Showing posts from April, 2013

The Blue Sapphire

Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth century monastic writer, describes the reality of contemplation to dwelling in a certain kind of place (according to Douglas Christie in his exemplary 'The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes towards a Contemplative Ecology' which I am reading at the moment). "When the mind has put off the old self and shall put on the one born of grace," Evagrius writes "then it will see its own state in the time of prayer resembling sapphire or the colour of heaven: this state scripture calls the place of God that was seen by the elders on Mount Sinai."

Reading this on the train today brought to mind the painting very kindly commissioned for my birthday from Andrea McLean:, It is a sapphire place of contemplative imaging where sun and moon, angel and tree dance together in an harmonious whole and where the deeper you look the more that surfaces within a contained whole.

Christie's book is dedicated to thinking throug…

I Capture the Castle

Dodie Smith is best known as the author of 'The Hundred and One Dalmatians' turned (twice) into execrable films by Disney. Disney drained the book of its wonder and mystery and turned a fable of good and evil that beautifully balances the humorous and the serious into comedic farce. You can only be thankful that they have never perpetrated similar violence on its sequel, 'The Starlight Barking'!

'I Capture the Castle' was Smith's first novel (having pursued a career as a playwright and screenwriter) and is magical. A precocious seventeen year old girl, a budding writer, observes her family trapped in genteel poverty and varied forms of eccentricity and their transformative encounter with two visiting Americans. It is set in the 1930s but was written in the 1940s when Smith, resident in the US, longed for her homeland - that it might survive its trial and that she should share in its trial.

It was a novel that united Smith's friend, Christopher Isherwoo…

Jonah and the Whale

The Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow's Kremlin has, in the entrance hallway, a rather vivid and humorous portrayal of the story of Jonah and the whale that I saw on Monday.

The story is read on the holiest of Jewish holidays, 'Yom Kippur', for it tells the story of the repentance of the people of Nineveh, confronted with the truth of their sinfulness by the reluctant prophet, Jonah, whose attempts to escape his vocation have been thwarted by God (helped by storms, sailors and whales).

Having finally embraced that vocation, he is disappointed that his prophecy of destruction is thwarted by the people of Nineveh taking his message seriously and changing their lives. It beautifully suggests that the art of prophecy is not predictive but performative. The performance is meant to make people reconsider their lives and take a new course, turned from their crooked directions to the straight path of their being. The future is always open to our turnings.

The story of Jonah…

Being a poet visionary is a bad career move...

Having read, mesmerised, Thompson's 'The Fathomless Heart', I am continuing my exploration of this forgotten English poet-mystic by reading his journals, both volumes of which have been carefully edited by Richard Lannoy.
Today on the train forth and back from London, I read the section in the first volume on dreams. My friend, the artist, Thetis Blacker, would have called Thompson a 'gifted dreamer', as she was herself, whose dreams spoke reality, that were gifts, to use the language of Hinduism, of the Self. They were not products of the unconsciousness to be interpreted by the ego but gifts to be inhabited as real places in which a person dwelt and in contemplating them saw into the truth of things. 
He describes his own, beautifully, as worlds inhabited as truly as those inhabited by waking consciousness; and, indeed makes the point, that the preconceptions of what we should or are seeing, when waking, often obscure more than they reveal about the reality of w…

The Dispossessed

Shevek is a physicist on Annares.

Annares is an anarchist community founded on a harsh moon, some one hundred and sixty years before, as a compromise between its revolutionary founders and the home world of Urras. The two worlds have stood at suspicious length ever since until now when Shevek will travel to Urras to both work on his unifying theory in physics and hopefully build bridges between the separate cultures. It is a visit viewed with hostile suspicion on Annares and greeted with manipulative glee on Urras, as they want Shevek's theory for their own political purposes.
Ursula Le Guin's novel creates out of the drama of this visit (and Shevek's unfolded life that leads up to it) a remarkable novel of ideas. The principal of which is that of 'anarchy'. This is not the anarchism of protest - violent or petulant - but of Kropotkin's mutual aid. A society (on Annares) built from a consensual way of building a world that takes from each according to their ab…

Three books in the post

I wonder if there is a nearby chapter of Book buyers Anonymous I could join. Today saw three (separate) deliveries. I must stop (or pause at least)!

I bought a second hand copy of Kathleen Raine's 'The Human Face of God: William Blake and the Book of Job', beautifully produced by Thames & Hudson (though all the illustrations are black and white) which, to my surprise, I have not read before. It was Kathleen who gave me a key to understanding Blake and to whose friendship I owe an immeasurable debt giving me, as it did, a trust in my own aesthetic judgements, a renewed confidence to be myself and a wonderful, replenished supply of fruitcake and whiskey (...we often skipped the tea...). I especially wanted to read her closing chapter comparing Blake's interpretation of Job with Jung's since, following my recent re-reading of Jung's 'Memories, Dreams, Reflections', Jung's interpretation of man's role in making God conscious has been on my mind…

St Thomas Aquinas' advice to the New Atheists

Interesting article about Islam and the New Atheism (though the Independent ought to know that Richard Dawkins is an Oxford not a Cambridge scientist. Fact checking)!

I agree with Richard Dawkins that anyone can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Koran. Many no doubt practice Islam without having read it completely (as do people practice Christianity without having read the Bible from cover to cover though they have a better excuse given its comparative length) but what is the weight of that opinion if it is grounded in ignorance?
Richard Dawkins' opinion on Islam comes to have the same value as my opinion on genetics and if one is going to be a public intellectual critiquing Islam, I think one has to do better than that. New lazy atheism is not going to win many battles...

Equally curious is suggesting that having an …

Ursula for Nobel

There are three good reasons why Ursula Le Guin should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

First, she writes beautifully. Her sparse, short sentences build cumulatively to develop arresting narratives of both inner space and unfolding action. They are completely accessible.

Second, her stories are stories but are suffused with running sets of intellectual challenges to consider different possibilities for human society. She is a thinker who builds representative anthropologies in which our society becomes mirrored. They too are completely accessible.

Third, it would shatter the artificial barrier between 'serious literature' and 'genre'. Le Guin writes science fiction (and fantasy), for both adults and children and is immensely popular - three traditional barriers to acclaim -  barriers which ought to be dismantled. They were not obviously present in the nineteenth century, they were built in the twentieth, they should be disassembled in the twenty first.

On wi…

Genuine fake

I was once offered a 'genuinely fake' Rolex in a market in Kuala Lumper and when I asked what differentiated a 'genuine fake' from a 'fake', the vendor replied, "It will work"!

My friend, Monica Furlong, wrote a biography of Alan Watts entitled 'Genuine Fake' (a title taken from a chapter in one of his many books) and it was an apt one.

Watts was a scholar who never had a sustained academic home and whose scholarship was questioned partly because he was such an inspired populariser (yet he did once enjoy a fellowship at Harvard).

He was criticised for his understanding of Zen by D.T. Suzuki and Philip Kapleau (though only the latter was a realised Zen master as it is often forgotten that D. T. Suzuki, for all his consumate scholarship and practice of Zen, was a philosopher and never a qualified teacher). But another exemplary Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, described Watts, when some of his own students criticised Watts for peddling inauthentic …

Speaking ill of the dead

When my uncle died, coming out of his funeral, his wife, my aunt, wryly observed that she had not known that she had been married to such a good man (much as she had loved him)!

On the day after Baroness Thatcher's death, predictably, the right wing press are both outraged at the hostility that her death has reawakened in many (and its expression) and suggeting that one should not speak ill of the dead out of respect for private grief (though embarrassing hagiography is all too permissible).

Personally, I think, the one thing death requires of us is honesty. Let our yea be yea and our no be no. Last week watching from afar the funeral ghat in Kathmandu where a woman dissolved into an utterly physical embodiment of her grief, I was reminded of this. Death, whatever it brings, is, in itself, brutal, we stand exposed, so we ought to respond to it nakedly, with all that we have.

Thus, even in private, ideally what matters is the honouring of the completest of pictures that you can al…

The Iron Lady has rusted away...

...rather literally and sadly given the multiple health challenges of her last decade. Lady Thatcher, possibly the most influential (for good or ill) British Prime Minister of the Twentieth century, has died today at the age of 87.

Looking at the comment streams in varied places, we can rest assured that she remains to the end, and beyond, a highly divisive figure about whom it will take a long time to come to settled conclusions (if ever).

The first election campaign in which I took an active part (though did not vote, as I was too young) was the 1979 election that brought the then Mrs Thatcher to power. I was a gopher for the Liberal Party campaign in the safe Conservative constituency in which I was born. I addressed a great many envelopes in my Easter holiday and was much too timid to go out on the stump. We came a creditable but distant second!

Needless to say I was not an admirer but I cannot bring myself to the level of visceral vitriol that some of my friends preserve for her…

China Court

It would be a misnomer to call this novel of Rumer Godden's 'experimental'.

She is a gifted novelist whose closely wrought tales have beginnings, middles and ends and never deviate from a charming and psychological acute realism. As here, she can create scenes of striking truthfulness - when two of the protagonists, both caught in their own grief for the same person, meet casually in China Court's kitchen for the first time and want to reach out, but fail, to comfort each other and yet make a hidden, real connection that must wait before it can be expressed.

Yet, she plays with time in a remarkable way, moving from period to period in the house's and its inhabitants' history over four generations, sometimes within the same paragraph, creating both a remarkable sense of continuity and yet showing how times do change, possibilities arise and fall away. She is beautifully astute on the practices of the English class system and on the licence and fragility to be f…

At the airport bookstore

"I have changed my mind. I have seen a better one at another store. Can you give me my money back?"

"I am afraid that is not possible. I have put it through the till."

"Yes, you can. You just do n't want to"

A few moments later...

"My wife wants to return this. She has seen a better one"

"I am sorry. If I do this, I will have to pay for it"

"You can. I will sign any paper you want"

The girl at the desk out of exasperation gives the man his money and takes back the item and disconsolately records the transaction. She may well have to pay for it.

The item is a fridge magnet! The girl at the counter is Nepali, the couple are English and in their late twenties.

I am kicking myself for not intervening so I buy a book (a collection of short stories) and as I pay tell the girl that I will not be changing my mind.

She smiles.

Eternal saints in caves, Living gods on balconies and the dead on pyres

A day of being a purposeful tourist in Kathmandu.

First to Swayambhunath and a remembrance of the Shrine at Guadeloupe. Here too you stand on a hill above a city that was once a lake, the cities themselves now enshrined in, slowly improving, smog, and find a foundational shrine. Here it is to the Bodhisattva Manjushri - bearer of the sword of wisdom. Like Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico, the shrine is a complex admixture of devotion, both actual and mechanical, and commerce.

It was beautiful watching an elderly woman slowly process, clockwise, around the stupa, turning each prayer wheel thoughtfully, incense sticks anointing the end of each row of wheels; and, the young girls, three in a row, being smeared with sacred paste, in their red ceremonial best, all smiles and anticipation of the mysterious ritual to come.

Manjushri is said to still live in a cave beneath the hill, meditating and radiating wisdom. In his temple is an ever-closed door that leads down to his cave and were you…