Saturday, December 31, 2016

10:04 The Last Book of the Year

Ben Lerner's second novel was not my choice for reading on holiday. It was imposed by my traveling companion. As soon as he was finished, without question, I should begin. My finishing E.M. Forster's 'The Longest Journey' coincided with his completion; and, so I did. Happily as it transpired.

Part of the happiness might be explained by not being Forster! 'The Longest Journey' was Forster's own personal favourite and the one the critics, consensually, have least liked. The critics, I fear, are right which goes to show, at least, that writers are not necessarily the best judges of their own work. You can see how the book is vitally important to its author and that very anxiety - that it should work - obstructs its ability to do so. It is akin to that moment in cooking when your concern for whether something is done makes you constantly intervene and make sure that it will come out wrong!

A key theme of '10:04' is what should an author write. It is a novel about a writer, who amongst the everyday complexities of their life, is in the process of writing a novel and, ironically, rather than write the novel that is proposed, ends serving up this exploration (and its wider context) as the novel in question.

At one level, this could be merely clever (and cleverness is precisely the fussiness that defeats Forster - and the culinary art) but running through the book are themes that redeem.

The first of which relates to the book's epigraph that tells of a Hasidic story that the world to come will be just as this world and yet everything will be a little different and this shift will make all the difference. Running through the novel is this sense of 'phase shift' - what happens to us, to our world when we see it differently? Threatened by storm, and its peril, in New York, every object appears heightened in significance. An artist's installation is first sterile in the whitewashed galleries of the city yet takes on a renewed life when placed in a different context both natural and historical.

That leads to the next which is the virtue of second looks. Throughout the book, you have an author, a protagonist, who is constantly revising what they see, think, feel and acknowledging the importance of this. Thus, by way of example, a thread in the book is the author's support for Roberto, a child of undocumented parents, whom he helps after school. They work on a project together involving dinosaurs and how the 'brontosaurus' was a scientific mistake. It was a misattribution of two unconnected fossils that, even when it was corrected, persisted in popular depictions. Second looks are important but sadly not always effectual.

Third is that fictions matter and yet the stories we tell must continually confront what we imagine as 'reality'.  Our author volunteers at a local co-op where a co-worker tells her story of discovering that her purported father, Lebanese, was in fact not her biological father. Her identification with a Middle Eastern heritage, replete with political engagement and social action, was a 'fiction', however deeply felt, so who is she now? The very real fiction of emotional connection and history or the established biological fact?

What is so enjoyable about "10:04" is that it shoots you off in a myriad of possible directions only touched on here. It has the polyvalence of poetry, unsurprisingly since its author is primarily a poet (both in fact and, I suspect, in reality).

It, also, has delightful set pieces suffused with acute observation and humour. The peculiar dynamics of masturbating to order in a clinic to provide sperm for a friend. The choice of inoffensive and thus ineffectual art at a doctor's surgery. The paradoxical dynamics of a conversation with one's agent where literary merit dances uneasily with pecuniary satisfaction.

Finally, it is rightly obsessed (in a very quiet way) with time. With its nature and its refusal to proceed in a linear fashion from past to present to future, like a proper story, seen, first and foremost, in the novel's refusal to be a novel.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Whilst J.B. Priestley's novel, 'The Magicians' 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 an acute a pattern of social criticism as can be imagined. But primarily it is a novel of metaphysical vision, teasing out the meaning of time, and inviting the reader to see their life as a continuous whole, where every memory, truly remembered and lived, might heal the past and transform the possibilities of the future. Reading it this year, I found myself, literally, propelled back into memorised  life and vivifying them with new life such that I felt strangely renewed. The lenses adjusted able to see more freshly. Like many a 'spiritual' experience, this ebbs but like every 'peak 'experience, once had, stepping back into it helps trigger (as Abraham Maslow noted) renewed possibilities for such experiences now and in the future.
This is, needless to say, an essential function of ritual and the repeated remembering of a sacred story. The more you dwell in it, the more it dwells in you, the more likely will it weave its magic. A truth children instinctively know when they ask for the repetition of a particular story for the umpteenth time!
This has not been the easiest of years (to say the least) full of surprises, that, had we been listening more carefully, may not have been so; and, has the world thrust into ever greater uncertainty with its attendant threats and opportunities. So more than ever we need the story of Christmas as a remembered place that offers to heal the world. God becoming human so that we might realize our own invitation to become God bearers, saints.
I have a friend who growing up in Venezuela went to his first confirmation class. The priest asked the class members - twelve/thirteen year olds - what they wanted to be when they grew up. This being a middle class neighbourhood, he received answers such as doctor or lawyer or engineer. Until he came to my friend, who boldly declared, "I want to be a saint" at which point the priest lay into him, how dare he be so presumptuous etc... So traumatising  was this public dressing down that he never went back and, finally, after studying in the US embraced Islam!
After he converted to Catholicism in the late 1930s, Thomas Merton was walking the streets of New York with his friend, Robert Lax. Lax was Jewish, and he asked Merton what he wanted to be, now that he was Catholic. “I don’t know,” Merton replied, adding simply that he wanted to be a good Catholic. Lax stopped him in his tracks. “What you should say,” he told him, “is that you want to be a saint!” Merton was dumbfounded. “How do you expect me to become a saint?,” Merton asked him. Lax said: “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”...

Thomas Merton knew his friend was right. Merton, of course, would go on to become one of the great spiritual writers of the last century and a prophetic voice for real social change. His friend Lax would later convert to Catholicism himself -- and begin his own journey to try and be a saint.
The words resonate again today: You should want to be a saint. And to be one, all you need is to want to be one. All I want for Christmas is saintliness. This is the right response to the invitation of Christmas and it is the right response to the challenges of the world.
And, the paradox, as the early desert monks and nuns knew so well, is that you become a saint by growing ever more deeply into your self, unfolding out of a self that is whole and healing, becoming not another but more utterly Nicholas or…or…
Merry Christmas and a happy saint nurturing New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Books of the Year (Read not published)

I continued this year my recently found ability not to finish a book. It was a great relief when I could find myself adrift, disconnected, and happily able to lay something aside!

Meanwhile, apart from continuing my way through the short stories of Kathleen Mansfield at, I confess, a very slow pace, these are the five most compelling books I read in 2016 (in chronological order). [Mansfield's stories are beautiful - precise observations of people's complex psychologies, tinged with a regard for the not known, the indescribable somethings that haunt a life].

'The Man who could Fly' by Michael Grosso is a compelling study of St Joseph Cupertino, the seventeenth century Franciscan, who undoubtedly could fly. A feat he accomplished repeatedly accompanied by clouds of witnesses, many of whom were originally sceptical. The virtue of Michael's book is three-fold. First to carefully sift the evidence and establish that this was the case (and that counter arguments come not from 'facts' but from assumptions about the possible that St Joseph happily upends). Second that if this is so, what might it mean for our understanding of what is possible. Third what it might mean for our assessment of the purpose and direction of being human and how it might transform both our understandings of religion as well as science.

'The Magicians' by J.B. Priestley is a novel that tracks Priestley (at his own description) as a time haunted man. Charles Ravenstreet, the novel's principal protagonist, is given the opportunity by the three magicians of the title to relive two critical moments of his past and by doing so recreate them and his future (and defeat evil machinations in the process). It is a beautiful study of Gurdjieff and Maurice Nicoll's explorations of time and its meaning - and triggered in me my own pattern of return in time and renewed recognition. Novel as spiritual nudge.

'The Buddhist History of the West' is David R Loy's journey through critical moments in the development of the West seen through the lens of 'lack' - of an existential sense that something is missing and that my/our identity is unstable. It illuminates, informs and stimulates you to further thought. History as different contextual responses to lack, some effective and workable, others, especially as we move into the modern age, increasingly ineffectual.

'The Silver Darlings' by Neil M Gunn is his masterpiece. A long, complex novel on one level saturated in a social realism about the origins of the herring fishing industry in Scotland arising out of the persecutions of the clearances (brilliantly chronicled in a book published this year by James Hunter in 'Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances). At another level, Gunn's deepening exploration of yet something other of the 'fey' and the 'psychic' (second sight beyond the normal) and of spiritual intimation of a world that works together for an underlying harmony and unity, even as it can be hard and unrelenting.

'All Passions Spent' by Vita Sackville West that, as a novel, I would never have thought of if I had not found myself watching a BBC adaptation with a miraculous cast and falling in love with this gentle tale of a woman at the very end of her life finding freedom from responsibility and with the space to gently assess and remember roads not travelled and come to terms with possibilities not lived. The book itself is graceful and wise and written with an unstudied charm that is alluring.

There were others too but these are the five that most deeply resonated both in feeling and in thought.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

An old yet timely biography of Jung

I was walking up the stairs in a tower (presumably Bollingen built by Jung as a retreat) and reached a landing. Opposite me was a door, I knocked, stepped in, and found the man himself, Jung, in bed. I thought of it as his 'death bed' and the room was suffused with the light of a descending sun. He looked at me, direct, friendly if piercing eyes, and asked me, 'Do you know yoga?' "Yes,' I replied, 'I know of it'!

One of my two dreams about Jung (both curiously set in his bedroom) and this one straightforwardly illuminating getting you to ponder the gap between knowing as embodied understanding and knowing of as simply intellectual currency.

It was the bridging of that gap - of prioritising the empirical and emergent over the dogmatic and logically structured - that was Jung's life's work. Always reminding his audience that he was a healer first, a theoretician of consciousness second. Always bringing the crucial encounter back to the individual's need to own and change their own lives, co-operating with the unconscious, towards a more complete, whole human being.

Though following the trials of this experience can lead you into esoteric directions as I was reminded reading Gerhard Wehr's biographical study of Jung.

I was struck by how this treatment of the man's life was significantly different from previous accounts I had read and suddenly realised that the differentiating factor was that the former have so often been accounts framed from an Anglo-American point of view/cultural bias. Wehr is so much more comfortable with the speculative Jung. He is not always looking over his shoulder (as Jung himself sometimes was) at Jung's scientific reputation (if that is positioned, as it still is, within a materialist, essentially nineteenth century framing) and allows all his dimensions to speak for themselves. Wehr refers to those critics who accused Jung of 'obscurantism' and 'mysticism' but rather than defend him allows Jung to be seen as comparable precisely because of the depths of human experience with which Jung felt charged to wrestle and illuminate. His methods might be differentiated from that of the mystic but they were avowedly at work on the same territory.

Thus, does Jung emerge as a fundamentally religious thinker, not simply a thinker about religion, recognising that the wholeness after which religion strives - the 'yoga' of unification - is the key to healing and well-being to which, known or unknown, all human life tends as its fundamental direction. That any particular religion is incomplete, itself in need of evolving and thus open to critique is for Jung a given so he is an uncomfortable thinker for both the 'atheist' and 'the religious'.

What strikes you most about his life is that it danced always into the unknown and the uncertain but it always danced! You create form from the given context weaving into a life fully lived.

Wehr is a less certain companion, however, in the field of the personal. Wehr's comfort is in the ideas and their context as they live in Jung's engagement but you miss, especially in the second half of life, a sufficiently rounded account of his actual therapeutic practice - what did he actually do in all those cumulated hours with patients (and who were they). You miss too a serious wrestling with the costliness and fruitfulness of Jung's extraordinary relationships with women - first with his wife, next (and in tandem) with Toni Wolff  - and others too. You hear about them, they are acknowledged, but never coloured with sufficient depth.

Meanwhile, though this an 'old' biography, it does put to rest the repeated and apparently never to be defeated charge of anti-semitism. That he made an error of judgement in seeking to keep afloat organised bodies of psychotherapy in Germany after Hitler came to power is clear. That he made distinctions between Jewish and Aryan psychology at a time that, whatever their purport to himself, could only be misconstrued in the fevered times is also true (but then so did Freud) and indeed the temptations to inept 'cultural' psychology are still with us. But none of this reveals any evidence towards a cultivated (or indeed unconscious) prejudice - and his behaviours towards specific Jewish colleagues and friends were exemplary (and his detestation of Nazism indeed dictatorship in general complete).

Indeed, stripped of their momentary misconstructions, his insights into the attractiveness of power and the fundamentally empty personality that, paradoxically, can be an extraordinarily powerful vessel for its manipulation are only too prescient. He reminds us of the sheer relief we find in handing over our selves to others who will make 'it' (the larger unit with which we identify) great again and in doing so absolve us of trying too hard to become great in our selves which can, ultimately, be the only guarantee of any equitable order. Jung's cultural critique is, thus, as needed as now as ever - as our neglected shadows rise to prominence once more looking upon whom they might fall (rather than be owned by their projectors).

Monday, December 5, 2016

Entering the Circle: A psychiatrist's shamanic journey.

A psychiatrist practicing in a severe, if not unredeemed, hospital in Novosibirsk in Siberia at the time of perestroika is referred a patient by her friend a doctor in general practice. The patient, a young male, Nicolai, is from the Altai, a mountainous region in southern Siberia, and from an indigenous, non-Russian community. He has moved to Novosibirsk in search of employment and is doing well at his factory, has a girlfriend, is moving quickly up the housing ladder, is all set fair for an accomplished, settled, ordinary life but all is not well. His uncle has just died, back in his home village, not a man he was close to, but it has disturbed him. It is has disturbed him sufficiently to warrant psychiatric attention. Why?

His uncle, it turns out, was a shaman, perceived as full of power, necessary to his community as healer and guide, but also an outsider, kept at one remove. Now it is revealed he has imparted his gift to his nephew, who 'condemned' has been completely thrown by this impinging new reality, one that upturns all that he thinks he knows, all that hitherto he has cared for.

Through hypnosis the young woman psychiatrist discovers this, helps Nicolai address it and yet surprisingly for her does not return him to his ordinary normality but 'helps' him find the conviction to follow his uncle's path and leads her down her own, unexpected, paths of discovery.

Olga Kharitidi's 'Entering the Circle; Ancient Secrets of Siberian Wisdom Discovered by a Russian Psychiatrist' is her, first person, account of this encounter and its consequences. It inevitably puts you in mind of Carlos Castaneda's accounts of his encounter with a shaman and raises possibly the same doubts as to its authenticity. How much is fact and how much is imaginative extrapolation?

Yet Kharitidi's account feels more grounded. It is woven into stories of real challenge and care in a mental hospital, is courteous about how much remains unknown and has the sense of a tentative exploration after truth rather than entering a wonderland of revelation.

It is, also, in passing, exceptionally well written - you taste late Soviet Russia, sense the ambiguities of care and bureaucracy in a mental institution; and, feel the fear and delight of revelatory dreams crashing into consciousness and having to be assimilated slowly over time, if at all.

You too come to love her guides, who appear adept, at what in Buddhism would be called 'skilful means', letting you see just what you need to see in the right way and at the right dosage.

At one point, she is given her first rule, the First Rule, which is to make every choice, however small, grounded in five principles - truth, beauty, health, happiness, and light - said in such a way that I was arrested into reflecting on what that might truly mean? What would it look like to test every choice against such standards and how many of my choices would survive as adequate, correctly facing, if that were the standard?

One of the great virtues of the book is to continually remind you that no act, however small, does not resonate through the world, reaping consequence, and that the spiritual task is to ever deepen one's awareness of this and to tread ever more lightly, graciously. As in Jewish mysticism, every particular thing carries within it a divine spark and each time you touch the world with the right intention, aware of these five rules, you release the spark to arrive at its right destination, the world steps into its right flow, transfigured.

Is this the definition of a saint - that they tread lightly mostly touching the right place in the right way reaping the right consequence?

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...