Thursday, October 27, 2016

Incognito




I first came across Dumitriu's novel, 'Incognito', in Bishop John Robinson's 'Exploration into God' the sequel to his groundbreaking (or controversial or both) 'Honest to God' - that classic of 1960's theological liberalism written at a time when a theological book could be genuinely culturally significant, widely debated and, even, lead the Sunday headlines (ah! happy days)!

I was a student then and immediately went in search of the novel. I was fortunate (as I was to discover later) as this coincided with a rare window of opportunity when the book was in print in English (and in paperback). It is one of those handful of books that I have read in one sitting - no mean achievement for a novel of some 460 pages - enthralled and challenged.

It tells two parallel stories.

The first is the life of Sebastian as he progresses from restless teenager of a bourgeois family in pre-War Rumania through his war as a tank officer in which, captured, he changes sides ending it fighting with the Russians; and, then trying to make a Communist of himself, ultimately joining, and subsequently leaving, the Security Police. Finally he finds himself in prison, tortured, and, in a breakthrough illumination, he becomes a renewed man and a saint in an age where God is, at best, an ambiguous presence (or absence).  

The second is how this transformation is manipulated in a fight between factions within the ruling Communist Party given that Sebastian's two brothers remain prominent party members and his sister is married to a yet more prominent member. The cat fight of Communist manoeuvring is chillingly portrayed in all the abiding cynicism of the manipulation of power. For this alone, the book is worth reading for its all too convincing account of the temptations of power, as relevent now as then.

The beauty of the book is that Sebastian's illumination is not a conversion to a set of beliefs (though beliefs are involved) but to an attitude of mind of utmost, and beguiling, simplicity. He had been waiting for the world to justify itself to him, for meaning one day to appear and for the world to make sense. But he discovers in the hole of solitary confinement, when everything but his intrinsic dignity has been stripped away, that the meaning of the world is conveyed, not found, and its conveyed by loving it and loving it whole and in its minute particulars. Put, as boldly as that, the mind, of course, probably recoils but it is the beauty of Dumitriu's art to make this discovery wholly convincing and deeply challenging. What is it that holds us back from simply loving?

To which the answer is, of course, the usual things - our pride, our egotism, our partiality, our fear - but the 'trick' of the book is not to counter these usual things either with an extrinsic reward (salvation say or winning friends and influencing people) or an ought (love or else). Love is shown as its own reward and the act of it is freeing into joy (which is a whole lot deeper than 'happiness') and the more you find yourself able to do it, the more it grows out of you and through you into the world.

'God' is no longer seen as the thing 'out or up there' that guarantees 'outcomes' but a way of naming reality when you see it in and through the eye of love - in its horror as well as its beauty - when 'decentred' you see it whole, not portioned to the egotism of your seeing.

Re-reading it this week, I was awakened to its challenge anew. I had been asked by one of my godchildren about the status of belief (in this case Christian belief) and I had answered that beliefs have their place but the most important thing is our attitude of mind and out loving actions. As the fourteenth century English mystic, Walter Hilton, wrote, if a belief, even if it is true, is used (or wielded) in such a way to harm our neighbour, it is falsified. I was reminded in reading 'Incognito' where I was first convicted, and now reconvicted, of this notion.



Friday, October 21, 2016

All Passion Spent



I do not know why I chose to buy the BBC production of "All Passion Spent" (based on the novel by Vita Sackville West, pictured above). It must have been an Amazon suggestion that, having registered, I bought elsewhere. (The Amazon site is just the best to identify product and the company (given its behaviours) just the worst to actually buy from)!

It is a cliche to say, 'They do n't make them like they used to'; but, cliches are as they are because they carry truth (however ossified).

It is a beautiful piece of reflective drama with a sterling cast led by Wendy Hiller as the recently widowed partner of a former Viceroy of India and Prime Minister who startles her family by retreating to Hampstead and living a reclusive life, separated from all the previous demands of the wife of a prominent public figure.

In its place, she forms new attachments to her landlord, his building contractor and, surprisingly, an eccentric art collector who had met her in India and with whom she shared a moment of recognition. The recognition was that her life, gilded as it was, diverted her from her core identity. It is a diversion to which her rediscovered collector friend brings her to full recognition. In that recognition she comes to fulfilment, disconcerts her family (whose pursuit of social and economic maintenance is gently mocked) and indirectly liberates her great granddaughter into a renewed potential to follow her calling.

It is all beautifully acted - the dialogue scintillates, the performances are exact, and the observations are acute - nothing 'dramatic' happens except the unfoldment of lives to true purpose (and their evasion).

It is an ever gentle reminder that perhaps each and every person has a 'weird' (to use the Anglo Saxon phrase), a particular way to follow the golden string to heaven's gate and the pressures of conformity (in which ever societal matrix) are often not best designed to allowing people to be that weird.

It asks us to reflect on what is the light within us that we should honour and recognises and that a 'good life' may not be that life to which we are called.

Many of us will live this discrepancy, the distance, but there is never a point at which the gap cannot be closed. Wendy Hiller's character is given by the art collector a great moment of choice (at the very end of her life) and she choses wisely and well. She testifies to her true character; and, the gap is closed and her life fulfilled. There is never a moment when 'salvation' is not offered and possible.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Landscape of Dreams



When I was in my late teens, I went through a process of 'Aha' moments when addressed by a particular art form, it clicked. 'So this is what painting or poetry or music is about?' Before that my principal obsessions had been history and geography that my childhood self was going to combine in archaeology and discover lost civilisations preferably buried in remote jungles!

Some of those 'aha' moments were passed through - I cannot say I have read Orwell since school even though it was his '1984' that convicted me of the notion that novels could be read for pleasure (and enlightenment) surpassing mere duty. Some, however, have remained deeply resonant as well as blossoming out into a wider and deeper appreciation. Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' heard at a Sixth Form 'music appreciation class' being a case in point. It became my first record that was played endlessly on my brother's record player until my father walked in (after a week) with a five pound note and an instruction to buy another record! Stravinsky has stayed with me - and his violin concerto remains my favourite piece of music - as too he has opened a whole new world.

The first painting I ever saw was the one above - 'The Landscape of Dreams' by Paul Nash. It was on the cover of a Penguin Modern Classic (either a novel or a volume of poetry) though rack as I might my brain cannot remember of what title. Whatever the title, this was a book that was judged by its cover!

It is impossible now to recover what I thought on first seeing it, entangled as this is with much subsequent rumination, but I felt the strangeness of the bird who, looking through the mirror, with its back to us, is apprehended by itself but not as its reflection. The mirror is not passive but something through which you pass into a different, if related, world.

I had not realised until reading James King's excellent biography of Nash ('Interior Landscapes: A Life of Paul Nash') just how seminal this painting was to his own work and life. Here was the moment of the turning point from a world seen in division, haunted by presences that might be healing or might be destructive into a world that was enfolded in another that was affirmatively redemptive. Nash's earlier paintings were haunted by mystery, often projected as feminine in form reflecting Nash's ambivalence over a mother who gave and withheld love arbitrarily as she, sadly, slipped further into mental deterioration. In his later pictures, slowly, steadily, haunting becomes presence, mystery becomes welcoming, no longer ambivalent; and, death, which stalks Nash's art, becomes not an end but a liberation into that other world of affirmation.

This transformation is not, however, simply given. Its grace must be wrestled with and shaped. We step into a world, real in itself, yet also a product of the consciousness we bring. In this Nash was a follower of Blake. The quality of your imagination (or consciousness) determines the quality of the world you see. In the 'Landscape from a Dream', there is a three way conversation between, nature as given (the Swanage coast on the right), nature as graced through imagination (in the painting on the left) and the world beyond from which nature unfolds and into which it is enfolded (the two way mirroring at the centre). All linked by the bird as the soul and watching consciousness.

Nash wrestled with bringing each of these three elements into a redemptive whole and here states them clearly in one picture. The deep irony of his life is that as they were brought together, his own health broke asunder, and he was propelled towards the very reality beyond that he sought so diligently to show forth. His art ended for all its multiple associations with death and the beyond in affirmation of perfect balance betwixt worlds as in his 'Solstice of the Sun':



Sun and flower in dancing harmony, in perfect balancing of worlds.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Utopian citizenship

With a moment to spare, I penned a version of this to my new Prime Minister, and posted it today (as an old fashioned letter as they have, I am told, more effect). She stated in her recent party conference speech that people who claimed to be citizens of the world, in fact, were citizens of nowhere and did not understand what 'citizenship' meant:

It is perfectly clear to me, if not to your scriptwriter, what people can mean when the say they are a citizen of the world. It can mean that they owe an allegiance to a reality that transcends their particular place or context (however important that might be), say, to a common humanity sharing a common home or even to a transcendent good. 

This is not a new sentiment both the Roman philosopher and statesmen, Seneca: "Life must proceed on the conviction that “I am not born for a single cranny; this whole universe is my homeland,” and Jesus, the Son of Man, who has no place to rest his head except in the bosom of the Father, held it and yet both would have been consigned to being protagonists of ‘nowhere ’by the test you offered in your conference speech. Yet the former practiced statecraft within the Roman Empire. You see you can have more than one identity! And, for the latter, we can hardly suggest that Our Lord would have been better off limiting himself to serving in the Nazareth equivalent of IKEA? [Or, as an aside, I was presuming that the daughter of a clergyman could not].

Being a citizen of the world may be simply a pious sentiment but thinking so can also have real and beneficial consequences. You can champion universal human rights or imagine that science should only be swayed by the truth in a free flowing shared exploration that transcends national boundaries or you might spend your career serving the needs of the poor wherever you have been called to serve. The possibilities are literally endless, limited only by your imagination. 


Seeing yourself as a citizen of the world can be a profound, guiding maxim, and is perfectly compatible with being a particular citizen of a given country with the special obligations and protections of that place. You do not have to demean the former to discuss the realities of the latter. To do so is to limit, not extend, our vision of human possibility.

You have, spinning to the contrary, inherited a kingdom divided against itself. Encouraging such divisions may be (in the short term) politically acute but are morally bankrupt.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Shadow



"The cause of my nervous breakdown was..." As I know, any number of possible, complimentary and contradictory, clauses can complete this opening sentence; and, psychological theory is helpful only as a distraction.

It is one of the virtues of Neil M Gunn's novel, 'The Shadow' that the sources of Nan Gordon's remain open. Nan has returned to her aunt's farm in Scotland to recover from a nervous breakdown occasioned in London. The time being immediately after the Second World War has ended. What allows her to recover is a renewed participation in the health of a natural place - the lively, life giving country, the love of her caring and wise aunt; and, work on the harvest in undemanding but interested company.

This recovery is not unthreatened by the drama that makes the novel - a murder at a local croft, her male partner's arrival clashing with the attentions given to her by a stranger, a local artist. It is threatened too by a core dilemma. How can Nan's recovery of an embodied, felt way of seeing the world find accommodation with the man she loves way of seeing the world? For Ranald, her partner, is, amongst other things, a highly articulate and convicted Marxist waiting upon the inevitable revolution that his science speaks of.

A thread that flows through the book, never resolved, is this dialogue between a theoretical 'wisdom' that will seek to bend the world to its will and a compassion that 'knows' that the world is surprisingly resistant to our capacity to manage it according to the wills of our logic. A willing, that Nan's aunt at one point notices, drives men mad as they meet the resistance of that world.

The compassionate in the particular, cumulated in the fabric of our actual lives, seen bound, enfolded within one another, Gunn gently argues, is where the good is found; and, only incrementally can we fashion meaningful change that at once improves and yet remains connected to all that is presently good. This, he notices, may be a poor argument against ripe injustice and painful failure but has the revolutionary leap (capitalist or fascist or communist) ever contributed more than dislocating violence?

Meanwhile, beyond this 'argument', I was reminded personally that the best step into health is stepping out of oneself into a welcoming world and finding the blessing therein. My doctor, I recall, not a man unacquainted with the depths of barbarism, having been a young soldier liberating Belsen, asked me first whether I wanted pills or someone to talk to (a psychotherapist I presumed). I turning down both, he then followed Nan's path, sending me out into nature for long walks where I was drawn out of self into a shared ambience of life and slowly healed. Literally walking into sanity.

At a deeper level, Gunn implies the healing of the world needs an ever deeper intentional and attentional participation in its quiet rhythms. To know its 'tao' is the beginning of navigating from wisdom and the only ripe wisdom is a balance of thought and emotion, bound in compassion.



When the English Fall

A solar storm has knocked out much of the world's electronic/electrical systems only fragments of that world, so unthinkingly famil...