Friday, September 30, 2011

All you need is saints

It is with appropriate fear and trembling that I write a post on Robert Lax, poet and hermit, for at least three reasons: my own ignorance, my own ignorance amplified in comparison with two of the regular readers of my wittering; and, finally, Lax himself - a minimalist both in the poetry and in the life - whose sparing down, in the manner of these things, has an opposite effect. He magnifies in one's own consciousness and in those of his times (though the latter is the slow burn of recognition that death can afford to genuine quality).

I encountered him for the first time, as many do, in the autobiography of his friend, Thomas Merton, a noisy writer and hermit mirroring Lax in being opposite. T.S. Eliot suggested that Merton as a poet wrote too much and his poetry was too prolix, Lax wrote sparingly and pruned language to the barest of bones. Merton wrote a 'best seller' - The Seven Storey Mountain - and was a 'celebrity monk', Lax sold barely and was a lay person, reclusive if hospitable. Lax stands out first in the Seven Storey Mountain in the same way he splintered into Merton's mind suggesting that the only aspiration for a human being was to be a saint and being a saint was a matter of desire (and presumably its hallowing).

This story always reminds me of a person I once met from Venezuela who had become a Muslim precisely because when he had announced to his astonished catechism class that when he grew up, he wanted to be a saint, the priest, taking the class, had publicly humiliated him, upbraiding this presumptive arrogance!

But Lax is simply revealing to us what we are by nature and what nature hopes to become in its journey to completion - holiness is the only destination because the love that gives birthing form to our creation, the creation, invites it, luring us on.

It is beautifully expressed in this poem from his cycle of his circus related poems (if memory serves he travelled with/worked in a circus for a time).

The poem evokes (I think) God's speech to Job out of the whirlwind - where were you Job/the reader when God created the world? Where are we the wonder struck visitor when the circus rolls into town, appearing as if by magic, carrying the magic of its nomadism? The poem effortlessly transposes from the mystery of circus to the mystery of the world and the world as celebration modelled after the celebration of the circus. We find the world aright when we see it as playing holiness, and celebrate it. That is what saints are, people who have learned to play the mystery of God into the heart of all the world's joys and sorrows.


Have you seen my circus?
Have you known such a thing?
Did you get up in the early morning and see the wagons pull into town?
Did you see them occupy the field?
Were you there when it was set up?
Did you see the cookhouse set up in dark by lantern light?
Did you see them build the fire and sit around it smoking and talking quietly?
As the first rays of dawn came, did you see them roll in blankets and go to sleep?
A little sleep until time came to
unroll the canvas, raise the tent,
draw and carry water for the men and animals;
were you there when the animals came forth,
the great lumbering elephants to drag the poles and unroll the canvas?
Were you there when the morning moved over the grasses?
Were you there when the sun looked through dark bars of clouds
at the men who slept by the cookhouse fire?
Did you see the cold morning wind nip at their blankets?
Did you see the morning star twinkle in the firmament?
Have you heard their laughter around the cookhouse fire?
When the morning stars threw down their spears and watered heaven?
Have you looked at spheres of dew on spears of grass?
Have you watched the light of a star through a world of dew?
Have you seen the morning move over the grasses?
And to each leaf the morning is present.
Were you there when we stretched out the line,
when we rolled out the sky,
when we set up the firmament?
Were you there when the morning stars
sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Winifred Nicholson

My recent reading of Kathleen Raine's biography reminded me of her friend, Winifred Nicholson, with whom she would visit their beloved Scotland: one to write, one to paint, as here.

This painting manges to unfold many of her recurring themes - a landscape seen from the portal of door or eye of window; a simple jar or pot of wild flowers iridescent with singing colour and a humorous look at an aspect of the animal kingdom: here the 'cheeky chicks' who give the painting its name.

Nicholson was a Christian Scientist and her works radiates a sense of the goodness of creation: everything is a part of an abiding wholeness. Her delight in colour and exploration of prisms, light breaking in differentiation yet unified, is symptomatic of her seeing multiplicity in unity.

I will always remember her retrospective at the Tate Gallery. You stepped into a gallery infused by colour - exploring its many facets woven within the particularities of the world - it was a prayerful celebration of giftedness, that everything is made in the divine image.

Kathleen too came to the world as divine gift - even if the vision was not always as present - she was more aware that Winifred that such seeing was imperilled by ways of thought turned materialistic, that drained that material of spiritual life. Her's was not a simple abiding faith, more intellectual conviction buoyed by evidences.

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.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Julian of Norwich

Denys Turner's 'The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism' is one of those works that transform your understanding of its subject matter by making the familiar productively strange.

He convincingly demonstrates that the category of 'mystical experience' as a discrete psychological happening, that is so wonderfully drawn by William James and adopted by much subsequent exploration, would have been alien to the medieval mind. For them mysticism was not a privileged set of experiences (over against other kinds of 'normal' experience) but a way of being towards the totality of reality: a transformation of the way of navigating all experience.

Mysticism is not a discrete form of theology relating to our interior, private spaces but a fully fledged way of approaching the totality of our understanding: public and private.

It is deep pleasure, therefore, that I discovered in Blackwells' bookshop. whilst browsing, that he has written a book on Julian of Norwich and one that sees her not as an explorer of 'spirituality' (though she is that) but as a fully fledged theologian grappling with a whole spectrum of ways of appropriating the truth.

I bought it forthwith!

I have always found that 'clutch' of disparate English mystical writers: Julian, Walter Hilton and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing deeply engaging. It is the blend of robust thought and modesty that is attractive: the lack of system (or alternatively complex categorized imagery). They are not, to be parochial about it, Spanish! Neither St Teresa of Avila nor St John of the Cross undoubted depth has ever charmed. I am probably inherently shallow (but if so I share my predicament with Thomas Merton who likewise declared a preference for the homeliness of the English fourteenth century mystics)!

I especially like the way in which they champion orthodoxy and then proceed to thoroughly undermine any straightforward understanding of it. Julian disguises her radical nature under protestations, skilfully deployed, of being a 'mere' woman.

Meanwhile, Hilton takes regular side-swipes at assorted 'heretics' whilst telling us that it is not what we hold true that essentially matters but the way in which our truth is held. Even if a certain statement is true if we use it to belittle or batter a brother, it becomes false. Any truth worthy of the title can only be wielded in love!

Sunday, September 25, 2011


"A Transition Initiative (which could be a town, village, university or island etc) is a community-led response to the pressures of climate change, fossil fuel depletion and increasingly, economic contraction. There are thousands of initiatives around the world starting their journey to answer this crucial question:
"how can we make our community stronger and happier as we deal with the impacts of peak oil and economic contraction while at the same time urgently reducing CO2 emissions?"

The origin of this movement was in Totnes, a small town of some 7,000 people on the River Dart in Devon. Thus do many people make a modern day pilgrimage (hopefully in a low carbon manner) to see it and, in the words of my host this week and old friend, Wendy, meet reality crunch against their high expectations.

The first shock is that the populace are not gliding about the place in electric cars (fuelled only by renewable sources) or healthily cycling or striding about. Totnes is narrow and hilly and suffers accordingly from traffic congestion and bad parking (and because the median income in Devon is lower than average in the UK even a hybrid car is a rarity)!  

Meanwhile, there on the edge of town is the 'big supermarket' - that happens to be a Morrisons (that from a sustainability point of view is about as bad as it gets) though there is a Co-op too!

Indeed, at first glance, it looks remarkably like any small market town in the UK and it certainly enjoys an attractive location and many delightful buildings.

You have to look hard for transitional signs and begin to bring expectation back to a proportionate perspective.

You could, for example, do all your shopping in the High Street without reference to a supermarket chain, and it was within walking or cycling distance of most of the town. You could do away with your car (as Wendy has) because public transport links are good and there is a functioning car share network (though it needs a boost). There is a plentiful supply of allotments, and no shortage of help and advice to the newly green fingered. Equally importantly there is an emergence of a community of the like-minded who support and sustain your values. For example, you can talk freely of the challenges of travelling without flight without being seen in anyway as eccentric!

This last point, I think, is critical. Wendy had referred to a talk that Jonathan Porritt had given at Dartington Hall lamenting the failure of environmentalists (including himself) to talk of spirit and values. Imagining that people were going to change utilizing the instrumental language of public policy and science had failed. What we needed was for people to talk with the intelligence of the heart and with real convicting passion.

To do that (with rare exception) needs a sustaining space with a critical mass of supportive (as well as challenged) listeners - and that, at the very least, is what Totnes has: networks of the sustaining like-minded that can prompt incremental change and find new ways of speaking, bearing witness to the wider community.

The problem with this, of course, is do we have the time for such slow rolling community inspiration to take sufficient form to meet impending disintegration? Jonathan's talk was at Dartington Hall's celebration of the life of Rabindranath Tagore who famously said we should always light a candle and not debate whether it alone will dispel the darkness.

You can only ever take the step you can at the time.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The story and the Fable

I completed Willa Muir's 'Belonging' in my friend's, Wendy's, delightful garden, backing onto the Dart river in Totnes.

It is deeply moving; a combined journey of 'true love'.

When first married, Edwin had received a vision the end point of which had been the two ascending winged towards light and the interior wing on each side falling away, so that their ascent was wholly dependent on each other. It was a vision triumphantly fulfilled.

A theme that Willa explores throughout is the relationship, in Edwin's formulation, between the story and the Fable.

The former is the unfolding history of an individual life, the latter the universal pattern of myth on which every human life is woven. The fullest possibility of an individual life is the realisation of that aspect of the Fable with which it is most concerned. It is what Jung would have called a journey of individuation.

Edwin's guiding aspect of the Fable was of the Fall and the long journey back towards the light - a light more fully resonant for the journey undertaken. Paradise regained consciously is different from that enjoyed unconsciously.

Time and again, Willa refers, and with external corroboration, to Edwin's radiance when he was living in fullest accord with the Fable in the texture of his own history. He radiated benevolence and that quiet invitation such radiance has that you, in encountering it, might change your life in response. undertake your own journey in the light.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gathering clouds

Continuing to read Willa Muir's 'Belonging' and I am immersed in the 1930s and Willa's honest account of how they both saw the gathering clouds of war and yet could not fully comprehend the oncoming darkness.

They had been aware of the depths of antisemitism since their stay in Germany in 1921 but never had that encounter suggested the possibility of the complete breakdown in values that was to come.

One of their tasks of the the 30s was to spend a year on the translation of Herman Broch's 'The Sleepwalkers': a trilogy of novels chronicling in experimental terms the disintegration (in steps) of the values of western civilization. They instinctively resisted Broch's pessimism but when they met him subsequently, they realized that he was prescient. He, himself, became an exile.

The problem with reading of this kind is that it adds to the cumulative pile of future reading. I read Broch's trilogy when I lived in Wales. I fear I read with Muirs' eyes - a kind of suspended disbelief that such relentless pessimism - the emptying out of possibility - was a true vision of things. It is a masterpiece of a sobering kind. I found myself with an encroaching sense of needing to read it again - and his other great novel: The Death of Virgil has long sat impatiently on a shelf.

But I do not know whether I can presently face these two examples of high Modernism.

Broch had a radical sense of literature's inadequacy - it did not provide 'knowledge' and 'knowledge' was what was necessary - a new foundation for ethics.

Broch brilliantly captures the dilemma of what enables an ethical life. He imagines that this requires a rational foundation above all else and yet a rational foundation is insufficient. An alluring narrative of moral possibility is necessary and yet imagination contains multiple paths of possible illusion.

It was a paradox with which he wrestles highly creatively.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

False & True Imagination

"It is easy for the false imagination to hate a whole class, it is hard for the true imagination to hate a single human being."

Edwin Muir from 'An Autobiography".

Monday, September 19, 2011


If your beloved husband has written one of the finest literary autobiographies of the century, how should you respond in your own writing?

Write a memoir of your life together, recognizing how radically different were you ways of shaping a comprehension of a shared world.

And succeed triumphantly...

Whereas Edwin Muir sought the cohesiveness of myth to explicate the unity of the world, Willa Muir felt her way into a 'belonging to the universe'. Willa was more satisfied with a recognition of the limits to our understanding. Edwin was always seeking the transcendent sources of his vision.

But 'Belonging' refers not only to this felt patterning of being at home in the world, it refers to their being together: it was a resonant, meaningful marriage.

It is a memoir that, unlike Edwin's autobiography, is extrovert and takes in the particular contours of history.

It is beautifully evocative of arriving in Prague, for example, after the First World War, two innocents abroad for the first time in a city in the throes of its awakening into a new nation. Or working with A.S. Neil, the educationalist, in a village outside Dresden at an international school that hoped to build a new world, oblivious to the early signs of a renewed, deepened storm.

It is a memoir of a clear eyed love. She does spare her husband's failings, yet seen with acute psychological insight comes perfect understanding comes forgiveness.

Nor can she write without recognizing the sacrifice of her own work necessary to create a space for Edwin's. There is a deep irony here: a feminist writer yet one who failed to fill her potential because she chose her husband's work over her own.

Neither she nor I would think that was not a choice worth making even as she would not be human without periodically wishing it could have been different.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

No end to snowdrops

"No end to snowdrops" is Philippa Bernard's authorized biography of Kathleen Raine which, unlike much contemporary literary biography, is mercifully short. Like many first biographies, it aims at a sensible, balanced accounting of the lineaments of a life rather than offer any judgement to posterity on the importance of that life or the subject's work. It is not, in any sense, a 'deep' work.

In this it succeeds admirably - in evoking the life of a poet I remember with guarded affection. Affection because she was nothing other than kind to me, though we had our disagreements primarily over Christianity, but because, as this book makes partially clear, she could cast a sharp edged shadow.

I learnt new things most especially how deep was her involvement with the College of Psychic Studies - both in in the governance of its journal, 'Light' but more interestingly her connection, through two mediums, with whom she believed to be the spirit of Gavin Maxwell. He the abiding love of her life. A love utterly Platonic, and not only in the washed out meaning of that phrase in modern usage. A Platonic love that saw in Gavin a shared soul of imaginative truth. A seeing that Gavin could not accept except, I feel reading this, when he momentarily stepped into his deepest self. It was a subject, that of Gavin Maxwell, having read her three volumes of autobiography, I was careful never to raise with her!

I was happily cast back to the teas at 47 Paulton's Square whose conversation went on so long that tea was often abandoned for whiskey! Reading her visits to India, my eyes reached up from the sofa, to my statue of Ganesha around which is garlanded a rosary from Hardwar that she gave me, remarking that mine was the first truly human face that she had seen since her return from India. A poetic fancy I enjoyed but did not treat seriously. Though interestingly I was yet to visit India and find myself at home.

I loved the descriptions of her relationship with Winifred Nicholson and their common expeditions together: to paint and write. Their work, in different media, have such common tonalities - an exploration of the minute particulars of the world, of colour, of the world's translucence to a different order, a sacred one. Also of her friendship with the Muirs, Edwin and Willa: I cannot describe the strange joy that always overcomes me when reading of their relationship. I broke off to read his poems, sheltered and made possible in her love.

The book does have some odd infelicities: the Muirs are said to have won a 'small grant' to travel to America. Edwin was, in fact, invited to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard - the most distinguished honour to be afforded a poet. Whilst dear Carmen Blacker is described as a distinguished Japanese scholar who was fluent in Japanese - you would hope so!

All in all a good first accounting but a life and work that deserves in due course a fuller body of regard (and criticism).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Big nostril patience

The root of the Hebrew word for 'patience' means 'big nostrils' according to Jean-Yves Leloup in his excellent "Compassion and Meditation: The Spiritual Dynamic between Buddhism and Christianity".

Unlike Knitter and Thompson (reviewed here:, Fr Leloup is primarily focused on the practical: on the tools for transformation. The insights and tools are drawn from both traditions, compared and contrasted with one another and juxtaposed so the reader can ponder and practice how the doors of perception can be cleansed and we can stand in reality as it is, able to greet its suffering with compassion, with a grounded ego, broken open to transcendent life.

One of its many pleasures are these glimpses of how in entymology wisdom abounds of how body and spirit are part of a single whole. You can see in the example above the body breathing into patience, where breath and spirit are one, breathing in takes you to a place of calm beyond the grasping self and that space allows the self to release.

But one of the most radical sections is a discussion of the paradox of joy abounding where joy is surrendered to take through the pain of others, and transform it. He quotes a priest telling him, shockingly at the time, that Christ's greatest moment of joy is the crucifixion, not because Christ is a pathological masochist but because the self truly surrendered for others, with no thought of itself, is the place of greatest joy.

Christ, according to the Apocryphal Acts of St John, dances us into salvation even onto the cross; and, in Russian, Christ turns to the good thief and tells him not that he will be in paradise but that he is!

Leloup argues that we need new images that do not depict Christ as immersed in suffering rather than in liberating us from it. As the Buddha's smile is not an image of indifference but compassionate recognition, the Christ reality on the cross, suffered, is always suffused with the being of resurrection.

Rare are the examples of Christ smiling on the Cross, remarks Leloup, but here is on from the Abbey at Lerins.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tests for serenity

A test for inner serenity is remaining calm in the back of a taxi in Tunis as its driver imparts a nearing death experience. Fascinating that the white lines in the road do not appear to be seen as markers of separation but as things to drive down: dead centre.

The city bears signs of continuing political nervousness as it moves towards elections for its constituent assembly: the hundred chosen to write the country's new constitution. Many public buildings are closely guarded and have spread around them rather decayed razor wire but otherwise on the surface all appears quiet and normal (indeed overt political activity, like posters, for example, were noticeable for their absence). All the kamikaze taxi drivers I spoke to were happy that Ben Ali had been deposed but the future sounded a mix of exhilaration and wishful thinking. They also were of one accord in thinking Gaddafi was mad.

The city was, in fact, full of Libyans displaced by or sheltering from conflict - and this had made a major contribution to the Tunisian economy (affected by the deep fall in tourism post-revolution). Apparently it was difficult to buy bottled water after 10am in the morning, as supplies were bought up in bulk and transported to the Libyan border.

The hotel lobby was well sprinkled with people drawn to these events - news crews, election monitors, 'frontier' businessmen and people staring into their laptops of maps of Libya with un-ascertainable intentions!

Tunis, on the whole, was an unprepossessing city, sprawling with either a decaying or unfinished air. French colonial buildings fading, alongside later editions of crumbling sixties concrete jostling with newer unattractive office blocks. Everywhere cafes with men predominantly drinking coffee, smoking bubble pipes and greeting friends (while the women presumably worked)!

The sea was a respite from this - needless to say it is where the richer elements of the population lives in white villas perched on neighbouring hills. It was serenely beautiful last night watching the full moon send silvery light across Mediterranean waters.

This scene was beautifully evocative (in a different key) of the book I was reading: John Blofeld's 'Taoism: The Road to Immortality". This was the first book I read on Taoism when I was at university. Like all Blofeld's books it manages to encapsulate both enduring scholarship, lightly worn, 'a perfume of books' (to use the Taoist phrase), a deep respect for all levels of understanding from the simplest faith in folk religion to the most sublime philosophy; and, striking, illuminating personal anecdote.

The last chapter is an account of his visit to a Taoist hermitage in 1935. His sadness (the book was written in the 1970s) was it was of a life no more, eliminated by the red tide, but subsequent events have happily disproved this. The tradition endures. What is so delightful about it, is the absence of any solemnity - these are adepts but they carry their attainment with lightness and grace. The hermitage is a place of simple and serene pleasures - of the practice of silence, the performance of the arts and of hospitality.  Everything that you have learnt of the tradition - philosophy, poetry, yoga and meditation - is given  compelling form (including the humour).

I did want to slip onto a dragon's back, aloft into the mist shrouded hills and join them.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sun Circle

I supposed it had to happen - a disappointing Neil Gunn novel! Not sufficiently so to surrender it, unfinished, but it is slow going.

It is set in an historical moment - Scotland during the Viking incursions - and tries to capture a world between - old traditions subsuming under new, as Christianity makes its way against a pagan past, old securities, known friends and enemies, give way to the new terror of an efficient, relentless marauding culture: the Vikings are coming.

The first difficulty is that Gunn's sense of balance deserts him in the face of the Vikings - they are the stereotypes of traditional historical understanding. They move about as ciphers of destruction. This would be admirable if it was a haunting technique to capture the Raven folk's perceptions of this new menace. However, everyone is seen from outside looking in - the neutral narrator - so you are left merely with an imbalance of seeing.

The second difficulty that is near fatal is the improbability of the Raven folks' emotions. They are to put it colloquially, all over the place, changing with a rapidity that is startling as it is jumbled. I think this is meant to convey their uncertainty in face of the new terror before them: the complexity with which we meet such uncertainty. Sadly, I think it fails - it makes people jarringly improbable at critical moments.

Nonetheless this is Neil Gunn so there is much there - though stuck in rather than as usual woven into a coherent narrative.

He is beautiful on the temptations to power in both religions - and how that temptation might arise in both personal and social context. The explorations after art of Aneil, the Druid's disciple, are wonderfully drawn (pun intended) and you get a real sense of new boundaries of creativity and its display showing, glimmering forth; and, you get that historical sense of Scotland's failure rooted in its inability to be fully united.

Another Scottish clan run off the Raven's livestock just as the Northmen are attacking, leaving the Raven's fatally weakened. You sense this as a deeply symbolic motif!

I will see it through to the end! There is undoubtedly variance in quality (as well as the guiding of favouritism) in any one's oeuvre but it is always disappointing to find it in those loved. The first signs of a maturing love!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Moments in London

The first moment, between meetings, was walking down Old Compton Street in Soho, laden with fashion magazines (all those glossy pages make for bulk), a labour of love, on my way to browse the poetry section at Foyles and being struck by how gay the street was. This might strike the informed as a statement of the bleeding obvious but what I mean was how normal it all it felt. All moral progress is fragile - what was acceptable in an Athenian square in one historical epoch, disappeared the next (as it were) - but here, now, however briefly, was a space that felt given and right. Here was a city's cosmopolitanism (and capacity to be indifferent to difference in a healthy way) on display (though the red trousers and the blue shoes was one display a guy might have rethought)!

A connector to the second moment was remembering a 'gay event' at the University of London Union in the 80s (indoors on a Saturday afternoon) and outside was not one but two transit vans of police, lest what foul happenings might be cooked up by the queer people inside! Times do change...

On my way to my evening's event on innovation, I strolled through Cartwright Gardens past Commonwealth Hall, my home for two years (no blue plaque yet but I am working on it)!

I realized suddenly that it would be thirty years this October since I crossed its threshold one autumnal Saturday afternoon, unloading my trunk from the parents' car to begin a life of independence (as it is called).

I was swept over by a rejuvenating sense of what an adventure it has been, is being. A sense easy to lose track of in the folding events of every day. This was in spite of my not being able to claim that it were the happiest time of my life partly because it had a strand of unsettling misery that in fact ran right through it, partly because life got a lot more interesting, and finally my hope that happy riches continue to lie in store!

The innovation event was held at Logica whose offices are in the rejuvenated area around King's Cross station (that thirty years ago were seedy and steamy indeed) and their conference room had a most fantastic view of the canals below and the hills of north London above. Fond as we English are of bemoaning our place and our hopes - here was a room that bore witness to an alternative narrative - full of bright people, generating innovations either in established firms or new start ups (and many of the later created by bright people from 'over there' - Eastern Europe mainly in this case). It often requires you to be seen through other eyes to value what you have.

What a difference it might make to all those grumbling souls about 'bleedin' immigrants' to wonder why it is so attractive (and a clue is that it certainly is not our 'generous' benefit system or our affordable housing)!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
       The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
       Because the barbarians are coming today.
       What's the point of senators making laws now?
       Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?
       Because the barbarians are coming today
       and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
       He's even got a scroll to give him,
       loaded with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
       Because the barbarians are coming today
       and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don't our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
       Because the barbarians are coming today
       and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?
       Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
       And some of our men just in from the border say
       there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

C P Cavafy (1863 - 1933)

Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Translation Copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard   

This poem has occupied me since I read an article on Kuwait before Iraq's invasion.  Finishing it, I thought if this were a person unconsciously they would be hoping that something externally would break in to change their situation.  A society radically transformed from tradition to an emptiness sated only by shopping! I am reminded of it again when I was thinking of 'Uncivilization' and its presumption that we will not make an orderly (or voluntary) transformation to a genuinely sustainable society. The external conditions (and limits) will necessarily chastise us. 

I sense in Cavafy's poem the suggestion that emptiness requires external forces to transform it - and it occurs to me that our continuing failure to take the steps necessary to find a renewable future is driven by an unconscious inability to step forth without pressure from without. We invite destruction, conjure forth 'barbarians' because we cannot take the steps into uncertainty without such pressure.

It is, after all, a central motif of popular science fiction - in films, by way of example, the alien invasion of 'Independence Day' or the 'natural' catastrophe of "2012' -only then (under external pressure) can we rediscover the values of collaboration and living within limits. 

It is not an encouraging motif!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

To His Love

To His Love

Written at Seaton Delaval, Northumberland, January 1917.
He's gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We'll walk no more on Cotswold
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn river
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now...
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers -
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

Ivor Gurney was both composer and poet. This poem was written at the reported death of his closest friend, Will Harvey, during the First World War. The announcement of death was premature: Harvey was captured and the threads of friendship would be retied after the war.

It is a compelling example of his gift - melancholy remembrance of place, specific yet universal sentiment, sung not spoken. I have heard his songs periodically but only recently purchased the Collected Poems. It is a fabulous volume that sings of places known - Gloucestershire and stretching outwards.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Road to Heaven

 Yuan- chao on her k'ang, waiting for the transforming fire by Steve Johnson.

"Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits" is a delightful and lucid account of the distinguished translator, Bill Porter/Red Pine's visits to hermits (both Buddhist and Taoist) in central North China in the late 80s.

Their survival was greeted with skepticism by Porter's Taiwanese friends (and by his mentor, John Blofeld, who had visited them in the 30s). They must have been swept away by sustained Communist hostility to religion, and especially by the terrors of the Cultural Revolution.

But no, as Porter found, and his companion, Steven Johnson, photographed, not only had a significant number survived, some had returned (after an enforced exile in lay life) and were being joined by younger, often better educated recruits (in the world's terms).

The book is both an account of the 'hermit tradition' seen through the lens of key past figures and meetings with living representatives of a central Chinese cultural and religious tradition. Many of these meetings lead to fascinating, if always brief, interviews both on the practical challenges of following the tradition, and of the person's core practice. This latter is usually described with a compelling modesty and directness.

The photographs both of the hermits and their surroundings are haunting. Faces of great composure, charm, humour and insight claim your attention, as do the mist shrouded peaks, the shadowed gorges and the buildings speaking of an ancient tradition and a modern fulfillment simply embodied.

Sadly, if the authorities have exchanged indifference for active hostility with regard to religion, they have succumbed to a modern vice, namely the promotion of tourism, that is eroding the opportunities for silence. The hermits are having to retreat - either deeper into the mountains or, as the last chapter discloses, ironically into the anonymity of the city!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Division of Spoils

This last (and lengthiest) volume of Scott's Raj quartet is moving towards its conclusion both by passing over key episodes in the preceding books, seen from multiple perspectives, and moving towards two denouement: of Britain's presence in India and of of the book's core character - the policeman, Ronald Merrick.

It is compelling that even though he is central, he is always seen through other eyes, he never has his own voice, only how it is reported by others. It captures with arrest his fundamental hollowness. He is an act of fabrication, a gifted illusion, that generates significant (negative) power; and, thus, is an apt cypher for a way of looking at the British in India. Beyond all the ideological counterfeit of imperial obligation is the wielding of (dark) power, driven in Merrick's mind by the balancing forces of contempt and envy. The latter requires to lay hold of power (over possessions, over others) and contempt justifies it.

If that were all, it would capture one way of seeing imperial ambition but would not, I think, yield the complex riches that are the quartet.

Dark power (not least by its unconsciousness, a feature of it that Merrick holds in contempt) was/is certainly present but around it, binding it, are many other complex drivers.

I was reminded of the United States who denying imperial ambition have yet pursued it with attendant dark and tragic power but that does not make the 'mission of light and freedom' simply an exercise in hypocrisy (and Scott too recognizes the falsity of this, Merrick's charge). 

The problem is not that we are hypocrites - every war is simply about the oil for example - but it is freighted with many different, and competing, motivations - many of which do stay beneath the surface.

And one is love (and regard).

I was reminded of this in the lives of Tigger and Ann, much in my thought this week. Both were born in India to a father in the ICS, a judge, whose exemplary practice won many friends both English and Indian; and, of his wife, Dinah, who founded, with Indians, a charity that continues to flourish with an especial aim at helping widowed women. Both Tigger and Ann regarded India as home, their first love, and in many ways responded to India with continuing love and affection.

It is a possibility that is, also, present in Scott's book, though it is often placed in the 'outsider' - Count Bronowsky and the 'eccentric' sergeant, Guy Perron -and, of course, in the Indian characters themselves (excluding the tragic Hari Kumar, though even he, it is hinted at the end, has begun to find a version of it).

We often interfere (or engage) out of love (and love can be bound with many burdens, envy being one) but it is not a motivation that is allowed to play much sense making in political or social arenas.

The stance of public cynicism is too corrosive: we have a Merrick voice in all of us.

There is a moment that captures it in that other great, flawed book of Anglo-Indian relationships - A Passage to India. An Indian lawyer friend of Dr Aziz turns to him, when both of them have been forced from their bicycles by an urgent British official's unthinking car, and asks rhetorically, 'Why do we hate the English? It is because we love them"!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The joy in which we come to rest...

Twenty five minutes of silent meditation at Ann's grave started the day. This we followed with readings and breakfast at the Bibury Court Hotel, at Tigger's, Ann's sister's, hospitality.

I read a short poem by Wendell Berry:

"Learn by little the desire for all things
which perhaps is not desire at all
but undying love which perhaps
is not love at all but gratitude
for the being of all things which
perhaps is not gratitude at all
but the maker's joy in what is made,
the joy in which we come to rest."

I had introduced Ann to Berry's poetry and we both recognized in it that ability that poetry has of encapsulating a seeing, a way of being, in ways immediately recognizable, so that you taste the understanding of it, rather than merely understand.

I left for a meeting in Bristol and drove across the Cotswolds accompanied at first by Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending: music played at Ann's funeral and that has remained glistening in memory and regard ever since, appropriate to the time and to the place.

On the way back I listened to assorted pieces by Holst: a composer I love very much - I would like his Brook Green Suite played at my funeral. I always feel deeply sorry that his oeuvre as a whole is overshadowed by his perceived masterpiece: The Planets. There is so much more to enjoy - Egdon Heath or the Hymn to Jesus or the music inspired by themes Indian - the settings of hymns from the Rig Veda for example (for which he tried to learn Sanskrit to make his own translations). He is certainly the most spiritually questing of composers, in a modern vein, ecumenical to a fault.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...