Saturday, April 29, 2017

Time is strangely wonderful

Time is a River without Banks by Marc Chagall

In Edwin Muir's poem, 'Adam's Dream', Adam beholds a vision of 'time' and 'time is strange for one lately in Eden'. The time Adam sees is the familiar one - time as passing, the present disappearing into a past that no longer exists except in memory and physical evidence and the future as simply a container of projected hopes and speculation with no real existence. A mechanical time with no meaning. 

Adam is, of course, however, perceiving a notion of time that, in truth, only came into existence with the seventeenth century. Solidified by Newton, it has become the accepted cultural norm. A norm unshifted by either Einstein's relativity or the quirks of quantum mechanics (where causality appears often to run backwards from the future into the present). 

But as J.B. Priestley marvellously demonstrates this view of time would neither be recognised by any of Adam's descendants before the seventeenth century nor, with any scrupulous, open minded examination, of how time is experienced now. Time is (whatever else) culturally flexible in how it is discerned and, in fact, may be multi-dimensional.

Priestley's 'Man & Time' (long and scandalously out of print) has a twofold task - one is to introduce us to the many ways in which human cultures have configured their understanding of Time and to advance his own argument (or speculation) as to what Time is (in, at least, some of its many mansions). Both seek to rescue us from the mechanical 'passing time' that appears to be our present cultural lot. This 'passing time' is remarkably deadening. If it were true, we might imagine that it would encourage everyone to seize the present moment with unyielding relish but, as Priestley shows, this ain't necessarily so indeed this is exactly the cultural moment when we invented the notion that time is something to be 'killed' (as if our unconscious recognised that if the flow of time is meaningless perhaps it were better dead)!

The first part of the book is a wonderful act of compression - time as cultural artefact explored from many angles with concision, illustration both verbal and visual (the book is laden with fabulous illustrations) and wit. His summation of the Medieval period, for example, is masterly - you come away, through the lens of time, with a renewed understanding of the age. Narrow certainly but intense, a world in which to quote Rowan Williams, 'everyone had selves with knobs on' - vividly individual even (or because) they found their place in a community - and colourful. Priestley slyly contrasts Chaucer's Pilgrims with a gathering of travellers at the airport gate much to the advantage of the former. This ability to locate oneself was, in part, a gift of a view of time that allowed you, however, difficult your present, a firm track into a located eternity. 

The second part of the book is grounded in Priestley's own quasi-research project. The presenter of a BBC cultural program, having interviewed Priestley on his concern for time, invited readers to contact the author with examples of when Time appeared not to behave in a simply linear, passing fashion. Priestley was inundated with hundreds of letters, mostly concerned with precognitive dreams. These he sifts, explores, brings into dialogue both with skeptical criticism and theories of time, most prominently those of J.W. Dunne, and through which he develops his own speculation on Time rooted in the possible, his experience and the evidence his interlocutors (laced with a few historic examples) presented him with. All through he tries, and succeeds, to keep on the side of the balanced, the sober, the seriously empirical (if by this we include giving real space for people's actual experience).

Some of the examples are compelling whether the famously historical whereby a passenger evades a voyage on the Titanic or a woman dreaming of her drowning child corrects this potential future into a happy ending. Cumulatively, I think, they elude skepticism - and Priestley, faithful to the dictates of Thomas Aquinas, gives the skeptics the best possible run for their money.

I came away with a renewed sense that (at the very least) the future is accessible, that the mind, while linked to the brain, surpasses it and that not only precognition is real but that we live in a cosmos saturated with meaning and that our participation in it is not limited to this one 'mortal coil'. That Time is a house with many mansions (and that it may be moated and grounded in eternity though Priestley does not go that far). 

What is remarkable about Priestley's text is that his fathoming is so faithful to the contours of his experience and that in this he wants to marry the spiritual, the psychological and the scientific. He indicates a direction of travel away from either religion or science as 'received wisdom' and both as an ongoing, exciting adventure that is always enterprising after new truths and always vulnerable to the new, what presents itself.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Redeeming through time

Eugene Vodolazkin did not expect anyone except his wife and his immediate, curious colleagues to read his novel 'Laurus', set in fifteenth century Russia, describing the life of a healer, holy fool, pilgrim and monk yet, to his surprise, it not only won awards but became a best seller in its native Russia and is now in the process of appearing in no less than fifteen languages. The English version, that I read, faithfully translates Vodolazkin's blend of archaic and contemporary language as it seeks both to recreate its 'past' 'life world' and simultaneously undermine your sense of time itself.

This is a hugely ambitious novel in which we follow Arseny, the grandson of a healer, through four distinct phases of his life, each one with its own setting and place. The accomplished healer succumbs to a deranging melancholy on the death of his beloved (and of his child) in childbirth and takes on the mantle of a 'holy fool'. The fool, in turn, becomes a pilgrim to Jerusalem and on his return to Russia, a monk. In each guise, he seeks not his own redemption but that of his wife and child. The expiation of his sins focus on earning of an afterlife or them that is blessed, in which their names and faces are known to and in God.

Through each life we are introduced into a detailed picture of what such a life might look like and into the worlds of those with whom Arseny interacts. We see the faith invested in folk medicine, even when it fails to work, suggestive of a world created for man even if, in its Fall, it is far from always beneficent.  We see the workings of plague. We see the strange admixture of admiration for holiness slipping into its violating opposite - the demands of holiness can be difficult to bear for the unholy- so they punish it. We see the comforts of a communal world and its dangers when it encounters the stranger or the simply the estranged.

Each phase of life for Arseny brings him a new name ending in the monastic name of Laurus. Each phase of life brings speculation as to what it is in us that maintains a continuity of life and is that continuity our personal stories or yet something other perhaps in Arseny's case his binding commitment to his beloved and his faith in God's ability to grant her a restful home.

If this was 'all' the novel contained it would be an elegant sufficiency but there is another, deepening strand that runs through the text, gathering pace, and that is its questioning the nature of time. Arseny acquires (and loses) in the second half an Italian friend, Ambrogio, who visits Russia because it is friendly to prophecy and Ambrogio, through a glass darkly, sees the future and is puzzled for he has seen that in 1492 a new world will be discovered but too that (in Russia) the end of the world is expected. Both cannot be true (at least literally). Ambrogio's character allows Vodolazkin to unfurl speculations on time - its subjective changes of pace, the ability to stand outside of it, the thought that it is fundamentally unreal: everything simply is present in an eternal instantiation to which having, imperfect access, one can, from time to time, see effectively into the future (and presumably the past). And so on and so forth.

This speculative undercurrent too places a question mark over the whole because at one level the text can, and is, read as the faithful rendering of Arseny's multiple lives that inhabit not only an historically authentic frame but also one undoubtedly inspired by the Orthodox faith of the author.

As one, enthusiastic reviewer in the American Conservative put it, the book can inspire you to prayer (and it does). Indeed it might even help you unravel that mysterious 'object' the Russian soul and have you yearning for Holy Mother Russia reinvigorated (which would show, sadly, that fantasy trumps anything proximate to an historical reality).

But how 'Orthodox' is the novel in practice?

Foreseeing the future in an instaneous present places strains on traditional defences of free will. Meanwhile, Arseny seems strangely uninterested in Christ (for a holy fool or a pilgrim or a monk) even though Christ does appear briefly, in vision, and make a crucial intervention in Jerusalem. Finally, none of his spiritual mentors/companions seem to challenge, Arseny's strangely morbid fixation on redeeming his beloved. This seems to occlude (until the final recapitulating moments) any true surrender of self: his guilt is subtly too fascinating.

This may, ultimately, of course, be its primary orthodox point. We are redeemed only through passing through time, and all its messiness, to an elsewhere that is the timeless. Both namely having and inhabiting a history and then losing our history are essential to becoming fully human and thus an image of God. It is by entering that paradox fully that we find our life and the connecting thread to of our multiple selves.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Undiscovered Country or how the Dead have a will of their own

Carl Watkins, a medieval historian at Cambridge, has written a marvellous book about dying, death and the dead across the ages in England (with a side excursion to Wales) from the Medieval period to the First World World. It is accomplished by the quality of its writing, its choice of illustrative story and its generosity of spirit. This latter enables you to sense what each, changing, perception of death truly meant to that cast of particular protagonists in their time and place.

So, for example, we start in the Middle Ages.  Here a belief in purgatory and the journey of the dead from first dilemma to hoped for bliss, meant that the task was to secure active remembrance, informed by prayer, for the transiting soul. A whole panoply of mechanisms grew up to ensure this. The sculptured tomb in a church reminded the viewer of their mortal state and elicited sympathetic prayer for the depicted's post mortem state. The dead party offered a variety of good works - repairing and naming a gate, opening an almshouse or distributing bread to the poor - to keep them in the praying eye. And, the professional apparatus of chantry and guild that kept masses and prayers circulating to the benefit of the generous dead.

All of which was disrupted by the Reformation. Salvation being by faith alone, it became 'instantaneous'. Purgatory disappeared. You were either destined for heaven or hell and no post-mortem help was possible. Yet no rupture is ever complete. You could still remember the dead in your prayers but now the efficacy was not their eternal destiny but a recapitulation of their virtue as a stimulus for your own.

The book beautifully illustrates that what we believe will shape, at the least, how we interpret what we see and, at the most, what we actually do see. Our responses to dying, death and the possibilities of an afterlife do shift as our patterns of belief and expectation change. Yet strikingly through the book, you also notice that, first, certain patterns of belief, however differently tinged, persist and that the dead themselves, in spite of the latest 'theory', continue to behave with stubborn consistency.

Thus, purgatory having been 'abolished' by goodly Protestant theologians keeps reappearing - both in the stubborn folk traditions around burial that imagine that what you do in terms of burial matters to the future of the deceased and, more explicitly, in the nineteenth century the birth of spiritualism imagines that post mortem survival provides and demonstrates opportunities for a renewing conscious life beyond the grave.

Thus too ghosts (in varied guises) continue to behave in manners continuously consistent, irrespective of the theologies that swirl around them, indeed ghosts seem happily resistant to our expectations and beliefs, behaving as they have always done, for good or ill. It rather reminds me about a moment in Stephen King's 'Salems Lot' where the local priest is earnestly questioning the validity in 'modern thought' of evil just as he is being swallowed up by the vampire!

This is social and cultural history of a high order. It describes the phenomenon of how death has been seen across the span of a given history allowing for that testimony to speak for itself, leaving the audience to reflect on what it may mean for their own understanding both of the past and the reality that each person will face, namely their own death.

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...