Monday, November 25, 2013

Walter de la Mare: The English Expressionist

Reading Theresa Whistler's sympathetic and beautifully written biography of Walter de la Mare, I was reminded of the fickleness of literary reputation. Walter de la Mare's is ripe for reassessment. After a perilously slow start, it was only 'political intervention' and a civil list grant that rescued him from servitude at the offices of Standard Oil (working in the statistics department) to become a major literary figure (and able to make his living at it), only now to have his star obscured: surviving in his much anthologised poetry for children and the periodic reprints of novels, stories and poems for the dedicated camp followers (of which I am one).

This is not wholly surprising as de la Mare's poetry and prose tends towards the archaic in tone and language (and he had a debilitating fondness for obscure words or word forms). He was a master of atmosphere and haunting observation rather than of plot and realism. He was almost entirely uninterested in sex (or in the accompanying relational complexities). In reading de la Mare, you step into an alternate universe, strangely similar to ordinary day to day reality, yet curved through a revealing, distorting prism as if a child, with adult powers of description, was continually seeing the world anew, as he was - a master of curiosity and wonder.

He is deserving of revival not least because his world of off centred, magical realism is the world of our subterranean imagined lives. We may have lost an anchoring belief in an omnipresent deity but we have not lost a fascination with the fantastic borderlands of our own unconscious, that the world may appear different than its mundane showing apparently suggests. We slip into worlds transformed whether outright in the shape of fantasy or implicitly dreaming that others, more interesting others, dwell amongst us - vampires or aliens or the genetically transformed - out of which we weave our compensatory entertainments.

At heart de la Mare is an expressionist genius and rightly should stand alongside Kafka, offering parables of a world whose meaning is sensed to be there, even as it may elude us. If Kafka converted an ordinary man into a beetle with horror comic effects, de la Mare had a man waking from a dream by a grave side, subtly possessed so that no one would recognise him, even as they doubted their own failure in the face of his protestations. But unlike Kafka, de la Mare's hero wakes from his possession with a renewed and deepened spiritual conviction. His is an encounter with evil, purposeful, and ultimately redemptive.

It is a space captured beautifully in this, probably, his most famous poem where all is beautifully revealed yet left unsaid, inviting a wondering forward.

Is there anybody there?" said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest's ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
"Is there anybody there?" he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:--
"Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word," he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone." 


The Listeners by Walter de la Mare

Friday, November 22, 2013

Leading from an Emerging Future

Collectively we consume one and half times what the world can re-generate in any one year (and this is trending relentlessly upwards). To listen to most mainstream commentators, this simple, unarguable fact has no purchase either on their imaginations or their thinking. If we think about it at all, it is to assume that 'something' (anything) will come along to 'fix' this problem and we carry on carrying on.

Jung wrote that what we do not acknowledge tends to come back, through the back door, as diseases, and, so it does. In our case, we might only contemplate the burgeoning incidence of depression as our lives become more disjointed from a sense of agency, one that coheres and directs within supportive communal frames, patterns of shared meaning and a living environment. We might, also, note that our prophets of imagined futures have moved from nineteenth century utopia to twentieth/twenty first century dystopia.

What then might be done? Where do we start to shape and fashion a world whose economy serves the whole rather than the individual winners? How do we carry ourselves forward into a sustainable future, embodying the best of the past yet not captured by it? How do we listen for possible futures?

This is the theme of Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer's 'Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies: Applying Theory U to Transforming Business, Society, and Self' which, though it wins no prize for snappy titles, does take the reader on a fascinating and hopeful journey to the edge of renewing possibilities.

At heart, amidst the tables, charts, and rather breathless accounts of past and potential future models, is a rather simple challenge, whose very simplicity makes it difficult, which is how to listen to ourselves, to ourselves constituted as institutions, to ourselves and our institutions constituted as societies. How to take that deep listening not only into our pasts and presents but also, critically, leaning into the future?

Listening requires us to hear beyond our assumptions, hear into other people's assumptions and communally to go beyond both, together. Theory U both aims to set out the journey from listening into prototyping action and to build around it tools that help people take that journey.

Such listening carries with it a 'faith' that there are abiding wells of creativity and meaning that we can tap into when we do listen - that, as a Jesuit father once told me - Creativity is in the facts and the facts are kind. Actually, he said God rather than creativity, but the implied truth is the same. The Glory of God is the human person most fully alive (to quote St Irenaeus) and the world that is God's good gift wants us into a fullness of life. That life is one that is constructed together and it is the core faith of the book that humanity's task is to evolve to creating ever better, more humane and sustainable futures (rather than being bound by the 'laws' of either market or history).

As usual in these kind of books, it is the 'case studies' of actual change in practice that are both most illuminating and informative. My favourite was of re-designing local democracy in Bojonegoro in East Java, Indonesia where basic principles of access and accountability are slowly transforming the quality of local services and people's participation in local democracy. The first act of the new incumbent was not to sack the existing staff but draw a line under the past and offer them a new way of being and acting and a context in which that would be supported going forward. From being one of the most corrupt/dysfunctional regencies in Indonesia, it has gone to being one of the best, re-winning the incumbent their election on an increased majority (though the test of change will, I expect, be when the incumbent is replaced by another). It reminded me too that to every 'global problem', there are, in principle, only local, contextualised solutions.

The last chapter of the book offers a sketch for a infrastructure for supporting these kind of changes globally - an international network of U innovation and learning hubs that equip people to collaboratively listen for and enact possible futures. You can only hope that it will come to be.




Monday, November 18, 2013

Behold, this Dreamer!

"Our life is twofold; Sleep hath its own world, 
A boundary between the things misnamed 
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world, 
And a wide realm of wild reality, 
And dreams in their development have breath, 
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy; 
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts, 
They take a weight from off waking toils, 
They do divide our being; they become 
A portion of ourselves as of our time, 
And look like heralds of eternity; 
They pass like spirits of the past -they speak 
Like sibyls of the future; they have power - 
The tyranny of pleasure and of pain; 
They make us what we were not -what they will, 
And shake us with the vision that's gone by, 
The dread of vanished shadows -Are they so? 
Is not the past all shadow? -What are they? 
Creations of the mind? -The mind can make 
Substances, and people planets of its own 
With beings brighter than have been, and give 
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh". 


...

From 'The Dream' by Lord Byron

I read this at an evening gathering at Schumacher college recently, having found it in Walter de la Mare's wonderful anthology, 'Behold, this dreamer'.

I was asked, rather directly and publicly, by one of the participants why I had chosen it? I cannot recall my reply with any precision but thinking about it now I would say that it beautifully evokes what dreams and dreaming mean for me. They are another world that is enfolded in this one that carry meaning, not simply in the prospect that they may be interpreted (though that can have its value as I discovered in my own Jungian analysis) but as bearers of what the poet, Edwin Muir, would call 'The Fable': the woof of myth onto which is woven that unique and particular story that is you or me. I find that certain motifs recur unerringly even as they develop with time, need and insight. I carry a certain element of the Fable that is my own and it resonates with Muir's - of the Fall, paradise lost, and the long journey back from darkness into light, paradise regained, glimmering with moments of foretelling transfiguration on the way.

I love Byron's image of dream as both leaving a weight on one's waking thoughts - dreams that a friend described as those that 'push you into the mattress' with their pregnancy - and those dreams that lighten waking thoughts - illuminating some problem of daylight hour and, more often than not, dissolving it. 

Once I thought I might take my analysis further and train as an analyst but that faded away as I realised that 'analysis' is so often 'reductionist' - the potential egotism of learning how to read your dreams for your self is not helped by granting your self a capital 'S'! It too has become 'professionalised', no longer a magic practice undertaken by a sage (Jung's protestations of 'science' notwithstanding) but a therapeutic transaction. I think I would rather listen to mine and dream them forward in a dancing dialogue where the dream usually has the upper hand, has the wisdom, and hear their wider amplification in the stuff of story and myth that are our communal inheritance rather than crucify them for their 'usefulness'. 

One thing I have been sure of to date is that I have never been short of a bedtime story...

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Artist of the Infinite Life


The 'Artist...' is the subtitle of Dana Greene's concise, illuminating and moving biography of Evelyn Underhill. Underhill was one of a number of key figures at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth who restored an understanding of 'mysticism' to the Christian West and to the wider culture. The self taught (if generously supported) Underhill was at the popular end of this trajectory (and accordingly has been earnestly criticised by later scholarship). The irony being that many of her books remain in print, eagerly read, for their insight and passion and will be so long after the snappy (if partially justified) academics have long since been forgotten!

Greene traces Underhill's trajectory from advocate of an individualistic mysticism with a radically transcendent focus, rooted in what she found to be universal in her sources of study, to a more incarnate view of mysticism, conditioned by history and culture and where the fruit of inner transformation can be seen to flow outwards in manifest charity. It was a journey that saw her move from a position of agnosticism towards the importance of religious institutions, an agnosticism that prevented her from becoming a Catholic, much as she was drawn to the beauty of its liturgy and the realities of its prayer life, to being a 'borderland' Anglican. She recognised, with the help of her director, Baron von Hugel, that mysticism is the core vivifying reality of Christianity but it needs to be 'earthed' and be allowed to fertilise both in the adoration of worship and in the communal life of being with and for one another.

It was a realisation that drew her to her final public position in support of 'pacifism' - that if God's love in the world is to mean anything, it must mean a universal charity, a love that reconciles rather than separates, a love for all that can only be broken by violence.

A powerful theme that runs through the book is that there is never an easy equation between 'holiness' and 'wholeness'. A life lived in the Spirit, which Underhill's undoubtedly was, does not guarantee 'well-being'. She was plagued by doubt both of the validity of her experience and her sense of self-worth. Being holy does not 'fix' brokenness - though it can help you bear it and draw you on through it, you may need a different kind of care of souls than the one offered in spiritual direction or from spiritual practice if you are to find psychological healing and peace. However, out of and through your brokenness, you can heal others and Underhill was a gifted director and retreat giver (and indeed the whole lively tradition of retreat going in the Anglican tradition owes her a great debt).

I was reminded of the Abbe Huvelin, Baron von Hugel's saintly director, whose death revealed a notebook he had kept in which many of the entries showed a searing sense of unworthiness and emptiness. Here was a man who has been a channel of grace for many, guiding souls with an extraordinary instinct for people's diverse needs, who, himself, felt utterly bereft of wholeness at a psychological level yet who remained wholly present to God.

Underhill was an artist, in Greene's perception, because she held out a sense of the visionary splendour to which each and every person is called and is evolving towards, in a way that enabled people to be caught up by it and respond to its alluring beauty and rightness in their everyday worlds. She may not herself have been a 'mystic exemplar' but her radical empathy with those who were in history and in the present made her a gifted communicator of the life that by being wholly focused on God, paradoxically, could be wholly focused on the life of our neighbours.

P.S. One moment of wonder is that Greene's biography is only 150 pages long. Modern biographers please take note. You can give a wonderful account of the life and thought of a person without drowning your reader in extraneous detail. So, for example, we learn of Evelyn Underhill's visits to Italy and their importance to her life and thinking without ever having to 'suffer' a blow by blow account of any actual visit! Bliss!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

For the Sake of Heaven

It is the end of the eighteenth century and revolution has come to France and Napoleon is rising. In Lublin in Poland, the Seer of Lublin, a Hasidic rabbi, is coming to believe that Napoleon is the prophesied one who will bring to bear the final war of 'Gog and Magog' and the coming of the Messiah. If this is so, is it permitted to use Cabalistic magic to bring Napoleon on? Can we not only pray for victory but seek to manipulate the heavens to bring it about? The answer of the Seer is yes. Power in the hands of just men can be used wisely, even if that wise use means much current suffering, for the end, the Lord's coming, will justify those means.

The Yehudi, a disciple of the Seer and a founder of his own congregation, thinks not. He stands on this side of magic, wishing not to hasten the end, whose time cannot be foretold, but prepare for the end. Indeed the end, it is implied, will not come until we are prepared, until we summon Him with one voice, that it is only when every blade of grass, every animal, every human face is hallowed and turned back towards God that the exile from God will be ended. In the beautiful image of Hasidim, the Shechinah, the presence of God in creation, seen as feminine, that went into exile with Israel can only return when we ourselves do.

It is the power of Buber's 'chronicle' (his preferred title over 'novel') that, though it is clear that he stands on the side of the Yehudi, each man, each position, is given its full due, wrought in a language and a telling of great power and beauty. The Seer of Lublin is a great and tragic figure. It was Herman Hesse, amongst others, who nominated Buber for the Nobel Prize for Literature on the strength of this book and his re-telling of Hasidic tales.

The book as a whole is a powerful meditation on the nature of evil and the redemption from evil. The dividing line between good and evil runs through each and every human heart and the tragedy of evil is that it often emerges out of a surfeit of seeking the good. The Messiah's coming is a longed for good, surely we might justly help it along? We are loyal to the Seer, he has been a boon and a blessing to ourselves and our community, surely the Yehudi in adopting an alternate position is being disloyal, dissembling, a stumbling block? Thus are the seeds of enmity sown in a community. The seeds of violence are sown whenever we devalue means in the blinding sight of visionary ends.

The book explores through incident and tableau, saying and story many of the facets of how we might live and fail to live with one another in the microcosm of this Hasidic community yet always aware of its implications for a wider world.

At one point the Yehudi declares, "Never will the work of the human being have a good issue if we do not think of the souls whom it is given us to help, and of the life between soul and soul, and of our life with them and of their lives with each other. We cannot help the coming of redemption if life does not redeem life," and does not redeem it here and now, in manifest loving kindness, that wrestles with each and every evil urge, to hallow it into light.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

John Tavener - The Lamb




The composer, Sir John Tavener, has died at 69. I remember him addressing the first Temenos Conference at Dartington Hall in 1986. Every inch the composer of a sacred music, a music that he felt as his vocation to write. The conference featured a concert of his music including this 'The Lamb', his setting of the poem by Blake, the first piece of his music that I ever listened to, matching the text's illuminating simplicity with a luminosity of its own.

Of his talk, I recall most vividly a remark of his about Stravinsky saying that much of his music, the latter in particular, was rooted in a thorough and respectful understanding of traditional chant (both in Western, Catholic and Orthodox forms). In that sense, Taverner saw Stravinsky as a 'traditionalist' upholding a sacred view of the human: one that sat uncomfortably with the 'romantic primativism' of his youth. In saying this, I sensed, he had his own youth in mind - the avant garde composer giving way to yet something more orderly yet radical - a renewal of sacred forms - and yet too giving a nod to the importance of youthful invention and liberation. It was Stravinsky's 'Rite' that had brought me to music and awakened my ability to listen, an ability being exercised right there and then.

His capacity for self-renewal was evident in his journey - his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, under the remarkable guidance of Metropolitan Anthony, broadening out to embrace a commitment to the 'sophia perennis' reflected in his engagement with the work of Frithjof Schoun and his incorporation of the musical motifs (and instruments) of the 'Orient'. The Truth was one to be seen reflected through the prisms of authentic traditions of which Orthodoxy was his.

What abides with me from that talk was his singleness of mind, dedication, and illuminating passion and, I confess too, his introducing me to the work of Arvo Part, his closest contemporary.

May he dance in eternal harmony.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Remembrance beach



This is a photograph I took yesterday, rounding the headland onto Slapton Sands. We were taking a shortcut back, now that the tide had retreated, aching legs not fancying the upward, downward climb we had taken outwards, earlier over the cliffs.

Slapton, shown below, was infamously where a trial landing for D-Day in 1944 went disastrously wrong and almost a thousand American soldiers were killed as a result both of German attack and ill co-ordinated 'friendly fire'!

It is a history that on Remembrance weekend was close to memory yet distant from the actuality of present place: a serene beach held on a perfect early November day, sea stilled in peacefulness.

The gap between the unfolding 'suchness' of the world and our willingness to bend it out of shape, to do it violence, was vividly present.

I remembered a dream I had when I found myself on a tropical beach at night, the sea charged with phosphorescence, meeting Fr Bede Griffiths, Benedictine monk and Indian sage, of orange robe and fulsome white beard and a young woman, of flowing golden hair and white dress, inviting me to dance and me joining the ring, dancing on the water's edge.

I found myself thinking 'make dance, not war' and seeing that the world's natural unfolding is more akin to the improvised yet patterned nature of dance than it is to the orders of conflict.

How much more welcome would it be to all the young men who died (and killed) at Slapton that they danced instead, pressing their footsteps into the sands together?

They dance now in the rungs of heaven homed to them. May those rungs ever more deeply infect our world - thy kingdom come!




Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dartington at dusk



I walk under rolling grey clouds, with ending rain and wild winds. Leaves traced across the air to ground, the water in the fountain wobbled uncertainly and dusk gathered in the silence of the garden.

I am at Schumacher College at a four day course on non-violence and spiritual activism and was taking a late afternoon break to visit the gardens at Dartington Hall.

These gardens carry great meaning for me and, as I walked, I remembered they had carried a beautiful lesson in peace.

I came here first to a conference at which Hideo Kanze and his troupe had given a studio performance of Noh. It had been completely absorbing, neither before or since have I had such an experience in the theatre of being transported out of oneself into a complete attention. Later, in the garden, I saw Kanze and his fellow actors being shown around. The members of the troupe, so mesmerizing on stage, had dissolved into a group of Japanese, politely touring an English garden, with requisite curiosity for its forming and delight in its beauty.

Kanze, however, was completely different. He was as he was on stage, completely present to what was presence, dwelling in wonder. I sat and watched him walk down the path wholly now, in the moment, seeing. It was a moving icon of the original face before our birth. I have never forgotten and each time I walk the same path I do so with a haunted sense of a vicariously shared attentiveness.

This was being in the way of peace, vulnerable to what comes, yet poised into a responding action.

Noh, itself, is a theatre of liberation. Many of its stories tell of an encounter that transforms - a ghost haunts the place of a forlorn love and is sent on his or her way through the intervention of a travelling priest or monk - but, more importantly, it is a drama of intensified emotion, a complete showing forth, without mediation or hesitation. This is the whole of human life, presented, with nothing held back, remarkable in a culture where everything is done with studied propriety.

Both strands are essential for finding a peaceful world - the spiritual discipline that allows one a complete wondering vulnerability to what is present and a story telling that allows everything to emerge - light and shadow - into a coherent narration of our selves. For violence lives within the protected spaces of our partial selves, our egos and in the failure to acknowledge all that we are, the failure to live into our shadows as well as our lights.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Light and nature in The Australians

The Hunter by Arthur Boyd 1944


'The Australians' (a two hundred survey of Australian art linked by the theme of landscape at the Royal Academy) held two traditions in parallel. The indigenous tradition of Aborigine art, with which the exhibition opened, has continued to develop its own unique and powerful styles and, periodically, you noticed it having an effect, leaving traces in the contemporaneous tradition of 'Western' art.

At the outset of 'Western art' in Australia, artists confronted by a radically new land, confined themselves to painting their new settlements and their immediate surroundings but they soon branched out in Romantic, Impressionist and Modernist directions, making an art that was both indebted to European forms and yet held something other, conditioned by a new landscape and especially new attributes of light and space.

Aborigine art is of a landscape peopled with meaning, a place spiritualised and though that can mean spiritual drama, of warning and failure, the ultimate sense is of it being a welcoming home and the 'Western' art selected for the exhibition accompanied, rather than antagonised, this vision of placing, leaving you to wonder where was the art of anxiety? Australia is a highly urbanised culture on a fragile continent: a culture forged in colonial displacement and the unearthing of natural resources but that Australia was only present, all too understandably, in the Aborigine art except perhaps in the work of the above where Boyd has a hunter aggressively intrude into a nurturing nature.

Most of the 'Western art' was of a sympathetic landscape (with or without its indigenous inhabitants) and a city is a landscape too...

However, this editorial query aside, the whole exhibition is a wondering delight from the large Aborigine canvases, apparently at first sight abstracted yet concrete with symbol and story through to modern pieces of beautiful lucidity and light, including a ceiling painting of sunlight, suspended from above, as if dangling over Sydney Harbour!

 Long Spirit of the Plains by Sydney Long

My favourite painting was 'aberrant' as the only obviously 'Symbolist' painting in the exhibition (above) with a piping female figure followed by dancing cranes across a wooding landscape. It had the ethereal nature of vision and yet felt deeply anchored in the visionary potential of an actual place. And the artist 'discovered' was undoubtedly Arthur Boyd whose three works were 'expressionist' masterpieces of stark commentary on human nature (as above) and a wonderful, Bruegel like, painting of a mining camp, spilling with human fallibility and the seductions of greed.

It was all enhanced by the RA's extraordinary ability to write excellent captions to all the works - masterpieces of compressed illumination.

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