Monday, October 31, 2011

Renewed vision

One sadness of Palmer's life was the fading of his vision after his time at Shoreham. His art dimmed in assurance and in its capacity to shimmer in transcendence as his confidence was challenged by feeling the need, and failing, to connect with contemporary taste. Like his beloved Blake, Palmer never achieved meaningful recognition in his lifetime. Unlike Blake, his vision did falter in response.

Yet only faltered, rather than disappeared, and was recovered in his final years in two projects, both illustrative and in dialogue with poetic masters: Milton and Virgil.

Of which 'The Lonely Tower' is one example (of the Milton series): a dialogue not with his contemporaries but with master practitioners of a traditional past to which Palmer was heir. It reminds me that any artistic practice is embedded in an ongoing conversation - fortunate is the artist who finds that amongst his contemporaries but there are other sources against which to test your truths (and your talents). Palmer, as did Blake, found them in past truth tellers - both artistic and poetic.

The above captures Palmer's mastery of twilight, sun setting releasing starlight, and pastoral tasks falling into place and giving space to contemplation in the transition of day to night, light to mystery.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Salmer Palmer: Mysterious Wisdom

Rachel Campbell-Johnston's biographical study of the painter, Samuel Palmer, is excellent: a vivid account of a person and their period and their artistic development and offering.

It paints a compelling picture of an art world coming to professionalism and to a market, inclusive of but beyond patronage. There is a wonderful story of Turner upstaging Constable by adding, in situ, last moment colour to his painting at the Royal Academy exhibition. The artists may be in pursuit of beauty but the all too human often intrudes, as does the necessary: the earning of one's keep in diverse ways, deploying myriad stratagems.

The book too paints a vivid picture of the impact of the elderly, impoverished William Blake on the group of young artists that called themselves the 'Shoreham Ancients' of whom Palmer and Edward Calvert were two of the key members and subsequent luminaries. It is incredibly moving to see in his twilight moments of life, racked by several physical afflictions, Blake receive the admiration of the talented young and respond to it so warmly and by imparting shards of wisdom: though each interpreting it to their lights.

If they did not, could not, fully understand him, they loved him and learnt from him.

The book's only shortfall, thus far, is to share the limitations of understanding Blake. She admirably conveys the sympathy of the younger artists but half sees Blake through eyes that imagine him if not mad, eccentric, and does not know how to place his visions. Peter Ackroyd, whose admirable biography of Blake, Campbell-Johnston refers to, does the exact opposite - takes Blake at his word, allows his visions to breathe, and recognises them fully as emblematic clothing of a worked out metaphysical vision, resting on a path of traditional wisdom.

Here Palmer's biographer does not follow as is aptly demonstrated by her clipped references to Paracelsus, Boehme and Swedenborg - all of whom Blake absorbed as teaching masters (with varaying levels of agreement, argument and absorption).

What to do when spiritual seeing - the atmosphere of transcendence - that Palmer painted so well becomes the alternate imagining of perceived reality that Blake invites us to?

The author stays on the boundary, unsure whether or how to enter in - which interestingly is probably what Palmer did too for all his admiration, he lacked the framing knowledge that would have taken his intuition deeper, fleshing it out into an unfolding vision.

Palmer was destined to be periodically exalted but not fashioned anew by what he glimpsed, hallowing, rather than saw whole.

Yet what intimations of glory he does paint - especially in that time of concentrated withdrawal at Shoreham on and after Blake's death. The wonderful balance, as here, between specific place and time and a world wanting to shape shift in transfiguration, burst with the light of being seen aright, with doors of perception cleansed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Abandoning development (and religion)

Three fascinating days at Wilton Park discussing religion, change and development with a diverse, engaging, and thoughtful group (and Wilton Park is a truly hospitable place).

Much of the discussion was highly valuable in thinking through how 'secular' development agencies can effectively engage with faith based organizations and religious groups to promote meaningful change.

However, it occurred to me that both the framing words: religion and development are problematic.

First, development and as I pointed out when was the last time you asked a person, a community or a country whether they had developed recently? The focus ought to be on realities that people can recognise: their own flourishing, well-being and their living in a state and place where justice obtains.

Second, religion and as Martin Buber celebrated it was not a word that existed in his own Jewish tradition. Religion is not itself a reality to which we should tend. It can only describe a matrix that enables (or disables) our achievement of human flourishing and real justice and it as often divides us away from a realization of what one of our speaker's called our 'transcendent humanism' than it enables us to celebrate it.

Both too have a tendency towards 'instrumentality' (and as Buber recognised necessary as this is: an I-It relationship to the world), it needs to be framed by a valuing of the world in and for itself - and that much of what we most remember and value in our lives 'in development' is when we witness/participate in moments that reflect people's intrinsic value, 'just so-ness'!

I recalled a time when I went with a women's group in Colombia with their children to the sea (on a nerve wrackingly rickety bus). They were 'blowing' all their group's savings (and no doubt could have spent it more 'sensibly') but to see the children dance into a sea that none (including their parents) had ever seen, the culmination of the expedition, was to participate in joy.

If (as St Irenaeus says) the glory of God is most truly present when a human being is fully alive, then those women and children on the beach were truly God's glory and in God's glory the need for both development and religion fall away (at least for the time the aliveness lasts).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I go among trees

Today I went to an exhibition of Joan Baker ( and bought the painting shown here: 'Tree Wisdom'. It is of a place in Pembrokeshire, at the foot of a hill whose name is the 'Hill of Angels'.

I had found a new way to Ludlow (and the Silk Top Hat gallery), along the road from Droitwich, past Tenbury Wells where Shropshire, Hereford and Worcestershire meet. It is a beautiful road, winding, amongst diverse shaped hills, topped now with trees in autumnal glory and the villages you pass through have a wonderful cross-section of architectural styles in this place occupied for centuries.

I was listening to Delius - those quiet winding pieces of mood shifting, contemplated nature - as I drove along, these conspired with the shifting view to place my mind in the right place to view Joan's art.

It is an art of nature meditated upon and seen, and seen through. It is art that says that there is another world and it is both enfolded in and enfolds this one. It is an art of a transcendent unity that yet captures the world in its particulars.

I loved both painting and title - I always hanker for living amongst trees, and my favourite walk is to go amongst them and if that is coupled with coming to and from a water's edge, the walk is made doubly perfect!

It is resonant with one of my most beloved poems of Wendell Berry: one of his Sabbath poems:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

No 1 in Nairobi

I cannot say I saw a great deal of Nairobi on a short trip this week to seduce 'Development Finance Institutions' into the embrace of our new social investment fund but I did achieve a first: being granted room number one in the Nairobi Hilton (not a traditional Oxfam watering hole but the location of the conference and one I was attending for free as a speaker).

The room was pool side and I was upgraded as there were no non-smoking rooms left in my grade.

The Hilton in the middle of downtown Nairobi had seen better days - its utilitarian 70s lustre was showing its age - and its haphazard security arrangements were a wonder.

Every car is searched for bombs as it approaches the barrier but only if they have been implanted underneath and, in any case, you can drive around the barrier without imposing difficulty! Meanwhile, I wandered in with unsearched suitcase one day, and was scrutinised with great care the next. It was all rather endearingly haphazard as was the hospitality.

For instance, Daniel on the desk informed me that officially check out was 11am but could be extended until 2pm for no charge and until 6pm for half the room rate (but unofficially I happily bantered him into extending it to 6pm for free).

It was wonderful exchange where a simple human relationship (and a supporting culture) overcame any official obstacle. Discretion could, and was, exercised to the betterment of both people and business. Its warmth overcame any niggling criticism that I might have of the hotel - the incredibly chewy lamb for example - a dental workout of little apparent nutritional value!

The Nairobi I did see was familiar from earlier in the year (which was my first ever visit and now twice in one year).

It is a city, like so many, in haste to lose what mantling of beauty it had in the rushing crush that is development.

Here the wealthy retreat behinds walls and the poor crowd in search of the crumbs of wealth and promise of riches that they have failed to find in the country. Meanwhile, those in the middle build the strangely soulless realms of suburb and flats that point hopefully in the direction of wealth and firmly define you as not 'one of them': the poor. It is a trajectory that is wholly understandable but does not appear any more appealing for that nor ultimately sustainable.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Unmixed attention

"Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer," wrote Simone Weil.

If so the whole function of the Work with Gurdjieff was to bring the student into a state of prayer.

Prayer not as an activity but a state of being, being present to the world, to another, through genuinely remembering our 'selves', being present in what we do, being watchful of that presence.

De Hartmanns' book is a testimony to how difficult this is: our minds wander, our bodies act without us, we do not inhabit ourselves.

Gurdjieff's work was to shock and train the self into attentiveness, indeed bring the self into genuine existence through attentiveness, and through that attentiveness bring a quality of our consciousness that can change and sustain genuine feeling.

The book itself carries a charge of genuine feeling in which the distinction between 'emotion' and 'feeling' is critical in this work. An 'emotion' is a state that has us: it shapes an ego that dances to its wants, needs. Feeling is a reality we stand in that moves through us, in awareness, it relaxes ego into a remembered self.

Gurdjieff is continually demonstrating, and nurturing in his students, this difference - for love cannot be bought out of emotion, emotions accompany love, but they are not it, do not contain it: we dwell in love, our common language recognises this: I am in love, not the other way around.

But we continually exchange love for ego derived alternatives whose very agitation is their excitement.

Simone Weil would want to say that we 'decreate' ourselves, rather than remember ourselves, so that grace and presence may truly abide through and with us: words slip and slide - but I think they would have recognized each other as saints in the making on the edge of established traditions of holy making (if that is they were not appalled by each other's distinctly different personalities)! 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The necessary simplicity

Following Jacob Needleman's recommendation, I bought a copy of Thomas and Olga de Hartmann's 'Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff'.

It reminded me of another encounter between a sophisticated author and a holy man - St. Pavel Florensky's 'Salt of the Earth' - Florensky's bare, simple, moving account of his staretz: Father Isidore.

There are many, no doubt, who would think the comparison invidious - Father Isidore is secure within a recognisable tradition, that of Orthodoxy whereas Gurdjieff: who was Gurdjieff?

It is a mystery - from whence he came, with what traditional understanding - a mystery that the book deepens rather than dispels but what comes through both texts is that a genuine spirituality imposes a simplicity that ultimately costs not less than everything. It asks us to follow it with an unerring attention and conscience - and it eludes us precisely because of that simplicity.

You cannot think your way to salvation, though thinking may help, you must surrender to a deeper force: an attention that gathers up all your faculties and that transforms them - an attention that allows for a different, sacred presence to become present in your daily life and leads you to be present:-

"I am" (as St John's Gospel radiates) is the signature of the spirituality that lays claim to a Christian descent: that vivid reality of being gifted into being.

Both books are marked by it.

The irony is that the authors were to suffer diametrical fates - the one (the de Hartmanns) with the help of their teacher made their escape from revolutionary Russia and the latter (Florensky) was destined for its centre: the Gulag and martyrdom.

Meanwhile, the de Hartmann book gives tangentially a vivid impression of the challenges of that revolution and the skilful way Gurdjieff's guidance led them through - even if partly coloured by the celebratory embrace of the pupil, his skill was preternaturally in evidence.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Kandinsky in Govan

Blue Rider by Wassily Kandinsky

Alastair McIntosh is organizing a conference on art, spirituality and the future inspired by reading Kandinsky's "Concerning the spiritual in art". It wants to look, in the context of Govan: a hardy but deprived community in Scotland, at what art can mean as a way of healing and future hope.

Kandinsky offered a vision of art as service, as mirroring and nurturing human spiritual possibility. In order for it to do this, he argued that one needed to separate the spiritual from the material. In focusing on the transcendent in art (and that came to mean abstraction), he reminded us of art's highest function as a bearer, within beauty, of sacred meaning and yet opened up a fracture between art and a genuinely incarnated, embodied spirituality.

Kandinsky was both clarion call to art's true purpose and a sundering of that purpose. Therefore, he presents a fascinating opportunity to explore what art could mean and has come to mean.

McIntosh notes that there is a craving for beauty - our lives are confronted often with ugliness, an ugliness (or best indifference to beauty) with which modern art often conspires - what then are the principles that may be able to set it aright and allow it breathe again, and breathe new life into our communities.

It is a noble set of questions - and an answer must begin with a re-uniting of spirit and matter - a way in which art can hallow our everyday embodiment and lift it up whole in new visions of possibility.

Last night I had a conversation about 'nice art' - was it right to only like, be drawn to art that uplifts, that humanises and hallows, to which the unequivocal answer must be yes.

Life is too preciously short to waste it on that which degrades and de-constructs.  Life as it really is can only be seen in the light of loving regard: we know best what we love, enjoy most what we celebrate.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Post-modern teapots

I came away from 'Post-modernism: Style and Subversion: 1970-1990 at the V&A with the distinct feeling that post-modern designers had an inordinate fondness for tea pots (even when they were Italian designers)...

Perhaps it was because they sold well suggested Andrei but that would not make them very subversive I thought! There were an awful lot of them - in alluring colourful shapes - witty and superficial.

It was disconcerting to be walking through an exhibition that was and was not your history.

It was because it was often recognisable - the colours, designs, shapes, music and magazines.

It was not because at no time did I feel 'post-modern' (in so far as that could be defined). Neither the ideological utopia of modernism nor the collapse of grand narratives in post-modernism has had much traction.

That there is a 'Fable' to use Edwin Muir's definition: an archetypal pattern to human life has always been for me a given, that it unfolds in myriad, particular stories is equally given. Seeking to impose a 'story' imagining it is as the only one (making a myth an ideology) or disregarding the evaluative patterning of imagination that makes things whole, fracturing the world, both seem flawed strategies to me. I am neither modernist nor post-modernist - a traditional understanding will happily suffice.

But it is nevertheless a fascinating exhibition - modernism was insufferable (starting with its architecture of inhuman scale and lack of difference and particularity) and needed to be subverted and in the uncertainties of post-modern gestures, the breaking of boundaries, there, at times, was an desire towards re-imagining the world; however, superficial some of its products might have been.

Meanwhile, for reasons I do not wholly comprehend, I loved these two pieces of music/performance!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Jerry confesses...

...and I misjudged him because 'What is God?' does indeed contain a new departure, hinted at in previous books, but now made explicit; namely, Needleman's indebtedness to Gurdjieff and 'the Work'. An indebtedness that is both intellectual and practiced with a group led by one of Gurdjieff's own closest associates.

This is fascinating because Gurdjieff is one of those people who have been loitering around my own intellectual space without ever coming under close scrutiny.

At one time, I read Maurice Nicoll, one of his circle, with great interest because he had been lent to me by a very close friend and because he was my beloved Edwin Muir's short-lived psychoanalyst. I read A.R.Orage for similar reasons - he was Muir's friend and first literary supporter - though both met Muir before they went to study with Gurdjieff.

But neither 'took' as it were - I did not find myself wanting to go deeper (at that time) and if I were honest it was because both appeared 'too dry' and exceptionally humourless, (as indeed had been those practitioners of 'the Work' that I had hitherto met -and I confess to loving Leonora Carrington's spirited sending up of such people in her 'The Hearing Trumpet').

But Needleman's account is deeply interesting and moving. He returns to a fundamental question about 'attention' - the transformative nature of true, deep attention, what would have been called in the Desert tradition of the early Church, watchfulness - that creates a space in our minds that enables us to be genuinely vulnerable to the truth - of ourselves and of the world. Such attention is a gift, hard to obtain, and we are diverted from seeking it by paying more of our attention to the contents of our consciousness rather than its quality.

Needleman makes an excellent pitch for 'the Work' as a critical way of developing this 'deep seeing' so that we can genuinely begin to discover 'I am' my presence, my essential humanity.

I expect I may have another look at Nicoll at least - I rather like the fact that my copies once belonged to J.B. Priestley. I had bought them from a bookshop in Stratford upon Avon that his widow, Jacquetta Hawkes, must have used to prune his library after he died

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I love Jerry

... even though he writes the same book over and over: a continuing theme in multiple variations.

This time it is 'God' and episodes from his, Jerry's not God's, biography that illuminate his grappling with, 'What is God?'

First, out with the gripe, you do sense that you could lift whole paragraphs, indeed chapters, from this particular book and land them with minimum editorial effort into any of his previous books, without anyone, least of all me, noticing!

That aside - the feeling of intellectual deja vu - each of his books though they deal with the same fundamental theme, clothe it in a different context, and illustrate it anew whether this be 'the real nature of Christianity' or 'the meaning of money' or, as in this case, 'the status of God'!

And the fundamental theme is that we come to genuine knowledge of the truth only by a transformation of that which beholds the truth; namely, our consciousness; and, that beholding is a wisdom of both heart and mind. There is here an 'inner empiricism' that grounds knowledge in ourselves according to laws that were known in each and every authentic sacred tradition and need to be rediscovered anew in this, our troubled generation.

Jacob (Jerry) Needleman's vocation is how to do this using the practice of philosophy, philosophy as a restored, functioning 'love of wisdom'.

What is continuously fascinating is how he finds different ways to alert our attention to the way we carry truth, to the 'how' of our holding it apart from its content. Truth, in this Socratic form, is fundamentally ethical - we may differ from one another as to the content of what we believe to be true, but even as we hold those differing 'truths' with a similar awareness that makes us vulnerable, questioning and compassionate (or the opposite, how both reasons and emotions can narrow that 'holding' until we give way to a capturing certainty that sweeps us on our way).

The Buddha and Christ can embrace each other, not because they believe the same things, but they recognise their mutual openness to truth bearing, to being expressions of the fundamental truth of compassionate love of neighbour, of self, and that holds them to an absolute demand and response.

For Needleman truth sets you free for responsible love. In this recognition, he sits in a long and noble confluence of traditions.

And his style accessible, reflective, biographical is a delight. It slips through you until it snags you into pausing contemplation of what it means to be, and what is possible for, a human being.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Still on a mountain in Tibet

When Thubron was nineteen, we discover, his elder sister, though only herself twenty-one, was killed by an avalanche in the Alps: she was skiing.

This mourned reality gives an edge to the final miles of the pilgrimage trail - grief never passes into history however time modifies it, it lives with us, shape shifting but always present.

Here on the mountain death is always present.

We discover the ill-prepared Indian pilgrims, especially from the South, where Shiva is especially venerated, who are turned back by the altitude and cold, and that has proved fatal to members of their party. We encounter the place where the dead are left - their clothes lie about, piled against each other in the wind, and where people pause to remember the dead or contemplate their own transience.

It is all seen with abiding compassion evoked in Thubron's lean, spare prose. He shows a remarkable ability to let a people's multiple beliefs stand, stark, even elegant, against a background of suspended belief or disbelief: a courteous neutrality - then he allows himself to step back into his own shoes and gently recoil from these beliefs as signifying any personal hope.

There is a wonderful description here of 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead' - as clear an exposition as you might wish, never corrupted by the author's own dismissal. This is what is believed as it is believed.

Except one moment when Thubron gently confronts a Tibetan monk with his own understanding of Buddhist belief that no personal memory persists from incarnation to incarnation (according to the scrupulous metaphysical version of 'no self' this 'must' be true). He is strangely insistent on this - even, as he must know, indeed records, that faith tradition denies it! The Buddha himself in folk tradition recalls his own lives, the Dalai Lama recognises his predecessor's implements from a selection of similar artefacts.

It is puzzling moment as if Thubron must not allow the 'dead' to 'live anew' - the finality of an individual's life, in its unique particularity, must be safeguarded.

It is the only moment when his own need shines through: the uniqueness of a person, actual and in memory is the inviolable reality; and, in his faithfulness to this reality, there is a truthfulness that speaks deeply. It is not a matter of belief but of vulnerability to one's own need that is so movingly compelling.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

To a Mountain in Tibet

Colin Thubron is an exceptionally gifted writer - esteemed as a travel writer, under-acknowledged as a novelist - 'To a Mountain in Tibet' provides an interesting departure in that his usual self-effacing presence. questioning but rarely questioned, is here set aside.

As he travels to the sacred mountain of Kailas on a path trodden for centuries by pilgrims - Buddhist and Hindu, he finds himself prompted to his own secular scrutiny for discovering himself the last of his line.

However, his secularism remains intact - though he is as erudite as ever on what he sees and its background in geography and history - and is skilful and sympathetic at eliciting the stories of others -he remains fundamentally unpersuaded by the traditions that he encounters.

This is maybe of no surprise given that many of the people he encounters are so poor, and culturally impoverished, that they have no appreciable access to those traditions - both temples and the gods who inhabit them are often unknown.  The monks he encounters are themselves products of a similar background - custodians of a partially understood tradition rather than embodied inhabitants of a living truth (even if only partly realised); and, a tradition severely damaged by the encroachments of both poverty and communism.

There is a very powerful moment when Thubron encounters a 'sky burial' platform where all but the most privileged lamas (who are embalmed or cremated) are ceremonially dismembered and fed to vultures. Only here Thubron finds uncatered for remains (which in Tibetan tradition leaves the body exposed to ghostly possession). Only a belief in reincarnation says Thubron can reconcile you to this impersonal treatment of the dead: a belief he does not possess. Otherwise it is a transgression against the particular individuality of the deceased, even if that end is seen as final. In a compressed few sentences Thubron conjures forth a fault line in cultural expectation - and marvellously allows for both - an appreciation and a recoiling disapproval.

There is a classical austerity around Thubron that eschews all romanticism that makes reading him sobering but all is offered in a quiet compassion that makes him an illuminating lens on the worlds he encounters - more trustworthy than a more celebratory voice.

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...