Thursday, May 31, 2012

Leaving home to enlighten at 40



Sadhu Videhi is an Indian sannyasi: a wandering monk. He surrendered a successful professional career as a clinical psychologist, renounced everything and carrying a shoulder bag, two spare pieces of cloth and a begging bowl, walked away from home at the age of 40.


He took the name of Sadhu, the Hindu name for a renunciate (although he would not call himself a Hindu) and took the name Videhi meaning "no body" as a reminder that we are not the body. He was barefoot and trusting in the love of God and inspired by the example of his guru Jesus, and the Hindu tradition of sannyasi, he stepped into a whole new experience. 


Coming from a wealthy family he had never walked barefoot, slept rough or been short of money, but he says he has never regretted his decision, even for a minute, and has rarely been hungry. He acknowledges the first year was very difficult - he had a huge ego and begging for food was very challenging, particularly when he was refused with a gesture of dismissal. As a sannyasi he could only beg for food five times a day so if five people refused him he would eat nothing that day. He was also required to stay no longer than three nights in any one place.


Throughout his life Sadhu had been a seeker, studying different faiths and practising meditation and yoga. He determined while wandering to experience for himself the richness of all religions by living with people of different faiths, coming to understand and know the truth at the heart of all traditions. 


Now, after twelve years of wandering, having completed his "training" as a sannyasi, Sadhu Videhi is eager to establish a totally inclusive, interfaith ashram in India, Sarwa Dharma Ashram (Sarwa meaning "all" and dharma meaning "teachings") where he can share his wisdom, knowledge, compassion and love with his students. It will be an ashram for spiritual seekers of all faiths and will focus on the teaching of meditation and Indian spirituality.


Yesterday it was a privilege to meet him at a small gathering at a friend's house, overlooking her radiantly beautiful garden. He had been invited to England by another acquaintance, who it was a pleasure to see after a significant lapse of time. Sadhu is giving a series of talks and retreats both here and in Germany.


It was a wonderful occasion. He talked with great simplicity and intelligence of who we are and why we might meditate and took us through a simple, beautifully structured introduction to Insight meditation. He was  one of those people who radiated a real, and hard won, calm, that you felt sat on a real depth of understanding and compassion.


It is a long time since I had meditated in a group, and had forgotten how it can deepen your own stillness into silence, as you quietly observed your breath and the arising and passing away of thought.


The accompanying picture is of the memorial at Saccidananda Ashram  to Fathers Monchanin and Griffiths. It is near Shantivanam that Sadhu Videhi presently lives, and in whose path he sits, though he has radicalized it by making it universalist. May his endeavours be blessed and Sarwa Dharma Ashram come to pass.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On a Deserted Shore



'On a Deserted Shore' is a sequence of 130 short poems by Kathleen Raine searing to memory her relationship with the naturalist and writer, Gavin Maxwell, following his death.

It is not memorialised through detail for that one must read her Autobiographies but through a meditation on love and loss, on the soul and its relationship with embodiment and the beyond, on the offerings we make to one another and the guilt of our failure to fulfil the grace and mystery of those offerings.

It is, I think, one of the finest long sequences of poems in English in the Twentieth century and her testament as poet.

I read it first at school and read it with a philosophical eye, dispassionately, probably noting how its underlying spirituality is what I understood as neo-Platonism!

Reading it yesterday evening in the Agenda volume that is a tribute to Kathleen, it struck, and struck home, with a very different sense of depth and resonance.

Midway in my own life, I find questions of both origin and departure equally arresting. As Jung notes, it is now, in mid-life, that you must find a way of accomplishing a living narrative, felt and real, for whither I have come, who I am, and where do I go?

By now I have accumulated some encounter with grief, with its persistence, with the way that its tracks guide one's own; and, with its companion love that has been won and lost, by which I have been carried along and borne along.

Such that lines as these, take on a new significance:

"Grief's metamorphoses:
Anguish, small pregnant seed,
Becomes a worm that gnaws through years
At last quiescent lies; not dead;
Till waking, what winged impulse takes the skies?"

That the person loved and lost in passing time yet through time becomes, as eternity presses nearer, the veil lifts, to you, as they are, continually present, in that presence that is always now. People become winged, themselves, not your burning loss of them, and burnish brighter in a different kind of remembering. As my mother did recently, waking one morning, to find her long dead father utterly present to her mind and knowing all that he felt and was, a complete picture of his wholeness.

"In heart's truth I declare
What most I fear
To find beyond death's veil:
Not legendary hells of ice and fire
But a face too merciful
For my own devil-peopled soul to bear."

This an absolute summation of how I feel as you look at yourself honestly - all the cumulated sins of commission and omission - that will be, are greeted in a forgiveness that is so pure that in "God there is no forgiveness" (to quote Julian of Norwich). My bravado could face a punishing devil, my bravery cannot compete with an all merciful God and wants to run and hide!

These can only be glimpses of the cumulative whole of this remarkable sequence but one other strand bears mentioning (and does bring me back to the underlying Platonism) that is the sense that they were indeed 'given' to one another to live out (or fail to) a mystery of love betwixt one another; and, the implication is that we all are. Think of it though not (as here) a grand transaction of love but of the daily passage to and fro of life: each person I meet on my way is a gift, an offering, to which I can respond in joy (or not).

And how fabulous it is when you meet this attitude in the daily round, like the wonderful Jamaican woman at the bus station in Hammersmith on Monday who noticing I was studying the wrong map jovially called me over and sent me on my way, with such obvious pleasure in her job, in her life, as if my confusion was a gift to her (as it was).

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Brook Green Suite



I have loved this gentle, evocative suite of music from Gustav Holst since I first heard it performed when I was a student. It is music I want played at my funeral capturing a particular sense of place in time. It was composed for Holst's pupils at St Paul's Girl's School that overlooked the Green. A piece of music sufficiently complex to challenge them, yet suitable to play and be played well. Though it was written in 1933, at the end of his life, for me it captures a sense of that serenity (seen only in retrospect perhaps) that was the time that immediately preceded the First World War: pastoral, idealistic, hopeful.

Holst is an under appreciated composer, overshadowed by his most famous work: the Planets and by his friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was a serious student both of heterodox Christianity and Hindu tradition (attempting to learn both Greek and Sanskrit so he could read texts in their original) and blended religious interest and socialism in a way that was uniquely of these Isles (and of its time).

Yesterday, I managed for the first time to pass 'Brook Green' on the bus from Barnes to Shepherd's Bush. Strangely, though I knew differently, it had never occurred to me that it was an actual place! It seemed yesterday, as I passed, a cool oasis of green in a sultry city.




Saturday, May 26, 2012

Annals of the Western Shore

"Le Guin writing for children is more thought provoking than most people writing for adults," declared Publishing News reviewing 'Gifts', the first volume in her trilogy, 'Annals of the Western Shore'.

It is statement of simple truth. Reading the last in the trilogy, 'Powers', I am struck again at how quietly brilliant she is. The simplicity of her short sentences that cumulatively build an envisioned, believable world populated by real people living contexts that invite you to think and feel through urgent questions.

In each of three volumes here, the central question revolves around how do we manage our unique vocations is such a way that honours the truth of each particular difference we carry and contributes to the flawed social worlds we inhabit? What is the art of wise compromise between the two and what are its edges? When does wise compromise become folly to surrender and conformity?

It is a question that we all must ask: how to honour our gifts, that call within towards, to use Jung's phrase, an individuated life and the hard realities of the world?

You can always 'hear' in Le Guin's work her deep reading in philosophical Taoism - she is a translator of the Tao Te Ching - in each of us is the urgency of a call to be a unique embodiment of Tao and the deeper our response the more likely that we are to contribute to a right, natural ordering of society. If Confucius worked from the 'outside in', Lao Tzu worked from the 'inside out'. Genuine harmony is born of selves that honour their unique vocation.

There is too a deep emphasis placed on the importance of story - not story as a binding scriptural narrative but as a weaving of texts that offer abiding insights on how we might fashion meaningful lives. Here too perhaps is a 'Chinese' element - the notion of multiple traditions that offer a storehouse of shared possibilities, enterprises after knowing, rather than a conforming binding knowledge.

'Powers' traces the coming of age of Gavir, who has secretly held precognitions of the future, and is a slave. It tells of the slow dawning consciousness of the possibility of freedom over his inheritance of a life in spite, initially, its apparent caring comfort. It traces the trajectory of every one: how do we discover our own lived life, our own version of freedom? And how do we utilise our particular gift in both securing that freedom and contributing to the meaningful life of others.

Le Guin's body of work is an extended, highly variegated, exploration of what a genuinely free society might look like. It would be shaped by appropriate scale - the autonomy of discrete communities - that acknowledge the limits of inhabiting a natural world that is honoured for its beauty as well as its use. It would be a world that is anchored in a recognition of our diverse gifts and each person's ability to cultivate their unique offering and contribute it. It would live in a complex of story that embodies and memorises wisdom but does not seek to control our understanding of truth. Truth would be always a living aspiration, more revealed in our treatment of one another than in 'what we know'. It could always be added to - both by its re-telling, our telling one another its stories, and by our adding to it. It is a 'classical' ideal (both Chinese and Greek) and one that is deeply attractive.

Together with Wendell Berry, with whom, whilst occupying very different spaces, she shares much in common, I can think of no other living writer whom I more deeply admire.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Living Time










Maurice Nicoll was an early colleague of Jung's, a life long friend of Ouspensky's and one time pupil of Gurdjieff's at Fontainebleau. Professionally he was a distinguished neurologist and psychologist who towards the end of his life took typewriter ribbon to paper and produced a remarkable series of books of which Living Time is an exemplary example.


The style of writing is paradoxically both dry, measured, restrained and completely captivating not least because of the lucidity with which it deals with, and illustrates, a complex subject matter, resistant, as St Augustine knew, to being talked about namely time (and eternity).


He is essentially an empirical neo-Platonist by which I mean his highly developed understanding of a Platonic understanding of a hierarchical universe defined through levels of consciousness is coupled with a desire to ground this in explicit (and contemporary) explorations of consciousness.


So, for example, Ramsey's (and William James') famous experiments with ether are allowed to prompt an entry point into the less familiar understandings of Plato and the Hermetica.


Most interesting to me, on this reading, was the emphasis on both how genuine transformation can only come from 'ideas from above' and how recognizing the 'above' as an actual dimension is the first step to receiving such ideas, is indeed one of those ideas. 


We cannot reason ourselves into changing using the evidence of our senses because, as Plato knew, this is merely speculative. The senses give us a world modeled to our senses and, thus, is naturally limited by them. The material reason has to work on and shape is only a fragment of the whole, though an especially alluring one. We can rearrange the deck chairs, through reason, into a more acceptable configuration but we are still on the Titanic!


Nicoll stresses the importance of 'cosmology' in which an understanding of 'time' and 'eternity' is critical because if we are to be lured into transformation, we need to live in a 'world' where transformation is genuinely possible,

This captured for me my uneasiness with 'spirituality' as seen as an internalized, private set of happenings freed of 'religion' - a binding account of how things are (even if imperfectly understood) - because as Nicoll remarks about Jung, this can become a mere shuffling of the pack of our emotional life towards modest re-balancing and if our time horizon is only 'this life', seen as a limiting period of passing time, we may think that there is no time (and no point) to attempt the significant work of change implied by the high inheritance that Plato suggests, and Christianity extends, of being made in the image and likeness of God and being able to fully live in God's time, that is eternity.

I recall one afternoon's meditation session when this became glimmering apparent. I was kneeling on my stool, the September sun on my face, peacefully alert, when I realized that 'I' was not dead. This (from a passing time point of view) was obvious - I was breathing, I was hungry - but what I resonated with was a deep, freed sense that 'I' could not die, that everything that mattered about 'I' was, is, and always will be alive. 'I' was an inhabitant in the mind of God and thus free of death. This was momentary, though how long does a moment last, but I notice freeing. This 'idea from above' that came to me loosened (though certainly not entirely or completely) the grip of my growing, middle aged, periodic 'death panic' - either 'what next?' or 'nothing next?'. There is no next for 'I' because this 'I' is eternally present.

How that might be understood more deeply is the quest of Nicoll's book. It is an adventure in ideas beyond the scope of the ordinary.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

To live in the mercy of God






    Bedtime reading are late poems by Denise Levertov. They are beautiful, complex yet ultimately simple and lucid of which this is an example.  A fusion of natural observation and transcendence from this confessing, renegade Catholic.

To Live in the Mercy of God by Denise Levertov

To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
rise, rise
               before ribs of shelter
                                           open!

To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
moss bed.

And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
                      Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.

To float, upheld,
                as salt water
                would hold you,
                                        once you dared.
         
                  .

To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured

waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
                              to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
                                                   O or Ah
uninterrupted, voice
many-stranded.
                              To breathe
spray. The smoke of it.
                              Arcs
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?
                              Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
                      flung on resistance.




Saturday, May 19, 2012

From religion to spirit

It is a book I have lived with for years, and have given to several people, but thought I ought to read it rather than only dwell on its images, though what images!

Theodore Wolff's 'Morris Graves: Flower Paintings' is a fabulously beautiful book and seeks to account for a journey in painting from here...


to here:


From the Wounded Gull of 1943 to the Winter Bouquet (flowering quince, rosehaws, narcissus, winter rose and camelia) of 1977.

It is a journey from disturbance to serenity, from a painting of symbolism to one of particular presence and from a painting infused with religion to one of opened spirit.

Wolff dwells on the painterly characteristics of this transformation and does so sympathetically but it is apparent that a dimension is missing, namely the metaphysics of the unfolding art. That Graves was not consciously programmatically engaged with this is true, that he was personally engaged with it is equally true. Graves was educated in the metaphysic of both Vedanta and Zen, was practiced in meditation and his art is a practiced contemplation.

Wolff quotes Graves telling his biographer, Ray Kass, "I painted 'religious pictures' until I tired of the 'blat' of it!" ... (and in his flower paintings) ... "I have stopped trying to say anything - there is no statement or message other than the presence of the flower and the light - that is enough."

This compressed paragraph immediately put me in mind of the Flower sermon of the Buddha that gave rise to zen. Ascending the teaching dais one day, the Buddha is given a flower, rather than preach, the Buddha simply held it out, proffering it to his disciples, and one, Mahakasyapa, smiled!

Tiring of the preaching of the way of liberation, and the 'blat' of it, the Buddha offered the direct transmission of seeing a flower as itself, a liberated presence, and one of his disciples, saw.

The Wounded Gull is a powerful painting, full of the symbolism of a world broken, maimed, resonant of its time (1943) and with the internal fracture of the painter but it preaches. It is not a wounded gull, in the simplicity of the accident and pain of its breaking: the gull stands aside for something else to be seen (however compassionate the actual portrayal).

Winter Bouquet is a gentle painting that stands for itself. Each flower is named in its particular vivid and transient presence. The flowers are compassionately seen, and loved, as flowers. They stand for nothing, simply are.

Both are a making of high accomplishment from an artist whose life was a journey into seeing in which a splintered world is made whole and in which the surfaces are revealed as co-determinous with the depths: where the bridging of symbol, the binding of religion, gives way to images in the translucence of spirit. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

On beauty



Lake Pedder in Tasmania, here shown before it was flooded by a highly controversial hydro-electric project, is the opening focus of John Griffin's 'On the Origin of Beauty: Ecophilosophy in the Light of Traditional Wisdom'.

Its destruction as a place whole and beautiful - and the virtual absence in the argument about that destruction of the consideration of its beauty - is the starting point of Griffin's searching, lucid and articulate book.

It is a compelling defence of the traditional understanding of beauty - that beauty is inherent in the nature of the world and that our capacity to see this is dependent on the quality of our consciousness. If we see aright, we see beauty because our seeing is in harmonious accord with the sacred reality of the world, as the divine gift in which the divine sees itself reflected. The more beautiful our living space, the more likely we are in accord with the sacred.

The occlusion of this way of seeing has been through replacing the priority of the intellect as a direct, intuitive perceiving of the real with the fantasy of reason that the 'true world' can be seen indirectly through the manipulation of quantification. This use of ratio and number has been exceptionally powerful - witness the outcomes of science and technology - but it has come at a cost - our fantastic ability to manage ourselves free of the limits of the world that is now fracturing us in a world of climate change and resource constraint.

But as this fantasy of reason has advanced, its actual purchase on our understanding of the world has grown weaker and weaker - possibly Griffin's best chapter is on how as we have penetrated the quantum world, our customary tools of mathematics and our customary assumption that the world is 'out there' and exists independently of our consciousness (and that our ways of understanding are value neutral rather than, in fact, choices) have crumbled. We are at a genuine scientific impasse - and though business continues as usual, the wheels have, in fact, fallen off the intellectual bus (as they have of the global bus). The bus, however, keeps on sliding down the hill: we think of this as progress, where as, in fact, it is more likely a slipping towards the abyss.

I was reminded of a conversation in a kitchen at university where a physics student tried to persuade me that the 'fundamental' reality of the cooker was that it was composed of protons, neutrons and electrons. I maintained that you could equally argue that the 'fundamental' reality of the cooker was that it made my dinner! Protons, neutrons and electrons appear to have collapsed into a welter of yet more exotic 'fundamental' particles, probabilities and waves. Meanwhile, I am still cooking my dinner!

More seriously, is what presents itself to us in our consciousness the starting point for all reflection or is it in abstraction? Griffin argues for the former whilst recognising that our consciousness itself has a hierarchy of awareness. That hierarchy has is most compelling description in traditional patterns of religion, recognised in their esoteric fullness; and, here, described by the Traditional School of Rene Guenon et al.

Ecological awareness is dependent here on a recognition of the creation's dependency on dwelling in the divine - and that we, as humans, are most likely to steward the creation if we see it as gift, whole and beautiful - because in so seeing it, we reach the apex of what it means to be human - a light of the divine mirrored in the beauty of nature and of what we create out of it, beautiful in so far as it reflects its divine making.

This way of seeing gave us (by means of example) the cathedrals of medieval Europe and the complex rice paddies of Bali, both hauntingly beautiful and, in the latter case, yielding three crops, sustainably, a year. It is not a way of seeing that is disposed of lightly.

There is a fascinating recent study from Sweden that looked at the interaction between the residents of a mental hospital and the art that it chose to display on its walls. The only paintings never to be damaged were the landscapes (the paintings that fared the least well were the abstracts). We know, even in our deepest distress, where we arise from and from where our truest healing comes.






Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A marriage of humility and pride

The foundation of Opportunity International UK, whose anniversary celebration I went to this evening, had several critical moments. (www.opportunity.org.uk)

But one I recall was when three of the trustees of the Andrews Charitable Trust and its director (me) went to visit Opportunity's work in Indonesia to assess whether we wanted to be involved. We were in Bengkulu in Sumatra and we were interviewing a client of the local Opportunity partner. He had come from Bali as part of Indonesia's short-lived and controversial policy of dispersing people from intensely populated areas to more rural ones. You got two hectares of land and a ration of rice for eighteen months. Then you were on your own.

This particular client had received a loan to start a fish farm and showed us his ponds with pride. I asked him what he thought of the Opportunity partner that had lent him the money to get started. He replied that they were the first people, ever, in his life, to treat him as a person. The chairman of Andrews turned to me and said that is why we are going to do this (and we did, Opportunity UK was born out of our support). It was not simply that the business of micro-finance stacked up, and it did, for the Sumatran partner was well-managed and competent; but that it worked with people as people, and transformed their lives.

This evening we were showed a film about Agnes, a Ghanian woman, whose business had been made resilient through Opportunity's intervention. Her children, as a result, would finish high school and possible go to university. The money to start the Ghanian partner of Opportunity, I raised. I remember, vividly, a weekend in the office, writing and re-writing the proposal, sealing the combined effort of many dedicated and remarkable people. 

This evening was one of those moments when humility and pride marry into a satisfying whole.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Siddhartha




From the Garden by Hermann Hesse.


I remember reading it a second time the night I awaited my A-level results. I was unable to sleep not because there was any prospect of not securing my university place (I had been given an unconditional offer - the first, apparently, in the lifetime of the College) but because I might have failed my own pride, my own exacting standards.

'It' is Hermann Hesse's most celebrated novel, 'Siddhartha' that on re-reading yesterday evening I re-discovered has much to say about 'pride' - how it conditions the young Brahmin and shapes both the impulse  underlying his spiritual search and the barrier to its attainment. Pride is both necessary for believing in one's chosenness and the barrier we break through to freedom. It is a happy 'blessed fault'. What my first spiritual director, the delightful and rigorous Sr Amelie, would have called 'holy pride' - our faults, seen aright, are instruments of our liberation.

His pride is slowly dismantled by a combination of life and grace until he achieves his final, enlightening surrender - love is at the heart of the world and love is a great leveller - ultimately in brings you to a unity with all things, in all their modes of being: wise and foolish.

I was struck reading it this time that the novel is a hymn to grace, not for nothing was Hesse born a pietist (and remained one all his life though in a different guise). Grace as both the ultimate giftedness of the world: a divine offering in its completeness and in specific moments when it breaks into our attention and offers hope, a new way forward out of our dilemmas.

At the heart of receiving of both comprehensive and particular grace, Hesse suggests, is the art of listening. Siddhartha learns it from the ferryman, Vasudeva, who, in his turn, had learnt it from the river - that being that is ever-present and always changing.

How challenging is that art - fathoming the sounds of our self, the depths of others; and, how to listen, in listening to others, to their unasked, unacknowledged needs as well as to what they say. But it is Hesse suggests a 'key' - the one thing needful to allow ourselves to be apprehended by the truth of things. We cannot, Hesse suggests, think our way into truth, we must listen our way, surrendering our positioning on the way, to be liberated into a place where our position is gifted to us, continually, by the stream of life on which we dance.

It is an exceptionally beautiful book: each re-reading changed by your seeing and by it seeing you in one or more of the many ways implanted in its poetry.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A moment that changed my history



It was a trustees' meeting to decide whether we should support David Bussau establish a branch (in the UK) of what would become Opportunity International (one of the world's largest networks of micro-finance institutions). 


It was clear that some trustees were struggling with the notion of lending money to poor people (at interest) and one of them crystallised the concern by declaring, 'This is Thatcherism' (It was the late 1980s and Muhammed Yunus Nobel Prize was more than a decade away). Neither my chairman nor I (as the director) could thing of a reply. We were stumped and could see our cherished project slide away from us without the necessary consensus to go forward.


But in stepped Canon Eric James, the trust's chaplain, who no one could accuse of Thatcherism.  Indeed as his obituary notes:


 "He was a prime mover behind the Church of England's controversial 1985 report Faith in the City, which indicted the effects of Thatcherism in inner-city areas, and the subsequent setting up of the Church Urban Fund to support its mission in disadvantaged and impoverished communities." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/06/canon-eric-james-obituary).

Eric, quick as light, simply said, 'No, I do not think it is Thatcherism. It is the parable of the talents'! 

The day was won for Opportunity, and my history was transformed. I was propelled into 'development' and into both international travel and living - Macedonia, Indonesia, Russia - all flowed from that moment of Eric's quick wittedness. 

There was an irony here. Opportunity emerged, though it has broadened since, from that evangelical wing of Christianity that thinks that homosexuality is unBiblical and disordered and Eric was gay. He famously 'came out' in a letter to the Church Times that addressed with customary intelligence and compassion that sundering in the Church's life that 'homosexuality' still represents (to the continued bewilderment of much of the 'secular' world). 


Such are the complexities from which the actual world is made: it is an irony that Eric would have understood, would that the more 'absolutists' among us did so to.

He was a great friend - erudite, charming and holy - who was immensely patient with my younger self's insecurities and nurtured my confidence to act in the world.

May he rest in peace.

Friday, May 11, 2012

David's resurrection




A combination of an innate sensitivity and over the counter amphetamines (designed to relieve nose congestion) tipped the poet, David Gascoyne, into the nether regions of mania and breakdown: once in Paris and once in London he was to be arrested trying to bring his message of impending apocalypse and hoped for global redemption to the respective country's head of state (Charles de Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth II respectively). For this he found himself sectioned in mental hospitals.

The last stay was in a hospital on the Isle of Wight, where he was then living, alone, in the house his parents' death had left him with.

Enter Judy, an unhappily married woman, wife of a vet, with an interest in literature, coming to read poetry to the inmates. One poem she chose, describing it as difficult, was by David. After she had finished reading it, a rather shambolic, though well-dressed, tall, stooped man, touched her arm and told her, 'I am David Gascoyne'. 'Of course, you are dear,' she replied but he was!

She loved to tell that story. She had liked his poem, drawn from an anthology, but knew nothing more of him. Now she found herself talking to him and discovering that he was indeed the poet. She quite rapidly discovered that she cared for him and came to love him.

In due course they were married - a marriage of abiding affection and complexity and difference. David after all was homosexual though always responsive to, and in need of, the attention and love of strong women. Judy was exceptionally ordinary - lively, practical, interested - but unlikely to follow, find her way through the depths David had navigated. But it worked - it gave him the care and security he needed and it gave her entrance to a world of literature and life to which she responded with enthusiasm.

I recall, Kathleen Raine, telling me that, of course, Judy could never understand David (and we learn in the biography that she wrote to Judy telling her that the marriage would never work, well, relationships were never her strong suit). At one level this was true but she did understand what he needed and she was happy to offer it, and he cared for her deeply in return. We may never 'understand' the people we love but we may love the venture of trying and of just being with them in the venture.

I liked her very much and I am delighted to possess a copy of his Selected Poems signed by her.

Robert Fraser's biography, I am happy to say, shares this liking and a recognition of her true importance to David and of her's to him. Never has the miracle of being loved by a strong woman yielded a more compelling narrative of renewed life (for both of them).


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Surreal life

He had published his first volume of poems at sixteen and had written what remains a standard introduction to surrealism at eighteen; and, now, a decade after his death, he has a deservedly comprehensive and illuminating biography: 'Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the poet David Gascoyne' by Robert Fraser.

Born in 1916, I have reached the gathering clouds of the Second World War and Gascoyne at 23 already has five well-reviewed volumes behind him but is worried about his productivity. He is right to be so because the mental frailty that haunted his middle years is slowly becoming apparent. It would have a devastating impact on his ability to work, silencing for long periods this most imaginatively gifted of poets.

I keep being struck by realising: I knew that person, as I knew Gascoyne himself, if briefly. So, for example, Gascoyne is described taking a translation of, the 'father' of Surrealism, Andre Breton's work to the publisher, Faber and Faber, where he has a conversation about the possible meaning of certain terms with T.S. Eliot's then secretary: Anne Ridler, herself to become a distinguished poet and translator, and whose silent prayer group I used to attend in her house (when in my twenties) (and about whom, in appropriately surreal fashion I dreamt last night)!

It is a beautifully written book - shrewd in judgement, at turns poignant and humorous - and full of life - that extraordinary period of experimentation in the face of gathering war clouds that was the 30s.

One of the key thinkers that shaped Gascoyne's life was Lev Shestov - the Russian Jewish thinker of the 'arational' - of the God who lies beyond reason and cannot be justified by reason only by faith. I remember discussing him with Gascoyne in the White Hart bar at Dartington Hall (in 1986 at the first Temenos conference) and seeing how necessary a thinker he was to a man who had tasted disintegrating despair, where the world refused to be kind or justifiable, and only a slender thread of faith remained. My knowledge of Shestov was (and indeed remains) minimal - I had read an essay by Milosz, a chapter by Camus and Shestov's own 'Athens and Jerusalem' but was on surer ground when we turned to Buber that second Jewish 'existentialist'. Both had a mind that hallowed the particular, presence, the person in their uniqueness. It occurred to me then that both are 'philosophers' that reached after poetry (Milosz says of Shestov that his turn to thought feels that of a disappointed poet) where 'truth' speaks out of a crystalline moment captured in their particular images.

Here is Snow in Europe written at Christmas 1938 where I have now reached:


Out of their slumber Europeans spun
Dense dreams: appeasements, miracle, glimpsed flash
Of a new golden era; but could not restrain
The vertical white weight that fell last night
And made their continent a blank.

Hush, says the sameness of the snow
The Ural and Jura now rejoin
The furthest Arctic's desolation. All is one;
Sheer monotone: plain, mountain; country, town:
Contours and boundaries no longer show.

The warring flags hang colourless a while;
Now midnight's icy zero feigns a truce
Between the signs and seasons, and fades out
All shots and cries. But when the great thaw comes,
How red shall be the melting snow, how loud the drums!



Monday, May 7, 2012

Greek fiddles

"It was a grave mistake to hold this election in such an atmosphere and time of crisis and before the economy was stabilized," said Keridis. " This result couldn't come at a worse time for Greece."

This quotation from a political scientist at the University of Athens demonstrates precisely Europe's predicament.

It has a superficial truth - the election has destabilised Greece - the results strike me as a negative outpouring, based primarily on fear.

But, at a deeper level, they reveal the deep arrogance of the elite - that they are the only ones capable of dealing with the crisis. They will deal with the crisis but without the inconvenience of seeking any democratic legitimacy. This would require creating the conditions of hope that would elicit that popular support and channelling it in a positive direction. Since they are incapable of this, indeed incapable of seeing the need for this, they wend their technocratic ways over the edge, into the abyss. Meanwhile, the people turn to the siren voices of 'left' and 'right' who are (at present) without solution either (God help us if they 'discover' them)!

Never has the world been more in need of genuine, democratically mandated leadership, sustained by intelligent, humane ideology, in short, a Roosevelt and a Keynes - and they are nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, Greece needs as orderly a default as possible and an exit from the euro for only then can it begin to devalue itself out of a crisis that will be prolonged and painful but then, at least, the country's own responsibility. Hopefully it will be a responsibility that is not overshadowed by the legacy of the civil war and two parties playing, equally irresponsibly, buggins turn. To this the population have turned a blinded eye, until the music stopped, at which point everything became 'their fault' for which 'we' bared no responsibility.




Saturday, May 5, 2012

Confucius and elections

The rectification of government begins in the rectification of names said Confucius. Language is objective or we could not speak said Socrates. Both recognized an intimate connection between truth telling and language striking the world aright.

What then does the abuse of language in everyday life do to the body politic? It undermines it in subtle yet corrosive ways.

I telephone a company. Their line tells me that they are experiencing an unusually high number of calls. The only problem with the message is that this is always the case. The high number of calls is never unusual. In truth, they do not employ sufficient handlers of calls: period. Yet they provide a convenient lie. We meet this repeatedly: it becomes part of the acknowledged fabric of daily life, barely worth a mention, it becomes woven into our expectations of how the world is.

Likewise the company here is telling us indirectly that while pretending to care for us the customer (indeed that is what the department we are calling is often called), in truth what it cares about are its profits. These it puts before all else, and what it asks itself is: what is the minimum of apparent service I can get away with and remain competitive?

I find it more depressing when the person you eventually reach at the end of this process is actually companionable and nice. It is as if we are both abusing ourselves in a system neither us have made. The temptation is then to think that it has been fashioned by 'others' - the top hated capitalists chewing cigars of Soviet fantasy perhaps? Yet we are all, in fact, complicit - I want my pension fund, say, to yield 7% per annum (rather than 5%), otherwise I will not be able to winter in the Algarve, so the cost efficient screws must bear down, so shareholder 'value' can be extracted and on goes the merry go round.

Another example of this is: the politician's refusal to answer a question. This was much in evidence yesterday and ran through the representatives of all the parties represented. They have been trained (indeed I was once trained) to get their message across but as they do so, again in a noticed and accepted manner, we look and think that they are never straightforward. They corrode truth by the manner of their speaking (even if we agree with what they are saying).

And before we come over all self-righteous, however, what happens when an interviewee does grapple with the complexity of an answer and directly address the questioner (rather than the 'audience' with his or her prearranged message), 'we' castigate them for naivety! Witness 'our' treatment of the out-going Archbishop of Canterbury: an exemplary truth teller, whose speech carries its hoped for truthfulness not only in its content but in its form.

Not until we can out and confront the erosion of the fabric of how we speak will we be able to reconnect meaningful discourse around what we say.

Only 30% percent of people went to vote in the UK on Thursday and we talk of people's detachment from the political process but usually in terms of what is being talked about 'gay marriage' say rather than 'jobs' was a common disaffected Tory description. However, what we need to talk about is how things are said as well as what is said: language itself needs to be made an honest tool again. It is, as Confucius recognised, a necessary and never-ending task of scrutiny and correction.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Romantic possibilities

'Romanticism' is another excellent contribution to Phaidon's series on Art and Ideas. It is a difficult concept to define, so wisely David Blayney Brown does not try! His chapters are thematic and demonstrative rather than definitional. To quote Wittgenstein, 'Romanticism' was a form of life in which overlapping strands shared a family resemblance - you recognise it when you see it but cannot capture that seeing in a neat, orderly category.

Romanticism shaped our view of the artist as a vocated individual summoned by genius who projected themselves into a hoped for future or a gilded past to judge (and criticise) the unsatisfactory present. It was a present, the opening of the nineteenth century, that saw an encroaching, and dehumanising, industrialisation, so it exalted nature, the exotic and the 'other' worldly. It confronted the reason of Enlightenment with a renewed, personalised sense of feeling. Reason paradoxically had given rise to the frenzied mobbing of revolution and an authoritarian Empire (of Napoleon) spreading faux liberation. Feeling would bring a deeper recognition of the importance of particular cultures and of place.

If I have a criticism of the book, it is that though it deals with the art (and its social context) in an exemplary fashion, it is more uncertain (and superficial) in its exploration of ideas. It as if we imagined that 'feeling' cannot be a category of knowing, that we agree with Pascal that the heart has its reasons and that reason cannot know these, which is true but we cannot stop there. As Pascal knew and we have forgotten, there is another faculty of the soul that apprehends truth - the intellect and its intuitive knowing. It was a way of knowing that was a heart of the 'Romantic', grounded as it was, in a renewed appreciation of the Platonic, knowing that consciousness is the prior reality in which matter is grounded.

It is the purity of consciousness that truly matters because it is that, to quote Blake, that ensures we see aright.

This is, at the heart, of what Blayney Brown does not see. He sets up the usual contrast between the classical Goethe and the Romantic. But Goethe is not an enemy, not 'classical' in any Enlightenment sense. His critique of Romanticism is not about its rejection of a rational (and mechanistic) way of knowing but in its lack of providing a rigorous alternative, grounded in an intellectually rigorous yet intuitive way of knowing. Romanticism too often slided into exalting feeling. Feeling that had degenerated into sentiment. Feeling was simply emotion, not emotion purified in intellect.

Like the Polish Nobel prize winner, Czeslaw Milosz, I wonder what delight it would have been if the patrician Goethe had met his contemporary the plebeian Blake. They would have understood each other perfectly, in a deep sense, because they recognised that an opposition to the world of Newton's sleep had to be grounded not in mere sentiment (however loudly expressed) but in a renewed imaginative vision, endowed with a deep coherence where intellect marries heart.

Be this as it may, it is an admirable and illuminating survey - I especially appreciated the sections on Goya and Turner and a recognition of their individualistic but deeply felt engagement with the religious and a sound contrast between 'scepticism' and 'atheism'. We all ought to be sceptics about our presumed understanding of religion (and its wider practice) but that should never invalidate the depth of our actual commitment.




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...