Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Black Elk, wholly Lakota, wholly Catholic? undoubtedly holy!

'Black Elk Speaks' has become a classic of Native American spirituality, deeply valued from within the Lakota community of which Black Elk was a revered member, noted for his simplicity, holiness and vision; and, especially after its adoption in the 1960s by a broad audience who became interested and felt connected to the indigenous spirituality of North America.

It is a book, however, that is embedded in controversy.

First because it was compiled by a white American, John G. Neihardt, with all the complications that entails: how much is Black Elk? How much is 'lost in translation' (as Black Elk spoke to Neihardt in Lakota, a language that had to be translated into English); and, how much did Neihardt edit and interpret through his own particular filters?

Second because though Black Elk was here presented articulating and defending the vision and pattern of his indigenous tradition, he was, at the time, and had been for sometime, a Roman Catholic convert. He was not only a convert but a notable lay catechist who had brought many of his fellow Sioux to conversion. Indeed he is now formally a candidate for sainthood. This dimension of Black Elk was played down to virtual invisibility by both Neihardt and Jospeh Epes Brown, the distinguished religious scholar, who became another, and later, interlocutor for Black Elk and published an equally, if not more important book of Lakota spirituality, 'The Sacred Pipe' based on his conversations with Black Elk.

Harry Oldmeadow's new book, Black Elk, Lakota Visionary' is dedicated both to affirming the validity, and sacredness, of Black Elk's vision, and life, and to unpacking the issues at stake of establishing that the two texts he offered to the world, through the medium of Neihardt and Epes Brown, were a fair representation of Black Elk's abiding understanding of the tradition revealed to him through his journey to become a 'medicine man' of the Lakota. Oldmeadow is, I think, scrupulously fair to the currents of overlapping argument of which you get a representative picture of argument and counter argument but for Oldmeadow what essentially matters is Black Elk's own valuation of his interlocutors. He felt that they were sent to him, he developed an obvious and deep rapport with both; and, as far as can be seen approved their results; and, in the case of 'The Sacred Pipe' used it as an entry into beginning, in his last days, to rebuild a practising 'faith' community within the framework of his indigenous spirituality. This rapport, Oldmeadow effectively argues, was built on a recognition of a contiguous, if different, faith commitment in both men. Faith openly spoke to faith. This, Oldmeadow admits, undoubtedly does not align with the canons of ethnography (or the implicit reductionism of the social sciences as practiced, then and now); and, though adept at managing these himself, comes from a tradition that would robustly criticise their ability to truly come to the heart of understanding a sacred vision and practice.

For Oldmeadow is a perrenialist - a follower of the school of Rene Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswamy and especially Frithjof Schuon - and, thus also seeks to demonstrate that Black Elk's vision of Lakota spirituality is both an authentic tradition in its own right and embeds, at its heart, the 'sophia perennis' that animates and unifies, as its transcendent subject, every authentic tradition. Nor is this, even from a simple historical perspective, an improbable juxtaposition because Jospeh Epes Brown was himself of the same school and was sent to work with Black Elk by Schuon himself. Schuon had a brief correspondence with Black Elk (who indeed had a vision of being helped by a man from the East before ever being contacted by Schuon) and with whose son, one of the key translators, Schuon developed an abiding friendship. You can already see how this might add mileage to the ongoing controversy - how was Black Elk's vision shaped by that particular lens? Indeed the fascinating correspondence of Epes Brown, included as an Appendix, could be read to show that this was Epes Brown explicit mission so does mission elaborate or distort?

Be this as it may, Oldmeadow has created a well written, broadly balanced account of Black Elk's life, vision and context that would help any reader both want to explore further and to understand the many directions in which a conversation about interpretation might unfold. Though I myself have reservations about the Traditionalists, I do find myself in sympathy with the implicit request to bracket the cultural conflicts and listen carefully to the phenomenology of the conversation and relationship between the actors for in that lies an authentic attempt to deal honestly, undoubtedly not without limitation, with a holy man's abiding vision and understanding. The two men appear a lot closer in sympathy with Black Elk than many of the subsequent commentators who presume to 'defend' him from them!

The book also deals deftly with the question of Black Elk's relationship with Catholicism suggesting, again rightly I think, that this was an authentic case of carrying a dual identity - not a merger or a downgrading of one tradition to another - but acting as a bridge wholly Lakota, wholly Catholic. A difficult path to tread. If he were to be canonised, he would, I think, be the first such person of holiness to be so characterised and that would be a novel dispensation for the Church and the world. There is no exclusive 'exoteric' religion, the only exclusivity is the truth that is the unity of all, to which every authentic tradition points.

Monday, August 13, 2018

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 don't lie." He was a legendary curmudgeon.

It put me in mind of a question, Lady Wheare, once my landlady in Oxford, put to me, as a prospective tenant. "Have you read War and Peace?" Pause. "There is a test, you know!" I never did discover whether you were rejected if you said no (or if she felt you might be lying in saying yes).

She was a remarkable woman, and formidable, as this obituary in the Oxford Times illustrates: http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/community/obituaries/obits/10789899.Rebel_with_many_causes_who__was_Oxford___s____urban_guerilla___/

Since I was actually domiciled in the same house (two cottages in Wolvercote partially converted into one), I had an opportunity to watch her in action closely!

Though a devout Christian, she had a skepticism about bishops and women priests (they failed in voice projection) and a horror of reserved seats in church. These she would deliberately sit in and then defy anyone brave or foolish enough to try and eject her. She was irredeemably of her class but possessed of a notable egalitarianism before God. Her dislike of women priests was not theological. Alongside bishops, she placed St Paul, not least for his difficulties with acknowledging the authority of women. Called upon to read one such passage in the Letters during Evensong at St. Giles, she dumped it in favour of the Beatitudes. When reminded of this in a low timorous voice by the Vicar,  she replied to him, loudly and bluntly, "Yes, I know but I am never reading that passage" and carried on with the Blessings!

But under that formidable persona was a person of extraordinary kindness (and resolute practicality), the obituary only captures a fraction of her public charitable activities (excluding, for example, her helping to build Oxford's first student residence for people with a disability). Nor does it capture what was, I think, at her heart.

This was the conviction that everyone, without exception, was of interest, interesting and had something uniquely theirs to offer the world (even if, as she said, it might take several sherries to unearth it) and that if we had failed in the past, nobody was without the possibility of making amends and redemption. The man, for instance, she had employed cutting the grass of Wolvercote Green was an ex-prison inmate in need of work. It was an obligation to treat everyone with that interested regard that allowed them to try and be their best selves.

The worst failure you could make, apart from being St Paul, was to imagine that people were to be disregarded for any reason but especially any form of prejudice. She had a relation, by marriage, who was a racist (and anti-Semitic) and was suffered only for the reason of proximity. This did not prevent Lady Wheare happily inviting her neighbours to dinner (an Afro-American couple and academics) when the said relative was visiting and Lady Wheare happily bashed home her points as the relative inwardly cringed yet with such skill that the Afro-American couple were wholly unaware and at ease! Only I was in the know and watched a liberal of the heart on the politest, but most pointed, of warpaths!

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The prescient, secular saint: Aldous Huxley

Though usually resistant to the charms of long biographies, I will happily make an exception for Sybille Bedford's two volume biography of her friend, Aldous Huxley, both for its subject matter and its accomplishment. Since Bedford know Huxley well, at critical moments she can enliven the text with her own direct memory and because she was a friend of Maria and Laura, Huxley's wives, she can sympathetically see him from the perspective of the two people, especially Maria, who was the closest to him. As a novelist in her own right, she gives her book a narrative flow that is admirable most especially when it weaves judicious quotation from both the work and letters to and fro. In spite of (or because of) her friendship, she maintains an admirable objectivity, serving her subject's striving after truthfulness with her own. Unlike many apparent biographers, she has a lively interest in what her subject believed as well as did, in his ideas and their expression.

It confirmed for me three essential things about Huxley.

The first is that he was a good man and that his goodness grew as he aged. If one of his themes is how might we reach after, and nurture, our deepest human potential as compassionate, thoughtful, active beings, his experiment after these truths began with himself. What is wonderful in the life is that you can see it emerging, being recognised by others if never by his self-deprecating self, even as shadows remain. Bedford very lightly evokes the word 'saintly' at points and yes, you can see that  it is a word not out of place as long as one imagines holy rather than perfect. It was a holiness fashioned as a couple with Maria, his first wife, playing a fundamental humanising role and interestingly being the most susceptible of the two to mystical experience.

Second that not only was he a myriad minded man at home, in both the sciences and the arts, he was a consistently prescient one. This prescience even extends to that area which gives Bedford the most unease (she is writing in the seventies) that of Huxley's quiet and sophisticated championing of drugs in both spiritual and therapeutic contexts. Bedford wants to exculpate Huxley from triggering the bewildering and painful deluge of indiscriminate drug taking that the Sixties represented (though a reanimation of such, after quieter decades, might be more accurate). Huxley would have been quietly appalled but, as now is becoming clearer, psychedelic drugs taken appropriately in the right context may have much to offer therapy for a range of conditions including addiction precisely the use that Huxley thought merited thorough exploration. More widely, however, again and again, you find Huxley ahead of the curve whether on the environment, the risks of advertising and media manipulation (and you cannot help think of what he would have thought of our social media conundrums) or the importance of early child development.

Third that this 'mystical agnostic' with his alert sense of the potentials and perils of technology and science yet constantly remained an explorer of both past and potential futures, sifting what was of the good and of the bad regardless of any perceived (or actual) authority. In religion, for example, there was good to be found and bad to be condemned and the division lay not betwixt traditions but passing through the heart of each. Bad ideas, whether metaphysical, religious or scientific, can kill and must be consistently identified and weeded out. What is good for the community as a whole is the lodestone of his sifting, what nurtures human happiness inclusively.

Would we be successful gardeners - this remarkable species - only time could tell and Huxley lived a striking balance between 'hope' - because we could turn what we know to a pursuit of the good; and, expectation - because history though it affords examples of this coming to be is probably more weighted on the darker side of the balance.

I love too his admirable assessment of his own gifts - not inconsiderable, deployed to humanising, ennobling effect - but he was his own severest critic. Of the novels, for example, that always remain, with possibly one exception, guided by their ideas rather than an embodying narrative. Yet his core work - over fifty years after his death - remains in print, available and widely read not only for the ideas themselves many of which remain lively, current and significant but for his manner of approach - an embracing openness of mind, of including myriad patterns of thought from varied disciplines and because of their challenge to the reader to think through themselves what it might mean to become truly and fully human as a person and as a society.

He modestly suggested that if he could sum his advice in one phrase it would be 'try and be a little bit kinder'. In that undoubtedly he was, and did every day, try to be more. It is the simplicity at the heart of a complex man and mind.

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...