Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Poacher's pilgrimage

Not content with reading one book on walking and its effects (on heart as well as body), I followed reading Robert Macfarlane's 'The Old Ways' with Alastair McIntosh's 'Poacher's Pilgrimage: An Island Journey'.

They have a family resemblance not least because two of Macfarlane's journeys - one on land and one on sea - have as their context or departure point the Outer Hebrides and Alastair's journey is from the southernmost point of the Isle of Harris to the northernmost tip of the Isle of Lewis. In these journeys, they share overlapping cultural references, both past and present, and indeed the living participation of more than one actual person. Macfarlane, however, by way of difference, is an occasional visitor, Alastair is crossing the territory of his upbringing, where his elderly mother still lives, and every and any person chanced upon might reveal an acquaintance or connection.

They share too an interesting but contrasting disposition towards, for want of a better word, the 'supernatural'. This is not only because one of the themes of Alastair's rumination as he walks are the relationships between religion, culture and violence (a field in which he is an expert) but more literally where do you park (within your mental furniture storage) ghosts (or faeries) (or the second sight).

Macfarlane goes (on one of his journeys) to sleep at the Chanctonbury Ring (in Sussex) only to be disturbed (to put it mildly) by a sustained, circumnavigating shrieking to which he can allot no obvious cause. It is a disturbance that, he discovers later, is a common one encountered by those who try to spend the night there. Having been there only in daylight and dusk, I confess it would never occur to me to want to sleep there! Interestingly, in his preface, he alludes to several moments in his journeyings (such as this) when happenings eluded his ability to explain though he goes on (in the same preface) to ascribe this incident to owls rather than ghosts (ironic for two reasons - first because he considers and rejects this interpretation at the time and secondly because owls in folklore are liminal creatures associated with the world beyond, with death)!

Alastair, however, sits with a range of possibilities for the oft reported encounters (in the Hebrides) with another world (and many of the stories told are fabulous and yet related with an earthly matter of factness). It might be objectively true. It might suggest possibilities that have yet to be accounted for by our prevailing world view (not one, in its prevailing materialism, given to entertaining the anomalous) being beyond the normal (rather than strictly supernatural). It might reveal the structures of our meaningful yet inter-subjective inner interpretation - the imaginal in the words of Henri Corbin or the collective unconscious of Jung - our necessary ability to weave myth to capture meaning beyond the simply explicable. It may be all three  - an underlying substrata being differently interpreted through valid, if constricting, cultural and psychological lenses.

Reading the two books together, you wished Macfarlane had stayed with his original experience rather than defaulted to the 'rational' (that in this case, as so often, does not mean the reasonable, the ordered patterning of thought but whatever our current set of societal assumptions says can be 'true'. If this is rational much progress in thought has thankfully eschewed the rational).

Meanwhile, however, Alastair's book works beautifully at multiple levels.

Amongst other things, it is humble and humorous account of a person traversing his own history against the background of the history of a place. It is an accounting of the way in which culture is informed by its places and informs those places. It reminds us that our ecology is inescapably a human one so the stories we tell are critical if our lives are to be harmonising or conflictual, with one another as much as with our places. It explores the consequences of religious ideas, good, bad, indifferent and ugly, on our social and ecological lives, most notably, as mentioned before, on the subject of our propensity for violence and the possibilities of peace. It paints affectionate vignettes of people, animals and places met and remembered, not least portraits of soldiers who Alastair encounters in his lecturing who find themselves addressed by the complexities of violence. It reminds us that, as a Belarusian friend said on our recent holiday to the west coast of Scotland, you do not have to move for the landscape to be constantly changing. It reminds you that the elements so often decide what you see and impinge greatly on what you feel, moment to moment!

It is a lovely, accomplished and thought provoking book.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Old Ways

Robert Macfarlane is one of the people who has helped both revive and reinvent nature writing in the new century. If John Muir in the nineteenth walked out into the 'pristine' wilderness (though not always as pristine as he thought or wrote, having a tendency to airbrush indigenous people out), Macfarlane is as concerned with the nature that has been brought into being by our interactions. This is, no doubt, partly in recognition that virtually nowhere in this anthropocene age can we find the 'pristine' and if we are to find a renewed love for and in nature, we will have to see with and through the markings of our own hands and feet. Thus, we may find ourselves as likely in a suburb as a forest or on a well trod, marked footpath as making our own tracks in 'untouched' space.

Feet are the principal focus of 'The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot' where Macfarlane goes on a series of journeys, mostly on foot, to explore pathways, often encountering people who, in one form or another, are seeking to recreate 'pilgrimage' (if primarily in secular form). They do this in recognition that though we step into landscape, landscape does and can step into us, shaping us anew, making us more familiar to ourselves.

I was considering this today as I walked too quickly up the hill behind my house, out for a Sunday morning walk, and found myself wondering why do I do this, knowing that on one recent occasion ascending Montsegur in the Languedoc, I almost knocked myself out? Why can I not adjust my pace from my usual flat out pace on the flat? Why do I think time is at a premium when it is not? Relax, ponder, be more ponderous.

It is, also, a truism that walking stimulates thought, something about allowing the brain to fall into neutral as pace follows pace follows pace that allows the more than conscious to deliver compelling image and thought. Today I caught an image on the hop of why it may be that greater individuation of selves (and consequent separation) is required to ultimately find a deeper unity of self (as I continued to think about Gebser's speculations on the development, over time, of our consciousness or the structuring that consciousness takes at different periods of human history). I was reminded that most great philosophers were great walkers - whether the regularity of Kant's peregrination through urban Koenigsberg or Nietzsche's Alpine hikes - and here the different landscapes might playfully be seen to be reflected in the differing patterns of thought. Kant is on the level, pedestrian, Nietzsche soars.

Macfarlane takes us to many different locations and helps us think through the implications of walking both for the landscape and for ourselves. So, for example, he walks with a Palestinian friend on the West Bank where with the colonisation by Israeli military and settler, every way has become potentially contested, every step a political act of memory and communal assertion. Or finds himself at the base of Minya Konka in the Central Asian mountains poised between the sacred way of circumnavigation (as this is a Buddhist holy site) and the modern way of tempting (and highly testing) vertical ascent as a mountaineer. He settles for the latter, imagining, rightly or wrongly, this as a sign of maturing, discriminating age. He walks and talks with artists who are slowly either shaping a landscape anew, creating their own sacralising story or shaping art as memory of paths taken lifting the walking finds into new fields of constructed memory (as a Spanish artist creates 'books' of his walks from found objects symbolically rearranged).

It is a beautiful book of overlapping reflections on walking and being walked into; and, of the myriad ways, practical, psychological and spiritual, we make meaning as we pace, here and there.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Pippa Passes

This is a 'late' novel by Rumer Godden featuring, as so often, a young person's awakening to adulthood in this case a young ballerina on her first tour abroad, a tour that brings an upcoming ballet company from middle England to Venice.

Pippa is highly talented but only seventeen and in the corps de ballet when she arrives. When she leaves, she will have debuted as a principal and be on the verge of her first solo part (to be danced in Milan). She will have lost her virginity, discovered and rejected a parallel career as a singer, been awoken to the complexities of love, been befriended by an elderly aristocratic couple and fallen in love with an 'impossible' man in which the only future will be in the 'eternity' of memory and with the city (and, subtly, too with the Madonna).

All in a swift, light, beautifully observed and psychologically acute 171 pages...

This is not, by any mark, her best novel (for which it probably needs some sharper shadows and touches of darkness) but it continues to exemplify why I so admire her.

For the accuracy of her observations - how a single additional word, for example, reveals a whole new dimension in one person's seeing of another.  For the naturalism of her plotting - all of which unfold with a coherence that requires no improbability. For the glints of faith that are woven throughout and which rest wholly embedded in the foregoing naturalism - the Marchese takes Pippa to the first communion of one of her godchildren, something about the repeating presence of the Madonna, depicted differently but lovingly throughout the city, draws Pippa's attention and just that level of attention you would expect from a curious young woman, alive to making meaning from the complex changes unfolding within, and yet no more.

Nothing is forced, everything emergent from a gifted yet grounded imagination. In Godden, there is no experiment, nothing 'visionary', her's is the gift of craft, something continually accessible and exceptionally well made.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Eye in the Sky

In the 'Brothers Karamazov', Dostoevsky has one character pose the question whether the universe is worth the suffering, the tears of a single child? Flying home from Washington yesterday, I watched 'Eye in the Sky' that had a related, if more utilitarian question, at its heart. Do you sacrifice or spare a child when the consequence of sparing may be a greater harm?

The film follows a British led security operation in Kenya that has traced known terrorists to a house in Nairobi (including both US and UK citizens) and where two of them are preparing to undertake a suicide bombing attack. Originally the intention was to seize them but this, given their location, is no longer seen as a feasible option, the alternative is a drone strike. Except just as they prepare to strike a young girl (whom we have been introduced to and certainly can be characterized as cute and charming) comes to sell bread right against the wall of the house to be destroyed.

Though at times, some of the characters (military, political, legal) who become embroiled in the decision making over what to do verge towards caricature (especially the ruthless, no hair out of place, female US senior legal advisor who may as well have 'bitch' tattooed on her forehead), you have to see this as a 'film of ideas'. The characters are there to put points of view rather than emerge as rounded people; and, they do, and the film achieves a compelling sense of the complexity of the issues, the very real dilemmas and genuinely humanizes the situation, replete with happenstance and irony. The British Foreign Secretary, for example, first appears introducing an arms manufacturer at a trade show in some unnamed Asian country before he retires to his hotel with food poisoning! You too realize that members of parliament (resonantly human and fragile) on the whole do not come into public life to preside over decisions of straight forward life and death.

The film leads you astutely to begin asking what would I do/recommend to be done without, I thought, interestingly, guiding you to any prefered conclusion. It was a rare film - one that neither glorified violence nor condemned it but tried (if only in a minor key) to invite its audience to taste something of its real life and of its complexity.

It ends, as you might expect, messily and open endedly - a world in which there is no neatness (or that strange Americanism 'closure').

We sit in our wounded condition, hunting the prospect still of blessings.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A man on a motorcycle

I was unusually happy that day which was surprising as I cannot describe my days at university as the most fulfilling time of my life, though I cannot recall why - perhaps real happiness does not require it. I was on my way to college, standing at a crossroads with traffic lights in central London, radiating my well being. Suddenly, as the lights changed, a motorcyclist, directly opposite, drove straight at me, onto the pavement, and only quick reaction on my part saved me from collision. As he passed, his foot shot out as if to hit me and he shouted something whose exact meaning, I could not make out but whose underlying sense I recall vividly.

So remarkably unusual was this event, and so shocking, that when I recall it, I momentarily think I must have dreamt it, a rare nightmare. But no it is anchored in memory and surfaced today, unsurprisingly, as I read of the terrible events in Nice.

The underlying sense of the motorcyclist's shout was that he could not bear a vision of happiness. It was laying bare an existentialist angst that was both deep and even if glimpsed only momentarily, memorably shocking, such that I have never forgotten it. It plays itself out now in my memory, sending icicles of recognition piercing through me.

The perpetrator of Nice, whatever ideological clothing his act may come to be wrapped with, strikes me as a thoroughly self-tortured human being who I can imagine doing exactly what he did without any ideological wrapping (though it may have lowered the threshold of the act's likelihood by providing a justification).

Like many perpetrators of shootings in the US, this was a person who wanted to affirm themselves through an act of violence, who wanted to be heard by disrupting the given, the normal, the ordinary, the happy. That he may have been a fertile ground for a project of radicalisation is a truism but that fertile ground is not wholly inspired by radicalisation as such. We live in societies that for significant groups, there is only felt exclusion (for multiple and complex reasons) and whose response to exclusion is potential violence, more attention on these reasons, rather than abstract wars on 'terror' might yield more fruitful results.

More attention as a society on the roots of empathy and their disruption would probably yield more fruit than any number of security initiatives that address symptoms whilst failing to secure. The research and practice of what these initiatives might look like is extensive, detailed and proven but because they are long term, systemic and preventative, they tend to be overlooked. One of my favourite is here: (and no I do not think it insane to place questions of childhood development on the table when discussing terrorism quite the opposite in fact).

I often thought about my motorcyclist and hope that he came to a better, calmer place, better able to bear the ordinary happiness of others and to share in it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Silver Darlings

A boy grows to manhood sealed in ownership of his own fishing boat and prospective marriage. His mother rediscovers happiness as she nurtures him, becomes reconciled to a tragic past and finally marries again. And lots of fish, mostly herring, and fishing on an unpredictable sea.

From these apparently simple elements, Neil Gunn, wove his masterpiece that is, 'The Silver Darlings', published first in 1941. Set in the merging herring fisheries of the 1820s, it not only follows the trajectory of its principal characters over a twenty year period but demarcates the refashioning of a community around the sea.

Driven by the clearances from their inland glens, communities found themselves either emigrating or on marginal land forced to take up a new life. The novel starts with Tormand's first fishing expedition in his own, new boat that ends in tragedy when it is accosted by a press gang ship and its crew hijacked for imperial service on the high seas. Tormand resists and in the resulting melee is injured later dying from his injuries. His wife, Catrine, back on land, is not to have this fate confirmed for many years and it is this that shapes her life and the life of her new born child, Finn. Her binding to Finn becomes a suffocating one that must be broken if it is ever to be renewed on a new basis. This drives the narrative, combined with Catrine's long suiting by Roddie, a newly emergent successful herring fisher and stimulus and rival to Finn's longings. This tale of binding and unbinding, of admiration and jealously, of shifting emotional scales, often in a twinkling of time, is beautifully told, never putting a psychological foot wrong.

But this being Gunn not everything flows along this well drawn, evocative path of social realism. Catrine knows that Tormand is dead (though cannot act on her knowledge until outwardly confirmed) because at the moment of his death, he appeared to her, unmistakably gesturing his new state. Finn has an abiding vision of elderly man, beckoning him forward towards a better image of himself, that he sees as a young boy at the ruined 'House of Peace' (probably once a simple monastery) a calming, challenging image he carries through life. And so it goes.

This is a world not only wholly real in the complexities of the hope and injustice of history, both communally and individually, but a world saturated in the psychic - of intuition, dream, ritual and superstition that may continually be more than that; and, ultimately it is hinted, if not said, of a unifying transcendence. A transcendence that culturally is invested in the abiding, and ever present Christian faith, however disfiguring of that faith certain presented theologies (or ideologies) may be; but, for Gunn, more deeply in a common unification of mind and way that could be best be described as 'the Tao' (a recognition Gunn himself came to in later years). The world is the expression of a unifying way, beyond description, that we recognize at critical moments when our seeing is clear and we consciously merge with its flowing and being (and from which comes the intuition of our best Self).

Meanwhile, there are fish and the sea! What makes Gunn a great writer is his ability to weave all these elements together - communal life, individual narrative, deeper meanings - with an epic story of a community's coming to be - and with great set pieces - the opening press ganging, a cholera epidemic, the fight in a pub, the tension of a sustained period of fishing failure, a storm tossed trip to the Outer Hebrides; and, Finn's epic scaling of cliffs to effect a rescue (of different kinds) not once but twice. A continual sustaining of interest over its 584 pages (and, like Moby Dick, a lot of information about fish and fishing).

Finally, and tangentially, there is the image of a community faced with apparent inexhaustible abundance without recognition that this was not true (though one conversation hints at the first signs of insecurity). It was a more innocent age than ours - though even as we know fishing stocks are in collapse - it barely yet touches our behaviors - the story of inexhaustible material abundance remains with us yet.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Holiday reading

Off to the west coast of Scotland - oysters, midges, rain and castles - and a suitcase with books.

I am reading, as I depart, Roger Lipsey's book on the relationship between Thomas Merton and his long standing Abbot, Dom James Fox, "Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down". It was a fraught, fruitful, sometimes disabling relationship and Lipsey (whose biography of Dag Hammarskjold is outstanding) has decided to tell the story from both sides, not only, as is usual, through the lens of Merton.

Already in the first few pages it has upended my assumptions about Fox (through multiple Merton biographies and his journals) always thinking, as I did, of Fox as folksy (he would end his letters, 'All for Jesus through Mary with a smile') and not as Merton's intellectual peer. But Fox went, on a scholarship, to Harvard for a humanities degree, focused on history, graduated exceptionally well and subsequently went to the business school. I am expecting a fascinating account of a fellowship, a duel, a relationship framed by community and common purpose and their mutual status of contemplatives drawn to the eremitic life.

Since I am going to Scotland, I thought a major novel, by a favorite Scottish author, the one not yet read which is Neil M Gunn's 'The Silver Darlings' set in the context of the herring fishery that was his father's living (though within a earlier time frame). Gunn is the social realist, shot through with increasing spiritual (even metaphysical) insight and I love both his descriptions of community, its essentials and trials, and the sight of something yet other, a unifying way of seeing that pierces the world and makes one doubly at home in it. He is an author of 'setpieces' too - I will never forget one such - a young farmer, struggling to bring all his sheep home in a terrible blizzard, on which his livelihood and his very identity depends. You taste the tiredness, the renewing desperate energy, the elements being unintended cruel and the final justifying triumph.

Given that there will be a lot of trees about (one hopes), I next thought of Colin Tudge's 'The Secret Life of Trees'. Tudge is a wonderfully clear and enthusiastic writer able to convey complex scientific concepts in accomplished, accessible prose; and, this is a book I have been meaning to read for a while to better understand the lungs of the world and what Jung poetically called, 'thoughts of God'!

Meanwhile, on God, I decided to take along the clinical psychologist (and lifelong mystic, to quote his own description), Wilson van Dusen's 'Returning to Source: The Way to the Experience of God'. I read his book on Swedenborg with great admiration years ago, purchased this and neglected it!

Finally, 'More Than Allegory: On religious myth, truth and belief'' by Bernardo Kashtrup, a person I have never read before, but comes recommended by my 'religion scholar of the moment', Jeffrey Kripal, and rests, as far as I can see, on that fascinating point of intersection between religion and science that is an open dialogue rather than a closed conflict; and, where our deepening understanding of consciousness, the quantum and the anomalous is turning us towards a world that is a lot weirder than we thought (or, at least, have thought in these past three provincial centuries as Yeats described them).

These should keep me busy among the companionship, the cooking, the walks and the really cool spa with an infinity pool!

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I was a very factual child who read mostly history and studied maps (and watched Westerns and documentaries). It was not until I was si...