Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Burning memories

Today I visited Montsegur, the mountain fastness that for over thirty years gave shelter to Cathar believers before it was confronted by the might of the French army and succumbed to siege in 1244.

Over 220 Cathar perfects, those that had participated in the rite of consolamentum, were burnt at the stake. This included over twenty who had taken the rite in the last days of the siege knowing that it would lead to certain death. In a rare act of crusading clemency, all those who acknowledged orthodox Catholic beliefs could go free, even though they had defended the Cathar 'heretics'. This was presumably because everyone now knew the game was up. Languedoc was firmly in the hands of the northern French barons, serving a consolidating French monarch.

However, it was not until the early 1300s that the last Cathar perfect was tracked down, deceitfully entrapped and inevitably killed. The mechanisms of the Inquisition were the ruthless model for all subsequent police actions of suppression - where Dominicans trod, the NKVD followed.

But if the Dominican and Franciscan inquisitors imagined that their thorough work would banish the Cathars from memory, they have been sadly disappointed. The Cathars' story has been emblazoned across the fabric of Languedoc, seeping into memory as an exemplar of a peaceful religious group persecuted for rivalling the power of an established orthodoxy. As Andrei, my companion, noted, it is a fitting site for the memory of all genocides, being (in the West), the sad first exemplar.

I was here first as a young man, just out of university; and, would that I had that body today, as I toiled up the hill to the summit, taking it too quick, and suffering!

I had come with a party on a tour of Cathar country, a party of eccentric friends. What held us together was a common spiritual search rooted in practice and experience. We were the 'spiritually alive of no fixed address', drawn to the Cathars not because we necessarily shared their 'dualist' beliefs (though I, for one, in the contemporary setting of their twentieth century champion, Simone Weil, can find much to ponder) but because they placed practice (and experienced transformation) above belief (or dogma). This transformation too was directly engaged with. There was no mediating priesthood except for the perfect's confirmation of the timing of your deepest commitment to the fullness of the faith.

Culturally too Languedoc was a road not travelled with its rough and ready tolerance, it's welcoming of different, competing beliefs, it's celebration of tolerance. It was snuffed out and we had to wait another four hundred years before anything vaguely similar (the seventeenth century Netherlands) for anything akin to it to emerge in the West.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Jokes, Cathars and memory

There are many Jokes featuring Dominicans and Jesuits from which in the punchline the Js usually emerge triumphant. However, one Dominican rejoinder goes like this. It reminds the listener that the Dominicans were founded out of St Dominic responding to the emergence of the 'Cathar heresy' in Languedoc in the twelfth century. St Ignatius launched the Jesuits in response to the emergence of the Reformation. The punchline being, 'How many Cathars do you know'? (as opposed to Protestants)!

This expression of (black) humour would have appalled one of the Cathars doughty supporters in the twentieth century, the philosopher, Simone Weil. She believed that if something was a great wrong, it remained so, unaltered by the passage of time. The crusades against the Cathars, and the subsequent invention of the Inquisition to eradicate them, was such a wrong for which the only response from the Catholic Church would be repentance.

We are still waiting.

I was thinking of this as I drove past Beziers yesterday, about whose siege and subsequent massacre, I had been reading the day before. This was the first act of a long conflict in which up to 20,000 people died in this first siege alone and the city was reduced to ashes. The Papal Legate, probably apocryphally, was said to told the Crusaders to kill everyone, Catholic and Cathar, because God would know his own.

Yet the memory of such events has been 'sanitised' by time's passing that is reminiscent of Hitler's disparaging remark about who remembers the Armenians? This a scrubbing clean in a matter of years, not decades or centuries.

We need to be reminded that this ideological brutality is and remains with us, and as Weil rightly noted, any institution that has participated in its perpetration must scrutinise its conscience and purge from its living present anything of its vestiges, even jokes.

For can one imagine a similar joke ever becoming acceptable, however blackly intended, about the Holocaust?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

In Tuva


Today I arrived home to find a copy of Jules Pretty's new book, 'The Edge of Extinction: Travels with Enduring People in Vanishing Lands' had arrived.

I had a (minor) hand in its making because I am the cause of one of its chapters by issuing Jules' invitation to Tuva that forms the basis of Chapter 4. I was working with WWF Russia thinking of ways that community development and poverty reduction could be woven into approaches to nature conservation. One of the great challenges of conservation is thinking how indigenous groups are in fact your best allies rather than enemies, as they are often perceived, being turned into 'conservation refugees' by governments keen to 'preserve wildlife' (as with the Bushman in Botswana expelled from national parks, imprisoned for 'poaching').

I had called Jules, whose work I knew of and admired, as an expert on sustainable agriculture, nature and culture, for advice on who we might hire as a consultant to help us shape a programme. He volunteered and a few months later, we found ourselves en route to Abakan (in the neighbouring republic) and along the military road into Tuva.

It was a wonderful trip, encountering a diverse range of people - from high official to camel herder, from shaman to museum guide, from conservation guard to throat singer - all framed in landscapes of both great beauty and stunning urban decay. In the latter I recall walking across Kyzyl's, the capital's, industrial zone - complete silence except for bird song amongst the abandoned buildings, rotting back to earth.

For me the highlight came on what happened to be my birthday when we visited a local shamans' lodge and the new national museum (even though it was its closing day) where we saw the extraordinary exhibition of Scythian gold (see above) and was treated to a throat singing concert.

Tuva is geographically at the heart of Asia (and there is a monument to this effect) and is the only constituent republic of the Russian Federation where the indigenous population is in a majority. One of whose consequences is that its traditional nomadic way of life is deeply respected rather than marginalised, shamed.

But how difficult it is to maintain that pride in the face of outside questioning. I remember our going to a site held sacred with the director of the National Parks Service. He held a short, Shamanic ceremony of blessing before inviting us to explore, but not without first apologising. It was an apology utterly unnecessary for either of us and yet the feeling of the necessity was there. Modernity presses in, everywhere, and its assumption of progressive superiority is insidious.

Jules' book is, in part, a taking to task of that imposition with the stories of people who configure their place in the world differently than the mainstream and from whom we might learn. I look forward to reading it whole.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The problem with Spinoza

For the Nazi ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, the problem in Irvin D. Yalom's imaginative novel, 'The Spinoza Problem', it was being a Jew and being admired by such luminaries of the Aryan race as Goethe. How could such a racial pure and supreme being as this spend a whole year with Spinoza's 'Ethics' in his pocket - a book that transformed his life, brought calm and cemented his religious scepticism? Either Spinoza had stolen his ideas from pure sources or, horror, Goethe was the victim of an insidious intellectual swindle.

If this way of putting it sounds frankly bizarre, it is one of the many virtues of Yalom's book to make this clear - the ideology of Nazism was an extraordinary act of self enclosed fantasy with iron logics of its own, resistant to fact or reason.

The novel moves back and forth between an imaginative recreation of Spinoza's life (about which, in fact, little inward is known) and that of Rosenberg as he wrestles with his Spinoza problem (a foil with which Yalom exposes both his ideological presumptions and his personal state). This later was a compelling fixation on Hitler who used him mercilessly and yet kept him at arm's length (and Rosenberg was generally despised by the other Nazi leaders).

Meanwhile, Spinoza is seen responding to his excommunication from the Jewish community, his retirement into the life of a contemplative scholar earning his living by grinding lenses.

Yalom creates an imaginary companion for both Rosenberg in the form of a childhood friend turned psychoanalyst and for Spinoza in the form of a fellow traveller, a rabbi who wishes to reform Judaism from within, making it more humanistic and rational. The debates that flow between these two pairs form the basis of the book and Yalom uses his great skill as a long practicing psychotherapist to bring them to vivid life.

At the heart of the book is the dialogue between reason and passion. How does the former shape or overcome the latter? And the realisation that to shift passion requires a combination of being seen from another level of attention and a push from a deeper, more encompassing 'passion'. Spinoza is seen as the prophet of the former but what constitutes the latter remains an open question. For Yalom as a good existentialist, there is an element of willed choice here, of making oneself in freedom. However it leaves the question of freedom for (as opposed to freedom from) unanswered.

At one point, Spinoza is seen rejecting the Genesis view that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and one cannot help feeling such an ontological end point is, in fact, part of the solution to Yalom's dilemma - a discovery of a true personhood that is at once unique and enfolded in a deeper unity.

In freeing us from certain religious bindings, the Enlightenment freed us from encompassing teleological ends, this has not necessarily had the happy consequences that it was designed to. Like any reality that is repressed, it tends to return as diseases, to quote Jung, of which Nazism is a too compelling reminder as may be the Islamic State.

A fulfilling vision of what it means to be human that can be both intellectual sound, passionately compelling and compassionately lived is what we need (or even a plurality of such visions) - otherwise into the empty space does not step freedom but a darker bondage.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Poems by the Church

I came home early today having to be up at the crack and sat on the bench a while at the small church near my home, reading Yeats, watching the world and their dogs pass by. Wind in the trees providing the music, the alterations of air and feeling, allowing your sedentary poise not to turn to restlessness, allows your eyes, heart, mind to focus on the poems (in that order).

For my money there are two English (language) poets of the first half of the twentieth century who truly matter and they are Yeats and Hardy. 

Both sought roots in communities that were threatened by the onrush of modernity and celebrated them (as they lamented their passing). Both saw them with clear eyes, neither are sentimental, and both looked for ways of resistance, Yeats more effectively than Hardy. 

For Yeats had given his heart and soul to a transcendent tradition: his was a vision rooted in timelessness, Hardy surrendered this to his own agnosticism, all he was left with was the matter of time, and his particular matter, the way it was arranged and lived, was unravelling fast, leaving him with tragedy (and celebration).

But what a poet Hardy was - to have abandoned one career as a novelist and enlivened a second as a poet - and to have produced a body of work in both mediums that stands comparison with the best to be found anywhere, is a rare achievement. I try to think of others. There is Tagore in India (who throws in social reformer, educationalist and artist, alongside his poems, songs and novels) and Hesse, whose poems in Germany are as valued as his novels. 

At Lulworth Cove a Century Back 

Had I but lived a hundred years ago
I might have gone, as I have gone this year,
By Warmwell Cross on to a Cove I know,
And Time have placed his finger on me there:

"You see that man?" -- I might have looked, and said,
"O yes: I see him. One that boat has brought
Which dropped down Channel round Saint Alban's Head.
So commonplace a youth calls not my thought."

"You see that man?" -- "Why yes; I told you; yes:
Of an idling town-sort; thin; hair brown in hue;
And as the evening light scants less and less
He looks up at a star, as many do."

"You see that man?" -- "Nay, leave me!" then I plead,
"I have fifteen miles to vamp across the lea,
And it grows dark, and I am weary-kneed:
I have said the third time; yes, that man I see!"

"Good. That man goes to Rome -- to death, despair;
And no one notes him now but you and I:
A hundred years, and the world will follow him there,
And bend with reverence where his ashes lie." 

Thomas Hardy on John Keats?

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Dearest uncle, what ails you?


"Dearest uncle, what ails you"? is the simple question that heals the Fisher king in Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval romance, 'Parsifal'.  It is such a simple and natural question to ask when you are confronted by a person reverberating with pain, whose decaying stench must be staunched with billowing incense. Yet it is a question that Parsifal failed to ask on his first visit to the Grail castle bound, as he believes himself to be, to his first mentor's advice. He leaves only to discover later what he has done. A discovery that sets him off on a wandering path of loss from which he eventually finds his way back and with a deepened self-knowledge is enabled to ask the redemptive question.

The Fisher king's wound - its cause and consequence - it wrapped up in a complex cosmic vision of the war between good and evil - but one of its threads is that the king's wound is carried through the world, shattering its potential for healthy being - either within the natural or human worlds (that the story itself sees as an artificial distinction).

It occurred to me reading Martin Shaw's beautiful and arresting re-telling and commentary on Parsifal (Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet, Black Branch of Language) that Parsifal's question is not one we grant sufficient space to either in our private or public worlds. We surf our sufferings seeking distraction rather than quietly listening to them, hearing their complex voices that can weave cathartic and potentially liberating stories. We bustle on past other people's ailings, like the Levite on the road to Jerusalem, convinced that our work, our solutions are more important than listening to the Samaritan's call, blooded and beaten, from the roadside.

The evidence for this is everywhere - but one small political example from last week will suffice. In the UK, the UK Independence Party won its first elected parliamentarian. Whatever else this was - support for a liked local MP of integrity for example - it was a cry for 'ordinary people' to be heard by a remote, detached establishment. Did anyone pause, listen, ask what is it that ails folk? Not a bit of it. After muffled stutterings about the need to pay attention to the electorate on flowed the 'interpretations' of what people really meant, what should be done about it, etc etc...

"What ails you?" is a good and necessary question too little asked with the answers too little heeded.

It would be a question that we might necessarily ask of our planet too, our home, and if we listened to those cries perhaps we would learn the gallantry of genuinely caring for our place, rather than despoiling it. The Fisher King sits wounded at every place the world is ruptured from the path of its own self-healing, which is now too many places to count.

Martin Shaw's book does not directly address these issues but asks ones that are deeply related. What does it mean to listen to our stories and allow ourselves to be carried and instructed by them? What does it look like to allow ourselves to grow from brash, if necessary, ignorance, like Parsifal, through initiatory challenge and breaking, to maturing insight and wisdom? And, what does this particular story have to show us, here and now, in this our age?

Strikingly one of the things it points to (and remember this is a medieval tale) is that spirituality belongs as much to those that listen as to those that instruct and that spirituality is a more common, and vast, universe than 'religion'. Strikingly none of the truth bearers in Eschenbach's tale are priests or monks (or even nuns). The hermit, Parsifal encounters and learns from, was a knight and a lover and shows no signs of any truck with official religion; and, the central driver of the story is a wild virgin crone of the forest whose words are penetrating truth drawn from the earth, as well as heaven!

But as Martin rightly points out, every story has its meanings, each one glimmers with multiple facets that will show themselves forth differently at different times, on different occasions and on the lips of different tellers. That is the joy of story, amongst much else they teach you how to question and how to listen, for you never enter the same story twice.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Terrible Love of War

General Patton was visibly anxious as the Second World War came to an end with no more Nazis to kill and physically relieved when he realised that there was a new Soviet enemy.

Kant believed it was ingrained in human nature.

Apparently sane, middle class children from sound backgrounds hasten to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State to perpetuate murderous mayhem in a perceived 'good cause'.

What is this all about - this strange attraction of violence?

Whatever it is about, there is obviously no simple solution, nothing is going to 'eradicate' it any time soon (whatever we may need to do, in the moment, to protect ourselves)?

It appears to be something that at a macro level virtually everyone deplores (or participates in reluctantly) yet at a micro level - at the textural level of our lived lives - all too many hastily throw themselves into it.

That haste is perhaps a clue - the very haste of quick decision making that may make or break a fight or a battle or a war is the very impulsion that drives us into conflict in the first place, replacing a contemplative: 'do we really want to do this' with a 'it must be done'!

Thus a George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, and suggesting that bombing Islamic State may not be a solution is accused in the running underneath commentary of condemning people, here and now, to an untimely end. It is not clear, however, whether the strategy of simply bombing has, in fact, saved anyone (and even the more prolonged and complex expedient of 'boots on the ground' leads to remorseless unforeseen consequence). The war to end wars has not yet been devised. The war to perpetuate war is always with us.

What is striking is that the resources we deploy in trying to figure out what is going on, whether material or imaginative, are remarkably small (indeed insignificant) when compared to the resources deployed going deeper into our entanglements.

Will this always be the case? Is it, as Kant suggests, simply an ingrained ingredient of human nature?

That it is an ingredient is a truism, it's inevitability is not, I think. It is perfectly conceivable to imagine communities that, painstakingly, have constructed ways and means of imagining themselves beyond a lot of violence, who think in terms of shame and restitution rather than guilt and punishment. One thinks of the Amish and shunning or certain Native American groups and their practice of restorative justice or indeed medieval Italian city states fighting wars of theatrical display, limited casualties, and the to and fro surrendering of a castle here, a village there.

Thinking about a common thread, it occurs to me that they were places where people are (or were) (relatively) clear and content in their identities, practiced lives that are (or were) relatively leisurely and lived within (relative) abundance. They, also, live(d) with a vivid sense of the reality of evil - not as the possession of some 'other' people or group but of a force capable of possessing all (including themselves) against which you maintained a certain vigilance.

We neither know who we are (and there is no coherent pathways of initiation) nor grant ourselves leisure because we imagine we live in a world of scarcity, created by our continuous needs (for emotional presence as well as goods).

This is where peace begins, as Aldous Huxley noted in his utopia, 'Island'. In an upbringing that anchors us in an emotional security that allows us the leisure of abundance. Huxley's portrayal of his (threatened appropriately by oil exploration) utopia is compelling by its overwhelming practicality. It emphasises proper childhood attachment that we know reduces aggression, extols the virtues of spiritual practice that enhance mastery, identity and security and a social system that recognises that we have enough, to quote Gandhi, to meet everyone's need but not their greed. What it lacks perhaps, and which Native American cultures knew so well, was the liminal edginess of initiation and some extreme sports but no utopia is perfect! But that would be a reality worth not fighting for...



Monday, October 6, 2014

The Divine Within


'The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment' is a selection of essays and talks by Aldous Huxley originally printed in 'Vedanta and the West', the journal of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, whose editors included Christopher Isherwood (pictured here, left, with Huxley).

They are elegant, lucid and readable, packed with memorable aphorisms. Occasionally Huxley adopts the poise of a Victorian pamphleteer earnest upon us adopting the right course but the dominant tone is of a compassionate man, embarked on a journey towards a deepening spiritual experience. This experience of ultimate reality is embodied in the life of certain saintly practitioners (of every major tradition) and is the standard by which we must all be judged. What matters is realisation and the loving life that flows from this. What matters is responding to our invitation to holiness, wholeness, an invitation that is open to all.

Huxley is never an apologist for religion - in many of its forms it has palpably been a force for evil. What people believe, and what they do with that belief, matters and there is no excusing our ability to believe evil things and make them absolutes. At the same time, there is, at religion's heart, an account of reality that can be verified in each and every person's experience if they are willing to follow the instructions of the mystic(s) and taste and see for themselves.

In a beautiful essay at the book's end, Huxley quietly dissects the differences between a religion of direct experience from religions embodied in myth and religions embodied in conceptual frames and the manipulation of symbol. All three, of course, hang together but validity only fully lies with the former: one that sets down words, is sceptical about absolutist claims and lures one towards a life of perpetual transformation, ever passing on into the deepening mystery of God (to quote St Gregory of Nyssa).

He would not have excused the Islamic State, for example, from being the products of religion. Their barbarity of prideful egotism is one of the options down which a need to believe has always flowed. He would have never imagined too that their nasty pursuit of an absolute idolatry was the final word. The truth in its uncapturable compassion keeps breaking through. (Nor as a pacifist would he have imagined that bombing IS would yield much result either - and would have pointed out that our 'urge to do something' has a long history of deleterious consequence).

Huxley's own journey is deeply fascinating from satirical agnostic, haunted by God, to compassionate witness to human possibility, grounded in God. Both the most articulate imaginer of a dystopia, rooted in the manipulation of our biology, and a most articulate defender of the reality of consciousness being prior from which all else is emergent, including our constraining biology.

Most vividly of all is the clarity of his sentences - they simply unfold both the most complex matters and the most confoundingly simple with grace, wit and style. It is a delight to know that all of his major works remain in print and that they continue to be added to, of which this volume is one.

The search for understanding

Kent Nerburn received a call. It was a Lakota Indian woman on behalf of her grandfather. Would Kent come and visit him? Dan, the grandf...