Thursday, April 30, 2015

Media bias

I read of this first in the Daily Telegraph and thought it was a very interesting definition of 'left wing' that embraces the Liberal Democrats (only in the United States possibly...). For that matter the UK Conservative Party would probably be dangerously liberal in the US!

However, more broadly, I thought it abiding strange that a politician vying to be the Prime Minister would not be happy to be in front of an audience of any cross-section of the nation's citizens and respond to their concerns and questions. You thought that might be the mark of a healthy democracy and of the confidence in which the candidate held the importance and truthfulness of their understanding of the world and vision for the country.

Better to my mind that the BBC simply selected a group of interested citizens at random than try the futile task of 'balance'. Balance should be in the presentation of the candidates and their air time, not in citizen's access to those who deign to represent them.

Meanwhile, the idea of the Daily Telegraph complaining of 'bias' is wholly laughable given that it has descended, more than most privately held media outlets in the UK (not covered by the provisions for balance attaching to broadcasters), into the status of a propaganda sheet, manipulated by the eccentric demands of their brotherly owners.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Pope, climate change and First Things

I was reading an article in today's Guardian
on the forthcoming encyclical on the environment and the preceding conference at the Vatican on climate change that referenced a blog post on the First Things' website by Maureen Mullarkey taking exception to this.

First Things describes itself as the leading journal in the US concerning Religion and the Public Square, founded by the Roman Catholic theologian and political thinker, "Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism". It would be a journal that would be placed within the 'conservative' spectrum (though Neuhaus himself, as did Pope Benedict, started out of a more liberal turn of mind). It is a journal that, though I happily disagree with virtually everything it stands for, I have always admired for the rigour of its argumentation and (usually) its perceived courtesy.

So I was rather taken aback first by the tone of Mullarkey's contribution. I might be tempted to say that it showed deep disrespect to the person of the Holy Father except, in truth, it simply showed a fundamental disrespect to any person whatsoever.

It managed to describe Pope Francis as both as an ideologue and as a meddlesome egotist. This charge was in relationship to his (unspecified) interventions on the Middle East and the Vatican's actions to support President Obama's steps to soften the embargo on Cuba and improve relations. Both spheres you might assume the Pope (of whatever moral calibre) might have a legitimate interest - Christians are suffering unparalleled persecution in the Middle East and one of the tasks of the Church is to promote reconciliation, one that arguably might improve the lot of ordinary Cubans. You may disagree with any or all of the Church's statements (and actions) in both spheres, but to assume they are simply generated by a the moral failings (unsubstantiated) of the present Pope is nonsense. Pope Benedict spoke regularly of the situation in the Middle East, Pope John Paul II went to Cuba. Were they too simply meddlesome egotists?

But then its 'arguments' (and I use the term loosely) were so incoherent that I could not imagine they would pass muster on the website of such a usually serious journal.

Here is an example of her style:

"Later this year, Francis will take his sandwich board to the United Nations General Assembly, that beacon of progress toward the Kingdom. Next will come a summit of world religions—a sort of Green Assisi—organized to lend moral luster to an upcoming confederacy of world improvers in Paris. In the words of Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Francis means “to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion.”

There is a muddle for you. The bishop asserts a causal relation between two undefined, imprecise phenomena. His phrasing is a sober-sounding rhetorical dodge that eludes argument because the meaning is indeterminable. Ambiguity, like nonsense, is irrefutable. What caliber of scientist speaks this way?"

I doubt whether Pope Francis has a sandwich board and I expect the United Nations, despite its many faults, has indeed made a net contribution to the Kingdom as envisaged in Matthew 25. Meanwhile the 'confederacy of world improvers' in Paris are, in fact, the representatives of sovereign states discussing a global treaty that may make a contribution to our ability to meet one of the first imperatives laid on human beings in the Bible namely to act as stewards of creation; and, finally, it is perfectly obvious to anyone cognisant of current debates on climate adaptation and mitigation what the Bishop means namely that the burden of climate change will fall on the societies least equipped to cope and that there ought to be a solidarity betwixt countries with resources and those without. Solidarity being one of the key dimensions of Catholic Social teaching.

And so on and so forth...

But it is the tone that distresses ultimately...why cannot one simply express why it is one disagrees with the Pope, or with the Vatican's policy or indeed with the evidence on climate change? What I would expect from First Things is argument, indeed I would expect it to follow Aquinas' precept that you even strengthen your adversary's argument the better to refute it. And their argument, not their person.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

William Blake: A New Life

I remember giving a talk at the Catholic Chaplaincy at University College, Cork, many years ago, where a friend was working. After the talk, my friend remarked on her surprise at the attendance of one of the Dominican priests. I assumed that this was because of the talk's substance - on teaching meditation and yoga in prison - the priest shying away from paganism! But no, my friend told me, it was because I was English! It was my first, real time, acquaintance with the troubled history of England and Ireland and throughout that, first, visit to Ireland, I remained sensitive as the ingrained hospitality of folk washed against the (often unconscious) rock of that tragedy.

I was reminded of this reading Tobias Churton's new biography of William Blake ('Jerusalem: The Real Life of William Blake) because he ably juxtaposes the troubled unfolding history of Blake's time with what Blake made of it as 'spiritual sign', reminding us that much of what appears at the surfaces has potentially deeper roots, emblematic of spiritual struggle, what in the Bible would be seen as the influence of 'the principalities and the powers'. For Blake history had both a personal and a collective 'unconscious' and no true progression towards a recreated order and a renewed liberty would occur unless this was understood, assimilated and lived out, made conscious and seen. He was undoubtedly a man after the order of a prophet - and indeed Churton, at one point, beautifully juxtaposes the poetry of Blake and of Isaiah. The juxtaposition is not simply one of language, Blake being a continuous student of the Bible, but an identity of role.

It occurred to me how we persistently fail to see our 'histories' through this lens of 'prophecy' - of all the cumulative realities that condition our behaviors - collectively - that lay out of sight, under mind.

As a prophet, Churton too wants you to recognise that Blake was a great thinker. Like any such he was indebted to many sources, and being 'self-taught' and often isolated, could be 'obscure' - the tares of obscurity grow in intellectual solitude to quote Mona Wilson, an earlier Blake biographer - but with patience and application, it begins to reveal itself.

Two examples may suffice - a century before Jung's Psychological Types - Blake in his 'Four Zoas' - had delineated them - thinking, feeling, sensation, intuition - and described them as part of a psychodynamic system in which wholeness is to be found when they live, consciously, in dynamic balance. Only, in Blake's case, he was less hesitant in seeing this as a spiritual system, wholly ensouled, and with metaphysical implication rather than, in Jung's case, a psychological 'contained' one that cannot reveal the true nature of things - because Jung being a follower of Kant - 'things in themselves' cannot be known. A hampering by Urizen (Blake's symbol of detached reason) that Blake would have diagnosed in Jung immediately (and no doubt in his habitual pithy language).

The second example are his illustrations for the Book of Job that are not only beautiful but a rigorous commentary on the text that both illuminates and critique it from the position of a Christian radical. There is in it not only a transformation of how the text could be read - as the redemption of Job from his pride - and the meaning of what it means to read a scriptural text not as a normative canon but as an experiment after knowing subject to future correction in spiritual experience.

Churton remarks at one point that if Blake had been German, he would have been recognised as a thinker, because he is English, he is recognised as an eccentric poet-painter to be loved if not understood. It is a remark that leads me to a final fantasy - of Blake traveling to Germany and finding himself in the company of another poet (and critic of Newton), namely Goethe. Would they have recognised one another as the most penetrating of Enlightenment's critics and the most noble of the defenders of the imagination? Maybe, and it is true of the new crop of Romantic poets that knew of Blake, it was the most intellectually gifted of them and the one most deeply influenced by German thought, Coleridge, that fully recognised Blake's genius.

As ever, Blake's biography is a moving one - a life constrained by poverty and misunderstanding and 'critical' contempt - of a vision doggedly pursued and expressed and, softened, in his last years by the recognition (and practical help) of the 'Ancients' - those young artists, Linnel most notably, who venerated him (if not always with anything approximating full understanding)! That would have to wait for another poetic genius, Yeats, stepped in similar patterns of excluded, esoteric learning, to bring Blake to the fore and the possibilities of his being loved and (possibly) known. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Neil Gunn's last novel

"The Other Landscape" was not well received.  The signs had been there for a time - the gifted novelist of social realism and Scottish community life had slowly been descending into 'mysticism' - and now here it was in full display, puzzling his readership, taking it to places, away from the kitchen sink, to some other place, where they could not follow. Gunn lost his readership.

Had another decade past, into the 60s, he might have been rediscovered by a younger audience, who having 'tuned in' may dropped through to this other way of seeing, Zen like, in its detached clarity. But here too, he may have been missed because this clarity emerges in the wholly unexotic context of everyday, Highland life. Hippies piling into their camper vans went off on their journeys to the East in search of the other shore, not staying amongst the familiar landscapes of home.

Gunn stayed put, within a place actually loved and known, his community but he knew that the deeper one looked, the quieter one's attention, something universal would emerge, an experienced unity of seeing, a clarity of apprehension where subjectivity and objectivity meet, and are transformed, where the mystery at the heart of things is revealed as the truth that is in silence, that can only be tasted, shown, never said.

"The Other Landscape" is an undoubtedly odd book. A composer has come to live with his young, Highland wife, at a white house, overlooking the sea. Annabel, the wife, dies in childbirth, as her husband, Donald, searches in vain for the doctor or the nurse on the night of a storm. Donald has strangely written a manuscript of a story that portends this fate, of coming grief, and submitted it to a London magazine. From where, after the tragedy, comes Urquhart from the magazine to discuss publication. Urquhart is a young anthropologist which is a profession whose relevance to the magazine is never explained. Urquhart is the book's narrator and though there is a flow of action that carries the book along what matters are the dialogues between Donald and Urquhart where Gunn explores what it might mean for a man to find meaning, where stripped to the barest grief and where is that meaning to be found.

For if God is rational, fitting within the traditional theological stories, he is the Wrecker, the image is Donald's, and there is no answer, except perhaps to put such 'traditional notions' to their rest and stoically face a world of indifference, flaring beauty and tragedy in equal measure.

But perhaps one can see through the Wrecker to a different landscape where something awaits an act of seeing and loving that brings a world to conscious completion, and that sees the world after the light of eternity, where everything is present and nothing lost. To say this, and more, is probably self-defeating, but to seek the consciousness of it may not be. And this is what Donald does, and where, in their conversations, Urquhart seeks to follow.

For those with the insight, or a yearning, for such seeing the book is richly rewarding. There are moments when Gunn manages to say it just right - a detachment born of bearing grief that Donald exhibits, seen unflinchingly or the way Gunn uses the analogy of Pilate's question to Jesus of what is truth that can only be answered with a face of compassionate silence.

But also the way the 'commonplace' sub plots help anchor this into the daily choices that life presents us with. In the hotel, where Urquhart stays, is the Major, a former soldier and diplomat, whose untold life suggests similar tragic scars to that of Donald but who has never been able to lay down his ego before them, has resisted them rather than entered them, who being afraid of their dark, has never grasped the light beyond them. He envies Donald from afar and inflicts his woundedness on others, rather than bears it for others.

It is a beautiful, complex book, not in every part realised, but that perhaps is the imperfection of words before mystery, and full too of Gunn set pieces - man pitched against the elements, a storm at sea, full of evocative, beautiful writing and man pitched towards the woman he will love, tossed and turned in the manner of it, love's dance.

It will continue to seek out its readers, I trust, and remain a part of this great novelist's oeuvre, even if the earlier, more 'conventional' books will continue to gather the most readers. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Devils of Loudon

A provincial priest in the first half of the seventeenth century in France antagonises a significant portion of his community. He does this first through the envy he evokes because of his looks, manners and sophistication, second because his haughty manner alienates as he spoils for fights and third because he amorously transgresses among the town's female population.

So far, so normal...but the mother superior of a local convent has become fixated on the said priest, even though she has never met him, and falls into a hysteric identification, encouraged by the priest's enemies, until soon we have the convent possessed with demons, demons supposedly invoked and manipulated by the said priest, now a sorcerer; and, a case of possession attractive to the powers in France, for their own reasons, the powers being that of Cardinal Richelieu. The poor priest finds his only escape in the dignity he exhibits when he is tortured and burnt. He denies his enemies the confession they were hoping for.

It is this set of events that Aldous Huxley examines with his exemplary intelligence, imagination and wit. He shows that though we might consider such an event simply an archaic historic event, for who now believes in 'devils', an event that merely illustrates the malignancy that always emerges when religion, politics and human envies collide, it is, in truth, only too relevant an occurrence.

The framing belief structure changes - the devils move from the metaphysical to the political plane - but the reality persists. It persists wherever we permit our words to harden into 'dogma' and the idealism with which we zealously manipulate these dogmas overruns our ability to continually greet the world as something wonderingly unknown in which we gently tread, compassionately learning as we go.

As with his 'Grey Eminence' (see here, Huxley is fascinated by the consequence on the development of an individual soul by their possession of a 'bad theology'. In this case that of Fr Surin, one of the Jesuit exorcists, whose incredulity about the nun's possession both, paradoxically, prolonged but ultimately brought to a conclusion, the nun's suffering. In truth, it was a case of induced, and externally reinforced, hysteria that failed to meet the Church's own criteria for possession and the Mother Prioress needed an escape route that yet validated their prior experience as possessed. Thus, she used Surin's credulity to manufacture the requisite 'miracles' that allowed her, and her fellow nuns, to return to a normal life, dispossessed.

Surin was highly gifted and a contemplative but his failure was to be caught up in pursuing 'exceptional graces' (or experiences). Around these, he wove a complex sense of spiritual specialness that isolated him from the world before him. Thus, God, who is to be found in the facts, in the rounded particulars of everyday life - including in disturbed nuns in need of care and loving discipline rather than exorcism - eluded him. Ironically the flip side of exceptional graces became exceptional abandonment and Surin spend years convinced of his own damnation and psycho-somatically paralysed until one day a confessor spoke a word of hope and, whilst staying with a friend, he stepped into the garden and saw it was beautiful!

Weaving through Huxley's telling is a psychologically and spiritually penetrating exploration of the subtle ways we convince ourselves of things, re-writing experience to the pattern of our beliefs, engaging in all kinds of self-justificatory behaviours. We are an extraordinary complexity of competing selves. It is an unflattering portrayal told compassionately and not devoid of hope, of tools of self-understanding. His contemporary parallels are themselves dating namely the totalitarianisms of the last century), however, his analysis of our urge to self-transcendence and its ability to be falsely met - either in the busyness of everyday life or the negativities of driving causes - is exemplary and sobering. You can sadly paint this story across a new set of challenges - wether they be our fear of terror or the provisioners of terror. Bad theology and bad politics and their unholy alliances in our own frailty, as Huxley, says are always with us.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Neurotic Beauty - Looking into Japan

Japan maybe a model for a steady state, sustainable economy built from a society that is grounded in an emptiness from which all creativity flows, a sense of presence towards one another and the natural world, and the celebration of craft. This would be contradistinction to a world adrift in a void from which consumption flows, where we hope to fill the gap by fashioning an endlessly postponed identity wrapped up in things, where we are rarely present because we are always looking over the shoulder of presence to a future that never appears to arrive in any satisfactory shape, and where lasting craft is replaced with built in obsolescence.

Morris Berman in his beautiful and provocative, 'Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks at Japan' admits that it is a big 'maybe' but marshals his evidence with slow building care and on the way gives the reader a fascinating tour through both recent and ancient Japanese history, culture and philosophy.

He begins with the arrival of Commander Perry's 'black ships' that broke open Japan to the modern world from over two hundred years of self-sufficient, sustainable isolation and which set the country on a path of 'catch up' and denial. Catch up because it recognised that unless it changed and adopted Western dress (especially technology and imperial prospects), it too would be swallowed by the swaggering march of Western colonialism: if you cannot elude them, join them! Denial because in the process, Berman argues, the core cultural content or frame of Japan went 'underground' continuing as a way of life but now expressed in a kind schizophrenic duality with the race for progress.

This bifurcation threw up ugly shadows, not least Japan's own colonial record and aggression towards its neighbours, that was highly conflicted - we will mirror whom we imitate (the Western powers) but yet as an Asian power who thinks (with the other side of our mind) that we might lead Asia to liberation from the very same powers we are imitating! Go figure!

I cannot hope to rehearse the complex argumentation here only to say he makes a good case.

At the core Japanese culture reflects the bounty of emptiness, drawing on Buddhist roots, that nothing has value except that it abides in an emergent web of relationships, paying attention to those relationships enables you to craft resilient forms - whether social or physical - in the production of which the ego is minimised and relativised. Those forms are characterised by their being forged by craft, the endless, quiet practice of making; and, thus, the emphasis is on perfecting not production, on quality not quantity, on lasting not consuming. There is a deeply ascetic quality to Japanese life but one that does not despise celebration, gift and beauty.

Much of this has been suppressed by a pursuit of an 'ideal' rooted in the American way but in the last two decades of apparent 'stagnation', it is possibly, and slowly, being unpicked. Mr Abe may be trying to reignite the consumptive way but many Japanese are either revolting (in peculiarly Japanese' ways - taking to their bedrooms and refusing to come out or adopting minimum cost, floating lifestyles) or voting with their feet (by reviving crafts, promoting alternate currencies [and Japan has more of these than any other country] or returning to the land).

None of which make Berman a prophet (nor would he want to be) but all of which invite us to contemplate a society that both in its light and its shadows appears to be wrestling, at a very deep level, with what it might mean to be a society that can actually survive and flourish in a context of reducing consumption and is seeking out alternatives (backed by very powerful spiritual and philosophic traditions) to the fraying path of continuous growth.

Learning to meditate

A piece I wrote recently for the next edition of the Prison Phoenix Trust newsletter  and resonant with this rece...