Sunday, January 28, 2018

Childhood exposed. The Battle of the Villa Fiorito

Rumer Godden described the genesis of her novel, 'The Battle of the Villa Fiorito', in wondering what if the children of a divorce, rather than always being seen as passive victims, strike back, wage war, seek to reverse the unfolding events (even after the fact)?

Thus did the novel come to pass.

Fanny has fallen in love with Robert Quillet, a film director, when he comes to direct a film in her very beautiful but socially confining village in Wiltshire. The first move was his but the passionate  engagement that unfolds leads to Fanny divorcing her husband, Darrell, leaving her three children in his custody (as was the default position in the 1950s). Phillipa, the eldest child, off to be 'finished' in Paris makes her peace given that she is on the threshold of her own adulthood. Hugh, fourteen, and Caddie, 12, do not and abscond from their father's flat in London (itself a consequence of the divorce) to visit Rob and Fanny, not yet married, at their beautiful rented villa on Lake Garda. The evocation of which, as was Godden's want, is itself worth the price of entry to the novel. The two children are joined by a third, Pia, a part Italian, part English child, from Rob's previous marriage (the mother being dead) and battle commences.

Godden must be one of the greatest novelists of that 'liminal space' between childhood and adulthood when a child is fully a child and yet is growing into something yet other. The otherness comes and goes, is seen and lost, and is both wholly alluring and wholly threatening. In very different ways the three children embody and enact these shifts, each modulated differently according to their age, temperament and upbringing.

Godden is also utterly realistic about the nature of childhood - it is a complex realm of its own - that has a capacity to be wholly self-centred, rigorously cruel and yet also piercingly perceptive, self-sacrificing and visionary. Indeed if you wanted to provide pre-reading to prospective (and actual) parents, I can think of nothing better (if not for wannabe parents as it might be too realistic and off putting of the struggles ahead)!

The children's war is effective - even if you can imagine in its course alternative parental tactics that might have secured a different outcome - and the novel ends with mother taking her children back to England and to a uncertain future with regard to the rejected husband and Rob nursing his child, and by implication, considering a different path for her upbringing.

The outcome is undoubtedly driven by Godden's personal travel towards Catholic conversion (and as a divorcee herself) and the Catholic elements are either clumsily intrusive or happily redemptive, according to taste, but remain interesting sidelines that never detract from the psychological truth of the battle.

Meanwhile, Godden, herself, was always concerned as to whether her writing was simply popular or literary - goaded perhaps by the effortless nature that a number of her books were turned into films, films that mostly emphasised the drama at expense of the thoughtful depth. She need not, I think, have worried.

They are fluid, accomplished narratives that both tell a story and question our understanding of life. No one touched by them can remain unmoved or uneducated as to the ways of the world. And, at her depth, she accomplishes extraordinary feats of illumination. Here, with Caddie, at La Scala, describing the effect of music on an impressionable soul encased in an exhausted body. The ability of an experience to stretch our selves beyond ourselves, to show us a new possible world and identity as it shows us how we are connected in a widening whole.

I am delighted that Virago has thought fit to republish all her significant works for she is a novelist that continually repays attention and is a simple delight to read.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Kahlil Gibran's journey beyond borders

Jean Gibran and Kahlil G. Gibran (namesake and cousin to the poet-painter) have written a comprehensive, detailed and engaging study of Gibran Kahlil Gibran (to give his full name) that is too beautifully illustrated with the paintings, drawings and book designs. It is a worthy addition to Gibran's biographical record.

They give voice to his complexity - the boy brought up in a Lebanese village clustered under Mount Lebanon and its majestic cedars, the poor immigrant into a slum district of Boston, the gifted youth who was taken up precociously by key figures in the Boston avant-garde, returning to Lebanon to complete his education, he returns, and apart from a year in Paris studying art, becomes an exile, betwixt two worlds - Arab and Western - an important voice to both yet often misconceived by both. In the former as an exotic product of the Orient and in the latter as a protagonist of the new (and the Western) spurning tradition and its customary hierarchies. Ironically both sides contained parties that disapproved of his nudes!

The authors show how he navigated these complexities fashioning a voice in both Arabic and English and an artistic practice that, though too little attended to, especially in the drawings shows a haunting facility of evoking the balanced moment between seeing and unseeing, revelation and mystery - both in the human form and in nature. One of his favourite images was of mist that flowing hides and reveals, withholds and connects, loses and finds.

What they especially do is remind us that the poet of the exhortatory wisdom of The Prophet was not an airy mystic detached from the real but was a man bound to his time and place who had deeply suffered - not least when mother, sister and half-brother all are felled by the sicknesses of the South Side tenements where they lived as poor immigrants - and he bears the responsibility of ensuring the welfare of his remaining sister (for a time running a small dry goods store) whilst seeking to remain faithful to his multiple social and artistic callings. He was rescued both by his gathering and deepening talent and the support of the very remarkable Mary Haskell, whom he came close to marrying before she shied off because of the difference in their age - she being older. She it was who enabled him to study in Paris and it was her lifelong subsidy (provided on the basis of a future claim on his art works) that enabled him to focus on his work. It was she too who as English tutor and editor helped him to make a transition from being solely an Arabic writer to being an English one - and in writing The Prophet - the best selling author of the twentieth century.

On reading "The Prophet" a few weeks ago, I was deeply struck both by its beauty but also its profundity. Gibran was striving after 'the Absolute' and for showing how that striving can be borne in daily life. He is an uncompromising idealist but one that never loses touch with the real - how, for example, might today's 'helicopter parents' be arrested by a recognition that their children are not their own, they cannot be possessed or made safe, they must be shot forth into life, loved but allowed to realise their own paths of discovery and inevitable mistakes, that the only path of realisation is an individuated one.

Meanwhile, since the biography is a recent one there are many undertones. Gibran's seeking after a common unity, not by surrendering difference but through its embrace, people secure in their own place free to embrace; and, the recognition of how such a demand breaks against the harsh realities of his beloved Syria-Lebanon. Also, too, ironically this week a discussion of the 1924 legislation in the US that restricted immigration from the Near/Middle East with the proposing Senator, David Reed from Pennsylvania, referring in full Trump mode to the, "hordes of aliens that fill our jails and asylums" characterising Syrians, people from the Balkans and SE Europe (in this case) as "the trash of the Mediterranean"! The path towards a shared humanity is a long one unfulfilled yet hope is not optimism, as Gibran knew, but a consistent pursuit of what is right regardless of success. A pursuit of calling people, in Gibran's case, to a realisation that their are greater than they know and that they are enfolded with one another as a common humanity borne of the Absolute and a sustaining earth.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A deeper conversion with David Jones

I recall going to an Orthodox service in Oxford where the tradition is followed of acquiring prosphora bread, shaped like a miniature cottage loaf, that is sent to the priest for blessing (not consecration) accompanied by small notes listing people (under a red cross for the living, under a black for the dead) for intercession. Adding my offering, I noticed one note, under a red cross, having a list of people after which, in brackets, it read Anglican! I was suitably shocked for what did it matter in the patterns of prayer and concern what denomination (if any) the prayed for person was?

I was happy reading in Thomas Dilworth's exemplary biography of the painter-poet, David Jones, that Jones was similarly shocked when, asking a Catholic priest to intercede for a friend crippled by arthritis, he was asked whether the friend was a Catholic!

Jones was a devout convert to the Catholic Church but as Dilworth shows, consistently, it was, and is, catholic for a reason, because, for Jones, it embedded and carried forward a universal culture of making meaning, gathering up all that was known and resolved anew within a transcending frame that was God's incarnation, sacrifice and resurrection. A transcending frame that was, paradoxically, one that was thoroughly immersed in the matter of things -including the essential need to focus on forgiveness, sunk as it is in the very felt texture of real lives, rather than the policing of morality (or of 'faithful allegiance)!

Jones was a deeply sensual painter - the world dances and flows (as here above in an apparently simple rendering of his desk and window) and speaks each of  its particular selves or objects into a world of light. Every sign of a thing is tumbling towards revealing itself as 'sacrament' - an outward visible side of grace. It was a vision that Jones held to, sometimes by the very edge of his fingernails, for his life had been through the shattering experience of war. He is, Dilworth notes, of all the famous war poets of the First World War (let alone the artists), the one who spent the longest time actually at the front, engaged in combat and the drudgery, fear of waiting for combat - and as a private soldier rather than as an officer.

He paid the price in a life long suffering of what would now be known as post-traumatic stress disorder - some of the treatment of which, unthinkingly, for a period of his life obliterated liveliness in a formidable (and futile) cocktail of drugs.

But through it all - and within remarkable bursts of creative activity - he painted and wrote - including the most beautiful and painful account in "In Parenthesis" of that very conflict in the trenches. One of the reasons that Dilworth's biography is so good is that it captures how seriously ideas matter in the life of a person. Jones' navigated his war by the light of them, embedded in the texture of living stories, living sights, that created a holding narrative of meaning. It did not, and could not abolish his suffering, but it could help bear and carry it.

Reading the introduction, I was initially somewhat put off, for Dilworth (who has devoted a lifetime of study and work to Jones) was, notwithstanding the buttressing quotes from the great and the good, claiming too high for Jones (and I still think Blake is the better poet). But as the text wove on, and the universally excellent illustrations built up with their accompanying and illuminating expositions, I was, I think, converted.

He is a very great painter, one of the finest English poets of the century; and, the possessor of a worked out and robust theory of culture that locates it within a profoundly sacred view of life.

It is a life that spills into and out of all his work - and even if one can never hope to catch all the qualities of its allusive references - to mythology, history, literature, technology, science and theology (as here in his late painting of Tristan and Isolde about to consume their poison) - you naturally respond to its vividness and its complexities by a willing journey of exploration. An exploration that goes on giving indefinitely reflecting the depths that it continually fathoms.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Challenge of Rudolf Steiner

The veteran documentary filmmaker, Jonathan Stedall, made this documentary to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Steiner's birth; and, it is an accomplished introduction to the life, work and, most importantly, the influence of this undoubtedly remarkable man.

Wisely perhaps Jonathan begins with Steiner's influence on the practical - on bio-dynamic agriculture; communities for the learning disabled and education - rather than the philosophical and esoteric indeed the completely esoteric  - the evolution and destruction of civilizations read from the Akashic record, for example, are not mentioned at all - except possibly very allusively. This is probably wise because in spite of the happy support of respectable talking head academics, this aspect of Steiner's oeuvre is hard to swallow - even when you are not schooled in the harder lines of contemporary materialism!

We visit many examples of Steiner inspired community efforts to create a better, more lively, healthier world in India as well as Europe and the United States; much of which is quietly impressive.  Testifying to the benefits of a wholistic, slower, more listening approach to the complexities of the world and the human person. Personally I can only testify that the people that I have met that have passed through a Waldorf Education have universally struck me as balanced, emotionally mature and creative adults - and everyone encountered in the communities here, on the film, convey a welcoming impression of thoughtfulness, care and engagement, as spiritually inspired, wanting to fashion a better, more sustainable world.

What would make it better, I think, is a harder look at 'results'; however, shy we might be about reducing the world to the quantitative, quantity does matter. For example, if you are farming, as well as the care for both animal and plant incorporated in bio-dynamic farming and sustainability, you cannot help being interested in yields. After all, the world needs to be fed. And even if one is talking of qualitative outcome, what 'success' looks like could have been better delineated or shown. And, many of Steiner's insights, do stand up to mainstream perspectives - the importance of play in early childhood and starting on literary/numeracy 'late' (at 7), for example, or the real benefits to farm and countryside of richly mixed agriculture.

So too, perhaps, a more open grappling with some of the more persistent criticisms of Steiner - evidence of health outcomes for example, or some of the ways in which Steiner's notion of karma has been used in relation to the disabled; and too, Steiner's too easy ability to talk in racial stereotype. All, I think, may be addressable, credibly, if not for every body, but occasionally the film strikes you as a little too polite, too un-searching.

Nevertheless, and on balance, if one of the criteria's of a 'mystic' (whose personal life certainly appears to be borderline saintly) is you shall know them by their fruits, many of Steiner's are (quite literally in the case of the high praise reaped by bio-dynamic wine) deeply fine (though I am yet to be persuaded of the pervasive use of ethereal pastel shades in every form of decoration)! And, this film is a fine testimony to his on-going relevance; and, indeed, challenge.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner as our companions

What if during your creative 'annus mirabilis', you wrote a poem that became prophetic of the trajectory of your own life? Looking backward could you use that very poem to structure your life within a deepening, meaningful frame, fruitfully illuminating it? Can we, wanting to understand the poet better, do likewise?

This is the guiding conceit of Malcolm Guite's wonderful book on the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the poem, as illustrated here by David Jones, is 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.

The Mariner, as will be recalled, went on a journey that takes him to the very edge of alienation, the very bottom of despair where he confronts Death and the yet more disturbing Death in Life; and, yet, through unmerited grace, is drawn back to a life of continuous 'penance' of offering his story to those who are, in being ripe to hear it and in need of hearing it, turned themselves to a new path. The wedding guest whose path he deliberately crosses to recount his tale does exactly this at the poem's closing. The wedding guest's invitation to listen and change their lives is our invitation too.

The Mariner, to use an image from another tradition, is a Bodhisattva, his own full redemption postponed vowed to roam the earth to bring enlightenment to every one as and when they are ready. Equally, the context of that redemption, is not of isolated 'selves', for no one can be redeemed without recognising that they belong to a whole cosmos alive and all actually loved and known, brought into being by God's love. It is violating that web of life, imaged forth in the albatross the Mariner kills, that triggers his, and his shipmates, fall. Indeed the Bodhisattva vow is to remain in the world of 'samsara' (of restless dissatisfaction) until all is seen as it is, one-d in nirvana, 'each blade of grass being enlightened'.

Guite shows how Coleridge's own life trajectory mirrored his art and how reflecting on this mirroring, it deepened and extended Coleridge's understanding of his own poem, reflected in his subsequent work, his own reflections and, importantly, the glosses he added to the poem in its later editions that bring out its essential theological meaning.

One of Guite's purposes indeed, as might befit an Anglican priest (and theology lecturer), is to demonstrate that Coleridge is a profoundly Christian poet - both in thought and in practice. The second part being as important as the first. Coleridge was a poet that prayed indeed prayer frames and flows through his life - and it is prayer that is tested by the depths as it ascends to the heights.

For famously too Coleridge was an addict wracked by the opiates that he had begun to take for his lifelong rheumatic pains and which effectively destroyed him as a poet (accompanied by other insecurities, themselves magnified by the drug). It is precisely the moment, Guite shows, when Coleridge finally confronted by his own paralysing 'Life in Death' moment, trapped in a hotel, midway between abandoned home and a series of lectures that he is too ill to give, that he 'surrenders' his self possession and releases himself into higher care that proves the trigger to a pathway of 'penance' of metanoia that, as Guite also shows, allowed Coleridge a second round of life, not primarily as poet, but as pioneering literary critic, autobiographer and thinker/theologian. A life that allows him, if we listen, to share a profound understanding of human life that critically inspired others - there is a wonderful account of Keats encounter with Coleridge - and that can inspire us.

For Guite treats Coleridge seriously, as he is, as a thinker - possibly the most intellectually gifted of all English poets - who works out a remarkably coherent vision of a world born out of God's imagination in which our imagination is an active, sharing participant. It is a vision shaped by experience, by deep philosophical reflection - in Plato and the neo-Platonists, Spinoza, Kant and the German Idealists - and baptised by the Christian mystics, most especially Boehme and his English follower, William Law; and, in Coleridge's case lived out in service (not least in his secondary, but important role, as a campaigning, radical journalist) and the liturgical celebration of the Anglican Church whose institutional failures though he recognised .  One of the people Coleridge met in his (accelerated) and their old age was the poet, William Blake. Ah to be a fly on that wall! They would have recognised each other, methinks, as to the two great defenders of a living cosmos born of the divine logos, Jesus the Imagination.

The book is a tour de force - a compelling reading of one of the greatest poems in English, the celebration of a life and a defence of its subject and the ongoing importance of their thought.

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...