Saturday, September 13, 2014

A miracle amongst the trees


To find one new author to love in a year is extraordinary, two is a miracle!

I found myself this week reading Jean Giono's 'Joy of Man's Desiring' on the plane to Burkina Faso and wondering at the glory of it: the celebration of the 'useless' and of gift. It tells of Bobi, a mysterious stranger who has, in the past, lived the life of a performing acrobat, who arrives one night on a plateau and meets a farmer ploughing in the light of starlit sky. They enter conversation and a new world is born from it. Bobi gives Jourdan, the farmer, the visioning of a new life that has a place for the simply given - stars lighting one's dreams or surplus grain feeding winter birds or a field given over to flowers expending only their beauty with no thought of return. It is a vision that begins to infect the whole, all the inhabitants of the plateau, restoring a vision of life as lived into joy. Joy whose principal characteristic is gift. It is not, however, gift without the potential for sorrow. The garden always bears a serpent but a serpent always defeated by hope.

I was reminded that Giono was an author who I had been 'circulating' but strangely had not fully welcomed in. I had read his masterpiece - the fable that is 'The Man who Planted the Trees' - and watched its hauntingly beautiful animated adaptation (as above). I had watched 'The Horseman on the Roof' as a film and loved it, making it one of my favourites, but had never read the underlying novel! Authors possibly wait their time.

 This gave to me to wondering: what is that time?

Giono is often described as a precursor of 'magic realism' but I realise that first such a designation suggests that art 'develops' and this framework is a poor substitute for imagining that in truth art tells (or fails to tell) the truth of things. Truth telling may require an adaptation to the 'signs of the times' but only retains its validity if it retains a vertical connection to something beyond time.  Secondly, however, it is not as if the real requires a gift of magic but that the real, truly seen, is magical. One of the abiding features of Giono's vision is his sense of the sensuous, conscious fabric of the whole natural world, pervaded by intelligence. A quality that exists beyond our own human minds. Intelligence is a cosmic abiding of which our own in a reflecting, participating image.

This brings me to the other author of this time, namely Charles Williams, the eccentric English author of 'supernatural' fiction. Williams is more obviously 'metaphysical' (and Christian) than Giono. However, they share a common conviction that goes to the heart of things. The world is permeated by spirit - it is not two worlds but one, when seen aright - and that what we are invited to be are people of joy and that joy is a reality that mutually arises when people coinhere with one another. For Giono such mutual indwelling is a fact of the shared natural world we inhabit and for Williams it is a fact of our common inheritance as the gifted image of the one God. But for both it is an experience granted in the here and now. There is no other place to be than be in the reality of our giftedness.

This brings me full circle to a sense of why now?

As the world fragments, often bitterly in conflict, we need to be reminded that this is an abiding betrayal of our nature. It is a reality and a recognition that, I think in truth, fuels the false energy of our hatred. I am never more falsely energetic than when trying to avoid the demands of the freedom I have been given. A paradox that is endlessly puzzling, I suppose, because ultimately the greatest freedom is freedom for (the exercise of an abiding responsibility) rather than freedom from any constraint.

Both Giono and Williams offer visions of what it might be to dwell in communities of shared joy, communities that spring up out of a shared destiny as human beings and dwellers in a created, gifted world. As such they challenge all of our current presumptions that we must dwell in bounded identities that create differences between 'self' 'us' and the 'others' and that what defines us is not common and gifted but defined, believed and imposed.

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