Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The sins of the fathers are revenged by their children

That staple of teenage English literature classes, William Golding's 'The Lord of the Flies' has taught us that children are not innocent (though Richard Hughes' 'A High Wind in Jamaica' already traveled this ground with greater subtlety), this reality is given new depth in Michael Haneke's film, 'The White Ribbon'.

It is set in a claustrophobic north German village in the year before the First World War. The village is plagued with a series of incidents that strike the note of revenge and whose perpetrators remain hidden until suddenly it appears to the schoolmaster, at least, that the fault lies with a group of children, taking vengeance for actual and presumed hurts - from the realities of abuse to the sibling rivalry of the appearance of another child.

The vengeance of children, it is suggested, emerges out of slights both real and imagined. It is this latter point that is parable for what will unfold in Germany after the actual defeat of war - a whole political deformation will emerge out of real failings and projected enemies.

But the slights are also real - the world described is one of extraordinary constraint: externally of social division, internally of personal repression.

There are striking set pieces - the wonderful confrontation between the Lutheran pastor and his son on the vexed question of his masturbation (the presumed result of which is depression, sallowness and death riddled with pustules)! One result of which is that the child is tied down at night, hands kept unfree!

But the children's vengeance is opportunistic - and not direct - another searching parable for what will come next. It often strikes at the vulnerable - the disabled son of a midwife whose own complicity is a failure to stop her lover's abuse of his daughter - in a strange magical sense that the world might be made good but a good itself that is in the grip of an unconscious wish fulfillment.

It is a beautifully shot film - in black and white - and the only characters who emerge virtuously are the narrator, the schoolmaster, whose reason (and decency) is a light that finally reveals what is unfolding (even as it cannot do anything to bring it to a righting conclusion) and his fiance, nanny at the manor, whose innocence is her protection.

As war comes, and change is promised, though the film suggests a change to be built on tragic foundations, I am reminded of how deeply the arrival of war was celebrated even amongst those who might have known better! You can imagine that if this stultifying world was in anyway authentic, such enthusiasm of escape is perfectly understandable.

Monday, March 28, 2011

City of Lingering Splendour

The city is Peking as described by the Buddhist/Taoist scholar, John Blofeld, recalling a younger self who, in his early twenties, lived in Peking in the 1930s, teaching English,  and savouring its delights - from flower girls to Taoist hermits.

It is, as its sub-title advertises, a frank account embracing his first love affair with a flower girl (a sophisticated prostitute endowed with an education of traditional charms), his disapproving flirtation with opium and an idling life enjoying the many aesthetic pleasures of a city, poised on the edge of transformation, first a brutal Japanese occupation followed, after a corrupt Nationalist interlude, by the purging 'mercies' of Communist rule.

But a city where past traditions continued to hold sway, where the lingering scent of empire clung to the landscape.

Blofeld was incurably a romantic, drawn in his own belief by past lives, to a place he felt utterly at home and duly celebrates. It is a beautiful book where in the company of an open-minded, questing and generous spirit, you feel the resonances of a particular place in time, and certain of its patterns of life and custom.

Filtering out through the descriptions is the growing conviction of a spiritual path, though one unerringly forgiving of the temptations of the sensuous, and it springs out in brief encounters with  Buddhist, both monk and layman, and Taoist hermit.

There are memorable descriptions of particular personalities - his friend Pao who marries a 'drum girl', socially 'beneath' him, rescusing her from the clutches of an admiring Japanese colonel, and becomes a Communist spy, resisting occupation. The mysterious Father Vassily, a White Russian exile, who blends Christianity with Buddhism in his own unique creed, and gives a creepy comfort to some of the dispossessed Russian community in Peking, scratching a living, despised by their hosts. Dr Chang, the prosperous doctor, long widowed, who forges a partnership with a former flower girl and musician, who refuses to marry him lest it destroy his status who amidst a hearty appetite both culinary and sexual maintains a devout Buddhist practice, and writes abstruse explorations of Buddhist doctrine.

It is a beautiful memoir that artfully blends the worldly and its transcendence.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The burden of vision

Films on the lives of artists are, I think, exceptionally difficult to realize.  The actual work of painting is crafty, particular, and slow: and, thus, wholly lacking in cinematographic energy (or guise). You may have to be content with the artist's life (that may or may not 'illustrate' the sources and performance of his or her art) and this inclines you to artist's whose lives are known, colourful and dramatic! A touch of, or even more so a disintegration into, insanity helps, as with Van Gogh, as here.

Seraphine De Senlis, as she is now known, was a maid, scratching a living around town in a variety of menial jobs from which she derived no recognition, but she had a gift: she was an artist. Whilst working at a local convent, her guardian angel had commanded her to paint, and paint she did, under the watchful eye of the Virgin Mary, paintings of gathering beauty came from her,  virtually unknown to all and recognized by none, until, whilst attending to one of her houses, she is discovered by a German art dealer, living and working in France.

Slowly he persuades, and supports her, to work wholly on her art, and the work deepens and develops. But this concentration has tragic consequences, her 'detachment' from everyday reality gathers pace, her sense of being chosen deepens, until a final crisis (partly tripped by the economic crisis of the 1930s postponing her Paris exhibition, her full recognition) brings her to an asylum. It was only after her death that the critic, Wilhelm Udhe, could finally give her a solo exhibition, in Paris in 1945.

Their relationship was highly complicated - his support was critical both to its flourishing and to its crisis. He supported her both before and after the asylum but the film beautiful exhibits the difficulty he faced - just how responsible was he, and how did she stand in relationship to him, when so much else in his life was complicated. A German pacifist in France in the First World War who had to flee. A Jew in the Second who had to go into hiding. A homosexual with a convenience marriage etc.

The film, also, beautifully succeeds by showing, but never seeking to explain, the sources of her inspiration - in God, in her angel companions, in nature.

There is a wonderful moment when she asks Udhe whether he believes - at least in the Virgin Mary, surely in the Virgin Mary? He replies that it depends on his mood, an honest answer, but that he does believe in the soul for it explains our capacity for despair, unlike the animals who are always happy (because soulless). Not so Seraphine replies for a cow separated from her calf cries, she has felt it. A feeling that happily refutes St Thomas Aquinas!

She had an extraordinary sensitivity to the live of things, too sensitive perhaps for this world.

The film is beautifully produced and the performances, most especially of Yolande Moreau, are fabulous. She captures her naivete, her complex responses to her art rooted in an acceptance of craft, and her descent from eccentric visionary to disappointed madness. You feel the world could not see her vision and in failing to see, broke her.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ozymandias in Dubai

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This famous poem of Shelley's tends to leap unbidden to my mind whenever I visit either Doha or Dubai. They do strike you as exercises in environmental hubris (and a complex set of vanity competitions between disparate developers without any sense of place - either possibilities or limits)!

J. R. McNeill in his environmental history of the twentieth century (Something New Under the Sun) describes two mutually exclusive life strategies that animals (including humans) may follow. The first, called the rat strategy, remains flexible, changing behaviour and outlook to marry with a changing environment and until recently people have accomplished rat-like strategies more or less competently living within limits and adapting accordingly within a wider nature. The second - of inflexible specialization - makes a supreme adjustment to one particular favourable and (presumed) constant environment and pursue complete exploitation. Pandas do this, having decided to live only on (apparently) abundant new bamboo shoots (until that is bamboo growth periodically fails, and panda numbers crash). In our case, we have decided on an environment of abundant fossil fuels (which is understandable if you live in the Gulf) and will exploit that environment until it crashes, leaving the towers of Dubai adrift in the sands, akin to Ozymandias forlorn trunks of once mighty legs.

Shelley may have been suggesting that all is transient especially, as a proto-anarchist, of tyrannical leaders, another theme much on people's minds in Dubai, but I tend to think of ecological transiency: here we literally are building our houses upon the sand!

Yet even as I know this, it can be deeply alluring - there is something superficially fascinating about the sheer achievement (even if the whole does not add up, either as city design or sustainable reality). Sitting in the Jetty bar of the Royal Mirage Hotel (rather an apt symbolic name) in your illuminated (and comfortable) white plastic armchairs, transfigured from within, looking across the bay at the night lit city scape, you cannot help being dazzled at the sight; but, I expect Ozymandias was quite a sight in his prime too!

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Passage on Forster

Sitting on the plane to Dubai, I found myself sitting between a man to my left listening to excerpts from the Koran and to the right, across the aisle, a woman reading the Book of Revelation from a well-thumbed Bible.

I felt deeply secular. I was reading Moffat's new biography of E. M. Forster at the point at which he was cruising a beach in Egypt hoping to belatedly lose his virginity. If serendipitous symbolism can be ironic, it was an irony that Forster would have appreciated!

Forster could be seen as a 'secular saint'. Christopher Isherwood described him as the sanest man he had ever met. Like all those marked as saints, he was a flawed human being yet one with qualities that were extraordinarily admirable, and thought provoking.

Critical to this was the importance he placed on friendship, as ideal and practice, and one that radically transgressed social convention, not only, most importantly of sexuality, but also of social class. He was not without the burdening of inherited prejudice, but continually practiced his way through them, often retaining fidelity in the persistent reality of the unreasonable behaviour of others. He believed, I think, that as long as we live our character is not fixed, and we can find its nobility at any time.

One quality that everyone referred to was his ability to listen, a stillness that allowed people to narrate their lives, and fashion and refashion meaning in the light of their being deeply heard. It is a rare quality - one I deeply wished I possessed (I can painfully summon it occasionally out of the sapping miasma of my impatience)!

He championed an aristocracy (that anyone could join) of the 'sensitive, the considerate and the plucky'. This belief in tolerance and courtesy can appear ineffectual mounted against the deadly ideologies of his time but feels now, as always, a light, a candle always threatened by tempests, and yet strangely persistent and resilient.

Though in the public realm, he always remained closeted (and kept his novel of gay love, Maurice, unpublished until his death), he lived a life of private conviction and love that gave strength and hope to many of those he met; and, within the public sphere campaigned for widening the circle of liberty. In this he helped found the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) and took up individual cases, utilizing his public persona in their support.

He abandoned the novel as a form for as Moffat convincingly argues he could not write of the realities he wanted to, but the novels and stories he left (published and posthumously published) is a canon of high achievement from social comedy dissecting the complex texture of our conflicting moralities to the perceptive examination of a conflict of cultures in his masterpiece, 'A Passage to India'.

Like Austen, he took the apparent simplicities of domestic engagements to explore a wider canvas.  Like George Eliot, he was a secular moralist but unlike Eliot he had no residual sympathy for Christianity (though did recognize the flexible, embracing tolerance of Hinduism, even though its complexities baffled him). Christianity had no humour, and was the source of the moralistic burden by which his life was shadowed.  On him it had no purchase.

The biography is beautifully written - capturing a life in clear, engaging, often humourous prose. The literary and psychological judgements are deeply sound and there is sufficient but not overwhelming detail! It is, finally, very moving - a long life lived with integrity, conviction and generosity.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Huxley's Island

I found myself thinking today of Huxley's utopia, 'Island' his last novel, his last book. It was consciously written as a counterpoint to his dystopia, 'Brave New World'.

It is the account a cynical English journalist's re-education on the island of Pala where a civilization has grown up out of the joint strands of a sceptical nineteenth century Scottish doctor and the indigenous Mahayana Buddhist culture.

This blending has given rise to the discerning use of science and technology - especially to promote and secure health - and a religious tradition grounded in pursuit of the 'Final End': a unity of consciousness and being with the immanent logos and the transcendent Godhead that is essentially practiced rather than believed.

It is a vision of the world that is highly prescient - both in recognizing the likely contemporary challenges of ecology and pressing population and the opportunities of applying our 'scientific understanding' to a new humanism.

This latter is powerfully expressed in recognizing the critical importance of early childhood to the development of secure attachment and the development of healthy empathy. This anticipates our demonstrable knowledge by three decades (and continues to anticipate our common practice).

But it is his treatment of faith and belief that most attracts me.

"What happens is the senseless ambivalence of history - sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced by organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending to the victims of their own church's inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief."

This is a quotation from 'Notes on What's What' a text incorporated within the text. It captures that important distinction between a sacred pragmatism that seeks within the practice of transforming consciousness knowledge of who we are and in what our capacities lie and belief that demands adherence beyond (or without) careful testing and exploration. As the Buddha said, we should take nothing he says as anything other than a pointer to what should be experienced within our own following of the path.

Essentially, "Island' is a laboratory for a range of ideas that hope for a new synthesis of a contemplative science and a science deployed contemplatively. It is in Huxley's account both a possibility and a fragile world. It is a possibility deeply worth pursuing.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Christopher and His Kind

I watched the BBC adaptation of Isherwood's memoir of Berlin in the 1930s.

It is a beautiful production, with all the appropriate values, but I am unsure that it captures Isherwood's depth. He, like many Englishman, was at pains to disguise this and his oft quoted image of being a camera 'simply' recording what was seen helps this image as does the crafted simplicity of his prose.

But if a man is measured by his friends a different image emerges: two stand out in my imagination - E.M. Forster who entrusted to Isherwood the long cherished privacy of Maurice, his novel of homosexual affirmation; and, Aldous Huxley who catalyzed Isherwood's long, paradoxical exploration of Vedanta. Both were men of deep seriousness (though accompanied by a gratifying humour) and recognized in Isherwood one of their own (even as, I suspect, a certain irony about this always clung about him).

What the film did capture, hauntingly, was how does a man committed to the centrality of individual commitments (however tripped up they are by your own egotism) respond to collective events: Germany engulfed by Nazism. To this the film has Isherwood find no satisfactory answer (as his friend, the model for Sally Bowles, plumps for the party, and Communism). In life, he explored spirituality, that offered by Sri Ramakrishna, but failed to fully embrace it. He was left with the answer of an intense humanism - the framing and cultivation of friendships that you feel are an answer but one sadly vulnerable to the collective realities of the world.

A civilization of friendship would require both a context of intimacy (the Italian city state comes to mind, or Athens) and an ability to think out of the textures of your life in colour, living into the uncertainties of the particular. Neither of which are high on our collective priorities. But I realize that it is this kind of vision (expressed not as a vision rather than as a recommended set of habits) that is one I myself am committed to.

When Isherwood was close to death, he was visited by his friend, David Hockney. Hockney found him in tears and on inquiring what was afoot Hockney received the reply that he, Isherwood, was utterly happy. A good note on which to pass into a new landscape.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Daniel H. Pink's bestseller on motivation and its sources is energetically written: a cross between an evangelical tract and a popular science book!

I am converted!

It recognizes that external incentives to motivation (rewards or punishments) only work when the task is routine, susceptible to regularization with distinct, structured outcomes. After or beyond which it fails!

Yet much of our practice at home, at work or in the community is designed on the basis of it.

But we are curious beings, motivated by intrinsic rewards that enable us to practice autonomy and mastery, framed by purpose.

Given this our educational, working and societal structures need an overhaul. A redesign so that our organizational and cultural arrangements nurture rather than frustrate.

There are wonderful examples from the fact that blood donations fall in Sweden when monetary rewards are offered (people are more deeply rewarded by the felt altruism of giving) to companies that have dispersed their 'call centres' to home working giving staff the remit to answer as they feel best boosting productivity and workers' felt engagement.

My favourite piece of research is about different understandings of intelligence  - as a fixed entity and as an incremental good - that lead to deeply different approaches to how we approach reality and the mastery of new opportunities. The first sees every accomplishment as a matching a fixed good so you naturally limit your challenge to the immediately achievable. The second sees every challenge as an opportunity to grow into a new set of mastered skills such that the world is malleable to achievement.

Beautifully thought provoking from how you organize teams to how you conduct performance reviews (timely in the latter instance, as I have one to offer next week)!


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Painter of Paradise

Cecil Collins was once giving a talk critical of the state of the arts in England. He was asked by a member of the audience that if he were so critical of the art scene in England with whom was he comparing this country. Collins replied unhesitatingly, "Paradise"!

Cecil was an exceptionally gifted if idiosyncratic teacher and one of the finest artists in England in the twentieth century. Both are gifts - one in liberating the gifts of many: to be specifically artists but for many others to explore other creative opportunities. The second is to create an imaginative world that speaks to our condition - most especially a reminder, to evoke Durkheim again, of the celestial pole of our reality: a painter of paradise.

Like many artists who came to maturity in the 1930s, Collins passed through surrealism and from creating a fantasized world to the revelation of an imagined one. It was consciously 'universal'. He wanted to find a language that spoke of spirit but which did not sit with the iconography of a specific tradition. These traditions he believed had run their course - emptying of life. We had to return to the sources of archetypal life and discover new forms. He contrasted himself with his friend, David Jones, whose luminous painting depended on the forms of a historically embodied tradition: Catholicism and, thus, beautiful as they were, partook of the antique. There was always something of the early revolutionary modernist in Collins even as it was given a radical new twist.

That he saw his world was evident not only from his art but from his speech. His was a life accompanied by the angels whom he painted. His was an uncanny speech. You felt in talking to him he was in paradise, talked from it, that angels perched on the arm of your chair as you took tea!

There was too about him a steely innocence. He painted so often an image of the Fool - a traveler from another world into this one whose seeing revealed the reality of this place but left him vulnerable to its harsh realities. We do not like to be seen by purity and yet it liberates.

His art appears deeply familiar even before you learn its world. It speaks to our unsullied condition, reminding us of our 'celestial' place. It is an iconography both universal and contemporary; and, thus, timeless.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Rouault's mirroring of humanity

I remember visiting a small exhibition of Rouault's works at the Royal Academy in London.

One of which was a life size picture of a man stripped, bare, standing looking out. The painting was hung at human height, giving the impression of a mirror. You stood before it and was looked at by yourself. For the self in the painting was the man Jesus, utterly alone, abandoned by his friends, judged, awaiting death - behold the man, every man. I stood awhile, watching people, coming in front of the painting, and everyone, who let it bear scrutiny, was changed. The change was completely noticeable in the way they carried themselves, in the way they looked from then on. The shifts in body and timing were subtle but real.

In this painting Rouault had captured both the complete humanity of the self - the capacity of its exile and in having that exile shared by this particular man: a path restored home.

I was reminded here of Durckheim. One of his recurring themes was the 'acceptance of the unacceptable' - if we can step into what appears a dead end, and fully embrace it, it is paradoxically at that point that a way can be opened up to transformation.

In this painting of Rouault's it seems to suggest that it is only when we recognize our complete aloneness that we can break through to a recognition of our complete identification with others: the common humanity that Christ our self bears. There is a beautiful passage that I half remember from a Buddhist teacher that it is only when you utterly taste your aloneness that you are truly able to offer everything to all.

Rouault is an intense painter of the human: a humanity that never steps out of the possibility of redemption; however, distantly we pass into either our own grieved loneliness or our own enclosing pride. There is nowhere we can go away from ourselves that does not bring us back to a confrontation with ourselves. There is no place to hide.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Genre wars

Having watched the offending programme, the BBC's  'The Books We Really Read', I can imagine the author's ire at the absence of any mention of science fiction or fantasy or horror both given their popularity and the distinguished authors and works that have emerged from this space (and the irritating nature of the presenter who dripped condescension).


But you do regret that the criticism of absence cannot be offered without the denigration of the present. Science fiction is not popular because literary fiction is elitist (or hard reading or pretentious): chose your accusation! It is popular on its own merits and values (many of which it shares with other genres simply as good literature).

I noticed this as I was completing Ursula Le Guin's 'The Other Wind', a novel in her Earthsea series, most definitely fantasy genre - dragons, sorcerers, spells and princesses - and written with children in mind (and like all such good literature readable by adults to great profit).

She does make the point; however, here, by any standards, is a great writer who writes with lyrical grace, accessibility and abiding intelligence. She addresses questions political, social and spiritual through crafted narratives that embody real, complex characters.  She writes both for adults and children mostly, though not exclusively, in genres that can be described as 'science fiction' and 'fantasy'. She writes novels and short stories, and is a gifted essayist.

And yet she is 'parked' in her genre - scan the bookshelves of a Barnes & Noble or a Waterstones and she is confined to a particular set of shelves, separated out from the 'mainstream' fiction.  Imagining her winning an award for her fiction that is not 'confined' to genre is inconceivable. We have made barriers for our minds.

I found myself wondering when these barriers were erected after all another author treated in the same 'Guardian' is H.G. Wells undoubtedly one of the greatest of science fiction writers but clearly not one who inhabited a ghetto and not only because his works straddle many forms. 

In Jonathan Rose's magisterial 'The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class', he demarcates a growing separation, shaped by modernism, that as education advanced, and the working class consciously assimilated the works the elite consumed, serious literature retreated behind experiment and a literary critical canon that made it doubly difficult to assimilate. A brief moment of a commonly assimilated culture (of which Wells would be an exemplar) has broken up and we sit peering out of our genres rather than recognizing common strands of values.

Meanwhile, back on (or in) Earthsea, it is a beautiful novel (and one written for children that has no children with whom to identify. Guin imagines rightly that children can be engaged with a mythical world and its themes - here the meaning of death - without any need to make it 'lighter' or 'more intelligible'). Guin continues fashioning a world (and its attendant myths) with a resolute hand.

Here is a powerful myth built around alternate visions of death - life and death as cyclical and built into the rhythms of nature - a positive vision of reincarnation - and expression of common unity. The other vision is of a life of power in this life (and control) that is compensated for by a spectral habitation in the 'afterlife' where spectral en-souled bodies live separate lives in a fixed and grey landscape, akin to Hades. There is, I think,  here too, an artful mocking of monotheistic images of heaven. Does not a lack of mutual engagement and solitary attending to a vision of God disintegrate into a lack of all shared expression, a peculiar lifelessness? There is undoubtedly a spirited attack on dualistic visions of the world that devalue any part of any possible cycle. Likewise in offering the possibility of different outcomes to answer what follows life, she offers a rich pluralistic universe where competing stories exhibit different value choices.

The world is plastic (as Plato argued): our epistemology (the kind of world we see) is conditioned by what we value. Adam and Eve chose the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and exchanged paradise for a world of sweated work.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Double Origin of Humanity

'Becoming Real: Essays on the Teachings of a Master' is a fascinating collection of essays by students of Karl Graf Durckheim, the German spiritual teacher and trans-personal psychologist.

One curiosity is that even in the biographical sketch (by Gerhard Wehr, his biographer) you do not receive what I would describe as an adequate picturing of the man. You have certain events (primarily internal) and thoughts but never a three dimensional felt image of what it was like to encounter him. This is true in all but one of the subsequent essays: they are peculiarly impersonal.

One dimension of his biography is glossed sadly namely his service to Germany after the rise to Hitler. He does appear to have lost his teaching position as a consequence of a presumed Jewish 'infusion' into his aristocratic German past. However, he served Ribbentrop's Foreign Ministry in Japan in the service of German cultural and educational promotion (and admitted to strong nationalistic feelings as to Germany's restoration). He was imprisoned (falsely it is claimed here) for fifteen months by the Americans during the process of de-Nazification. Both his time in Japan and his time in prison were deeply formative in his spiritual development but his failure to address the meaning of his past is a strange lacuna both in life and in his students. A failure Margaret Collier sensitively examines in her (as yet unpublished) biographical study of Durckheim.

This aside I continue to learn much from this remarkable man. At the end of his life asked to summarize his teaching in a single sentence, he replied: " The kernel of my teaching...is...taking seriously the double origin of humanity, celestial and earthly...by believing that the celestial was the exclusive realm of faith and that only the earthly could be the object of experience and practice...we are frustrated in our spiritual development"!

There is a deep sense, and practical exploration, in Durckheim of what an exploration of the objectivity of exploring inner being could look like and how we learn in that practice a diligent way of clearing the ground, emptying our cup to receive the transformation of Being (that is always a grace).

But amidst the discussions of threefold existential crisis and the threefold nature of Being, there was for me in reading these the consistent reminder of how often we are touched by a reality transcendent to the ordinary that places our usual, fear and desire bound, existential self into question, opening a window onto a new way of being real. These nudges of Being are so often enjoyed only to be lost in a corrosive incredulity - they are insufficiently sustained by a faith in our true 'double nature' - and slip back into forgetting (sometimes as rapidly as they have come).

Durckheim reminds us of the importance of remembering these, re-entering them, and allowing their experience to modify our way of seeing.

I was reminded very vividly of an occasion when I found myself pondering a saying of St Maximus the Confessor to the effect that true humility is born when you realize that in each moment you are gift, borne into existence by God's giving, a continuous creation. I remember cycling home, carrying that thought, and suddenly realizing that I was wholly immersed, living within gift, and that everyone I encountered and the whole scene of their unfolding life was one celebrated present, presence. You found yourself blessing at random people as you passed, feeling deeply united. The full effect lingered for days, before slipping back into one's half-tied vision of things, the enclosure of your time-bound self.

I was compelled by the saying in part because I am not naturally humble!! An understatement - and mimic humility in self-depreciation that can be charming no doubt sometimes but can equally be strikingly false! Humility in St Maximus sense captured a sense of being precisely who you are - graced into being, bearing God's image, and yet equal with all, because all are equally graced.

If I ever do treat people with a fundamental respect, it is, in part, because of this experience, its lingered memory enabling me to see through my own and others 'personas' to the radiant person within.

And the remembering of this experience, putting myself consciously in its path, is an opportunity as Durckheim suggests to learn and to reawaken an openness to receiving its touch again, if in a new modality, since the Spirit animates the spirit always uniquely.

A planning session that worked!

A very interesting planning session might be an oxymoron and yet this week I attended one.

The Andrews Charitable Trust (www.andrewscharitabletrust.org.uk) has twice had me as its director and twice as a trustee. In fact, I had to smile when the chairman included me in his introduction as a 'trustee board of new blood'!

The trust was a practitioner of 'venture philanthropy' before the term was invented: how to enable, through engaged giving that is more than money, an opportunity for creative social entrepreneurs to establish an organization to address either a new human need (we developed one of the first set of AIDS education responses, both in the UK and Africa) or address an established need in new ways (www.basicneeds.org in mental health and development was an example of this).

It demonstrates that with relatively small amounts of money (no investment has been over £1 million stretched across up to 7 years), you can lever significant, global change. This is partly due to picking the right causes with the right entrepreneurs (often pre-popular), the flexibility of how the money is spent (often on unpopular things like desks and salaries); and, the passion and skills of trustees (who have often provided 'off the shelf' trustee boards - instance governance from a group who know each other proving invaluable and time-saving)!

What made the session so interesting was the clarity with which these ways of working were reaffirmed and elaborated - some being made explicitly conscious for the first time. This was coupled with the recognition that straying from our model had produced very interesting and valuable work but had made our lives harder than it needed to be! If it ain't broke do not fix it and too much 'having of strategies' destroys the simplicity of what we want to do and how are we going to do it!

But most of all was the fact that this old/new group (some of whom I have known for a long time) both blended so well and combined such graceful honesty and kindness.  As one completely new arrival noticed what was so striking was how incorporated she felt in the course of just one meeting. This in a group that had completely eschewed any 'ice-breakers' 'getting to know you sessions' etc. We simply arrived, had lunch, and set to work, recognizing I think that we had a generosity of spirit that should simply manifest.

I was reminded of a saying of Lao Tzu that when people talk of the good, it is because it is absent! We simply recognized its presence and that it would spread to all! I could happily tell the facilitator (who was excellent) that I fundamentally disagreed with his summing up (at one point) without it causing a ruffle of discomfort (on any one's part) but a renewal of engaged interest (and a lively and friendly debate over dinner)!

A meeting that undoubtedly 'hit the zone'!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Black Robe

There is a wonderful moment in 'Black Robe' - the film of Brian Moore's novel - when the priest (played by the exceptional Lothaire Bluteau) criticizes his native traveling companions because they do not question their way of life. The implication being because it is inferior to the priest's.

The point at issue is that they have asked for some of the tobacco the priest is carrying upriver (as trading goods) to be shared as a reward for the care they have shown him (and as an expression of natural generosity). All that they have is each others, all they do not, they suffer in absence together.

It is the turning point of the film - the priest's willful ignorance of those in whose hands he lives that is to be exposed as he travels up river, slowly peeling away his complacent doctrine and starkly ushering him into a shared humanity, a faith that is a humble expression of love.

This is all set in the early seventeenth century and the Jesuit missions to the native communities in North America.

Moore's conviction is that it were better that they did not come - the natural faith of each native American grouping is a living commitment to a place, fully adaptive to the hard realities of nature. It can only be disrupted by the faith, the greed and the disease of the invader.

It is a more realistic treatment than either "The Mission' that deals of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay a century later or the romanticism of 'Dances with Wolves' set a two centuries further on. The natives here are fully human - they lust, they scheme, they kill - but in a way that is bound by traditions that limit and submit to a collective wisdom.

It is a deeply beautifully film (the scenery of a Canadian wildness seduces) and it unfolds its contrasts slowly.

There are moments of sublime irony - most notably when the priest asserts the 'reality of paradise' as the 'truth' against the simple certainties of the native Americans' expectations. You mean there is no tobacco or women in paradise? You do what exactly? Need nothing? And 'adore' God? This is meant to be truth?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Butcher's Broom

It is the imagination of an historical injustice beautifully realized yet what most lingers in the mind is how contemporary the story is.

Neil Gunn's novel tells of a single community in a glen in Scotland whose live is shattered (at the opening the nineteenth century) by the clearances.  Clearances designed to replace the life of crofters, governed by subsistence yet workable, with the life of sheep, managed by few but accruing significant profits to landlords.

In the pursuit of this profit, the landlords use the law to betray centuries of accumulated tradition, breaking ties to 'their people', driving them to the margins (the sea in this case) or abroad. This will make the land open for 'improvement' and 'progress' (until in this case the 'opening' of the new worlds of American and Australasia made these sheep marginal). Efficiency tends to be a remorseless, unforgiving god.

The current inhabitants are slothful and ignorant. They have not signed up either to the dominant language (English) nor the cult of efficiency. Their adaption to place that has seen them survive and develop a complex culture of adaptation and celebration counts as nothing. They can be pushed aside. It is for their own good. They will be forced to join the 'modern world' and make a 'real' contribution to our onward march to a fully monetarised and developed future.

Does this sound familiar? This story is unfolding now, in numerous parts of the world, with the same tragic consequences. For example, the San Bushman find that their traditional homeland has been designated as 'national park' to accrue to Botswanan elites revenue from tourism, able assisted by misplaced, Westernized notions of 'conservation'. They should settle - like real people - and depart from their ignorant, uncivilized ways of being resilient, adaptable and subsistent!  They should not choose their life paths (for they are after all ignorant). They must be guided by children (and, if necessary, the rod should not be spared).

It makes the novel deeply poignant - the terrible resonance. The shard of hope is that, in Scotland at least, communities begin to reclaim their rights and the balance of both culture and law swings behind them. Would this were so everywhere but in truth communities like those depicted in Gunn's novel remain imperiled and are continually shattered everywhere. It is one of the most challenging injustices of our time and so often the world rolls by and not only rolls by but assents to the same arguments that hold the Scottish landlords in their grip, negating humanity.

Greed cloaked in the language of progress is a gripping demon.

The novel itself saw Gunn's turn from social realism to something yet other: a recognition that for politics to be truly reformative, there needed to a transformation in people's values and they have a metaphysical root. You cannot expect people to work to a common humanity if they do not see it and seeing it, living out of it requires a spiritual vision of things. The struggle for justice is an outward task but one with an inward root.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Spem in alium

I have never put my hope in any other but in You,
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness
Spem in alium
Listening to this 40 voiced, 8 part motet this afternoon, with the sun briefly apparent, flooding the room, suspended in peace. It is one of my favourite pieces: voices melting one into the other, soaring upwards in supplication.
This afternoon I found myself pondering the words (adapted from the Book of Judith). 
I was reading 'Butcher's Broom', Neil M Gunn's novel of the Highland clearances. The first part describes a Highland community poised on the unknowing brink of disaster. It is a community that combines old traditional ways and the accepted imposition of a hard Calvinism. Here God is a supplicant of last resort and the imposition of a morality that cuts across more natural patterns of shared life: a God of anger or remote, capricious engagement. He could be the God of Tallis' motet.
But that would be too simple a charge. The word translated as 'anger' here is more usually given as 'wrath' and 'wrath' is an objective response to strip away all those conditions that distort our being (that make us miss the 'mark of our being', its full home, namely 'sin'): 'who absolves all the sins of suffering man'.
Like the wrathful deities in Buddhism that have purchase on our reality because they latch on our 'lowliness'  - all the ways we invest in not being our radiant selves - mark our lowliness, says the motet, yet absolve us, strip away all impediments.
This is not something, the music suggests, we do on our own. We step into the purging and transformation of God as a community. We cannot soar without other voices. That we are meant to soar, that the freedom of soaring is our freed nature, the music also gives, if you enter it, let it sing you.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Creativity and Taoism

In my middle years I love the Tao
and by Deep South Mountain I make my home.
When happy I go alone into the mountains.
Only I understand this joy.
I walk until the water ends, and sit
waiting for the hour when clouds rise.
If I happen to meet an old woodcutter,
I chat with him, laughing and lost to time.

Wang Wei: My Cottage at Deep South Mountain.

The joy of Chinese poetry of this pure kind is that it has a self-sustaining reality. It is the image of a reality whose rhythm imparts to the reader neither a description of things nor a complex symbolism but a state of being, infusing that being to its reader. You enter a new space where subject and object interpenetrate and you sit in the 'suchness' of things as they are.

Accounting for why this is so is at the heart of Chuang-yuan Chang's "Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art and Poetry" recently re-published by 'Singing Dragon' (http://www.jkp.com/catalogue/book/9781848190504). It is a masterpiece. A primer in key notions in Chinese philosophy (through a Taoist lens), a comparative study in certain interactions between Taoism, Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, an original contribution to understanding creativity as such, a penetrating introduction to understanding Chinese poetry and painting; and, a suggestive account of selected parallels between philosophy, East and West: all in 240 pages.

I read it first at university, and subsequently every five years or so, and it opens up new vistas each time.

This time what I most recognized was the sense that art's function is as an opener to being, that it is the rhythm of capturing truth that allows the reader, if they let themselves go into it, to be transformed if only momentarily into new ways of being, revealing to them their 'original state' - the pure consciousness that we are (and which we continuously obscure).

All the birds have flown up and gone;
A lonely cloud floats leisurely by.
We never tire of looking at each other -
Only the mountain and I.

Li Po: Alone Looking at the Mountain

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Joining in the dance?

Recycling material but a review I wrote of  'Dancing in the Streets: A Collective History of Joy' by Barbara Ehrenreich that I have been re-reading. It is an excellent book!

You are attending a Society of Friend's meeting. Gathered in a calm silence punctuated by occasional quietly spoken testimony, one of the attendees begins to tap out a rhythm with their feet, they begin to sway, stand up, dance on the spot, speaking in words ecstatic, occasionally intelligible but mainly sounds of intense feeling. How does the meeting respond? Does it allow itself to synchronise its rhythms with the enthusiast and join in the dance? Does it shuffle uncomfortably in its seats, stretching natural tolerance to breaking point? Or does the clerk of meeting, gently lead the enthusiast out to a quiet corner and a cup of tea, fearing in them some mental imbalance? I suspect it might be the latter and yet, as their nickname of 'Quakers' demonstrate, the origins of the Society of Friends was in communal ecstasy: quaking with Spirit, enthused by the Divine Light, their bodies shook and voices shouted out the testimony of the Lord.

Barbara Ehrenreich's witty, lucid and engaged book charts this decline of communal sacred festivity within Christian space and its remergence in secular society.

She begins with colonial European observations of the importance of shared, danced ritual in indigenous, non-Western societies. These observations are overwhelming negative, full of relief that 'we, Europeans' are no longer in thrall to such activities; and, yet we were and are.

They were rooted as a contested strand in Greek culture in the celebration of the mystery cults, most notably that of Dionysus; and, never eliminated from the more strict ordering of the Roman. From these beginnings, Ehrenreich demonstrates that at the beginnings of Christianity, rituals were danced and that dance helped shape communities of healing, reconciliation and shared bonds. It was dance that was literally 'enthusiastic', 'filled with God' and led, often as not, to ecstasy including the speaking in tongues to which St. Paul alludes with customary reservation.

This penetration of Christianity of ecstatic dance was shaped, Ehrenreich argues, by Dionysus whose cult was fully established in the Jewish world that gave birth to Jesus. Jesus' life was "subtly altered and shaped by his early followers and chroniclers in order to make him more closely resemble Dionysus." This was not a conscious act of artifice but Dionysiac themes, "were ever present in the pagan/Jewish culture in which Jesus' followers sought to interpret their leader's brief life and tortured death."

Once set loose within Christianity's unfolding development, it became an important strand in Christian tradition, dancing in churches was everywhere especially at times of festival, even priests joined in; and, it had a subversive quality. In the dance, social boundaries collapsed, enhanced by people going disguised in costume and mask, roles were reversed as cross-dressing was common; and, social mores were inverted as 'divine foolishness' was celebrated and the church hierarchy mocked. This subversive quality finally led to reaction. First the hierarchy and upper classes withdrew from participation. First, they then expelled the celebrations from church and tried to co-opt them by promoting Church spectacles. Second, the hierarchy and upper classes withdrew from participation. Finally they sought to exert control, leading, at the time of Protestant Reformation, to outright suppression.

This suppression, Ehrenreich argues, was accelerated by key social and economic factors. Two she singles out for explicit treatment are the professionalisation of the military that requires people to be disciplined to a common solidarity utterly different, and in opposition to that of festivity. The second was the growing requirements of factory work brought on by industrial revolution. A medieval world permeated by holidays that were 'holy days' gives way to the ordering of the division of labour and six day weeks.

In probably the book's most fascinating chapter, Ehrenreich examines how too the Reformation brought about a new self: a conscious individual, subjectively concerned with his or her 'I'. It is an anxious self - detached and self-conscious, able to be more critically aware of existing societal arrangements but also "a kind of walled fortress, carefully defended from everyone else." This anxious self was prey to melancholy, especially in its Calvinist version, permanently seeking internal evidence for its salvation, and, as Ehrenreich notes, the seventeenth century European world "was stricken by what looks, in today's terms, like an epidemic of depression." This epidemic had a common root with the social patterns that suppressed festival and if "the destruction of festivities did not actually cause depression, it may be still be that, in abandoning their traditional festivities, people lost a potential cure for it." As Robert Burton continually noted in his famous Anatomy of Melancholy the most effective cure was in social activities that promoted a loss of 'self-consciousness' and a discovery of social joy - in other words festivity.

Now that which is repressed has a habit of returning and it has but in secular guise - in the rock concert and the sports arena - where Ehrenreich demonstrates that these 'spectacles' have been continually subverted into participatory events where the audiences own sense of common participation (and creativity around this - dancing, dressing up, inventing the 'Mexican wave') has at times out-stripped in importance the event itself, the thing being staged to be watched by the passive spectator.

And even here you can see the ongoing struggle between direct access to experience that we ourselves create out of the dance struggling with the forces of hierarchy and control that would rather supply us with 'their experience' neatly packaged and staged. Here the hierarchy retires to the corporate box, creates all seater stadiums and prices the tickets out of the hands of the unruly fans who dress up, make loud noises and behave with subversive festive gusto.

It is this underlying pattern - the source of experience and its control - that permeates her book. Do we wish to inhabit a society that invites us to experience communality through the dance, and by this experience a shared transcendence or do we wish to surrender this access, becoming spectators consuming experience laid on and controlled by others?

At no point is Ehrenreich's account of collective joy reductionist. She is interested in the phenomena of shared ritual and its social outcomes not whether or no, the dancers are actually seized by the gods or what nature those gods possess. This question she leaves respectfully unanswered. Though she does venture an evolutionary account of why shared ritual dancing had a developmental advantage to our early ancestors, she is more concerned with the values that flow from the sharing of ritual in the ongoing development of society. In a history as embracing as this, written as elegant essay rather than comprehensive accounting, there are undoubtedly missing elements most notably the fact that shared festivity and ecstasy is at the heart of modern Christianity's most rapid advance in the shape of Pentecostalism. It is not only in the secular sphere of the rock concert or the sports stadium that there is a 'return of the repressed.'

At the closing page, you are convinced that something is lost when we refuse the invitation to the dance if simply, as Ehrenreich closes, the opportunity to 'acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sought of celebration' that takes us out of constricted selves and dances awhile in the flow of a shared movement.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

John Galliano

John Galliano is a highly gifted and deeply eccentric designer.

He appears to have a drink problem.

He also appears to express anti-Semitic opinions.

He appears to have a tendency to become abusive in ways that fueled by the former unleash the later. He does not appear to become actually violent (though in these contexts that always remains a verging possibility).

Does any of this matter?

To which my answer must be: not really.

The opinions expressed are unutterably vile (if our accounts of them are not distorted) but many of us when fueled by drink exhibit their shadow side to unforgiving display (and to their shame) but even if these are not alcohol related exhibitionism and go deeper (a fabricated belief system on which he acts), he is, in the last analysis, a person who designs clothes, clothes that do not yield to analysis as covert messengers of hate, but are clothes, well-designed and well-made.

However, it appears that our strange cult of celebrity would attach a grandiose importance to his opinions. What a designer of frocks thinks about matters other than frocks ought to be conditioned only by the quality of the thinking attached to the opinions expressed and the context in which those opinions are offered.

Thus, Vivienne Westwood can express opinions about matters other than those directly related to her work as a designer because she has worked to formulate these in ways that stand within the appropriate canons of influencing and engagement that ideas demand.

John Galliano has not - nor indeed shown any signs of wanting to, as far as I can see, he makes clothes and has a clutch of unsavoury opinions that, on rare occasions, he has given utterance to in public space.

We might contrast him with Mel Gibson who appears to share an anti-Semitic outlook that he has given expression to when drunk, so far so similar, but Mr Gibson has an express desire (and practice) to influence the thinking of others (rather than getting us to buy frocks) as is apparent in 'The Passion of the Christ' and its (arguable) anti-Semitic sub-text.

People ought to be judged by their intention (not our projected adulation and subsequent disappointment) and how they seek to manipulate those intentions in public space. John Galliano makes clothes- very well- and ought to be judged on that basis. He is a public figure only on those grounds, and has not sought to be a public figure on any other. His opinions about anything else (not expressed to the public but occasionally leaking into public) are neither here nor there.

As a person, as with any other,  holding the opinions that he appears to (appearance being here important for he has not been found guilty of anything as yet) is a cause of deep sadness and one hopes that this abrupt shattering of his career may initiate a time of reflection and (if he holds the opinions of which he is accused) repentance - a good Jewish word!

I am aware that expressing this in this way is 'counter-intuitive'. That is the burden of being out of sync with the age! I am reminded of a fabulous interview with the actor, Robert Mitchum, at Cannes where, to the incredulity of the interviewer, Mitchum refused to answer any personal questions. But but stammered the interrogator you are a public person and we have a 'right' to know! To which Mitchum replied, 'No, I am not. I am actor'!

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I was a very factual child who read mostly history and studied maps (and watched Westerns and documentaries). It was not until I was si...