Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Tiger

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 ability to anticipate, plan and execute that it enables.

The tiger is necessarily killed for once it has taken up an offensive, as opposed to a defensive position, it will not retreat back to the boundaries of past behaviour: a threshold has been crossed that cannot be returned across.

Valliant ranges wide in painting a portrait of the tiger and its relationship with its ecosystems. A relationship that has included humankind for hundreds of thousands of years.  He paints a vivid picture too of the Primorye - the temperate jungle, taiga - that was this tiger's home and of its indigenous and Russian inhabitants. Most especially vivid of the post-Soviet era of collapse that placed extraordinary pressure on those inhabitants to supplement their bare livings from that taiga and the opening of the Chinese border that enabled a 'real' trade in poached tiger to spring up.

It is on the whole a sad story - of conversation colliding with human need, of people genuinely in love and at home in the taiga forced to extract every last survival opportunity from it.

There are too fascinating cultural differences between the indigenous population who see themselves as one part of a whole, inhabited by other beings, with similar needs and the ethnic Russians who see themselves as 'owners' of a space, where, however much they think of themselves as stewards, ultimately they command.

The book's epilogue ends on warning and a note of qualified optimism. The tigers' survival as a species depends on us, it must become a conscious act; and, with signs, still tentative, that this may be emerging, most noticeably in China whose driving needs give rise to much of the illicit trade in endangered species.

But what remains most vivid are the glimpsing hints of what can only be called the 'non-locality' of mind. Such 'non-locality' is obvious to the indigenous inhabitants - the idea that the tiger can 'cast a spell' over certain people with whom they have come into contact for example. Or that one tiger might 'know' that a person has killed another tiger. There is a very strange incident at the end where the Russian, Trush, who has led the team that killed the man eater is being filmed at a tiger reserve. One of the tigers, reared from birth and wholly unaggressive, on seeing Trush explodes with a never before seen rage and leaps at the fence with such force in his direction that he is thrown backwards (even though he is not touched and the tiger remains within its compound). Coincidence or not?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Two novelists of the Holy

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 Christian story and ask what is it that we can believe given that what we are asked to believe no longer satisfies?

God can no longer be seen as the 'omnipotent author' organising His creation from without but an en-spirited process that is emergent from within. God is a lure drawing an evolutionary process on. God is an immersed actor who suffers the conflict that such a reality necessarily entails. Evolution is creative but prodigal and messy but once the die of creating is cast, there is no other way.

In this evolutionary process man has a central role, evolution comes to a fully embodied self-consciousness in him. It is through his struggle, pitched between the interplay of spirit and matter, that love and freedom comes to fruition in the world, expressed in the lives of saints, though saints manifest themselves in many guises - the lusting gusto of a Zorba, drenched in a celebration of the sensory and the sensual as well as the more 'conventional' image of St Francis (though it must be said nothing is ever truly 'conventional' in Kazantzakis' portrayals)!

Huxley's spirit is an altogether quieter one - indeed he could be Zorba's bookish, English interlocutor, who he teaches to dance - except that in his own way, Huxley was as deeply adventurous (and both were prepared to travel through 'solutions' discarding as they went. Kazantzakis went through Nietzsche, Lenin and the Buddha before 'settling' on Christ). Huxley's adventures were, however, inward - through the disciplines of thought and spiritual practice including his experiments with drugs. His was a fully articulated turn to experience, a turn that began in earliest childhood and the importance of developing what would now be called attuned attachment between caregiver and baby. A grounding in empathetic soundness and bodily integrity from which a compassionate life can flow.

Both, however, arrive at a core intuition that the abiding salvation of the world hinges around a call to holiness that aligns spirit - soul - body and though it can be supported and sustained by a social order, it is everywhere and always, an individual's project. Both of them were aware that we need more saints and that wanting to be such was not an aberrant (or arrogant) desire but a desire that was central to what it meant to be human.

'The glory of God' wrote St Irenaeus 'is a human being fully alive' - a sentence I first encountered in Huxley and would be an apt epitaph for Kazantzakis' struggle.

Friday, August 29, 2014

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 - the beleaguered Russians of the eastern Ukraine - assaulted by an illegitimate government (manipulated by fascists and the West). There was not even a pretense at 'neutrality', a rounded view or an attempt to tell impartial facts.

The third disturbing feature was that you slowly began to feel for the 'victims' and 'understand' the patriotism. As my host remarked her level of patriotism had increased even though her rational faculties held to a more balanced view of what was unfolding (though she did realize she had a more mercenary motive for Crimea ceding to Russia - it would make it easier to sell her house in the Crimea - probably to one or other of the Russian officials whose passports have been withheld to encourage them to show solidarity and holiday there)!

However, the final, and most important reason, was recognizing the question as to how different is it truly on the other side of the fence? I do not suspect the Ukrainian media is a beacon of probity and factual reporting nor for that matter the 'Western media'.

In this later case, I expect, it is not so much deliberate acts of propaganda but mental framing that has decided that Russia is 'the enemy' and corroborating facts are emphasized and contradictory ones sidelined. But is an 'unconscious' bias truly more forgivable than a naked manipulation? Are we not all responsible for our conscience? Look, for example, how different it is for Ukrainian military to shell civilians (in their own country) and for Israel to rain bombs and shells on Gaza - levels of coverage, levels of approbation etc.

All the coverage is predicated by hunt the 'victim' and the belief that the victim is only here (or there) but never 'everywhere'. Yet perhaps the truth is that there is only ever 'everywhere' and our separations are artificial, cleaved in fear.

I remember a conversation with a prison inmate telling me how difficult it was in prison to allow your mask to slip, to show your true self to any one. It was the third conversation of a similar kind I had that very day and in the same prison! I had an image of a grotesque 'masque' ball - everybody trapped in their masks. No one willing to lower theirs because they were convinced that no one else would.

Is there anything in the world that would encourage us to take off our masks?

To which I think the answer is not in the world but in the condition of the world's making. Each and every one of us is made in the image of God which is a simple truth, so simple that it is radically difficult to live! But what other route is there but to a ever deeper recognition and practice of our inter-being? Of recognizing that imagining the other is a practice of self-knowledge. After all, the other pathways do not appear to work very well!


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

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 the early 1970s to a Marxist-Leninist feminist group in Germany. He accepted. Are you mad? His German friends asked. 'They only invite men to enjoy the luxury of them refusing'! He went in any case. That evening several hundred women were gathered in the room. The time came and went for the talk to begin but the 'chair' carried on talking to women in the front row, pointedly ignoring Richard.

Richard thought that he could either leave or have a row. He chose, typically, the latter. He stood up and pointed at one of the only two other men in the room (a portrait of Marx, next to one of Lenin) and proclaimed in a loud voice, 'I am not going to speak to you this evening under the oppressive portrait of that man'! He went on to list all Marx's offences against women including, I recall, not allowing his daughters to marry whom they wanted. He finished to complete silence, imagining that he would now be torn limb from limb. Instead the audience burst out laughing and they had an admirable meeting. Subsequently the portrait of Marx, Richard learnt, was taken down. The fate of Lenin was not recorded.

A final memory was going with Richard to a local doctor's surgery (for what purpose I cannot recall) and in the waiting room was a young pregnant woman and her anxious partner - he had parked his motorcycle on double yellow lines and kept peering out of the window. Until he realised his uncertainty was communicating itself to her. Suddenly the mood changed and he started telling her of a moment when he had been swimming in a pond and breaking the surface had encountered a light that was more than normal, graced, enlightening. It was such an improbable story coming from that man at that moment, dressed in his motorcycle leathers, that often I think I dreamt it. I did not - it was a moment tinged by a rarity of grace that lifted us all up, shared in the most unlike proximity. There is no where that cannot be graced  which was appropriate for the Quakerly Richard - every moment a no nonsense sacramental one.

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 own manner with some wisdom, but so restless, unable to settle.

How accurate she was too about the trajectory of engaged enthusiasm, paradoxically coupled, with an oft burning desire to 'get the hell out of here' (wherever 'here' is at the time)!

It is difficult to know what to do with 'seers' in contemporary culture, they elude our 'neating' material categories. Allow oneself, I suppose, to be seen and take from it whatever is valuable, parking the rest.

Today the tension between 'being here' and wanting to escape was especially sharp. I know that I will stay in the world of helping, that is so honourable and good, and yet never quite mine in the configurations in which it presents itself (whatever mine is)!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

To the lighthouse

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 work and life, opened one up to an "unconscious" party - seven or eight scenarios a night unfolding before my lidded eyes! It was an exercise in dream 'interpretation'. I would play with scenarios of understanding, gaining illumination, and I found that the next night the dreams would reply. Usually saying, yes, you may have seen it like this but what about? They playfully took you deeper. It was a time of continuous, glimpsing, revelation.

I was reminded of it today because I had one of those dreams that, as a friend once said, push you down into the mattress!

I was at a ruined chapel and at the foot of the Cross lay a statue of St Peter, horizontal, prone, dead. In front of which was a statue of St John the Evangelist, kneeling, fully alive.

I was reminded of a dream of Gay Taylor, a friend of the poet, Kathleen Raine, who meets a 'cardinal' angel amidst a ruined chapel and who saw this as a similar sign to my own dream. The church as institution is in reality finished (all appearance to the contrary) and the church that truly matters is one that lives in 'the heart of men' (which was the message that the angel imparted to Gay Taylor). Or as the distinguished Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, put it, the future church would be one of mystics or it would be not at all.

The turn (to use that post-modern phrase) must be to 'experience' - the sensitive (and hopefully supported) fathoming of one's own inner light, explorations into and from the Spirit.

The backwash against this turn will, I fear, be enormous, as we already experience, and as the great theoretician of the evolution of consciousness, Jean Gebser, suggested, when a new evolutionary form (the inward way) become efficient, the old way becomes 'deficient' (the appeal to externalised authority that once worked but is now degraded into fundamentalism).

Nothing about evolution is destined. An inwardly directed, experienced spirituality may not emerge as the default mode of being (religious) but one can hope that it will, and I can work (on myself) for it and its sharing.

The lighthouse, in retrospect, was a remarkable symbol - of light penetrating darkness allowing safe navigation - a beautiful analogy for dreams bearing meaning out from the darkness of sleep into a renewing daylight in the light of which you found your way.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Inklings

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 passionately held but with an abiding scepticism too. After all they might not be true - even when he sounds most like a 'fundamentalist' (his own choice of words), there is always a wider vision (and a deepening doubt) lapping at their narrow foundations.

One of his closest friends was Owen Barfield, who was a deeply committed and articulate Anthroposophist, and, a second, Charles Williams, whose Christianity was recognizably so yet deeply novel and who had an abiding concern with magic and the occult!

Both of these friends were part of 'The Inklings' - an informal group, including Tolkien, who regularly met, twice weekly, in Oxford to read to each other ongoing work and engage in conversation. Humphrey Carpenter in his magnificent group biography, 'The Inklings' tries to capture the lives of its members, how they were brought together and what held them so until their final dissolution.

Many people have tried to identify the weaving strands and make of them an identifiable group - defenders of Christian orthodoxy or of objectivity in literary criticism or of mytho-poetic literature or simply in being anti-modern. None of which Carpenter convincingly argues stands up to scrutiny. If there was one defining weft around which all else was woven, it was Lewis himself. It was both his need and gift for friendship and an abiding love of talk that bound them together and when through death, Williams, or a drifting apart, Tolkien, the core sundered, it dissolved. Lewis took up his professorship in Cambridge and a brilliant, informal group came to an end.

Reading 'The Inklings' confirmed for me what a complex man Lewis had been - a strange admixture of the narrowly confined and the boldly adventurous - and how neither the hagiography of Christian apologist nor the denigration of the enlightened secular will do him justice. He, also, reminds us that as long as we live our character is not fixed: we can always be surprised by joy (or Joy) and the boundaries of our world be broken open to new experience (however much part of us, the settled part, would wish it were not so).

Grace is never done with us.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hermann Hesse's formation

"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 autodidact reading himself into a knowledge of European literature, art and cultural history and listening and playing (the violin) into a profound understanding of European music. Later this knowledge was to be broadened especially in the direction of Asia. He was a student without a university, and his friends, most of whom were university trained, recognised his equality (in an age that was consumed by attention to every subtle difference of status).

I was struck by his wholly tortuous, and wounding, relationship with his parents. Encased in their rigorous Swabian piety, they looked on unsympathetically at the person to whom they had given birth, praying for his soul, ignoring or disapproving of his literary progress: a God given talent wasted on a febrile aestheticism! It was a distancing that bit deep.

Hesse was in pursuit of beauty, a beauty that lured one into a loving compassion for the world. His parents saw a world on which the order of morality needed to be imposed and whose beauty was a luring distraction. It was an irreconcilable clash (as it is always).

It was also lovely to discover that one's favourite author shared common loves from the outset. Here, for example, is described his fascination and love of the Swiss artist, Arnold Bocklin, who died in Basel when Hesse lived there. It is a perfect exemplar of his own art - a realistic symbolism that inhabits this world but invites in another, the other that is always available, acting behind a thin veil.

This is Bocklin's 'Life is a Short Dream' that Hesse described as, "Childhood desire, the romance of adulthood, the urge to accomplish, and old age are presented in quite wonderful figures within a small space". The whole round of a life on which Hesse was solidifying from his forming space that was Basel.

Friday, August 15, 2014

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 memories back. It is an accomplished, intelligent account running from the Boxer rebellion to the Communist arrival in Peking in 1949 focused primarily on the British and American communities. It vividly depicts, with honourable exception, a remarkably self-enclosed community, impinged upon by the outside world only through disruptive catastrophe, carrying on a life where the host country is either an exotic backdrop or a patronised inconvenience.

However, there are lacunae in this account that betray possibly blind spots, most notably over Christianity. A large portion of the expatriate community were missionaries but they barely come into focus. The only prominent Christian figure is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and creative theologian, effectively (and romantically) 'exiled' by the Vatican for his heterodox views on the relationship between science and religion (heterodox on both counts, a point Julia Boyd noticeably fails to make).

The penetration of Christianity into China was deeply ambiguous - upsetting of tradition, associated with an over overbearing bullying extractive West, it played a significant (negative) role in shaping Boxer ideology; and, yet Boyd's implicit portrayal of it as a wholly 'foreign influence' that fails to take root is a puzzling one (and breaks down in her own admission as she tells us that the father of Chinese nationalism, Sun Yat Sen, was a Christian). Christianity was such an influence (positively and negatively) precisely because it was so influential and taking root across the whole spectrum of Chinese society (as it is today, China having the fastest growing Christian community in the world, a point that begins to unsettle China's current rulers).

However, this absence apart, the book is thoroughly enjoyable for its portrait of a vanished way of life, for the pen portraits of the diversity of people attracted to life in Peking; and, as a cautionary tale of how easy it is to live in misunderstanding, to create one's 'bubble' and immunise yourself from a genuine encounter with otherness. The people who did step out and into the realities of Chinese life seem to be the one's gifted with deeper, richer, more complete lives, like my own favourite, alluded to here but not dwelt on, the Buddhist and Taoist scholar, John Blofeld, who did not confine his Chinese life to the higher paths of enlightenment, as his own memoir makes abundantly and candidly clear.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Continuing addiction: yet more books

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 became his wife, Judy.

He was, in the words of the poet Kathleen Raine (also regretfully overlooked by Eliot), the most imaginatively gifted English poet of the century after Yeats and I concur. Most notably the most gifted religious poet or possibly, more accurately, spiritual poet that absorbed and transcended the difficulty of expressing religious truths in a world gone secular. Here a simple poem about snowfall becomes both celebration of an obscured metaphysical unity and a prophecy of future sundering violence.

Snow in Europe

Out of their slumber Europeans spun
Dense dreams: appeasements, miracle, glimpsed flash
Of a new golden era; but could not restrain
The vertical white weight that fell last night
And made their continent a blank.

Hush, says the sameness of the snow
The Ural and Jura now rejoin
The furthest Arctic's desolation. All is one;
Sheer monotone: plain, mountain; country, town:
Contours and boundaries no longer show.

The warring flags hang colourless a while;
Now midnight's icy zero feigns a truce
Between the signs and seasons, and fades out
All shots and cries. But when the great thaw comes,
How red shall be the melting snow, how loud the drums!

The next two books were by a representative of the preceding generation to Gascoyne - Aldous Huxley - a replacement copy of his utopian novel, "Island', counterpoint to 'Brave New World' and 'The Divine Within' a collection of essays on enlightenment and the 'ultimate reality' (it boldly declares on the back cover). I have an unadulterated affection for Huxley (leaving aside numerous disagreements) for the faithfulness with which he pursued the lure and consequences of his own experience. He was too a good man and a counterpoint to Gascoyne. Huxley was a philosopher who happened upon being a novelist clothing ideas in imagined yet stilted forms. Gascoyne was image haunted, hunting patterns of thinking to which his dreams gave cause. Huxley too was, I think, the most prescient of twentieth century dystopians - the lure of artificial happiness being a better guide to our dilemmas than imposed authoritarianism - and in recognising that religious life would increasingly become possible only if grounded in an embodied empiricism. We will become mystics or nothing.

This may be the theme of William Irwin Thompson's 'Beyond Religion: The Cultural Evolution of the Sense of the Sacred from Shamanism to Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality' - the breathless title suggests that it might be so!

And finally there was a posthumous novel (or fragment thereof) by Patrick White: ' The Hanging Garden'. This brings us full circle to Gascoyne for if he was the most imaginatively gifted poet, White, in my opinion, was the novelist equivalent. If Huxley traded in ideas, White traded in images (he had wanted to be a painter) and distrusted the power of words to capture truth, You see truth, dance it, taste it through White in a way that is extraordinarily compelling. Sit, wait, taste, see and an extraordinary world unfolds - biting, humourous, complex, visionary - his novels are an education in the slow digestion of truths through every sense.

Addictions are not always bad...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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

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 his rangers, and beheld leopard foot prints. The elusive animal was probably hunting Siberian mountain goats, themselves rare, that I did see hopping improbably from distant rock to distant rock on what appeared a virtually vertical rock face across the river. Sadly, the only snow leopard I did see was a pelt hung in the National Park Service office, resonantly beautiful, that had been confiscated from poachers (one can imagine a suitably temporary Buddhist hell where the said poachers are themselves stalked, repeatedly, by leopards).

Fischer's geography, however, was at the other end of the Snow Leopards' (vast) patch; namely Ladakh and in one of those moments of synchronicity another of the books to arrive today was a replacement copy of Helena Norburg Hodge's 'Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh' where Helena explores the complex transition from a traditional to a modern society (that she witnessed in Ladakh). One of the stories she tells is explaining to her friends in Ladakh the notion of a 'psychotherapist' to whom one goes to relate one's difficulties. The Ladakhi are incredulous for do not people in the West (and I think Helena's example was describing a person in New York) have friends?

Apparently, and increasingly not, if a report, widely carried today, in the UK media, is to be believed.

It is a strikingly sad picture of a world put asunder without community, communion, where relationships have been sacrificed to the ever moving economy, where we fantasize that things, actual or virtual, might compensate for any lack. They do not, and indeed as we increasingly know act even against our physical health, as this description of the famous Roseto study in the United States aptly demonstrates (with thanks to Morris Berman, the cultural historian, for this excellent precis).

"The Roseto Study: This is an examination of an Italian-American town in eastern Pennsylvania that was found to have had a very low mortality rate for heart attacks during the first thirty years it was studied, as compared to two nearby towns. Citizens of all three towns smoked, ingested cholesterol, and in general exhibited the same physical behaviors that would be expected to impinge on human health, at roughly the same rates. But what Roseto had that the other two towns didn’t was close family ties and very cohesive community relations, including a host of traditional values and practices (religion included). However, in the late sixties and early seventies, all of this broke down. Roseto saw a loosening of family ties and a fragmentation of community relations. Concomitant with this was a substantial increase in death due to heart disease. The mortality rate rose to the same level as that of the two nearby towns."

That brings us by a roundabout route to the last book to arrive today (yes, they often, like buses, come in threes); namely, Alastair McGrath's recent biography of C.S. Lewis.

From Lewis' life one thing you can learn is the practice of the art of friendship and how the art, in his case, came to be miraculously deepened in time, widening out from a circle of male peers and students to famously incorporate Joy, a woman and an American, who became yet more than friend precisely at the point at which Lewis could offer himself in his mystery, rather than in his many portraits.

In Matthiessen's 'Snow Leopard' the elusive, not seen animal becomes a symbol of the ungraspable nature of truth. Matthiessen learns to rest in that which cannot be grasped, that can only be known in unknowing, that can only be known in the surrendering to whatever is given, which perhaps too captures the nature of friendship. We cannot possess a friend - we can only reveal ourselves to one another out of our aloneness - but if secure in that aloneness there is nothing that we cannot offer for we offer our selves rather than our personalities.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

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 a futile task to try and discover the 'original' core of a myth, you must take all its extant components into consideration in order to create a gestalt of the whole from which interpretive springs can fall; and, that the reality of myth is that it can be a bearer of multiple meanings, its polyvalent, a fugue. It may carry confusion either of conception or transmission as it travels through time but it is itself an act of intelligence (not a muddle headed way of saying something that could be explained in more linear, orderly and 'rational' terms). One of the brilliant aspects of the book is showing how even our 'scientific' stories of origin reflect a grounding in myth. Every human product is a product of culture and culture is born in and carried by myth, consciously or unconsciously.

"A mythic narrative works through a system of correspondences, so a god is at once a principle of order, a number, a geometrical figure, a dancing measure, a mantram, a special plant, a heavenly body. If one put together the analyses of Jung, Levi Strauss, von Dechend, Neumann, and myself, one would still not have all the dimensions of the myth drawn out."

Yet we persist in fantasizing that 'our' interpretation is not only correct, which it may be, but the only one (or, if we are more humble, the only line down which the one true interpretation will be found). It is a curious malediction that is, as we can see from the daily practice of our own lives, fraught with difficulty. It yields neither fair understanding nor pragmatic success.

I found myself wondering what, for example, Christianity would look like if we took all its variant accounts into consideration, opened up the canon to historically parallel determinations, and allowed Jesus to breath in a deeper, wider matrix.

Two things, at least, might happen. First, we might be enriched by dialogue with the unfamiliar, swinging into the unknown to know ourselves better. Second we might learn to hang loose to our interpretations. They may be, at once, deeply treasured ways of seeing, that we inhabit and through which we might greet the divine presence but not the only way of seeing. Other ways, owing family resemblance rather than fixed allegiances, would be permissible, even welcomed and potentially loved. It would be to come to Christianity with the eye of a poet - an eye at once truthful and creative and that lives in the fidelity to unfolding multiple stories.

We might hope, sometime, to evolve to this place.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Aunt Sybil the Taoist Sage

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' and done in 'minute particulars'.

But now the life of the Coningsbury family has been disrupted. A friend of Mr Coningsbury has died leaving him his collection of antique playing cards amongst which is a set of Tarot cards. Meanwhile, Nancy has fallen in love with Henry, a young barrister of Gypsy heritage, who bears a family secret intimately connected with the Tarot cards.

At Henry's home, presided over by his grandfather, in a secret room is a miraculous 'table' across which magical figures representing the Greater Trumps of the Tarot continuously dance. They are archetypal figures whose dance is the cosmic dance, the mystery pattern of the whole creation. The cards are the key to interpreting the dance and potentially offer power to guide the cosmos into patterns sympathetic to the person manipulating them.

The temptations are great.

This being Charles Williams this magical scenario unfolds within a frame of utmost naturalness. The Coningsburys are a 'normal' middle class family (of the 1930s) and the fabulous events of the novel unfold as if nothing could be more natural than this world was the mirror of, and penetrated by, the reality of the supernatural.

Henry seeks to bring the two together - cards and table - and the consequences are nearly disastrous. The temptations of power twist the intentions of the good and only purity of heart can navigate power without yielding to temptation. Henry does not possess this.

Purity of heart and the intentions of love are borne in the novel by the women - Nancy and, most of all, Sybil. It is they in concert that heal the breach in the world's patterning opened up by Henry's misguided actions.

The portrayal of Sybil is, I think, one of the most remarkable achievements in the literature of seeking to depict the saintly (a challenge to many, greater artists, one thinks immediately of Dostoyevsky repetitive failures).

Why does Williams succeed? First, he succeeds because he realises that the good never belongs to the person through whom it flows. It is not a character of good that one needs to show but the effacement of character. Goodness flows through, it is never possessed. Second because it is never insistent. It acts along the contours of opportunity, taking the path of least resistance yet, as a result is remarkably strong. Third because paradoxically, from without, the channeler of the good appears wholly self-possessed: what else is there to do than manifest what needs to be shown forth or done.

It is the very opposite of 'hagiography' (and it carries a sense of humour - Sybil possesses it herself and is surrounded by it). If it were no laughed at, it would not be 'Tao'!

This brought me naturally to the analogy with Taoism (though Williams himself, of course, was explicitly a Christian novelist) and Lao Tzu's understanding that as soon as one begins to talk of (or characterise) the good, it is an indication of its absence.

There is a beautiful moment that illuminates this. On their way to Christmas at Henry's home, the family (being driven by Henry) are confronted by Joanna, Henry's deranged great aunt. All the characters present take up an attitude of 'resistance' (including that of wanting to 'do good' for Joanna). Only Sybil instinctively knows what to do - to mirror Joanna's pain and to act in such a way that Joanna's best potential meaning in her derangement can come forth and be understood. Sybil kneels before Joanna and accepts her blessing and Joanna turns away consoled: a glimmering break in the armour of her condition.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

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 one another and it is the continuing differences that keeps life more than interesting.

In Miroslav Volf's profound book, 'Exclusion and Embrace: Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation' there is a moment I recall (and it is many years since I read it) that he discusses a moment in the Hebrew Bible when God decides to forget the sins of his people (which is probably progress in the (our) consciousness of God from the moment he wipes the slate clean by wiping out all but the most faithful remnant of humanity by flood)! What a wonderful moment that is when the identity fashioned by conflicted memory is subsumed into yet something other - a liberation into a deeper, shared identity by that which gifts us our identity in the first place.

Volf's book, for all its academic apparatus, is so moving because it was written out of his experience as a Croatian of his homeland (Yugoslavia) fracturing under the pressure of events and being reshaped under the murderous tyrannies of conflicting identities and competing memories.

I was thinking about this both in relation to the flood of commemoration triggered by the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and the on-going conflicts your most urgent, closest, most felt location.

From the First World War, we are urged to learn the lessons through remembering in spite of the rather obvious fact that we appear to have learnt very little from this past except the resilience with which we remember and cling to our narratives of past injustice suffered and our difference from the (multiple) others in our justifications for violence. 'We' went to war (in 1914) as the United Kingdom to defend the 'British way of life' which was apparently radically different from the 'German way of life' and so on and so forth...

Perhaps rather than the aching work of trying to find a set of memories that might collectively set us free - can anyone imagine that Israelis and Palestinians are ever going to come to a collectively agreed account of the origins of their conflict - we need a greater willingness to forget as a prelude to forgiveness and new life? This in turn requires a much greater fixation not on the past but on present need and the presence necessary for people to be able to articulate that need.

As one of the architects of modern work in reconciliation, Marshall Rosenburg, recognised the starting point for any resolution of conflict is in the articulation of one's needs, right now, and their being heard. The closer one can move together into the present, the more likely one is to find the place where the future can be found and the past surrendered. Into that space, presence steps, a Presence that is big enough to hold all our conflicted memories and see through and beyond them and help us do likewise.

Both of my grandfathers served in the First World War and both were scarred by it - withdrawing in later life into protective spheres. One of them, for example, retreating to his allotments and the mass production of the root vegetables that my father detested for the rest of his life!

I found myself wondering where they would place the emphasis on the need to remember or on the liberation of a forgetting shared?

This is not to say there are not historical moments where the burden of failure does not transparently rest on the side of a clear perpetrator and the act of truthful remembrance (and repentance) is the necessary first act in any possible reconciliation - the Holocaust and Apartheid South Africa come to mind - but we need to recognise how much suffering is prolonged by imagining that every conflict has this asymmetry as its underlying pattern when, in truth, most of the time, we inhabit a much messier world where we need to be continually liberated from our histories into our present needs rather than trying to untangle them, usually to 'our' benefit.

Friday, August 1, 2014

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' utilitarian approach can be challenged by the Brothers Grimm's collection of fairytales, the vast majority of which embrace a forest within their narrative, where the forest becomes a place of preservation of the 'primitive' origins of language from which a unified German volk might emerge.

And so on and so forth...

Robert Pogue Harrison's 'Forests; The Shadow of Civilization' is a brilliant essay exploring this unfolding pattern of change in the Western tradition from the Epic of Gilgamesh through to the modern era.

It transcribes a history of loss from forests as locations of tragic encounter to forests where the dominant mode of relationship is irony (the framing is imaginatively appropriated from Vico) - from places of awe to fragile places of refreshment - and leaves as an open question whether such fragile claims could ever be a sufficient defence of the forest against human possessiveness? To which the answer must be no.

The most compelling part of the book is the recognition that we are 'necessarily' estranged from nature by our possession of language that differentiates us, and which births an ability to project ourselves beyond our place, and ultimately beyond death. This estrangement need not necessarily, however, unbalance our relationship with nature. It might be the beginning of a faithful fathoming of who we are in relationship to nature and how it might rightly teach us our boundaries and limits.

There is a wonderful exploration of Thoreau in this regard who, in this account, goes to Walden Pond not to lose himself in nature nor to displace him from civilization but as an experiment in learning how to recognise who one is in one's place - and to ground that in experience rather than speculation. He tells of how Thoreau has heard that Walden Pond is 'bottomless' (said in tones of awe) and so he sets to measuring it - and finds it unusually deep (for so small a stretch of water) at exactly 102 metres! It acts as an apt parable of his task to take nothing on faith and be instructed by an experience of place in its essentials.

That this was, and is, a road not travelled is a root of our difficulty. As to is an unwillingness to learn from nature that we are to die. We prefer to 'imagine' that we 'know' our ecology rather than learn from it; and, because we are gifted with language, our ability to fantasise a life without limits knows no limit. Ecology teaches us that we, everything, dies, within limits. It is a lesson we are noticeably unwilling to learn.

But is this account of, at best, an accommodated estrangement with a nature from which we learn our finitude enough? Enough as an account of who we might be and enough as an encouragement and discipline to live more lightly on the earth.

Sadly, I expect not and what struck me ultimately about this beautiful, thought provoking essay, was how bound it was to a particular understanding of the Western tradition - one with its roots in the very Enlightenment that it so deftly criticises. Knowing remains ultimately divorced from being - and that being is noticeably confined within the envelope of skin that is a presumed human.

In a casual sentence he gives the game away by raising the 'spectre' of mysticism only to dismiss it as any kind of solution. Now 'mysticism' comes in many guises. One, whose author would have never acknowledged it as such, comes to mind that may have much to say about not healing through estrangement but healing that very estrangement itself - namely Goethe (and I do not suppose you can get more canonically Western than him) and his science. This visionary science precisely invites you to a new way of seeing that places you within the unfolding language of nature. For it consciousness is prior of which all else is a modality and the boundaries between those modes - natural and human - are porous. That we have the capacity to be estranged is the fate of being human but the healing of that estrangement is at the root of every sacred tradition:- Goethe's enlightened paganism simply being one of them. It invites you to recognise that the classic 'enlightenment' distinction between 'subject' and 'object' is a fiction (useful but still fictive) and reality is a multi-dimensional patterning of one subject.

Thoreau is an exemplar of going to listen to nature and learning his lessons well but he would have listened more deeply yet if he had paid more attention to what it might mean to listen to and beyond himself such that his listening grew ever more porous to the language of nature (of which human language is not a part but a sub set) because in origin 'he' and 'it' were one. 

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...