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Showing posts from July, 2014

William Blake and Tradition

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When I was bored in the sixth form at school, I would occasionally feign an oncoming cold and go home for the afternoon. This would often coincide with double periods of physical geography (apologies to the appropriately named Mr Holland).

One of the things I used to do on these happy afternoons of granted idleness was to try and read William Blake. As T.S. Eliot advised, I was reading for language and rhythm long before I could make any sense of what I was reading!

I needed help, so off I went to my local library to see what I could find. There I saw a book by Kathleen Raine, a series of essays entitled, 'Blake and the New Age,' that appealed first because a friend had been waxing lyrical on Raine's three volumes of autobiography (that I was soon to read and wax lyrical on my part) and second for the reference to 'the New Age' that resonated with my meditating Aquarian self (though the New Age in this case was the one declared by the Swedish seer, Emanuel Swedenb…

War in Heaven

A dead body is found under a desk in publisher's office. A chalice is fingered as the Grail cup in a book published by the same company. The two are connected and thus starts Charles Williams' 'spiritual shocker'  - 'War in Heaven' - that with suspense, mystery and humour - explores deep themes wrapped in a thriller's mantle as the characters wrestle for possession of the Grail and for the power or the grace it may bestow.

Williams was one of the quartet of writers who formed the core of 'The Inklings' with C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield. A publisher by living, a poet and novelist by vocation.

At the heart of 'War in Heaven' is an exploration of the difference between religion and magic - and if that strikes you as too esoteric, you quickly realise that this unfolds into issues of freedom and power, grace and control, good and evil.

The hero is the mild mannered Archdeacon in whose parish the Grail is discovered - an unassuming …

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind

Ben Shephard's latest book is as masterly competent as his previous ones (on medical psychiatry in the twentieth century, on the aftermath of the relief of Belsen and on the refugee crisis that engulfed Europe after the end of the Second World War).

It traces the intellectual journeys of four Englishmen at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century in their search for a deeper understanding of the human mind, its relation to the brain, its evolution and what makes for its healthy, adapted functioning. It was a journey that took W.H. Rivers, Grafton Elliott Smith, Charles Myers and William McDoughal - through multiple disciplines and diverse experiences - and, like his previous books, Shephard gives both a vivid account of how learning actually takes place and of the personalities, major and minor, involved.

Learning is never linear. If political history is written, as Churchill wrote, by the winners, this is equally true of the history of science written…

What makes you not a Buddhist

When I was thirteen, I bought in a bargain bin at WH Smith a book entitled 'The Compassionate Teachings of the Buddha' and read the first sermon that the Buudha gives after his enlightenment in the Deer Park at Sarnath including to the five ascetics who had formerly rejected him when he broke the rigor of his fasting, taking milk from goat herder, and set out on discovering the 'middle way' between denial and the sensuous. The attachment to either being a delusion of permanence and control. It left its mark upon me.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's book, 'What makes you not a Buddhist' is a pithy, if not punchy (if that were 'allowed' Buddhists) restatement of the core truths of Buddhism (from a Mahayana perspective) that seeks to take the reader beyond the trappings to the heart of things - the four seals of Buddhism - without some understanding of, and experimental faith in, you cannot see yourself as treading the Buddhist path.

They are the impermane…

A March for

I was walking back through central Lyon this afternoon and came upon a large demonstration wending its way through Republic square, waving Palestinian flags, and chanting or whistling in waving unison. I do not encounter demonstrations often, instinctively shying from them, and have never been on one. This was peaceable but you felt its anger, heard it in the chants of 'Israeli assassins  ' and on the waved posters that a had a bloody hand hovering over an image of Gaza.

The anger is wholly understandable - the systemic, structured violence of the Israeli state towards the Occupied Territories has now flared into hot brutality.

Meanwhile, this hot response is justified by Israel as being to meet the violence of Hamas rocket attacks and of other groups' terrorism.

Which came first is the eternal chicken and egg question to which in truth there is no answer. For which 'the Father of Lies' that is violence is heartily glad.

I watched the people pass and to my great s…

Love and gastronomy

I am in Lyons that projects itself as the gastronomic heart of France. So it was with happy expectation that I tried my first restaurant last night. It was one of the best rated in the city and being early I slipped in without a reservation (necessary I subsequently discovered even on a Thursday evening).

The food was excellent especially the fish cooked to firmly crumbling perfection on a purée of green beans with a frothy white onion sauce. The service was crisply professional if a touch too keen.

But how striking it is that a meal abroad never, however exemplary, seems to match the quality of home cooked fare, cooked by or with friends, offered with love?

Only rarely does it even come close and then the origin of the enjoyment appears to come also with the way it is offered as much as by the what. I think of the restaurant in Sansepolcro where the owner insists on recommending the wine and charges you exactly by the quantity drunk with a friendliness that seems to transform his ad…

Lilith

I had a very short lived (freelance) career as a publisher's reader. My task was to digest 'borderline' texts and suggest why they might be published. The reason for their borderline status usually related to the fact that though the content was potentially very interesting, the texts construction, feel and quality of writing left something to be desired. Would the triumph of the former win out over the latter's faults?

The imprint was, at that time, owned by Routledge, publishers of Jung, who was always my model in arguing for the publication of a fascinating, worthwhile text badly written. Sometimes world changing thinkers, not, I confess, that I discovered any of those alas, cannot write (or, in the words of the poet, Kathleen Raine, they are compelled writers rather than compulsive ones).

C.S. Lewis alludes to this dilemma in his foreword to George MacDonald's fantasy novel, 'Lilith'. MacDonald is not a great writer judged by the quality of his prose …

Birthing a new psychology: Jung & Steiner

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Gerhard Wehr's 'Jung & Steiner: The Birth of a New Psychology' is an illuminating 'synoptic' account of Steiner's and Jung's fundamental approaches to psychological transformation, grounded in their 'image of the human' (our identity and destiny).

It aims to compare and contrast these so that each can query and deepen the other. Steiner's approach was 'from above' from a profound and detailed sense of what comes to us from the spiritual world and how we might transform our consciousness so that we could bear those revelations and shape them in action towards the common good. Jung's emerges out of the empirical encounter with patients, seeking health, that require him to find 'good enough' containing and shaping descriptions of what might be the case in the realm of psyche.

Steiner was a theoretician in search of application. Jung was an empiricist in search of theories. Both though, as Wehr admirably shows, wanted to use…

A short artistic life

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On Wednesday I went to the Dulwich Art Gallery to see 'Art and Life: 1920-1931' an exhibition of the works of the Nicholsons (Ben and his first wife, Winifred), Christopher Wood, Arthur Wallis and the potter, William Staite Murray. The exhibition explored their friendship and mutual influence.

All were remarkable artists - from the self-taught, 'primitive' Wallis to the highly sophisticated Ben Nicholson, touched and touching all the then currents in modern art, that, as an 'abstract painter' he was later to so greatly influence and impact.

Like any exhibition, some part of it, at that particular time, arrests your attention. I bathed in Winifred's paintings, realising again that, in fact, it was she who was the deeper artist than her husband. The poet, Kathleen Raine, once turned on Ben, who was a friend, and accusingly told him that he had been married to two remarkable women, neither of whom he had treated in a wholly exemplary fashion. 'Yes, yes,&#…

Four dimensional religion and being human

William Blake wrote that the core of the religion of Jesus the Imagination was the forgiveness of sins that liberates one into a commonwealth of love, freedom and equality. Walter Kaufmann in his provoking and beautiful text - Religions in Four Dimensions (existential, aesthetic, historical and comparative) would agree with Blake that our essential sifting criteria should be love and justice but Kaufmann would be hard pressed to find this in the Jesus of the New Testament who (in Kaufmann's portrait) is surprisingly unconcerned with either morality or justice and more concerned with whether people believe in him as a saviour. If one does so  believe, you get an eternal life (in an other worldly place remarkably undefined) and if you do not not, you get eternal torment. This is a picture of Jesus as morally repugnant and, as the great Zen Buddhist scholar, D.T. Suzuki, suggested it would be the responsibility of every Buddhist to go to this hell and rescue souls from this 'god…