Saturday, July 28, 2012

A compelling civil war

There is a counter-factual history to be written: what if the Taiping rebellion against the Qing Dynasty had been successful?

A heterodox Christian movement would have established a new regime in China whose Prime Minister had extensive interaction with missionaries and who was open to the West.

It is an intriguing proposition: one that did not come to pass (though the rate of Christian conversion in present day China is notable and a cause of unease to the regime).

The Taiping civil war was the most destructive conflict of the nineteenth century in which up to twenty million people perished and millions were displaced, made refugees. For that reason alone it ought to better known outside of China.

Stephen Platt's 'Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West and the Epic Story of that Taiping Civil War' is a compelling account of that conflict seen from the perspective of key actors and observers both Chinese and Western.

I am about a third of the way through and two things are deeply puzzling.

One is the core narrative of Hong Xiuquan, the prophetic leader of the Taiping. On failing his third attempt at passing the Chinese civil service examination, he had a breakdown, received visions that were deeply puzzling until he read a Christian missionary tract. Suddenly he is clear - he has seen God and his, Hong Xiuquan's, elder brother, Jesus, and they have commissioned him to free China of its bondage - to both idolatry and the foreign rule of the Manchu. He launches a crusade that gathers up millions of followers (following out of conviction and out of necessity) and comes very  close to creating a new order in China. How is this possible? What is the connection between his charisma and its ability to move history with such compelling force and violent consequence?

The second follows this - one of the agendas of the revolt is purging China of idolatry - and thousands of Chinese take to destroying temples - Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist. What might not have occurred to them in March, say, became standard practice in April. Part of this is the strange infection of crowd behaviour and, no doubt, the temptations of greed and the adrenaline of violence but it is extraordinary how vulnerable we are to these temptations. Likewise our presumed affection for traditions of holiness are skin deep (aided, no doubt, by the fact that the holiness of our shrines is often equally skin deep). I am reminded of 'Holy Russia' that crumpled rather rapidly in the face of revolution.

It is an extraordinary story that makes history more rather than less mysterious. At one level you are reading an excellent narrative of the unfolding events and the dynamics of conscious decision making (good, flawed and woeful) and, at times, you imagine that this counts as explanation but behind this rational confidence stalks both the complexity of being human and yet something other.

You can see why people seek 'spirit' in history (including both set of combatants in this conflict) because so much remains unexplained, inexplicable. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

God, sexy women and eros.



Lucas Cranach was an entrepreneur. His workshop cranked out paintings, serving the needs of aristocratic patrons of both Catholic and Protestant commitment. He also ran a pharmacy (with monopoly privileges), a real estate portfolio, a publishing house and served as city councillor, mayor and occasional diplomat.

These diverse approaches to life have suggested to many a man without deep seated convictions. Artists (in our romantic imagination) are not meant to be worldly wise nor at the service of others. They should suffer for their imaginations or be solely vindicated by the light of them.

However, the historian, Steven Ozment in his 'The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the making of the Reformation' want us to see Cranach not only as a highly gifted artist but also, through his friendship with Luther and his position at the court of Saxony, one of the architects of the Reformation. What Luther was in the charisma of words, Cranach was in paint and print (and indeed was Luther's publisher and illustrator).

It is an excellent case that Ozment makes and, at critical moments, it was precisely Cranach's worldliness and sense of the possible that tempered Luther's enthusiasm and made for the practicality (and possibility) of reform.

One of the most interesting features of Ozment's argument is the revolutionary nature of Cranach's depiction of women, sex and its consequences; and, how it fell four square within Luther's revolutionary message.

Put simply sex is God given, constitutive of our humanity and ambiguous. We are fallen creatures and eros cannot be overcome but it can be channeled. St Paul told us that it was better to marry than to burn. This is (on the face of it) a rather negative exhortation to marry. Luther turned it around: marriage is precisely the place where we can happily celebrate our sexiness. His marriage to the runaway nun, Katherine, was both obviously happy and momentous - it became the archetype of what we are made for and Cranach's older and equally blessed marriage reinforced Luther's message.

But what role in this celebration do Cranach's nudes play? They are, Ozment argues, invitations to contemplate the morality of our desires. Cranach's nudes are powerful and yet in their iconography chaste. Human sexuality is powerful and, therefore, we can be saved in it only through recognising its importance, hallowing it appropriately, and living it within creative, domestic bounds. It cannot be denied nor controlled by forces outside the family, especially by forces that repress it, namely the Catholic Church that imagines celibacy as the ideal and falsely imagines that sexuality sits within what can be controlled by the will.

In Luther, and in Cranach, as we are saved by faith alone in the midst of our sinfulness, so sex must find a place within our faithfulness not left to be controlled by our will. The faithfulness of domesticity is where that can be done. But there is fire in that domesticity too - both Luther and Cranach celebrate eros. The repeated painting of Venus and Cupid chaste and yet engaged is an indicator of that.

Ozment ably suggests that one of the most powerful drivers of the Reformation was that it answered the anxiety generated by imagining that we are in control of our bodies (which as many of us know is frankly a fiction). We could recognise the fiction and generate a different story - we are saved in spite of our control rather than because of it - but there are things we can do to hallow our helplessness - living in a loving family is one, and a major one.

Ozment reading of Cranach's iconography is compelling: women may continue to be 'objectified' (in the critical jargon of post-modernist feminism) but they often live on their own terms. Again and again Cranach paints women who live their own lives sometimes in innocence of men's designs, sometimes even in overcoming men's designs - including many of the sassy women of the Old Testament. For example, where many painters implicate Bathsheba for leading King David on (to the murder of her husband), Cranach shows her spied upon unknowingly by a voyeuristic David.

Lastly Ozment shows how the Reformation (unintentionally) laid the foundations of the modern, secular world. If sex is the dynamic that rightly exists in the domain of relationship - in the personal sphere of the family - without being 'controlled' or 'made inferior' by an all powerful Church - then the space of the secular has begun to emerge. The primary transaction is of our personal conscience. The cat is out of the bag and is running in freedom and in riot. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Flesh and blood

Michael Cunningham's novel follows, episodically by year, three generations of a Greek-Italian family from the 1940s into the future.

Constantine, the would be patriarch, is a poor immigrant who makes good building fancy but sub-standard housing (there is a metaphor for the modern world there). His wife, Mary, stays at home, making home and elaborate cakes, for her three children - Susan, Billy and Zoe.

Susan marries an aspiring lawyer and politician out of high school. Billy, who becomes Will, is gay and becomes a school teacher, both because it is a love and to spite his father and who settles in to a long relationship with Harry. Zoe has Jamal with a casual but intense Afro-American lover and succumbs to AIDS either through sex or injection.

Cunningham is a master of what might be described as melancholy affirmation. With the possible exception of Will and Jamal, none of his characters lives could be characterised as happy. They all bear wounds - the wounds of relationship, of character or of accident. Yet everyone does more, is more than survival. Each life is a quilted patterning of meaning, in sombre colours, but one that lives, breathes, in glimpses exalts. Each life is held by its author in a compassionate light - even the most problematic is laughed with rather than against (in a manner of speaking as the humour is mordant rather than light). Even Constantine and his second wife, Magda, with their racism, material covetousness, and anger, stand out whole, strangely understandable (as far as that is ever possible with anyone) and loved into being.

I was reminded of a young monk arriving on Mount Athos eager to start his ascent into the mysteries who was given by his elder, his spiritual father, a copy of Dickens' David Copperfield to read. 'What is this?' the young monk disdainfully asked. 'This will teach you to feel,' replied the elder, 'Without a common feeling for the humanity of everyone, how can you expect to enter the way of Christ's love?'

Cunningham is one of those authors who teaches you to feel and recognise the complexity of feeling and in doing so he celebrates the unconventional places in which feeling resides. Zoe, her son Jamal, his god mother, Cassandra, an ailing drag queen and Zoe's mother, Mary is one such quartet of the unfamiliar. Like Dickens, he challenges the expectations of what it means to be family, to be familiar, and by doing so widens the scope of our felt life.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A last day at MOMA


Today it was the turn of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco.

 It is a very impressive building (which, I know, is a little like saying a book is printed on good paper). 



Here there was a very interesting German painter: Katharina Wulff on show. She reminded me of Edward Burra in the way she encompassed both the urban street and landscape and incorporated, as did he, elements of the surreal, the humorous and the shadowy. One of her landscapes, untitled, is above. She does not, however, have Burra's depth - neither the depth of re-imagined place: Burra's are particular, actual places, Wulff's fade into the non-specifics of dream nor of metaphysics: of the exaltation and tragedy of Christianity that haunts Burra's spaces, as here, in Landscape near Rye.



There was a wonderful room of Mexican painters - Rivera, Kahlo and Rufino Tanayo. Tanayo I had not seen before but there was a delightful painting of his 'The Lovers' a stylized man and a woman holding hands in a sitting room all tenderness and delight in an utterly domestic yet symbolic setting. In the background, a subtle, ambiguous touch: a caged bird - the capitivity of love that is both delight and potential shadow. 



Then it was occasional pieces, among the grind of the contemporary, those vast canvases of unrealized colour or its absence with which I have a glancing sympathy at best or the 'conceptual' whose sterility I am afraid never ceases to amaze. There was an Edward Hopper of a solitary woman at the cinema that displayed all his gifts of the realistic symbolic, a Mondrian so orderly and light filled, and a fabulous Rothko. Sitting in front of this pulsating painting that saturates, I realized you have to be very grounded to receive that intensity of transcendence and,sadly, Rothko was not. In Zen, after satori, there is the practice of 'polishing the stone' of being en-grounded in 'enlightenment', finding it in the contours of the everyday. You have to able to withstand truth as well as understand it. Spirituality has to be horizontal as well as vertical.

I went for a last walk, dropped in on City Lights once more and guiltily found several books I wanted, and noted them down for later internet purchase. I could excuse myself with the thought of long distance travel; however, guilt won out and I bought a book on Cranach and Luther. 

On my way back to the hotel my final stop was to call into Grace Cathedral (Episcopal/Anglican) two of whose Deans I have known (I realized). It is spacious, wealthy and prim.The stained glass, however, is rich and luminous and tracing its narratives is enjoyable and often unexpected. Martin Buber pops up in one for reasons I could not trace!

Tomorrow it is on a jet plane...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Shape shifting in the gallery



The taxi driver's father came from England: an orphan shipped to Canada at the outbreak of the First World War who at eighteen, tired of his life as an agricultural laborer, walked across the St Lawrence, when frozen, to a new life in the United States! This story, and much besides, was relayed to me as we drove towards Fisherman's Wharf for a lunchtime meeting. I got the population statistics for the city (860,000), why its only intolerance was for intolerance; and, the miracle of people actually speaking to one another, on the street, as strangers, politely. He was himself gnarled, grizzled grey and fading hippy, and charming.

I had been to the de Young museum for American art in the Golden Gate Park. A striking building as built from over-lapping metal plates, austere but beautiful.


The first thing I saw was this remarkable sculpture by David Ruben Piqtoukun: 'Bear in Shamanic Transformation'. It is carved from soapstone. A bear seen from behind (as immediately above) is shape shifting into a human as seen from the front (as at the top).

In the time of origin human and animal inhabited a shared, seamless world, they moved between with understanding. It is out of that understanding, Inuit tradition was and is shaped. It is the shaman who has gifted access to the world of origin still. He or she moves between worlds of spirit, human and animal and sees - both the practical what is needed for healing, for example, and the metaphysical: the hidden contours of the world.

What struck me again, as with the Aborigine art seen in Seattle, was how deeply vivid and imagined this art is. You may not know what it is (in terms of its specific meaning) but that it is woven anew from the fabric of a living, if threatened, culture is utterly clear. It lives brightly.(http://ncolloff.blogspot.com/2012/07/aborigines-in-seattle.html).


Then there was 'Looking into Myself' carved from whale bone by the Alaskan artist, by Susie Silook. A face opens and inside wheels turn and dance - the wheels of the mind that are the wheels of the cosmos. What is inside and what is out if you live in a world that is a seamless whole?

This gallery was so beautiful that is was difficult to spend time beyond it. I looked around but came back to it with the limited time available.

Later in the afternoon, I found myself in the botanical gardens. It seemed a fitting place to end the day. I sat in a grove of redwood pines, among the oldest living things, listening to the flow of water and the stillness of trees and wondering what returning to that original story would be like when one could talk the language of our common, now all too sundered, nature.

In a moment of wondrous synchronicity who should I see first as I emerged from the grove but a Japanese Zen monk in his traditional grey robes appreciatively walking down the path: looking through myself into unity. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

A walk through poverty to the museum




I thought I would walk to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco between three telephone calls and a lunchtime meeting.

I stepped off my now familiar blocks into a different world. It was black. It was poor. It was threaded with hopelessness. I have experienced many contrasts in my travels and been confronted by the stark realities of poverty but this was shocking, so close to wealth, so stark. It was a five minute walk to Union Square and Louis Vuitton.

The streets wreaked of urine. Every third person appeared deranged. The fabric of the buildings were frayed, faded, disreputable.

Just as soon as you had entered, you were out yet left wondering whether what you had seen was real. It was, sadly, it was.

Then you were at a palatial square and there was the new museum for Asian Art.

It was an excellent collection and running parallel to it was 'Phantoms of Asia' - examples of contemporary art that was responding to Asian religious traditions. There were two very simple, pure abstract Tibetan examples that were very beautiful. One was of receding archways in grey white, ethereal, like a doorway into a transcendent reality. The second was a box the surface of which was a geometric pattern of lines illuminated from within so that the light extended beyond the solid form, dissolving into the room.

But my favorite piece was from late eighteenth, early nineteenth century Rajasthan - a cloth painting of the cosmos. It was rough, primitive, naive but beautiful. Vishnu dreams worlds: one of gods, one of humans. Each populated by diverse, tiny figures, worshiping and delighting caught up in the swirling pattern held aloft by the figure of a cosmic man. The world is rooted in divine vision and consciousness: a consciousness that we share. Only the demons are outside its patterning, locked in their own worlds, by their own actions.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

City Lights







After my morning meetings, I went to City Lights Books - the legendary home (and publisher) of the Beat writers. It is one of those independent bookstores that remind you of the joys of accidental discovery and (for me at least) the joy of feeling actual books: the smell, the texture, the weight in hand and (ironically) the judgment of covers!

I bought  Andrei Bely's 'Kotik Letaev'.  This is his novel of early child development, greatly influenced by his interest in the work of Rudolf Steiner. Bely's is hard to find in English apart from his masterpiece, 'Petersburg', that is one of my favourite books. Petersburg transgresses genre: a story of generational conflict and terrorism, it unfolds in a comedy of serious intent and has Christ as a palpable but unnamed witness! As a friend who read it, on my recommendation, remarked on finishing it: "What was that?" Well, amongst much else, one of the most penetrating explorations of Russia's ambiguous poise between being European and being Asian, and seen from the perspective of the structures of different patterns of consciousness rather than simply cultural history.

I bought the selected poems of H.D. because I came across her recently in a book on the 'occult' in literature and it sparked my interest; and, I am drawn like the proverbial moth to neglected voices in literature (especially from 'my' period - the 1890's - 1945).

Finally I bought 'Dancing at the Edge of the World' - an essay collection of Ursula K. Le Guin - because I have not read her non-fiction before (except the occasional review in The Guardian) and because she is my second favorite living writer. Since both one and two (and there is as yet in my mind no three) are both 'getting on', I better think of replacements - they will need discovery! I know you are supposed to surrender the notion of 'best friends' outside of primary school but there is something irredeemably comforting about having favorite writers!

At lunch I read Le Guin's review of C.S. Lewis' 'The Dark Tower' and makes a compelling comparison between Lewis and Tolkien in under a page. Lewis projects 'evil' outside and seeks to destroy it, Tolkien sees evil as the shadow of the good and it is necessary for redemption. It is Gollum, Frodo's mirror image, who finally brings the ring to destruction (in a way far more ambiguous than in the film). Lewis is continually betraying his better instincts out of a too conventional Christianity, Tolkien, possible because he is a Catholic, is freer to serve his imaginative instinct. Le Guin is neither but she gets the contrast between cerebral and visceral religion absolutely right. It is a wonder of intelligent compression.



Meanwhile, I am happy not to be staying in the Hotel Frank down the road. It is subject of a labour dispute and four pickets, two with megaphones, are circling outside with a repetitive chant that echoes through the air. In New York, construction workers had set up giant inflatable rats to make the point about their employers. I hope they both work.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Homeless in San Francisco



At first you think there is a surprising number of people drinking coffee at street corners In San Francisco until you realize that is their collecting cup and they are soliciting for alms. San Francisco appears to have a serious homeless problem: people are thick on the ground. Sadly, several people I saw were obviously mentally ill - one woman separating people down the street, like a boat cutting waves on the sea, obviously deeply disturbed. Another black man, dread-locked, sitting on the kerb energetically talking to himself or some imagined other.

It is both sad and disappointing.

For someone of my age and disposition, this is a legendary city. I am not old enough to be a 'child' of the Sixties, but I did inherit its breaking dreams, that haunted the 70s and beyond. I learned meditation at the feet of the Maharishi, well at least one of his long haired, Afghan coated, students. I read my first gay literature mostly emanating from here especially Armistead Maupin. The culture, as imagined here, carried hope for a greener, more tolerant, peaceful world. 

That it sowed many fruitful seeds is a truism, that it seems to be now singularly failing the most vulnerable - the mentally ill and dispossessed - is a shadow cast on that fruitfulness (and undoubtedly my wholly unrealistic image of it)! Though I expect, like Oxford, it may attract people precisely as it is seen as, at least, a charitable place. It is 'good patch' as one homeless person described it (Oxford) to a friend.


However, it does seem to be the measure of our failure to embody a just society: our treatment of this most vulnerable of groups and in a society of such obvious resources it is doubly disappointing (as it is in the UK). Charity is never enough.

It is undoubtedly a beautiful city, wrapped around this extraordinary hill bounded bay. I walked from my hotel through Chinatown (even the local public library is a Chinese one) with its corner food shops, eating places and antique shops with dusty Buddhas and crumpled scrolls down to Fisherman's Wharf and its fabulous view of the Golden Gate Bridge and of Alcatraz prison and I dangled my hands in the Pacific. 

I am looking forward to exploring it in the intervals between work. 



Tuesday, July 17, 2012

To End All Wars

You are the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium in 1914. You are a campaigning woman, a socialist, a suffragette and a pacifist.

What do you have in common? You are brother and sister and share a deep, abiding affection even as you discount each other's opinions.

The central conceit of Adam Hochschild's book, 'To End All Wars' is to explore such divided loyalties in response to the First World War. He focuses on the British response and weaves detailed, particular biographies through a brush stroke account of that terrible conflict.

The book captures, but does not explain, how the war came to be fought with such opening enthusiasm and the continuous commitment to the sacrifice of thousands upon thousands. It is compellingly strange this euphoria of war and how many, opposed to it in concept, were converted. The ecstasy of belonging seduced in quite remarkable ways. Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette, went from branding war (in the pre-war years) a male conceit, wasteful and ridiculous, to a violent patriotic support of the engulfing conflict. This may have been part pragmatic - winning the women's vote by displaying their patriotic support for war - but the violence of her support betrayed other, deeper emotions.

But the book's deepest sympathy is retained for those whose conviction withstood the wave of euphoria and held fast to the principles of peace and a more reasoned solidarity.

You realize that solidarity for many was embedded in socialism: a seeking after a just order and one of Hochchild's key protagonist is the veteran Labour leader, Keir Hardie, whose dream of solidarity was shattered by the war, stripping him of his health and leading to his death.

In the arid field of current political debate, his life of commitment and sacrifice is a rebuke. Hardie's was a Christian socialism and it is with sadness that I recognize that it is a strand of political thought that is now marginal at best and yet what heirs of thought it has in its history.

It struck me that we resist our capacity to be carried away by the lie of conflict only by embracing a reasoned path towards a shared solidarity and the passion to commit to it and yet something other: the imagination that creates a common empathy. This is a demanding discipline that is why a genuine socialism (to amend a quote of the monk Thomas Merton) may only be possible in a monastery (for which read an intentional community).

It is securing paths towards intentional communities that is one way forward towards peace. It is noticeable that those that bore a black and white version of the world; however, subtly expressed (like Kipling's), even, as in the case of Pankhurst, one that could flip over were seduced by the over and against solidarity of war. Whereas, in contrast, those whose thought dwelt in the complexity of colour were better inoculated against its seductive stridency.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Aborigines in Seattle



Bush Hen Dreaming Sandhill Country

Today I went to the Seattle Art Museum in search of paintings by Morris Graves and Mark Tobey and happily found them except all the Graves were early ones (from the 1930s), magical as they were, I still have to find one of his translucent late flower paintings, meditatively still, luminously beautiful.

However, the main event was unexpected: a major exhibition of modern Aboriginal Art.

On first look, it appears to the untrained eye as 'abstract' but closer inspection (and helpful contextualization) reveals that this is painting embedded in place and that place is always particular, dynamically unfolding and of a communal and sacred imagination. They can always be read at different levels - for everything has multiple levels of story interwoven.

What struck me so powerfully was how within Aboriginal culture, each group has its own individual pattern of making, using different (if overlapping) forms and materials; and, each is part of a vivid living culture that dances in the viewer's sight and heart. The wealth of the different forms was extraordinary given that each and every Aboriginal tribe is relatively small. The world may be dreamed into existence but at the heart of that dreaming is a weaving, dynamic dance - indeed one of the films on show was of one of the featured artists (and his companions) dancing a work into being that consisted of sculpted painted poles between which the dance evolved.

This reminded you that each and every painting lived in a communal pattern of meaning. It emerges out of a shared space: human, animal and landscape. It had the same sense of standing in a fresco-ed church and being informed by a narrative space that is shaped not only by physical form but also sacred action. Indeed more than one painter confessed an allegiance to Christianity and to the Dreaming. You could see why - they have the same task at hand revealing the world as sacrament, embedded in a sacred ordering.


The sheer colour and energy that were the paintings was enlivening and you left buoyed up by hope that such making was still possible in the world.


But among the works was recognition of the costs born by Aborigine communities - this is not art born out of unworldly serenity but hard fought affirmation in the face of hostility and neglect.As this painting makes clear:




Horso Creek Massacre


Here the white helmeted figures are the Australian militia who in the late nineteenth century killed a number aborigines when they had driven off bullocks being brought onto the land by ranchers. The tree in the centre appears to weep and a gashing wound appears on one of the hills. Place has memory and this stark story is added to its realities.


I went from this exhibition into the contemporary gallery but this, I fear, looked strikingly insipid by comparison: a painfully held together collection of uncertain pieces belonging nowhere except in a gallery (and the minds of their creators).

Friday, July 13, 2012

The 'atheist' priest

It was 9 am: the first lecture of  the day. A small class at the head of which was a tall, hunched elderly figure with thinning grey hair and a scalp that deposited flakes of dried skin onto the shoulders of his bulky, black polo neck sweater. His face was florid from a fondness for drink and indeed his breath permanently carried more than a tinge of gin.

He began to speak: his words were bright, hard, incisive and often funny. He was lecturing on Wittgenstein and this complex and in equal measure alluring and off-putting thinker, came alive, not only as a carrier of knowledge about but as a philosopher who genuinely challenged and teased your assumptions about the world and life.

Cyril was a tour de force: a maverick Irish Jesuit priest, he taught for many years at the University of Warwick and traveled to us (in London) once a week. He had lived for many years outside any Jesuit community, in the Society but a free spirit, drawing his own salary and owning his own house and accumulating an art collection (bequeathed after his death to the University) of an extraordinary nature. He had known many of the significant artists in the UK in the post-war period. There was a Francis Bacon in his loo and even the ceramic ash trays were by Picasso. He picked things up, often when the artist went unrecognized, often to help them out.

I used to have lunch with him at his club, the Savile Club, which he had joined as a bet with a friend, imagining that they would turn down a Jesuit priest as a member. They did not.

I found myself remembering him yesterday when I found myself attending a private view in a gallery on Fifth Avenue. It was a very vivid moment of remembrance, sparked I think by a contrast. It was a very familiar scene - the art on the walls being thoroughly ignored by the majority of people who stood around talking to each other, consuming the just good enough wine and the canapes, but then a person enters who genuinely looks, inhabiting virtually a parallel universe. In this case, it was a beautifully dressed, patrician like, elderly woman who progressed through the room, looking and seeing what was there.

Cyril was the Reader in Aesthetics at Warwick and it was conversations with him that were my first attempts to clarify what and how to look at art.He helped bring me to my own mind about what I was seeing and how and an ability to judge quality (distinct from what I may or may not like). The contrast of the woman looking against a backdrop of social networking reminded me of him, as did the wry thought of the shambolic Cyril progressing through this particular gallery space inhabited by the polite and the beautifully attired, quaffing the wine in cupfuls and making vigorous observation. 


He did like to shock. He once introduced himself to one group of earnest young Catholic students from the US, whom he was to teach, 'Hello, I am Fr Cyril and I am an atheist'. He was making a serious point - that God is not a thing among other things, only bigger, but no-thing out of which all existing things are created. If we have existence, the being of God must be non-existence. The delight of Cyril's style (and capacity as a teacher) was that by the end of the course all the American students, after their initial shock, were thinking about their faith in ways that made the choice for (or against) it an intelligent one, rather than one made in complacency.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Harlem

When I first visited New York, it would not have occurred to me to visit Harlem for its reputation and my timidity. It was the early 90s, crime was high in New York (though already on a downward trend) and anger was high, justifiably, at Harlem's poverty and exclusion.

Times have changed: the poverty is still here but there are palpable signs of regeneration and change. I am sitting in one, the friend's apartment I have borrowed, in a block built in collaboration with one of Harlem's many churches. The block brings new professionals into the area and it expands the churches ability to provide facilities and services to the neighbourhood. Incidentally it has fabulous views looking downtown across Manhattan. Harlem has many churches - big and small - in diverse buildings offering Jesus in various kinds of packaging as the route to salvation (found here only). Poor Jesus a universal highway of hope turned into so many toll roads of exclusion (even if all roads eventually lead to Rome...metaphorically speaking)!

Out for a walk yesterday, the poverty is evident. The shops are mostly singly owned, not chains, and cater for a poorer demographic, with interesting cultural markers: cheap gold jewelry, tattoos and Reggae being much in evidence. There was one splendidly tattooed large African American lady at a street side stall, selling scarves, hats and cheap sunglasses whose whole skin lit up with moving imagery as she swayed and talked.

From time to time, you hit pockets of new affluence, like the French restaurant in a line of three upmarket eating establishments that I ate at yesterday evening. Near the metro station, opposite Marshalls (the only sign of  global shop chain life I saw), their clientele was significantly more racially mixed than the surrounding streets and you realize that 'regeneration' can often simply mean 'replacement' as poorer people are displaced by incoming folk finding 'cheaper' places to nest and like cuckoos pushing out  the'weaker'.

The staffing of the restaurant was, however, a sign of continually changing demographic. The owner was white (and French) and the staff were black - no immediate surprise there except the staff were all French speaking from Haiti and Senegal as far as I could tell. A melting pot continues on - even if the racial divide continues resistant.

The verdict is out in Harlem and the key to success will be (as usual) the provision of social housing in sufficiently robust numbers and quality to maintain balance (as was apparent for the strategy in central Mexico City I saw earlier in the year).

I walked home through Marcus Garvey park where a very racially mixed group of musicians were preparing to play (a very loud) concert  and a young woman was very volubly and colourfully letting her boyfriend have whole chunks of her mind down the other end of her cellphone!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Byzantium

The world would have been different had it fallen. If the Arab assault had succeeded in the seventh century and the city of Constantinople had fallen, Europe may have surrendered to Islam and taken a very different course in its development. There is a novel of virtual history there to be written!

This is a central thesis of Judith Herrin's excellent book on the history of Byzantium: because it survived 'we' the reader is shaped in a particular way (either in 'the West' or in ' Rest of the World') both through the fact of its survival and by what it offered, as a culture, to the world around it.

It offered a great deal not least I think the veneration of the image. Had it fallen - a narrower perception of the image would have prevailed - the Islamic view accentuating the Hebraic commandment against graven images would have dominated (and Byzantium itself, in the Iconoclastic controversy, wavered towards this perspective). Instead a complex and compelling theology of the image was worked out that anchored and justified common practice - images spoke and participated in the reality which they showed forth and a culture was woven whose underlying reality we inherit today. Our visually dominant culture was secured against an aural alternative.

What struck me too is the allure of Constantinople - for eight hundred years every competitor wanted to conqueror it and when it finally fell in 1453, Byzantine Christendom wanted it back (Catherine the Great even schemed of it as the capital of a renewed empire - now that would have been interesting). In the meanwhile it was transformed as the heart of yet another, shorter lived, imperial project.

It is an extraordinary city that I first saw at sixteen approaching it, as you should, from the sea - in this case in the rain of a sodden and cold April day. I fell in love with it - I am afraid it was for me the 'Oriental exotic' and though my view of it was subsequently heavily nuanced more than a touch of that romanticism remains.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Gratitude

Today in the car park on the way into Waitrose, it came to me, as thoughts do, what if I dropped into death now...

and the response was simply what a fantastic life it is...

and it is to be continued in a mode yet to be fathomed...

and my body, mind, spirit broke into a broad smile and bowed in gratitude for the people encountered and the work done...

especially the people ... especially A and A ...

it was one of those priceless and happy moments of sheer gratefulness.


A Cosmic trilogy completed

Perelandra and That Hideous Strength are the second and third volumes of C.S. Lewis' Cosmic trilogy of science fiction novels and I read them while in Italy.

Throughout they are an interesting medley - at one level they are wholly of their time, you feel in the 1940s and 50s both in terms of being transported there but, more vividly, being 'stuck' there (in the form of the language and the social mores), even when you are, as in Perelandra, on Venus, at the dawning of its sentient evolution!

The narrative often strays into argument as if you had slipped into a work of philosophy or Christian apologetics in a way that gives it a 'clunky, unpolished' feel.  It has nothing of the imagination of other worlds entire that his friend, Tolkien, achieves, more a patchwork quilt.

But in reading the cumulative whole, you realise you are in the presence of a myriad-minded man of imaginative depth, real scholarship and a binding sense of purpose.

The novels are books of ideas before they are of story but in Lewis ideas are living entities that make claims on us and are never morally neutral.


And he does have his moments of true poetic writing - in 'That Hideous Strength' there are two that come to mind. A conversation on meaningful marriage that carries at its heart the understanding of 'obedience' as a listening to one another that is grounded in humility and is fully mutual that foreshadows Lewis' own discovery of his late relationship with Joy Davidson. The second is a wonderfully humourous account of Mr Bultitude (the bear) making it over the wall in search of felt honey that beautifully captures a way of seeing and being that might be that of an animal: an appreciation of the world utterly vivid and real and yet framed without words.


And they are incredibly topical, not least in Lewis recognition of the way in which we despoil our own one true home and that ecological crisis (though he does not use the word) is a direct outcome of certain  materialistic and utilitarian assumptions about the world. The great conflict in the novels could be painted in traditional terms between 'good' and 'evil' (and indeed they are - angels and demons do battle through the hands and minds of men and women) but at the heart of 'evil' is 'instrumentality' a belief that things are defined by their 'use' (including ourselves) rather than our being and our beauty. A being and beauty grounded in each particular thing, that can actually only be ever fully loved and known in and for itself.


The use of anything has to be grounded in a hallowing tradition that measures its use against the demands of love and justice that dwell in actual communities.



Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Water, Earth, Fire

Water, Earth and Fire are three films by Deepa Mehta that have ignited controversy both religious and critical. The first kind sees them (rightly) as attacks on religious traditions (and, as often the case, confuses that with attacking religion); the second sees them as blunt instruments that fail to do justice to the complexity of social lives in colonial and post-colonial India.

I brought them with me to Italy to re-watch on long hot nights whilst waiting for the air to cool sufficiently to allow for sleep.

For the second kind of criticism, I have sympathy. Her worlds are drawn in black and white - we know whom to sympathize with and whom to deplore and the history is often badly drawn. There is a dinner party in Earth, for example, seeking to explain 'Partition' whose characters are constructed of cardboard after the manner of caricature; and, the way in which the inter-religious friends disintegrate in the face of the tensions of partition seem too hurried and ill thought out.

Yet with the first kind of criticism, I have less sympathy partly because they are equally adept at painting portraits in only black and white and, therefore, should recognize a sister in arms (even if an enemy) but mostly because, at heart, there is an attempt to sensitively portray a clash between 'religious tradition' and 'conscience'. If 'Earth' and 'Fire' do this clumsily, 'Water' the last film made in the series, works beautifully, perhaps because in choosing the treatment of widows, she has chosen ground that wins our sympathy immediately because the injustice of their treatment is so clear (it is not obscured by the complex ground of sexuality and gender (Fire) or the politics of Partition (Earth)).

At heart, the film is a struggle between 'conscience' and 'tradition' and is aptly caught at the end when Gandhi briefly appears. He is at the railway station having been released by the British (it is 1938) and declares that he was brought up believing that God is Truth but had come to realize that Truth is God. God is so often held captive by those for whom religious tradition is a happy substitute for ever meeting God. The truth demands a careful, often painful, sifting and testing against the challenges of both compassion and justice; and, speaks out of and into a stillness and quiet we rarely allow ourselves; and, as any good Quaker knows, builds slowly, is tested in community and requires love. You can see why certain adherents to religious tradition find conscience so difficult!

In spite of flaws, Mehta is on the side of the angels.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Changing times in Urbino



Today it was over the mountains to Urbino. Grace was on my side as the only vehicles I met going there or back, around hairpin bends to startling heights (and drops), were all going the other way. Urbino is a university city, the size I would guess of my beloved Durham, and it is quaint to see the Department of Inorganic Chemistry housed in a building from the fifteenth century, when their forerunners would have been practicing alchemy, chemistry with wings...

The central attraction is the Ducal Palace, now the principal gallery of the Marche region, and a stunning building, light capacious rooms of high, vaulted, decorated ceilings and now (as then) hanging art. The prize of the collection is this painting above by Pierro della Francesca that had been moved from its usual place to participate in an exhibition on the Renaissance view of the 'ideal city'. It was an exhibition that, pardoning the pun, did not hang together. It was undecided as to whether it was an art historical drag through the way the city was depicted in Renaissance art or (more interestingly) what the Renaissance thought a city was for. The former won sadly.

But this painting is very strange because the central narrative: Christ being flogged before the crucifixion is placed at the back and to the foreground are three men, variously identified. The traditional view is that it is a complex allegory concerning the fall of the Byzantine Empire that happened twenty years before it was painted; however, it is wholly modern in allowing Christ to appear in a picture not as the central figure and as an allegory relating to some other event (rather than the other way around).

Religion is essential but God is not pervasively central. The authors of the painting: Pierro and its commissioners would have, I expect, denied this but the signature of a monumental change in consciousness is imprinted on it.

There were three other pieces that held my attention.

The first were two paintings of the crucifixion by Antonio Alberti da Ferrara where I noticed that St John the Beloved Disciple is the same man in both, by which I mean the same model. I expect this happens all the time but I rarely notice it and am willing to wager that it is a self-portrait. There is something embarrassed about it as if its author is struck by the humility of offering his body for a saint.

The second was a painting  by Joos Van Wassenhove of the Last Supper as an act of communion - Jesus is depicted as if a priest, not sitting at table, but before the altar distributing bread to the first ever communicants, the Apostles.

The third was a painting by Carlo Crivelli or known to me as Creepy Crivelli. He is a very strange, I think, disturbed painter, you have to look carefully to notice this but here it was again (if only in my imagination): a Pieta, the dead Christ and his Mother, his Mother to his left with her hand tenderly on his breast, except it is n't, that is where it usually is iconographically, but here it is lower down as if slipping under his gown, his modesty. He had a very unhealthy relationship with death, I feel!

The wounded celebrant

I was once accused by an Anglican Benedictine Abbot of, "being a victim of my own articulacy". This stung because I suspect it wa...