Sunday, November 27, 2011

Seeing not saying

"Hurtle too knew better than everybody, than all these anyway, Sid Cupples included; not that he could have explained what he knew: because he saw rather than thought. He often wished he could think like people think in books, but he could only see or feel his way. He itched to get his fingers in their wool, for the feel of it."

Hurtle Duffield is the developing artist in Patrick White's novel, 'The Vivesector,' who as a child, is visiting his adopted parents' property - a sheep ranch - from which their wealth flows (as it did for White).

I had marked the passage, when I read it first, an age ago, which was/is a very rare occurrence. It was the first page I read on getting home on seeing the Edward Burra exhibition yesterday. One of those coincidences that we are to pretend do not mean anything.

It so resonated with the fragmentary interview with Edward Burra, as he politely refused to answer any of the interviewer's questions about what he could say about his art.

At one point, he asks why the interviewer is so interested in this 'personality stuff' for it has nothing to do with personality; and, you can sense all the time, he wants to say, "Just look at the fucking paintings. It is all there in so far as I can ever capture, evoke it!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Life worth every coloured moment

Today visited the Edward Burra exhibition at the Pallant Gallery in Chichester. In any other country, this would not be the first exhibition he had enjoyed for thirty five years. He would probably have his own museum -possibly on a hill top in Rye where he lived for the whole of his life.

A running strand through the commentary was Burra's 'sinister side': how many of the paintings are tinged with possible or implicit threat, as here, in 'The Straw Man', being kicked by a group of men from which a woman hurries her child away.

It is true this is a theme - the world carries implicit threat - especially in those places of "disreputable' life that Burra loved to paint: the streets of Harlem or in the back streets of Marseilles where, as in one picture, the 'cheap' prostitutes, relax in the sunlight, one attending to the nits in her hair, a simple occupational hazard.

But it felt, after a while. like the strain for a unifying chord in this disparate artist's oeuvre - even two women labouring to hold up sacks of cabbages as they gossiped appeared to one critic to be clinging to their cabbages with untoward fury!!! Much as I looked I could not see beyond clinging to the cabbages as an obstacle to the free range of gossipy delight!

I thought the jazz musician and art critic, George Melly, caught it beautifully when he wrote:

"His torturers, his bullies, his soldiers, some of his phantasmagoria are evil but many of his creatures are simply louche and disreputable. He loved naughtiness. He enjoyed depravity and bathed it in a glamorous eccentric light. He was acquainted with imps as well as demons."

And ordinary people -  as here three sailors relaxing in a French bar - caught in quiet celebratory light.

And saints, as here, Christ mocked, not as implicit threat but the practice of evil.

It is the only disappointment of this fabulous exhibition that none of the overtly religious paintings are included, as if this might embarrass the theme. Burra is as capable of painting light (or the hope of it) as dark and many of his paintings of places presumed disreputable are not only delighted in (to quote Melly) but suffused with a compassionate eye.

Burra, it struck me, was (as his sister described in a fragmentary film) in 'earnest' and though he took great steps in his way of life and his language to disguise it, it was fully resonant in his art.

He wants you see life in all its depth and complexity and that requires you to see it through multiple lens (and in colour not black and white). Thus, his great late landscapes - that both lament the changes wrought by 'progress' - the spirit of the place (in one) shattered by demonic tractors and trucks - and the celebration of that very same progress that enables him (battered by his life long arthritis) in the last years of his life to tour England and see the remotest of places, ironically made near!

We are all places of multiple contradiction - and only accepting this will help us navigate it. The artist's job is to make us see it and evade none of our darkest edges but neither ignore the heights to which we might aspire nor the commonplace joys and sorrows of life.

Nor ignore life's sheer strangeness and its unfathomed depths indeed Burra is perhaps a 'magical realist' in painting (and indeed I often think he rather belongs to a Spanish thought world than to an English one).

What struck me most about the fragmentary film (from which this is a still) were his eyes - seeing and (as he told a friend as he grew older) seeing through the world.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Testimony to the vivid nature of the novelist, Patrick White's, language comes from re-reading his, 'The Vivisector' after a pause of over 25 years and it floods back into memory, even particular phrases have their lodgement refreshed in my mind.

White was an accomplished collector of art and it seems to me a frustrated painter. His language is both exceptionally visual and visceral. Here he is describing the life of Hurtle Duffield - the fictional development of an artist from early precocious childhood through until death. It vividly draws on his extensive and deep knowledge of art and the artistic process - his own and borrowed.

But it is the extraordinary way of penetrating into and evoking human nature in its poetic complexity that arrests you. His capacity to capture the unique particularities of a character's behaviour and how it reveals deeper, shared patterning is compelling as is the way our moods shift and how we bear contradictions of mood. We are always a site of conflicting emotion and currents of deeper feeling.

A continuing theme is the way we betray our own potential for a freeing love. We are subject to many stranded and abiding fears that keep us captive, holding us apart from a vision of love. Yet is is a vision that beckons, often held by the marginalized and eccentric, who do not allow the contours of a shared, public, constrained world to prevent them seeing.

One of his 'arguments' in The Vivisector is the pain of seeing, of loving what is seen in startling honesty, and yet struggling and failing to embody that love in the actual contours of a life lived with and for others. The artist may evoke truth, loving the truth seen, and yet fail to live love.

Sidney Nolan was one of the artists befriended (and collected) by White - though they had a spectacular falling out (which faulty memory always associates with this book)!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Edward Burra

A rare opportunity to see the work of this great English artist whose unique vision I deeply love.

He was democratic, compassionate and tinged with vision - and utterly unwilling to discuss his art directly. He used to call this talking about his work 'fart'.

He was a gifted friend whose witty, engaging, gossipy letters are a delight.

He was from an early age crippled by arthritis that made him an observer and his quiet heroism in response to his illness is wholly admirable.

This is one of his paintings from Marseilles from the 1930s - and note the equality of seeing: black and white weaving in and out of a store, a shared life envisioned but one that was in reality so often denied. There is nothing overtly political about it and yet there is a humanistic vision that encompasses every person. It is was a seeing that was informed by a quiet, implicit Christianity that becomes overtly addressed in a number of his paintings: Christ as the man who comes to restore all people to a common level, that embraces all in the forgiveness of sins.

I doubt whether Blake and Burra are a common juxtaposition - utterly different in character - and yet bonded in seeing with a rinsed eye. They see different things with the same compassion.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Illuminating Blake

As Christopher Rowland in 'Blake and the Bible' admirably demonstrates the Bible was both Blake's favourite book, his deep familiarity with which informed both art and poetry, and the text of which he was most cautious.

For this Christian radical, the Bible was a resource for understanding, not an infallible guide, it was a starting point for understanding, never an end, an opening text, never one that closed off avenues of understanding.

For "The Bible or Peculiar Word of God, Exclusive of Conscience or the Word of God Universal, is that Abomination, for ever removed & henceforth every man may converse with God & be a King & Priest in his own house."

It is only by possessing the spirit of interpretation that is Christ, which dwells in every person, however, little regarded, that allows you to understand the real import of the Scriptures. For they are only testimonies to a wrestling with truth revealed and are subject to the distortions of their all too human makers.

"The Spirit of Christ in his children is not bound to any certain form," to quote Blake's teacher, Jacob Boehme, as the spirit of prophecy can alight and flame out of any person. We are all bound to be prophets in Blake's imagination.

But how do we know that we stand in prophecy, if there is neither infallible word interpreted by (infallible) ministers nor traditions of interpretation? How can we know 'they' are reading the Bible rightly as an anxious Evangelical friend asked me of staff in the Balkans working for a Christian development organization who had taken to sharing their reading of the Bible at Monday staff meetings (a radical new departure for all of them)?

It was a fascinating question that quietly gives the lie to imagining that many 'evangelical' strands of Protestantism in truth think much of individual conscience. Think of Luther's authoritarian panic as soon as people did actually begin interpreting the word of God for themselves!

Blake's answer was simple - does it lead to (or emerge from) forgiveness of sins? Do you turn to love your neighbour or, more importantly, your enemy? Does you reading bring peace - both to yourself and to your community?

It is one of those haunting simplicities that suggest why Christianity eludes us yet it is the heart of the message and the criteria by which to judge truth.

Rowland shows how this dynamic - what enables us to be prophets that bring peace, mercy and justice - permeates Blake's work - and how Blake's images are prioritised over the words, their paradoxical combination of ambiguity and directness seeking to subvert any potential idolatry of his own prophetic texts.

Take my vision as sparking inspiration and go vision for yourselves is Blake's intention. In this he is humbly different from some of his radical antecedents and contemporaries who envisaged that their embodiment of Christian vision was historically critical, their role especially important. Blake, unlike those of his contemporaries, was more interested in individual transformation than in historical change.

His re-visioning of Christianity sees it as an invitation to transformation now - any stepping into 'forgiveness of sins' is a last judgement, we do not have to wait upon the kingdom of heaven, it awaits on us crossing its ever-present threshold.

Jacob's ladder of ascending and descending (shown here) is open to all, now.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Illuminating Job

The second of twenty-one engraved plates by William Blake illustrating (illuminating) the Book of Job.

You will notice a resonance in appearance between the face of God, enthroned in heavenly splendour and the face of Job whose self-contained world is about to be disrupted by Satan.

For Blake, Job's journey is one from a religion of pious complacency bound by moral rules and a transcendent deity ordering about the world to an internalized vision of his own existential participation in the divine life. God dwells within and has a human face. We dwell fully in God who imagines forth a world that inspires our life.

I have embarked on Christopher Rowland's "Blake and the Bible". Rowland is a distinguished Biblical scholar with a particular specialism in the interpretation of two of Blake's favourite books - Ezekiel and Revelation.

It is already proving to be a joy of lucid exposition and an illuminating lens through which to see Blake. Rowland boldly sets out to show Blake as a gifted and sophisticated interpreter of the Bible in a book beautifully produced by possibly the best university press in the world (sorry Oxford but it is Yale)!

The Book of Job has a happy resonance for me. My precocious brother, aged eleven or so, had embarked on reading the Bible and I, in sibling rivalry, set out on this too except I started at 'random' and was found by a startled mother one Saturday morning, aged eight or so, reading Job! What I made of it then I cannot recall excepting that I finished it and have returned to it many times subsequently until I expect it is the scriptural territory I am most familiar with (helped by both Blake and Jung)!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Miserable gits

Andrew Harvey relates in his marvelous book, "A Journey in Ladakh' how he gave a Tibetan Buddhist monk Nietzsche to read, hoping to convince him that 'the West' had thinkers of substance. The monk duly worked his way through Nietzsche's work and replied, in essence, what an extraordinary insight Nietzsche possessed and what an extraordinary confession that he finally succumbed to madness clinging to the neck of horse being flogged, trying to protect it from harm. A confession because his thinking, his system lacked compassion.

Likewise A. E. Waite stood up in the middle of a lecture by P.D. Ouspensky, declared that there was no place for love in his, Ouspensky's system, and walked out.

Reading Gary Lachman's excellent book on Ouspensky and his relationship with Gurdjieff, I can only agree with the assessment of the scholarly mystic, Waite, that both men developed systems and ways of behaving within the teaching of those systems that lack a measure of both compassion and humour.

I was reminded of their equally brilliant contemporary (and countryman): Pavel Florensky and the humility of his care for his fellow inmates (in the Gulag) and the flashes of reverent humour in discussing his own teacher, the Elder Isidore.

It is clear from Lachman's account that Ouspensky was seriously impacted by his relationship with Gurdjieff. The accomplished and romantic thinker, lecturer and writer on the philosophical and esoteric dimensions of existence became the closed proponent of a system whose teacher, Gurdjieff, he needed to distance himself from and who had (to all appearance) bullied and humiliated him.

In exchange for what precisely? A system that had yielded certain results in self-awareness and momentary 'miraculous' experiences but which at the end (the special pleading of disciples apart), he rejected.

It is a strange tale that cautions against entrusting oneself to gurus especially outside any traditional, containing context. It, also, emphasizes the importance of a sustaining tradition, embedded in a community, that checks one's learning against known pathways, even as you press those pathways out in potentially new directions. It, also, counsels the importance of humility and humour as indicators of a reliable, fruitful and compassionate relationship that, I fear, neither Gurdjieff or Ouspensky appeared able to extend in any sustained, graceful manner to one another.

Finally, it punctures this strange search for the 'miraculous' -that the mystical life should be punctured by breaches of ordinary consciousness not by the cleansing power of attention and compassion but the 'paranormal' (as if this had any value over and above the context in which it is used, lovingly or not). This strange quest for 'experiences' rather than becoming vulnerable in love to all experience, most especially the most ordinary and everyday, rather does feel like a 'fool's errand'.

Perhaps there is hope in Ouspensky's last days, when having announced he had abandoned the 'system', he went about fixing moments of his past that were graced yet ordinary, hoping to carry them with him into a future life and work.

Meanwhile, the portrayal of Gurdjieff from this angle does not hallow him. How different he is here from the depiction by the de Hartmanns'. Whereas in their account, he granted them a difficult hope that hard work at 'the Work' would lead to liberation, in Ouspensky's case, he seemed to offer a difficult despair.

The lesson here is perhaps that even the best of teachers (and we may argue about whether Gurdjieff deserves the title) are not best for everyone. Finding a teacher is a complex dance of matching a particular embodiment of wisdom with a particular person's need - and the wisest teacher is the one who can refuse the 'wrong' pupil rather than imagine they can adapt to every need or alternatively blame the pupil for their particularly 'unhelpful' need.

This appears to have been Gurdjieff's particular shadow.

P.S. Miserable gits because I was irresistibly reminded of the two elderly gentlemen who watch the Muppet Show from their box, lamenting everything in sight as not up to scratch and intertwined and yet uncomfortable with each other, caught in a common way of seeing the world. An undoubtedly irreverent take on the two esotericists!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jew Suss

I have finished Lion Feuchtwanger's 1925 novel, 'Jew Suss' down thinking, "Now what was that about?"

Ostensibly it concerns the rise and fall of Joseph Suss Oppenheimer as financial counsellor in the state of Wurttemberg in the eighteenth century. Having cast in his lot with the man who becomes Duke, he manipulates his relationship, with cunning and skill, to both advance the Duke's interests and massage his own position. However, when the Duke becomes the cause of the death of Joseph Suss' daughter, he turns against him, unwinding his power in such a stark way as to precipitate the Duke's death from shock. Stripped of the Duke's protection, he exposes himself to downfall and he is hanged as a scapegoat for the manifold sins of the Duke (and his) regime.

In the process, we are treated to a wholly unflattering account (from this left wing author) of eighteenth century mercantile capitalism and the accompanying political struggle between the autocratic aristocracy and the emergent men of capital.

But Joseph Suss is a Jew (indeed refuses to countenance the prospect of conversion either as a way of consolidating his power when he was on top or escaping both his status of scapegoat and, paradoxically, guilty party when he is down) and his uncle, Rabbi Gabriel, is a practitioner of the Kabbalah whose prophecy first suggests that the Duke of Wurttemberg's poor (if militarily distinguished) relation, to whom Joseph Suss has become affixed for no apparent or rational reason, will inherit the Dukedom as he indeed does.

Thus, alongside, a vivid historical novel about power and its corruption, about money and its corruption and about the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism and between both and Judaism sits a mystical narrative that intrigues.

Most powerfully is the thrice repeated teaching of Issac Luria, the great sixteenth century practitioner of the Kabbalah, that any one body may be host to more than one soul and that this is a graced dispensation by which one soul might affect the progress and redemption of another. We are, I think, meant to see this possibility as inhabiting Joseph Suss, as different identities (and possibilities) do battle inside him and all are brought into alignment at the end when, as he is hanged, he responds to his compatriots prayer to the Lord with his own.

It is a remarkable book - both historically in painting a vivid portrait of Jewish life in eighteenth century Germany and the dilemma of assimilation verses identity (and assimilation on what terms as Jew or as a Christian) and metaphysically of one (or multiple) soul's journey through the testing path of incarnation.

Feuchtwanger was admirable as a prophetic opponent of Nazism (that makes it doubly ironic that Jew Suss was wholly perverted and twisted into a notorious anti-Semitic film by Goebbels) but sadly was a too eager fellow traveller with Stalin's Russia (writing in justification of the show trials of the 30s). As a result, he was lauded in East Germany (though by this time he was living in the US) but you can only imagine by skillfully editing out both his Zionism and his mystical leanings!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Copying to innovate

Kirby Ferguson's video embedded in our new blog is excellent - you copy to innovate!

Remember all those lines of other people's poetry great poets absorbed by memory...

And William Blake learnt Italian (in his 60s) in order to understand the Divine Comedy better such that his illuminations better revealed his understanding of the text!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

It is

"Hast thou ever raised thy mind to the consideration of existence, in and by itself, as the mere act of existing? Hast thou ever said to thyself thoughtfully 'It is'... If thou hast indeed attained to this, thou wilt have felt the presence of a mystery, which must have fixed thy spirit in awe and wonder."

Coleridge writing in The Friend. This would be an apt summary of Graves' state of mind in his late flower painting, stripped of symbolism, and delighting in their 'suchness', their being just so.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why America Failed

The anthropologist, Hugh Brody, describes in his 'Out of Eden' the paradox of how nomadic hunter gatherers or pastoralists have found themselves bound to particular places, living within them from a knowing particularity and love whereas farmers have found themselves ultimately restless, imagining that the grass always will be greener in the next valley (or having exhausted their current valley, the next one becomes greener by default)! Thus, is the cult of progress inaugurated.

A fundamental restlessness haunts 'civilization' and this has become increasingly magnified in time.  Morris Berman argues, in the completion of his trilogy on America, 'Why America Failed' that this acquisitive restlessness, 'hustling' is the term used, characterised America from the outset. The rhetoric of republican virtue morphed from serving the public, a view of the moral purpose of life as bound to community, to one of merely private benefit even before the Revolution was out of the blocks. We are measured by what we accumulate and we accumulate not moral worth or social connection but material things. As Wendell Berry remarks people never allowed themselves to truly arrive in the US, to see its manifold possibilities, before they were re-creating it in their own fractured images.

Hustling grandly re-designated as 'progress' and adorned with panoplies of technological achievements (worshipped with a more than almost religious fervour) is not a viable foundation on which to build a society that works and Berman tellingly portraits reasons why he believes that America as a society does not work: evidence that is both statistical and qualitative.

My favourite haunting statistic is that United States devours two-thirds of the world's anti-depressants!

This dominant tradition of being on the make (and often the take) has been opposed. An alternative tradition has always existed - whether it be Thoreau or Lewis Mumford - but it has rarely enjoyed power and only once, Berman argues, thrown up a President namely Jimmy Carter. He read books, indeed poetry, and had the temerity to propose a life of civil virtue and restrained consumption to his fellow citizens and was replaced quickly by Ronald Regan, the arch-fantasist, who soothed away American fears that the party was over by running up huge debts on the collective credit card whose bill has yet to be paid.

Berman, in his bravest chapter, argues that there is only one other point in US history when the dominant narrative has met with a politically powerful opposition namely in the South as it confronted the North, a confrontation that, as we know led to civil war, and the North's triumph.

Brave because to argue this requires the reader to accept a very nuanced argument that undermines the simplistic stereotype of a war against slavery. Berman, never doubting that slavery was abominable, wants us to see North pitched against South as two alternative views of what a society could be - economically liberal, materialistic North meets agrarian, aristocratic South. It was a 'clash of civilizations' and quotes Lincoln to compelling effect in his defence. In the North, money is the measure of all things and the liberty to create more of it, in the South, it is character and honour. Both carry immense shadows but the shadow, in the South,  that is slavery, should not blind us to the virtues, held in the South, of a slower, more communitarian and meaning bound society. Nor what the South might have become if allowed to follow the logic of its own development rather than define itself (in defeat) against a hated 'other'.

One unresolved intellectual question (for me) was if the dominant tradition was with America from the beginning where did the 'alternative South' come from and why did it become embedded 'there' in opposition to the 'North'? Why was the 'South' so different?

The book is framed as a tragedy, written by an author whose well-argued and compelling belief is that the country of his birth bears a fundamental flaw from its beginnings, one that will and is slowly unravelling it and there is no hope beyond more benign rather than violent collapse (or slow deflation, ending with a whimper rather than a bang)!

It is sobering but probably only for the small minority who know that they live in and with a hustling, materialist addiction: an addiction that is a powerful strand in the world in and beyond America. Most addicts, as Berman quietly laments, do not reform this side of death!

Friday, November 4, 2011

An alternative to news

After experimenting with poetry reading over breakfast rather than reading the newspaper to the benefit of my felt well-being, this week I have been studying paintings over the muesli. I began with Morris Graves.

The uplift has been the same, framing the day's mind not with images of the brokenness that haunts our newspapers but the hard sought for, and realized, wholeness of these images. Here are two characteristic images of lone animals, poised on edge of spaces: water for the bird, desert for the snake, the sky for both, reflective of energy and of contemplation.

It is a practice that does come with a sense of guilt, of ignoring 'reality' embedded in the 'news' and yet raises the simple question: which reality: the time bound flux of potential history or the symbolism of a different order?

Here the heart suggests against the preying mind starting with the essential - the wholeness from which one comes because it is only from there that a meaningful stance towards the temporal can emerge, framed by transcendence, to use a term of Graves' own.

It is not that one does not turn to the news: I cannot so easily surrender my prevailing addiction to 'knowing what is happening' (even as you suspect much of that sense is illusory) but why begin with it (and leave to it the framing word).

Such seeing as a starting point did Graves no harm, dying at a serene old age, with a body of work and delight that will last after much that passes for news has passed not into history but mere oblivion.

I love how the moon's light appears to be seeping down into the snake and the snake responds in dancing joy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

We are doomed

No, not in this instance, a Greek default (though it is very interesting that everyone behaves as if they should be surprised by this, when many will admit to its virtual inevitability in private) but a deeper doom.

Last night at dinner in conversation with the chair of a highly respected consultancy that works with top companies on their sustainability agendas, it was admitted that many of the more enlightened CEOs he knows recognise that the system is bust and have no obvious remedies - except working at improving their performance within the existing space.

All the indicators - social, resource constraint and environmental - are moving in the wrong direction.

Like a Greek default, we all 'know' this except we remain fixated in denial - perhaps we will see ourselves out before it all unravels; perhaps the happy technological miracle (multiple miracles) will come along to change the parameters, perhaps God will declare game over and pronounce the apocalypse, perhaps...perhaps...

Perhaps the best we can hope for is a benign collapse in which we all come to our senses and begin a new world forged out of community and constraint - that we collapse into our better natures rather than fragment out into our worst.

In order for this to be possible, we probably do need both sites and narratives of resilience - rather akin to the role of monasteries and Christianity in the post-Roman collapse. Lights to remember human possibility by - both in story and actual practice.

As I listened, I could feel both in him and me furious resistance to this possibility, and there are many possibilities that draw different pathways (we can hope), but it was striking how the weight of his experience pressed against such hope.

We are promised interesting times...alas...

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...