Monday, January 23, 2017

Weaving art inside 'madness'

As a young man of twenty four, Angus MacPhee left his home on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides to go to war. He was a member of Lovat's Scouts and was posted in 1940 to occupy and protect the Faeroe Isles. He did not see combat because, before the Lovats fought in Italy, Angus had succumbed to what was diagnosed as 'simple schizophrenia'. This form of schizophrenia presents all the passive symptoms without the accompanying, more familiar, active ones. It debilitates rather than excites, saps rather than disturbs. After a brief spell at home, he found himself in a mental asylum near Inverness.

Unlike the subsequent crafted images of such places, popularised in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest', this was an institution of benign care where the continuing mysteries of mental illness were addressed with the limited techniques at hand broadly in an environment of safety. In Angus' case, it was an environment enhanced by its ownership of a farm on which he worked and where he cared for the animals, especially the horses, that he loved.

He would have remained unknown to the wider world if it had not been for his compulsive attachment to creating things either from woven grass or fragments of wool taken from fences and woven into objects both recognisable and exaggerated, often with humour, like the woven grass boots (above) for an eight foot tall occupant!

His work, especially with grass, was ephemeral and he appeared not to care - what mattered to him was the making - that it subsequently faded and indeed was often destroyed or folded into compost, mattered not.

Had it not been noticed by the pioneering art therapist and collector of 'outsider' art, Joyce Laing, it would have all disappeared.

Roger Hutchinson's 'The Silent Weaver: The Extraordinary Life and Work of Angus MacPhee' tells the story of Angus' life and explores the questions to which it gives rise. He shows how Angus' choice of method was rooted in the culture and work of his homeland - horse bridles in Uist were often, for example, woven from the marram grass that lines the island's shores. He asks whether an 'artist' must be consciously so (and create for an audience) or can he simply 'unconsciously' be a maker as appeared to be the case with Angus and with many other makers of 'outsider art'? This he places in the history of the growth of interest in such art and its challenge to the assumptions that underlie 'the arts'. He touches on the continually vexed question of the relationship between creativity and madness. He, also, touches on the story of mental health care in twentieth century Britain and how the much maligned asylum might have, in truth, often have deserved its name.

It ends beautifully in a meditation that they may be something about the nature of the Celtic art tradition that resonates throughout MacPhee's work - quoting Renan, Matthew Arnold and Yeats to good effect. That it carries within itself a love of nature for itself, in its very materiality and ephemerality. Nature is something mysterious that you abide in and navigate, not something you simply admire from a distance. It breathes you, you play and work in it, it ever changes - and like MacPhee's workings decays to take on new forms.

In this, it reminds me of the Chinese - and the wonderful story of the poet who inscribed their work on leaves so that the wind could carry them up, away, and ultimately dissolve them back into the substances from which they continually emerge.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo

If you choose to write a biography of a man when certain of his followers (and, more broadly, certain cultural forces) would prefer a hagiography, you are going to encounter difficulty with the book's reception. People will question your credentials, your motivations. They will argue with your facts - usually by simply denying them rather than showing up your errors. They will accuse you of disrespect or worse. They will vilify and vituperate forgetting most of the values impressed upon them by the very person they purport to defend.

All this, and more, has greeted Peter Heehs' biography of the Indian sage, Sri Aurobindo. No doubt this intemperance is raised to its heights by the fact that Heehs is an 'insider', has been (or still is) a member of the Aurobindo ashram and has helped collate and develop its archives.

Knowing this before reading the book (and admiring Aurobindo myself), I prepare for the worst - for the insensitive, scurrilous and reductionist account but it never came.

In its place is a model of scrupulous and intelligent biography. It is a biography that never wants to go beyond what is feasibly demonstrable. This means it must necessarily suspend judgement about a number of the claims made for Aurobindo with regard to his (and the Mother's life) and its impact on the world. This conservatism is grounded not only in the empirical biographer's art but also in Aurobindo's own reservation about courting 'credulity or incredulity' about spiritual conditions that can only be justified by their being experienced, not discussed.

This by no means devalues the text. Heehs gives a rounded account of an extraordinary man who had multiple lives - as an administrator and teacher in a princely state, as a campaigner, journalist and politician; and, as a spiritual philosopher/poet and practitioner of a 'new' yoga that aimed (and aims) at transforming the world. These lives were both separate and yet run into one another - no former life being wholly abandoned in the new; not least, because Aurobindo's yoga is aimed an integration of the spiritual and the material. The path of ascetic separation (or of imagining the world as simply 'maya', an illusion) was to be superseded with a new emphasis on the spiritual consciousness seeking to leaven every activity towards a deeper wholeness while respecting the unique particularity of every given thing. Aurobindo was the first Indian thinker to think of the progress of consciousness (and the world) in evolutionary terms (with deep resonances, however different the context, with his contemporary, the Jesuit Priest, Teilhard de Chardin). At every step Heehs' descriptions of Aurobindo's complex thought is admirably clear and compelling.

Most remarkable too in the text is Heehs' use of Aurobindo's own spiritual diary that, almost telegramaticaly, records his own 'sadhana' or spiritual development as it moves through different levels of consciousness, stages of development, successes and retrenchments. It is one of the most detailed (if fractured) accounts of a saint's development (my description) I have come across and shows that the holiness of the person does not always according with a completed wholeness. This may be another reason for the followers' distress - seeking a misplaced perfection - rather than a dynamic and evolving vulnerability and an accompanying (and resultant) compassion.

There are moments in the text when Heehs comes close to providing, unnecessarily I suspect, hostage to his detractors not least in a discussion on the relationship between mysticism and madness but only to dismiss such a relationship in Aurobindo's case.

Overall Peter Heehs has left us an accomplished testament of the man who first dared to popularise the notion of India's independence through to the seeker and sage whose works demand the close engagement of anyone looking for a genuinely contemporary  and universal spirituality that honours the individual's experience and the world's needs (and that subverts dogmatism)!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Benighted or The Old Dark House

The excellent Valancourt Books are republishing (after long neglect) several of the novels of J.B. Priestley.

That Priestley's work is so variously assessed is, at one level, understandable and yet, at a deeper level, incomprehensible.

The surface distancing is intelligible because there is something in the style that is resolutely of its time and that creates a certain clunkiness. The closest analogy would be an 'old film' where the sets are obvious, the seams show and the acting is precisely that 'acting'! But allow for that, accustom yourself, and you quickly realise that you are in the hands of a master - a fine storyteller, adept manipulator of diverse genres, and consistently able to strike the depths as he carries you across the plane of the story (or stories).

Priestley's second novel was 'Benighted' (that was turned into a film 'The Old Dark House' by James Whale in 1932 and adapted for theatre only last year

The novel tells a familiar tale - two parties of travellers converge (and combine) in a strange house, cast there by inclement weather, and find themselves confronted by strangeness turning to horror. All of this is effectively done at the right pace and with the appropriately unnerving edge (though Whale's film deviates with an alternate ending that, ironically, softens the horror).

Priestley, however, adds several layers - each of the five visiting characters are finely drawn, helped by the device of playing the 'Truth' game to idle away the night hours - and significant themes enter into play. A marriage gone sour seeks to find a path back to meaning. A young architect describes the 'snag' of life as an inability to grasp and enjoy the now, the present endlessly postponed by anxieties, concerns, necessities. A veteran (of the First World War) tells of how it has stripped him of his purpose. A successful businessman confesses the edge that gave rise to his ruthless focusing on wealth accumulation and the exercise of power yet revealing his essential loneliness. The fine, subtle distinctions of class play about and are overcome in the confrontation with the abiding horror that is in the house.

Criticism could be applied to the counterpart of the travellers namely their hosts, trapped in their isolation and varied manias, they are underdeveloped by their author. Though perhaps you could argue that is one of the features of evil taking hold - that we refuse the complexities of our humanity and settle back into empty shells of our presumed masks. Evil is stereotypical and easily recognisable, goodness (or even ordinariness) more complicated!

Yet, on the whole, it is all beautifully (and excitingly) done.

The film (inspite of an excellent cast and admirable director) is less accomplished not least because at the last moment it tries to humanise the two principal 'evil' protagonists (and soften the ending); and, thus jars with the overall sense of human beings meeting an inhuman, even cosmic, evil. But it does have beautiful moments - Margaret distracting herself playing shadows with the candle to distract her loneliness encroached by a shadow of Morgan (the 'primitive' butler) and the first episode of violence; and, the beautiful playing of Miss Femm, the sister of the house and deranged religious fanatic whose God is wholly vengeful (and on her side)!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Inner Work

I cannot remember how long Robert Johnson`s `Inner Work` has languished on my bookshelves unread. It is surprising since I think his autobiography, `Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams and Realizations` is the most remarkable text of a dream infused inward (and outward) journey since Jung`s own `Memories, Dreams, Reflections`- engaging, magical, humble and wise. Meanwhile, his short book on what Jung called the shadow (that part of our self, in our personal unconscious, that we repress, hold at bay) is consistently illuminating, not least in reminding us that its contents represent not only those aspects of ourselves that we would rather forget for their presumed negativity but for those dimensions of ourselves seen as too great to handle, from which we shy away. Our shadows hide gold as well as scrap metal!

I presume that this was, in part, because the book is partly a manual - a how to book - from which INFJ`s instinctively recoil. We intuit or we die! We do not figure it out - least of all in stages and least of all with our internal, spiritual lives!

That prejudice aside, it is a beautiful book. Lucid in its accounts of the fundamental tenets of Jungian dream psychology and, yes, deeply informed with a practical and experienced approach to addressing both dream interpretation and active imagination. You cannot imagine anyone taking up this text with committed seriousness and not divining a better relationship to their inward dynamics. How to treat of those myraid `persons` who make up their selves and whose competitions and conflict need continuous negotiation. Also, how to accept that ultimate invitation towards the weaving whole, the seamless fabric, that is their true self.

I did, however, have two quibbles.

The first was with an excessive `individualising`. Yes, the focus ought to be on how we adjust our own inner dynamics, take responsibility for them,live them out; but, we live with and towards one another and an essential dynamic in finding our wholeness is in dialogue with others and in that dialogue touching a depth of mutuality that redeems. Too often the Jungian emphasis on `individuation` leaves the `other` real only in so far as it plays a part in my play!

The second is related to this. The figures we encounter in imagination may not simply be parts of my unconscious, however collectively shared, they may not be simply eruptions from below (or within) but may be revealtions from without (and above). Not every saint we encounter might be a dimension of `my` wholeness but a revelation of a wholeness that transcends, including a much greater dimension than my `self`. Johnson`s world remains `bifurcated` - a physical world onto which is projected an inner `unconscious` world rather than a wholly conscious world with different dimensions, levels of meaningful being.

Nevertheless as a practical guide to dream and imaginative work I cannot think of a more compelling guide, wise and humble in equal measure.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...