Monday, December 31, 2012

A year's artistic highlights

The first was a renewed love of fresco. I was on holiday in Sansepolcro in June where you are present to one of this form's greatest masterpieces: The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca.

It is in the Museo Civico and so arranged that even when the museum is closed you can see it (at times) through a wide, glassed in, archway. I love the humanity of the sleep drenched guards and the one to the left who appears to be hiding his face from the dazzling truth of resurrection rather than simply sleeping through it. A subtle order of difference in our inabilities to comprehend!

But it was not only in its masterpieces that fresco seduces. In the same museum, virtually hidden up narrow stairs, were beautiful if humbler examples, akin to this one of St Catherine of Alexandra.

Here she patiently waits the construction of the implements of her death, resistant to tyranny, assured in grace. I love the (now) muted yet vibrant colours, the simplicity of the narratives yet so skilfully executed and the persistant humanity of hope they convey.

The second highlight was a continuing, deepening love of what I want to call imaginal art. The term was coined by the great Islamic scholar, Henri Corbin, to describe the world between 'sense' and 'intellect' that embodies the meaning of both in living symbolism, that reveals to us the true nature of the world as a sacred unfolding drama. It is the world through which fresco moves but in the twentieth century became the more individualised preserve of particular artists, many of whom in the West had been influenced by but passed beyond surrealism. They may or may not have participated in a living religious tradition, most did not, but they had drunk from its wells, and had learnt much from especially its more esoterically inclined practitioners.

For me, this year, this meant three artists in particular, the English painters, Cecil Collins and Leonora Carrington and her friend, the Spanish painter, Remedios Varo. The first is readily accessible to an English based viewer, the latter two are more of a challenge if you want to see their works at first hand for having been both Mexico based, and still mostly privately held. But two trips to Mexico this year held the prospect of following up on 2011's wonderful exhibition hosted in England, and did, in great measure, including a visit to the studio of the sadly, recently deceased, Leonora Carrington.

All three painters created private worlds of vision - or more accurately perhaps saw their visions through the lens of privately constructed languages - but all three speak nonetheless of magicked possibilities and the reality of the imaginal.

Remedios Varo occupies an especial place in my affection - I think it is the vein of humour that is so resonant - her figures are often vulnerable and comical as they set about their tasks of what appears of the utmost seriousness (the two are not incompatible)  - as here the witch like figure with her net gathering into her cage a glimmering feather of the bird of truth, beloved of more than one tradition of fairy tale, and is illumined by her discovery. Who has captured whom?

Thirdly and finally was the exhibition of the year (or several) which was that of Edward Burra at the Pallant Gallery in Chichester. After decades of neglect, this most extraordinary artist was afforded (partially) the recognition that he deserves. The one shadow cast was a singular curatorial obsession with Burra's apparent fascination with the 'dark'. It is certainly there - with the sinister, the dowdy and the macabre - but streaking through all is a fascinated, engaged celebration of life in all its dimensions, and with the marginalised, compassionate celebration. He is possibly the first major English painter to have painted black people with no trace of condescension or distancing but whether in a French harbour or Harlem with freedom and delight. That went too for prostitutes, transvestites, gays, cabaret performers - they are all simply, gloriously people.

And the revelation of the exhibition, his late landscape paintings:

These achieved a wonderful simplicity of form, witness and celebration, as here with a Northumberland valley and river, painted in 1972.

Burra was himself an 'outsider' - gay, crippled in pain for much of his life, an observer yet through his eye and craft (and great talent for friendship) a full participant in life's many dimensions - and a witness to what art can do, deepen sensibility and love for the world - for broken but vibrant humanity, for a damaged yet renewing natural order.  A good place to be on the cusp of a new year.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Tree of Man

Patrick White is a painterly writer. On almost every page of this tremendous novel you are invited to pause to contemplate a picture in words, shaped with poetry, that allows, invites you to see an another world enfolded within the unfolding narrative of Stan and Amy Parker's lives.

It is always a world of transcendent possibility but one in which these possibilities often lie tantalising out of reach. Out of reach because of our inability to allow a humility to be born that might grace understanding or, more often, because such understanding might upset the comforting surfaces of our lives or conflict with our often cruel certainties.

There are wonderful set pieces in the book - of nature inflicting its challenges as the Parker's make a life for themselves in what was wilderness and will become virtual suburb by the book's close - of fire and flood and the terrors and revelations that such grand events may bring. But also of the revelations of quiet domesticity and family drama - a son turned to no good account or of a singular adultery witnessed but passed over in silence of a preserved affection or in a singular obsession of meeting every circumstance with baking.

My favourite moment, however, comes at the very end. Stan Parker, recovering from a stroke, sitting in his rough garden, is visited by a young evangelist, all earnestness and incomprehension. It is a comic set piece, fierce in its denunciation of cheap wisdom, lightly earned. Having briefly endured the young man's capering between 'sin' and 'light', Stan Parker, having cleared his throat by spitting on the ground, points with his stick to gob of spittle and says, 'That is God' and from this revelation does the young man flee, uncomprehending.

God is, at once, offensive, present, at the heart of life; and, completely unsettling of any theology. As Martin Buber said of YHWH when translating the Hebrew Bible into German, it stands not only for 'He is present' but as "I am there as whoever I am there' - that which reveals is that which reveals. God will frankly turn up in any dam shape God chooses to - and is, White suggests, rarely polite!

White's novels are slow going - especially this one where the external narrative is so slow moving (and frankly too quietly domestic to arrest attention) - but they repay their necessarily slow, contemplative reading many fold. Not least because, like painting, they return to seeing your 'ordinary' world differently, with sensibility and attention sharpened, especially around all the ways you cut your feeling short, you narrow your attention into the safely habitual to your continuing loss. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A New Year's resolution

Do not buy anymore books until...

The record was created last year when I lasted until January 14th!

To ensure I last that long today, while in Waterstone's flagship Picadilly store, I bought three!

Oleg Tarasov's 'Icon and Devotion: Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia', Victor Frankl's 'The Doctor and the Soul' and Patrick Wilcken's biography, 'Claude Levi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory'.

If there is any connection, apart from to demonstrate my eclecticism, it is the thread of how humans make meaning through symbols - though the first two are how transcendent meaning is revealed through symbol rather than fabricated.

Here is to days, hopefully weeks of 'cold turkey'!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Shambolic and Orwellian

The Most Revd Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminister should work harder at his metaphors. In an ill tempered and mis-judged Christmas address, he attacked the government's plans for legislating on 'gay marriage' as both shambolic and Orwellian. I think he should go back to '1984' - the whole point of Orwellian space is that it is so constructed and ordered that even apparent freedom is finally illusory. Nothing about it is shambolic.

Perhaps he meant that the outer shambolic nature of the government's actions was a cunning front hiding steely Orwellian machinations - in which case he grants the coalition government more competence and cunning than anyone else imagines. David Cameron as O'Brien...the Archbishop should definitely get out more...

But, more seriously, the Archbishop's message demonstrates the continuing displacement of religion in contemporary culture. This is not because according to polls the Archbishop is in the minority when it comes to opposing gay marriage but because he chooses a negative message at a time when the Church has a wide open space, increasingly rare, to say something arrestingly positive and have it heard by a wider audience than usual (when even the media can be persuaded, if briefly, to focus on something heart warming and affirmative).

Underlying this lurch towards defining oneself by what one is against is a sense of a negative identity - we are 'this' because we are not 'that' - a crippling lack of self-confidence, as if the Church was losing the sense of its own witness! That would be a sad moment indeed...

On the subject of marriage - it will not be the first time this complex human good has withstood challenging times - and re-emerged transformed (for good or ill) - it after all survived St Paul and literalist interpretations of the imminence of the world's end...

Monday, December 24, 2012

Titles from Hay

The number (and quality?) of bookshops in Hay on Wye appears to be in decline, replaced by outlets for fashionable goods and ceramics yet there are treasures to be found.

On an outing today, and with marketing help from Andrei, I came back with a further eight books to find space for, physically and in mind.

Beginning with the Nobels, the first was a replacement text for my battered, much read, copy of Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot' - a good second hand paperback to survive a few further readings of that remarkable exploration of the limits of good and the potentiality for evil. The second Nobel was 'The Slave' by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I have not read him in a long while, having enjoyed 'The Magician of Lublin' and some of the short stories, and indeed recommended him to Andrei, yet he never quite took off (or burrowed in). Time for another attempt.

Both sat light to any formal participation in the religious traditions of their birth, but both were haunted by the sacred, and what it might mean in the lives of the narratives they imagined. My next book is devoted to literary figures who converted to Catholicism in the twentieth century: 'Literary Converts' by Joseph Pearce. Here the tradition was taken straight - in the life of G.K. Chesterton for example - and directly counterpoised as a living truth, interpreted undoubtedly but unvarnished, to an unbelieving world, slipping rapidly out of the orbit of the only teaching that could give it coherence.

This was followed by two books of eccentric Westerners who took inspiration from India and returned to the West to found communities. A different, but not unrelated, response to that of our literary converts. Sangarakshita, an Englishman, founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, that thrived, if controversially, and founded a number of social enterprises and outreach activities, not least with untouchable communities in India. Lanza del Vasto, a Frenchman, was inspired by Gandhi to found the Ark, a community in a reclaimed village in the Languedoc dedicated to a life of simplicity and ecological health. When I visited, many years ago, it was impressive if a little too austere to stir my sybaritic soul (the cold showers, and in the age of solar, did not convince)! Both, however, were remarkable experimenters, unafraid to learn from and adapt traditions - both within themselves and in dialogue (and sometimes confrontation) with a wider world.

An apparently more detached, objective approach to the culture of another place is Pierre Clastres' "Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians". The French anthropologist's account of his field work in Paraguay. However, like all anthropological accounts, it is freighted with 'lessons' as well as observations; and, Clastres emerged with trenchant things to say about 'communal organisation' and the possibilities of a genuine anarchism - even the secular Left can be inspired by the sacred lives of others.

And, finally, to Russia and a history of the last four Tzars - 'The Shadow of the Winter Palace' and an account of  'The Russian Experiment in Art' from 1863 to 1922 when Russia undoubtedly became a country of cultural export - both of an artistic as well as a political kind. The latter might not be ripe for celebration, but the former certainly is and is radically under praised (especially within Russia itself).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Merry Christmas

According to Alexander Gilchrist, William Blake's first biographer, the painter, Samuel Palmer, visited Blake one day, towards the end of his life, and found William and his beloved Catherine, clothed 'as Adam and Eve in paradise' under a vine in their back yard.

Palmer, always a more conservative soul than his older friend and mentor, was not a little shocked at the Blakes' revealing of our naked state, recapitulating the paradise that is always ours, pristine and present to us, if the eyes, through rather than with which we see, are cleansed.

Palmer's own painterly journey was of vision gained, lost and re-found. He stepped into a vision at Shoreham in Kent of a world transfigured where the Holy Family can rest on their way to Egypt amongst a landscape 'actually loved and known' for the archetype is timeless, the history merely incidental. Later, in search of worldly confirmation of his gifts, Palmer mislaid them and became a good landscape painter, amongst many other such, scrabbling for commissions, until a final disillusionment restored a late flourishing to his art.

Blake was a benign mentor to Palmer, encouraging him as much by listening as by giving advice, by a quality of his aged presence rather than learning directly from his philosophy of life (that in any case would have threatened Palmer's conscious, High Anglicanism).

John Linnell, Palmer's father in law, a highly successful painter, largely forgotten, who introduced Palmer to Blake was a mentor of a wholly different kind: certain in his opinion, trenchant in his criticism and mostly corrosive of the younger man's talents.

One of the pleasures of this past year has been the opportunity to coach a small number of senior managers, occupying often lonely and challenging positions; and, having to re-learn the art in virtually every conversation of simply listening and speaking only when strictly necessary (and how hard that is)  - creating a space for people to find their own vision and paths of making that vision real and living.

Nurturing vision is an awesome responsibility. It was Christ's primary responsibility: 

How do I, Jesus, enable this frankly job lot of disciples to see through me to the Father and in that vision discover their own calling to a life fully alive, through which too God can be seen? 

Practising the incarnation of vision, the vision that brings us truly alive (and, thus, according to St Ignatius of Antioch, visions of God) requires the presence of others to guide our path, to listen compassionately to its unfolding, to nurture its coming through every opportunity and challenge. This would be my Christmas wish for all of us - to be present to heartfelt listening that awakens the spirit within.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The incomparable Mr White

When his masterpiece 'Riders in the Chariot' was published, the Australian Nobel prize winner, Patrick White, received a telephone call. A man, with a thick East European accent, asked him whether he wanted to go further. Startled White declined and put down the receiver. Later he recalled the voice as that belonging to the relation of a friend and regretted his decision.

The invitation was to study and penetrate the Kabbalah  - the mystical stream in Judaism - a profound intuitive grasp of which pervades 'Riders...'

This afternoon I found myself in a familiar quandary, namely what to read next, having finished John Shirley's excellent account of the life and teaching of Gurdjieff.  Pondering the bookcase of my personal 'canon' (in my bedroom), I considered whether I had the energy for a White.

He is after all a writer who, with conscious deliberation, creates sentences that require you to read slowly, ruminatively. Originally he wanted to be a painter, and, in fact, became a distinguished patron of art, and his words are continuously creating pictures. You have to create a tactile, seen, smelt, heard world as his narratives unfold in a way that is demanding and haunting.

A deep breath, and I decided on 'The Tree of Man' and within three pages was completely hooked.

A man, who we discover is Stan Parker, has set about clearing land in the outback as (we surmise) a future home. He is alone, except for discretely acknowledged dog, his memories and the world. In a short space, White paints a vivid and compelling picture of Stan's contrasting and conflicted parents, each harbouring a different 'God' moulded out of need and their fancy - the one fiery of his blacksmith father, the other gentleness personified of his frightened genteel mother.

You are pitched not only into an arresting narrative - why is Stan here and from whence does he come - but are immediately pondering the nature of our projections - of divines fashioned out of conflicting human needs. We live in a polyvalent world and yet it is anchored in a clearing reality but not one susceptible, as White continually reiterates, to being captured in words. It must be suffered through into experience, seen not said.

To this day, I recall my first reading of 'Riders...' in my room at Commonwealth Hall (when studying at the University of London). I could barely set it aside - image after image speaking to me of both the complexities of being human and a simplifying touch of presence that strengthened you, by its presence, to endure and (hopefully, maybe) understand finally the mystery in which those complexities sit. An understanding that, to quote Wittgenstein, you would only ever be able to compassionately show not say.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

An extraordinary musician and a piece of history

Ravi Shankar died today. He was a most extraordinary musician who carried a tradition with fidelity from its home place, India, into a wider world while at the same time allowing it to interact and play with other musical traditions. To be at one of his concerts was to be transported.

The piece of history is that his elder brother, Udday, was instructor, mentor and friend to my closest friend, and she had studied dance with Ravi under his brother's gaze. Once, when Ravi came to give concerts in London, I went with her and we met him after the performance - a charming, endearing presence - he stood confident in his powers and utterly welcoming.

They can dance together now with a celestial harmony.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Enlightenment Ain't What It's Cracked Up To Be

Ram Dass, former Harvard professor transformed into spiritual guide and successful author, was once slated to give a talk one evening where his host was a friend of his and mine (and who told me this story).

Ram Dass had arrived at my friend's house ahead of schedule, exhausted and dispirited, and suggested that prior to the talk they distract themselves in some way. They decided on the cinema and went to see the first Star Wars movie smuggling in pizzas to eat under their coats and sitting in the front row chomping away absorbed in the mysteries of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the Force!

Arriving at the talk, Ram Dass noticed two pretty young women in the front row and said to them, 'Good evening! Glad you could come' and walked on, as he did so my friend, following, overheard one of the women excitedly, awestruck, proclaim to the other, 'Fancy, He spoke to us'!

The talk was (as befitted him) brilliant (and reflective of a genuine spiritual depth)!

Robert Forman's 'Enlightenment Ain't What It's Cracked Up To Be' is a brilliant exploration, grounded in his own life and experience, of that 'gap' between spiritual awakening and personal transformation. The former may attract the latter, creating space for it, but does not guarantee it. The structure of our consciousness: how we see and hold the world may be transformed - we live in a new spaciousness - but it does not guarantee a 'personality transplant' - that requires of us a different work, on the level of our own psyches and in relationships with one another - at home and in the workplace.

The book beautifully relates both the quality of Forman's restructured, liberated consciousness, beginning with his practice of Transcendental Meditation (and how nostalgic were his accounts of that) and how this both did and did not free him from his history, his anxieties and his personal failings. By way of example he tells of how he slowly stopped being a shoplifter, how slowly he realised how 'cramped' it made him feel, smaller, crabbier, than the person who stood in relationship to empty fullness in which he had come to rest through meditation.

Our spiritual teachers, profound as they were and are, did not encounter (or open themselves to) the complexities that are our lot; and, thus a spiritually infused life may ask for different responses from us, building on their path making but diverging from it? What if, for example, the Buddha had chosen to return to married life with Mrs Buddha: what would be the inter-action between his 'enlightenment' and their life together in its vulnerability and intimacy? What would the emergent tradition now look like if built on that foundation?

The book is searingly honest both about the nature and reality of the experiences graced to Forman and his failings (and the perceived failings of others towards him).

What emerges is a radical affirmation of the meditative quest and the change in the nature of consciousness that results - where you witness your self from a place that is empty, boundless yet full - which gently draws you on towards a life that is both more deeply non-attached and yet engaged. But also that carries a recognition that this enlightening quality does not simply deliver 'boundless joy' - you remain who you were - yet invited to the hard work of liberating that personality to dwell more effortlessly in a boundless world.

It is a story of progressive freedom not through some salvational mechanism but through becoming ever more vulnerable and open to oneself, others and the world and learning to play and improvise in that spaciousness. The image is one of jazz  - how to continually create an authentic response to reality that witnesses to the underlying freedom of all things (and their unity).

It is a beautifully wise, compassionate and unfinished book - perhaps we are never 'enlightened' but, at best, are on a way of enlightening.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The stigma of mental health and poverty

Mental health is everywhere a subject that does not receive the attention that it merits nor the compassion that it deserves. Its capacity to create uncertainty and the complexity of its origins (and treatment) generates fear. When you compound this with the reality of poverty, the burden is extraordinary.

Basic Needs, that was founded in 1999, works to overcome this burden by giving people access to treatment, build deeper links with their communities, renew their livelihoods and campaign for change in how people are seen and treated.

It is a remarkable organization, of which I was a founding trustee, and this year it is one of the charities selected for the Guardian and Observer newspaper's Christmas appeal (see the above link).

Monday, December 3, 2012

On not finishing books...without guilt...

It may be a feature of ageing but I am developing a wholly guilt free attitude to not finishing books!

Today I decided not to finish Ann Wroe's 'Being Shelley'. It is very well written, approaching Shelley from 'inside out' as a poet first and foremost rather than as a biography of a man from which poetry occasionally surfaces amongst the complex to-ing and fro-ing of a life. It wants to rehabilitate Shelley as a 'metaphysical' poet and puts significant emphasis both on his indebtedness to the Greeks, most especially Plato, and to his experience of transcendence: an objective Beauty that stalks his life - illuminating and tantalising in turn.

But at 380 pages it is simply too long (and too diffuse) - example piles upon example until you are left simply saying, 'Yes, yes I get it...and...' This 'and' being what does this mean, not for Shelley, but for us, the reader? Does this metaphysical focus change how we see things? Does it shift the possibilities that we are presented with and how? Does the poetry legislate a new world (as Shelley hoped it would)? To none of which is there any answer.

I was sitting on the train and realised that there was an essay by the poet, Kathleen Raine, 'A Defence of Shelley's Poetry' in her 'Defending Ancient Springs' that, re-reading it on reaching home, says in seventeen pages more, and says  it, sadly, better that Wroe does in the two hundred and fifty plus pages I had managed to work my way through.

Contemplating why this might be so, I sensed the answer was in conviction. Kathleen was defending Shelley's poetry as a way of singing about how the world is. Ann Wroe is obviously sympathetic to Shelley but is apologetic about writing a book that focuses (in a diffuse way) on his metaphysics and shelters this behind a diffusion of examples, as if we should be overwhelmed by them rather than convinced! Nor is there any background - what Shelley is finding in Plato of such relevance is hinted at but never shown, as if being a Platonist might be some form of embarrassment!

One more for the Oxfam shop...

I did, however, in passing realise why Shelley was a poet so well loved in India - Tagore comes to mind - because he had such a metaphysical mind and a way of making abstract thought sing. The world is a playful veiling of a deeper reality and the sensing of that, the allowing the silence of that to speak through the rhythm of poetry was at the heart of Shelley's art.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Driving home this evening from Kingston upon Thames, I was listening to Radio 3 and was reminded what a versatile man Leonard Bernstein was, as here, conducting his own comic opera, Candide.

This struck me as a perfect choice for the man - Voltaire's text is of high moral purpose yet sceptical, satirical and humorous - and ends with one of the most pointed sentences in literature - that we should all cultivate our gardens. We should all take responsibility for what is in our purview, accepting both its limits and its possibilities. We should enterprise after knowing but totality of knowing lies beyond our, or anyone's, grasp.

It may not be the deepest of visions - and Bernstein, multiply gifted as he was, was not the most profound of composers - but it does carry a freight of tolerance and compassion that is realistic and attractive. I think I would like to be trapped in a lift (or indeed a garden) with Voltaire (or indeed Bernstein) in front of many more serious and weighty thinkers!

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...