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Showing posts from August, 2014

The Tiger

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What persuades a tiger to become a man eater? This is the core question animating John Valliant's 'The Tiger' that tells of a hunt for a man eating tiger in the far east of Russia in the 1990s. The tiger in question was to kill two men and narrowly miss two others in what can only be described as a systematic and thoughtful campaign, beginning with the hunter, Markov, who, on the evidence painstakingly compiled by Valliant, had injured the tiger (in hunting it), an injury from a human co-inhabitant of the forest, that was straw that broke the tiger's tacit arrangement of avoiding men. He took up vengeance.

You might think that this is to 'anthropomorphise' the tiger but as Valliant compellingly shows theory of mind is not only applicable to our species. We genuinely have difficulty thinking about thinking when it is not bound with language but it is apparent that other animals have no such difficulty. Intelligence is not the preserve of the human - nor the abi…

Two novelists of the Holy

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I recall being on an aeroplane, flying I cannot remember where, when a woman, sitting beside me, literally pulled the book from my hands and looking at it declared, 'This must be interesting. Tell me about it'! My absorption must have been evident and a provocation.

The book in question was Nikos Kazantzakis' 'Report to Greco', his autobiography (or autobiographical novel), a copy of which arrived today (as I cannot recall what happened to the previous copy, perhaps I donated it to my neighbour's curiosity).

If I could nominate a novelist who 'captures' the last century evocatively and in the way that sets the questions for the new, two would immediately come to mind. They would be Kazantzakis and Aldous Huxley. They are two very different spirits but are bound by one central question - if the old, still prevalent, forms of religious framing are dying, what can we offer that is new, renewing?

Kazantzakis' response was primarily to revisit the Chris…

Imagining the 'other side'

On Malta recently for a brief weekend break, and staying with Russian friends, I watched an edition of the Russian night time news. My Russian understanding is inadequate at the best of times and faced with the rapid fire of a news presenter it collapses entirely. However, since an image is apparently worth a thousand words, I sat and absorbed them and the atmosphere they fashioned.

They were disturbing for several reasons.

The first was that they felt like propaganda - why else have a news item about people signing a giant Russian flag in Nizhny Novgorod (a city I know well and have lived in) as an exercise in solidarity with the people of Crimea. In the importance of world events, this has no significance but in a pattern of manipulating fellow feeling with Russia's newest (and, as my host pointed out) expensive citizens, given the disparity between Russian and Ukrainian living standards, very important.

The second was that you knew which 'side' the news cast was on - …

Richard Hauser and the evils of Marx

Richard was a distinguished Austrian sociologist who had contributed to the Wolfenden report that led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England, Wales and Scotland in the late 1960's.

I was remembering him on the plane today because I saw a reference to his wife, Hephzibah Menuhin, pianist sister of the violinist Yehudi and human rights activist.

I met him after responding to an advertisement in the New Society. He lived in a house in Pimlico, a widower, with a clutch of young people, running an ill-defined (for me) social research/action institute, that I visited several times and to which Richard wanted to recruit me. I was never clear as to what my responsibilities might be and resisted co-option.

He was, however, extraordinarily charismatic and as a Jew had fled Austria in 1938 not without receiving permanent damage to his hearing, courtesy of Gestapo interrogation.

I vividly remember one story he told me that gives you an idea of his character. He was invited in t…

The Tantric numerologist

In the spirit of free inquiry... for my xx significant birthday a friend gave me a 'session' with a tantric numerologist (who lives inevitably perhaps in California). She was whacky, extrovert...and penetrating.

The session was conducted on Skype and all she had to go on was my presence, my birthdate and my name, and a very brief account of 'me' that I gave her.

Yesterday I was listening to the recording of that session, thinking how uncannily accurate it had been, as it unfolded.

Indeed she used almost the exact same words as another friend had years before. This friend was a distinguished astrologer. Both had used the image of repeated previous lifetimes spent in monasteries but that this time one's karmic imperative was to be in the world, and of service (however much retreat is sometimes necessary). There would be no authoritative, enclosing community for me this time.

It gives me (however you understand it) a poignantly lonely spirit, accomplished after its o…

To the lighthouse

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This is the lighthouse that overlooks the harbour in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It function now is predominantly decorative. Once upon a time the harbour bustled with trade across the expanse of Lake Michigan and the neighbouring Great Lakes. Now the harbour is recreational and if bad weather beckons, the leisure community stays at home. No overbearing economic imperative drives them out across the water.

For six months in 2001-2, this red lighthouse was my daily destination. I walked out from the 'Friends of God' Dominican ashram (sadly no more) on a daily walk through the lakeside park, across a small beach, to the lighthouse, around, and back home. I was on a sabbatical at an experimental contemplative community founded by my friend, Fr Don Goergen OP, experiencing a differently paced life of stillness, silence and quiet fellowship.

Each day on my walk, I would take one or more of the dreams that assailed my night. Something about stopping and stepping out of the usual rounds of …

The Inklings

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When the poet, Kathleen Raine, in the 1950s went to Cambridge to complete her PhD on William Blake (as a mature student), she discovered her supervisor was to be C.S. Lewis. Given his persona as a staunch defender of orthodox Christianity, she wondered whether this was going to be, in any way, a sympathetic and supportive match. Neither Kathleen as a failed Catholic convert nor Blake as a 'heterodox' Christian radical were obviously 'Lewis' types' but this was to seriously misjudge Lewis (as Kathleen discovered).

First because he had a deep sympathy for anyone who would 'argue back', who would deliver as good as they got, and Kathleen was certainly so able. But, more importantly, because Lewis' deepest sympathy was with those who could articulate a mytho-poetic vision in which truth abides, even if certain parts of the architecture of that truth did not accord with his own beliefs. An ability both Blake and Raine possessed. These beliefs were passionat…

Hermann Hesse's formation

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"A Poet of Nothing At All" is Richard C Helt's account of Hesse's years in Tubingen and Basel. After his tumultuous and rebellious youth, Hesse arrived in Tubingen as an apprentice bookseller and began a dual, ordered life. The daytime was given over to learning the necessary mechanics of his trade, the night to the learning and practice of literature that would subvert the necessity of living out that trade.

The text is worthily pedestrian but never less than helpful in forming an understanding of how Hesse slowly accumulated the literary means of his breakout. It was achieved first in poetry, and then in prose, culminating in the publication of Peter Camenzind, the novel that enabled him to walk into a writer's life.

I was struck by how an author who in English is almost exclusively known as a novelist, in German has a dual life as poet as well (and, in fact, he was also an accomplished and imaginative watercolourist).

He was extraordinarily disciplined - an a…

The expatriate life

When I lived in Macedonia in the 90s living through one (of a number of elections), I was surprised to discover that VMRO, the Nationalist party had won. I was not a close observer of Macedonian politics but reflecting on my surprise, I realized I did not know any Macedonians who belonged to or supported VMRO, and had naturally discounted their victory (not least because so had my friends). It was an object lesson in how it is possible to live in a country and yet not be of it: inhabiting the curious space of being an expatriate.

I had a friend who went to live in Iran (for the British Council) in the 1950s who was told that if he wanted to know anything about the country he should consult Sir XY who had lived there for years. It did not take Michael, with fresh, young eyes, to realise that Sir XY had been consistently misreading Iran for those many years.

Reading Julia Boyd's 'A Dance with the Dragon: The Vanished World of Peking's Foreign Colony' brought these memor…

Continuing addiction: yet more books

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After yesterday's companionable three, today no less than five books arrived in the post. Where I wonder is the local branch of Bookbuyers Anonymous? Publishers have partners and children to support, I suppose.

The most beautiful volume physically is 'New Collected Poems: David Gascoyne' published by the excellent Enitharmon Press, who have been this great poets continuous support. Gascoyne (pictured above) was a poet whom T.S. Eliot regretted having not published on his highly influential Faber list. This omission, coupled with the eccentricity of Gascoyne's career, has led to his neglect, especially in his native England (that is, in any case, often negligent of its genius). Gascoyne was a man of extraordinary sensibility and fragility. His mid-life was marked by lapses into derangement (including once trying to storm the Elysee palace to warn General de Gaulle of some impending danger or necessity) until he was gifted into the protection and care of the woman who b…

The Snow Leopard, Laddakh, loneliness and today's books

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In today's post were yet more books - one day I may come to terms with my addiction - amongst which was 'Chasing the Phantom: In Pursuit of Myth and Meaning in the Realm of the Snow Leopard' by Eduard Fischer (published by my friend's excellent imprint 'Singing Dragon'). I ordered it first, I think, because I liked the audacity of a travel writer incorporating snow leopard into his (sub) title given that 'The Snow Leopard' by Peter Matthiessen is one of the greatest travel books ever penned and it has (as does Fischer's book), at its heart, the search for spiritual transcendence.

But second because like Matthiessen (and we may see Fischer), I have been tantalisingly close to a Snow Leopard in its wide ranging habitat. In my case, this was in Tuva, the Russian republic, bordering Mongolia. Here one early evening, I stood in the bed of a stream flowing into the great Yenisei river, accompanied by the head of the Tuvan National Park service and two of…

The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light

Wendell Berry in his blurb to William Irwin Thompson's 'The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture' remarks that Thompson would be uncommon if he only knew as much as he does yet more uncommon still because he can think with and about what he knows in such a way that it both helps us makes sense of our experience and makes it as incongruous and as difficult as it is. To which I can only offer a quiet 'Amen'!

Since I neither know as much nor are as imaginatively gifted, I am going to simply comment on one (deep) aspect of the book's methodology in its exploration of 'origins' from the midrashim of Jewish creation myth, through Gnosticism, science, the origins of language, symbol, agriculture and culture, rounding off with an illuminating account of the myth of Isis and Osiris (as a prelude to the consideration of Christianity) (All in a miraculous 254 pages)!

This is taking counsel from Levi Strauss that it is…

Aunt Sybil the Taoist Sage

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Aunt Sybil is no relation but a character in a novel by Charles Williams: 'The Greater Trumps' that I finished yesterday as part of my plan to read all of Williams' novels (hopefully within the year).

Sybil is the maiden aunt who lives with her widowed brother, Mr Coningsbury, and his two children, Nancy and Ralph, both now entering adulthood. She is the unassuming centre of the novel. Loy Ching-Yuen in his masterly 'The Supreme Way: Inner Teachings of the Southern Mountain Tao' says, 'True followers of the Tao do so without ambition'. Aunt Sybil is a woman completely devoted to embodying the truth of love, who has worked at disposing herself to it all her life yet with no one, until now, consciously noticing. She has no ambition beyond surrender. Meanwhile, everyone has drunk at the well her life has made manifest but without ever regarding it as in anyway 'special'. Her good has been done with 'wu wei' - the incisiveness of 'no effort…

On remembering and forgetting

You have an argument with a friend. You have come to blows (usually metaphorical). You bring a halt to your slide into irreparable disagreement and accompanying anger and find an accommodation and one of you says, 'Let us forget it' and the other agrees; and, miraculously you do. Such forgetting is only possible if it is shared.

Sometimes you do actually forget. Later you find yourself reminiscing about that bust up you had and laugh about your mutual inability to remember what it was, in fact, about. Mostly you remember the details but they are transcended in a wider reality that binds you; and, after all, hate is much closer to the possibility of love than indifference.

You may come to your accommodation by discovering a shared narrative that encompasses both your points of view, more likely you have recognised an identity of shared values that transcends narratives, allows you to live with the recognition that your stories and memories will always jostle with and against o…

If you go to the woods today...

When is a 'wood' a 'forest'? Etymologically speaking when a wood had been put aside. It has either been put aside, in general, as a contrast with civilization or put aside for a particular purpose - a sacred haunt or, most notably, in Europe, as a site for kingly hunting where wildlife was preserved in order that it might be available to be killed.

Either way the 'forest' has stood as a mirroring of human concern - and its image has metamorphosed as those concerns - the constructs and needs of civilisation - have changed. If in 1600, the appropriately named John Manwood, can seek to define the forest in terms of a kingly prerogative (aware of its erosion) by 1800 the forest has become a utility to be preserved not for its royal, symbolic reality but for its economic value (in accounts that can eliminate all reference to its wildlife at all). An account that Manwood, if he had understood it at all, would have found monstrous.

In its turn this 'Enlightenment…