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Showing posts from February, 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 na…

Dreams, artisans and an exemplary life

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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 necessa…

Steiner at the 'centre'

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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 co…

Winter Tales

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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 Cat…

The Honey Gatherers

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'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 …

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.

Goats can see nymphs or maybe not...

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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…

Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed

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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 -…

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, …

Old cities and eternal visions

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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,…

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…

Urban housing and baby Jesus

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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…

Anthropology in Mexico

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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 cultur…

Imagination embodied - David Gascoyne

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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 Darting…