Saturday, March 4, 2017

Wild Geese Overhead: Where does reform begin?

"Wild Geese Overhead" is an atypical novel for Neil Gunn. It is not set in the Highlands that were his home but in Glasgow. It is a Glasgow deeply divided between the world of the bourgeoise and the working class. A world teetering on the edge of renewed conflict and one broken by the scourge of Depression of the 1930s.

In the life of its central character, Will, a sub-editor at an evening newspaper, Gunn explores the 'age old' question as to where does social transformation begin? Does it begin with the individual or with society? Like many age old questions, the answer is often not 'either or' but 'both and' but by temperament, drawn to one or other end of the equation, we continue to argue it out.

Will wants to suggest, whilst recognising in his conversations with his socialist friend, Joe, that we are products of our circumstances, that there is another dimension to our selves that brings them to a completing wholeness. It is a wholeness he has tasted. One day, when observing wild geese navigating the sky, he has stepped out of the world that spins around his own ego into the world of the self that opens out to all that is present with a mixture of detachment and compassion. Learning what this means and how you might cultivate grace by falling into it by attention and by will is a core component of the book.

Will wants to maintain that it is through discovering this renewed self that we find the genuine energy to reach out and help others, not as pieces on the board of social progress, but as particular persons in their own right, to be enjoyed as such. The world, this world now, is an end of enjoyment in itself, never simply a means, and to see it aright always carries this potential for enjoyment.

This is not a position that can be argued for and if, like Mac, an older sub-editor at the paper the realism of the world is 'mud' or, like Joe, the socialist, clay to be moulded and only the product to be enjoyed, then there is little that you can do but point to the possibilities of a different way of seeing, and hope.

This seeing as a renewed self, a person, has the capacity to correct the tendency of ideology to become the ever postponed promise of a liberation that never comes and to neglect the contours of actual life A reminder that the world is inherently messy yet also deeply connected and at one.

Whatever the action of the novel (and this perhaps is its least successful part), the book is a beautiful exploration of what in Zen would be called 'polishing the stone'. For it describes, well and with telling observation, what happens after an illumination (the Wild Geese). Something is different but it needs to be worked out in and through one's everyday consciousness. Grappled with, felt into, and thought through. After the ecstasy, comes the laundry.

What is striking is how remarkably thoughtful Gunn is to the dimensions of this - the opportunities and the perils - after all being taken out of your habitual self can lead too great a detachment from real living or to an inflation - and to its spiritual corrective: 'the dark night of the soul'. It is no wonder that when later Gunn actually encountered Zen in his reading, it rang so true as a conforming instance of a pattern of being and experiencing with which he was deeply familiar. A Zen novel from Glasgow.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Koestler not quite indispensable but compellingly interesting (and topical)!

Amongst many of the dilemmas that face a would be biographer of Arthur Koestler is the realisation that externally the first half of his life is much the most colourful, action packed and celebrated. Here the journalist of genius, and novelist, was forged amongst the calamitous events of the mid-twentieth century and here was a man who had a knack of being exactly in the right place and the right time.

It was a rollercoaster ride of reinvention from Zionist to Communist to anti-Communist scourge. In the course of which he had been imprisoned three times by three different states, faced death at the hand of Franco and from his own hand as he flees the advancing Germans. Here he watched his own reputation soar with the publication of his masterpiece, the novel, 'Darkness at Noon', laying bare the psychology and culture of totalitarianism. Here he awaits eagerly, given his expansive egotism, for his well deserved Nobel Prize (that incidentally never came)!

But then, he turns to science and ultimately what is worse unorthodox science. This is both extrinsically less compelling, not much dicing with death here, and if your view of the world is comfortably mainstream, disconcerting! This is where Michael Scammel's fascinating biography, "Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual', sadly, falters. He cannot disguise his genuine puzzlement - and his attempts to slot Koestler back into the acceptable narrative of the culture is a touch feeble, haunted by the wishful thinking of the indispensability of its titling.

This is a pity because in doing so, he fails to sufficiently address why Koestler took this turn and what it might mean for either him or for the culture at large. After all here was a man with an unerring ear for what was important, what was coming next, why our current fashions might be an emperor parading in the nude? Did he just lose this ability or was he still on the trail of the future?

Here are three reasons why he might still be sounding out the future rather than trapped in an echo chamber of his own making?

First because, like many of his prescient contemporaries, he did not believe the then current assumption that the secular was progressively on the march. Religion was not in the process of simply withering away; and, even if you thought its current dogmatic structures were unsustainable, what religion points to, engages with and involves, remains a critical, if not the critical, aspect of what it might mean to be human.

Second, if this is so, it would be important to trace historically when the practice of science and religion parted company as explorations of cosmic wonder and patterns of meaning making and wonder whether that splitting into technocratic materialism, of science increasingly fracturing into narrow specialisms; and, religion travelling inward justifying itself by faith alone, began and whether that beginning was inevitable. Were there tracks back to more holistic, systemic ways of thinking that remarry contemplative intuition and reasoning, purpose and science?

Third, if we are to look for signs of a re-emergent connectivity between the scientific and the religious enterprise after knowing, we cannot expect it necessarily to emerge from the mainstream. Everything he had learnt about politics was how easy it was for a mainstream to become a rigid orthodoxy, imposing patterns of thinking by subtle, and not so subtle, pathways of authority gone authoritarian. Yes, the byways and outliers undoubtedly contained the wacky and the crazed but also perhaps the weird and the wonderful. If Koestler became a crank, a 'crank' as his acquaintance, E.F. Schumacher, noted is a 'small, useful tool and it creates revolutions'!

This, at the very least, makes Koestler's explorations into creativity, cosmology, and evolution interesting and, for his reminder, that science is as messy a business as any human endeavour, salutary, even if it does not make him indispensable (who is one wonders)! Scammel's failure to read Koestler's interest against a broader understanding of the 'counter-culture' that Koestler was recognising is the book's one principal flaw.

But too, even if the biography was only published in 2009, events, the stubborn refusal of history to end, and the swing back towards authoritarianism in politics (and the playing fast and loose with the truth, that, in truth, is nothing new) should make Koestler's life and thought current again - even if the deeper questions he poses about what we take to be the nature of things does not. If people are pouring over Orwell's '1984' for clues of navigating Trump land, they might like to add, his friend's, Koestler's 'Darkness at Noon' not least because, unlike Orwell, Koestler had been 'inside the belly of the beast' and is the better, more forensic, psychologist.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Other Place

A politician attempts to give a speech but is distracted on realising that his audience are either asleep or are the 'living dead'. A schoolteacher is convinced he has seen the last man alive from the future and a harbinger of apocalypse. A troubled married couple slip in time to meet their anima and animus and it is an encounter that initiates the potential healing of their marriage.

Such are some of the story lines in J.B. Priestley's collection of short stories, 'The Other Place'. It is a collection of 'weird tales' and demonstrate convincingly that whatever Priestley was it was not simply confined to his persona as a bluff, no nonsense Yorkshireman and purveyor of social realist, traditional fiction and well-crafted plays. Social criticism is never far away - neither of the inequalities of class nor the emergence of the 'mass man' of the post War era, swayed into consumption by the lure of advertising and the slow fracturing of community into the more amorphous state of a 'society'.

But behind or within this is a deeper, metaphysical concern after meaning.

What does it mean to be a human being, awake in the world and alive to purpose and the possibility of flourishing? Traditionally this would be the field of religion but striking in Priestley, this is a domain that is almost wholly absent. None of his characters have it in their field of reference. They are, to all appearances, throughly secular. This is interesting because several of his most obvious contemporaries still have it in their sights - even if only as a point of departure - the Scottish novelist, Neil Gunn, comes to mind as does Aldous Huxley.

Be that as it may, all three have a critical concern to rediscover plausible pathways for transformative experience that allows for transcendence - both of conventional reality and as a destination for human wellbeing. In Priestley's case, the two most obvious influences are Ouspensky & Maurice Nicoll and C.G. Jung. All three were dedicated explorers of the potential of the human person (and in Nicoll overlap - he was Jung's first English disciple and a subsequent student of Ouspenksy (and of Gurdjieff).

If you want a flavour of the complex ideas of all three (or four) thinkers, these tales might be an excellent place to start. The politician's demise in front of his realisation is both a satirical and haunting take on Gurdjieff's claim that we are, most of the time and on the whole, 'asleep' performing all our actions mechanically below the threshold of any genuine awareness. The forthcoming apocalypse (though indebted to H.G. Wells) is an invitation to reflect on the world's trajectory and imagine that 'progress' is not inevitable but a complex earned good, always fragile. Meanwhile, Luke and Betty's potential redemption at the hands of encountering their ideal 'male' and 'female' archetypes is an invitation to recognise that all transformation may be accomplished by a touch of grace but that grace is led to and comes away with a significant task of work.

Indeed this might be the meaning at the heart of most of the tales - meaning is not conferred except through diligent, conscious work, of the extension of awareness, the deepening of consciousness, nothing contrives to condemn us like our own complacency.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Weaving art inside 'madness'

As a young man of twenty four, Angus MacPhee left his home on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides to go to war. He was a member of Lovat's Scouts and was posted in 1940 to occupy and protect the Faeroe Isles. He did not see combat because, before the Lovats fought in Italy, Angus had succumbed to what was diagnosed as 'simple schizophrenia'. This form of schizophrenia presents all the passive symptoms without the accompanying, more familiar, active ones. It debilitates rather than excites, saps rather than disturbs. After a brief spell at home, he found himself in a mental asylum near Inverness.

Unlike the subsequent crafted images of such places, popularised in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest', this was an institution of benign care where the continuing mysteries of mental illness were addressed with the limited techniques at hand broadly in an environment of safety. In Angus' case, it was an environment enhanced by its ownership of a farm on which he worked and where he cared for the animals, especially the horses, that he loved.

He would have remained unknown to the wider world if it had not been for his compulsive attachment to creating things either from woven grass or fragments of wool taken from fences and woven into objects both recognisable and exaggerated, often with humour, like the woven grass boots (above) for an eight foot tall occupant!

His work, especially with grass, was ephemeral and he appeared not to care - what mattered to him was the making - that it subsequently faded and indeed was often destroyed or folded into compost, mattered not.

Had it not been noticed by the pioneering art therapist and collector of 'outsider' art, Joyce Laing, it would have all disappeared.

Roger Hutchinson's 'The Silent Weaver: The Extraordinary Life and Work of Angus MacPhee' tells the story of Angus' life and explores the questions to which it gives rise. He shows how Angus' choice of method was rooted in the culture and work of his homeland - horse bridles in Uist were often, for example, woven from the marram grass that lines the island's shores. He asks whether an 'artist' must be consciously so (and create for an audience) or can he simply 'unconsciously' be a maker as appeared to be the case with Angus and with many other makers of 'outsider art'? This he places in the history of the growth of interest in such art and its challenge to the assumptions that underlie 'the arts'. He touches on the continually vexed question of the relationship between creativity and madness. He, also, touches on the story of mental health care in twentieth century Britain and how the much maligned asylum might have, in truth, often have deserved its name.

It ends beautifully in a meditation that they may be something about the nature of the Celtic art tradition that resonates throughout MacPhee's work - quoting Renan, Matthew Arnold and Yeats to good effect. That it carries within itself a love of nature for itself, in its very materiality and ephemerality. Nature is something mysterious that you abide in and navigate, not something you simply admire from a distance. It breathes you, you play and work in it, it ever changes - and like MacPhee's workings decays to take on new forms.

In this, it reminds me of the Chinese - and the wonderful story of the poet who inscribed their work on leaves so that the wind could carry them up, away, and ultimately dissolve them back into the substances from which they continually emerge.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo

If you choose to write a biography of a man when certain of his followers (and, more broadly, certain cultural forces) would prefer a hagiography, you are going to encounter difficulty with the book's reception. People will question your credentials, your motivations. They will argue with your facts - usually by simply denying them rather than showing up your errors. They will accuse you of disrespect or worse. They will vilify and vituperate forgetting most of the values impressed upon them by the very person they purport to defend.

All this, and more, has greeted Peter Heehs' biography of the Indian sage, Sri Aurobindo. No doubt this intemperance is raised to its heights by the fact that Heehs is an 'insider', has been (or still is) a member of the Aurobindo ashram and has helped collate and develop its archives.

Knowing this before reading the book (and admiring Aurobindo myself), I prepare for the worst - for the insensitive, scurrilous and reductionist account but it never came.

In its place is a model of scrupulous and intelligent biography. It is a biography that never wants to go beyond what is feasibly demonstrable. This means it must necessarily suspend judgement about a number of the claims made for Aurobindo with regard to his (and the Mother's life) and its impact on the world. This conservatism is grounded not only in the empirical biographer's art but also in Aurobindo's own reservation about courting 'credulity or incredulity' about spiritual conditions that can only be justified by their being experienced, not discussed.

This by no means devalues the text. Heehs gives a rounded account of an extraordinary man who had multiple lives - as an administrator and teacher in a princely state, as a campaigner, journalist and politician; and, as a spiritual philosopher/poet and practitioner of a 'new' yoga that aimed (and aims) at transforming the world. These lives were both separate and yet run into one another - no former life being wholly abandoned in the new; not least, because Aurobindo's yoga is aimed an integration of the spiritual and the material. The path of ascetic separation (or of imagining the world as simply 'maya', an illusion) was to be superseded with a new emphasis on the spiritual consciousness seeking to leaven every activity towards a deeper wholeness while respecting the unique particularity of every given thing. Aurobindo was the first Indian thinker to think of the progress of consciousness (and the world) in evolutionary terms (with deep resonances, however different the context, with his contemporary, the Jesuit Priest, Teilhard de Chardin). At every step Heehs' descriptions of Aurobindo's complex thought is admirably clear and compelling.

Most remarkable too in the text is Heehs' use of Aurobindo's own spiritual diary that, almost telegramaticaly, records his own 'sadhana' or spiritual development as it moves through different levels of consciousness, stages of development, successes and retrenchments. It is one of the most detailed (if fractured) accounts of a saint's development (my description) I have come across and shows that the holiness of the person does not always according with a completed wholeness. This may be another reason for the followers' distress - seeking a misplaced perfection - rather than a dynamic and evolving vulnerability and an accompanying (and resultant) compassion.

There are moments in the text when Heehs comes close to providing, unnecessarily I suspect, hostage to his detractors not least in a discussion on the relationship between mysticism and madness but only to dismiss such a relationship in Aurobindo's case.

Overall Peter Heehs has left us an accomplished testament of the man who first dared to popularise the notion of India's independence through to the seeker and sage whose works demand the close engagement of anyone looking for a genuinely contemporary  and universal spirituality that honours the individual's experience and the world's needs (and that subverts dogmatism)!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Benighted or The Old Dark House

The excellent Valancourt Books are republishing (after long neglect) several of the novels of J.B. Priestley.

That Priestley's work is so variously assessed is, at one level, understandable and yet, at a deeper level, incomprehensible.

The surface distancing is intelligible because there is something in the style that is resolutely of its time and that creates a certain clunkiness. The closest analogy would be an 'old film' where the sets are obvious, the seams show and the acting is precisely that 'acting'! But allow for that, accustom yourself, and you quickly realise that you are in the hands of a master - a fine storyteller, adept manipulator of diverse genres, and consistently able to strike the depths as he carries you across the plane of the story (or stories).

Priestley's second novel was 'Benighted' (that was turned into a film 'The Old Dark House' by James Whale in 1932 and adapted for theatre only last year

The novel tells a familiar tale - two parties of travellers converge (and combine) in a strange house, cast there by inclement weather, and find themselves confronted by strangeness turning to horror. All of this is effectively done at the right pace and with the appropriately unnerving edge (though Whale's film deviates with an alternate ending that, ironically, softens the horror).

Priestley, however, adds several layers - each of the five visiting characters are finely drawn, helped by the device of playing the 'Truth' game to idle away the night hours - and significant themes enter into play. A marriage gone sour seeks to find a path back to meaning. A young architect describes the 'snag' of life as an inability to grasp and enjoy the now, the present endlessly postponed by anxieties, concerns, necessities. A veteran (of the First World War) tells of how it has stripped him of his purpose. A successful businessman confesses the edge that gave rise to his ruthless focusing on wealth accumulation and the exercise of power yet revealing his essential loneliness. The fine, subtle distinctions of class play about and are overcome in the confrontation with the abiding horror that is in the house.

Criticism could be applied to the counterpart of the travellers namely their hosts, trapped in their isolation and varied manias, they are underdeveloped by their author. Though perhaps you could argue that is one of the features of evil taking hold - that we refuse the complexities of our humanity and settle back into empty shells of our presumed masks. Evil is stereotypical and easily recognisable, goodness (or even ordinariness) more complicated!

Yet, on the whole, it is all beautifully (and excitingly) done.

The film (inspite of an excellent cast and admirable director) is less accomplished not least because at the last moment it tries to humanise the two principal 'evil' protagonists (and soften the ending); and, thus jars with the overall sense of human beings meeting an inhuman, even cosmic, evil. But it does have beautiful moments - Margaret distracting herself playing shadows with the candle to distract her loneliness encroached by a shadow of Morgan (the 'primitive' butler) and the first episode of violence; and, the beautiful playing of Miss Femm, the sister of the house and deranged religious fanatic whose God is wholly vengeful (and on her side)!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Inner Work

I cannot remember how long Robert Johnson`s `Inner Work` has languished on my bookshelves unread. It is surprising since I think his autobiography, `Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams and Realizations` is the most remarkable text of a dream infused inward (and outward) journey since Jung`s own `Memories, Dreams, Reflections`- engaging, magical, humble and wise. Meanwhile, his short book on what Jung called the shadow (that part of our self, in our personal unconscious, that we repress, hold at bay) is consistently illuminating, not least in reminding us that its contents represent not only those aspects of ourselves that we would rather forget for their presumed negativity but for those dimensions of ourselves seen as too great to handle, from which we shy away. Our shadows hide gold as well as scrap metal!

I presume that this was, in part, because the book is partly a manual - a how to book - from which INFJ`s instinctively recoil. We intuit or we die! We do not figure it out - least of all in stages and least of all with our internal, spiritual lives!

That prejudice aside, it is a beautiful book. Lucid in its accounts of the fundamental tenets of Jungian dream psychology and, yes, deeply informed with a practical and experienced approach to addressing both dream interpretation and active imagination. You cannot imagine anyone taking up this text with committed seriousness and not divining a better relationship to their inward dynamics. How to treat of those myraid `persons` who make up their selves and whose competitions and conflict need continuous negotiation. Also, how to accept that ultimate invitation towards the weaving whole, the seamless fabric, that is their true self.

I did, however, have two quibbles.

The first was with an excessive `individualising`. Yes, the focus ought to be on how we adjust our own inner dynamics, take responsibility for them,live them out; but, we live with and towards one another and an essential dynamic in finding our wholeness is in dialogue with others and in that dialogue touching a depth of mutuality that redeems. Too often the Jungian emphasis on `individuation` leaves the `other` real only in so far as it plays a part in my play!

The second is related to this. The figures we encounter in imagination may not simply be parts of my unconscious, however collectively shared, they may not be simply eruptions from below (or within) but may be revealtions from without (and above). Not every saint we encounter might be a dimension of `my` wholeness but a revelation of a wholeness that transcends, including a much greater dimension than my `self`. Johnson`s world remains `bifurcated` - a physical world onto which is projected an inner `unconscious` world rather than a wholly conscious world with different dimensions, levels of meaningful being.

Nevertheless as a practical guide to dream and imaginative work I cannot think of a more compelling guide, wise and humble in equal measure.

Wild Geese Overhead: Where does reform begin?

"Wild Geese Overhead" is an atypical novel for Neil Gunn. It is not set in the Highlands that were his home but in Glasgow. It is...