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Showing posts from August, 2012

The Return

I can see why Walter de la Mare is more remembered as a poet than either a novelist or short story writer. His language has an archaic feel and it must have had this even when he was writing it. It is highly poetic and suggestive such that periodically it obscures the narrative flow. You are lost in a symbolic space, beautiful in itself, but sometimes seemingly remote from the matter at hand as if poetic reverie has interceded and your story teller has temporarily lost sight of his audience.

However, that said, he is unjustifiably neglected. Once you have adjusted to the wrought style, he is revealed as a highly gifted, imaginative and thought provoking teller of tales (in prose as in poetry).

One critic described him I recall as 'an expressionist' (more German than English) and I see what they mean. His books read like a tableau of vividly imagined and intense emotion.

The Return concerns a man, Arthur, who, recovering from influenza, on a walk strays into an unfrequented ch…

A very blue house

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On Friday afternoon, I visited Frida Kahlo's house that is (as you can see) very blue...


and set in beautiful grounds whose sheltering wall was built for Trotsky, when he stayed, meeting his need for security.

The most compelling, visceral feature of the museum, that the house now holds, is the vivid sense it gives of Frida's physical suffering and her continued affirmation of life in spite of that physical constraint. On display were a several of the corsets she needed to wear - grim constraining things - her leg brace; and, a photograph of her feet standing in a bath that spoke eloquently of pain borne.

As to art, there was Diego and her collection of 'votive' paintings, striking examples of folk art, painted on metal plate, naive pictures of divine intervention and miracles received or hoped for, whether bandits eluded or healing offered.  There was a room full of these and they were both moving and beautiful - a genuinely popular art.



There were too examples of bo…

A Dark Muse in TV

At my kosher Starbucks this morning, as I was eating my ham and cheese croissant (Yes, I do not know how that works either), I was reading Gary Lachman's "A Dark Muse - A History of the Occult" that focuses on the influence of occult or esoteric ideas on literature from the eighteenth century on-wards.

He was noticing the proliferation of occult societies that sprang up in the late eighteenth century, especially in France, as a response both to rising scientific materialism that was undermining peoples felt sense of meaning and the anxiety aroused by political decay and living in a threatened order.

One feature of these societies struck me namely their open elitism. Open both in the sense of comfortably acknowledged but also that underlying many of them was the sense that their members were the harbingers of a new dispensation (either religious or political or both) which would ultimately embrace all. We would all discover our true, illuminated destiny eventually thanks…

Gothic Tales

'Seven Gothic Tales' were Karen Blixen's (writing as Isak Dinesen) first published book, soon to be followed by the hugely successful memoir, 'Out of Africa'.

I have, thus far, read the first four - a family reconciliation effected by a stranger in nineteenth century Italy, an old remembered encounter with a prostitute in restoration France, a confessional night a midst a flood; and, a fraught marriage proposal (both in nineteenth century Denmark).

They were all written in the 1920s and they all have the temperament of emerging out of an earlier age. Their values are aristocratic where honour and duty shape and contest passions of the heart. You are in the world of Jane Austen rather the world of modernism - excepting that Dinesen's world is darker, more socially diverse and stranger than Austen's and, more overtly, theological.

God stalks Dinesen's imagination. He spills into her characters' thoughts, imaginings and conversations with familiar eas…

The ultimate jig saw

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La Llamada, 1961 by Remedios Varo.

On my way to find dinner, I came across a beautiful cafe bookshop and wandered in. Even, as here, where most of the books are not in (to me) an accessible language, I am always interested in what a bookstore chooses to sell.

I was struck by a substantial section on Judaism that echoed a sign in this morning's Starbucks that it was kosher compliant, obviously this suburb of Mexico City has a substantial Jewish population.

I noticed that there was one whole section of the books in English that dealt with fantasy, science fiction and the occult. They were significantly over-represented here than in either a standard English bookshop or similar sized collections in stores in other countries that I have visited.

Cue images of rabbis taking coffee and pastries with ageing English occultists... They probably end up discussing the Kabbalah!

They are no doubt observed with the wondering eyes of Mexican philosophers as this too was a section more sizable than t…

A Mexican street

I had a late lunch or early dinner on the corner of Virgil and Oscar Wilde. It is an interesting literary juxtaposition: one lamenting the end of an era, the other announcing the beginning of a new one. It is a testimony to the joyful array of street names in Mexico City. I am staying on Plato Street (close to Socrates and parallel to Aristotle)so feeling appropriately elevated in thought! They are a product of Mexico's revolution and a desire to identify with a progressive European culture.

To dine on the street is to see a chorus of life - literally in musical terms: I was treated to a duo playing the Beatles and a surprisingly Islamic looking flutist. There were children selling chewing gum and cigarettes, a woman with a sizable shrub on her head and one with a equally sized box of bedding plants, an elderly man doing a brisk trade in improbable dreams selling lottery tickets and a blind man begging. The men were selling an assorted array of gadgets - glittering if uncertain l…

Cats in the bag

There was no surprise in the verdict of guilt handed down to three members of Pussy Riot in Moscow today.  That they were guilty of an offence was clear - they held a demonstration in the principal 'state' church in Moscow, before the iconostasis not at the altar (as was repeatedly reported), that was widely held as sacrilegious. That they did not do this out of obvious enmity to religion as such, as they were charged, was equally clear, but to protest the Church hierarchy's support, articulated by Patriarch Kirill, for Mr Putin's re-election.
In any democracy, the offence and the wider issue of freedom of expression, would have been weighed in the balance and the band members would have been a night time news item (on a slow day), and forgotten. I doubt whether it would have merited a prosecution of any kind. A church spokesman would have been wheeled out to express their shock or distress or both but not to push for harsh prosecution (unlike their confreres in the hie…

An unilluminating awakening

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William James published his 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' in 1902 and it continues to be a book that a provides a theoretical framework for the study of religious experience. It is a framework that can and is contested but one that remains engaging, fertile and exciting. It, also, happens to be beautifully written.

"The Awakened Ones is the most sustained and powerful treatment since William James of the forms of knowledge and life that visionary experience makes possible", declares Akeel Bilgrami, a Professor of Philosophy at Colombia University of Gananath Obeyeskere's book of this title that I have finally completed.

If only...

There is in Obeyeskere's book a detailed exploration of the experience of a number of key 'visionary virtuosos' that can be illuminating at times. For example, the way in which he restores the Buddha's life to its mythical context, embedded in a vision, an awakening, that gives rise to a rational system as opp…

The Awakened Ones

It is slow reading but rewarding...

Gananath Obeyesekere's "The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience" ...

He is a distinguished anthropologist and his book described as an 'essay' (after the manner of Locke) pays its respects in its title to William James' 'The Varieties of Religious Experience'. Like James he writes well and he allows his theoretical insights to emerge from concrete example and those insights are presented in a way akin to Wittgenstein's 'forms of life': they compose a way of regarding what is presented rather than giving a structured argument.

It is compelling not least because, though a tenured professor in the United States, he comes from Sri Lanka and from a rooted, respectful, agnostic Buddhist background. His task is to present a case for 'vision' as a way of coming to and offering knowledge. The rationality of modernity should not have the last say. That we need reason is a truism that we o…

An Episode of Sparrows

Lovejoy Mason, a child abandoned by her mother to her landlord's care while she pursues a fading career on the stage, wants a garden. Her first attempt is thwarted by the angry attention of a gang of boys but in the process, she lures Tip, the gang's leader, into being her helpmate. A second attempt is launched to whose success Lovejoy bends the egocentric will of childhood, made doubly effective by its underlying innocence, drawing Tip along in her wake.

The garden, however, needs 'good garden earth' that can be bought from the Army and Navy store for seven shillings and six a bag or 'borrowed' from the nearby Square: a borrowing that must occur by night and one very much perceived as stealing by the formidable Angela, head of the Square's Garden committee, doyen of 'good works' and of 'pity'.

Lovejoy and Tip are from the Street: a lower order altogether than the Square and imagine 'dirt' is common to all and there for the taking.

Introducing Blake and finding forgiveness

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Recently I was reading a collection of essays by the remarkable Jungian analyst, Helen Luke and came across a reference to, and quotation from, Max Plowman's 'An Introduction to the Study of William Blake'. It was arresting and I turned to the notes to find the reference, not least because I had never heard of Plowman. I was dispirited on noticing that the book had been published in 1927; however, heartened to discover it had been reprinted by 'BiblioLife' as a historical reproduction.

Plowman had joined an ambulance unit in the First World War before he decided, despite his hatred of war, that others should not be responsible for fighting it. He joined an infantry regiment, was commissioned, injured and treated by W.H. Rivers before deciding to resign his commission as a conscientious objector. Pacifism became a central thread of his subsequent life as editor, journalist and activist.

Never has a book been more modestly named as Plowman's 'Introduction…

Somethings never change

One of the illusions you hold to working for an international development organisation is that evidence counts in policy making...

I remember sitting in the office of the then (and possibly now) Minister of Health of a substantial country, listening to a patient explanation by the appropriate local experts of the barriers dis-advantaged and poor people faced in accessing medical care. However, it was the intervention of a story of one victim of that exclusion, who happened to be a military veteran, that visibly tipped the balance in the subsequent (and highly favourable) decision making process. Emotion triumphed where evidence merely provided a cloaking rationale.

I was reminded of this in finishing Stephen Platt's excellent book on the Taiping Civil War in China in the nineteenth century.

The continuing refrain might be never allow evidence to impinge on, let alone correct, your view of reality.

I think every principal character acted from belief not evidence - what people imag…