Friday, August 26, 2011

Sorting the canon

Now that the books are all up on shelves, the next stage is to decide how to organize them. I remember a friend being advised (by their interior designer) that this should be by size and colour (presumably to match the decor). However, this does not strike a chord!

The art books are simple as the available shelving, with their size, determines where they should go. Everything else presents a challenge.

In the main bedroom will go 'the canon' - not on the whole the 'works of great literature' but the works grown meaningful with time, that define something critically about me and my apprehension of the world.

It is a diverse group! The English Jungian analyst, Helen Luke, masterly commentator on literature is there with Tagore, painter and poet, at once a devotee of the sacred and a skeptic, social reformer and privileged landlord. The American farmer, Wendell Berry, is there: essayist, novelist and poet whose fictional Port William feels one of the most closely imagined spots on earth. There is William Blake, radical, visionary, poet and painter, whose imagined worlds are spotted with heaven. There is Kathleen Raine who opened Blake to me and befriended me when an (even more) insecure soul! 

But at its heart are Edwin Muir and Martin Buber. They are virtual contemporaries from radically different worlds. The one the son of a evicted farmer from islands at the edge of Europe translated, as a child, to genteel poverty in Glasgow, ripped from an agricultural paradise. The second the privileged son of a wealthy Jewish family, abandoned by his mother, into the hands of his grandparents' orthodoxy. Muir went to work at fourteen. Buber traversed several central European universities before emerging as an academic.

Remarkably their life intersected, not directly, but through Kafka who interacted with Buber in his early maturity and who was translated first into English by Edwin (and his wife, Willa)!

Both were essentially spiritual, rooted in native traditions of Christianity and Judaism, and both wholly allergic to religious forms or organizations.  They differed radically in the nature of their works - Muir first and foremost a poet and critic, Buber first and foremost a philosopher. Muir the master of lucid prose and accessible yet symbolic verse. Buber a scholar often burdened with making his challenging simplicity complex to satisfy the demands of the academy (though when he breaks free of this, capable of remarkable feats of concise story telling). Both important as translators - Muir of key figures of twentieth century German literature - Broch and Kafka in particular; Buber of a new translation of the Hebrew Bible into German. Both were gifted educators (though not renowned for adhering to a syllabus) and utopian socialists with communitarian or anarchist sympathies (and a distinct horror of all totalitarianism).

Why them both (discovered, as it happens, virtually at the same moment)? Because they credibly chart ways of seeing the world that reflect, amplify and deepen my own.

From my earliest sense, with Muir, I have sensed that we live in a fallen world that is yet always on the boundary of being transfigured into paradise and that our dreams, our finest experiences point to that reality.

With Buber, I have found that if God is to mean anything, God is to be found in the hallowing of the everyday, and that God has sunk God's hearing into the deafness of mortals, into the fabric of a living world. God will appear in precisely the ways God chooses too - and none of our tidy belief structures will capture the reality that is God.

I am here as whoever I am here as Buber translates YHWH.

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