Showing posts from September, 2012

Meetings with Remarkable Men: The Movie

Jesus was a party animal, we can infer from the Gospels, but his life in dance and drink is not one that his disciples over emphasise. Likewise Gurdjieff was a schemer and a character but that cunning and human warmth that saturates his 'Meetings with Remarkable Men' does get underplayed in Peter Brook's remarkable and beautiful film.

There is in the film the famous incident of his disguising sparrows as American canaries (replete with yellow paint jobs) and selling them to buy precious books and manuscripts but the film tends to focus on the thought of Gurdjieff (and how it was related to him) rather than the search of Gurdjieff and the slow transformation of the intensity of his emotions and questionings into the being of an answer. It too readily takes on the appearance of a sermon - a beautiful and haunting one - but nonetheless 'preachy' (and overly pious).

But that aside, it is a compelling film especially the way in which the music (composed by Thomas de Ha…


My mother was half right. In her reading of 'Meetings with Remarkable Men', she desired greater explanation of the substance of the men's ideas and practices and so often Gurdjieff's narrative breaks off at that point, promising that in a subsequent account, he will give more detail. It is tantalising. You so wish for additional paragraphs of explanation.

But this, I think, was its point. It is less a book about 'ideas' than our search for them - for it is in the journey that each person fashions for them, uniquely, a right, balanced understanding. Truth is one but it is not univocal for depending on who and where and how we are, it will take different forms : each a skilful means breaking through to us, to our appropriation of being.

It is, thus, an artful book and one that does awaken a sense of search: where am I to be, genuinely 'be'?

Reading it in parallel with being in Berlin was fascinating (it was yet another place Gurdjieff had claimed to visi…

Dancing life in death

Yesterday we went to the Berlin Modern Art Gallery and I saw, knowingly for the first time, paintings by Felix Nussbaum and was both moved and captivated by them. Born a German Jew at the start of the last century, he was to be murdered in Auchwitz - a fate shared by the whole of his immediate family.

For much of the war, he was living in hiding in Belgium with his wife and son until discovered and deported in 1944. It is from this time that this haunting painting, the Triumph of Death, was completed. It is late medieval in evoking the carnivalesque, Dance of Death, as the skeletal figures process across a devastated landscape with the figure of the artist himself (?) on his knees, perched over what might be a wrapped canvas. Art on its knees, hidden from view, a shard of a remnant of disappearing hope? Yet the whole painting is suffused with a dark, mocking humour - a humour that is often present and was lightened in the Weimar period.

The humour is absent in the last, intimate fami…

Touched by angels and by saints

This morning was spent in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin. It is a distinguished collection to which I cannot do justice. As usual, I am left at the mercy of my quirks - what did I notice especially and what resonated with my current play of feeling?

To which the first answer was this small painting by Rembrandt of Joseph's dream. Jesus is born and his life is under threat. For the moment he lies safely next to his mother and though they are not the centre of the action of the painting, they are naturally the centre of its regard. The shaft of light falls on them.

However, the action lies with the angel, illuminated both as from within and by the neighbouring shaft of light, who touching Joseph's shoulder grants a dream that will lead them to exile in Egypt yet safety. You see the weight of the hand and the angel's other hand pointing to Mary and Child as the substance and urgency of the dream. It is a beautifully realized, quietly stated drama.

I was reminded of  a friend w…

The photography of regard

If yesterday the Nazi authorities were seeking to exterminate difference (at the Museum of the Topography of Terror), today at the Martin Gropius Bau, the extraordinarily gifted American photographer, Diane Arbus, was celebrating it.

Many of the categories of people the Nazis singled out as deserving eradication emerge in Arbus' photographs as unique individuals, valued, and shown as they are, without either idealism or condescension. As here a Brooklyn family going out for a Sunday outing where the eldest child has a learning disability. A family that suffers together and yet are bound to each other in love and care and off to see one set of their parents.

The difference was striking - here, in Arbus' work, were the learning disabled, the dwarf, the Gypsy circus entertainer, the transvestite, the homosexual, the Jew, all of whom were regarded by the Nazis as not of 'the Volk' and as 'degenerates' not deserving of place or indeed of life. Place and life is wha…

The Topography of Terror

In a city for the first time and I plunge into its darkest historical moment by visiting the Museum of the Topography of Terror that chronicles Hitler's rise to power and the authoritarian state he created through the lens of the SS, SA, Gestapo and other police bodies. The museum is built on the site of the Gestapo headquarters - a somber grey building whose grounds are bounded on one side by the remains of the Berlin Wall, another, different tyranny.

It was the accumulation of detail that was so compelling and horrifying. There was no aspect of the state's infamy that had not been carefully recorded within the structures of its complex bureaucracy. Here you had examples of the many forms it took - orders, statements, photographs and films. Here all the victims were carefully acknowledged from political resister to Jew, mentally ill to homosexual, Roma to shot or starved Russian prisoner of war.

I was arrested in my own conscience by reading of those who had been 'protec…

Meetings with Remarkable Men

I have the book and I have the film so no longer can I put off 'Meetings with Remarkable Men'.

I will begin with the book - the same browning paperback copy I bought for my mother more than twenty years ago (whose cover announces that it is now an extraordinary film starring Terence Stamp, Dragan Maksimovic and Warren Mitchell)!

I notice it was originally translated by A. R. Orage that remarkable literary impressario who made his magazine 'The New Age' the place to explore modernism and socialism before the outbreak of the First World War when the magazine was at its height. In 1924, he sold it and went to Fontainebleau to work with Gurdjieff who he was to ably represent in America.

I owe a deep debt to Orage because it was he who first published my beloved Edwin Muir recognising in this obscure clerk from Glasgow a literary voice of great potential and who enabled him to come to London with his wife, Willa, and embark on his career as a poet and critic.

It was Orage…

The trail of Mr Gurdjieff

I first read about Gurdjieff in a book by Anne Bancroft entitled 'Modern Mystics and Sages, when I was a teenager. Incidentally it is a marvellous book. She is a miracle writer able to evoke the life of spirit of her subjects in short, concise and captivating chapters (I met Thomas Merton and Martin Buber here first too, and cannot thus be thankful enough).

I must have been sufficiently impressed as I bought my mother a copy of Gurdjieff's 'Meetings with Remarkable Men' This she read (and I did not) expressing disappointment, I recall, that it talked insufficiently of the content of the remarkable mens' belief and practice. I noticed that it had been made into a film by Peter Brook, which I have never seen (but which I have just ordered), in whom I was interested. Brook had directed the first serious play (Anthony and Cleopatra) that I ever saw on a professional stage (at Stratford) and I had heard him subsequently give a mesmerising talk on both the play and the …

Shock therapy

Madame de Salzmann was the designated successor of Gurdjieff. The person commissioned to continue, develop and expand 'the Work'.

In 'Heart with Measure' Ravi Ravindra, through his journal excerpts, gives an account of his encounter with her and his pursuance of spiritual transformation.

It is a remarkable document.

First because of its transparent honesty. We see what Ravi saw and, more importantly, failed to see.

Second because it gives a portrait of de Salzmann that shows her as a remarkably persistant, available and wise teacher.

Third because it focuses so intensely on the practicalities of change. Here is no speculation about what might be or picture painting of what ought to be but a consistent focus on the next step.

Three things struck me most forcibly.

One was Ravindra complaining about the failure of a meditation group and de Salzmann asking him about what contribution he had made to helping the group acquire the right direction and spirit? To which the hon…

Art reconstructing life

Pat Barker has made the territory of the First World War her own. First in the Regeneration trilogy she explored the impact of the war through the lens of characters historic and fictional who were treated by the psychiatrist, W.H. Rivers. Here in Toby's Room, the lens is art and its application in the work of Henry Tonks (shown here), to the reconstruction of people's physical appearance. These were the pioneering days of plastic or cosmetic surgery fuelled by the devastation wrought on the physical body by the violence of modern weapons.

Within this territory, Barker explores many of her trademark themes - the relationship between art and health. Does art provide a containing space for trauma - a cathartic place? What is the morality of disapproving of war and yet working to heal people back into that conflict? What is the right stance to war? Does pacifism break down when confronted by the actual brutalities of conflict? And, famously, her interest in sexual transgression …

Stravinsky and Diaghilev

Joffrey's reconstruction of the original production of The Rite of Spring

Music meant little or nothing to me until I was sixteen. The only music I heard before then that struck a chord was the plain song that used to accompany public information films on monuments from the Middle Ages, such as Fountains Abbey, preserved by the Ministry of Works (but I never imagined you could acquire this on disc).

Then one day I went to a Sixth Form musical appreciation class and the teacher played Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring'. I was arrested - this was music - its vivid bringing forth an imagined world, its extraordinary rhythms and change of rhythm, its repetition and colour. I went home, raided the piggy bank, went and bought a recording. I only had an opportunity to play this on my brother's record player when he was out. I did whenever he went out (which was often) and after a week, my father entered the room, handed me a five pound note and said, 'Buy another record&#…

Playing Aquinas

I had forgotten that Aquinas had a Neapolitan connection, once having taught at the university here, until I stepped into a Dominican Church this morning and found a chapel dedicated to him.

I once 'played' him in a philosophy of religion lecture (for visiting American students) opposite a fellow student (to whom teaching had been farmed out). He 'played' Wittgenstein. We debated how language related to the world and as a saint I had the audience on my side both as they were good Catholic folk from Pennsylvania and because Aquinas has the more accessible argument!

It was an unfortunate piece of casting as I was as thin as a rake and St Thomas was notoriously fat (to the point of having tables adapted to accommodate his belly) nor was I then either a Catholic or a saint! I tried remedying the former, the latter is still a work in progress!

In this depiction (above) he looks rather fierce, bad tempered and probably in need of his lunch!

I wonder if there are still Thomi…

Underground in Naples

The meeting wrapped up. The agenda set towards the next UN Habitat World Urban Forum aiming for more direct engagement and advocacy. I went back into the centre of Naples to explore. Days of rain to a degree have cleaned the streets and habituation has begun to awake me to its charms. The long narrow side streets are fascinating, six to eight stories of apartment building pile up upon each other teeming with human life, evidence of which spills out: in the laundry hanging from the balcony, from the music and conversation coming from open windows, from the people navigating their scooters from narrow containing passages or stairwells. You quickly realise why Italy is the home of the scooter and the very small car! Striking was a glimpse behind the neatly painted front facade of one apartment building into a backyard of jumbled twisted balconies and fraying masonry.  This is a poor city, relatively speaking, with a vibrant, fraying past.
I went to San Lorenzo Maggiore which is a ‘Comp…

Boy and Man

If you are a writer of fantasy or science fiction literature, the world is your oyster and its possibilities are limited only by the skilled abilities of your imagination. But what if your novels are couched in the language of realism – indeed make reference to the novels of Dickens imagined as one of the founders of the novel’s realist traditions – and yet are suffused with the striking coincidence, the visionary and the miraculous? What manner of fiction is this? Where can one’s tidying mind put it? Into what category?
The first step would be to realise that the father of the realist novel once described himself as a ‘Resurrectionist’ by which term I think Dickens acknowledged that his fictions are more than realistic descriptions that the wonder (and improbability) of their plot devices pursue a different purpose to a simple realistic description of the world (for that we need Zola). Dickens’ universe is a moral one where the more than human has a hand, that ‘more’ is more or less…

Urban visions

A bout of food poisoning has rather curtailed my active participation in the Global Urban Forum. The fever was so intense at one point, I began to hallucinate and was convinced that I could understand the men labouring outside my hotel window as they spoke Italian because above them floated a Google Toolbar translating them into English! It was one kind of vision for a city!
However, what struck me about this event (as is often the case with development related activities) was the instrumentality of its approach towards the city. All well and good the discussions on urban planning, resilient cities, climate change, stopping forced evictions and so on and so forth but no visible place to discuss the meaning of the city, what place does this now majority form of human organization, have in our culture?
Since I am in Naples, my thought naturally turned to a Roman (if not an Italian) to St Augustine: here the city is seen as the archetypal form of human organization. The city was what hu…

Naples - on second sight

On the second day in Naples and your eyes do not become accustomed to its dirtiness but sharper. You realise that you must pick your way lest you trample in something unsuspected (or unsuspecting). After time you must become inured – the residents appear to be except one soul, a young woman, I noticed following her dog with a scoop and plastic bag. She seemed momentarily forlornly heroic!
However, eyes lifted from the pavement and the city has its charms – close packed streets of elegant apartment buildings with quiet courtyards, narrow passages and arresting shrines. Saints watch over the neighbourhood kept painted, candlelit and accompanied by flowers.
I fled Mass in the cathedral – the congregation lost amongst the circling crowds of nonchalant visitors and the swirling Baroque adornment – and found it with the Franciscans at their quieter, more austere, simpler church. Here the most noticeable art were crisp contemporary windows of stained glass whose figures presented their stor…

Naples - fast faded glory...

Naples is quite a shock. Having been in Tuscany in June, Naples feels like a different world - poorer, shabbier. The faded elegance of eighteenth century glamour is covered with graffiti as far as arm can stretch and on virtually every available space. Litter covers the streets and many things look as if nature bids to reclaim it - grasses and weeds emerge from between the cracks even on obviously used buildings. People linger begging - the obvious Roma - but also at a supermarket entrance a young Italian woman in stretched cardigan and sagging T-shirt. The shops are antique - much sold from behind counters (including the bookshops) and every one over-manned. Manned being the right word - even at the hotel, apart from the woman who cleared up at breakfast, they are all men (even the 'chamber person' who brought me a second pillow. It is different here.

I went to the Archaeological Museum which was beautiful - a converted Neopolitan palace with a striking collection from Pompe…