Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A past year of discovery



Yesterday, I referred to a rediscovery - of the work of Aldous Huxley - tasted, enjoyed, left for a long time and now reawakened with a renewed intensity.

Today, on the cusp of the year, I thought I would celebrate three discoveries of the past twelve months (apart from the new country and the employment)!

In chronological order the first was David Hinton's 'Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape'. Hinton is a lauded translator of Chinese texts and I am enjoying his translations of 'Chinese Wilderness Poetry' now as my bedside accompanier to sleep. 'Hunger Mountain' traces Hinton's meditative walks around his local mountain so named (in Vermont) and reflects on how Chinese philosophy and poetry have embodied a radically 'unitive' 'flowing' relationship to the natural world - not an 'environment' but the spatial and temporal matrix in which we live and move and are our being. It is one of those books that saturated in an abiding scholarship take you beyond academic knowledge to a felt apprehension of how others have seen (and do see) the world.  Favourite amongst my images was that of a female poet who wrote her verses on leaves, allowing the wind to take them, scatter them and the world to reabsorb them. They emerge from Tao and rest back into Tao. Speaking out of and into transiency yet speaking nonetheless.

The second discovery was 'Parzival' - not Wagner's opera (though I expect I may get to that in time, treading on reluctant feet and with suspicious ear) but Wolfram von Eschenbach's original text and two contemporary retellings (and commentary) by Lindsay Clarke and Martin Shaw http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2012/06/parzival-and-neutral-angels.html and http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2014/10/dearest-uncle-what-ails-you.html

The first realization of which was an ability to patiently enter a medieval text (if only in modern translation) helped by previously allowing master storytellers to entrance you into (and illuminate) the story. I hope this is a signal of fruits to come.

The second realization was how powerful this story resonates in my psyche. Here sits an ailing king, whose illness resounds through his kingdom with all withering power, waiting upon the simple, yet difficult, task of being asked the right question at the right moment: what ails you? It is a meditation on (amongst much else), the power of the question and the ability to find it in oneself. The question is not only about its content but also about how and when it is asked and how the answer is received. How often in contemporary culture (or our own minds) do we hear the right question being asked with the time and space for an answer to be genuinely heard? Reading your daily newspaper will quickly disabuse you that this is a simple, oft repeated reality, cumbered as they are by streams of 'opinions', colliding, jostling with each other but never still enough to have emerged out of (and be a response to) a real question (and for contemporary culture, I can unhappily substitute my own mind)!

The third realization is that this text has a long way further to travel in my own mind and I am already accumulating other voices, gathered round this story, to explore it, with them, from other perspectives (and I may even get to Wagner)!

The third discovery were the novels of the man, whom C.S. Lewis called the greatest modern re-teller of the Grail myth in English, namely Charles Williams. They are haunting strange, an admixture of 'magic' (of which Williams had been a modern day practitioner), theology and adventure. There is nothing, I think, quite like them. At one level they are 'clunky' (the plots, with variations, all have the same basic underpinning), dated (the language and surface mores reek of the 1930s in an oddly clanging way) and yet are transformed by the seriousness of their thought and the power of an underlying imagination. They brilliantly weave the commonplace, everyday reality with the magical such that disbelief is suspended and the set pieces of confrontation between power (and evil) and love (and the good) are astonishingly accomplished. They make you feel the reality of the choice, not simply see or think it. Importantly to, they are saturated in humour. As Lao Tzu would say if it cannot be laughed at, it would not be Tao. There is something important, all important in the humanising nature of humour.

This brings me neatly to the 'nicest' thing anyone has said about me (and to me) all year which was, 'You are wise, have a lot to bring here (to this organisation) yet you never take yourself too seriously'. I do not know whether this is true but it is certainly a quality the world needs more off, more than ever. There is no humour in rendition and torture, or Mr Putin's repeating falsehoods, or in ISIS and that is because in them, there is no truth, for truth always carries with it the realisation that it can never be wholly said, no one can be its possessor, and thus when it comes to truth, it can only ever tread lightly, with compassion, because whenever we have spoken it, we know there is always more of it, that we do not know. Truth is more a questioner than an answer.

Let us hope for a new year in which there are more shared questions, than answers, and that we together unveil, ever deeper, what ails us, so that a genuine healing might be birthed.


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