Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Glass Bead Game

I first read Hesse's masterpiece when I was seventeen and remember the shock when its key protagonist, Joseph Knecht, dies two thirds through, not realising that the last third is devoted to Knecht's literary products - his poems and three lives of imagined past biographies. I was expecting this life that I had come to know and feel so closely would unfold to an aged conclusion. It was not to be.

It is a remarkable book from its open, dry chapter on how the Glass Bead Game arose that reads as an ever fresh, ironic critique of our own times (as relevant now as when Hesse wrote it in the 1940s). The wonderful skewering of the notion that we consult celebrities for their views on politics or culture is artfully pointed at our own mores. But, more importantly, Hesse's exploration of the relationship between eternal values and the flux of history remains deeply moving, and as unresolved as he himself found it.

At heart, Hesse defends both the civilising mission of culture and the recognition that it is a never ending task, that must be taken up anew in each and every epoch. There is no such thing as progression in time - the Spirit is not inexorably unfolding towards some summit with Hegelian inevitability (or plodding along in the fields of matter in some Marxian version of the same).

Time simply is, it flows on, and, at times, it is more or less gathered up in reflecting timeless values of truth and goodness and, at other times, it falls away and is carried along by other passions, untamed, undisciplined, by any sense of order. Thus, critically, much depends on our choices, whether we will step into the ring of history, at however humble an entry point, to try and grace it with an harmonising order, that does not deny but hallows our instinctual, passionate lives or we retreat. We retreat either into a hermetically sealed bastion of elitist values, represented here by Castalia, the Order and Province of Scholars, or we retreat into a defence of our unhallowed instincts that inevitably leads to patterns of conflict and violence.

In Joseph Knecht, Hesse paints a remarkable portrait of a man who serves (and Knecht means servant) the values of the true, the good and the beautiful but not as eternally frozen archetypes but as patterns that coalesce in time, in the hearts of individuals, and must be continually midwifed into living existence. All Hesse's scepticism about the ability to capture truth in words is here to the fore.

Hesse was a practitioner of what the poet, Milton, called 'lovely wisdom'. A wisdom that enterprises after knowing, that is embodied in a vulnerable openness to experience (what Knecht calls his sense of 'awakening') but which never comes to closure around 'the truth'. It is a wisdom that is always journeying on.

St Gregory of Nyssa reminds us that since God is infinite there can be no end to the knowing of God. Each fullness of such knowing is, in truth, also an emptying that invites you on.

Knecht's image for this is music that occupies a space only to move onto a new one in unfolding movement in which we are enfolded if we have the ears of the heart to truly listen. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Venice - an artistic afternoon

Like any popular city Venice's 'must see' highlights are overrun at this, the start of the season. Yet, like any other such city, the crowds dissipate as soon as you turn from the beaten track and the place is returned to you in an atmosphere through which it might conceivably be seen.

I have never quite understood why people allow themselves to be corralled in that way by their apparently necessary guides (even as I played the role of guide in a distant past). As an aside, when we simply discuss 'racism' as an obvious moral failure, utterly deplorable, I think we ought to reflect on the all too human need for 'familiarity', 'group cohesion' and the translation of the alien that such groups suggest; and, reflect on when does a helpful defence become an unacceptable aggression? What are the conditions we need to dwell in felt safety with one another, rather than simply default to moral exhortation and legal sanction?

Sitting by a canal on my last afternoon, a glass of wine at hand, you looked up at a variegated collection of brick buildings, in much varied states of repair and decline, with only an occasional boat or passerby to ruffle the prevailing calm, admiring the human nature of the architecture and the way time shapes colours into infinite hues.

I had come from the Academy, one of Venice's premier art museums, that ran through, mainly Venetian art, from the 14th to 17th century. Like every gallery what heightens the pleasure is encounters with the actually loved and known and the wholly unfamiliar.

In the former category was a small Pierro della Francesca of St. Jerome piously being attended by the pictures patron, knelt in prayer, and interestingly central to the picture. St. Jerome that most cantankerous of saints, has a Bible open on his lap, gesturing to a passage, whilst his eyes bore skeptically into the patron's face. And four saints by Crivelli with his signature underlying sense of doubt underpinning their apparent saintly surfaces.

In the latter category was Paolo Venezicenio and a fourteenth century panel painting of the Life of Christ, one of whose scenes was of the Last Judgement. There on Christ's enthroned right are the saved, ranks of prayerful beings, awaiting paradise but on the left no unscrupulous sinners, being carted to hell by gleeful demons, but simply a burst of purging fire, emerging as bold, abstracted colour from the base of Christ's throne. Hell as purgatory or Hell as extinguished being - either rather suggestively modern views of judgement and finality?

There was also a scene I had not seen painted (or recalled seeing) before (though, in fact, it is moderately common) and here there were two - of the 10,000 martyrs, Christian soldiers, killed by the King of Persia at the request of a Roman Emperor; and, of course, this being the 15th/16th century, the Persians had taken on unmistakably Ottoman form (as here in Durer's representation of the same theme).

It was a beautiful three hours spent with an unfolding period - Medieval through Renaissance to the beginning Baroque - with classical tales beginning to emerge alongside the overwhelming Christian vision (and often suborned to it).

The dominant painter was the Venetian Mannerist, Tintoretto, and here is one of his most Venetian paintings - Venetian merchants stealing the body of St. Mark to bring him to Venice! Stylised, dramatic and mysterious - who exactly are the shades that flee to the left and why?

Monday, May 26, 2014

The 'p' in politics

Tony Benn used to say, with regularity, that what mattered in politics was not personalities but policies, even as he was a living witness to the flawed nature of that claim, winning an ear for his own policies through his own personal projection of them.

One lesson to be taken away from the depressing election results in the United Kingdom where the UK Independence Party topped the national poll was that personalities do matter.

UKIP is a party that is policy lite (I am being kind) but in Nigel Farage has a personality that captures and channels a significant degree of disaffection with the political mainstream and projects himself (however artfully) as an ordinary bloke. None of the leaders of the other main parties manage this feat - except one, who also had a reasonably good night, even though he is in government, namely Alec Salmond, Scotland's first minister.

Meanwhile, both of them, as well as conveying a sense of 'realness' offer 'simple' solutions to discontent - a nationalism of the past and a nationalism of the future - a 'safe haven' in a radically complex and unnervingly uncertain world. They offer a sense that we might reconnect as a 'people'
- even as the nature of that reconnection is very different in both cases.

So before we all pour our 'liberal' consensus vitriol at UKIP, we might like to ponder their proffered politics of connection - to a leader and to a circumscribed haven in a felt storm - and think out how we might offer likewise, though in a radically different key.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Face of Glory

I bought William Anderson's 'The Face of Glory: Creativity, Consciousness and Civilization' on its publication in 1996 because I had read his exemplary study of the artist, Cecil Collins, and had heard him lecture on 'The Green Man' (on which he also wrote a book).

The Face of Glory is an emanation of Shiva, deployed in fierce anger towards the demon Rahu, who is halted in its pursuit of Rahu when Rahu appeals to Shiva for protection. The emanation remains hungry and demands something to devour, now that Rahu is ineligible for this fate, and Shiva suggests it devour itself, which it does, leaving only the head. This head Shiva names as the Face of Glory and henceforth guards the entrances to Shiva's temples.

Anderson takes this as an image of the transformation of violent energies into the patterns of civilisation that is the key task of creativity and launches upon a marvellous account of how this might be envisaged within our unfolding histories.

What follows is an essay after understanding how creativity works, both within an individual and a civilization, that is bold, idiosyncratic and endlessly suggestive.

Three highlights emerged for me.

The first was in seeing the crux around which creativity works as the conscious moment when a new idea is formed. Much has been made of the unconscious forces underlying creativity but Anderson re-directs our attention to the moment of actual ideation when an idea crystallises in a new constellation and how that is felt to widen the potentiality of a person's consciousness, and is often accompanied by a sense of breaking joy. It shifts our focus to what kind and manner of 'paying attention' do we need in order to sustain creativity.

The second is that at no time in history have we been more aware of what is stored, in what Anderson calls 'the Great Memory' and yet never has it been more apparent that we do not have a guiding image of the human, a 'grand narrative of ends' in which this knowledge could be shaped to civilisation's ends. The very uncertainty of our post-modern world undermines the possibility of shaping a world anew. What is the story that conveys a structuring creativity to our disparate knowledge?

The third are the detailed readings of particular works that continually throw up intriguing questions. So, for example, why is it that both Rembrandt and Velasquez put at the heart of their remarkable paintings of secular power - the Nightwatchmen and Las Meninas - a young girl, innocent and vulnerable? Just at the moment when the 'masculine' was imagined to be breaking open and conquering (in the words of Sir Francis Bacon) the 'feminine' world of nature, two of the great initiators of 'realism' place images of the feminine at the heart of this new world, as if to remind us of what is about to be lost.

Finally, all through the book you are wonderfully reminded that creativity is never a solo product, not only does it require a whole host of forces to come to realization (and there is a wonderful passage on everything that went into composing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) but that realization is never complete without 'us' -either the performers or the audience. It is our attention and taste (or lack thereof) that is the completing pattern to any work of art and all art of any merit has its season. When Mendelsohn tried to cajole a group of musicians in London (in the 1830s) to play the Ninth, they merely laughed at him!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Now I feel they really work...

"I was so touched that Iona (my goddaughter) liked my banners! Now I feel they really work." I was looking for my address book and found a Christmas card from the artist, Thetis Blacker, that opened with these words. She was referring to an exhibition of hers at Grey College in Durham and their seeing by a child. I was reminded of a remark by the Russian film director, Andrei Tarkovsky, that his work presented no difficulties to children, who saw.

I am off home to England to give a talk on the poet, Edwin Muir, who, likewise, honoured the seeing of a child because children see with the eyes of Eden (when allowed to).

To quote Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,  60
        Hath had elsewhere its setting,
          And cometh from afar:
        Not in entire forgetfulness,
        And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come  65
        From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

In many, in most, it is lost, except in the moments that matter, but in Thetis it was carried in felt remembrance and her art shone forth in its wonder.

She had, in the words of the philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, discovered her 'second innocence' that has seen through the complexities of the world and restored it to its simplicity, one that costs not less than everything but which is our inheritance.

She was a painter of transfigured vision where the world was seen aright - the Kingdom of Heaven that children see - or to quote that great poetic visionary of a never lost childhood, Thomas Traherne:

"The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties* and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God." 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Accelerating funerals in Managua

The Inter-Continental Hotel, Managua

I achieved a life's ambition that I did not know I had until yesterday...accelerating the growth and development of a funeral parlour!

Technoserve, a US based NGO, took me to see two clients that had been through their business accelerator programme our foundation had funded. The first was a funeral parlour that has 22% of the market for dead people in Managua. You can be this precise because death is scrupulously registered, making funeral businesses easy to competitively rank. Something I had not considered before and may never again! They planned expansion, not thankfully by promoting the occurrence of more dead people in the capital, but by building a parlour in a socially up-market part of town. People, with lots of money, think that the area where the present parlour is located is 'unsafe'! The perception of being kidnapped or robbed when attending your loved one's demise is undoubtedly a drag on business!

I cannot say I liked the coffins - too Baroque and showy - but that is a strand of Latin American Catholicism and the customer, even in death, is always right! The owner also wanted to build a crematoria to cater for Nicaragua's growing population of Protestants. I confess I skipped a tour of the storage and embalming facility out of a squeamish respect for the dead! There are places where the 'market' should never intrude (shrinking as these apparently are).

The second business was thriving too - a restaurant, soon possibly to be a franchise - but one more regularly in my portfolio of experience!

However, the first thing you notice about Nicaragua is how much more relaxed it appears to be compared to Guatemala from which I had come. Most of the houses have open railings rather than thick walls topped with razor wire unlike Guatemala and shops do not, on the whole, have men with shotguns guarding their premises (unless they are more discrete)! Even the people at the Inter-Continental reception desk in Managua are more outward going than their Guatemalan counterparts (who are politely professional).

It was exactly twenty years since I was last here discovering fraud in a micro finance organisation and sneaking by night to meet staff to learn more about the nefarious gun trotting (sic) executive director who was paying his staff one amount and claiming he was paying them a higher and pocketing the difference! USAID wanted to sweep it all under the carpet and the Dutch government, the other principal funder, wanted him in prison! The Dutch won and he is the only person I have ever been instrumental in imprisoning! Sadly, I wonder what happened to him subsequently - Central American prisons are nothing if not challenging!

Lots has changed, no signs of the great earthquake of the 70s that helped bring the Samoza regime down ultimately given the callous way in which they responded. But for years afterwards there would be plots of land in the centre of Managua with ruined buildings, simply left there to rot. There may be still, for alas, this was a whirlwind visit, crammed with actual and potential partners, and meetings mostly confined to offices.

Except on one's last morning and a ride out into the countryside to see a fruit plant - where organic bananas are processed into either pulp (for the catering business) or dried for Wholefood Markets in the US (and similar customers). Here I was impressed by the extraordinary level of detail that is required to follow through the whole process, particularly with regards to traceability, every pallet is referenced to when, where and by whom it was packed. It was both impressive and paranoid - so disconnected has our food system become between producer and end recipient that every safeguard has to be taken but you know it is never 'enough'!

It was lovely to be 'back' in Central America and I look forward to future visits - not least because 'physically' it is of extraordinary beauty. In Guatemala, we went to a second food facility, near Antigua, that beautifully semi-preserved colonial city surrounded by volcanoes (one of which was currently semi-active) and you simply marvel at the returning green of things (the rainy season had just started) and wonder at the fragility of the landscape and how people endure with such grace.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Wisdom of Jesus as related by...

Cynthia Bourgeault's 'The Wisdom of Jesus' seeks to describe Jesus' life and teaching from the perspective of a 'sophiology', a tradition of wisdom, as distinct from a 'soteriology', a tradition of salvation.

Jesus is a 'Single One' who from his dwelling in unity with God and out of his self-emptying spirit comes to live at the heart of our world in all its dense materiality and messiness to share a transformative teaching.

This teaching aims to move us from the 'binary operating system' of our everyday, ego centred minds towards a non-dual consciousness so that 'the mind of Christ', the 'Kingdom of Heaven' that is within us, will be realised.

This teaching though present in the Gospels needs to be teased out not least through the lens of the traditions reflected in those gospels that did not make into the Canon - of Thomas especially but also of Mary Magdalene, Philip and Judas - and through, what I might call, acts of contemplative re-imagination, grounded in the intuitions (and teaching) of Christian (and other) mystics - the tradition of sophia perennis.

Bourgeault covers the ground with admirable lucidity, depth and intelligence. The book closes with chapters devoted to actual practice, ways in which this way of being may come alive within our lives - of Centring Prayer, lectio divina, chanting and participation in the Eucharist.

So far, so good! However, why does reading it leave me with a strangely flat feeling?

This is, I feel, because it is so insistent that this is 'the' tradition of Jesus and I am its interpreter. This ironic given that she has made such a sterling case for the 'plurality of early Christianity'! We are called, I think, to test everything against the patterns of our own experience (as the Buddha would say) but we need a deeper and more humble sense that we may be wrong to accompany it than I find here, I am afraid!

Likewise, it may be true that the Gospels are not simply about telling us that Jesus calls us to be nice to one another (and the ability to be nice to one another may require a more demanding practice than it appears) but it may also be that (indeed any authentic wisdom tradition is accompanied by precepts of virtue). An authentic tradition can work on many levels. Bourgeault wants it to be collapsed into what is, arguably, its highest alone yet often our path leads from the 'material to the spiritual' and the effort to be nice might be a good place to start!

And, finally, what does happen to the Christ of soteriology, of a 'salvation history'? He completely vanishes and in doing so Christian life becomes an individual quest after enlightenment rather than a quest for body of Christ that is genuinely communal.

I think it is right to see that Christ's kenosis, his self-emptying love, is the heart of the message but it implies a deepening relationality in the quest to be fully Christian that gets lost in this account.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not only within but also among and not simply betwixt 'enlightened' humans' but in our neighbourhoods and in revealing a wholly transfigured cosmos.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Altruistic rats

A group of neuroscientists at The University of Chicago wanted to discover evidence for pure empathy in non-primate mammals. Cue the ubiquitous white rat. You wonder what will happen when researchers die to discover that God is not a bearded elderly gentlemen but an almighty white rat!

Anyway, one rat was placed in a cage, free to roam, another rat, in the same cage, was placed in a transparent cylinder, confined but with a door at one end. The free white rat was noticeably more distressed when the cylinder was occupied than when it was not. When it was, the free rat patiently learned how to free the confined rat; and, having learnt to do so, almost always went to free the confined rat when put in the cage.

The cunning neuroscientists then placed a second container in the cage, full of chocolate, the rat's favourite food, to distract it. This worked up to a point - the free rat did often liberate the chocolate first but then proceeded to save it to share with the rat to whose liberation it now turned.

This is one of the many engaging examples in Larry Doosey's 'One Mind: How Our Individual Mind is part of a Greater Consciousness and Why It Matters' of those anomalies in the scientific consensus whose cumulative nature does nothing to undermine the practice of science yet may question its current running assumptions. In this case that 'empathy' is always disguised 'selfishness' with a specific, and narrow, evolutionary agenda. No doubt, in response, we could create an account that returns the empathetic rat to a 'selfish narrative' but the convolution of these reminds you of how in the early modern period, people kept piling on 'epicycles' onto Ptolemy's earth centric account of the universe in order not to see that it was heliocentric!

Apparently there is a whole group dedicated to this version of 'scepticism' - the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia - who rather than practice science attempt to modify any article that fails to conform to their narrow perception of its assumptions (materialist ones) in direct contravention of Wikipedia's own editorial principles. (For an account of this see Rupert Sheldrake's blog here:

The quest for an abiding certainty is a deeply rooted one and sprouts nefariously in science as it does in religion with predictably unsettling and depressing consequences.

Doosey's book is deliberately targeted at the layperson and designed as a series of overlapping vignettes of story, study and argument to open the mind to the possibility that it has 'non-local' features, that consciousness rather than being an epiphenomena of the brain is, in fact, prior, undoubtedly modulated by brains, but not exclusively dependent on them.

This 'radical thesis' is only so from the perspective of early twenty first century science since it is the accepted perspective of Buddhism and Hinduism (and of esoteric traditions in Abrahamic religions); however, it is nonetheless compelling to see it emerge from a genuine empiricism, rooted in a 'tradition' that slowly came to deny the reality described by those traditions (and to be fair they are traditions that often, more often than not, sacrifice their radical empiricism of spiritual transformation for the comfortable, second hand certainties of dogmatism).

It was Schopenhauer in the West (building on his reading of 'the East') who suggested that the simplest explanation for 'empathy' was that we recognise that we are of 'one nature' - we are simply, in compassion, helping 'ourselves' for we are of 'one mind'. It is lovely to see rats apparently simply doing this, and in so doing witnessing to us to do likewise! 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The painter of serenity

When I discovered I shared a birthday with Hitler, I felt impelled to look for an alternative notable figure, born on that day, and found the French painter, Odilon Redon, who was not only a great painter but who was, in the normal domestic sense of the term, by all accounts, a good man!

One of the great 'what ifs' of history is 'what if Hitler had been a more talented painter?' and had been accepted by art school rather than rejected? 'What if' indeed...

In Redon's case, he too suffered rejection, but in his case not being allowed to study architecture, became a gift to the world as the show I went to see today in Basel aptly showed.

Redon said of his work that he sought to make the invisible, visible. The invisible in his case was that of the 'imaginal' (to use Henri Corbin's phrase) - the world that dwells between that of intellectual forms and the sensory world and communicates by way of symbol. It is a world that is actively accessed through imagination and passively received in dream (though there are disciplines that bring the former into the ordering of the latter).

Redon's art underwent a remarkable transformation from the dark, charcoal drawings of his early period to the extraordinarily beautiful coloured paintings (in oil and pastel) of his latter period. It would be too simple to say this was a journey from darkness into light, as many of the former, are graced with great and illuminating peace (and humour), they are not simply a treasury of the grotesque (though there are many examples of those too) but when he enters colour, he does slip across the threshold of another world, one where, even in suffering, a lightening eternity reigns.

Redon does not work out of a singular tradition of sacred art (as say Rouault or David Jones would) however nor does he invent his own mythological language (as Cecil Collins or Remedios Varo would). He takes his conviction that every valid tradition evokes imaginative truth and transforms it after his own particular manner, creating a unique fusion of recognisable mythological and sacred reference and Redon's own sense of abiding serenity.

This can even absorb to itself emergent modern stories of origin as here in his treatment of 'Oannes' - who is the Babylonian 'sea god' who emerges part human, part fish to grant the world an evolving order - and which Redon conceived in part mystical, part Darwinian terms. (His familiarity with Darwin was a deep one, and resonated with his interest as an amateur naturalist, but always ends up transfigured. There is for Redon a guiding, imaginative logic that makes selection never simply natural).

The overwhelming impression of the exhibition is that everything seen aright is serene - eternity's touch is peace - even the places of suffering. This depiction of the Crucifixion exemplifies it - there is sorrow and yet it is surprised by a deep joy. Those that suffer are cared for, most notably in John's leading of Mary, and all are bathed in a colouring of liberation, set in spaciousness. It reminds me of Jean-Yves Leloup's discussion of the paradox of joy abounding where joy is surrendered to take through the pain of others, and transform it. He quotes a priest telling him, shockingly at the time, that Christ's greatest moment of joy is the crucifixion, not because Christ is a pathological masochist but because the self truly surrendered for others, with no thought of itself, is the place of greatest joy.

Christ, according to the Apocryphal Acts of St John, dances us into salvation even onto the cross; and, in Russian, Christ turns to the good thief and tells him not that he will be in paradise but that he is!

Leloup argues that we need new images that do not depict Christ as immersed in suffering rather than in liberating us from it. As the Buddha's smile is not an image of indifference but compassionate recognition, the Christ reality on the cross, suffered, is always suffused with the being of resurrection.

It is here in Redon (and compellingly the two religious figures Redon returns to, over and over, are Christ and the Buddha).

My favourite image of Redon's however is the recurring image of the boat (as above) where usually two figures journey together out into the expanse of consciousness that is water. It is leitmotif that suggests that nothing comes to closure - everything is an 'enterprise' after knowing - symbols break one open to new life, and new symbols, they do not wrap you in any form of dogmatic certainty, and in this venture of holy insecurity there is peace.

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...