Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Other Place

A politician attempts to give a speech but is distracted on realising that his audience are either asleep or are the 'living dead'. A schoolteacher is convinced he has seen the last man alive from the future and a harbinger of apocalypse. A troubled married couple slip in time to meet their anima and animus and it is an encounter that initiates the potential healing of their marriage.

Such are some of the story lines in J.B. Priestley's collection of short stories, 'The Other Place'. It is a collection of 'weird tales' and demonstrate convincingly that whatever Priestley was it was not simply confined to his persona as a bluff, no nonsense Yorkshireman and purveyor of social realist, traditional fiction and well-crafted plays. Social criticism is never far away - neither of the inequalities of class nor the emergence of the 'mass man' of the post War era, swayed into consumption by the lure of advertising and the slow fracturing of community into the more amorphous state of a 'society'.

But behind or within this is a deeper, metaphysical concern after meaning.

What does it mean to be a human being, awake in the world and alive to purpose and the possibility of flourishing? Traditionally this would be the field of religion but striking in Priestley, this is a domain that is almost wholly absent. None of his characters have it in their field of reference. They are, to all appearances, throughly secular. This is interesting because several of his most obvious contemporaries still have it in their sights - even if only as a point of departure - the Scottish novelist, Neil Gunn, comes to mind as does Aldous Huxley.

Be that as it may, all three have a critical concern to rediscover plausible pathways for transformative experience that allows for transcendence - both of conventional reality and as a destination for human wellbeing. In Priestley's case, the two most obvious influences are Ouspensky & Maurice Nicoll and C.G. Jung. All three were dedicated explorers of the potential of the human person (and in Nicoll overlap - he was Jung's first English disciple and a subsequent student of Ouspenksy (and of Gurdjieff).

If you want a flavour of the complex ideas of all three (or four) thinkers, these tales might be an excellent place to start. The politician's demise in front of his realisation is both a satirical and haunting take on Gurdjieff's claim that we are, most of the time and on the whole, 'asleep' performing all our actions mechanically below the threshold of any genuine awareness. The forthcoming apocalypse (though indebted to H.G. Wells) is an invitation to reflect on the world's trajectory and imagine that 'progress' is not inevitable but a complex earned good, always fragile. Meanwhile, Luke and Betty's potential redemption at the hands of encountering their ideal 'male' and 'female' archetypes is an invitation to recognise that all transformation may be accomplished by a touch of grace but that grace is led to and comes away with a significant task of work.

Indeed this might be the meaning at the heart of most of the tales - meaning is not conferred except through diligent, conscious work, of the extension of awareness, the deepening of consciousness, nothing contrives to condemn us like our own complacency.


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