Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Trees, care taking and a Happy New Year

Vexilla Regis, 1948, Graphite and Watercolour on paper by David Jones

Since I find myself living anew in Switzerland at the edge of a forest, I should end the year with a picture of trees with a twist.

There are two great English language poets. one English, one Welsh, both Londoners, who wrote imaginatively out of the 'matter of Britain', rooted in a metaphysical vision, and who were great painters: the one is William Blake, the other is David Jones. Both visions were rooted in traditions of knowledge. In Blake's case, these were 'esoteric', a hidden tradition. In Jones' case, these were, at first sight, exoteric, known - Roman Catholicism, Welsh myth and folk lore and the Island's history. They intersect at a recognition that the world is brought fully to life in our conscious acts of it being actually loved and known. We have a responsibility to the world to bring it to its redeemed fullness that is ours alone yet which reveals everything as it is in itself, a sacrament, an 'outward and visible sign of grace', gift, not 'our own' but God's owning, giving.

This 'care taking of the cosmos' was the theme of my favourite book of 2013: Gary Lachman's 'The Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World'. This beautifully charted a number of those Western esoteric traditions such as Hermeticism and the Kabbalah that have this sense of something incomplete that is awaiting our care at their heart. 

It is the artist's task to show what the actualities of the fulfilment of that care might look like as here with Jones' 'Vexilla Regis'. Here you step into a wood that is never simply trees, a tree is never simply so, but a place saturated in story, stories that confer abundant life and that have both 'presence' and 'history'. It is a place in which unfold worlds, in and out of time, and in which layers of being are lived 'at once'. Horses play, angels sport, and Stonehenge holds its mysteries on a distant yet proximate hill.

At heart, the painting says, every place is waiting to be listened to and heard, and we can only act intelligently if we have learned the wisdom of where we are. This requires a patience, and a cleansing of the 'doors of perception' that we are reluctant to undertake, and to which our current cultural mores are ill disposed, but which are essential to our seeing and being human. 

The wish for the New Year can only be that we take time to stand in places that gift us the actuality of such seeing that Jones (and Blake) invite us too and from this seeing allow the real world to come into being, the completed, compassion drenched, wise world of the divinely human visioning.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The most important place on earth

The most important place on earth is under your feet; namely the soil, though as the world rapidly urbanises this may be increasingly obscured. There are three features of this importance that go virtually unnoticed as we tramp along the highway of progress.

The first is how little we know about its life, how it all hangs together, builds up, lives and dies in spite of it being the very matrix of our lives. Matrixes would be more accurate because as we learn more about our 'environment', we find we live in complex, diverse ecologies where one set of understanding does not fit all. Not only the good must be done in minute particulars but our knowledge too must relearn the importance of place.

The second is that in spite of this unacknowledged ignorance we plough on in imagining and abusing it as an 'infinite resource'.

The third is that it is, in many places, for complex reasons, it is collapsing - eroding, compacting, dying.

The most important article I read this past year was this one:

Not the least of which was because it was written by the economics editor of the Daily Telegraph not a usual source of 'alarmist environmentalism'!

This may make this place: http://www.landinstitute.org/vnews/display.v one of the most important places on earth. For it is here at the Land Institute, the geneticist Wes Jackson and his colleagues are seeking to resolve a 10,000 year old problem with agriculture. How to create an agriculture that mimics natural processes rather that cuts across them? How to persuade 'perennial' plants that require no ploughing to flourish abundantly as do our specialised annuals (like wheat or maize) and so build up soil, alongside feeding us, rather than degrade it? It is a long term project that makes steady progress and there could not be a more important one, anywhere, which is why, of course, it survives on charitable donation and winging prayers!

Its deepest lesson is that the knowledge we increasingly need is complex, interdisciplinary and pays careful attention to where we are, to particularities and moves forward with awareness of our significant ignorance, which perhaps could not be more different either from our over specialised branches of compartmentalised universities or the swinging certainties of our opinion makers. Change will come, it suggests, from the peripheries if it is to come.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Gossipy woods

Evening in the Woods by Ivan Shishkin

When we were launching what became 'Catch Up' (a literacy programme for eight/nine year olds), one of the realisations was that much of the existing material was gender inappropriate as it relied heavily on 'fiction'. Many of our 'clients' were boys and boys (many of them, especially at that age) are fact obsessed and need literacy support that reflected this.

It was an observation that resonated with me. At eight, I read history and maps. I remember a book by R. J. Unstead on Tudor England and repeatedly pouring over lists of the price of things; and, painstakingly replicating maps of France and New Zealand for a project at Cub Scouts. It was only in my teens that fiction and image erupted into consciousness as ways to think and feel. I recall in my twenties on holiday in France finding, at my hosts, a whole section of her library devoted to the classic literature of childhood and spending a happy ten days with Narnia and Nesbit under an olive tree!

Now, much later, it appears it is time for fairytales. The trigger to this I realise came from a tangential place. A couple of years ago, I was at an exhibition by the English painter, Edward Burra, who notably refused to translate his work into speech about it, and found myself for the 'first time' being aware of what it might mean to think/feel in pictures without the translations of speech (however sophisticated and illuminating), I was seeing anew. It was wonderful and since then has been a wholly deepening, moving sense of what art might be meaning, within its own terms.

At the same time, I found myself reading the fairy tales of George MacDonald and inhabiting them and not requiring a complex intellectual apparatus to justify my liking. I remember my friend,  the artist Thetis Blacker, dismissing the learned interpretations of the eminent Jungian, Marie Louise von Franz, of both creation myths and fairy tales as obscuring their obviousness to hearing (and sight). Stories are of the fabric of the world and live by their telling and appreciation (as art is). They are not matter that stands 'outside of us' in an intellectual space waiting for the sanction of interpretation (psychological or otherwise) which maybe why so much contemporary art, caught in concept and displayed 'out there' in specialised spaces, fails to connect.

I recalled this reading 'Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales' by Sara Maitland. One of the books tasks is to restore the particularity of fairytales to their places of perceived origin and life; and, one of her arguments is that Grimm's tales are Teutonic, of the forest, and we (in England) are Teutonic too. Many of our stories live and breath trees and our forests are acts of imagination. In truth, none of our forests are 'primeval', they have all evolved (in England) touched and shaped by human interaction in diverse ways. But any act of imagination is bound to place as much as it is revealer of 'universal patterns or archetypes' and that walking in the woods might reveal ways in which this is so. So she does. She takes us through a year of walking in particular woods and weaves reflections on both forest and tale together whilst also beautifully re-telling and re-imagining a number of stories.

You learn a great deal about trees (and woods), whilst assimilating story, and realising difference. In the one of the most telling chapters, she delineates the difference in the 'demotic' character of the Grimm's tales in relation to magic from other strands of imaginary literature. If in the Lord of the Rings, or Earthsea or Harry Potter, magic is something that must be learnt through discipline and knowledge and remains (even in the hands of a feminist like Ursula le Guin and J K Rowling) a strikingly male accomplishment, magic in these fairytales is something that simply happens, is there, and is an aid to accomplishment never the core object. Hansel and Gretel may find themselves at the witches door made of 'magical' components but they overcome her through good manners, guile and quick wittedness. The world is graced with the magical, it happens, is navigated but it is not manipulated through it. In a way they are more realistic, down to earth tales, which may betray their origins within the culture of the forest.

This is captured rather beautifully in the title: 'Gossip' (which evolutionary biologist and linguistic theorist, Robin Dunbar, tells us comprises 85% of our speech, even of the 'smart' ones). It is something that often attracts 'bad press' and yet, in truth, is the glue of the human world. It is the way of making and re-making connection (and like any human trait has its light and shadow sides) and story telling is at its heart as is particularity. It belongs to places even when 're-telling' a common story. In an oral tradition, this is inevitable and it is necessary.

For if we are to preserve our forests, we must continue to know and imagine them forward for nothing is conserved to be used if it is not actually loved and known. That this is more likely to spring from the particularity of gossiping than high minded but deracinated theorising is one of the claims of this fertile book and that our stories, woven back into their particular places, is one place to start.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Two slim volumes...

Since I am in the process of moving and the library was dispatched yesterday in a van, and given that the hiatus may last up to three months, I sequestered several fat volumes to keep me in reading (both new and re-reads). I thought too I would need a couple of volumes of poetry, that I tend to read before bed, and that would have to be actually loved and known.

The two I chose were T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets' and Angelos Sikelianos' 'Selected Poems' (translated by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard).

Most of my books (unless second hand) look 'unread' given the care of their handling (possibly a little obsessively careful) but not my edition of the Four Quartets. This is partly a condition of their age (a slim, sky blue, Faber copy, the tenth impression from 1979) and their much travelled status (their size cries for a pocket).

I must have acquired them at school but the first full reading I remember was immediately after university when I was staying at the Manjushri Institute, a Buddhist centre in Ulverston, Cumbria, on retreat. I remember sitting on the shingle shore, quietly reading each quartet until I had completed the whole cycle. I remember the sense of being transferred to a different way of apprehending the world where every particular thing sang the song of its creating. Waves, stones, trees, myself - all circulated around, emerged from a shared stillness where all is always now. It was one of those moments when I knew I prayed best in the open air. A reality that ran counter to Eliot's belief as a man but accorded, I feel, with his seeing as a poet.

Likewise at that time, the poems helped me sense what it might mean to follow the contours of my experience, trust the unfolding pattern, allow it to transfigure expectation and belief. The poems are a remarkable study into what it might mean to be mystical, touchstones of a reality that always eludes description but not their showing forth.

The Sikelianos' poems were acquired at university. I had encountered Phillip Sherrard, one of their translators, as both the editor (with Kathleen Raine) of the journal 'Temenos' and as a co-translator of the 'Philokalia' that remarkable collection of Orthodox texts on prayer and the practice of the spiritual life. I was tuned to his discriminating antennae (and believe that his best work was as a translator and interpreter of modern Greek poetry).

Sikelianos resonates with Yeats, his contemporary, as one who wants to restore to his homeland a sacred tradition that requires translation into new, living forms including those within his own poetry. He sees the role of a poet as (to quote Shelley) a 'legislator of the world'. A prophetic voice shaping culture ever newly.

I have loved this slim volume for its hieratic, priestly language and arresting imagination of a world where myth reals the world into place.

Because I deeply praised

Because I deeply praised and trusted earth
and did not spread my secret wings in flight
but rooted in the stillness all my mind,
the spring again has risen to my thirst,
the dancing spring of life, my own joy's spring.

Because I never questioned how and when
but plunged my thought into each passing hour
as though its boundless purposes there lay hidden,
no matter if I live in calm or storm,
the rounded moment shimmers in my mind,
the fruit falls from the sky, falls deep inside me.

Because I did not say: 'here life starts, here ends',
but 'days of rain bring on a richer light
and earthquakes give the world a firmer base,
for secret is earth's live creative pulse,'
all fleeting things dissolve away like clouds,
great Death itself has now become kin."

Angelos Sikelianos

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Merry Christmas

Cumbrian Snowscape by Lorna Graves

New Year Snow by Frances Horowitz

For three days we waited,

a bowl of dull quartz for sky.

At night the valley dreamed of snow,

lost Christmas angels with dark-white wings

flailing the hills.

I dreamed a poem, perfect

as the first five-pointed flake,

that melted at dawn:

a Janus-time

to peer back at guttering dark days,

trajectories of the spent year.

And then snow fell.

Within an hour, a world immaculate

as January’s new-hung page.

We breathe the radiant air like men new-born.

The children rush before us.

As in a dream of snow

we track through crystal fields

to the green horizon

and the sun’s reflected rose.

A painting and a poem by two artists whom I love and who celebrated the magical properties inherent in our natural world when seen through the eyes of a loving imagination. Lorna Graves' Cumbrian Hills dream of Horowitz's snow. Snow that is both particles of crystalline water cold and touched into place by angels' wings. One of Lorna's actual angels, visiting Tobias, sits over the table where I write this.

In Christian imagination, the nativity is the moment, in time, when the possibility of this way of seeing was remade, renewed. St Augustine writes that it is the moment when 'sapientia', wisdom, is reunited with our sensual knowledge of things. All is revealed as sacrament, as graced gift, in the one-ing graced gift that is Jesus.

It is the very nature of water to be drunk. It is the very nature of water to rinse us clean of our failings to miss the divinity of our being just so. The glory of God is the human person fully alive: being a human being is hanging out and being glorious, one and all. Now there is a criteria by which to discern the quality of our personal and social actions!
Remembering to see the world as gift, rather than as a commodity, learning to live within in it with holy intention and practice, has never been more necessary and serious as the invitation of Christmas (and you all thought it was about puddings. Christmas pudding...!!!).

It is an invitation celebrated not in the acquiring of gifts (or puddings) (enjoyable as they can be) but in rushing out into the gift, the pristine, of freeing snow, to make celebratory, danced tracks into a world that is always just new in its continuous giftedness. It is often forgotten that the Nativity is an impromptu party - angels strumming, shepherds flocking, sheep wandering off all over the place and kings with outrageous gifts (and this being a fallen world a politician, Herod, who seriously does not get it).

So here is to more rollicking in the snow (appropriate as Switzerland beckons) and to treating the earth as a renewing green horizon, reflecting the sun's light rosily. There is a New Year's resolution: how good was I today at reflecting the glory of our given light? How rosy was I, were we?

Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year.

A spiritual friend

When I was helping to start Prison Phoenix (http://www.theppt.org.uk/), I found myself, in my callow twenties, writing to people in prison about their lives in the context of spiritual development. It occurred to me that it might be helpful to have a 'supervisor' with whom, in confidence, I could explore the specific challenges of trying to help people see new ways of being and doing, especially when the background was of such suffering, both inured and inflicted.

A friend suggested Wendy Robinson, a convert to Orthodoxy and a psychoanalyst trained in the Jungian tradition. I went and over the next years she went from supervisor through spiritual director to friend. She had an unerring ability to acknowledge both the matter of the psyche and of the spirit, to give each its due and place, and neither to inflate the former into the latter nor collapse the latter into the former. One of her convictions was that many of our deepest challenges in relationship was imagining that 'psychological' relationships could do the work of spiritual ones. Perfection in the world was not possible, perfectibility belonged only in the journey Godwards. We suffered from 'ontological collapse' imagining that other people could bear all that naturally can only be borne heavenwards. We need to discriminate, ever and again, the patterns of our desiring.

It was, with this discrimination in mind, that she suggested that I might benefit from analysis and sent me to just the right person who carefully and with great skill took me through the inverse of the above - my then runaway tendency to 'over-spiritualise' - Petrina, my analyst, brought me back to earth without ever betraying the essence of my spirit.

Wendy was a critical part of my own path of discernment including the exploration of a vocation to religious life. She was a part of two groups to which I too belonged that were greatly enriching of thought, culture, spirit and friendship. One the Trialogue was a bi-annual meeting focused on literature, spirituality and psychotherapy, the other was a group (in Oxford) that explored contemporary culture through the lens of Rene Girard.

In latter years, owing to my peripatetic geography and Wendy's self-confessed execrable ability as a faithful correspondent, we saw each other more rarely but every time we picked up the warm threads of friendship and guidance.

Sadly, Wendy died late last week, after a brief illness, in the same year as her beloved husband, Edward. In Russian Orthodox tradition, rightly, one never refers to a person in the past tense for this is to falsify their reality, held in God, as the imaging of God in their particular uniqueness. It is a reality that Wendy will always point to. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The witness of trees

Oak in the Snow by Casper David Friedrich

On Sunday afternoon, I went for a stroll in the botanical gardens in Belem (Lisbon). They were virtually empty of people and you could wander at will with that spaciousness attendant on being alone. I sat for a long time at the winding roots of a baobab tree that reminded me that Jung had called trees 'thoughts of God', that sense of permanence and presence, of long thoughts and elastic time; and, with the sense, coming from visiting an ornate Counter Reformatory church, that it is always easier for me to pray out of doors. I was reminded too of this short piece of Hesse's in 'Wandering', a beautiful volume of prose and lyric poems illustrated with his own watercolours. It is a homily on the virtue of trees.

"For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone.

They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.

When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured.

And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent.

You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning.

It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them.

But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is.

That is home. That is happiness."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Owen Barfield's incomplete biography

'Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age - A biography' by Simon Blaxland-de Lange is a heap of a book. It is as if the author had collected all that he could find, then sorted it into an unusual order (after starting with Barfield's own reminiscences in his nineties, we track backwards in time) and stopped half way. A great deal of material is here, much of great interest, for which we must deeply thank the author, but you finish it yearning for a more comprehensive, guiding intelligence to have been applied to help you through the thinking of this myriad minded man of great intelligence and sensitivity.

It may be a subtle anthroposophical exercise: your ability to make order of the material indicative of the state of your own consciousness!

For Barfield, described by C. S. Lewis as possessing the best mind of all his friends, was a devoted, if not uncritical, disciple of Rudolf Steiner (indeed Steiner would have expected that any of those who followed his pattern of thinking would do so only on the basis of their own reflective experience, a feature that immediately makes him a potentially congenial teacher).

What struck me reading this biography (in the highly congenial setting of the restaurants of Lisbon) was the dual aspect of Barfield's thinking. He was a man that had highly original things to say within the main currents of academic and intellectual life on the origins of language, on poetic diction or on the nature of Coleridge as a thinker. After he retired from the family law firm, he enjoyed a number of distinguished visiting professorships at American universities.

But all of this diligent exploration was framed within a wider commitment to Steiner and, most especially, to understanding the world as a place where the central fact of human existence was that our consciousness evolves, who we are now is radically different from our ancestors and will emerge as different again in the unfolding fullness of time. This dynamic unfolding is essentially a spiritual, sacred process whose unfolding parameters are not shared by the very academic world that is lauding his exploration of language and his scholarship on Romanticism.

At the heart of evolving consciousness is the desire to heal the split between an 'objective' world out there, the realm of fact, and the 'subjective' world in here, the realm of value. Barfield's achievement was to help show that 'out there' mutually arises (and is conditioned by) 'in here'. The world we perceive is conditioned by our framing but, unlike Kant, our framing evolves over time and is subject potentially to critical examination and development. The first part of this 'truth' would be self-evident to the metaphysicians of Buddhism and Hinduism that the world is a product of our consciousness. Barfield's achievement was to show how we might understand it within a 'Western' frame and see it as part of an unfolding narrative of the world's evolving purpose. The novelty lies in the evolution of our framing.

Why is this critical? Because, at present, we are dangerously bifurcated. We do not recognise that the world we are creating flows not from some objective demand (the scientific facts, the market, how things really are) but from how we chose to perceive things (though this 'choice' can be deeply unconscious). The world we behold is the one we expect and that our current path of expectation is deeply flawed because it assumes a world of isolated objects connected outwardly and mechanically. A world temptingly manipulable by our most superficial selves. Barfield offers us a way of seeing that genuinely 'cleanses the doors of perception' and allows us to bring what we value more deeply into alignment with the potential of what may come into being. Barfield is, like Blake, a defender of the creative imagination as the lodestone of truth.

Lisbon highlighted

I arrived in Lisbon (after foggy delays) for a short holiday and found that I could not connect my IPad at the (very nice) apartment I had rented. I huffed and I puffed and felt I was being denied a fundamental human right, then I caught sight of myself, smiled, and had five happy days virtual free (with one happy exception)! I was not even tempted by an internet cafe!

I had been to Lisbon twice before but only for conferences and so had only glimpsed its possibilities (including a reception at one of the world's largest aquaria) but now I was free to explore in fine 'winter' weather that allowed you to dine outside even at night!

I walked, and walked and walked. One of the deep pleasures was traversing up hill and down, winding through passageways, being arrested by views, squares, buildings, often beautifully decorated with the city's trademark tiles, getting lost and re-orientating yourself by a positioning towards the Tagus. 

Like most of my city visiting what most I wanted to do was trawl through art galleries and Lisbon has fine ones. The two most notable (from my perception) being the National Museum of Ancient Art and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.

The former is housed in an extended palace and is a cross between the National Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum (to use a London analogy). The inescapable highlight is Heronymus Bosch's 'The Temptation of St Anthony' : graphic, lurid, lewd and morally uplifting and whatever one makes (or could make) of its complex symbolism, you can only admire its sense of careful construction, craft and intelligence. 

My own favourite was a Japanese screen from the sixteenth century depicting the arrival of the Portuguese both as traders and missionaries. It was a beautiful depiction of 'otherness' of how Japanese eyes saw these intruders and how different the Europeans looked through differing eyes than their own. It was a screen that you could look at only through the eyes of tragedy, knowing what would soon befall this encounter as Japan closed its doors in self-preservation and with cruel persecution. I was reminded of that great historical novel of the period, by Shusaku Endo, 'Silence', that graphically explores that divided cultural failed embrace. 

The latter is housed in a purpose built temple of subdued modernism in its own park. Gulbenkian was an oil man and the eclectic collection was driven by his own diverse, compelling tastes. The finest individual painting (to my mind) is the portrait of an old man by Rembrandt (above) that is marked by both the painter's inordinate skill with light, the bearing and texture of bodies, especially the old, and his compassion. It was doubly striking for being placed next to a portrait of an old woman by Rembrandt's older contemporary, Franz Hals. This is a fine and accomplished painting of rare technical skill and composure but the woman remains an object of a seeing art not the subject of an artistic seeing, bathed in what can only be described as love. Love etches reality into shape.

The finest part of the collection was for me the room of Persian and Ottoman ceramics, carpets and silks. The sheer, shimmering beauty of design forged into the dexterous use of diverse materials. You felt inhabited by a whole - a space once practical and visionary. Those Persians knew their pots and their weaving! They knew that any civilisation should be aesthetically judged by what is used as well as by what is displayed. One of the temporary exhibitions at the Museum was 'The Splendour of Cities: The Route of the Tile' and even here is was the Persian tiles (used for the exhibition's publicity) that radiated out seizing one's attention. 

The city held many other pleasures - Natas (the custard tarts with crinkly pastry), fresh grilled sardines, the aged trams that saved my ageing legs from some of the hills; and, on Sunday, a botanical garden so empty and still that for a moment you could imagine yourself transported to the 'bush' of the particular tree you found yourself contemplating.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Colin Wilson

Yesterday, sitting at the airport, checking my e-mail I saw the post on Gary Lachman's web-site, (http://garylachman.co.uk/), announcing the sad death of the author, Colin Wilson. I was happy to have received the notice this way as it came from a friend of the author and one who recognised and acknowledged his gifts and importance.

His having gifts and importance would not be apparent from reading the official obituaries (even the half decent ones). He was, at best, a one hit wonder whose subsequent behaviour alienated mainstream literary society and he disappeared to Cornwall (on the edge of the known universe) where he wrote, voluminously, about arcane, dodgy or esoteric subjects (that none of the obituary writers showed any signs of having read or of understanding them if they were to)!

As Lao Tzu said of the Tao if it were not laughed at (by implication by the foolish), it would not be Tao!

The one hit wonder, of course, was 'The Outsider' and even if he had only written this, Wilson's life would have been a valuable offering to our wider culture. It is a 'young man's book' (both the youthfulness and the gender are significant) and it is written by an 'amateur' in the genuine sense of a person who writes out of the love (and need) of his subject. It was written both into its time and out of time such that it feels very much of its particular place and yet carries a universality that keeps it in print, read, and loved. Any book that is into a second fifty years is doing well and is likely to achieve a resonantly permanent place.

I would be tempted to say that this was the book that saved my life (which is a tad more dramatic than changed). I was an alienated and distressed teenager at university when I first read it and it was like being wrapped round not in a comforting blanket but by a sustaining, bracing sense that being 'out of place' was possibly a wholly sane response (however dispiriting at the time) to the nature of the world. It was an invitation to a journey that reaffirmed your inner life, the importance of one's dreams - both actual and metaphorical -and of not allowing yourself to have your intuitions of different ways of perceiving the world, of being conscious in the world ground out by the consensual view of a material and meaningless universe (rather than a living, pulsating cosmos).

It was a journey that Wilson himself was on, and that he would explore through many lens going forward, some were congenial, others, I confess less so, but whenever our paths met (always on the page, never, sadly, in reality) you could sense an intelligent, humane explorer of our consciousness and of what it means to be fully and consciously human. I cannot think of a more noble a quest and that our main stream culture is so far from seeing this and praising it is a sadness. It may, as the quotation from Lao Tzu suggests, ever been thus.

May Colin Wilson be blessed in his on-going journey and for the trails he left behind.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Branch from the Lightning Tree

On a recent course at Schumacher College, we were accompanied for part of a day by the mythologist and storyteller, Martin Shaw, who, at the end of our walk, gathered around a fire in the grounds, evoked a story that he felt, rightly, resonated with our theme (of peace seeking, of spiritual activism), taken from the Norwegian, the venturing of two twins, one alluringly beautiful, the second shameless and weird. What was beautiful in the telling, apart from the resonating craft of it, was the ability to weave asides asking us to reflect on its unfolding meaning without ever disrupting the flow or the ability of the given images to strike the embodied depths of the listeners before they reached the surfaces of our minds.

It is a quality that carries over into his book, 'A Branch of the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace of Wildness' to allow the stories he relates to stand for and by themselves as they too carry his reflective themes. These themes themselves illuminate without ever tipping over into reducing explanations. This is a fine balance. The unfolding truths are in the stories themselves and their abiding images, not in our framing (whether literary, psychological or religious).

At the heart of the book are three claims to consider. The need to achieve a necessary balancing between the wilderness and the village and our difficulty is as much about being able to re-enter the life of the everyday, of our communities, with our wild insight as it is to learn, once more, to listen to nature's speaking and in that speaking hear the voices of the spirits, the charges of the gods.

The second is that whatever Shamanism is (and its elasticity has become a legend), it rests in achieving this balance. It most emphatically is not about any form of 'self-transformation' that rests at the level of the self, of my ecstatic experience alone, but rest in its gifts, ones that always carry a wounding, and that must be shared with others for their healing. Not for nothing does a Siberian shaman describe their vocation as a 'curse'!

The third that in our shadow, in the fierce mirroring of the forces we reject, are our opportunities for healing. The hag witch or the fearsome bear is a meeting that is potentially redemptive if you meet it on its terms yet with all your wits about you. It is in Baba Yaga's realm (see above) in which Ivan discovers the maiden he will marry and though he slays Baba Yaga, he carries away her gifts. The shadow too, as Jung remarked, carries within it what we reject of ourselves of both the good and the bad. We can be off put by the threat of our own transfiguring freedom as of the reality of our cramped mean spiritedness.

The book shows (rather than tells) its stories and as you enter into their spirits, you can feel yourself pondering to which part of oneself, active or passive, embraced or rejected, do these images speak and to which you find yourself listening.

There was a moment in his storytelling at Schumacher when he asked us whether any of us, in fact, were twins. I wanted to answer yes (even, if in fact, the answer is no) because something of the 'shameless twin' who leads out and on her more convention bound counterpart, suddenly became alive in my experience. This is why, I suddenly felt, I keep pushing through all my inherited insecurities to try out the new, to venture new projects, grounded in a compassion beyond what I usually feel (or can express). The image of the thrusting twin resonated through me and past perceptions are reconfiguring in its light with the thought as to what possibilities a more conscious appreciation might bring, maybe the discovery of a deeper voice.

This is what story does, at its heart, it makes you considered new.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Foxes and Hedgehogs

The novelist, Linda Proud, was once told by the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, that she was 'too old to read novels'. This struck me, reading it, akin to my favourite 'silly' remark of Kathleen's namely that the novelist, Patrick White, had 'written himself out'. This may have been true, as his last 'Three Uneasy Pieces' are aptly titled (and the whimsical notion of tracking a potato's feelings as it is peeled doubly so) but rather off the point. If you were one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth (or any) century, you can be forgiven for either running out of steam or falling into another direction. Whatever we think of Tolstoy's 'Resurrection' (or indeed his religious writings), it does not detract from the achievement of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina'! It is like telling off Dostoyevsky for not having finished 'The Brothers Karamazov'!

I was thinking of this as I was finishing Theresa Whistler's biography of Walter de la Mare. Here was a man of insatiable curiosity and a wondering spirit that felt the presence of meaning and was touched by it yet he always remained reticent about shaping or defining a truth out of it. Let us see might be his motto and he went adventuring in life and beyond life. He was, to use Isaiah Berlin's nomenclature in his essay on Tolstoy's philosophy of history, a fox, one who knows many things but refuses to assume an over-arching truthful narrative. Kathleen, whom I knew and loved, was a hedgehog - one who articulates an abiding, securing vision of the truth of things.

When I was young, I was deeply drawn to the sensed and actual security of an abiding vision and I recall sitting in Kathleen's beautiful living room in Chelsea partaking of a way of measuring the truth of things, rooted in neo-Platonic vision, that was initiatory and haunting. I cannot imagine being the person I am without having 'been there'. However, as I grow cheerfully older, deeply as I respect the truth bearers, I found myself irresistibly drawn to foxiness, to a deep appreciation of our complex enterprises after knowing that are always provisional, that resonate with particularity and context and the messiness of being just so. It is a bit like inhabiting novels and stories rather than treatises or texts.

This is why I have an instinctive scepticism about imagining that novel reading might pass, after all the curiosity of story dwelling seems to be an intrinsic part of what it means to be human and that being human, uniquely this person rather than that, utterly, is finally the invitation of the Gospel.

You will not be 'saved' in the Christian tradition unless one is absolutely Nicholas and an education in what that might mean is the function of the continuous exploration of stories (of which the Gospels, and not only the canonised ones, are exemplars).

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thinking of my father

Sitting quietly after dinner, I found myself thinking of my father's notebook. As a teenager, I had found this one day in a drawer and begun to read without realising who the author was. It only slowly entered my head that this was a more fluid, younger version of my father's hand and that it was a notebook that he had kept as a young man in the Royal Air Force (during his National Service).

Also what had arrested recognition was the pattern of thinking (and what was being read) so distant this seemed from the man I knew (or thought I knew). I had prior glimpses of this person - an allusion here, a remark there - and I remember vividly my surprise when my mother mentioned my father's early love of the ballet (to which he had taken her). But all this (on the surface at least) had disappeared and the notebook in my hand was testimony to a road not traveled. My father had made an accommodation with his 'expected' life - family responsibilities, the demands of work as an engineer - and this other life - of spiritual intimations, of literature, of beauty - had disappeared.

It explains much of our relationship at that time - both his recognition of my yearnings and his withholding of approval. This latter, I feel now, a protective reaction - just as he had put away these matters for the sober lineaments of 'real life', so would I have to and better sooner than later.

But I did not (though I still carry in my head his sceptical, disappointed voice about their value) and latter, again only in glimpses, you caught sight of his reluctant, yet fierce, pride in your refusal to lay spirit (and ideal) aside and try and forge a life that captured them (if only fleetingly at times).

Nor did he die disappointed, in his daily practice of kindliness, he caught something of the reality of what he had sought in that notebook, and if it did not soar (as he would have liked) it was an intimation of immortality nonetheless and he could (and did) die content.

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...