a position, a posture in the dance."

It strikes me as a good rule of practice towards the world - to enter fully yet hold to any one position lightly. Perhaps it is not what we believe that is the most important but how we hold to that belief in the face of otherness, the other.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Good Man in Hell

The Good Man in Hell by Edwin Muir

If a good man were ever housed in Hell
By needful error of the qualities,
Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,

Would he, surrendering quick to obvious hate,
Fill half eternity with cries and tears,
Or watch beside Hell's little wicket gate
In patience for the first ten thousand years,

Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
That, uttered, dooms him to rescindless ill,
Forcing his praying tongue to run by rote,
Eternity entire before him still?

Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
Since here someone could live, and live well?

One doubt of evil would bring down such a grace,
Open such a gate, and Eden could enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
And love and hate and life and death begin.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Revolutions as innovation

Today at our first outing for the 'innovation module' we were asked to arrange ourselves in a line chronologically according to our favourite 'innovation'. These ranged from 'Skype' through television to the domestication of wheat and fire! (My own preferred option was monasticism)! But the nearest in chronology was the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. This was problematic as I tend to imagine that something counts as innovation only when it has worked, been adopted, is a part of our given reality.

The revolutions in both Egypt and Tunisia are works in progress. When Chou En Lai was asked what he thought the impact of the French Revolution had been, he is meant to have replied, 'It is too early to say'! But even with a more compressed time scale, it is certainly too early to ascribe to either North African revolutions the character of a success (given that we know what 'success' would look like). The Egyptian one in particular is not, even yet, over that over-emphasized 'tipping point' and the agencies of reaction, today, appear to be fully activated.

I would wish for them an East European outcome: a relatively orderly transition to a functioning, if dysfunctional at another level, democracy that brings you into the dull round of politely contested politics. However, I fear other potential outcomes - politics is an uncertain unfolding in which determined forces (even if soundly in the minority) can play major, indeed defining, roles.

My model for this is always the Russian Revolution (February rather than the October coup). Here with the monarchy displaced and broadly representative forces in place an opportunity arose for a difficult but real transition to an inclusive polity. However, those forces dallied to destruction - a constituent assembly postponed, a war continued and the illusion held of no enemies to the 'left' only seen from the 'right' - and all was undone by the determined work of the Bolsheviks whose coup (and brilliant strategies of co-option and propaganda) successfully set Russia on an alternate (and deeply damaging) course.

One of the factors of this displacement of reasonable by ruthless men was a profound underestimation both of the utter weariness of war and of the tensions that existed between classes that were to generate such extraordinary levels of violence.

The problem with 'revolutionary liberalism' (or liberals entangled in revolution) is that they seriously underestimate the power of passions to derail as well as push forward revolutionary action and their fastidious reticence to manipulate and direct such passion. It often leaves them at a crippling disadvantage to darker powers. Let us hope that upheavals in the Middle East allow sufficient space for transitions that do not only rely on the understandable, pent up frustrations of subject people.

Learning to meditate

A piece I wrote recently for the next edition of the Prison Phoenix Trust newsletter  and resonant with this rece...