Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Adventures in time: Magical adventures with J.B. Priestley

J.B. Priestley was a myriad-minded man whose outward appearance -gruff, blunt Yorkshire man birthed in the Edwardian era - and authorship of popular novels and plays of social realism disguised deeper veins of interest - in metaphysics, in time and in depth psychology.

The outward form has tended to contribute to a decline in his reputation. The inward life at the cutting edge of thought should revive it.

This point is admirably argued by Anthony Payne in his new book on Priestley's inner interests, "Time and the Rose Garden: Encountering the Magical in the life and works of J.B. Priestley".

It outlines Priestley's engagement with Indian metaphysics that convinced him of the unity of consciousness - we belong to one body that is mind- what we do to another, we do to ourselves. His life as a time haunted man both reflecting on his own and others' experience - of precognition, of time slips, of deja vu and of emotionally anticipating the future - and contemporary speculations on time - in J.W. Dunne, Ouspensky and quantum mechanics. One of the fascinating aspects of the book is Payne's own discussion of the letters Priestley received after a BBC program where he requested people's accounts of 'abnormal' time experiences. These letters deserve a fuller analysis that Payne hopes to do in due course. They are deeply moving not least for how many times the author tells Priestley that he is the first person they have ever told. Our dominant reductionist paradigm exerts a repression on exploring the possible. Finally, his experience of a vivid dream life and an ability to make sense of this in the depth psychology of Jung of whom he was one of the first popular expositors in English and a friend. And how, critically, these three fields overlapped, resonated, and deepened, one another.

These understandings are unfolded both in relationship to Priestley's own life story and in an examination of many of Priestley's works - novels, essays and plays - some of which have had little critical examination - including Priestley's last play, unperformed until very recently: "Time Was, Time Is."

The text well-establishes that Priestley recognised the importance of dreaming, how it (and other experience) gave access to a deeper self than the surface ego, how that self had the capacity to observe from a higher perspective that included embracing a person's past and the future; that past, present, future are continuously present seen from this observation point; and, that a recognisably individual consciousness survives bodily death; and, that this individual consciousness is enfolded in a collective, unified field of mind.

It, also, well-establishes that Priestley was an experimenter after truth, who explores these notions vigorously and engagingly in the varied patterns of his art so that we approach them not as 'dogmas' but as enlightening thought experiments that help you re-explore your own experience and conception of the world. I remember my own reading of his, 'The Magicians' that granted me an act of 'objective remembering the past' similar to the one granted Charles more than once in the novel. A novel that actually triggers a 'metaphysical' experience is, well, novel!

I did have a number of quibbles with the book.

First, Payne possibly over-labours Priestley's neglect. I lost counting how many times he reminds us of this. His neglect is real but that is not simply because his ideas were unconventional (and one hopes ahead of their time) and he had a metaphysical depth for which the English are not known. He wrote a great deal, probably too much, and not always under the inspiration of compressed, unconscious imagination (which was real). His dominant chosen vehicle - social realism including thrillers and putative science fiction - sometimes have a sense of haste, of loose plotting and a characterisation, especially of women, that is thin and carries a definite aura of their age. These can create real obstacles to appreciation. You need to sift the oeuvre and be alert to its depths for sometimes they are too casually on display.

Second, though Priestley attempts a 'theory' of time and bodily survival in his remarkable book, "Man and Time" and in his essay collection, "Over the Long High Wall", this is never directly addressed by Payne (unless I am missing something) which is a mite odd. One thing to explore the intimated patterns in the art, another to explore the author's tentative conclusions laid bare.

Third whereas Priestley's indebtedness to Dunne and Ouspensky is acknowledged, there is no mention of Maurice Nicoll. Nicoll was highly important to Priestley as both a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, an early follower of Jung; and, the author of a remarkable book on time, "Living Time" whose influence Priestley acknowledged. I happen to own Priestley's copy (sadly without side notes)!

None of which should detract from a highly admirable account of how dream, time/eternity, and Self play a seminal shaping role in Priestley's life and art and a spirited and successful defence of the importance of that art and of recognising it as a major artistic and spiritual achievement. It happily adds to the Priestley revival that gathers pace, if slowly, and does what all good secondary literature should do return you to the source with your perceptions enriched and your enthusiasm stoked.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The edge of holiness is simply practicing it

The nineteenth century Russian author, Nikolai Leskov, was apparently not an easy man. The friendships he made were often fragile and ended up broken. Part of this brittleness was conditioned by his own sensed 'inferiority'. He had come from a relatively poor background, he lacked a formal education; and, he singularly failed to master the art of the long novel. Yet as a 'self-educated' autodidact, he absorbed expertise in multiple fields and deployed this knowledge to great effect in his multiplicity of works: fictional and non.

He is a master of the short story and of the form that has a narrator introduce a story teller that allows for the immediacy of colloquial report, that gathers you to a place where you listen attentively to an uninterrupted voice.

In "On the Edge of the World", this too allows him to present the first person account of an elderly Orthodox bishop in such a way that the bishop can express potentially heterodox positions that no 'third person' account could admit (under the prevailing conditions of censorship). The bishop's story is one of taking up a bishopric in Siberia as a relatively young man and receiving an education in what was and was not possible in a missionary context.

He learns through the life witness of one of his priests and that of his indigenous guide on a mission expedition (that goes seriously wrong in a blizzard, beautifully and harrowingly told) that nothing can   hurry the demonstrated acceptance of faith and that Christ is available to all without any outward signs. We might want to curtail this timetable and availability for our own purposes - number counting of the legitimate faithful say - but this is our concern (for position and status) not God's.

This is all wonderfully contained within the bishop's humble perception of what is possible given the nature of our humanity, best displayed by his guide who recognises God's presence and refuses baptism and risks his life to save the bishop's. It seeks, gently, to undermine any, more aggressively, evangelical approaches and, for its time, gives a progressive and open view both of shamanism and Buddhism - Christianity's then two perceived competitors. Needless to say, their institutional forms behave no better than the Christian one's being equally obsessed with numbers of adherents and structural power.

No wonder that it is Tolstoy amongst all Russian intellectuals that Leskov most identifies (or, given his character, refuses to actively criticise)!

What matters, for Leskov and his bishop mouthpiece, is not belief but the practice of compassion and forgiveness. We cannot, as Yeats says, refute either the song of sixpence or the saint - either the simplicity or complexity of holiness. It stands before us and ought to undermine any other consideration. The bishop returning from the humbling experience of being rescued by an 'unbeliever' (at the potential cost of their life) seeks subsequently to practice the humility of this expectation - the person may come to a fulness of faith in recognised belief but, more often, they may simply enter by the back door of their own holiness. Only time will tell and the suspicion is that God does not mind!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why Homer matters

"The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters" by Adam Nicolson is a beautiful account of the author's adult rediscovery of Homer having labored unhappily to translate parts of it as a school child. It is an exploration of both who Homer was, where 'he' came from and why we continue to read him.

Of course, 'Homer' probably was not, by which I mean that there probably was a Homer figure who first oversaw the transcription of a living oral Homeric tradition onto the page turning the two great poem sequences into text. He was possibly the first of a number of such people who provided variant texts, later edited into a more or less 'whole' version in Alexandria. He may even have been called Homer or then again maybe not! Many are the mysteries that abound.

What Nicolson does argue for is a much older tradition than was, in the past assumed. Many of the motifs of both poems come from a world when the Greeks lived on the steppes of Central and Eastern Europe rather than on the Mediterranean shore. The poems show these new, restless, tribal people erupting into a more settled, civilized, communal setting. The war at Troy is a struggle between the country and the city, between the patriarchal men driven by honor and the family men of the town defending their own. Compelling is Nicolson's exploration of the archaeology, language and history to build up this vision of different patterns of life in confrontation. Equally so is Nicolson's use of the contemporary study of gangs - their language and mores and the endless quest for status - to illuminate the lives of Homer's Greek heroes.

But why continue to read Homer?

Because the Iliad is a most compelling account, told from on high, of our own capacity for violence of which it is a vivid, brutal account and of how the countervailing tendencies of pity and of peace, longed for, intimated, so often crumple in the face of this need to dominate, overcome and in doing so shore up what is in essence a fragile if mighty ego. All challenges implies escalation, Nicolson shows, until a winner emerges even if the victory itself ratchets up the next occasion for conflict. It is a sobering dose of reality to our hopes. It is, also, if I may be permitted a Buddhist moment, a great demonstration of what David Loy would call 'lack' - the profoundly disruptive effect of unconsciously acting out our sense of a fundamental instability in our identity: of finding 'ourselves' by continuously asserting our superiority over an 'other'!

Because the Odyssey is a most compelling account of a myriad minded man (and in Penelope his accomplice and worthy counterpart) who seeks to find a renewing way of returning home from the bitterness of conflict. Here to find, ironically, through possibly the most brutal episode of both poems, a brutality that cannot be evaded, a domestic peace that is finally re-established. Wholeness is bought out of costliness. Life is transient and should be lived to maximal fullness for afterwards comes only a land of shades.

We read Homer because, in truth, he is strikingly contemporary. He is so especially because he speaks from a time when 'life' appears to be all that is - immortality is only for the gods and that rare being elevated by the gods. Hades, where the 'soul' continues to exist is an unconsoling land of ghosts without apparent purpose apart from to lament the past.

It is a brilliant, brittle vision of things to contrast wonderfully with the neighboring Egyptian that for most Egyptians was exactly the opposite - life was the endless waiting point, laboring after the elite, from which you longed for a more hopeful afterlife!

I came away thinking that reading Homer was a beautiful invitation for looking out for what came next - namely the transformations of the axial age when this confined, if noble and intense, world is broken through with intimations of transcendence, a more democratic and accessible transcendence, the possibility of liberation from the suffering of transience -in Plato, in Zoroaster, in the Buddha. Whether that is a new glimpse of reality or a compensatory mechanism only each person can judge for themselves! But Homer's contemporary nature demonstrates that there is nothing new in our only living for the now for there is no then.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Luminous Spaces - the poetry of Olav H. Hauge

Don't give me the whole truth,
don't give me the sea for my thirst,
don't give me the sky when I ask for light,
but give me a glint, a dewy wisp, a mote
as the birds bear water-drops from their bathing
and the wind a grain of salt.

It began with a poem, this poem, in Mark Oakley's 'The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry' - a wonderful series of meditations on particular poems, one each chapter. The poet is the Norwegian, Olav H. Hague (1908-1994). I immediately ordered, 'Luminous Spaces: Selected Poems & Journals' and was enjoying dipping until, at the weekend, recovering from a stomach bug, I decided to read them through and fell wholeheartedly for a new friend.

Hague was born on a farm. His formal education was brought short by a combination of restricted means, an inability to conquer mathematics: and, a voracious diet of reading ranging beyond the confines of any confining curriculum. He went to a horticultural college instead and came back to the (small) family orchards by fjord's side that would remain his home until his death. He was a vision haunted man who, from his early twenties at five yearly intervals, would go mad, requiring periodic hospitalisation and extended periods in an asylum. Here through either enlightenment or neglect, they principally appear to have left him alone to engage his visions and stand by the window admiring the view in quiet solitude.

In his journals, he obliquely refers to this times with thanksgiving tinged with regret. You must be able to withstand truth in order to assimilate it fully and Hague felt he was receiving it in such a visionary rush that it disordered as much as it uplifted. Hence perhaps the wish embodied in the poem above for a more parcelled approach of incremental gift!

When he was in his sixties, he met Bodil Cappelen (pictured above) a divorcee in her forties, a weaver and writer, whom he married as he approached seventy after which his episodes of madness vanished and he did to all appearance life happily ever after!

His poems often have the deceptive simplicity and concreteness of traditional Chinese poetry (which he loved). A particular tree, river, mountain are observed in quick strokes of insight but in such a way that the mind that observes of both poet and reader are expanded with a translucency of presence and a connectivity of mind; and, yet too they often turn, at the last moment, into a more 'Western' exploration of the facets of that mind, its personhood as here:

The River Across the Fjord

It falls and falls,
as it did yesterday,
falls from that cliff
where only eagles
ever falling,
falling hard
against the rockface
without a sound,
without song,
strives and falls
- gushes forth
from gorge and cleft
a frothy beard,
hangs there
- falls
beyond time,
falls bound
in its nightmare
-cant get a word out,
not a sound ...

What sets out as a concrete description of a river cascading down the fjord side suddenly becomes an image of the mind's binding to a fated, given pattern that cannot speak its meaning.

Memorable poems flow - a meditation on the poet's shadow and how the shadow is itself possessed of a shadow, of a quarry returning to complex life its ecological niche conveyed, of a schoolyard after the children have just retreated inside; and, of the author wrestling with his internal troll, constant companion. Fewer are the poems that take up either mythological or historical themes - though certain Norwegian heroes\heroines appear as does both the Korean and Vietnam wars including a beautiful poem that connects Hauge's childhood lust for conquest with an understanding of the lure of conflict of which he finally disapproves.

The excerpts from the Journals too - 4 volumes in the Norwegian edition - are a fascinating complement. Never intended for publication, they range widely - from accounting for the day's activities- including how many apples have been created - to reflections on his time in the asylum, on poetry and particular poets and on religious themes.

At one point here, he confesses he thinks of himself as a Buddhist and, it is true, resonant in the background to both poems and journals are the thought that all life is suffering and yet there is hoped for, and illuminations of, liberation. A liberation that is here and now possible if one cleanses one's perception not somewhere other. And I love his judgements - talking of psychologists, he happily suggests that the only two worth reading are William James and Jung (I cannot quarrel there) seasoned with the findings of parapsychology!

All in all one of the best poetic discoveries I have made - and one not without a gnarled humour:


The other night, on my way home
I took the path across
the field where I knew
there was a spring.
That spring bubbled, gleaming
in darkness, catching the night.
Sitting by the dark mirror I saw,
quenching his thirst,

this bundle! Every spike
relaxed, at peace,
while his black snout gently,
sipped his drink.
Quench your thirst! I can wait,
so patiently I stood.
Perhaps the two of us are
alike in many things.

Like me you take a liking
to strolling through the darkness
amongst autumn leaves, finding springs,
berries and such
- prefer solitary exploration. But if
someone comes too near,
we withdraw and show them
our spines.

Learning to meditate

A piece I wrote recently for the next edition of the Prison Phoenix Trust newsletter  and resonant with this rece...