Tuesday, April 19, 2016

J.B. Priestley well seen...almost...


The jovial, hail well met image of a bluff, direct but kindly Yorkshireman that emanates from this, and other, photographs of J. B. Priestley was not anywhere near the truth. A useful persona but like any mask also a limitation, one in which you can only too quickly become trapped.

Priestley, as his biographer Judith Cook wants to show, was significantly more complex than this. This in large measure she does with one unfortunate failing, redeemed at the very end of her well written, engaging text.

One of his complexities was his family life. He was married three times and at one point as his first wife is dying, he is conducting an affair with the woman who is to become his second. Jane, his second wife, was herself untangling herself from a failing marriage and was to have a daughter, born of Priestley, but a fact only revealed to the unfortunate girl, Mary, at a much later, too late, stage. As one of Priestley's six children remarks many of the aspects of their lives would have been simpler if their parents had only spoken to them about context and feeling. Cook's handling of this complexity is always sympathetic to all parties; and, indeed, one of the remarkable features of Priestley was his ability often to live 'double' lives with a curious generosity to all.

This generosity, however, broke down in divorcing Jane where he wickedly projects onto Jane that it is her pulling away and seeking out a partner that is responsible for the breakdown of the marriage when he had already embarked on a long standing, deeply passionate engagement with Jacquetta Hawkes, the archaeologist and writer. Happily for all concerned, it was third time lucky for both Priestley and Jane (and their respective partners) for finally they had both found their matches.

Complexity too in that Priestley's life was haunted by his experience of the First World War (in which he served from 1914 until invalided out in early 1918, mostly serving in the ranks before belatedly accepting a commission). Except in one brief autobiographical memoir, he never wrote about it, yet even in his eighties, his secretary would find his gaze lost, his eyes misted and knew instinctively he was thinking of the war. Cook speculates what kind of writer would he have been had he decided to write on this, his most traumatic experience, and, how different a book it might have been from, say, Robert Graves' ''Goodbye to All That'' given their differences of class and perception. For Graves the war was a scaring adventure, for Priestley it was a bludgeoning horror, Graves saw it as an officer from the very class whose mismanagement had led to the chaos, Priestley saw it as one of the fodder led to slaughter.

It was not to be - and Cook quotes one friend and critic of Priestley's that suggests that all his subsequent words - millions of them - were efforts at forgetting - of strangely seeking to renew a vision of the world without staring into that abyss. This is obviously unprovable but suggestive. For one of Priestley's concerns was how do we write ourselves into a vision of the world that allows us to be of our better selves - and his famous Postscript talks on the BBC in World War II, listened to by an incredible one third of the total population, asked a simple question, at their heart, would the world be different this time? After this war? And asking that was a significant contributor to the triumph of Labour in the 1945 General Election (so much so that Priestley's talks were eventually spiked by the Establishment, rightly fearing them).

The unfortunate failing in Cook's telling is an inability to truly convey Priestley's deep engagement with what the critic, Gareth Lloyd Evans, perceptively sees as Priestley's seeking after explorations of conscience and of ultimate human meaning, outside the boundary of religion. Like many biographies of figures of the last century early faith is lost (and unless as in the case of, say, a C.S. Lewis or an Aldous Huxley very obviously reacquired), this losing goes virtually unremarked. Was it as casual as this neglect suggests? It is rather like being at a dinner party where any mention of anything too serious, let alone, religion is taboo.

But as Cook rather beautifully illustrates at the end of her book the question of meaning pursues Priestley and time and again it threads its way through his novels, essays and dramas as a real core. Time being an apt analogy because, significantly, time and its workings were an important clue to life's meaning. The illustration is a dream on which the biography ends and which we are told haunted Priestley throughout his life.

The dream has Priestly standing alone on a tall tower watching millions of birds fly past in one direction. It was a beautiful sight until a gear changes and time quickens - now all he sees is an accelerated process of birth, growth, death and decay in which meaning is drained out in a simple blind struggle for existence. Until the gear is changed yet again such that time flowed so fast, Priestley saw an enormous plain sown with feathers through which magically danced the 'lambency of being' - a white flame of life that imparted reality to everything, embodied in everything.

What you see depends on where you stand and when, in what frame of time or eternity.

It is no doubt understandable that Cook finds this a difficult landscape to explore, bound as it was with Priestley's concern with Dunne's theory of time, Ouspensky's concern for recurrence, Maurice Nicoll's Living Time and Jung's synchronicity - sufficient meat for anyone, some of it difficult to digest - but it is a pity that she did not, except in this final image, allow it better to play in the fabric of Priestley's life and work. Ironically (given the dimensionality of time), it is a whole dimension missing.

Nevertheless, Cook's biography is a fine telling of a grand life, a life whose work deserves to better known. Let us hope the key plays continue to be performed, reinterpreted anew, and that in their trail the central novels and essays (and the great 'English Journey') continue to find the discerning reader.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Specializing in being ungenerous

The poet, Edwin Muir, had to make money in diverse ways (as poets tend to) - writing a biography, say, of John Knox, ironically the man that came closest to inspiring loathing in Muir's gentle soul or writing reviews. But even if hard up (as he and his wife, Willa, often were), he had one cast iron rule which was never to review anything about which one could not be generous. This is a rule I wish sundry reviewers in 'The Tablet' (the intellectual Catholic weekly) could aspire to.

Today it is the turn of Michael McGregor's excellent biography of Robert Lax to be lauded by one hand and damned with another. I cannot imagine how we get from 'detailed, respectful and responsible telling' that is 'at times a sympathetic and extraordinarily sensitive reading of a life' to one that is a 'somewhat tedious reading experience' that better be left behind in favour of Lax's words themselves but Carlene Bauer manages this feat. Which is it to be a sensitive entrance or a tedious departure?

I definitely prefered the former see here: http://ncolloff.blogspot.nl/2015/10/pure-act.html

I can appreciate a reviewer sagging under the weight of 'monumental' modern biography where every move of the subject is thoroughly explored and their internal life is left strangely in abeyance (especially with regard to idea, belief or faith). But McGregor's book does not sag under its own weight and finds illumination throughout Lax's long and, in truth, rather eventful life (in a quiet way as befits its subject).





Saturday, April 9, 2016

Aldous Huxley's Hands



We like typologies (as an outbreak of MBTI 'lite' testing in the office this week reminded me). Can we find a pattern that gathers up a phenomena and helps us better navigate some aspect of the world?
Virtually anything can probably be put to use: what about hands?

This is the unlikely, and fascinating, starting point of Allene Symons' 'Aldous Huxley's Hands: His Quest for Perception and the Origin and Return of Psychedelic Science'. Her father, an aircraft design engineer (and alternative healer), during the Second World War, had to design a screening mechanism for quality draughtsmen to assist the war effort. This he did successfully and in the process began asking himself was there anything in a person's hand that indicated their characteristics. This led him to develop an unique photographic process that allowed him to beautifully reproduce all the unique detail of a person's hand, that then, comparatively, allowed him to seek patterns of commonality.

It was, at this point, that his life intersected with the Huxleys'. They both lived in California and on Tuesday evenings, the Huxleys held a gathering of diverse people interested in non-mainstream approaches to psychological, social and scientific understanding - the parapsychological, the alternative, the merely flakey! Symons' was invited to these gatherings and photographed both Aldous' and Maria's, his first wife's, hands.

The book unfolds as a three fold, interlinked exploration - Aldous Huxley's life and her father's life as exponents of 'excluded' understanding, the fate of both hand research and psychedelic research as an exemplar of this; and, of a daughter's quest to better understand her father's obsession, an obsession that led to family breakdown and a belated reconciliation between them.

Whether the three entirely sit comfortably together is a mute point but the book covers fascinating ground.

First, the fate of the hand research is a compelling example of how convention excludes exploration. Symons' father's research was taken up by a professional, tenured psychologist and together they conducted a study of people suffering schizophrenia against a control. They discovered a common pattern of a particular palm feature that belonged to people with schizophrenia but not to the control. This was presented at the appropriate (and prestigious) conference with, sadly, predictable results where, in a rare moment of collusion the Freudians and the Behaviourists (this is 1950s America), refused to listen - the environment was all, inheritance nothing - the tenured psychologist, fearful of his career, abandoned the research, Symons' father, likewise discouraged, did too.

Second, and ironically, the 'schizophrenic pattern' was shared by another group, 'the psychic' but that is a story that too disappeared into indifference...

Third, and the most fascinating part of the book, is the exploration of the psychedelic. This is a term that Humphrey Osmond, the psychiatrist that administered Huxley's first psychoactive drug trip, and Huxley coined together. The book explores the history and biography of how two English psychiatrists, with a desire to explore mental illness from a biological and spiritual point of view came, to collude with Huxley in what resulted as 'The Doors of Perception' and a classic account of the possibility of psychoactive drugs as a pathway towards illumination and healing. 

It, also, tracks how this exploration came temporarily undone - the popularity of the book and the subsequent championing (and perceived scandal) of 'tuning in and dropping out' that Timothy Leary championed and that helped inaugurate 'the Sixties' (that Huxley et al would rather have avoided) led to the forceful reaction of convention (and Nixon's continuing horror of the 'war' against drugs) such that valuable research was put on ice, until now, where slowly it is being resurrected - for addiction, trauma and hospice care most impressively. Where the 'loosening' effect of a visit towards transcendence within a carefully supported therapeutic environment allows people to see (and act) beyond the narrow, repetitive cycles of their fixation into renewing possibilities.

Meanwhile, you come away from the book with a reinforced sense as to how delightful Huxley (and both his wives were), how prescient and how expansive. 

By expansive, I mean that Huxley's mind and spirit strikes me as an exceptionally open one - let anything in - and yet, as balance, rigorously discriminating. Without that fundamental tolerance, you cannot be sure of not noticing or seeing the valuable, without that rigour, you cannot sift to find the truly valuable. The world so often conspires to invert this such that the rigour excludes possibility. 

Huxley was a saintly patron of wonder and wisdom (in that order)!





Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Warring against Sleep

I was reminded by reading J.B. Priestley's 'The Magicians' to read Colin Wilson's small book. 'G. I. Gurdjieff: The War Against Sleep' geographically appropriately on a day trip to and from the Paris that was, for so long, his home. To do so is to be reminded what a good writer Wilson is - fluid, intelligent, concise and clear - handling complex subject matter with judicious care.

Wilson's Gurdjieff is a highly gifted experimental psychologist who came to a penetrating understanding of how our minds might work towards their full potential but not a guru whose system was closed, perfected and infallible (nor simply a charlatan though a man equipped with the characteristics of a trickster).

Indeed Wilson, rightly, shows that in spite of its remarkable results it was all too human, deserving correction and development. Wilson's sees it as a system that was both too pessimistic (about the robotic nature of our usual human round) and, as a result, too emphatic on the importance of 'extra-human' struggle to overcome such mechanicalness.

Nevertheless in shaping an understanding of the complex relationship between our 'two minds' - the wide focused shaper of connectivity and meaning and the narrow focused rational calculator - he was a trend setter as was his emphasis on the importance of 'self-remembering' - of holding that quality of awareness of the doing at the same time as of our doing it - from which is born a renewing perception of the world and our creativity within it. And, importantly, joy in that world - Wilson brings a breezier Anglo-Saxon optimism to Gurdjieff's theorising.

I was struck too, again, how Gurdjieff sets this out within a framework of the objective - we may be subject to our minds but their laws are objective and describable. Follow these instructions, tread this path, with the right attention and effort, and you will unfold into a waiting world as objectively real, if not more so, than the one that greets our everyday perception.

This is what first excited me about Gurdjieff (and his pupil, Maurice Nicoll) when I first encountered them in my twenties in discussion with Ann Wetherall, friend and colleague, as we started the Prison Phoenix Trust together. Though the Fourth Way as such was never part of the Trust's mission and, though I believe Ann had known (or met) J.G. Bennett, she was never a 'joiner' nor disciple - except as a dance student of Uday Shankar. This last point not incidental, I think, to an attraction to Gurdjieff - recognising a path that passes through, at least in part, the wisdom of the body. (One thinks of Peter Brook in this regard).

The conversation, as I recall it now, was permeated by this sense that if you 'get it right' you slip across a threshold, stepping into a connected, enfolding yet differently ordered nature of things; and, you can learn to get it 'right', to dispose yourself to that waiting presence and objectivity of consciousness,

I was reminded of an Orthodox service when if the priest, choir and congregation find themselves in alignment and are successfully present and yet self-forgetting, you step into that pattern of liturgy and worship that is woven into the very heart of the world. Paradoxically, at the other end of the liturgical spectrum, you can find a similar moment in Quaker worship when the collective body find themselves in the objectivity of silence and are communally directed in the light. It is, sadly, why most Catholic and Protestant services too often feel made up - speaking out of and to the personality (as Gurdjieff would call it) rather than from the 'essence'.  And one example of getting it right, I was taught by Metropolitan Anthony, namely how to read the Gospel without inserting your personality or 'giving it expression' rather allowing it to speak through you, as you get out of the way.

Yet this difference can only ever be shown, not said, evoked and then experienced.

After I had read Priestley's 'The Magicians' http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2016/04/the-magicians.html, I had an experience of this when I found myself in a 'memory' - reliving it again both as my younger and my present self - what Priestley has his characters refer to as 'time alive' - and the quality of the memory was of a different kind, hard, real, objective, not the usual half tied remembrance and lostness of things. It was akin to the difference between a lucid and an ordinary dream. In it you could see each and every emotion and thought that was at play in what was a moment of significant decision and how some  of those forces continue in play to this day and in being seen in this way that they might be shifted for the better.  It was an experience in which I was 'truly alive'. Meaning was being made anew,  essence being glimpsed beyond the play of personality - and for that enriching 'moment' I have, I sense, partly an acquaintance with Gurdjieff to thank.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Magicians

If Aldous Huxley can connect the search for a evening suit with 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead' (in Time Must Have a Stop http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2014/11/time-must-have-stop.html ), J.B. Priestley can be allowed to connect a boardroom coup with an encounter with the Fourth Way.

Charles Ravenstreet is the managing director of an electrical equipment manufacturer until shareholders, some considered to be his friends, depose him for a 'bean counter'. At a loose end and quickly exhausting the casual pleasures of his new leisure, he finds himself dispirited, afloat in an unsympathetic world. Perhaps a new business venture will revive his engagement?

Enter the sinister Lord Mervil and associates who seek him out to help them manufacture a drug purported to quell all anxiety with no apparent side effects. This provides the opportunity of both great profit and the quiescent society that can be guided by the 'elite' that Lord Mervil favours.

But here the fates intervene in the form of three elderly men, holding a conference at a pub, local to Ravenstreet's country manor, which is hit by an aircraft in a freak 'accident'. The three elderly men, following an intuition, have survived but now without a place to stay, find themselves invited by Ravenstreet to stay with him.

The three men are the 'magicians' of the title, practitioners of certain mental arts that give them uncanny insight into Ravenstreet and set him on a path of self-discovery and on to opposing Lord Merrill's scheme.

The magicians are undoubtedly modelled on Gurdjieff (as seen through Maurice Nicoll of whom Priestley was an avid and discerning reader - two of Nicoll's books that were once Priestley's belong to me) and the theme of time resonates through the story. The magicians know, and demonstrate to Ravenstreet, that nothing that is experienced is ever lost. It awaits a particular kind of remembering and with the right attention and feeling, your reality can be changed.

They give Ravenstreet two opportunities, described in separate chapters, coming at significant junctures, to return to critical moments in his life, and relive them with new, renewing eyes, such that future possibility, it is suggested, is indeed changed. These moments are described as 'time alive' that is, in itself, beautifully apt. How do we come to experience our time with a wholly encompassing life? A time that is never lost but often obscured in forgetting. They are both strikingly moving chapters that invite a similar movement - I find myself being considered by similar critical moments and wondering about the effects of one's choices and whether being cast back, concretely, would indeed be transformative. I expect they would be - I can see it glimpsing, glimmering, and will bring myself to its attempt. Rarely do novels have this simple effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the story unfolds, Mervil and his associates are confronted with themselves and as, sadly, is often the way, though disturbed, they fork off either into self destruction or self-defence, finding a way to renewing insight is the narrow gate towards paradise that is difficult to find.

All this is wrapped up in a novel that, at some points, creaks with its particular age. One defect is perhaps its approach to the feminine - their characters are insufficiently drawn and it grates - you stand outside them and a little to the right. Sometimes,  however, it scintillates with as acute a pattern of social criticism as can be imagined.

But, at heart, this is a novel with a metaphysical and practical vision at its heart - awaken to your life as a continuous whole and enter it with awareness at any point on its trajectory for that offers the key to freedom.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Fire on the Mountain

Nanda Kaul has never developed an expressive liking for people. Freed of the demands of being a Vice Chancellor's wife and mother, obligations she has met in exemplary if forbidding style, she has taken refuge in aloneness in a hill top house, in the direction of Simla, in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Obligation stalks, however, and one summer her great granddaughter, Raka, comes to stay. Raka is from a broken home - her father, a diplomat is alcoholic and abusive, her mother, as a result, is wrecked, retreating into illness. Flying to Geneva and a new posting, the parents make a failed attempt to get on and Raka is left behind, imposed on her great grandmother.

Nanda and Raka are alike in their protective isolation and it is a similarity that sparks a complex relationship of recognition and mutual withdrawal that flips in Nanda to a determination to try and win Raka over, not for her love, that would be too much, but in order to spin a web around her, to bind her for something in her life must stay close.

For we discover, at the very end, in two moments of tragedy, one actual, the other threatened, that Nanda's stories are mostly fabrications and the solitariness of her life is an actual reflection not of need but of a failing loneliness that has accompanied her throughout. A loneliness that her great granddaughter may repeat in another key, a more dangerous key as she seeks the comfort of the harsh realities of the outside, natural world at its most austere and uncertain - the coiled snake, the snatching briar and, in the heat of summer, the prospect of forest fire - wanting to move from observation not into participation but merger and loss.

It is a beautifully told, bleak novel, that is a commentary on Thomas Traherne's observation than we are not loved either in sufficient measure or in the right manner. Each of us is a burning invitation to be approached in a deeper, more sensitive, more abiding manner; and, when we are not a compromising, disfiguring loneliness is the result, that wraps us inside ourselves, careering through life but never tasting it or immersing ourselves, but always observers whose actions fail to convince, even in their most dramatic moments.

Anita Desai's gift, for this is her novel, is to make this terrible loneliness/isolation, embedded in superficially unattractive characters, deeply memorable and seen with a compassionate eye. This seeing is doubly apparent as you catch yourself recoiling and being reeled back into the arch of sympathy.

Meanwhile her descriptions of the hill top house, its surroundings and its beauty in austerity are compelling; and, hint at another form of isolation that is the possibility of a graced and gracing solitude, a solitude sadly undermined by the participants retreating into isolation rather than being broken out into the communion of silence.

The Girl who sang to the Buffalo

The final volume in Kent Nerburn's moving trilogy of books built around his relationship with an Indian elder, Dan, whose life commi...