Thursday, January 26, 2012

Media week!

The responsibility of the imagination

On the border between Macedonia and Albania, on the side of the former, by the shores of Lake Ohrid, is the Monastery of St Naum. St Naum was one of the disciples of St Cyril and St Methodius who, in the language of the guide who first showed me it, brought education to the Slavs. He was betraying a speech learnt in the days of socialist Yugoslavia. Cyril and Methodius were missionaries and education was a means to an end: an acceptance of the Gospel.

St Naum's church is small beautifully frescoed and contains his tomb in a small side chapel, decorated with scenes from his life.

The building has a sense of abiding unity - the medium is the message - it invites you to pause, pray and wonder.

I was reminded of it when reading a phrase of Owen Barfield's 'the responsibility of the imagination'. 'What we behold', wrote Blake, 'is what we become', Barfield's version is more active, we are made (and judged) by what we make.

I was one day standing at the tomb of the saint, saying the prayer of the heart. It is an habitual practice even if my habit is a mite disorganised and fitful! As I stood there, it was adjusted: it was as if the prayer, its rhythm and its association with the breath was changed by 'external' agency, fine tuned, finding its proper place.

The reality of that imagined place - its light, composure, the story of the saint and his presence - contrived to re-direct my attention, even if only momentarily, and deepen it towards the compassion that the prayer embodies - it is a place constructed out of a responsibility to the imagination.

This happens to be an overtly religious context but  we can find 'secular' equivalents that allow a person entering them to be changed in simple but liberating ways. Barfield found this shift in consciousness, a shift that gives life, by reading lyric poetry, especially that of the Romantics.

It would be an interesting test of the quality of a work of art, a building, or a film to ask whether it expands my awareness? Do I carry it away with lightness? Is the feeling one of consolation?

If the answer is no, why do we do it? 

That it is often no, I sadly do not doubt, but it is a criterion worth pondering, and hard.

For both Barfield and Blake, it was a criterion that not only related to artefacts in the world but the way in which we behold the world, our dominant world view, which was, for both, an act of imagination, that could be more or less truthful to the heart of things.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pavel Florensky

I first read of Pavel Florensky in Donald Nicoll's wonderful collection of essays, 'The Triumphs of the Spirit in Russia' in a chapter entitled, 'The scientist martyr: Pavel Florensky'.

Subsequently, I read his 'Iconostasis' - a powerful meditation on the meaning of the icon where his 'transcendent realism' is fully displayed. He says, at one point, that the only real question to ask of an icon is, "Is this the Mother of God?" It is a question of authenticity that can be meaningful asked of any art work: is this a true image?

By way of a very different example, you could ask it of the quiet, beautiful, present still lives of Giorgio Morandi, as here:

To which the answer is a simply, and wholly affirmative, yes. Florensky would not be surprised (or offended) by this juxtaposition: any authentic encounter with reality that allows nature to speak in its own voice is an encounter that opens this world to an enfolding next.

I, also, read Florensky's unaffected account of his spiritual elder, Fr Isidore, a man of radiant simplicity and spiritual good sense, where his disciple, Florensky, a man of extraordinary culture and complexity, bends his language, restrains it, to allow the spirit of Fr Isidore to breathe through it, without interpretation, to live authentically as himself, Fr Isidore.

Now I have finished Avril Pyman's accomplished biography of Florensky that paints a vivid, rounded and compelling portrait of this extraordinary polymath. He began as a scientist, a mathematician, found his way as a key intellectual in Russia's Silver Age to the Church, was priested, wrote a seminal book addressed to the intelligentsia, "The Pillar and Ground of the Truth" (that one day I will read rather than dip into) and found himself propelled by circumstance into the realm of applied science both to earn a living and contribute to restoring a war torn land following the Revolution.

It was the revolution, deepened in paranoia by Stalin, that finally consumed him. Arrested and imprisoned, he was finally shot in 1937 (and in the Russian Church Abroad, martyred and canonised). His letters to his children from prison. quoted here, are deeply moving - the responsibilities of a father, compassionately shouldered at a distance, tailored to four very different particular needs.

His thought is multi-dimensional and complex but throughout is the persistence of arguing from particulars to the universal. It is the contours of this world, seen in all its dimensions, that leads to another world in which this is enfolded. 

The icon is an image of this - it is a particular thing, a showing forth, that exists, here and now, but which opens out (and is given meaning) by the transcendent reality it participates in. How it is shaped, here and now, the fact of its 'reversed perspective' so that the saint leans out to us, interrogating our life, tells us something important of the world view of the person (and the culture) that painted it. By our artefacts are we known and judged.

My favourite Russian painter, Nesterov, was a friend of the family and painted this wonderful picture, entitled 'The Philosophers' of Florensky and his friend, Sergei Bulgakov.

It captures them beautifully - the priestly, stilled, listening Florensky and the brooding passionate Bulgakov (himself soon to be priested and, in his case, exiled).

Monday, January 23, 2012

From today's Financial Times - on the day job

January 22, 2012 

Oxfam moves into fund world By Sophia Grene

Oxfam, the anti-poverty charity, is branching out into asset management by launching its first investment fund, which will aim to combine social good with financial returns.

The Small Enterprise Impact Investment Fund is a joint initiative between Oxfam GB and Symbiotics, a Swiss microfinance specialist. It will invest in financial intermediaries with a mandate to support small and medium-sized enterprises in Africa and Asia.

“One of the greatest obstacles facing entrepreneurs and small businesses anywhere in the world is access to funding,” said Stephen Acheson, a director at Standard Life Investments who will be on the investment committee of the SEIIF. “I believe that this new fund has the ability to assist many embryonic and small businesses and in doing so generate wealth, employment and economic growth in areas where
business potential has historically been constrained due to a lack of affordable capital.”

The fund is intended as a low-risk product, targeting returns of 5 per cent returns with capital preservation. Investors will be locked in for an initial five-year period, with quarterly redemptions thereafter. The management fee is 1.5 per cent, split between Symbiotics and Oxfam as “impact adviser”.

It will target businesses employing between five and 100 people that are unable to access mainstream finance, mostly in the food and agriculture sectors.

Symbiotics already runs $200m in 24 micro-finance funds and has a 40-strong global team. “This fund’s due diligence process is piggy-backing on an established process,” said Nicholas Colloff, head of innovation at Oxfam and chair of the SEIIF. Investment opportunities will be examined first for their social impact, and if they pass that test they will be subjected to a rigorous financial due diligence.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

It is the system

Arriving at Jeddah airport is always an experience.

The first thing that strikes you is given that this is the entry point to Mecca and Medina, the most sacred sites in Islam, focus of the Hajj, you might imagine a state of the art facility to enable the pilgrims to pass through with alacrity and a taste of desert hospitality.  Alas, however, the airport is a fading monument to 70s utilitarianism with the systems and facilities to match.

This time the computer system decided to freeze over my eyes. It would not process the picture. I was sent back to wait with no idea how long this process would take. The immigration official was apologetic, shrugging and saying, 'It is the system' as if this explained anything and everything. There was no way to amend, correct or thwart the system. I needed to wait and I did for almost two hours before my dazzling or demonic eyes passed muster and I was waved through, wafted on my way on a wave of further apology.

I was struck by one more example of how we express our dependency on 'the system' as if it were not made by us, out of complex choices, but had materialised fully formed to be both our aid and stricture.

I was reminded of how we talk about the 'market' as if it were a deus ex machina grinding out its results as  they were facts of nature which cannot be contradicted when in reality it is an artefact created by human hands and can (and is) amended, moved and shaped by them.

It was, also, a reminder of how in such situations you are both the 'victim' and an irritant - a sign of failure. The immigration officer (possibly unusually for immigration officials) wanted to be a humane presence and he could not because trapped in 'the system' - made by us but not by him. He was so glad when I went away to sit down, and wait. He was so glad when the system delivered me up so he could see me through.

I had not realised how 'closed' Saudi Arabia is. My charming host at the Islamic Development Bank, a Bosnian, explained that though he could invite his parents to visit, he could not invite his brother (even though he was working for this important global institution initiated by Saudi Arabia).

I do not expect that 'closure' for any society truly serves its purposes - the letter of the law is served but not its spirit - the spirit that blows where its lists- is confined and constrained.

It occurs to me, by analogy, that our tendency to defer to the system, made by human hands interpreting the divine, is another form of dependency that displaces responsibility for finding a renewing vulnerability to the divine's presence.

We need to free to be human - and many systems deny us that.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Shameless advertising...

I type this sitting under one of Andrea's fine paintings - fine both normatively and because they are often woven from layers of detail, a dancing mass of colour that resolves as you approach into interlaced seeings, stories and dreams.

She has a highly developed sense of place, and place that is mapped both 'externally' as geography and 'internally' as story and spirit in a way that subtly questions that division. The world is one body of imagination and everything lives and is hallowed.

Now you know what to do between 21st January - 25th February, go to Ledbury! 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Even as he deeply respected them, the poet, Oscar Milosz, suggested that Swedenborg's spiritual writings, with their detailed, concrete depictions of envisioned heavens, hells and intermediate worlds, often felt as if they were theologies in search of emboldening vision rather than vision speaking into theology.

This may have been, in part, the temperament of a poet meeting that, in Swedenborg, of a scientist. William Blake, an errant disciple of Swedenborg's, also criticized the preachy, prim tendencies of certain of Swedenborg's heavenly inhabitants and their messages. They seemed too tidily lined up behind Swedenborg's exacting theological framework. For Blake, the divine imagination was more fluid, free and liberating from either narrow moralities or fix it all metaphysics than Swedenborg would allow!

But as Gary Lachman shows in his accomplished essay on Swedenborg (Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg), this was a man on a dedicated interior journey, whose discoveries in the structure and life of consciousness were important, and reflect the patterning and process of similar journeys.

Long ago I read Swedenborg's 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' - those extraordinarily detailed, concrete, and dry, if moving, descriptions of 'after life' states. Lachman brings them alive by illuminating their status as 'states of consciousness' that seek to show the enfolding unity of things and where each particular thing embodies a divine showing forth. Unity is not a subsuming 'cosmic jello' but a multiplicity of things each carrying the divine imaging, according to its nature, its capability. Swedenborg is an accomplished mystic under the guise of a sometimes pedantic visionary!

Lachman quotes the philosopher Robert Avens defining an 'angel' as 'a human in whom the inner and the outer, the material and the spiritual, perfectly correspond to each other, that is a person in a state of complete self-expression' and that is exactly Swedenborg's vision of the human beings destiny to become angelic - where inner and outer are in perfect harmony.

We all, says Swedenborg, find our place in heaven or hell by following the path of our deepest interest. These can no longer (in our 'after life' state) be hidden. They emerge and we discover either our harmony or our hypocrisy. How revealing might it be to ponder our deepest interest and how difficult it might be to do that in full honesty?

However, I am with Blake in believing that even if led to hell by our interest that interest is never fixed. Unlike Swedenborg, Blake saw that the states of heaven and hell are eternal but we pass through them as our interest is purified, transformed. Swedenborg, though charged with heresy, remained sufficiently aligned with his Lutheran origins to imagine that eternal damnation (though in his understanding self-inflicted by your own deepest interest that creates a mirroring hell) could be a soul's final destiny.

This is the second of Lachman's (prolific) output that I have read and I have to say his ability to write lucidly about complex realities with illumination and a grounding good sense are deeply admirable. He makes 'popular' in the best of senses.

                                          The Angel of the Flowing Light by Cecil Collins

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Symbolism, the Sacred and the Arts

It is a very long time since I have read Mircea Eliade. I have to confess it will be a long time until I read him again. Reading his collection of essays, 'Symbolism, the Sacred and the Arts' following through on a recommendation of Roger Lipsey's (, I was surprised at my reaction.

Eliade is a distinguished and highly influential historian of religion whose commitment to the reality of the transcendent and refusal to entertain reductionist accounts of the religious is deeply sympathetic to me. He usually writes fluently and well, and many of his points are intelligent, provoking and well-made. He does lapse into piling up examples of disparate cultures so that you lose track of where you are and you doubt whether these specific examples actually sustain the point he is making. The point is too general, too universalizing to be carried by the concrete particulars of his examples.

So why my recoil? Precisely because of this tendency to make the particular subservient to the universal. You begin to imagine that a particular culture's treasured myth making, the stories that impart meaning to it and its members are only useful as illustrations of the intellectual frameworks of one, Mircea Eliade. This is no empiricist carefully exploring, and loving, what is seen, but a man in search of confirming his own necessary framework. He is strikingly instrumentalist and you feel the actual texture of people's lived lives being placed on an intellectual rack and stretched accordingly. If I were an Inuit, I would like my community's story to first and foremost be appreciated as mine, in the roundness of its loved liveliness, before it was dissected and a scrap or two squeezed into an argument!

It is only in the more direct appreciations of particular artists - essays on Brancusi  and Chagall and on the writer Ionesco - that you feel the pressure of particular people and their concerns. But there always lingers the suspicion that an abstract rabbit is being pulled out of a particular hat, one distorted not to fit its subject. I get the feeling that Eliade is not an honest writer (which is, I admit, a very difficult thing to be). This is not to do with his evasion of his past (see below) but for his turning everything into a 'confirming instance': a conformity that the world does not afford us.

[The irony of the essay on Ionesco is that Eliade describes him as a friend and Ionesco is on record as describing Eliade as a 'former friend' (we are hyenas to each other) because of Eliade's (disputed in level if not in actuality) support of right wing politics in Romania in the 30s and 40s]

Thursday, January 12, 2012

England is now and always

Yesterday I spent the afternoon in Alresford: a small town in Hampshire that I had not visited before. It was a quiet vision of loveliness. It is a town that maintains its own character with shops that are unique to itself - butcher, fishmonger, baker, if not candlestick maker, and tea shops abounding, two of which I sampled. The second with a fabulous fruit cake simply to die for! And an eccentric second hand bookshop, all fertile chaos, and remarkably cheap discovery.

I walked out along the river Arle whose waters had been used in the past to prepare cloth and now to fertilize the growth of pure watercress. The waters were wonderfully clear - light dancing in light as the late afternoon sun illumined their liveliness. The river was sided by diverse buildings of beauty, especially rich red brick and slate, and a quiet orderliness, surrounded by cultivated garden.

There was a wonderful sense of stillness through which time and people moved - a visiting couple like myself looking, dog walking, a person taking an oft travelled shortcut - all happening and yet nature and place remaining, changed but untouched. It recalled Edward Thomas' beautiful poem, 'The Manor Farm'  - a place, a particular place, of work and time but which is of "a season of bliss unchangeable" (that may go unnoticed by most of us, most of the time). England is now and always to quote another poet, Thomas' final publisher.

The Manor Farm

THE rock-like mud unfroze a little, and rills 
Ran and sparkled down each side of the road 
Under the catkins wagging in the hedge. 
But earth would have her sleep out, spite of the sun; 
Nor did I value that thin gliding beam 
More than a pretty February thing 
Till I came down to the old manor farm, 
And church and yew-tree opposite, in age 
Its equals and in size. The church and yew 
And farmhouse slept in a Sunday silentness. 
The air raised not a straw. The steep farm roof, 
With tiles duskily glowing, entertained 
The mid-day sun; and up and down the roof 
White pigeons nestled. There was no sound but one. 
Three cart horses were looking over a gate 
Drowsily through their forelocks, swishing their tails 
Against a fly, a solitary fly. 
The winter's cheek flushed as if he had drained 
Spring, summer, and autumn at a draught 
And smiled quietly. But 'twas not winter-- 
Rather a season of bliss unchangeable, 
Awakened from farm and church where it had lain 
Safe under tile and latch for ages since 
This England, Old already, was called Merry. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


When I was young and interesting, I found myself in a 'science and religion' group periodically engaged in dialogue and in that group I noticed one thing that has intrigued me ever since: beliefs resistance to evidence (or empiricism).

It was revealed to me first when a distinguished Jesuit theologian expressed a preference for dialogue with 'mainstream' scientists, namely those who prescribed to the still-dominant underlying materialist perspective, rather than those present who reflected emergent non-reductionist patterns of thinking (rooted in systems theory or complexity or exploring traditionally 'taboo' phenomena [within science] as 'psychic studies'). Or, alternatively, those scientists were preferred, who were professed believers, and whose practice of science was seen to be in a parallel domain to that of their religion. Science did not precede as a threat to religious claims (or vice versa) because they were different kinds of discourse.

This pattern has subsequently been reaffirmed in a psychological context when I have heard priests express a preference for Freud over Jung because, I presume, the former, as a resolute atheist, does not pose a claim on the professed space of the priest. Freud's religious claims are dismissive (and his main body of work can be assessed without coming to an opinion about their credibility) whereas Jung's claims are corrective to religion and an assessment of their credibility is integral to an accounting of his work as a whole.

In that group (of distant past) was the biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, who is undoubtedly perceived as 'heretical' from that mainstream of (a materialist) understanding of science (and possibly from religion too); and, reading his sound 'The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry' reminded me of the challenges of actually listening to evidence and allowing it to be corrective of belief.

Sheldrake wants us to take what he describes as the canons of materialist dogma and see if they can be placed in question and what are the consequences for scientific enquiry if they are?

It is a very lucid and accomplished exploration of some of those key questions. My favourite concerns whether our minds are confined to our brains? He begins with the dynamics of sight - how is it that what we see is not 'a picture in our head' but a world out there, in motion, that moves with us? It is not that Sheldrake deploys an 'answer' but that the realization that we do not have an answer and the now traditional 'scientific' answer does not, in fact, work. It does not account for our experience and show a realistic mechanism for how that experience arises.

Likewise for memory being seen as laying down physical traces in our brain. This is how it must work our current belief tell us but even after almost eighty years of diligent research, no trace has been found, nor mechanisms for laying such a trace down, and indeed animals/people with virtually no brain hardware, persist in remembering. Once again this is not a challenge that requires us to believe something different, it is a question that requires us to look differently at the evidence we have and discover new avenues of enquiry.

So too with his account of 'psychic research' into such things as telepathy. It simply will not do to dismiss the evidence as flawed because accepting it would change how we understand the world (how we would have to correct our beliefs). Sheldrake compellingly describes just how careful parapsychology is (as compared to other branches of science) in adopting 'blind trail' methodologies to collect its evidence. He is, also, both disturbing (and funny) about his encounters with skeptics (famous and otherwise) who have not bothered to assess the evidence because it cannot be 'true'!

But what is most exciting about the book is helping to lay to rest the notion that comes around cyclically that almost everything worth discovering has been discovered and now we are working out the details. The universe is, in fact, barely understood and the opportunity for new discovery is immense. 96% of the universe, for example, is apparently 'dark matter'. It "has to be' for our current understanding of how the universe was formed to 'work'. We know virtually nothing about 'dark matter' and nobody has 'seen' any. If that is not an enticing problem, there is always 'dark energy' which may or may not exist and may or may not be 'increasing'!

But even on the humble plain of 'seen reality', we do not know how an acorn grows into an oak tree, how the acorn differentiates into its diverse forms...and so on and so forth!

Curiosity has much space in which to operate (if we allow it).

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Back to Burra

A second visit to the Edward Burra exhibition at the Pallant Gallery in Chichester and a simple question from my companion as to which picture (or period) I preferred.

Today I plumped for the 30s pictures of the French cities,  shows, streets and bars and one in particular, that I cannot find an internet image for, 'The Nitpickers'.

Here a group of off-duty prostitutes gather in the street of a Marseilles or Toulon and the heavy framed woman in the foreground address one of the hazards of her life, scratching her head to expel (or find relief from) 'nits'. Behind a half-opened screen you see her bed, crumpled, waiting and a lamp above the doorway, presumably the archetypal 'red lamp'. Around her, resting, smoking, pondering nothing in particular, are other women and the narrow street stretches back and out towards the blue of the sky (and sea).

It is a picture of pause, of rest, of ordinariness. The prostitutes are neither exalted nor eroticized nor judged. This is what people do, have done, will do. The first response must be to see them in the round, the full range of who they are, and see them in disinterested but engaging compassion. This is what Edward Burra does, and reminds us that though there are many harsher hazards of 'being on the game' many of them are ordinary, inconvenient, shorn of condemnation (and of glamour).

It is unusual to think of Burra as a Christian painter - though his explicitly religious paintings are very powerful, they are small in number and like most of his work little commented upon by him - but I think of this painting (and many like them) as those works that T.S. Eliot would call implicitly Christian. They ask us to see the 'others' (of disapproved occupation or despised race) as human, ordinarily human, just like us, immersed in the multi-coloured pattern of good, evil and the uncanny, in which we all live and navigate our way.

I think there is a quiet assumption amongst the clean living of proper morals (as defined by themselves) that Jesus preferred the company of 'sinners' because he was on a mission to clean them up and make them like 'us', packed away in tidy moral boxes, but I expect that he preferred them because they were more honest, more able to recognize their own shadows, and more limited in projecting those shadows on others.

It was not the prostitutes who killed Christ or turned on his own cross to recognize Him, it was the 'good' citizens whose 'ideals' he had betrayed.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Crimea and the forgetfulness of war

Orland Figes makes a good case for the Crimean War as the first 'modern conflict' in his compulsively fascinating history, 'Crimea'. Not least because its was the first conflict that could be reported on virtually immediately (and photographed, though with a time delay and with rather static, posed images).

It was possibly the first war where hyperactive public opinion played a critical role in both its initiation and its bringing to an end against a formula that appears almost archetypal. We begin with enthusiasm flushed with outrage - for the protection of brotherly coreligionists in the Russian case oppressed by barbarous Turks or for the protection of the poor underdog Turks against the barbarous depredations of the Russian Asiatic horde in the British case. Only the French public appeared divided, many mistrusting Napoleon III's motives, that principally seemed to revolve around adding the glitter of foreign victory to his fragile new regime (and making sure the British did not win all the spoils)!

You, also, have the dissonance between announced public motivation and the grubbier complexity of actual policy. For example, rescue 'underdogs' yes, but further and secure trade for the British too. It is not that it is 'all about oil' - the world is more complex than that and the chilling thing is that our 'ideals' matter in shaping our policy and practice in the world - and our 'ideals' are often deeply suspect and partisan!

This unifying enthusiasm begins to dissipate against the realities of the actual conflict, especially when it does not end by Christmas (as it never appears to) and (as in this case) soldiers find themselves under-equipped and under-supplied to face the depredations of an exposing winter. It is as if between conflicts everyone forgets what they are truly like - and this one was particularly new and awful, equipped as it was by much that became hauntingly familiar - trenches, withering fire, inadequate medical care, bursts of action followed by numbing times of anxiety and waiting.

But the strongest unlearned lesson is that conflict is often an example of irresistible momentum. We begin rattling our sabers, imagining that this will be effective and  we can stop at anytime but like the infection of a riot, we are, in fact, creating an accelerating momentum that activates rather than dissipates conflict. It as if we imagine there is no ground between threat and appeasement, no other options.

Several times in the march towards conflict, there were opportunities for robust dialogue and engagement (and the building of trust) and they were trampled aside by the hurrying footsteps to war - that the protagonists of which conveniently did not have to actually fight themselves (though Napoleon III had to be dissuaded from going to the Crimea).

There were moments in the conflict when chivalry was offered as an option out of barbarity. One Russian officer suggested the siege of Sevastopol be settled by a chess match!

Mr Obama and Mr Ahmedinajad for a chess competition anyone?

P.S. One little final vignette is that Mr Putin ordered the Kremlin to hang pictures of Tsar Nicholas I - the obsessive, and towards the end, imbalanced autocrat that led Russia into this miserable conflict (ably assisted by goading western powers). Let us hope he does not model himself after his hero.

PPS The war was triggered as an argument over giving the Catholics access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem: would that benighted building of sibling rivalry be wrapped in a cloud and transported to heaven!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Seeing eternity

The World by Henry Vaughan

I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
          All calm as it was bright ;
And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,
          Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
          And all her train were hurled.
The doting Lover in his quaintest strain
          Did there complain ;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
          Wit’s sour delights ;
With gloves and knots, the silly snares of pleasure ;
          Yet his dear treasure
All scattered lay, while he his eyes did pour
          Upon a flower.

The darksome Statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight fog, moved there so slow
          He did nor stay nor go ;
Comdemning thoughts, like sad eclipses, scowl
          Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
          Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digged the mole, and, lest his ways be found,
          Worked under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey ; but One did see
          That policy.
Churches and altars fed him, perjuries
          Were gnats and flies ;
It rained about him blood and tears, but he
          Drank them as free.

The fearful Miser on a heap of rust
Sat pining all his life there, did scarce trust
          His own hands with the dust ;
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
          In fear of thieves.
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
          And hugged each one his pelf.
The downright Epicure placed heaven in sense
          And scorned pretence ;
While others, slipped into a wide excess,
          Said little less ;
The weaker sort, slight, trivial wares enslave,
          Who think them brave ;
And poor despis├Ęd Truth sat counting by
          Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing and weep, soared up into the Ring ;
          But most would use no wing.
‘O fools’, said I, ‘thus to prefer dark night
          Before true light,
To live in grots, and caves, and hate the day
          Because it shows the way,
The way which from this dead and dark abode
          Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
          More bright than he.’
But as I did their madness so discuss,
          One whispered thus,
This Ring the Bridegroom did for none provide
          But for his Bride.
By pattern of association, recalling yesterday buying my second record (of Gregorian chant) with money given to me for my eighteenth birthday, I remembered that I had bought the 'Collected Poems' of Henry Vaughan. Looking at the very volume last night, I re-read his most famous poem - a Christian and Platonic meditation on the nature of the world both mystical and moral.
Vaughan is a fascinating example of a man en-visoned, heightened into poetry, who slowly loses his seeing; and, ironically, given the substance of this poem, finds himself lost in 'grots, and caves' immersed in family feuding and taking his neighbours to law! 
There is a beautiful, short book, by the literary scholar and novelist, Stevie Davis, on Henry Vaughan that illuminates the poetry on their own metaphysical terms (terms she does not necessarily share) and traces with intelligence and compassion Vaughan's closing of vision into all too human quarrelling.
It is an exemplary volume that carries you back to the poems with renewed engagement, illumined understanding and greater questioning.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Purity of Voice

The Anonymous 4 are a fabulous group of four female American singers whose interpretations of medieval music have a purity and simplicity that is striking and deeply moving. (It would make an interesting marketing device if they were, like Banksy, in fact, quasi-anonymous, except their art would either be confined to recordings or they could sing behind screens rather like medieval nuns)!

I cannot vouchsafe for their accuracy but hair splitting fury aside nor can anyone else which does not prevent the Early Music thought police trying.

As time proceeds, my love for Medieval and Renaissance music continues to deepen and as I drove back from Devon yesterday on the slow moving M5, I tried to fathom why this were so.

It is a long love, as my second record ever (black vinyl discs that revolved at 33 1/2 rpm) was of Alfred Deller, the great French counter-tenor, and his consort singing Gregorian chant. I bought it in Blackwells in Oxford with money I had been given for my eighteenth birthday (that and the Collected Poems of Henry Vaughan I remember)!

I decided that part of the reason was its ability to be both austerely spiritual and utterly earthy - sometimes at the same time in ways that are fascinatingly subversive. A four part song, for example, will have three parts eyes fixed on heaven and a fourth part, as an undertow, beseeching a mistress for a kiss; and, the paradoxical reality that both are meant and valid.

It is as if the uncertainty of life requires you to have a foot in both camps and a recognition that God (if not the Church) can forgive the latter's earthy revelry. The Church is both an ever-present reality and an institution that is continually held in question: its pretensions to be an arbiter continually stumbling against its failings yet those failings do not disrupt a faith in the textures of a world held within spiritual forces, refined and not.

This holding together begins to fall apart at the Renaissance - the secular begins to emerge - and you see that there begins to be a 'high culture' that is aristocratic rather than Christian and held apart from the populous.

It is a division that lives with us still 'high art' and 'popular culture' with no common, transcending centre.

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...