Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Righteous Mind

Jonathan Haidt is a cultural and social psychologist at the University of Virginia and he wants to explain three key 'facts' about morality.

The first is that our moral intuitions come first and our reasoning as to why we hold those moral positions second. We react first, think later (as the eighteenth century philosopher, David Hume, proposed).

The second is that there is more to morality than notions of harm and fairness - indeed he offers six patterns of moral intuition on which we weave our moral viewpoints. The four additional ones are liberty, authority, hierarchy and sanctity.

The third is that morality both binds groups together and because of this blinds people to a full appreciation of those who lie outside or beyond 'our' group.

The book is closely argued, intelligent, and written with clarity and humour. It has a practical purpose too as its subtitle reveals: 'Why good people are divided by politics and religion' (though it has to be said that, by way of example in the text, the 'good people' are overwhelmingly American).

It is the second claim that I found personally most interesting - because I think it carries the greatest explanatory power. Haidt's research shows that people of a 'liberal' persuasion tend to base their moral viewpoint on notions of harm and fairness  and tend to oppose it to moral perspectives that take into account authority, hierarchy and sanctity. Meanwhile, conservatives are able to use all five threads in their weaving of morality though they place less emphasis on care and interpret fairness differently to liberals.

Liberals are in a minority in the world and if they are to grow (and be more deeply listened to) they have to find ways of reframing their moral offering in ways that offer wider sense making. Not all authority, hierarchies or sense of bodily sanctity are wrong or wrong headed. They have important and valuable social work to do - we need to think more carefully about them. He quotes President Obama to good effect pointing out that Afro-American men's ability to perform their responsibilities as fathers may be as much about the dismantling of hierarchies of respect as it is about an unfair economic system denying opportunities to blacks. Germany's legislating on bestiality (as it is now) is not only driven (perhaps) by a concern for the welfare of other animals but arises out of beliefs about the propriety and boundaries of acceptable human behaviour: what we do with our bodies counts even when 'no one' is looking.

As with many popular science books, it is the experiments that are fascinating - like the one that shows that the closer one is, physically, to, say, a sink or a latrine (cleanliness/purity) the more likely you are to adopt more conservative, bounded moral view points! You loosen up as you move away and down the corridor!

The book as a whole is a salutary reminder that much of what we do belongs to the elephant (our below conscious processes) rather than to the rider (our reason) which can prod, nudge and direct but only in close collaboration (to use one of Haidt's guiding metaphors),

However, the book has its difficulties:

First it has no account of how we come to be weaving differently from the same foundations. Why is the world growing (very haltingly and with many revisions) towards more 'liberalism', more concern for individual rights, even within worlds where the primary focus is on relationships (rather than freedoms)?

Second, like all accounts from 'evolutionary psychology' the purported 'reasons' why x, y, z are emergent read as remarkably thin when placed against the complexity of the emergent phenomena. This is especially true in his account of the origin of religion. Having taken to task the 'New Atheists' for painting a portrayal of religion as a collection of (mistaken) beliefs about the world, Haidt tells us that it is, in fact, nothing but a mechanism for building morally homogeneous groups (better equipped to collaborate and survive). At which point, you want to throw up your hands saying, 'Please....'!

Third, his account cannot deal with outliers. He tends to dismiss people who spend their whole lives seeking to better the lives of 'others' (people not, at least at the outset, in their group) as kind of casual, eccentric aberrations. This seems neither to do justice to the quantity of such outliers - what after all are all those people working in my own field of development doing - or their quality?

What does Haidt make of saints (even quite humble, unassuming and sinful ones)? To which the answer is nothing.

This, finally, is the book's most obvious flaw - it does not ask itself what our ability for reflection on our processes (conscious/unconscious) actually mean for our potential as persons/societies? It may be true that most of us, most of the time are ridden elephants (or indeed, to borrow from Gurdjieff's metaphor, machines). But sometimes we are not, and we can cultivate and deepen our not being so, but Haidt does not appear to be very interested, sadly.

This is revealed too in his 'straw man' version of Plato (a rather frequent occurrence) where Plato is said to believe in reason's capacity to control desire. Plato thought that it was the faculty of 'intellect' (nous) not reason that was the rider (of a chariot, not an elephant). But of 'nous' there is no sign in Haidt - we only have one level of consciousness (wrapped around in unconsciousness) and must stoically get used to this imprisonment.

However, the saints have a different challenge for us: one which recognises Haidt's description of our current, usual state, and yet offers a path towards transformation - long, difficult and hard - but with proven results in the lives of others, the remarkable men and women, who speak humanity at its finest.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A hidden hand in contemporary culture.

When we think of nineteenth century Russian cultural exports, we tend to think of novelists: Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev (to name the most well known). We do not tend to think of 'occultists' - after all: we might think what have they contributed to the modern world except perhaps fringe entertainment (beyond that is the apparently narrow confines of their followers)?

To which, at the level of history, we might say, 'Indian independence' for a start!

Gary Lachman's recently published biography of 'Madame Blavatsky' is a measured, intelligent account of this extraordinary (and controversial) woman. Even if we discount what she believed - revealed in the dense, extravagant, compelling and long texts that are Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine - and the accounts of the paranormal phenomena that controversially accompanied her life, her life deserves both acknowledgement and gratitude for what it inspired on our usual (mundane) temporal plane.

She, and her 'chum' Colonel Olcott, significantly deepened a rediscovery of Buddhist and Hindu tradition, and Indian self confidence through their works and as two prominent 'white' people showing their complete sympathy and engagement with India (and in Olcott's case with Sri Lanka). Their followers were instrumental in founding and guiding the Indian National Congress towards Indian independence and Gandhi discovered one of his guiding texts - the Gita - through his contact with Blavatsky. Her compulsive drive towards the 'brotherhood of man'  was translated by him into the centrality of 'non-violence'.

But beyond the temporal, in her thought, Blavatsky was a central voice in challenging the slowly dominating nineteenth century discourse of reductionist scientific materialism. She provided cultural resources for people opposed to that discourse and seeking to maintain a more sacral and imaginative view of the possibilities of the world. She was ironically Darwin's translator into Russian (she needed the money) and one of the first trenchant critics of his disciples as they sought to make out of his science an account of how the world, in its totality, is. She was thus a critic from a philosophical rather than a scientific viewpoint pointing out that science becomes scientism when it steps beyond its legitimate bounds.

She was undoubtedly a character who exceeded the bounds of ordinary life and I confess - through Lachman's able lens - to liking her. She told it straight, had a sense of humour and was continuously kind (and, sadly, for her future reputation, a terrible judge of character)!

Lachman's account of the 'phenomena' associated with her is (as usual) measured and well judged - neither a believer nor a sceptic. First of all, he deftly defends her from any charge of simply being the producer of 'magical effects', her task was to serve a deeper and wider vision and 'phenomena' she felt distracted from this rather than acted as  a mechanism of conviction. Second he gives admirably open minded accounts of what is said to have happened - and they do give quiet pause for thought - I especially like the account of manifesting a needed spare tea cup hidden under undisturbed ground!

Whatever one makes of these and the alleged source of her teachings - from hidden Masters alive yet hidden in the world, she undoubtedly had something to say that many seeking a deeper spiritual alternative to either the rise of scientific materialism or the dogmatic weights of received religious traditions found deeply valuable. Many of these, such as Gandhi or Kandinsky to name but two, went on to revolutionise either society or culture, so Blavatsky can never simply be dismissed as either eccentric or a charlatan - and the serious study of esoteric strands of contemporary thought is essential if we are to understand the culture (and the possibilities) of which we are the inheritor.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mrs Arafat's lost opportunity

An article in The Jerusalem Post was drawn to my attention and described as 'brilliant'.

I read it carefully, twice, hoping for its brilliance to shine forth, when it failed to do so, well written as it is, I sat down and tried to think why?

The article suggests that 'moral clarity' resides with everyone with whom the author agrees and moral obfuscation belongs to those with whom the author disagrees. It is clear to the author that Israel is a democracy that only wishes to live peacefully within its borders and Hamas is a terrorist group, pure and simple, whose only mission in life is Israel's extermination. Now both poles of this statement have an element of truth - their purchase on our imagination requires that they do - moral clarity is only achieved if we simplify and contrast. It thrives within the sharp borderings of a black and white world.

No doubt a columnist at the Gaza Post could write a similar article only inverted bringing Palestine into the light contrasted with the Machiavellian leadership of Likud and hiding their own shadows. (In passing please note the Jerusalem Post's sleight of hand contrasting a state not with another state but with an element within it - and one, sadly, quasi-democratically elected at that).

The problem, however, is that the world is in colour. The first victim of violence is always the truth and the truth is never simple and never comes in black and white. It is complex and multi-coloured. (So Israel wants to live peacefully within its borders - but which are they - and if the international community is to be believed they do n't - they occupy large chunks of their neighbours by force - justified or not - they are there)!

The sheer complexity of truth makes it difficult to live with which is why moral clarity is so comforting and why the author of lies is its principal proponent. Solzhenitsyn famously wrote in the Gulag Archipelago that the dividing line between good and evil travelled through each and every human heart and both in the Gulag and in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (whose fiftieth anniversary of publication we celebrate this week) what is so striking is that Solzhenitsyn achieves a clarity of truth telling through the complexity of the detail - by its cumulative weight in the Gulag and in its unfolding ordinariness in the life of one man in One Day- that allows for the judgement of a collective, human moral failure in which we can then see particular individual responsibilities. It is a systemic failure of individual responsibility fed by the delusion of a moral certainty carried by 'us' against 'them'! It was Communism in that case - another simple minded moral certainty leading us into the abyss of violence.

I use here an 'Israeli example' and the risk of that is, of course, that a reader will assume I am  against them and for the Palestinians. However, the continuing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is precisely rooted in the assumption making faculty we all have that does not want, cannot bear the complexity of the truth and the first and primary truth is the human failure to recognise the place where good and evil is divided: the human heart, mine and yours and everyones.

From that place of recognition, you can begin, with great difficulty, to paint a world in colour and invite people to share the complexities of their own palette (and the clashing colours, at least initially, will undoubtedly be frightful, indeed painful) but there is no other way except the path of violence with its clashing moral clarities and that way has failed, is failing and will fail.

Rather than moral clarity, we need truth building, forgiveness of sins and reconciliation. This is not utopian because it has been done elsewhere, admittedly messily, imperfectly, this side of the kingdom there is no perfection. This is probably just as well because undoubtedly the perfection would belong to 'us' and not to 'them'.

When are people in this conflict going to be tired enough of the futility of violence to try alternatives? To try complexity and moral struggle (I am tempted to write 'jihad') for a change.

I had a hopeful fantasy once - it was when the Arafats were enclosed in their compound and it was Christmas and Mrs Arafat (a Christian) wanted to attend the Christmas Vigil service in Bethlehem. They vowed to go at any cost but, sadly, it was all bluster. What if, I speculate, Mrs Arafat had put on her Sunday best, slipped her prayer book in her handbag and set off - on her own or perhaps with a few women friends for company, singing hymns perhaps and with presents for the Israeli soldiers on route? There is nothing the Israeli authorities could do in this situation but lose - let her through, stop her, even kill her - they would have lost yet there might be the first glimmer in that losing of everyone winning. People winning with out violence, people losing without violence - it might have caught on! Undoubtedly this would not have been without its breakdowns and reprisals - after all both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were assassinated - but as both remarked, in different ways, if you do not want to die for it no cause is worth it, if you want to kill for it no cause is worth it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Remembered mystery

Hillier's world was one virtually empty of people, painted with precision and sur-real. They were both offered with a realistic accounting and yet one shifting towards the mystery of something yet other. Here a Portugese square is both wholly itself and a parable of dark and light, fall and redemption, through which a priest journeys.

After a Bohemian first half of life, he returned to his birthed heritage of Roman Catholicism and became devout - and though he painted explicitly religious paintings, his preferred space was townscape, seascape and landscape seen through their objects rather than their inhabitants.

This absence of people is what, in part, gives his landscapes their surreal impression. He was never a surrealist but like many artists developing in the 20s and 30s, he was influenced by, and knew members of, the 'Movement'. The only group he ever belonged to (and then only for one exhibition) was Unit One, founded by Paul Nash, another artist influenced by the Surrealists who preferred his landscapes un-figured. In Nash's case this was because he was uncertain of his draughtsmanship, in Hillier's it was from positive choice partly for the mystery, partly, I expect, from a trace of misanthropy!

The artist with which he bears obvious comparison is Georgio de Chirico yet whereas de Chirico's worlds are fantastic yet precise, Hillier's worlds are realistic yet fantasy.

I most love his shore-scapes (as below). Who has not seen the assorted boats and fishermen's tackle assembled in apparent disorder on a quiet shore, waiting upon either their collection or their use? The paintings have such a complete aura of stillness as if life has departed (as here footprints in the sand). Who has not fantasised about awaking to discover that they are the only human being alive?

I remember as an adolescent waking early and setting out from home to greet on a summer's morning the dawn. You walked through completely silenced streets and out into the country to sit on a tumbled log and wait upon the sun: the world soundless but for bird song and trembling on revelation. The curtain lying very thin between oneself and another world; the tension between this and another world. It is that remembered sense of mystery that I find so welcome in Hillier's work.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Hours

The Hours, I think, is the only Michael Cunningham novel I have not read (I think) but I have watched the film by Stephen Daldry (with a screenplay by David Hare) over two evenings and found it wholly compelling.

There is a beautiful, illuminating moment on the train platform at Richmond where Virginia Woolf has 'gone for a walk' and Leonard Woolf, panicked, finds her. She refers to her sense of captivity and the way she is not allowed into her own life, surrounded by the care of doctors and the disciplines of treatment. That is exactly how it must feel - even when those treatments are keeping you alive, potentially returning you to a life - you are stripped of your autonomy, keeping you from dimensions of yourself.

Those dimensions might, of course, be crucifying rather than liberating, but they may not. They may be simply a part of a differently normal. I was reminded of a Dutch study of schizophrenia where people had been encouraged to 'talk back' to their voices, to relativise them yet incorporate them into their daily reality. As a result, the people, rather than being possessed and diminished, expanded and regained a renewed autonomy.

All three of the central characters in The Hours give you a sense of being afflicted principally by not being listened to - they may be loved but not truly seen and heard - whole dimensions of themselves remained hidden from view either ignored or policed lest the fullness of who they were (including their derangement) broke the bounds of what could be handled. Our love, however, deeply felt, rarely has the purity of being able to handle all things.

Recognition might have been liberating but rarely are we seen or let ourselves be.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Degrees of connectivity

I like the way that life generates unexpected connections. I had never knowingly heard of Rene Daumel until I read Ravi Ravindra's book recently on his relationship with Jeanne de Salzmann where he refers to Daumal's unfinished novel, 'Mount Analogue'. Intrigued I read this beautiful, quirky parable of spiritual ascent and wanted to know more about its author. I purchased Kathleen Ferrick Rosenblatt's 'Rene Daumal: The Life and Work of a Mystic Guide' (which I am reading now) and discovered that one of his jobs was to act as a secretary to Uday Shankar, one of India's leading proponents of both traditional and contemporary dance in the twentieth century, and the much elder brother of the 'more famous' Ravi (whose 'Symphony' I am listening to presently as I drive to and fro).

On Shankar's return to India (from the West), he settled in Almora and established a training centre and became the teacher of Ann Wetherall, when she was alive my closest friend and deepest colleague, who was one of his rare Western students for two years before jaundice brought a premature end to her vocation as a dancer.

On of my most magical moments was listening in to a conversation that Ann was having with Shankar's prospective biographer, an American academic, Joan Erdman. It was late afternoon and we were having tea when the conversation started and it was night by the time it was complete.

It was remarkable listening to Ann talk of that time when she was most deeply happy, engaged in a life and practice that she loved. I recall her saying that Shankar taught them first and foremost to be creative through aligning body, mind and soul and that as well as working from the inside out - thought - intention - action - they worked from the outside in - posture - clarity - thought. I was reminded of this when Daumal describes how as a young boy he quelled his existential fear on discovering death by relaxing his body beginning with his stomach and watching it alter his patterning of emotion and thought. Many of Shankar's students became important to the development of dance in India but others pursued other pathways including one, I recall, who became a notable theoretical physicist.

It is no surprise perhaps that it was Ann who introduced me to Gurdjieff (or that he was of particular interest to people versed in theatre or dance as they understood, as did he, the intelligence of the body and how it can be harnessed to liberate the mind). It was Gurdjieff who gave Daumal a framing and a practice that organised finally his intense metaphysical searching and experimentation (including with drugs).

These are usually described as degrees of separation but, in fact, this feels deeply like a degree of connection - Ann - Shankar - Daumal - Gurdjieff - linked through time and in a common search.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Remembrance Sunday

I was in Kent yesterday and went to the local Anglican Church for the Remembrance Service. The church's heating had broken down and so my body frequently diverted my mind from higher things to the stark material matter of its own chilling!

However, I did listen carefully to the sermon and how it struck a skilful balance between the remembrance of the fallen's sacrifice that, in the particular circumstances, may have been necessary and a deeper questioning of the need for any sacrifice because of our compulsive attachment to war.

Christ is the Prince of Peace who demands the difficult task of a love of enemy grounded in forgiveness. He should unsettle any simple assumption that the fallen had died in a 'good cause', 'our cause' even as we recognise the human need to remember the dead and hope that their death made meaning in a war to end wars or to secure our freedom; however much history disputes that hope!

But it struck me again that the sermon was long on compelling aspiration - for a renewed kingdom of peace and our commitment to it - and short of answering the 'how' question: how is love of enemy possible to us? We find our neighbour sufficient of a challenge!

This was deepened by a book I am reading at the moment: Robert Amis' 'A Different Christianity: Early Christian Esotericism and Modern Thought'. It is a highly discursive book  but at its heart is a desire to restore a view of Christianity as 'therapy' (a view that remains central to Orthodox monastic spirituality). The Church is a practical space for the achievement of 'metanoia' - usually translated as 'repentance' - but in truth a turn around in our being from a dispersed state pursuing happiness in the transience of the world to a centred state where the mind rests in a heart at peace in God. A place where we move from the inside out rather than build ourselves from the outside in.

Learning 'metanoia' is a dedicated craft of interior effort sustained by a continuous offer of grace; and, has specific techniques associated with its practice. Most of these, however, lie forgotten (or obscured) and it is Amis' task to point us to sources of their recovery - in the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, in the on-going monastic tradition and in contemporary practitioners of that tradition, supplemented by insights from the modern world, most especially the practitioners of the 'Fourth Way' -Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Nicoll etc.

It is a very moving book that invites self-examination: where do I sit in the transformation of my emotions into genuine feeling? How do I transform my 'eros' from the self-centred pursuit of desires into an energy of purifying change? How do I start to love my neighbour?

It is the absence of the realities of these tools for transformation that Amis claims makes the serious spiritual seeker turn East and the non-seeker find nothing in Christianity to awaken their search. I confess, listening carefully yesterday to the service, that without this understanding of the skilful means of transformation, much that one hears even as it may inspire fails to take root - it is seed cast on stubborn, unyielding ground. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Blame in the aftermath

In the aftermath of the US election, I am fascinated in understanding why we appear hard wired to assign blame to perceived failure (in this case the Republican Party campaign) rather than imagine what success might look like and work back from that to what factors would have brought it about and then, and only then, look at the things that would have needed to be in place (or taken out of the way) to achieve the given result (even then, in this case, knowing that the final result is not in your control).

We imagine we move from problem to solution but this movement is usually circular - we remain circulating around in the problem. Most problems are resolved by imagining a different, non-problematic state from which we move backwards into the conditions that need to be brought about to make it so.

This, however, seems hard to do. We are more comfortable with known habits (individual or organisational or societal) even when they are painful than imagining possibility. This latter requires a level of comfort with uncertainty (and complexity) that many find difficult. Finding ways of constructing narratives of change that are comfortably recognisable (and indeed exciting) must be a key that unlocks significant movements towards it.

What a winning Republican party might look like is a significantly more interesting question than why it (in the now past) failed?

Equally, I was reminded of the observation of an American friend ahead of the election that he was surprised that people imagined that the 'outcome' radically hinged on who was elected, that the world would somehow be fundamentally different as a result. This failed to see that more held the candidates together (both are, whatever one imagines, centre-right politicians) than separates them and that their power of action is, in fact, limited, even though they are 'the President'!

This fantasy leads to some very odd post electoral commentary; thus, I saw one Facebook comment welcoming Obama's re-election as now an end could be brought to detention without trial and drone attacks as if it were not Mr Obama who has acquiesced in detention without trial and positively stepped up drone attacks (for want of any other meaningful policy option).

Listening to this kind of thing gives me a sense that never before has our 'rhetoric' been divorced from our realities. The rectification of government, opined Confucius, begins with the rectification of names. It has never been more true.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Secret Life: half revealed

She was an extravagant liar, a believer in open relationships as long as she were the dominant partner, capable of both flattery to your face and your precise, painful dissection in the privacy of her diary or in gossiping with others.

She was, also, generous (often with money she could not afford), complexly loyal, witty, urbane and searchingly intelligent about behaviours as well as minds.

She had, as Claire Tomalin, makes admirably clear an important influence on two great English Modernist writers: D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and if she did not quite achieve greatness herself became an important writer whose short stories are models of their kind and continue to be read for their psychological acuity, their precision of language particularly in describing revealing patterns of behaviour and voice and of the natural world she unaffectedly loved.

Greatness eluded her partly because of her facility in adopting different manners and voices (a frustrated actress except in life) that refused to settle and mine a deep enough seam and the hammer blows of illness - a then virtually untreatable gonorrhoea and subsequently the tuberculosis that killed Katherine Mansfield at the age of thirty-four.

Tomalin's biography is suburb - short, pithy, sure of judgement and of evidence, compassionate and balanced. I imagine it is easy to 'take sides' with Mansfield - for or against - Tomalin does neither but shows her in her myriad shapes and gives voice to the forces that gave her those shapes.

Where the biography stumbles is at her death. She died at La Prieure - Gurdjieff's community at Fontainebleau - where her first mentor in writing, A. R. Orage, was living and studying. The confidence with which she sketches the lives of other key actors in Mansfield's life - Orage, Lawrence, J.M. Murray - deserts her. She knows not what to make of our Greek Armenian guru and trickster (and that is not an unfamiliar place to be) and she manages to get key facts simply wrong, glaringly so. It is as if a blind spot has descended - though she is wholly generous (in ways some commentators have not been) to the community's care for Katherine in her last days, giving her a space of containment and contentment at last.

This blind spot reveals the only missing dimension in the book as a whole - what did Mansfield think? I mean about ideas. It is often the piece of a biography that 'vanishes' and here it leaves an unoccupied space. Why, at the last, did she end up in Fontainebleau? What did she make of her mentor, Orage's, 'flight to the East' and immersion in 'mysticism'? We do not know and Tomalin sets up no thread to follow through Mansfield's life. It is treated brilliantly as a personality but not as a person. To a person ideas matter. They do have a striking tendency to get lost!  This biography is no exception.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

In Search of the Miraculous

The sub-title of this new edition of Ouspensky's classic account of his work with and understanding of Gurdjieff and his system is misleading: 'The Classic Exploration of Eastern Religious Thinking and Philosophy' because apart from Ouspensky's own linkages between what he was hearing and studying with elements of Sufism, what we do not 'know' is where Gurdjieff got his ideas and practices from (excepting his own geographically challenged descriptions in his own autobiographical 'Meetings with Remarkable Men').

This, I think, was deliberate: what Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, together and separately, were trying to do was to introduce a 'system' that was free from prior associations either with known religious or esoteric traditions. That the 'system' resonates with such traditions (and borrows from them) is clear but the presentation was deliberately 'shocking'. 'Shock' was part of the system's skilful means - that men are machines, fundamentally asleep, and that an immortal soul is only a possibility to be (potentially) achieved only through hard work on oneself (in a necessary group) is offered as an uncompromising wake up call - one that (as they expected) would only be for the few not the many.

For me, it most closely resembles those 'Gnostic' sects that emerged either side of Jesus' ministry - some borrowing elements from Christianity, others remaining free-standing - with their message of a law like universe that keeps man captive, of the possibility of release for the few if they acquire the right understanding grounded in a knowledge that only comes with being in the right state of consciousness and a system that comes with a complex cosmology that reflects the complexity of man's own soul.

For me, I confess it is both intriguing and repellant in about equal measure.

The intrigue revolves mostly around how it reminds you how rarely you are fully present to yourself and others, and how so much of your life is led automatically, a creature of habits. Gurdjieff's picture of the person as a multitude of 'I's -each temporary self giving way to another self in a loosely held bundle of contradictions is very telling and recognisable and how this 'personality' bounces along in life attached to its elations, its mundanities and its sufferings without any real centre or essence. That is 'me', mostly, I can confess, sadly.

The repulsion is that shared by A. E. Waite who once walked out of a lecture by Ouspensky declaring that there was no room for 'love' in his system nor, I would add, grace. Even when you breakthrough to consciousness of a 'higher level' you find it simply differently law like and strangely binding! Like the Gnostics, there is a tendency towards a stark devaluation of 'this world' and yet Plotinus noted (in criticising them) all our judgement is fact grounded in, emerges from, our place in the created order. If this is of no value then nor our any of our judgements (including that the world is of no value)!

As for the complex cosmologies themselves, Ouspensky's accounting of them is, I fear, too dry and pseudo-mathematical for me to connect with!

However, on balance, there is much here to learn - the importance of work in groups and that 'salvation' is not a task won independently for great is our capacity for self-deception, the importance of 'self-remembering' and the ability to be attentive to the ways we are in the world and the consequent ability to struggle against an habitual, half-tied way of living; and, the importance of the cultivation of being as well as knowledge, of emotion into genuine feeling as well as achieving right thinking. Much of this is beautifully and lucidly expressed by Ouspensky so you not only recognise the picture in thought but are convicted of it in feeling.

What is left open at the end of the book is the mystery of why Ouspensky departed from Gurdjieff and why that departure was so difficult, leaving a lasting mark on Ouspensky's self-confidence? That Ouspensky needed to leave was clear (and he tells us such departures were inherently comprehensible within Gurdjieff's own thinking) but why it was not more liberating is left sadly obscure. Ouspensky was a highly gifted thinker and writer in his own right but that part of him remained 'captured' in Gurdjieff's shadow is, I think, sadly apparent.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wacky Dali

"The Surrealists were wacky but Dali was wackier" opines Olivia Weiberg in the Economist's 'Intelligent Life' magazine. It is her opening sentence in a review of a major show of Dali's work at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Thus is a subversive art movement packaged for the apparently intelligent readers of 'Intelligent Life'. No need to worry, dear reader, about the conventional confines of your conscious lives: nothing lives beyond them that is anything but passing strange.

Surrealism did not apparently help shape the social critique of a Luis Bunuel nor (and this ought to please the Economist at least) play a significant role in the development of modern advertising nor exert significant influence on a number of artists, many of whom were themselves never 'Surrealists'.

Nor did it liberate a number of artists into an exploration of the imagination - of a symbolic life that was a revelation from 'above' rather than an eruption from 'below'. David Gascoyne, for example, did not progress from 'surrealism' to being one of the most imaginatively gifted poets of the Twentieth century, composing his searingly beautiful metaphysical poems that place the 'world' in compassionate judgement.

What, therefore, are we to admire in Dali (beyond the titillation of the wacky)?

Weinberg  settles for a man 'who knew exactly how to use his brush': we should admire his technical virtuosity - that is, at least, a ground of safety. His paintings are, after all, neither beautiful nor admitting of great emotion and 'fiendish to untangle', according to Weinberg, (as if the unconscious was there as a puzzle to be solved rather a mystery to be lived, unfolding to laws that can only be genuinely understood if the appropriate state of consciousness is achieved).

The real challenge of Dali is why after a relatively short period of intense, subversive creativity, he slips into the repetitive, the showy and the frankly fraudulent.

It seems to me that 'surrealism' required either a way out or a way through. Certain artists used 'surrealism' to losen and then focus their existing visionary tendencies and their way out was their thorough grounding in other traditions - Paul Nash is a good example whose landscape painting was infused with a heightened sensibility and symbolic content through his experiments in surrealism. Other artists channelled their surrealism and found a way through to utilising it in a wider language, once again rooted in the familiar world - Bunuel would be a good example, using it to create an unsettling edge to his intense explorations of the modern world and its complacencies. Other went through their personal unconscious and discovered 'another world' that enfolds this one, what Jung would call, 'the collective unconscious'. Their artistic language became genuinely symbolic and often, even when highly personal, disciplined and opening out towards revelations bordering or within the sacred - Remedios Varo would be a good example here - she passed through surrealism to the language of the sacred imagination.

Dali, however, appears to have got stuck, having no wider vision to genuinely offer, he repeats, in a descending spiral, the cast up images of his own unconscious or its unassimilated borrowings from elsewhere, so that it becomes an artistic ouvre rather akin to a second hand furniture warehouse rather than anything organic, original or profound, carried along only by his remarkable technical facility. Dali was not 'wackier' than other surrealists, he was simply less successful in making use of the opportunity of surrealism to go beyond the boundaries of the personal unconscious and fathom new worlds and this one in their light.

Wild Geese Overhead: Where does reform begin?

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