Thursday, August 24, 2017

The world turned inside out

When I first came to live in Switzerland as a present to myself (for landing in 'tax efficient' Zug), I bought the two volumes of Kathleen Raine's 'Blake and Tradition'. Beautiful volumes now sadly out of print unlike 'Blake and Antiquity' the foreshortened version of these her Paul Mellon lectures. Last night, after a three year pause, I managed to finish the second volume.

They are masterly and beautifully illustrated.

Under her PhD supervisor at Cambridge, none other than C.S. Lewis, she set out to read everything that Blake was known to have read or reasonably supposed, from textual evidence, might have read; and, against this back drop, read the poems and the paintings. Her argument is, simply put, that Blake was the conscious inheritor of a tradition, a Christian esotericism, woven of elements from the Bible, Neo-Platonism, Christian Cabala, Boehme; and, more closely to hand Bishop Berkeley and Emmanuel Swedenborg and was writing in opposition to the new materialism of Locke and Newton.

Blake is a visionary poet and painter but he never stops at his art for the art has a sacred function that is nothing more nor less than redemptive. Just as he argues one sees through the eye, not with it, for the world is the body of imaginative perception, so too do you see through art to the nature of the real (and the manner by which the real is obscured from sight).

And Blake is a thinker - even when his mythology is being obscure, when reference builds upon reference, when untangled you recognize his precision. Nor is he a passive inheritor, he is as likely to correct Swedenborg, in many ways his inspiring master, as he is to criticize Newton or Locke! Though at times irascible, he is also generous, even Newton squeaks into the restored kingdom at the end. For the 'hells' we may find ourselves in are 'states' we pass through not places of permanent entrapment.

At Blake's heart, Raine effectively shows, is a sophisticated 'idealism' (as it would come to be known). The world is because it is perceived, nothing exists that is not perceived. The world is a creation of mind and that mind, ultimately, as Berkeley argued, is the 'mind of God'. Nothing does, or indeed can, exist outside this but what is critical is how one perceives.

Is your viewing open to, and aligned with, the divine in which case everything is seen as holy, and whole, within a unifying imagination? Or is it bounded by self-interest that sees one self as separate, over against the world, a world that itself is seen composed of separate things bumping up against each other in space? The choice is yours, rinse your seeing clean and see whole or limp through life seeing separation.

Every sinew of Blake's mythology, argument, image and song is bent towards the ability of the former. Read aright he literally turns your world around. The inner no longer dwells as a by product of the outer but the world is seen from the inside out - an imaginative reality rather than a 'real thing'.

This is, of course, a way of seeing the world that is deeply implicated with both Buddhism and Hinduism but if one were to imagine that this was simply the preserve of the 'religious' (however apparently unconventional as Blake's was), you would be heartily wrong. Idealism as a philosophical position is happily making a comeback, robustly and lustily helped upon its way by the strange worlds revealed by quantum mechanics and neuro-physiology.

Czeslaw Milosz reports that at an unnamed American university last century, the physics faculty opposed the appointment of a Blake scholar in the English department (!) because of Blake's criticism of Newton! It may well turn out that Blake will have the last laugh. (My favorite current defender of this position can be found here:

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The wounded celebrant

I was once accused by an Anglican Benedictine Abbot of, "being a victim of my own articulacy". This stung because I suspect it was true. It stung too, as I later realised, because it was said with all the rapacity of a person describing themselves! Of all the encounters in my life, I remember this one as perhaps the least pastorally sensitive!

It came to mind reading Monica Furlong's short, pithy and accomplished biography of Alan Watts - philosopher, trickster, showman of the 'counter-culture'. He was both a man of rare gifts and insight and profoundly wounded such that he reminded me of that saying of a Siberian shaman: that the gift of shamanism was also a curse.

Watts was preternaturally gifted. His first book, 'The Spirit of Zen' being published when he was nineteen. Yet running through his life was a thread of self displacement, self destruction that he never allowed himself fully to see. Every misstep could be justified with graceful, articulate sophistry.

He deliberately sabotaged his entrance into university justifying it by imagining that self-directed study would be more valid yet it deprived him of a place of stability that inwardly he sought. He renounced his Anglican ministry, itself a sophisticated, if possibly necessary, exercise in insincerity, only when his, and his then wife's behaviours, culminated in the inevitability of his dismissal. Finally he wore himself out working to pay the alimony for past wives and children and to 'survive' this effectively drank himself to death.

The religious scholar, Huston Smith, once engineered a meeting between the novelist, Aldous Huxley, and Watts. After Watts had left, Huxley and Smith returned to their seats and, as Smith reports, Huxley delivered his verdict. "What a curious man! Half monk, half race track operator". When this was later reported to Watts, he was delighted!

Yet Watts reminds us that holiness is never simply to be equated with 'wholeness'. Wholeness was never to be granted him but he carried everywhere a remarkable ability to see the contours of what a life lived in grace and unity looked like. An ability to recognise how we deny ourselves a life in flow through an isolating act of fantasising ourselves as 'egos in a bag of skin' rather than as waves in tumbling ocean, connected to everything.

Not only could he recognise this but in publication after publication, talk after talk give people ways of understanding it for themselves that were both intellectually robust and yet wholly accessible.

His articulacy may have blocked ways of seeing himself but in recompense, turned to others, it became a gift of showing forth. A gift that many continue to be grateful for, inviting them to dance with the creativity of their world.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The value of stretches: Yoga in Prisons

To coincide with the launch of a new book: Peace Inside: A Prisoners Guide to Meditation, its editor, Sam Settle, was interviewed on BBC 4's 'All in the Mind' here. The piece starts at 10.20 minutes into the programme.

More details on the book can be found here:

And the Prison Phoenix Trust (that I helped found) here:

The book is beautifully constructed and the explanation of how to meditate one of the clearest and simplest I have read necessarily so given it may be the only source of information a prison inmate might have at their disposal. But like any good account it is suitable for all - inside or out under any number of conditions of our 'imprisonment'!

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...