Thursday, June 15, 2017

Mastering trauma

Olga Kharitidi's first book, "Entering the Circle" had its psychiatrist author stepping into the world of Altai shamanism. It is a journey of self-discovery beautifully told and grounded even when it demands much of your imaginative sympathy for the magical. 

Her second book, "Master of Lucid Dreams" traverses similar territory except now we step out of the territory of the familiar - shamanism - into the territory of the 'secret brotherhood' and if the former raised the spectre of Castaneda - what is testimony and what imaginative extrapolation? The latter brings us into the realm of Gurdjieff - charlatan or wise trickster, delusion or sagacity beyond our usual ken? 

What keeps the book on the side of the possible (to this reader at least) is Olga's transparent humility. She never pretends to be anything other than an overworked, vulnerable, often skeptical psychiatrist who finds herself, in her openness and gift for healing thrust into extraordinary encounters - and Russia and Central Asia (as I can attest) has huge reservoirs of belief both indigenous, folk and esoteric that seventy years of Communism, however hard it struggled, never eliminated - though it and modernity may have fragmented it. 

In the 1990s Olga finds herself at an unusual research institute in Novosibirsk, Siberia where the mysterious Smirnov is researching consciousness and the psychic (not an unfamiliar place even under the Soviets indeed the KGB were, and their successors maybe still be, deeply interested in such matters) and is enticed by one of his young subjects, Masha, to attend a lecture by a man named Vladimir. 

It is on a subject close to Olga's heart and her medical practice - the spirits of trauma. For Vladimir this is no metaphor - trauma is best configured as the actual practice of spirits (or memory demons as a later character, Michael, will call them) and they are not simply personal, you can inherit them from past generations, even places, and hand them on into the future. They manipulate memory and behaviour to secure their hold. The path free is through creating the right kind of internal space, reinforced by the right kind of remembering and storytelling, such that you win back their energy, making it, and them, your own, turning darkness into light. You can do this not only for yourself but for others - here in this world and in the next - as Olga will discover when she finds herself in Samarkand. 'Prayer' for the dead is not only for the 'living'!

Interestingly I was reminded of the work of the clinical psychologist (and expert on Swedenborg), Wilson Van Dusen, who, in his clinical practice, had great success by treating the multiple voices of his patients as real personalities, with agendas, if with agendas at odds with the true well-being of the patient subject to them, such that owning and responding to those voices, and transforming them, health was reborn and the patient regained control. Different traditions but similar underlying patterns.

However it is to Samarkand where Vladimir invites Olga (in a suitably esoteric and roundabout way) and it is here she meets the even more mysterious Michael, the master of lucid dreams. It is he who will lead her through the process and have her confront one of her deepest traumas - the failure to respond to a depressed friend's last cry for help, the friend subsequently committing suicide. 

This ritual has Olga journeying in imagination to the realm of the dead and finding her friend and helping release her on her journey. It is beautifully told and even if it were fictive (and I have no reason for believing it so) is one deeply resonant with multiple, over lapping traditions of afterlife - shamanism is here (and to the fore) but so to was Swedenborg (and, to my mind, though I expect not to the authors, George MacDonald). 

The book would be a disappointment if you imagined one was going to 'learn' how to lucid dream (and there are many texts for that) but not if you wanted inspiration as to why. As with her first book, Kharitidi paints a powerful picture of a deeply interconnected world of many mansions where consciousness flows, if not with ease with definite practice, and where both time and space is relative and relative to moral and spiritual imperatives. It is a deep reminder too that we all carry brokenness, that brokenness it suggests is not simply what we accrue in a particular lifetime, we inherit 'sin' and pass 'sin' on but it is also a reminder that this cycle can always be broken, now, in the past and in the future, for time and space are simply moving images of eternity; and, potentially that all will be well.

To quote another Russian, from a different but not unrelated tradition, St Silouan of Athos, when asked whether there would be anybody in hell at the end, he simply replied, "Love could not bear it" and for bearing the beams of love, to quote Blake, is the reason that we came. The Lord's hands are our hands, to interpose St Theresa of Avila, so that work of love is 'ours' too. This book is an invitation, if a somewhat esoteric one, to one of its many works.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Gardening soul

Robert Pogue Harrison's 'Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition', like his 'Forests', is a penetrating exploration of how a particular aspect of our world has been seen down the ages and how that seeing reveals key aspects of humanity and how it has changed from place to place and from time to time.

It begins with the most famous garden of all: Eden and suggests how Eve's eating of the apple was not a rebellion from a perfect state but an escape from a state too static, fixed, in which it was impossible to realise human(e) possibility. The core of this possibility is the ability to practice 'care', the ability to take a set of given conditions and navigate with and through them to achieve a dynamic, living reality, part shaped, part given, always vulnerable yet one's own. In fact, a real garden, actually loved and known, shaped by one's own hands. One that is always learning from the past and open to a challenging future.

The essay goes on to explore the ways in which 'the garden', real and imagined, has interacted with key moments of our unfolding culture and what it might reveal about humanity within that culture.

Of the two best chapters, the first is a defence of Epicurus who famously retreated to a private garden but not to cultivate that narrow hedonism with which he has become fixed in the modern mind but to practice the arts of friendship, gratitude, patience and serenity that would allow a person to face their mortality equitably and live a good life before that. It was a 'retreat' that was a political act - consciously taking oneself out of a given situation, the failure of Greek politics - to revaluate values and propose not 'a solution' but ways of life that might point to better possibilities in time.

The second is an exploration of the garden with relation to Christian and Islamic views of paradise. The latter place is concrete, realistic, a place of serenity and reward, a reward that can be continuously enjoyed. It is relaxing. The former is depicted only by way of analogy and metaphor, eluding description and is a place of renewed ecstasy where there is no completion only the prospect of further joys. It is restless.

In Islam, paradise is the Garden of Eden, reimagined. In Christianity, famously in Dante, Eden is a place one returns to (after purgatory) only to leave in a leap towards the ever receding fulfilment of the heavenly. God is all present in an Islamic paradise of fulfilled desire. God remains the target of desire in a Christian heaven.

Is it possible, Harrison speculates, that Islamic discomfort of 'the West' is not of our professed values but of our fundamental restlessness, of ever wanting to be somewhere other that, from an Islamic perspective, can only be evidence of a fundamental inability to be 'islam' - surrendered to the ever present God?

This thematic, however, is amplified throughout Harrison's text - the garden as a potential antidote to restlessness, providing an option for care within a nurturing environment, and our inability to recognise it fully, being deeply attracted, yet increasingly elusive, as we nurse our 'lack' and try to fill it with distraction rather than attractive activity, with consumption rather than care.

Harrison begins quoting Voltaire in Candide, the famous last line, that we should cultivate our gardens as the most meaningful response to the world's chaos. Three centuries later it continues, suggests Harrison, to be sensible advice. For in gardening is an ethic of recognising limits, postponing complete satisfaction as you advance modest goals in the face of the world's uncertainties. Not an 'heroic' ethic but maybe a liveable, sane one.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Good and evil, a world embraced and denied: Milosz's life

"Wherever I am, at whatever place on earth, I hide from people the conviction that I am not from here. It's as if I'd been sent, to extract as many colours, tastes, smells, to experience everything that is a man's share, to transpose what is felt into a magical register and carry it there, from whence I came"! 

A task achieved in ripe abundance!

I remember reading the Polish Nobel Laureate, poet, essayist, philosopher, Czeslaw Milosz, first at university. I was introduced to him, as was so often the case, through reading the review, 'Temenos'. It was, I think, my parallel and also primary education to that offered by my apparent university course. Fittingly I encountered him through the lens of his own introduction to the man he considered his master, his distant cousin, the visionary poet (and successful diplomat), Oskar Milosz.

To Czeslaw Milosz, I owe too, amongst other things, my introduction to Simone Weil through an essay of his in 'Emperor of Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision' that was the first book of his I read.

Like Weil there was a Manichaean element to Milosz as the above quotation implies. This world is not our home and whatever our necessary purpose here, we belong elsewhere, to another perception. This tension between love of the world that, even when created good, has gone astray, disfigured by evil is a notable tension in the poet's work.

This is unsurprising if you consider his biography and I have been reading Andrzej Franazek's masterly account, recently translated from the Polish. As a child, he was sufficiently old to register on his childhood sensibility the throes of the Russian Revolution, civil war and wars of national liberation in the febrile borderlands between Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. He entered a pause - and idyllic mid-childhood so hauntingly described in his novel, 'The Issa Valley' before growing up into a world slowly unravelling out into the apocalyptic conflict, most especially for Poland, of the Second World War and the subsuming aftermath of Stalinist totalitarianism. This tortuously, because his sympathies had always been leftist though never Communist, led him finally into a literal exile in the United States until with a final twist Communism collapsed and as a man in his eighties returning to live and finally die in his adopted city of Krakow.

It was often a life of both socially/politically imposed and personal suffering - both his wives predeceased him even when the second, Carol, was thirty years his junior, and one of his two sons suffered from bipolar disorder but he was triumphantly resilient and consistently curious, questioning, learning and transforming what he found into poems of great beauty, intelligence and, for want of a better word, toughness. 

His journey too was one from the lofty peaks of an intellectual superiority, a swiftness to criticise, even condemn, towards a gathering compassion. It was a journey too from scepticism to faith - though a Catholic faith that never lost a necessary quality of doubt. A doubt both about the reality of the sacred as such as well as a doubt as to the 'orthodoxy' of his Christianity. A doubt too of his significance as a person (though never as a poet) for who would be interested in his sins, told with self-deprecatorily irony in the poem, 'At a Certain Age':

"We wanted to confess our sins but there we no takers
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
Was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom.
It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess their what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: "That's me."

For me, however, Milosz greatest achievement - both as poet and essayist - was a spirited incorporation and defence of the metaphysical of the world that was enchanted and though scarred with suffering was both worthy of celebration and of recognition that the suffering breaks us open to deepening questions of meaning - most especially for Milosz of good and evil - rather than huddling us out into passing pleasure surrounded by grey seas of indifference and a stuttering end. 

For me his greatest book, much as I love the poems, is 'The Land of Ulro' his sustained defence of such a sacred world where he jousts with 'Ulro' - William Blake's guiding, enchaining spirit of a levelling, self-contained reason. For Milosz poetry is ultimately essential because it brings into focus a sensual, celebrated world saturated with meanings to which there is never a complete closure, transcendence always beckons, where the invitation is always to remain vulnerable to new revelations, gifts of grace.

In passing, he also gave one of the best pieces of writing advice, I have read. You cannot write if you doubt. As the word hits the page, no doubt can be permitted. Five minutes afterwards yes but not before!

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...