Saturday, September 29, 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 Hartmann with Gurdjieff) carries a sense of purpose and meaning that deepens every image. As a whole, it is a contemplative space that draws you in, centres you down and invites you to sense Gurdjieff's unfolding story as a likeness of any, your human journey.

The most dramatic part for me is when the Prince is confronted with his curiosity and its emptiness. He has been continually seeking explanations with his mind rather than transformation with his being. The exchange with a 'dervish sheikh' is simple and beautifully timed and you capture the sense of man on the edge of a new awakening. Curiosity, in medieval Christianity, was indeed seen as a spiritual failing precisely because it is satisfaction of the mind alone. It is extractive and possessive and thereby is an enemy of the vulnerable openness with which we must wonder into the world.

The film ends with a series of extracts of the movements and dance that are a heart of 'the Work' that Gurdjieff and Jeanne de Salzmann (the co-author of the film and Gurdjieff's successor) devised (see above). They too are (to me) deeply attractive and carry a sense of harmony between body, soul and spirit; however, artificial at first sight they can appear. I am reminded of the Sufi dancers I witnessed in Turkey - where each person revealed as they danced a different, subtle level of understanding and absorption in their task.

It makes one's own worship look rather static and disembodied!

Thursday, September 27, 2012


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 visit) for here is a city that carries its known history everywhere. The capital, for a brief twelve years, home of one of the darkest tyrannies known to man and then split between competing forces - one tainted but hopeful, the other a broken, 'cynicied' ideal - and now reunited and full of diverse life, seeking after both the bourgeois dream and yet something other, edgier, more enterprising, ill-defined.

Here is definitely a place one is confronted with what it might mean to be human - and what was it that enabled some to so courageously say no to death and offer, as witness, life and yet a witnessing that is so fragile, so easily forgotten?

As Gurdjieff asked, what does it truly mean to love my neighbour as myself? Not mere tolerance (that Berlin appears to have) but a community of love - that is a more complex, individual task. As Jacob Needleman notes, commenting on Gurdjieff, we descend collectively but we ascend individually. No place can do this for us, though place can help, but the ascent, that is the search, is an individual good, minted internally.

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 family scenes, as here:

Here Felix, his wife, Felka and their son, sit contemplatively in a confined space, wrapped in their defining, imprisoning Jewishness, and out of the window lies a bleak autumnal landscape. It is a deeply melancholy portrait of a family in war, made war against.

Faced with the enormity of what was unfolding, did unfold: you wonder what point art? But here there is a partial answer - a family humanized, a global situation darkened, shown forth - you can begin to see the futility of the triumph of death, the joy inherent in the fragility of being human.

It is a response whose very affirming emphasis emerges out of its quiet defiance. A painter continues to paint his and our humanity as the warriors temporarily try once more to eradicate it. It is the art, even if only in fragments, that survives.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

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 who described 'significant dreams' as one's that 'pushed you into the mattress' -perhaps a better phrase would be one's that suggested an angel had taken you by the shoulder. It was not the only such image on display in the gallery - another painting by Rembrandt alluded to Daniel's dream with the same ministering angel taking his shoulder.

The second was the Lamentation over the death of St Francis by Fra Angelico. It was part of a triptych - the first panel celebrates the meeting of St Francis with St Dominic in Rome, the second is the Lamentation, the third a post death appearance by St Francis to his brothers. It was moving, first, because here was a Dominican painter transcending an historical rivalry between orders and celebrating St Francis. It was moving, second, because it is a lovely painting - each friar is depicted individually in his grief and yet the painting, with St Francis ascending to heaven at its centre, is full of hope. It was moving, finally, because it is St Francis, that most noble and lovable of saints, wholly of his time and yet continually breaking its bounds, pushing it towards a more open and tolerant and inclusive future.

Monday, September 24, 2012

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 what Arbus helped give them.

The difference, in part, was in Arbus' veneration for the secret - every person carried within themselves mystery and that uniqueness was deserving of celebration, and indeed I am tempted to say, the blessing of being recorded and shown forth.

It is a remarkable body of work and one that was commissioned and shown by a remarkable diversity of journals, some of which you might usually associate with lighter or more fashionable fare. Popular culture in the 50s and 60s, I suspect, was deeper, broader and simply more intelligent than now!

It is a sadness that her extraordinary vocation did not, it appears, liberate her from her own shadow and she ended her own life in suicide. She did give life and memory to a remarkable diversity of folk, showing that humanity is seen through its diversity not its conformity.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

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 'protectively detained' for being simply criminals. Here the tenor of your horror dropped a little, ever so slightly. Your sympathy was not of the same quality and inwardly, noticing this, I recoiled. Look how easy it is, I thought, to begin making distinctions about people's rights - some are 'more' deserving of protection than others. It was ever so slight in my case but out of such cracks divides can be made. Consciences silenced because 'they' are not like 'me'!

And this terror was obviously something for which many factors slowly combined in history and also something that felt suddenly unleashed.

There was a very moving account I listened to of a woman recounting what happened to her family when they found themselves designated as 'Gypsies'. One year they were in a settled pattern of summer travel in a theatre troop and a winter at work in casual service jobs; the next year they find themselves forbidden to travel. Their innocent (and popular) entertainment no longer desirable because its performers are designated 'other': hostile to the values of the 'Volk'. She was sent to Auschwitz and survived. Her parents did not. 

Alongside the cumulative displays of this material were the commentaries of modern German historians that were both helpful in providing context, good at helping you see what happened, but of no real help as to offering up why. Undoubtedly because 'why' is the wrong question if the expectation is a single answer, there are no doubt multiple whys that came together to create that brief, searing, horrifying period and this is part of its continuing dark fascination - its mystery.

But not to depart on a dark note: the museum's very existence is wholly commendable - a country excavating  its most painful period to the opportunity of continuous memory, not as guilt, a remarkably useless emotion, but as witness and determination to try and be something wholly other, a better self (community).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

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 who sent Muir to see Maurice Nicoll, another student of Gurdjieff's to be, and, at that time, one of Jung's first students in England, a highly gifted neurologist and psychotherapist, whose treatment of Muir was both instrumental in liberating his gifts and strangely unsatisfactory as treatment (that may be just as well)!

I am fascinated by how these worlds interweave - paths you thought were separate, happened upon through your diverse interests, suddenly interconnect, and you look back and see how it makes sense of certain features of people's life and work.

You can see how Orage could recognise Muir's latent spirituality even as he contributed 'sub-Nietzschean' aphorisms (Muir's description) to 'The New Age' and help identify Muir's next steps and how that extraordinary gift for guidance would need a greater outlet than simply a literary platform. He would need to engage with the complex texture of people's lives in the round.

In any case, after long postponement, it will be interesting to see what I make of 'Meetings...' and of this resurgent trail after the spirit of Gurdjieff and his influence!

Meanwhile, Orage awaits the writing of a comprehensive biography and study. We tend to neglect the genius of the impressario (Diaghilev is probably the exception to this rule).

Monday, September 17, 2012

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 craft of theatre.

For years any connection with Gurdjieff lay in abeyance. Until I went to work with Ann to help found the Prison Phoenix Trust. She had read him, his errant disciple, Ouspensky and two of his key collaborators: Maurice Nicoll and J.G. Bennett. The latter, I think, she had met. The one who most deeply impressed her was Nicoll (and I inherited her copy of Living Time and his Psychological Commentaries on Gurdjieff and Ouspensky). I have read 'Living Time' and Nicoll's books of commentary on the parables of the New Testament: 'The Mark' and 'The New Man' with great profit. They have a profound simplicity and a quality of depth that sings through the surface pedestrianism of their text. No literary artifice should distract from the seriousness of their message. It was here I first encountered the understanding of sin as a 'missing of the mark' of one's own being. We are all works in progress towards glory gone astray and there are ways of finding our way that are law like that, by their practice, open us to the ever presence of grace.

The whole nexus, however, disappeared again until last year I read Jacob Needleman's 'What is God?' where, for the first time to my hearing, Needleman described his own indebtedness to 'the Work' (as Gurdjieff described it) and his long term practice within a number of its groups. Retrospectively it explained a great deal of Needleman's preceding work: a kind of hermeneutical key explaining his attitude towards traditional spirituality - its value and yet being a value whose full worth is hidden, that is not immediately accessible to the mainstream of those traditions themselves. I re-read Nicoll's 'Living Time', de Hartmanns' 'Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff' and most recently Ravi Ravindra's account of his work with Jeanne de Salzmann (Gurdjieff's principal disciple).

It does not appear that life will allow me to escape this strand of thought (and practice) - even though (like perhaps any group over time), it possesses features (and people) from whom one recoils. The recoiling, of course, might say as much about you as it does about them!

There is, I feel, however, something 'here' - a kind of rigour about the importance of sustained practice, the stress on the body in practice that works in from movement and posture to states of mind and spirit, a way that does not inflate one with a spiritual ideal in such a way that you miss all the many fold ways you miss the mark of that ideal and yet, at the same time, a way that carries a high sense of what it means potentially to be human.

I do not think I am likely to 'be converted' but I will continue to pay attention and I notice, even this morning, when meditating in the prayer of the heart, certain things that de Salzmann had said to Ravindra were resonating with my practice and ever so gently adjusting it, and deepening its seriousness.

What reading de Salzmann has (re) convicted me of is the importance of attentive, regular practice. The form is analogous, yet different, but there is a sense that we are of the same party, much closer in what unites than in what separates.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

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 honest answer was nothing. How often I thought do we in a group ask what is in this for me and fail to ask what is it that I offer? Can I offer an attention, an attitude that would transform the possibilities of this particular coming together? I was reminded in this regard of an Orthodox priest describing the way a congregation can coalesce and help one another in prayer if particularly attentive and receptive but how so often we simply worship as if for ourselves.

The second was the realisation of the compulsion of habit. Am I simply the sum total of my habits? It is a classic question of Gurdjieff: who are you really? Is your precious 'I' merely an assemblage of reactions? To which the answer is, honestly, yes mostly!

The third, related to the second, is Ravindra's recognition of how much energy it takes to hold together this performing self and as you see this a wave of exhaustion passes through you yet on you go! Resistance to transformation is strong! Ravindra notices how de Salzmann's use of 'the body' (as terminology) resonates with St John's Gospel's reference to 'the flesh'. It is not simply the physical body but the whole habitual body-mind complex. This is what must be transformed and the truth that does so must find a container that can withstand it, as much as understand it and the 'flesh' is most weak and inattentive.

It is a sobering book and yet one that invites you to work - to find a deeper presence to self and others, a greater attention to all the many ways that you fail that presence; and, a consciousness of the lack between who the 'I' is now and who I am and, if you can do nothing else, de Salzmann encourages you to stay with an acknowledgement of that lack of connection in you.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

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 and difference: here it is a moment of incest that haunts the relationship between sister and brother and the brother's likely homosexuality?

These themes inhabit a beautifully constructed canvas of historic realism - the coldness of houses without central heating, the prudery of landladies and the complex social dance men and women engaged in order to be alone with each other and the subtle gradations of class and both how they were being eroded and yet remained cruelly intact.

She is a highly accomplished writer whose quiet realism, without post-modern artifice, shows how a skilled storyteller, grounded in major themes, is an ever new creator of believable, seductive worlds.

I saw a small exhibition of Tonks' work in Durham (Barker's home town) and it is utterly right what she has one of her characters say that this work is both utterly utilitarian, instrumental to a purpose, and the work of no one other. Tonks was uniquely placed to develop this work being both a doctor and a professor of art. It is no criticism to suggest that, as an artist, this was his most important work. It was a work that literally re-made lives.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

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'!

Today I went to the admirable Stonehill House to listen to Rosamund Bartlett, the Russian scholar and translator, talk about Stravinsky and Diaghilev. It was, as on a previous occasion on Chekov and Tolstoy, a highly accomplished performance including the first talk that was an artfully compressed digest of Russian cultural history, woven out of themes relevant to illuminating the revolution that was the Ballet Russe. Like many innovations it came from mining the old and combining it in radically new combinations. It reminded you too that innovation (even in art) is rarely the result of unique genius but of collaboration and of creative conflict. What I was reminded of was how conscious Diaghilev was of creating an image of Russia to offer the West and how, post-Revolution, the extraordinary impact of that offering was lost to the land of its origin.

It was an 'eccentric' image - itself a product of Russia's own assimilation of an 'Oriental' image of itself - but one that briefly made Russia the avant garde of the cultural world.

At the centre of this transfusion of cultural energy was Stravinsky. This most apparently cosmopolitan of Russian composers was arguably, at heart, the most Russian of composers. His career was launched by two works that reworked Russian folk traditions (of which he was deeply knowledgeable) and the third, that sealed it, the evocation of (an imagined) primitive Russian past; but, what Rosamund made beautifully clear that underlying all his work were the rhythms of Russian Orthodox chant.

It was an underlying comparison I recall the composer, Sir John Tavener, making, in his own inimitable way, a few years ago as both musician and Orthodox believer. Oddly this chimes with my own adolescent intuition - finding something of the sacred rhythm of spared down forces in the parred down rhythms of Stravinsky's revolutionary music. It too was a connection recognised by two other members of the audience, a delightful couple, both of whom had been professional dancers, who had danced the Rite repeatedly in the course of their careers.

Other things I came away with included a reminder of the extraordinary gifts of Diaghilev in marshalling such extraordinary talents into coherent wholes: no wonder it required a man of such self-confidence, ruthlessness, charm and energy (both his own and an ability to impart it to others). And what a stunner Nijinsky was: no wonder Diaghilev was besotted (though leaving an underlying ability to manipulate wholly intact) and dismissed him from the Ballet Russe on his marriage.

Friday, September 7, 2012

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 Thomists (or neo-Thomists) - I expect so such is the fertility of the saint's mind. He was certainly right on the corrosive power of usury to economic, social and moral bonds! He was deeply influential on my two principal philosophy teachers: from the first came qualified agreement and from the second abiding revolt (and both were Jesuits). I think, on the whole, I was closer to the second.

The programme of separating faith and reason ultimately diminished both. Religion became an affect of the soul, the world became separated and circumscribed by reason rather than the world being a meaningful living cosmos apprehended by intellectual vision that is, in its very nature, a religious world (rather than one created by a 'religious' being). The world was opened to a different kind of usage whose consequences gather pace (one that Aquinas himself would have deplored).

Thursday, September 6, 2012

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 ‘Complesso Monumentale’ comprising church building, Neapolitan assembly hall, archaeological remains and museum.

 The archaeological remains sat below the building and descending the stairs I found myself in what was effectively a Roman shopping mall, some human habits remain eternal. It was fascinating to see the row of shops ‘below’ mirroring those above – small, in narrow streets, probably specialised, family owned and serving a diverse and sophisticated community. The continuity of history and basic human needs (and aspirations) was evident.

Next I stepped into the Neapolitan assembly hall which had been decorated at the start of the seventeenth century with vivid, florid frescos of the virtues required by both the delegates and their Duke. I thought, starting at the far end, that it was interesting that each male figure bearing or representing a virtue, was balanced by a female counterpart. But this initial impression was not borne out, by the time I worked my way back to the entrance, all the virtues had become feminine in their symbolic clothing (always appearing in balanced pairs). What did people think contemplating the finished design as all the delegates would have been men? In order to rule wisely they were being asked to put on the overwhelming femininity of virtue. Did they see this as necessary, as distant aspiration, as delightful folly to their cynical manipulation of power? However, they saw it, it struck me as a mystery, that unlike the arts of shopping, other mentalities (to use that phrase from French historical thinking) are ‘different’ from ours. We cannot assume that the continuity of human nature is not substantially disrupted by culture.

Finally, I went to the museum and found myself again addressed by the balance and joy of medieval fresco. They were three – a Madonna and Child, the head of St Francis and St Francis being honoured by a company of friars and sisters including St Clare. It is their freedom from sentimentality that is so arrestingly beautiful. Seeing the real is a balanced act of feeling in these frescoes – what you see is the natural state of being human facing no contradiction either from competing Christian forms or from reason. This is not what you see in the examples of seventeenth and eighteenth century religious art on display in the same museum. Here you see uncertainty and over-compensation either of emotion or theological point scoring (accompanied by passion) that fails to convict the viewer of its truth.

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 unnamed, but there is in the universe a working out towards the good that Dickens wants to celebrate.

The second step would be to ask why not and what if. The world may be God’s creation and saturated by the possibilities of grace, after all, this is how the world is seen by the majority of its inhabitants, if fitfully and under many different guises. Thus, it would be perfectly plausible to write novels that give meaningful attention to this space, without apology, running the risk of being accused of wishful thinking.

This is what the Irish novelist, Niall Williams, does consistently within the ‘traditional’ framework of a realistic novel. He offers you stories of the miraculous where the chain of unfolding events are suffused with grace and the miraculous, not, it must be said, to the exclusion of the tragic, the inhuman and the evil.

He is a marvellous writer and reading his, ‘Boy and Man’ is a moving and compelling experience. A grandfather is believed dead by his grandson who has gone in search, as a result, for the father he has never known. The story tells of the grandson’s life in Ethiopia, his first stricken love, and his return home to discover his grandfather not dead but after a period of prolonged coma, alive, and searching for his grandson.  A search that is both mechanical – and gives a moving account of internet searching through sites devoted to the many people, for many reasons, who simply disappear – and miraculous.

In the background of each of the characters is an exploration of faith – simple trust and saintliness in some, a complex struggle with doubt, grief and loss in others – but I can think of no other popular living writer for whom this inner and outer conversation is such a natural part of the fabric of his characters lives – though Palo Coelho does come to mind, he is both more of a fabulist and didactic than Williams.

He is an exemplary teller of tales that carry emotional depth (and accuracy of insight) and yet this other, enfolded reality, of God and His doings and failings to do – the mystery of a world upheld in grace yet incomplete, flawed, human.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

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 humanity was made for – it is the crucible and testing ground of that humanity and the prototype of that was Rome and it had failed. It had fallen to the barbarians: a just indicator of that failure. But the solution is not agrarian dispersion (a vision of the good live championed say by Vergil) but by rising a new one on Christian foundations: a city of God.
Now, we might think that this language is antique yet like much antique language, it continues to have purchase at the edges of popular consciousness (and in the depths of that consciousness).Witness the popular language around Katrina and New Orleans and not only that of the wilder shade of evangelist...

But even when not thinking theologically, simply at a cultural level, cities are more than simply places in which to survive and work, they are places in which to live and their excitement as such is as much a part of the story of their growth as the dynamics of demography and economy. Hence the contrast between the two primary documents in my welcome pack – the very comprehensive booklet like agenda and ‘Qui Napoli’ the host city’s own guide that dwells not on the instrumental language of urban planning but the all too human language of excitement and fun, history and culture (low and high).

I cannot help sensing that many of the questions of the former language are only fully answerable in the language of the latter, that is only when we forge a cohesive and meaningful image of the city as place of human flourishing, of an aspiration after a good life for all, that the second order of instrumental arrangement can be answered (if only ever proximately). We need greater ideological confidence in painting pictures of the good life, otherwise all our language seems to collapse back into problem solving (and wondering why they are not).

Sunday, September 2, 2012

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 stories with maximal lucidity and a fifteenth century wall painting of the Trinity. God the Father, bearded red, with an expression of tender compassion, holds the cross beams of a crucified Jesus, as offering received, necessary but sadly so, between which a dove flies in dancing communion. It was strangely peaceful and matter of fact a mystery rendered present, accessible yet still utterly mysterious.

Between Mass rejected and accepted, I visited the Diocesan Museum harboured in a converted church. The Church itself was a highly decorated seventeenth century Baroque statement of counter-Reformatory piety of which the only arresting particular piece was a surviving fourteenth century fresco of Mother and Child where the child manages to appear both childlike and majestic. In the seventeenth century, so often the baby Jesus contrives to appear either arrogant or bored or misbehaved and the poor Virgin martyred by her bambini! But the impression of the whole is overwhelming – a parade of colour and light and action – that if in its detail frays the patience as a whole sucks out admiration! Upstairs the galleries had been converted into a gallery and here I walked, alone, lights clipping on as I past, revealing mostly painting after painting of seventeenth century religious art, most of it, I confess, pretty awful!

Again it was the earlier work that catches my eye, when feeling has not become sentimentalised, and there is a humanity in the figures that suggests a contemplative ideal rather than heightened emotions. There was a beautiful late fifteenth century painting of St Benedict, accompanied by panels of his life, the saint three quarters life size, holding out a copy of his Rule, turned to its first words, summoning the reader to listen to the words of the Master, to be attentive to the words and manner of Christ, to be attentive to each and everyone, because each and everyone is Christ.

After Mass, it was lunch outside a small restaurant, under an arch, and a mountain of seafood risotto, watching the world flow by and reading Niall Williams’ “Boy and Man”. I had forgotten what a good writer he is – the novels are Romantic – though the world is described with vivid realism: a grandfather of lost, restoring memory and his grandson at work in an orphanage in Ethiopia, they are charged with magic, of a world that conspires to care at heart, in which love appears to hold to itself, always, a final word.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

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 Pompeii. I especially liked the early paintings - so vivid, complex and realistic. The latter true even when dealing with the worlds and behaviour of the gods - they were simply part of the mental furniture of the world. Their stories, our story; however, that was configured in the mind of the beholder (metaphysically or culturally). The mosaics too - refined products carefully constructed out of minute stones and both intimate scene and grand display. I saw the famous mosaic of Alexander pursuing the Persian king in victory and it tastes battle, triumph and fear. There was also rooms of erotica - no shrinking violets here - I especially liked the clay lamp of an ageing scholar reading a text from the underneath of which emerges a (relatively) vast phallus - as if his unconscious dreams of past opportunity, faded hope.

I am in Naples for UN Habitat's World Urban Forum - 11,000 people discussing cities for four days and networking furiously (and moonlighting I expect too).

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...