Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Eye of the Storm

Patrick White

Andrei Tarkovsky says something to the effect in his diaries that you should only ever adapt second division literature for films (that does not appear to have prevented him working on Dostoyevsky though the project never came to fruition). With that, possibly sage like, advice in mind, I could only approach the film of Patrick White's 'The Eye of the Storm' with trepidation.

If you attempted to show forth the book in all its multi-dimensional giftedness, you would have to fail, where every sentence is akin to a painting wanting you to pause and be interrogated by its meanings and where nothing is explicated if it can be simply shown. White, himself, wanted to be a painter and the art of painting is to slow you down, draw you back and in. Even though both film and painting are visual arts, they exist in a tension of momentum. White wanted to be read slowly, with contemplative pauses, with scrutiny of the reader's visual, visceral, felt response. Film, however, slow, and too slow is deadly, wants to move you on; and, why, as a medium, it has difficulty with showing those inward experiences when time is arrested and another world is glimpsed, enfolded in this one, that is a major dimension of White's art. To do this effectively, you do truly need to be a genius film maker, like Tarkovsky, yet always live with a certain, ever present failure.

Thankfully, however, the greatness of White's art is to embody this contemplative script in another White, the artful describer of social comedy. We come to illumination, if we do, fully embodied, we may find this body a frightful encumbrance, wanting to shake it off, with all its dragging features of physical decay and emotional freight, but alas it is who and where we are and the light we glimpse comes through and with the body, not by escaping it. Whatever the temptations to Gnostic flight that many of White's characters possess, we can only find redemption in and through the world - the sparks of each and everything can only be freed from their weight by being intentionally valued in their own right and used aright. White was an intuitive student of the Kabbalah (as his greatest novel, Riders in the Chariot, shows) and he knows that unless all is redeemed, every last blade of grass, to switch religious metaphor, nothing is.

So the makers of 'The Eye of the Storm' triumphantly focus on this aspect - the social comedy of a family that is anything but loving and allow the 'other White' to glimpse through if you have the eyes to see, whilst delivering a thoughtful (and darkly humorous) entertainment where the dreadful and very alluring Mrs Hunter approaches her death and her two children, disappointed in life, come hoping to cling onto their inheritance, so that they might be comfortable at least in their own disappointed old age (or just perhaps find diversion enough to move beyond the simply comfortable to the being comforted).

The cast (Charlotte Rampling, Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush) being brilliant carry this all of with aplomb - a dark comedy of manners - where the possibility of new insight is continually being rebuffed and the established habits remaining, for all their obvious dysfunctionality, in place except within the central image - of being at the eye of the storm. This is beautifully woven into the film as a flashback of a moment that both explains why Mrs Hunter lost the affection of her daughter and thus accompanying the social comedy - and yet is displayed as the one moment in Mrs Hunter's life when she stepped out of her manipulative self-consciousness and was free. She, on an island, alone, shelters from a storm, emerging, intact, to find her beach house destroyed, nothing artificial standing in the face of the storm. Now in the 'eye' all is peace, temporary but real, and she celebrates aliveness on the beach, everything is momentarily renewed.

Its strangeness, estrangement, from the rest of the film is slotted in adroitly and works - an image of freedom enjoyed but for never being woven back into the pattern of Mrs Hunter's life remaining always a tantalising what if, plucking at conscience, consciousness but never breaking through - except perhaps now in Mrs Hunter's last moments, granting an easeful death (not loosed from comedy as it comes as she rises with its memory from her commode)! Truth has a way of following us about even against the toughest practices of evasion.

Finishing the film, I realised it was one of the few of White's core works that I had only read once, so am reading it again, and that, in itself, testifies to the qualities of the film - though gloriously repaid, reading a White novel is a commitment for both their length and their density!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Place of the Lion

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks

Mr Berringer has fallen into an unconscious state leaving a space to be filled - a speaker must be found for his study group in the small, and fictional, English town of Smetham in Hertfordshire. Two of the ladies in the group approach a young local woman, working on her doctorate, Damaris Tighe. There is an apparent symmetry between Mr Berringer's work and her own - both are interested in the archetypal patterns that give shape to the world but whereas Mr Berringer is a practising adept of the magical, Ms Tighe is strictly a scholar presently tracing Plato's influence on Abelard and not in any form 'a believer'!

Mr Berringer's trance state, however, is about to upset Damaris' unbelief because he has opened a rift in the fabric of the world, the archetypes, having taken animal form, are afoot in the world, drawing their multiple types towards them for good and ill, mostly ill, for their power is abroad but not their virtue, nor the balance between them that Charles Williams suggests is provided by the reality of the creation.

For we are in a Charles Williams' novel where the normal patterns of everyday life are intruded upon by the magical, the otherworldly and the sacred in a way that happily suspends disbelief and as the drama unfolds, with liberal dashes of horror and beauty, asks of the reader big and interesting questions.

It was Plato himself that tells us that the 'Ideas' or 'Forms' - the ideal pattern after which every particular is modelled - are alive (and, therefore, subject to change in time) and here they appear as animals - the lion, the butterfly, the serpent, the horse, the eagle and the lamb - and are described with real conviction by Williams - the lion appears the epitome of lion-ness - but whereas in the created order of things - each idea is balanced against every other - here the 'idea' appears in its own naked realness and draws to itself that which most represents it - lions, of course, and an escaped lioness from a zoo is quickly transformed but also human beings who identify with the 'lion' or, in the case of Mr Tighe, Damaris' father, a butterfly collector, the beauty of the butterfly. As the story unfolds, you realise you are being asked to contemplate both the light and the dark of identification with any one quality. Is not the best truth of a human being a blend? You are also being asked to contemplate power - identification (or fundamentalism) gives one a certain power - the actions of certainty - but also stripped of anything of redeeming context, balance or empathy with difference. You become less human - as Mr Foster (subsumed by the lion) pursues his perceived enemies and Mrs Wilmot (subsumed by the serpent) writes poisoned pen letters setting to rights the village.

Likewise in Damaris you have the image of a woman wrapped up in an activity that has become its own justification. It has separated from any question of whether the ideas with which she deals are true (or good or beautiful) and her single minded quest for a position in an artificial, imbalanced world, in this case the academy, has made her self-centred, haughty and remote. In this she is contrasted with her suitor, her cousin, Anthony, who is introduced walking in the countryside with his friend, Quentin, and friendship becomes more than a metaphor for one of the ways, we maintain a balanced, whole presence in the world. It is Damaris' refusal to help Quentin that trips her into a dark encounter with one of the loosed powers and rescued by Anthony and by her own choices triggers her conversion to a new vision of herself and into a renewed relationship with Anthony. 

Meanwhile, it is Anthony supported by Damaris (and the bookshop assistant, Mr Richardson) who close the rift by recalling humanity's function in Adam (and Eve) of naming the animals that Williams' implies not only confers on them their unique, particular identity but does so with a pattern that recognises our and their complete interdependency. Nothing exists on its own, only in co-inherence, and the seed of all fault is to forget this. 

The book ends on this act of renaming and restoring to harmony - one is tempted to describe this as an ecological parable. Many will demur. They will argue that it is human beings' assumption that they are the centrepiece of the creation that is the source of our problems. But Williams is of a different party. He would argue that it is only since we displaced ourselves as cosmic guardians and saw ourselves, in an increasingly fractured way, as simply 'part of nature', an animal amongst other animals, that our serious despoiling of that very 'nature' or 'environment' began in earnest, without self-correcting limit. It is precisely because we do not exercise the responsibility we have been given in a cosmos completed by us, a co-creation with God, that we have settled for being 'only human' amongst the other animals, which has often meant, that we become less than other animals, wrapped in seeking an identity, satisfaction and consumption, restless activity rather than a composed crafting, a repairing of cosmos. This activity requires one to take the 'forms' seriously - the archetypal patterns that unfold into the world - in their co-inherence  - not to identify with any particular characteristic or manipulate them - but in naming them, honouring them to see the world aright and allow it to act with the full dignity and harmony in which it is made - in truth and goodness bearing forth beauty.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Magician of Lublin

The magician is 'good' with women, exceptionally good. He has a wife, his theatrical assistant is also his mistress, a third woman, deserted by her own husband, clings to him and a fourth, the widow of a professor awaits him eagerly in Warsaw.

It is this fourth who sparks the crisis. She is a Christian, the magician a Jew and she wants him to convert and seek recognition (and his fortune) in the 'West' settling first in Italy so that the climate can assist her daughter's health. To make this possible, the magician will have to not only abandon his faithful wife but also his religion; and, he will have to find money, a finding only possible by theft. The theft ought to be easy (he has already promised himself that he will return the money when he is a famous and better remunerated performer) as he is both agile and an accomplished springer of locks. It is not to be - his attempted burglary of a miser goes awry - either through divine intervention or unconscious slippage and his life unravels.

His leg hurt from his escaping the bungled burglary, he finds himself taking refuge (for the second time in recent weeks) in a prayer house and his tradition returns to claim him. His assistant, despairing of his potential going away, commits suicide. The deserted wife, drawn to Warsaw, to be with the magician, is drawn into a relationship with a white slaver and ends up in Argentina presiding over a brothel. The magician's relationship with the widow is doomed as he realises he cannot give her what she wants - either spiritually or materially.

So far so melodramatic and the 'piece de resistance' is his returning home and rather than embracing his wife and the life of a restorative domesticity decides to suffer penance and walls himself up in a small construction in his yard where he spends the day in prayer and examination of conscience, supported by his long suffering, and unsurprisingly complaining wife. The irony being that this attracts to him the reputation of being a holy man, a rabbi, and people flock to him to either unburden their sins, ask for miraculous intervention or, in a minority of cases, to mock.

The tale is told beautifully by Isaac Bashevis Singer - all its improbabilities are undercut by an acute psychology and a willingness to entertain the spiritual properties of the world such that you find yourself in a magical realism, acute as it is entertaining, a moral and spiritual fable. You recognise the play of belief and doubt, the way situations you thought were under your control have a life of their own and the way in which the mind justifies to itself the decency of its own acts. As the writer and psychotherapist, Marion Milner, noted we judge people by their actions, ourselves only by our intentions.

You watch too how we respond to one crisis - the magician's dissolute, disintegrating life - by imposing another - an impossible act of penance (that presumes that everything that happens around us is our fault which is as presumptive an egotism as if we assume that nothing is).

But the novel closes on two notes of possible redemption. The first is when his wife delivering a letter to him one morning rather than bewail his situation (as has become customary) simply shares the too and fro of her own life with him. The second is the letter itself which comes from the widow that both shows that her life subsequent to his departure has not lain in ruins (as he fantasises in his own conscience wallowing) and that acknowledges her own part in their separation.

You begin to see as the novel closes, the invitation to a more balanced, sober accounting of a life that offers routes back into the daily round of encounter, responsibility, love and loss, one that is rooted in a religion that offers a framing to life in the world, not a surrender of it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Christian de Cherge and forgiveness

Unsurprisingly today I found myself reminded of the letter of Fr Christian de Cherge murdered by Islamist extremists in Algeria in 1996, prescient of his own death, he meditates on its reality and consequence. 

Like the victims in Paris and Beirut and onwards.. he did not chose his death but he did chose how to see it. It was inflicted by those who imagined they served a greater cause but for whom no cause justifies death, the destruction of God's perfect creation. We, being human, are called only to honour life.  In the greater vision of God, in whom there is no forgiveness because God is forgiveness, they will be stripped and judged and loved. Would that they touched God's compassion and mercy in this, their life so that they had acted differently and thus could enjoy true surrender in a merciful life lived thoroughly.  Long and hard are the routes of those who fail to surrender into mercy.

Here is Fr Christian's letter of whose life the film "Of Gods and Men" is a moving tribute.

"If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called "the grace of martyrdom," to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims—finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I learned at my mother's knee, my very first Church.

My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: "Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!" But these people must realise that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.

For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this "thank you," which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families—the hundred-fold granted as was promised!

And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this "thank you"—and this —to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.

And may we find each other, happy "good thieves," in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen."

The Third Inkling

Grevel Lindop's new and excellent biography opens with Charles Williams, who was, by poverty, forced to abandon his formal education at seventeen, lecturing to spellbound, ever increasing, audiences at Oxford University in 1940. He was allowed to lecture only because it was wartime when the normal rules did not apply or could be judiciously bent.

Would William's reputation have been more ascendent and sustained if a university had been his sustenance and support, as it was for his friends C.S. Lewis and J. R. Tolkien? Probably not Williams, with the exception of 'The Inklings', found Oxford somewhat 'sterile' preferring the imaginative bustle of his native London; but, being more popular and better remunerated would.

For Williams' work had to be produced alongside a full time job at the urbane but ferociously busy London branch of the Oxford University Press supplemented by part-time lecturing, hack work and jobbing journalism. It often, even at its best, carried the air of being somewhat unfinished, a brilliance of ideas and insight, let down by their never quite becoming fully incarnated in the best forms of expression (or of argument). There was never time for the final reflective polishing.

But what brilliance despite polish? A poet, a novelist and a critic of the first rank, waiting to be rediscovered; and, a theologian and occultist too! A man who asked you not merely to learn about poetry or enjoy a novel but to learn from them, to be changed by them. Poetry he once said should live in the blood and the bones. Its rhythm yours.

What do we learn if we do?

First, as his friend, T.S. Eliot, noted, that the world is strange. What we take for 'ordinary' reality carries within and beyond it both the uncanny and the wonderful, if we attend aright. Sometimes it can be unnerving: "A room, a street, a field becomes unsure. The edge of possibility of utter alienation intrudes...". Sometimes it can be revelatory, "A hand lighting a cigarette is the explanation of everything, a foot stepping from a train is the rock of all existence". There is another world yet it is enfolded, enfolds this one - a sacred world whose lineaments are best explored through a consciousness attuned to the imaginal (and magical).

Second, this strangeness carries within it possibilities of both good and evil and these are objective properties of the world not social constructs. These possibilities are best displayed in his remarkable fiction that carry the surface nature of occult thrillers deepened out into profound meditations on metaphysics most especially on the choices we face in pursuing or surrendering power. My own favourite is 'The Greater Trumps' which in the portrayal of one of its character's, Aunt Sybil, is, I think, one of the most remarkable achievements in literature of seeking to depict the saintly. This has been a challenge to many, greater artists, one thinks immediately of Dostoyevsky's repetitive failure; and, one thinks Williams more successful because he had a better sense of humour! Williams too matches any writer in his depiction of evil not least because he is honest enough to note all the attractions it had for himself.

Third, was his notion of substitution, one that he practiced and encouraged others to practice. This recognised that a person might be carrying a burden too great for them - psychological or physical - such as an anxiety over a forthcoming event. The person would offer to 'take it from them', imaginatively suffer it, and because more detached from it, contain it better. The sufferer would be relieved. Whether from suggestion or actuality, many who tried this path reported that it helped, and made of it a life long practice (however strange others might think this to be in a secularised age).

And, finally, substitution was believed to work because we are all one of another, 'co-inherent' was the word Williams used. We are all created in the likeness of God, individual and particular, but each as thread woven on a common shared weft, each contributing their specificity to wider whole, for good or ill, and yet always working towards a final glory.

This patterning of thoughts are embedded and illuminated in Lindop's comprehensive, compassionate and honest telling of Williams' life.

A life not untroubled - a complex marriage of mismatched but necessary halves, a failure to be a consistent or caring father, the constant searching after money; and, most challengingly his tendency, becoming necessity, of falling in love with young women and entering a rich troubling fantasy life with them. Rich because most of the woman themselves emerged, though not unscathed, with a long lasting gratitude for what they had received in understanding and life. Troubling because, though apparently unconsummated, they were deeply coloured by sadomasochistic fantasy that sometimes resulted in the infliction of punishment and pain. These though, with caveats, consensual were undoubtedly manipulative and, for Williams, increasingly addictive. These fantasies Williams came to believe were necessary for his art but like many believed necessities we will never know.

These shadows sit alongside a compelling portrait of a man who was fundamentally given to generosity and care; and, was consistently inspirational. As W. H. Auden wrote, "for the first time in my life I felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity... In the presence of this man...I did not feel ashamed (as on meeting other good men). I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving. (I later discovered that he had had a similar effect on many people)".

This wonderful biography can serve to remind us that there is no glib equation of 'holiness' with 'wholeness' and that the saint lives with both their brokenness and their woundings too. It also reminds what gifted and neglected author Williams is; and, hopefully, will help mend that and bring him into better regard.

Friday, November 13, 2015

At 50,000

Being ever so slightly nerdy, I have been tracking the statistics of this blog and have happily passed the 50,000 individual page view mark (that is wholly arbitrary perhaps but worth a celebratory nod).

Broken down by country of origin, the United States (first) and the United Kingdom (second) represent almost a half of all viewers, followed by Russia, France and Ukraine. But have spread my tentacles from Argentina to Japan, from South Africa to Australia.

The three most popular posts have been:

The first two, I suspect, because of the images rather my sparkling prose!

I am happy to be viewed at all and trust that viewers/readers take some measure of delight from what they see/read.

Thank you for dropping by.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Degrees of separation

Reading Grevel Lindop's new biography of Charles Williams, I was struck by degrees of separation: in the case of Williams only one; and, the one who, in the acknowledgements, is recognised as giving Lindop the impetus for writing the biography in the first place; namely, the poet, Anne Ridler. I had met Anne at St Mary the Virgin, the University Church in Oxford, that we both attended; and, I religiously went to her house once a month to attend a silent prayer group for which I, periodically, prepared the readings and facilitated. Then I knew barely anything of Williams. He was to me a footnote to the Inklings, important to C.S. Lewis especially, but no more. How I regret this now! Had I known, and of Anne's willingness, eagerness to discuss him, I would have pounced!

But it is worse for another of Williams' friends, deeper yet than Anne, one of the women whom Williams saw as one of his muses (and acolytes), also, floated into my reach - Lois Lang-Sims - a member of the Friends of the Centre, an informal study group for spirituality and psychology, whose chair was a friend of mine and whose annual seaside gathering I attended (and indeed it was the first conference I ever addressed - on ecology and the sacred - with Teddy Goldsmith, the founder of The Ecologist and uncle of the putative Conservative mayor of London, my co-speaker)!

Two possibilities lost to glean first hand accounts of this remarkable, neglected, poet, novelist and theologian (with occult tendencies).

I have to make do with the skilled hands of Lindop and so far so good - beautifully written, sympathetic yet critical and painted against the backdrop of its time.

This too struck home. What is it about particular times and places that make them resonate more than others? Here I am reminded of a remark of the novelist, Paul Scott, that we live out the values of our grandparents (making the first third of the last century decidedly my period) either in opposition or with regard but always with feeling. This would explain the immediate identification with Williams and his family and his own struggle to remain economically aloft, the importance of education (and its informal acquisition), the atmosphere of self-improvement rubbing against class distinction; and, the omnipresent hovering of the First World War and its disjointing of values (even if, as in this case, Williams was excused fighting through ill health and short sight).

It would not explain, however, in a very different context why I am haunted by the expatriate experience of China in the 20s and 30s - a country I have never visited (nor one of my ancestors as far as I can tell)! Williams would simply say it was a product of our interconnectedness - there is nothing ultimately in the patterning of our common humanity that we do not share. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

The music of heaven

Paul Tortelier playing the the Prelude from J.S. Bach's first cello suite. This is the one of two pieces of music that I want played at my funeral and, in want of a professional cellist, the recording should be by Tortelier for his musicianship and his humanity.

He was a true believer in the potentiality of music to unite beyond difference and of beauty to save the world if attended to aright. I remember the vivid engagement of the master classes he gave in Oxford and of a memorable evening in London at a performance of Walton's cello concerto when he dedicated it to peace and gave a wonderful impromptu plea for reconciliation of all to all from the stage in heavily accented, heartfelt French.

Splendidly he relates in his autobiography seeing a beautiful town in (I think) Belgium disfigured by garish adverts for Coca Cola and being moved, him and his students, to a night time of guerilla poster stripping!

The Bach suites are extraordinary pieces - a serenity binds each one as it explores every facet of potential mood, moving back and forth from a still centre. They recognise every facet of our humanity and witness to a core of yet something other - a divine image dancing in each and every particularity of our step.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The iconography of eternity

The Musician by Cecil Collins

Music was essential to Collins as a referent to what he was seeking to embody in paint. Music is forming sound wholly real and wholly itself. It does not imitate the world, represent it. It sounds the chords out of which the world is woven. So to for Collins, as Brian Keeble makes beautifully clear in his 'Cecil Collins: The Artist as Writer and Image Maker', at his most luminous Collins' images embody the archetypal forms of the world without dissolving into the realistic particularities of the world. They carry you across into a contemplation of the essential forms from which the world is made.

Collins' art is essentially Platonic -the forms are alive, flexible, transforming - and iconic - you are seen through them by a glimpse of eternity.

As here, the musician is recognisably one and yet in a place that is 'nowhere' particular - an ideal form yet an idea that is alive, pregnant with the possibility of offering a purifying sound. Collins' paintings elude history and offer eternity. They elude particular religious reference, the accumulation of tradition, and offer sacredness unalloyed. An invitation to a renewed paradise.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Do souls go bump in the night?

The nineteenth century was a time of rapid, radical change. Matthew Arnold's 'Sea of Faith' appeared to be ebbing, leaving many high and dry, left without the traditional patterns of religious faith and yet unable to embrace the new progressive, scientific materialism. Was there an alternative? Could the tools of scientific empiricism aid belief, reconfigure it for a new age?

This was a driving question behind the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research in which a high minded group of Victorian intellectuals sought to assess the evidence for powers of the mind that appeared to step beyond the bounds of the 'laws of nature' currently understood. One of the principal architects of this was F.W.H. Myers (portrayed above) - a Cambridge trained classicist and (like Arnold) a Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools.

As well as the rise of scientific materialism (and positivism), the SPR had to contend (on its left as it were) with the phenomenon of spiritualism. It is one of the virtues of Trevor Hamilton's 'Immortal Longings, F.W.H. Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death' that he compellingly reminds us just how powerful and present spiritualism was in the nineteenth century; and, if it was not always seen as respectable (like astrology perhaps today), this did not prevent all stratas of society engaging with it across its full range from the entertaining professional medium on stage to the privacy of the seance or the planchette.

What the SPR strove to do was to develop a scientifically robust approach to researching a wide range of phenomena from the medium to the mesmerist, from the clairvoyance of seeing (at a distance) a loved one's death to investigating haunted houses.

In doing this, they laid the foundations for 'parapsychology' (and found themselves in a similar position as the discipline today, not quite acceptable,  a discipline pursued by the gifted amateur or freelancer or the professional who either does not care for advancement in the halls of the academy or has retired (as one distinguished cognitive scientist put it to me recently on their retirement - now finally I can take up my interest in the 'paranormal')!

Myers fell into the category of 'gifted amateur', as a brilliant classicist by training, but the SPR did attract distinguished scientists, not least of which was William James, and, as Holland shows, did indeed achieve a level of rigour and methodology on which others have been able to build. They, also, in passing made significant contributions to mainstream psychological and medical understanding, for example, in the therapeutic use of hypnotism, multiple personalities; and, of the subliminal consciousness (the latter one of Myer's many coinages).

Myers, himself, was driven by a desire to know whether personal immortality was a real prospect and how this could be understood within a wider cosmic frame of human evolution. By the time of his death, he was convinced not least because he felt he had encountered, through more than one medium, Annie Marshall, a woman he had deeply loved in a wholly Platonic way, whose death had deeply marked his life. Knowing this, scepticism is inevitable for was this not simply wish fulfilment cunningly or compassionately manipulated by the medium?

It is the great virtue of Hamilton's book to suggest that the answer is not that simple as it sifts the scientific, cultural and personal context of the SPR investigations in general and Myers' role in particular. The book never loses either its compassionate interest in the pursuit or its balanced assessment of evidence, leaving the reader to judge on which side of any debate he or she wishes to stand.

It is no surprise to find myself on Myers' side not least because he (and the SPR) come over as the one's possessed of a genuine empiricism and both the spiritualists and the materialists continually betray a set of non-negotiable beliefs that do not let them see.

An example of this is with regard to fraud - on the one hand the spiritualist credulity tends to fail to see it at all, the materialist certainty projects it everywhere. Meanwhile, the SPR spy it out, though not infallibly, and, more importantly recognise, the complex human dynamics that drive fraud. Sometimes this is simply greed (mediums were often paid professionals) but often it was a result of the pressures to perform. A person might show significant results, inviting further scrutiny, but, say in the case of mediumship, this is not a simple repeatable act, that you can turn on and off at will, and yet pride or helpfulness (mingled with the need to make a living) all propel you to that repetition, so why not cheat a little, here and there? Just because one is discovered cheating does not invalidate all claims (though it greatly complicates examining them and forces you to look at the context of each and every encounter).

Through the lens of this (developing) discipline, you do begin to sense that they were (are) onto something - that mind is not wholly dependent on matter and that the shores of mind go beyond the boundaries of this particular time and space. The real challenge now is how to develop a theoretical framework that expands our understanding of consciousness to embrace these accumulating anomalies rather than merely to exclude them; and, in doing so recognise Myers and the SPR's pioneering role.

P.S. So, for example, one piece of evidence is a medium's ability to give a specific information to a sitter that (a) was connected to the sitter, that (b) the sitter did not know; and, (c) that was subsequently demonstrated to be correct and the information had a specificity that does not allow for over-interpretation and to which the medium had no conceivable access. This the SPR was able to demonstrate repeatedly, with more than one medium, and only recourse to "grand conspiracy' theories of fraud would appear to undermine.

Encountering Martin Buber

This week I re-read my first book on Martin Buber. While still at school, my interest had been stimulated by a chapter in Anne Bancrof...