Friday, May 12, 2017

That Wondrous Pattern

When I was at school, a friend encouraged me to read both the poems and the (three volumes) of autobiography of the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine. By one of those happenings of synchronicity, I had come to her work simultaneously whilst looking, in my local library, for someone who could help me understand Blake - the poet I was reading so compulsively, haunted yet with little conscious understanding. I had found her collection of essays, 'Blake and the New Age' and had devoured them as they illuminated a landscape from which I have never since retreated.

When subsequently I saw, as a student, a copy of Temenos (its second edition), a journal she edited on arts and the imagination, I struck up a four year correspondence that culminated with our first meeting.

This was at the first Temenos Conference at Dartington Hall in 1986. I remember standing close by whilst she carried out a conversation with another participant, hovering uncertain as to what to say as an introverted, nervous twenty three year old. She span round and that rich, sonorous voice of her's declared, "And you must be Nicholas! I am carrying your last letter to me around in my handbag as a talisman"! I cannot recall my startled response but it confirmed a friendship that was one of my life's great blessings. She turned a beam of light upon me and I unfurled. I remember how at that conference, and the second, she would come up to me at random moments and ask, "And how Nicholas do you think our conference is going?" as if I were her most intimate collaborator! This I was not but her generosity (that I can only confess not everyone saw or was treated to) was life giving and deeply confirming.

I was reminded of this reading the recently published selection of her essays, 'The Wondrous Pattern: Essays on Poetry and Poets' edited by Brian Keeble, one of her fellow editors on Temenos. Many of these I have in other forms but it is wonderful to have them gathered here and newly available to future readers.

Reading them I was struck by the searing intelligence, clarity and profoundly counter cultural nature. For Kathleen was a thoroughgoing neo-Platonist convinced that the fundamental nature of the world is mind and that the best path to knowledge is the exercise of the Imagination. This tradition (for such it is) represents an excluded pattern of learning and wisdom to which the most significant English poets had access and of which they were exemplars (to a greater or lesser degree). Top of her tree of wise greatness were undoubtedly Blake, Shelley and Yeats on which she writes perceptively and through which she engages in a critique of ways of seeing that are constrained by a reductionist materialism. Here too, however, are Keats and Wordsworth, Manley Hopkins and Eliot, Edwin Muir and Vernon Watkins. All defenders of the world as a sacred place, a temenos, where beauty abounds and seen aright is a mirroring of a transcendent order.

The essays, however, not only lay out an intellectual position (and criticism), they also resonate with reflections on the poet's art. How do you wait upon inspiration, how do you work with it, how does one wield symbolism into a coherent whole that resonates with a truth that lies beyond speech (and for which number and music might be purer counterpoints)?

Each poet emerges through her seeing a renewably valuable and more clearly seen. For example, her treatment of Keats is masterly. It is often suggested that he was cut off in his prime, only getting started, before tuberculosis intervened. What might he not have written had he survived? This is a legitimate speculation but it detracts from Keats' achievement as a shaper of what he described as 'the chamber of maiden thought' of the innocence of youth and its particular shaping of insight and knowing, the clarity of its perceptions as it treats the world out of its idealism. A view of the world too often obscured in latter struggles; and, a view of the world that ought to be held up as a continuous counterweight to our too easily succumbing to 'experience'. For as St Benedict says God often puts truth into the youngest member of a community (his reference here being to a monastery) and we should always allow them space to speak. Keats work is a continual remembering of these innocent paths of seeing, a renewing freshness.

The essays, also, like all fine criticism return you to the sources - to rereading or reading anew the poets treated thereof - and of those she treats the most sorely neglected is the Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins, friend of Dylan Thomas, and by Thomas' own admission, the better poet. Kathleen shows both why this is so and why he is so neglected. His work is so musical, so precise in its lyrical yet symbolic forms, that very few readers - even if they recognise the music - can easily arrive at the meaning yet the meanings are precise drawing on a depth of symbolic knowledge that is profound. It is as if we all lost a particular power of speech (and listening) that closes to us worlds, upon worlds. Herewith to close one of Watkins' most beautiful poems capturing the heron as both bird and ancient symbol of contemplation.

The Heron

The cloud-backed heron will not move:
He stares into the stream.
He stands unfaltering while the gulls
And oyster-catchers scream.
He does not hear, he cannot see
The great white horses of the sea,
But fixes eyes on stillness
Below their flying team.

How long will he remain, how long
Have the grey woods been green?
The sky and the reflected sky,
Their glass he has not seen,
But silent as a speck of sand
Interpreting the sea and land,
His fall pulls down the fabric
Of all that windy scene.

Sailing with clouds and woods behind,
Pausing in leisured flight,
He stepped, alighting on a stone,
Dropped from the stars of night.
He stood there unconcerned with day,
Deaf to the tumult of the bay,
Watching a stone in water,
A fish's hidden light.

Sharp rocks drive back the breaking waves,
Confusing sea with air.
Bundles of spray blown mountain-high
Have left the shingle bare.
A shipwrecked anchor wedged by rocks,
Loosed by the thundering equinox,
Divides the herded waters,
The stallion and his mare.

Yet no distraction breaks the watch
Of that time-killing bird.
He stands unmoving on the stone;
Since dawn he has not stirred.
Calamity about him cries,
But he has fixed his golden eyes
On water's crooked tablet,
On light's reflected word.
By Vernon Watkins

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Leonora Carrington: art and fulfilment

The Old Maids by Leonora Carrington

A prophet is not without honour save in their own country. 

Leonora Carrington as an artist has a journey to go before she is recognised as one of the most significant English artists of the twentieth century. She is significantly resonant not least because she resolutely, as any English eccentric ought, was a determined follower of her own path.

This course is admirably described in Joanna Morehead's 'The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington'. Morehead had an advantage in coming to know the artist in the final years of her life (though that advantage was not immediately apparent) for being Leonora's cousin. It was not apparent as advantage because Leonora had resolutely walked out on her parents' expectations in 1937 when defiantly going to live with Max Ernst in Paris. Ernst's artistic status were of no interest to her parents more important was that he was a foreigner, poor and married. These were characteristics that counted a great deal more to Leonora's very wealthy, conventional parents; and, the complex estrangement that virtually disappeared Leonora from family view had kept Leonora hidden from Morehead until very late in the artist's life.

But, thankfully, not too late for the last few years' of Leonora's life, Morehead could visit her in her Mexico City home, become friends, and over what appears to be endless cups of tea, help Leonora connect with her past in renewing ways. From these conversations, supplemented by the necessary research, this sensitive book emerged.

Leonora was always and everywhere herself- resilient to a fault - who voyaged far both inwardly into the halls of madness and spirit and outwardly from English Upper Middle Class wealth to a feted, if always deeply private, position as an adopted daughter of Mexico. 

She was a continuous crosser of boundaries - in search of freedom and in pursuit of always better questions to the mysteries of life that surround us. The freedom was intimately bound with her position as a female artist, fiercely defended and wholly real.

The value of the book, as well as evoking the life, is to show ways in which that life informed the subjects of her art - both painting and writing. You see anew the significance of recurrent themes in her art -  for example of her family's Irish and Catholic background, of the importance of horses as symbols of potential freedom and of the 'crone' (a word she loved) the symbol of an ancient inexhaustible feminine wisdom.

If there are faults I suppose they are twofold. 

The first is that the biography leans towards memoir - the full apparatus of biography is missing.

The second is the depth of intellectual background that too must lead us beyond memoir.

Carrington was resolutely opposed to interpreting her art- what mattered was the felt responses of the viewer. This is a wholly legitimate view yet at the same time Carrington describes herself as a 'carrier' or 'conduit' through which meaningful art flows. Thus it behoves us to ask what shaped the conduit and, as Morehead notes, Carrington was, in fact, highly intellectual and liked nothing more than a resonant philosophical discussion. Here we only get tantalising glimpses - the importance of Jung and Gurdjieff and of Robert Graves' 'The White Goddess' described as the most important book the artist had read but quite why and how that becomes reflected in her art is left danglingly open.

Nevertheless this is a moving and finely written testimony to both a fabulous artist and a remarkable woman. A person who lived their life to the uttermost and who, as Morehead notes, is admirable not least because, though often afraid, never allowed it to determine their actions and a person for whom the last word was always allowed to wonder.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Time is strangely wonderful

Time is a River without Banks by Marc Chagall

In Edwin Muir's poem, 'Adam's Dream', Adam beholds a vision of 'time' and 'time is strange for one lately in Eden'. The time Adam sees is the familiar one - time as passing, the present disappearing into a past that no longer exists except in memory and physical evidence and the future as simply a container of projected hopes and speculation with no real existence. A mechanical time with no meaning. 

Adam is, of course, however, perceiving a notion of time that, in truth, only came into existence with the seventeenth century. Solidified by Newton, it has become the accepted cultural norm. A norm unshifted by either Einstein's relativity or the quirks of quantum mechanics (where causality appears often to run backwards from the future into the present). 

But as J.B. Priestley marvellously demonstrates this view of time would neither be recognised by any of Adam's descendants before the seventeenth century nor, with any scrupulous, open minded examination, of how time is experienced now. Time is (whatever else) culturally flexible in how it is discerned and, in fact, may be multi-dimensional.

Priestley's 'Man & Time' (long and scandalously out of print) has a twofold task - one is to introduce us to the many ways in which human cultures have configured their understanding of Time and to advance his own argument (or speculation) as to what Time is (in, at least, some of its many mansions). Both seek to rescue us from the mechanical 'passing time' that appears to be our present cultural lot. This 'passing time' is remarkably deadening. If it were true, we might imagine that it would encourage everyone to seize the present moment with unyielding relish but, as Priestley shows, this ain't necessarily so indeed this is exactly the cultural moment when we invented the notion that time is something to be 'killed' (as if our unconscious recognised that if the flow of time is meaningless perhaps it were better dead)!

The first part of the book is a wonderful act of compression - time as cultural artefact explored from many angles with concision, illustration both verbal and visual (the book is laden with fabulous illustrations) and wit. His summation of the Medieval period, for example, is masterly - you come away, through the lens of time, with a renewed understanding of the age. Narrow certainly but intense, a world in which to quote Rowan Williams, 'everyone had selves with knobs on' - vividly individual even (or because) they found their place in a community - and colourful. Priestley slyly contrasts Chaucer's Pilgrims with a gathering of travellers at the airport gate much to the advantage of the former. This ability to locate oneself was, in part, a gift of a view of time that allowed you, however, difficult your present, a firm track into a located eternity. 

The second part of the book is grounded in Priestley's own quasi-research project. The presenter of a BBC cultural program, having interviewed Priestley on his concern for time, invited readers to contact the author with examples of when Time appeared not to behave in a simply linear, passing fashion. Priestley was inundated with hundreds of letters, mostly concerned with precognitive dreams. These he sifts, explores, brings into dialogue both with skeptical criticism and theories of time, most prominently those of J.W. Dunne, and through which he develops his own speculation on Time rooted in the possible, his experience and the evidence his interlocutors (laced with a few historic examples) presented him with. All through he tries, and succeeds, to keep on the side of the balanced, the sober, the seriously empirical (if by this we include giving real space for people's actual experience).

Some of the examples are compelling whether the famously historical whereby a passenger evades a voyage on the Titanic or a woman dreaming of her drowning child corrects this potential future into a happy ending. Cumulatively, I think, they elude skepticism - and Priestley, faithful to the dictates of Thomas Aquinas, gives the skeptics the best possible run for their money.

I came away with a renewed sense that (at the very least) the future is accessible, that the mind, while linked to the brain, surpasses it and that not only precognition is real but that we live in a cosmos saturated with meaning and that our participation in it is not limited to this one 'mortal coil'. That Time is a house with many mansions (and that it may be moated and grounded in eternity though Priestley does not go that far). 

What is remarkable about Priestley's text is that his fathoming is so faithful to the contours of his experience and that in this he wants to marry the spiritual, the psychological and the scientific. He indicates a direction of travel away from either religion or science as 'received wisdom' and both as an ongoing, exciting adventure that is always enterprising after new truths and always vulnerable to the new, what presents itself.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Redeeming through time

Eugene Vodolazkin did not expect anyone except his wife and his immediate, curious colleagues to read his novel 'Laurus', set in fifteenth century Russia, describing the life of a healer, holy fool, pilgrim and monk yet, to his surprise, it not only won awards but became a best seller in its native Russia and is now in the process of appearing in no less than fifteen languages. The English version, that I read, faithfully translates Vodolazkin's blend of archaic and contemporary language as it seeks both to recreate its 'past' 'life world' and simultaneously undermine your sense of time itself.

This is a hugely ambitious novel in which we follow Arseny, the grandson of a healer, through four distinct phases of his life, each one with its own setting and place. The accomplished healer succumbs to a deranging melancholy on the death of his beloved (and of his child) in childbirth and takes on the mantle of a 'holy fool'. The fool, in turn, becomes a pilgrim to Jerusalem and on his return to Russia, a monk. In each guise, he seeks not his own redemption but that of his wife and child. The expiation of his sins focus on earning of an afterlife or them that is blessed, in which their names and faces are known to and in God.

Through each life we are introduced into a detailed picture of what such a life might look like and into the worlds of those with whom Arseny interacts. We see the faith invested in folk medicine, even when it fails to work, suggestive of a world created for man even if, in its Fall, it is far from always beneficent.  We see the workings of plague. We see the strange admixture of admiration for holiness slipping into its violating opposite - the demands of holiness can be difficult to bear for the unholy- so they punish it. We see the comforts of a communal world and its dangers when it encounters the stranger or the simply the estranged.

Each phase of life for Arseny brings him a new name ending in the monastic name of Laurus. Each phase of life brings speculation as to what it is in us that maintains a continuity of life and is that continuity our personal stories or yet something other perhaps in Arseny's case his binding commitment to his beloved and his faith in God's ability to grant her a restful home.

If this was 'all' the novel contained it would be an elegant sufficiency but there is another, deepening strand that runs through the text, gathering pace, and that is its questioning the nature of time. Arseny acquires (and loses) in the second half an Italian friend, Ambrogio, who visits Russia because it is friendly to prophecy and Ambrogio, through a glass darkly, sees the future and is puzzled for he has seen that in 1492 a new world will be discovered but too that (in Russia) the end of the world is expected. Both cannot be true (at least literally). Ambrogio's character allows Vodolazkin to unfurl speculations on time - its subjective changes of pace, the ability to stand outside of it, the thought that it is fundamentally unreal: everything simply is present in an eternal instantiation to which having, imperfect access, one can, from time to time, see effectively into the future (and presumably the past). And so on and so forth.

This speculative undercurrent too places a question mark over the whole because at one level the text can, and is, read as the faithful rendering of Arseny's multiple lives that inhabit not only an historically authentic frame but also one undoubtedly inspired by the Orthodox faith of the author.

As one, enthusiastic reviewer in the American Conservative put it, the book can inspire you to prayer (and it does). Indeed it might even help you unravel that mysterious 'object' the Russian soul and have you yearning for Holy Mother Russia reinvigorated (which would show, sadly, that fantasy trumps anything proximate to an historical reality).

But how 'Orthodox' is the novel in practice?

Foreseeing the future in an instaneous present places strains on traditional defences of free will. Meanwhile, Arseny seems strangely uninterested in Christ (for a holy fool or a pilgrim or a monk) even though Christ does appear briefly, in vision, and make a crucial intervention in Jerusalem. Finally, none of his spiritual mentors/companions seem to challenge, Arseny's strangely morbid fixation on redeeming his beloved. This seems to occlude (until the final recapitulating moments) any true surrender of self: his guilt is subtly too fascinating.

This may, ultimately, of course, be its primary orthodox point. We are redeemed only through passing through time, and all its messiness, to an elsewhere that is the timeless. Both namely having and inhabiting a history and then losing our history are essential to becoming fully human and thus an image of God. It is by entering that paradox fully that we find our life and the connecting thread to of our multiple selves.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Undiscovered Country or how the Dead have a will of their own

Carl Watkins, a medieval historian at Cambridge, has written a marvellous book about dying, death and the dead across the ages in England (with a side excursion to Wales) from the Medieval period to the First World World. It is accomplished by the quality of its writing, its choice of illustrative story and its generosity of spirit. This latter enables you to sense what each, changing, perception of death truly meant to that cast of particular protagonists in their time and place.

So, for example, we start in the Middle Ages.  Here a belief in purgatory and the journey of the dead from first dilemma to hoped for bliss, meant that the task was to secure active remembrance, informed by prayer, for the transiting soul. A whole panoply of mechanisms grew up to ensure this. The sculptured tomb in a church reminded the viewer of their mortal state and elicited sympathetic prayer for the depicted's post mortem state. The dead party offered a variety of good works - repairing and naming a gate, opening an almshouse or distributing bread to the poor - to keep them in the praying eye. And, the professional apparatus of chantry and guild that kept masses and prayers circulating to the benefit of the generous dead.

All of which was disrupted by the Reformation. Salvation being by faith alone, it became 'instantaneous'. Purgatory disappeared. You were either destined for heaven or hell and no post-mortem help was possible. Yet no rupture is ever complete. You could still remember the dead in your prayers but now the efficacy was not their eternal destiny but a recapitulation of their virtue as a stimulus for your own.

The book beautifully illustrates that what we believe will shape, at the least, how we interpret what we see and, at the most, what we actually do see. Our responses to dying, death and the possibilities of an afterlife do shift as our patterns of belief and expectation change. Yet strikingly through the book, you also notice that, first, certain patterns of belief, however differently tinged, persist and that the dead themselves, in spite of the latest 'theory', continue to behave with stubborn consistency.

Thus, purgatory having been 'abolished' by goodly Protestant theologians keeps reappearing - both in the stubborn folk traditions around burial that imagine that what you do in terms of burial matters to the future of the deceased and, more explicitly, in the nineteenth century the birth of spiritualism imagines that post mortem survival provides and demonstrates opportunities for a renewing conscious life beyond the grave.

Thus too ghosts (in varied guises) continue to behave in manners continuously consistent, irrespective of the theologies that swirl around them, indeed ghosts seem happily resistant to our expectations and beliefs, behaving as they have always done, for good or ill. It rather reminds me about a moment in Stephen King's 'Salems Lot' where the local priest is earnestly questioning the validity in 'modern thought' of evil just as he is being swallowed up by the vampire!

This is social and cultural history of a high order. It describes the phenomenon of how death has been seen across the span of a given history allowing for that testimony to speak for itself, leaving the audience to reflect on what it may mean for their own understanding both of the past and the reality that each person will face, namely their own death.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Well at the World's End

A professor of Ancient History, whilst walking in the Highlands, encounters, with his wife, Fand, a well whose water is so clear that they are momentarily led to believe that it is dry. Where does the water end and the air begin for there appears to be no boundary?

This triggers in Peter Munro, the professor, a quixotic desire to go a wandering in search of a particular kind of adventure and to find 'the well at the world's end'. The adventure is to allow himself to meet all kind of folk and by paying them a certain kind of attention to tease from them stories when, like the well, they found that their ordinary boundary between self and world had disappeared and they had peeked into another world, though one wholly enfolded in this one.

This is then not an 'ordinary' novel - and one that quite baffled its readership. For its author was an accomplished writer of social realism - of the complex history and life of the Highlands - not notably regarded as a metaphysician (or indeed a mystic). But Neil M Gunn, the novel's author, was, in fact, all three and as his life and writing progressed, he attempted to ever more deeply intertwine the three, looking for the signals of transcendence amidst the everyday. Indeed in 'The Well at the World's End' he actually makes use of both his own experience and those related to him by friends of, for want of a better name, 'mystical experience'.

The novel has no especial guiding narrative - episode follows episode, loosely connected by the sense of a quest - and in the different ways, people step beyond the threshold - when close to death by drowning, at rest after an arduous day wrapped in twilight, by the simple grace of a Spanish garden drenched in the stillness of the midday sun, when encountering a storm at sea or in speculation over a shared myth. Many are the possibilities of being surprised by delight and of becoming made whole in the delight's grace, if only for a moment but then how long is that?

What Gunn gives one, through the text, are continuous opportunities to pause, ponder over life's meaning, taste it, without ever suggesting explanations. Indeed thought, whilst valuable, is often the hindrance to true seeing, revolving as it does so closely around 'my' purposes, the ego's self-referential dance, rather than being opened out and made vulnerable by the presence of what is, momentarily unnamed, unnameable.

It is, also, a meditation on those famed lines of T.S. Eliot's in Little Gidding where the explorer arrives where he started yet knowing the place for the first time or in Munro's case, where he beholds his wife, after a nearly deadly adventure saving a sheep, and wholly refreshes his knowing of her, made pristine again out of his renewing experience.

But never does Gunn stray too far from the wholly ordinary, otherwise he would defeat his purpose. His 'mysticism' is woven tight to his characters and their everyday lives - their hopes, loves, humours and struggles -  such that the 'well at the world's end' is everywhere, for the world's ending is placed in every particular being, every person, as their birthright.

The novel was written, in the post World War II world, at a time when 'realism' appeared to demand 'pessimism' and a shedding of the possibilities of transcendence for a secular making do (preferably gathered around the kitchen sink or assembled in a bar) and where the predominant emotion might be 'anger'. This may account for its poor reception but takes nothing away from its quality as a heart felt rejoinder and reminder of a better world.

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.

That Wondrous Pattern

When I was at school, a friend encouraged me to read both the poems and the (three volumes) of autobiography of the poet and Blake scho...