Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mr Andersvik in purgatory

Though a collection of short stories occupy the same 'space' as a novel, I can rarely read them sequentially, one following the other. It maybe that in their 'concentrated' story telling their imaginative space is extended such that I cannot absorb them serially.

I find that I am reading a single story of George Mackay Brown's between books, not as an interlude, but entire to themselves.

The latest story,'Brig-o-Dread', is a compelling take on the afterlife.

The protagonist finds himself in a strange, unfamiliar landscape of moorland, occupied by distracted folk, who evade engaging him. He finds within his inner resources the will (and with the help of his long dead sister) to find himself 'over the bridge' and in a new country of purgation where the original self-serving account of his life (and death) is corrected by imagined encounters with his past and with people from that past seen as if projected into their future lives (without him).

His narrowness and meanness are exposed and he grows into a new disposition and the possibilities of forgiveness.

It is a fascinating afterlife, reminiscent of Swedenborg (rather than Mackay Brown's Catholicism), in that the external state reflects your central desire, and as that is revealed the afterlife status changes. The state of repentance is occasioned not by any external punishing agent but by the world reflecting back your central desire.

What is masterful about Mackay Brown's story is how the central character's, Andersvik's, masks are stripped away - the prim, proud, improving shopkeeper becomes the narrow mean proprietor and priggish husband and brother who becomes the contrite soul open to new possibilities. It suggests, very gently, that, with Plato, all striving is striving for the good. His original impulses are sound but twisted in egotism, leading to being the narrowed character that his wife and brother perceive but are there still, buried within, and draw him out of 'hell' - the distracted moor - into purgatory.

Ultimately, Mackay Brown hints (as did C.S. Lewis with his image of the bus on which we are trapped by gossip and distraction until we finally recognise the stop and get off) that eventually everyone is lured by their fundamental goodness, however now twisted, out from the distraction of the moor into the flames of purgatory, to begin reweaving our lives back into eternal community.

This is symbolized at the end by the meal to which Mr Andersvik is not yet, not quite, invited. But will be. Salvation is never an individual achievement but a communal destination.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dreams, artisans and an exemplary life

As I walked through the ruins of Teotihucan near Mexico City recently, at intervals you would come across one or two people clustered around assorted goods, for sale, souvenirs, often representing local crafts. As I walked past, on this occasion, I noticed a lingering sadness. The root of this sadness I did not grasp until waking this morning from a dream about 'artisans'.

The artisans had been attending their annual conference but in order to go to this event, they had each to reduce themselves to the size of an 'individual human being' and hide their 'cosmic status' and at the conference they appeared trapped in a repetitive cycle of sterile conversation. It was only at the end, when they returned 'home', to their place, they could throw away their disguise and assume their full dimension.

The 'souvenirs' at Teotihucan were the copies of copies of a broken or a constrained living tradition being sold by individuals to make (an all too necessary) 'living'. They had no home to go back to - to find a living tradition of making.

The dream was undoubtedly influenced by reading Wendell Berry's monograph on Harlan Hubbard. Harland and his wife, Anna, married late and made a life for themselves (after an adventurous exploration of the Ohio and Mississipi rivers by shantyboat) at Payne Hollow in a house they made themselves on the banks of the Ohio. They lived as self-sufficiently as they could with regards to the household economy and openly, yet discriminatingly, to the wider culture.  They settled into a place and made it home, one that had been abandoned as too marginal by others and made it by the virtue of hard work and grace, a living opposite to a world fashioned after ceaseless growth and material accumulation.

Harland was a disciple of Thoreau but his life was more rounded, extended and complete than Thoreau's, where Thoreau made an experiment after truthful living at Walden Pound over a two year period, Harland and Anna made an enterprise of it over forty years.

Harland was a painter, professionally trained, and a good painter, whose seeing of his place and giving life to its meaning and grace, is exemplary and beautiful but he barely sold a handful of his works - partly through his reluctance to enter the world of money (preferring barter even for their household needs) and partly because his art sat in a tradition of making that the contemporary art world did not recognise. It was one rooted in a place, in a dialogue and extension of the past, and in a fundamentally religious view of the sacred givenness of the world.

Harland was an embodiment of something wider than himself, bound like my 'artisans' to a cosmic ordering. The crafts (and craftspeople) represented by the sellers at Teotihucan had once been similarly bound to traditions, place and a sacred order of meaning but like my 'artisans' (and unlike Hubbard) had been made 'smaller' reduced to individual human beings 'making a living' (or trying to) out of the displacement of tourism (of which I was an example).

I recall when I joined the governing body of Oxfam (in the 90s) I wanted to see that our catalogue of 'fairly traded' goods should not 'sell crafts' that people bought out of pity for their makers but things made by artisans that people wanted and needed and I am pleased to say the balance tilted in that direction. It was an impulse (on my part) but which reading of Hubbard's life clarifies - that there should be no separation between utility and beauty (the latter being where we recover from the ugliness of the former).

Any artisan's work should display a cosmic status, should fit into an economy that embraces a sustaining ecology. We have far to go then!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Steiner at the 'centre'

I remember a late conversation at the Abbey, years past, with a highly strung young woman. She took me to task for a passing reference to Rudolf Steiner. I think I had praised the emotional balance of a person I had met who had received a Waldorf education (an educational approach forged by Steiner). Did I not know that Steiner was a heretic, a subverter of souls, a pretended Christian?

I did not. My only exposure to him or his work had been reading a chapter in Anne Bancroft's eclectic 'Modern Mystics and Sages' (a second hand copy of which I reacquired recently) and my prolonged conversation with one happy product of his educational system.

Over the years, I have gleaned a better (if limited) understanding - both through reading and encountering practical products of his thought and imagination. In the latter case, through Triodos Bank that is inspired by Anthroposophia (Steiner borrowed coinage for his system), and, more tangentially further encounters with Camphill communities for the disabled and Waldorf schools. What continues to strike me is that Steiner was a sage whose wisdom has taken on valuable and progressive social form. Mystics can be worldly - indeed any true mysticism ought to have embodied consequences.

In the category of reading, I have just read the clear and engaging 'Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work' (helped along by a long wait at the Russia visa office) by Gary Lachman. It is a more sympathetic and vivid book than Lachman's book on Jung that I read recently in Mexico.

That Steiner was a heretic (by the standards of mainstream Christianity) is unmistakeable - he professed reincarnation and was, in technical theological terminology, an 'adoptionist'. Jesus Christ was not wholly man, wholly God from inception but Christ 'adopted' the man, Jesus, as his vehicle, at the time of his baptism. That this act was pivotal for the development of world history was central to Steiner (and defined him over and against the Theosophical movement which he had joined and subsequently left), that its 'mechanics' were at substantial variance from Christian dogma (in all three main strands) is clear.

He struck me, again and again, in Lachman's portrait as a man of abiding paradox. The scholarly editor of Goethe's scientific writings is the 'seer' of the earth's sacred history, replete with accounts of 'Atlantis'. The sage who placed the emphasis on the spiritual renewal of man's thinking and transformation of consciousness is the man who is best known for his social products - either in farming or banking or education. The thinker who exerted significant influence on major artists both in image (Kandinsky) and word (Biely) when directly engaged in the arts presided over a palette of insipid pastel colours (a visit to the Triodos headquarters in Zeist in the Netherlands is a pallid example) and cumbersome philosophical dramas where endless speeches overwhelm the dramatic.

But, in the end, I was very much drawn to this polymath of the spirit and its consequences, not least because over and again, Lachman shows that Steiner was a good, often saintly, man that, literally, wore himself to death serving the needs of others - both collectively in his works and individually in the listening and counsel he extended to others.

He is, also, an articulate defender of the notion that it is consciousness, not matter, that is the ground of the universe, and so is a fellow traveller with my beloved Blake. He was, to use the appropriate terminology, an 'immaterial realist' - that the world manifests itself in consciousness and unfolds according to objective laws grounded in the Spirit. That this is seen as an eccentric view is only true if you look at it with the eye of the 'three provincial centuries' that Yeats described (starting, if it must with  someone, Descartes). It was to restore it to a central place in the West (it is, after all, the accepted view in Buddhism and Hinduism) that was Steiner's heart battle - and for that he is a most central figure, not a heretic.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Winter Tales

I read a beautiful story of George Mackay Brown's last night - a Winter Tale - told from three different perspectives - the doctor, the teacher and the minister - it is a story of a community in the 1970s in decline on a fictional Orkney island. It is seen through the eyes of three 'professionals' and 'outsiders', uncertain of their role and place.

It is marked by three deaths, each different: two at full term, one a life of fullness, the other a life of constrained emptiness and a young suicide. 

And a birth: the birth on a winter evening that is sufficiently natural to be acceptable, sufficiently mysterious to bring you to remember another birth, of a child ever young and present.

Mackay Brown has the ability to evoke, in lucid and poetic language, the complexities of a real community, of people in their anxiety and their joy and then carry it over into an atmosphere that is glimpsed with transcendence.

He was what has been described as a 'romantic' Roman Catholic, a convert, and it was a tradition that fitted him admirably, one able to uplift his imagination and accept, and forgive, his shadow. He had a formidable relationship with alcohol that accompanied his potential for depression - in a mutual, reinforcing embrace. Though he was a romantic about his adopted religion, he was emphatically not about his given place.

He was a good man, and one of the most imaginatively gifted poets and short story writers of the post-war world; and, unlike many of his peers, rooted to his place. He rarely left Orkney - the most prolonged period was as a mature student at Newbattle Abbey and Edinburgh University. At the former, he was a student of my beloved, Edwin Muir, who recognised and cultivated his genius, that of a fellow Orcadian.

This poem's captures beautifully many of his elements - the realistic hardships of a life and its consolations, both actual and poetic, caught in the simplest, shorn down language, that sparkles in arresting, very concrete images.

The Beachcomber
Monday I found a boot –
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.

Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
Next winter
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.

Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.

Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a loud cough.

Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.

Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
Was wrecked last month at The Kame.

Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I sit on my bum.
What’s heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Honey Gatherers

'The Honey Gatherers' is Mimlu Sen's fascinating account of her life amongst Baul singers and sadhus. One of whom, a singer, Paban Das Baul, has become her lifelong companion.

The Baul, rooted in Bengal, celebrate a life of love and desire, mirrored after Krishna's love for Radha. They celebrate the present, passion and fulfilled interaction of women and men over any formal or institutional practice of religion and life. That liberation must be found now, in this particular body, and from within. Though, as Sen points out, though they may 'upset' traditional dynamics between men and women, they rarely topple them into something new within everyday life. Patriarchy often rolls back into its place after the celebration is done. Like 'Carnival' in the West, Baul festival is a timed reversal of traditional mores.

The book tells of how Mimlu Sen, the daughter of a well-to-do Bengali family, found herself inexorably drawn into the Baul world, how she slowly came to comprehend her love of it and of Paban, and of trying to find a way to allow it to thrive in a world where many of its traditional, rural foundations have been undermined by social change and globalisation.

The paragraphs where she describes the struggle of Paban's family to survive its rural displacement into urban insecurity, a vivid testimony to the relentless pursuit of poverty and the stratagems need to survive it are deeply moving, and say more than myriad volumes on 'development'!

But there is much more to her account - filled with striking 'characters' and family tragedy - it teems with a life unknown - one where story embodied in song continually teases us out of time into a place of hoped for liberation. It is a liberation that can only be earned as an individual (though often one as part of a coupling), out of a struggle for understanding, a surrender into a music that transforms.

It is a tradition subversive of orthodoxies and of 'neat' boundaries drawn between traditions; here especially between Hindu and Muslim. As India grows more 'modern', these boundaries are drawn ever more sharply - the intermediate worlds, that are predominantly rural, fade.

In the book you taste a critical part of India though often marginalised - in its light and in its shadow - and a CD 'The Honey Gatherers' completes the text, showing its heart.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Growing old(er)

One of the pleasures of growing old(er) is that you care less what other people think (especially those outside your own circle). I noticed the other day on the train that whereas previously I tended to cover what I was reading with the book front cover facing inwards or downwards, now it is left facing upwards and outwards.

This is partly because you realise (as time proceeds) that 'surprisingly' you are not the centre of the universe (anyone's) and partly (as a corollary) because you find yourself comfortable in your own ego, it is more resilient, constructed from the within rather than from the outside. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Goats can see nymphs or maybe not...

In 1987, I visited the retrospective for the artist, Winifred Nicholson, at the Tate Gallery in London. It was a fabulous show that I visited three times. I recall a painting entitled, 'Goats can see Nymphs'. Reading Christopher Andreae's excellent (and beautifully illustrated) monograph on Nicholson, I discover that this painting was misnamed. It should have been entitled, 'Sea Nymphs and Shepherd Boy'.

I eagerly turned to the illustration as I had never found one before (and the picture, I recall, being in a private collection, and thus not easily re-visited). To my great surprise, I was confronted by a radically different picture either Andreae is mistaken and there are two pictures of this theme or I have reconstructed in my memory a vividly different picture.

In mine the nymphs are more ethereal - blue green, they cloudily dance in a circle in the midst of a grove - they are centre stage. To the right of the painting both shepherd and sheep stand about either asleep or oblivious and to the left (and in the foreground), a goat watches on, knowingly. Whereas in the illustrated picture - the nymphs are more robust figures and the shepherd and goat look on towards them (from the left) whilst dog and sheep (in the foreground) slumber oblivious.

I have associated the painting in my mind with a remark made by Gay Taylor, a friend of the poet, Kathleen Raine's (a close friend of Nicholson's) that in a dream she had heard a voice promise that God would now work through his goats. It is the knowingness of the goat (of which Nicholson was greatly fond, and had kept them) compared to the complacent sheep that resonates.

I have either a very vivid imagination - reshaping a picture yet after the style of the original artist (complete with her humour) or Andreae is simply wrong, and there are two paintings by Nicholson embodying the same theme!

Meanwhile, whatever the truth of nymphs and shepherds, the book is an illuminating study, especially on Nicholson's central motif - the vase of flowers on a window sill - as here. How she creates the intimacy of ledge and colour of particular, radiant flower contrasted against the mystery of distance (skipping the middle distance - for neither being intimate nor transcendent)?

Andreae captures Nicholson's balance between an earthy connection to the reality of things and 'glimpses' of a world yet other, enfolded in this one, waiting to be seen. She was a visionary painter whose vision was quiet and deeply colourful.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed

On the way back from Mexico (would that we could be transported from A to B in a haze of particles), I read Patrick Woodhouse's book on Etty Hillesum.

The story of this remarkable woman, killed at twenty-nine in Auschwitz, is well-told. She moved from an emotionally chaotic childhood through the confusions of the early twenties to a remarkably mature adult that accepted and transformed her fate into a form of life that testified to the presence of truth and love in the darkest imaginable circumstances.

One of the key agents of her transformation was Julius Spier - an unusual therapist who had developed a path of psycho-chirologist (associated with the reading of palms) and had been a student of Jung's. His therapy was highly unorthodox - and including as well as scrutiny of hands - wrestling (indeed Etty was the first of his patients ever to throw him)!

Their relationship crossed from a therapeutic into a sexual one (conducted while Etty had a relationship with her landlord - there is a theme of older men here) and was strikingly effective in that from it Etty began to weave the strands of a self that hearkened to her interior life and discovered within it the depth and resources to live out a (short) life of compassion and intelligence - and a remarkable spirituality, fashioned from her own encounters, reading and experience. It was a depth that showed no trace of dependence on Spier and continued to grow after his death (from cancer) mercifully the day before his planned arrest.

It was a spirituality that had no time for, nor interest in, institutions or denominational boundaries and which allowed her to live without hate, even scrutinising in the face of her enemy - the concentration camp guard - signs of a buried humanity. It was Spier, also a Jew, that taught her a love for the New Testament.

She was extraordinary yet exhibited her life in ordinary and simple ways. Ways that at the end drew ample testimony from those she helped and comforted in the transit camp between home and impending death.

Where I found the book difficult I realize is in trying to imagine Etty as a sign of new life from which we should learn particular lessons. It creates an artificial framework that in some (unintended) way diminishes her - in her complexity. That we can learn from her witness I do not doubt but I sense this learning should be allowed to unfold by itself - from the dynamics of her witness and life - each in a radically individual way, rather than be packaged.

I, also, was discomforted by the author's discomfort over Etty (and her friend/therapist's) unconventionality - it felt like the prim intrusion of 'organised religion/morality' that does not serve the living facts of Etty's life. That her therapist did not respect therapeutic boundaries is true and that neither cared a whit for this is more importantly true. Nor did either see the point of institutional religion - though Patrick Woodhouse, an Anglican priest, cannot refrain from occasionally asserting its point, as if Etty remained 'outside' something important, rather than being the importance that is always, and everywhere, inside.

But that said, it is a good book, and brings her life to a wider attention that it richly deserves.

Finally, I was reminded of a phrase from Buber's I and Thou - a text that, like Etty's life, seeks to give meaning to God, God as a reality that addresses us, rather than one that we build a theological or institutional frame around. Buber says, in effect, that though we know in our hearts that we need God, know that God needs us. How He needs us is left unsaid. It is to be discovered in the discrete heart of each one of us, different possibly in each situation. Etty knows that God cannot reach in and rescue her from her fate but she can in her life defend truth and love, and thus ensure that God is present, a freedom that cannot be taken from her, even in death. As St Teresa of Avila said God has no hands but ours, ours is God's making in the world, or His undoing.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Teotihucan at the museum

A second visit to the anthropological museum in Mexico City and an opportunity to fill out the history of Teotihucan , subject of yesterday's actual visit.

The first thing that strikes you is how colourful it must have been (in contrast to the stony reality of today). The reconstruction of the facade of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent and of the interior of personal homes demonstrate this. They are highly vivid, in primary colours, and saturate space in meaning. This is especially true in the villas: how extraordinary to live one's domestic life wholly surrounded by images of your religious mythology, with no apparent space for anything 'secular'. Myth was the corpus of your living space.

Secondly, though living with it so closely is alien, it is a starkly familiar mythology, not only in its intensity but in its obvious reliance on actual sacrifice. Two hundred deaths, bound hands behind the back, were required in the foundations of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, to consecrate it, make it vibrant and whole. The bound hands suggest no voluntary immolation.We are tempted to imagine this as alien - a religion that requires force and blood - but, sadly, it is not so. The appeal to the sacrifice of others to achieve 'religious' ends appears unyielding.

Sitting at dinner last night, I overheard two Americans loudly declaiming a world separated between 'good' and 'evil' people and the necessity of the former to fight, and sacrifice, for the defeat of the latter. You wonder how this fantasy might ever end - in the hoped for, but distant, illumination that the division between good and evil passes through each individual heart, and the responsibility of transformation is interior and individual. I will not hold my breath!

Third is the sense of a sophisticated civilization that disintegrates in apparent interior conflict: one that shows evidence of conflict between elites and the populace. It was a world that imploded on internal tensions sponsored by external forces. That we disintegrate is something we happily imagine is a feature of the past - except in the possibly prophetic haunting of literature.

All week it was the question that we did not face. In our discussions of the 'urban' and 'the city' (except in a neglected late intervention), we did not consider the fundamental sustainability of the, any city in a world of growing resource constraint. It was an unasked question.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Old cities and eternal visions

Driving out from the city centre hotel to Teotihuacan this morning was a confirmation of many of the urban themes we had discussed this week. The sheer volume of this city of more than twenty million is a sight to behold, bunched up on myriad hills, vulnerable to earthquake, polluted, convoluted, fragmented in inequality and yet extraordinarily vibrant and diverse.

On the way we saw a procession of campesino on horse back, riding into the city to demonstrate. As we said often this week, it is the city that is the site of  critical change, of politics. The Arab Spring was born in the market square, not the field.

Teotihuacan is a fabulous site, accommodating at its height an estimated population of 200,000 in the fifth century AD, it now stands outside the city, a compelling ruin. The twin pyramids (of Sun and the Moon) are truly impressive, as are the views from the top: a panorama of the volcanic valley in which Mexico City sits. When Cortes came this way, he only saw grassy mounds, and rode on. You cannot help pondering the fate of our own cities, imagined as permanent.

On the way back, we visited the Church of Our Lady at Guadeloupe. This is the most holy shrine in Mexico where the Virgin Mary appeared four times to Juan Diego, a recently converted Aztec, in 1531. There was no doubt that the appearance was convenient to history in sealing Catholicism's arrival in the New World; and, the Church is built on what had been an Aztec religious site. However, it is a tradition that has struck deep roots especially in the imaginations of the indigenous population.

The cloak on which the Marian image was miraculously impressed stands above the altar of a new basilica designed in the 1970s and you progress past it on a slow moving multiple beltway, accommodating both the needs of veneration and of moving people on and past in significant volume.

On this ordinary Saturday afternoon, the place thronged with pilgrims and visitors. The demographic was compelling - people were mostly poor, mostly there either as families or church groups, approaching with a mix of the festive and the serious. It was a pleasure to watch them, moving through this sacred space, with all its contradictions - the young seeking blessing, the old and the sick healing.

I quietly prayed for the healing of family and friends in the old church, as a man talked through a microphone to his group assembled below. Contemplatively still this space is not!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Jung's latest biographer

The first moderately disappointing book from Gary Lachman - his biography of Jung.

It is excellent at catching the ambiguity of Jung's position: privately a mystic, charged by a profound, unfolding visionary experience; publicly a scientist, giving a phenomenological account of the experience of the psyche.

It beautifully describes the complexities of Jung's prose - and the tendency for the Professor to pile example upon example to make his case, as if to overwhelm his own uncertainty at his own scientific credentials.

It defends him brilliantly (and sensitively) from the charge of antisemitism and Nazi sympathies. This should now be a dead question, finally laid to rest.

However, it is much less assured in expounding Jung's key ideas.  It is as if he hesitates (as Jung did) to free them from their pseudo-scientific status and allow them to stand as a remarkable, if flawed, empirical mapping of the interiorl life. Flawed because it remains an incomplete 'Gnosticism' - that does not place itself intelligently towards the transcendent and its reality. The shadow of Kant lies long here - denying access to 'things as they are' trapped in the 'appearance of things' - with no prospect of fundamental liberation.

A genuine 'Gnosticism' is confident in its path from 'this world' to the 'next' and celebrates it, in clarity. You sense this is where Lachman's heart is - the unfolding of the sacred other into consciousness, transforming it. Jung's psyche is, however, aggrandizing, holding everything within itself, rarely opening openly and honestly out towards a transcendent (and transforming) other.

Yet he was a dedicated explorer of that 'middle space' of psyche that accounts for so much of the dynamic of our daily lives, between bodily need and spiritual aspiration. It is a space that traditional spirituality, especially in its post-Reformation guise, has tended to gloss past (or indeed demonize); and, so he deserves credit for opening it up, and if Jung is destined to be a way station, as he himself saw himself, he is an important one for placing 'experience' - individually assimilated, embracing the totality of a person's life - at the heart of religion once more.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Urban housing and baby Jesus

Yesterday I went on a field trip to the historical centre of Mexico City: once inhabited by over 200,000 people, this sank to only 20,000 ten years ago. Rents had been frozen in the 1950s such that slowly no one could afford to repair their buildings (unless their own and they lived there, and then only if rich) and the area deteriorated - though a place of commerce by day, it became empty and crime ridden by night. The earthquake of 1986 was the coup de grace.

Slowly, however, it is being restored, street by street, and the population has risen to 32,000 by 2010. It is a difficult balancing act - private wealth (including the omnipresent Carlos Slim) is gentrifying creating a tension in (and threat to) social diversity. The municipality is creating social housing but can the pace of its investment match waves of private money. The streets are vibrant (or littered, depending on your viewpoint) with informal vendors: how do they move to more secure forms of trade (if they want and can afford to)? Question piled upon question but the signs of recovery we saw were encouraging - both physically - social housing, private renovation in the same street - and in people - a group of very articulate residents full of plans for change, some being realized, all being hoped for.

It was, as ever, a fascinating way of seeing a new place - not as a tourist exactly nor with an inside view but a shared glance with hospitable residents at the complexities of their lives.

One street was absolutely fascinating: it was given over to shops that sell baby Jesus (in profusion) and related artifacts, that are for the Feast of Christ's Presentation in the Temple that falls in February and which Mexicans clearly approach with great enthusiasm, seriousness and celebration, necessary to sustain a long street of shops whose sole function appears fixated on this particular Feast (all year round)!

Though a major feast in the Church calender - both in Catholic and Orthodox rites - it is one that has faded into the background in many places - but obviously not here. The first public outing of the Savior with its imprimatur of his status from the hands of a virtuous, long waiting priest.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Anthropology in Mexico

The Anthropological Museum in Mexico City is a cultural jewel. Built around a wide courtyard, it occupies two stories and today I could only manage the ethnographic section detailing the lives of the diverse indigenous cultures of Mexico.

Two features struck me - the sheer diversity of origin myth - the stories of a community's founding - and the commonality of the response - that the story should embody the coming of order and that this order must be maintained in ritual. Ritual, which in Mexico, repeatedly brings one back to dance. The world is repetitively brought back into harmony through dancing. Most spectacular are the pole or tree dance where four figures descend from the height of a specially prepared tree, bound by rope to their feet, they descend in thirteen spiraling circles. On the faces of the dancers is neither excitement or joy but a concentration pof energy and focus that betokens the seriousness of their tasks.

There was much detail on how each indigenous culture had responded to the impact of Spanish colonialism and Catholic mission. What I had not appreciated fully was how slow the colonization of Mexico had been. You think of it in terms of sudden collapse - Cortes extraordinary victory over the Aztec. However, the Huichol, to name but one group, resisted the Spanish (and the Franciscans) well into the eighteenth century (and in many respects Catholicism until now).

I loved the Huichol origin myth - that had the gods emergent from the sea of chaos (the Pacific Ocean), travelling across the temperate mountains and finding enlightenment on a hill in the desert, searing light bringing darkness to balance. The Huichol live in the mountains in the middle - the centre of balance between chaotic ocean and burnishing heat. It fitted the landscape beautiful, not as 'explanation' but as a beautiful imagining of space.

The blending of Catholic motif and traditional belief and practice was fascinating and complex. I noticed, for example, that the devil was a being that required distraction rather than resistance - in the case I saw by getting him drunk! The gods need to be navigated like capricious humans rather than God and evil as involved in a war through time that will come to final conclusion (and victory for God). Time is relentlessly cyclical.

What too does it say that with one group, Jesus was seen as the god of metal tools and money: a god of colonial invention.

I too happily saw a painting of my beloved Leonora Carrington - one of the few of her paintings that took up themes from the traditions and symbolism of her adopted country - in this case of the Maya. One of the features of the museum is how contemporary works of interpretation are allowed to sit amongst the artefacts of their inspiration. It gives to the whole the character of a living tradition - a place not of preservation but of witness.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Imagination embodied - David Gascoyne

Of all the people I have met, the poet, David Gascoyne, resonates deeply. Like Cecil Collins' Fool, David was a spirit vulnerable to the everyday world, a spirit too pure for a world of compromise and violence. He suffered deeply, often beyond the verge of breakdown. His later years were sustained by the loving care of his wife, Judy, who if she did not fully enter the complexities of his thought and imagination, provided a safe, sustaining space, fiercely guarded.

Kathleen Raine called him, after Yeats, the most imaginatively gifted poet in English of the twentieth century, and, I think, I concur. It is a gift only partially realised, silenced in the second half of his life by multiple difficulties, most especially his depression (and addiction, finally overcome, to amphetamines). With Kathleen herself, he was T.S. Eliot's publishing regret - the poet he failed to project through the formidable list that he built up at Faber. 

I remember sitting in the White Hart bar at Dartington Hall (at the first Temenos Conference) listening to David explore the urgent thinking of key religious existentialists: Berdaeyev, Buber and Shestov - and how it played on his life and his quiet eliciting of contribution of a nervy shy twenty-three year old to this most intellectual and yet deeply felt conversation.

The following poem is exemplary. Written on the nerve endings of his state in 1940, when the world, as he told Kathleen, leaked into his consciousness. But the sad, broken world of men, the ravaging tragedy of war, is not the final word: Spring springs its greenness, the natural world is imperatively restorative, even as its restoration is unrecognised. It is a reality that abides with us yet - we do not see that the world is 'dunged with dead' - our despoliation lies under the radar of our awareness, creeping upon us insidiously, the world unwoven by our rapacity, but it is there, as is nature, waiting on rebirth and on whether it includes us, chastened, or excludes us in our persistent ignorance. 

Spring MCMXL

London Bridge is falling down, Rome's burnt and Babylon
The Great is now but dust; yet still Spring must
Swing back through Time's continual arc to earth.
Though every land become as a black field
Dunged with the dead, drenched by the dying's blood,
Still must a punctual goddess waken and ascend
The rocky stairs, up into earth's chilled air,
And pass upon her mission through those carrion ranks,
Picking her way among a maze of broken brick
To quicken with her footsteps the short sooty grass between;
While now once more their futile matchwood empires flare and blaze
And through the smoke men gaze with bloodshot eyes
At the translucent apparition, clad in trembling nascent green
Of one they still can recognise, though scarcely understand. 

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...