Tuesday, August 28, 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 churchyard. There he falls asleep on a bench by one of the graves and on returning home, and looking in the mirror, discovers that physically he has changed. His face is different, that of another. The book explores the impact of this transformation on his family and friends and on his own imaginative and emotional life.

What follows is a penetrating exploration of how we rely on our mask, our persona, for our identity. Though both his wife and Mr Bethany, the Vicar, immediately 'recognise' him as 'Arthur' underneath, his conventional wife especially is deeply unsettled and quickly moves to ponder how to contain the social confusion of such a transformation (a need for containment that is shared with and by the friends whom she takes into her confidence).

Meanwhile, suburban, middle class Arthur is left searching for an explanation while trying to cope with the emotional consequences of not being seen, recognised, acknowledged. He meets, in the same churchyard a man, Herbert, who, with his sister, befriends Arthur, and seeks to help him find an explanation. Two come as possibilities: the first is that he has been possessed by the spirit whose grave he slept at who turns out to have been French, an eighteenth century rake and suicide, whose pamphlet and portrait Herbert has discovered. The second is that in his illness and heightened sensitivity, he has imagined the change and imparted this imagination into the 'seeing' of others, a self-confirming, shared hypnosis. Possessed or hysterical you are allowed as reader to choose but either path leaves Arthur reassessing his life, trapped, as it has been, on the tramlines of normality, barely awake to the wonders of the world or genuinely felt connections to family and friends. He has, all this time, been masked from himself and from others and it is only the collapse of this mask, ironically stripped away by its uncanny replacement, that has punctured his complacency and given him the possibility of a new life.

It is clear that the new persona has offered a glimpse of his shadow self - both the positive and negative - qualities that he has rejected in himself. New life has burst forth in a way both highly unsettling and an opportunity.

This is where we leave Arthur at the end of the book - recovered of his original appearance - hysteria or possession have taken only temporary control - but 'broken down' into the possibility of new life and about to depart home, for a while or for good, in search of it.

I was, in passing, vividly reminded on the French psychologist's, Henri Wallon's, discussion of 'confiscation': how we allow the opinion (and confirmation) of others to forge our identity. Here a 'random' event shatters that act of confiscation - Arthur's conformity to others opinion, rooted in his appearance and manner - and allows him an opportunity to rebuild from an 'inside' he had forgotten he possessed.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A very blue house

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 both Frida and Diego's work and forgive me though her's has an extraordinary emotional intensity, he is the better artist. It is not only that his range is greater but that he sees further, most especially into the life of others, and gives them a striking sense of their own lives. There was a series of three drawings of Mexican peasants, gathered around a fire, by Diego on display that simply sang of their stories and honoured them. It is difficult to acknowledge given that he was in life such a relentless egotist and yet when he paints he foregoes subjectivity and lets others' speak. Kahlo's work is, not surprisingly, more deeply personal and bound both to her own celebration and suffering.

I was reminded of a similar yet different artistic family that of the Johns (though here they are brother and sister). In terms of range, Augustus, like Rivera, has the greater range but (as he acknowledged) is the inferior artist to his sister, Gwen. Her painted world is even more restricted than Kahlo's but it has a resonance of clarity, compassion and objectivity that is closer to Rivera's ability to let the world speak through, rather than with, the artist.

The criteria here is Simone Weil's 'de-creation' - a great artist stands their selves down and steps out and allows the world to speak through them. We need to know nothing about them in order to see the reality they paint.

The house is in a beautiful suburb of Mexico City replete with tree infested squares and a bohemian atmosphere (and given its tourist lure a surfeit of policemen). We had lunch at a famous department store that was indulging in a festival of 'British' food (God help them) that included heavily Mexican versions of 'cottage pie' and 'fish and chips'. I stuck to the enchiladas!

We wandered past Trotsky's house too. He is very much seen here as the persecuted intellectual. This is touching, I suppose, but all too 'romantic'. Trotsky presided as Commissar for War over the most vicious and destructive civil war of the twentieth century and was only out manoeuvred and subsequently murdered by Stalin because his ideological zeal was outbid by Stalin's sociopathic cunning.  This wins every time, sadly.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

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 to these (us) the prophetic forerunners!

This would appear to be a repeating mythical trope. Look, I thought, at the extraordinary number of popular television series that carry this story line. A group of people emerge who begin to recognize that they are special (and different) and yet are the vanguard of new possibilities for humanity. They must struggle against the forces of reaction (at their difference) or evil (or a combination of both) and in that struggle they are comforted (and prompted) by a sense of selection or providence. The only difference being the mechanism of their election which rather than a result of the actions of occult magic (though that has not gone away, witness, say Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but of genetic mutation (Heroes) or alien involvement (4400) though even here some form of occult operation or more than human providence is hinted at. God is not dead. He is alive but operating somewhat vaguely in a cable TV series coming soon!

As Lachman remarks in his introduction, our desire to make meaning out of wider wholes that can be felt and experienced is a persistent need and no amount of the improbability of the mechanism (to the dominant scientific narrative) appears to make any difference. It is, in many cases, simply hijacked!

As usual, Lachmans book is intelligent, skeptical yet sympathetic and woven with skill, economy and a dry sense of humour. It restores an esoteric perspective to the explorations of many significant writers of the past three centuries (and some less significant but charmingly or horrifyingly entertaining)!

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 ease and He is wholly unconventional.

Would not God want us to assume masks and play, asks one character in a night time of confessional story telling, as they sit, stranded in a loft, as the flood waters uncertainly rise towards them. He knows our inward truth without us having to pronounce it, so may He not rather wish us to inhabit life as a stage and don mask after mask? It might be liberatory and, in fact, free us precisely into a better appreciation of ourselves and others?

I can sense the presence of the theatre director, Peter Brook, hovering approvingly at that last remark - thinking of his work on masks in drama - they hide yet reveal, simplify so that a purity of expression can be found (freed of the internal critic). I had a small experience of this yesterday. I had contracted diarrhea (a familiar enough happenstance of travel), taken my pills, not eaten for 24 hours and now wanted to eat something light. I dropped into a restaurant and watched all the familiar habits of how one should behave in a restaurant kick in - I was about to order too much food (in a proper combination) when I thought 'eccentric Englishmen', ordered a strange combination of food, enjoyed (rather than recoiled from) the waiter's puzzled look and got what I needed and tipped heavily out of the pleasure of it!

Meanwhile, God is fundamentally forgiving. In her greatest story, Babette's Feast, God's grace is, like Babette's extravagant banquet, utterly gratuitous and available to all. It is we who live lives to short of the vision necessary to imagine it and live towards it and in it.

With the freedom of that grace comes the continuous possibility of error and failure but what Dinesen seems to suggest is that honouring our risky, thrown createdness is what makes us human, and living it to the depths (including suffering the dregs) is all God asks and invites us to.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The ultimate jig saw

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 the 'usual'!

English occultists put me in mind of the English painter, Leonora Carrington, long resident of Mexico City, and her friend, Remedios Varo, whose painting 'The Call' is shown here. Both of them had a deep standing interest in the esoteric and both began as surrealists until their art was deepened and transformed by the development of a personal language of symbols.

One of the more unique offerings of this book store were 1,000 piece jig saws of several of Varo's paintings - completing them would be an exacting task of patience but you would, as a result, get to know them intimately!

I noticed too a complete catalogue of her work that I will probably buy. I love her work for its precision, jewel like beauty and narrative mystery. Here in 'The Call' an illumined woman carries  a sacred item through a shadowy street. She is both utterly composed yet vulnerable and the grey figures emerging from the walls are both threatening in their apparent unconsciousness and yet as human beings endowed with possibilities of grace. It speaks a story of mission out of a symbolism that is both uniquely her own and yet compellingly universal. 

I am reminded of the Jungian analyst, Robert Johnson, reminding us that our shadows are places where we put the rejected parts of ourselves which are both our despised portions and portions of our unacknowledged gifts. As the woman glides through the street, dedicated to her call, she awakens shadows that represent both potentialities for growth: our dark rejections and our neglected intimations of glory.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

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 looking pens, glitzy fake watches and one selling ornamental silver miniature bicycles (whose purpose was uncertain). I am always struck by the choices people make. Some of which appear obvious but competitive (cigarettes for example) and others improbable but inspired (the man who sold geometry sets on the Moscow metro and sold two I noticed between  stations).

It is both pageant and shadow. The shadow is the poverty it displays. The woman with three children begging, the middle child clinging to dinner: a large slice of bread and cheese coated in honey. The shadow is the racial divide it displays. The diners are predominantly European in inheritance, both the waiters and the street traders exclusively of indigenous inheritance. Histories abide - I noticed in Madrid as I sought my gate, a flight to Sao Paulo in Brazil, a city with a population that is half black but here only one black person to be seen. Brazil may pride itself on a band width of racial tolerance but it is not reflected in an equality of opportunity nor, sadly, is it here.

I started reading  at table, Pankal Mishra's 'From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Making of Asia'. It promises to be a fascinating account of how Asian intellectuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries addressed the impact of a colonizing West and invented new responses to it and found new Asian dispensations. History abiding again...

I like Mishra's work - his compelling book on the Buddha especially - but he does have interesting prejudices - the effortless equation of education and intelligence (as if you cannot possess the latter without a particular type of the former) and infelicities.

In the prologue discussing the rise of Islam in the seventh century (CE), he happily suggests that Islam swept away the Byzantine and Persian empires. If the former were true, his book would not have come to be written! There would have been in all probability no Western nation states to spring upon the world in the seventeenth century given that the Byzantine world resisted Islam for 800 years making 'the West' possible!

Friday, August 17, 2012

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 hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church). Witness when Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay rights campaigner, interrupted the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, in mid-sermon to protest the Church's attitudes to gays. He was frog marched, politely but firmly, out of the Church and was on the news that evening, caused some discussion, including with my mother on discrimination, and that was it!

However, as an opinion poll of Russians released by the independent Levada research group today showed only six per cent had sympathy with the women, 51 per cent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility, and the rest were unable to say or were indifferent.

This is telling not least by suggesting that this particular act of protest fell like ripe fruit into the hands of Mr Putin. He could use it, and has, to differentiate those protesting for democracy (a word still laden in Russia by memories of the chaotic [if exciting] 90s) from the majority of Russians. The 'protesting minority' are not like 'us' - they are like the young women of Pussy Riot, silly at best, stridently opposed to 'our values' at worst: a metropolitan minority.

The hierarchy of the Church emerges from this where you would expect them to be aligned with the regime and with the gut reaction of the majority of Russians. This is where Church hierarchies often find themselves, simply a mirror of the safest place to be (for the time being), not challenging people with the Gospel: here with the preeminent demand for forgiveness but lining up with the Pharisees of every age and race to enforce the law. 

"And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins" to quote the Gospel of Matthew. It could not be simpler or more difficult. It may give Patriarch Kirill and his shadow, Fr Chaplain, pause for thought when next they stand at the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. 

Conversion is always a possibility of those who persecute in the name of their tradition. They may, one day, like Saul meet Christ and be surprised out of their judgement into a new world of freedom (at least temporarily)!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

An unilluminating awakening

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 opposed to seeing him as a 'stoic philosopher' of Reason (as was the tendency of his nineteenth century Western admirers). There is, also, interesting forays into exploring the relationship between experience, language and culture (though it fails to allude to any of the key intellectual debates in this field in the past thirty years).

But what it does not do is explore either the 'forms of knowledge' (with the exception of the Buddha) or of 'life' that visionary experience gives rise to or makes possible.

The subtitles of the two texts capture the difference beautifully. James' is 'A Study of Human Nature', Obeyesekere's is 'Phenomenology of Visionary Experience'. The former is interested in the epistemological (and ontological) status of what religious experience reveals about who we are, where we are, and what we may become. The latter focuses almost exclusively on the visionary experience itself and how it might be interpreted primarily by the author. James is fundamentally inquisitive and Obeyesekere is an interrogator (who though he may not have the answers is the one entrusted with the questions).

The most glaring example of Obeyesekere's failure to give us any appreciation of the forms of knowledge or of life that visionary experience gives rise to is through the absence of any discussion of love.

He discusses Buddhism and its epistemology without any acknowledgement that wisdom goes hand in hand with compassion, they mutually co-arise: the one giving meaning to the other. He discusses Julian of Norwich without any discussion of what she may have meant by saying that the meaning of her visions was Love. And by way of final example, he discusses Blake without any sense that the ultimate criteria of the truth imparted by his visions was whether or not they led their beholder and interpreter to the forgiveness of sins.

The last chapter carries a discussion of the poet, Edwin Muir, and his waking visions, described in his 'Autobiography', at which point, I fear, all my patience (for the admitted good things embedded in the text) evaporated. This section is, I am sad to say, merely lazy. My favourite sentence is, 'In Muir's case, we know too little of his early childhood conflicts, his sexual and marital relations, to relate his dream to his deep motivations' which, first, does not stop him speculating on earlier entrants to his text (about which we actually know considerably less); and, second, is completely nonsensical for a man who left us his 'Autobiography', a compelling and frank memoir by his writer wife of their life together, a highly sound and probing biography and volumes of correspondence!

But worse he tells us that Muir's waking visions only result was a poem (whereas in a different time and place, with the appropriate interlocutors, they may have added to the corpus of a culture's mythology) whereas, in fact, not only did they help heal him (from the documented conflicts of childhood and early manhood), wrestling them into poetic form made him a poet: one of the finest of the twentieth century, with an opportunity to shape minds and hearts (alongside James) long after Obeyesekere's contribution has been remaindered.

Friday, August 10, 2012

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 only need reason is falsity.

His first chapter begins with the Buddha's awakening. The use of 'awakening' rather than the more 'traditional' 'enlightenment' is part of his strategy. The nineteenth century choice of 'enlightenment' as the appropriate translation of the Pali was freighted with a cultural choice. Buddhism was being extolled as a 'rational' religion - the Buddha as a stoic philosopher. But as Obeyesekere reminds us the Buddha's whole life is embedded and related in mythic terms and the story of his awakening is a story about a cycle of visionary experiences beheld in a particular manner that sees through them to how the world is. This is then explained in both narrative and rationalising forms (and there is a dialectic between experience and culture that prioritises neither).

Obeyesekere is clear that visionary experience transcends language, not for him the postmodern assumption that 'everything that is' can be said (or is radically conditioned by what is said) and his account of the dynamic between that which is, in visionary experience, and what is said of it is illuminating (and refreshing).

It has become the 'orthodoxy' that mystical/visionary experience is linguistically constructed (Stephen Katz, Denys Turner) and this has diverted attention from the concrete embedded reality of mystical states. It is true that James' emphasis on 'discrete experiences', rather than on the transformation of how the mind experiences anything at all, was an unhappy one. But that the mind (and body) are transformed through envisioning experience is not to be sacrificed on the altar of linguistic philosophy (Anglo-American or Continental).

I was reminded of Denys Turner's remark (in relation to Julian of Norwich) that modern theologians no longer had visions to which you could only reply, 'what a pity' and 'why let their lack distort our understanding of those that do dream dreams whether ancient, medieval or modern'?

Obeyesekere does not lay claim to visionary experience himself but has a refreshing, non-reductionist attitude to those that do. They breathe in his text with engaging life.

Monday, August 6, 2012

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.

Out of this simple material of childhood aspiration (and disadvantage) and class, Rumer Godden weaves her usual magic of strong narrative, keen observation and an extraordinary grasp of the psychology of childhood confronted by the mysteries of the adult world. Lovjoy wrestles with the mysteries of an unfamiliar Catholicism (the garden is located on the site of a bombed out church), of buying on the HP and the uncertain affections of adults (most especially her mother).

A sub-plot is Vincent's, Lovejoy's landlord's, attempt to forge a restaurant from his own high aspiration and countervailing poor geographical location. Location wins.

As Godden remarks in her preface, like many of her works an accessible and engaging narrative points towards but does not state deeper themes.

One such is the contrast between 'charity' and 'love'. Angela has the former but lacks the latter; lacking the latter her acts are drained of the former. It is up to her elder sister, Olivia, a frail invalid, to set the balance right in an act that she can only manage through her will. Angela is all efficiency and knowing which means that she never asks the right questions, never listens to the texture of things. Olivia extols the virtue of groping after answers because only then can you acquire the humility necessary to ask the right questions, see into the actual texture of things (and, finally, she finds the courage and energy to act on her intuitions when faced with a clear injustice).

It is, like all her novels, an act of accomplished story telling that widens and deepens your sympathies - and suggests we listen more deeply to what is present.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Introducing Blake and finding forgiveness

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' from which you expect a simplifying text or guide to the biography, works and main themes of the author. Blake is certainly deemed an author for which a guide seems necessary.

But the book, though lucidly written and sometimes helpful in the manner of an expected guide, is in fact better described as a 'key'. It was one of Blake's teachers, the Protestant mystic and theologian, Jacob Boehme, who wrote a 'Key' to his own works that was both a creative text in its own right and a handmaiden to understanding his whole system of image and thought.

As R. H. Ward in his introductory on Plowman and Blake notes, Plowman does likewise. He creates a text that stands in its own right as an act of imagination as it serves to illuminate the work from which it takes its inspiration. I cannot think of any writer on Blake (of whom there are many and of whom many I have read) who writes from the same place as Blake as does Plowman.

Blake repeatedly tells us that our capacity to understand is commensurate with the state of our imagination. The brighter it burns, the cleaner the doors of our perception, the greater our capacity to know and to embody understanding. Plowman's perception glistens clear, burns in brightly.

By analogy I was reminded time and again of Buddhism: your understanding is a gift of your state of consciousness and such states can be precisely defined and through this recognised. Blake, as Plowman shows, is delineating in imaginative form the journey of the soul through its unfolding states and doing it with consummate precision. His apparent 'obscurity' is because such an undertaking was wholly foreign to his age and yet any contemporary in, say, Tibet, would have found it perfectly intelligible (considerations of language aside) and only been filled with compassion that it was an undertaking pursued in such human loneliness.

It is a short book of ten chapters, each an essay on a particular theme. Reading it I realise here is a book I am going to come back to time and again and that recognition brings a coursing of delight.

By way of example, Chapter VIII is entitled, 'The Human Instinct' explores why the only answer to the demands of our instinctual life is their redemption through imagination. In this context, Plowman discusses Blake's learning from, and subsequent abandonment of, Swedenborg because his doctrine of heaven and hell allows for no progression. Hell is a place of vague unpleasantness where unruly passions tortured one another. Heaven was stainless, spotless and sterile, defined principally by what it was not, a place where desire was never awakened.

"How could man live poised between immaculate complacence and useless wrath? What sort of soul was it that could rest in the contemplation of either? And if between these eternal symbols of good and evil the soul practised evasion, what hope could there ever be of its regaining lost integrity?" (Plowman)

The only way to true life was through hell being hallowed into heaven, of allowing our desires, that always threaten to close in on themselves, to be re-imagined and gifted away as love. There is a fabulous moment when Plowman shows that this requires us to become unique individual selves and yet surrender all selfishness and that this is the paradox of being human: becoming utterly William Blake yet utterly surrendered in the Divine imagination.

I am reminded again of a lay Buddhist teacher I once met who said it was only when you came to your ability to be utterly alone, dependent on none that you could give yourself away utterly in compassion.

The last chapter is entitled 'The Forgiveness of Sins'. How do you know that you dwell in the Divine Imagination (rather than your fantasy of it) to which Blake's response is because you are able to forgive sins. "He who waits to be righteous before he enters into the Saviour's Kingdom, the Divine Body, will never enter there" (Blake). To which the corollary is that forgiveness is not genuine when offered in response to repentance. In God there is no forgiveness (is the paradoxical way that Julian of Norwich puts this) because it suggests that God forgives in response to signs of repentance (whereas in fact signs of repentance are because God is forgiveness).

To use a current example, there are the 'Christian' demonstrators outside the court trying the 'Pussy Riot' case in Moscow, with their spokesperson, Fr Chaplain, saying that 'God is judging' them (the Pussy Riot band members) and 'looking for signs of their repentance' before He might forgive them.

The reality for Blake is that God is forgiveness and if Fr Chaplain wants to get in on God's action, he must forgive them unconditionally, and in that offering of unconditional forgiveness, there is the hope that all the protagonists bent on the path of their own desires might discover a wider kingdom in which they recognise one another as friends and re-imagine their relationships one with another in the divine commonwealth that is our shared home.

Blake vision of God's visioning is nothing if not demanding (and exalting) but what other than this is going to make the difference that makes a difference.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

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 imagined was (or could be) the case drove action. This was much to the detriment of most 'ordinary' people who wanted to grow rice, sell silk and puff away at opium and who got civil war, 'ultraviolence' and disease instead.

Meanwhile, there was a radical disjunct between what was the case and what people said to themselves, let alone others, was the case!

It has to be said that the British were especially competent at this bifurcated approach and one group, the missionaries, managed to practice it in favour of the Taiping and then against the Taiping in the course of the same conflict (having collectively changed their opinion within a couple of months principally on the basis of the unsubstantiated rumour of an American Baptist who had fallen out of love with the rebels. Almost everything he claimed to have happened proved to be false and quite quickly. Did that change anyone's opinion? No)!

So you had the British consul in one of the treaty reports repeatedly telling the Foreign Office that trade had collapsed after its fall to the Taiping even when the custom duties (on that very same trade, collected at the same rate) had increased by 80%. But the Taiping, being rebels, could not be good for trade so it could not be happening and, even if it was, it should not be. I will report accordingly.

This is why, unfortunately, liberals are at a continuous disadvantage because they believe in evidence and rationality and weighing the former with the latter in informed debate.  Occasionally the world slips into a momentary calm when such things become both possible and welcome but alas rarely... Think our present response to the civil war in Syria...

There is a wonderful moment when James Legge (the first Professor of Chinese at Oxford), who had befriended the Taiping 'Prime Minister' when the PM was a humble mission assistant in Hong Kong, gave a beautifully balanced and reasoned assessment both of his erstwhile friend and the situation in China and what his own country, the UK, might do in response. Did anyone take notice? No!

P.S. A friend, reading this, helpfully made me realize that by 'liberals' I do not mean the US variety 'liberals' as opposed to 'conservatives' (both of which may be misnomers - the conservatives fail to conserve in their fetish to worship the market and the liberals self-righteously interfere with people's liberties because they know what is good for them) but in the more philosophical sense (like John Stuart Mill as archetype) who may only exist in aspiration rather than reality. However, a deeper point is, of course, that we are all challenged by minds that are constructed from belief (and prejudice) and seeing what is there through our prejudiced minds is an arduous discipline that few of us more than partially achieve. But we need to: we need a greater sense of living with the texture of things. This used to be called humility, not a virtue that is greatly praised now.

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...