Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An Autobiography

The plainest of titles, though the original version was called 'The Story and the Fable', graces Edwin Muir's account of his life up until his departure from the British Council in Rome in the early 1950s.

I am re-reading it ahead of a talk on Muir that I am giving in Totnes in May at the wonderfully entitled 'Consciousness Cafe' http://totnesconsciousnesscafe.co.uk/ (where I am back apparently by popular request (sic)...well, at least, the audience will get to hear some fabulous poems)!

It is a most wonderful book and were I to be cast on Desert Island Discs, it would be one of the two books that I would have to wrestle between as my choice to join the Bible and Shakespeare. (The other would be Patrick White's 'The Riders in the Chariot').

It is so for many feelings. The first would be its account of the intensity of being a child in a place where time was yet not, where every moment was sufficient unto itself, and imagined in innocence beautifully.

The second would be for its account of what it means to fall from that space. First into the pattern of self-consciousness, of recognising internal division. Second by an external expulsion from the 'paradisial' Orkney (though not without its historic failings) into an industrial Glasgow that stripped Muir of his family as they sucuumbed to illness and death in starkly short order.

Third would be for his rescue - by the communal help of cultural improvement fuelled by a resilient (now sadly faded) socialism, by the ministrations of a brilliant editor and nurturer of talent, A.R. Orage; and, most triumphantly, through the love of a great woman, his wife, Willa.

Fourth would be the searchingly honest account of a man in search of meaning, outside the scope of a recognisable tradition, yet being discovered by meaning through the faithfulness of his search and his willingness and ability to follow attentively the promptings of his experience, not least in his listening to his dreams. There is a wonderful moment when the failed convert (of his parents' hoped for Christian revivalism as an adolescent) suddenly finds himself praying, the Lord's Prayer, or, more accurately, being prayed by it and realising that he was a Christian, though of a radically inclusive kind and one never tempted to cross the threshold of a denomination.

Fifth would be his account of the making of a poet who with Yeats (and possible David Jones, in a different key) was the most imaginatively gifted English language poet of the twentieth century. If by imagination we mean what Blake meant - that faculty of the soul that reveals and embodies objective truth.

Sixth would be his commitment to the 'soul'. Human beings can only be understood as immortal beings. We only come close to comprehending the heights and depths of ourselves when we recognise this immortality.

Seventh would be the simply fact that he writes so well - with a modest, searching clarity that gently sings.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

"The Heart Could Never Speak"

‘The Heart could never Speak’

The heart could never speak
But that the Word was spoken
We hear the heart break
Here with hearts unbroken.
Time teach us the art
That breaks and heals the heart.

Heart you would be dumb
But that your word was said
In time, and the echoes come
Thronging from the dead.
Time teach us the art that resurrects the heart.

Tongue, you can only say
Syllables, joy and pain,
Till time, having its way,
Makes the word live again.
Time merciful lord,
Grant us to learn your word.

Edwin Muir

"The Heart Could Never Speak: Existentialism and Faith in a Poem of Edwin Muir" is George Pattison's (Lady Margaret Hall Professor of Divinity at Oxford's) imaginative and moving commentary on this, one of Muir's posthumously published poems.

It is a poem that reminds us that we speak because we have been spoken to. Language is a communal gift that comes from love. There is a beautiful passage where Pattison uses Helen Keller's example, emerging from her deaf/blind world, to illustrate this. Her breakthrough discovery one day that the 'w-a-t-e-r' traced on her hand was the substance that tumbled, cold, over them. Interestingly though Keller is immediately recognisable, who is Anne Mansfield Sullivan? She was Helen's teacher whose creativity and suffering patience was as essential to birthing Helen as her own struggle. The communal nature of our coming to be is always present in Muir: 'WE hear the heart break... Grant US to learn your word'.

It moves from our common failure to hear the breaking heart, the sorrow that permeates our condition, as we speak through and over it, to the possibility that we might learn, in time, the art of listening that comes through recognising our own brokenness, out of which we might learn real speech, that grants to ourselves and others, words through which we might live.

The poem, as Pattison shows, works both on a 'purely' human level and on one where the sacred references are taken seriously. Where 'the Word' that makes speech possible, is the Logos on whose patterning the world was created as God's gifting'. Where the time mercifully granted that we might learn the word that is healing speech is not the simple flow of time that takes everything away, running down to death, collapsing into ruins, but the moment where time intersects eternity granting meaning to both.

The whole poem can be seen as prayer - a prayer to mend our speech and time in the mindfulness of the giftedness of both - and like prayer aims at granting a 'moment' of the stillness and silence out of which our lives can listen to a response and gift a response in return.

It reminds me that Muir was a profoundly political poet - not in terms of a commitment to particular allegiances - Auden's youthful communism or T.S. Eliot's High Tory Anglicanism - but at a more radically basic level - what do we need to imagine and be so that we can joyfully live with one another?

There can be nothing more basic than we listen to each other's broken speech and respond with a healing word by which together we can live.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Saved by beauty




Dostoevsky confessed to his journal that it was 'beauty that would save the world' (and had Prince Myshkin in 'The Idiot' pronounce likewise). But what did he mean?

In part, he meant that in recognising that the world is a gifted creation, holy and beautiful, we would be reminded that we too are gifted into being, and fashioned as 'icons' of God.

Nature is the book in which we read God's presence and respond in worship, transformation, and care (to paraphrase St Anthony the Great).

Bruce Foltz in his 'The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible' explores this theme with lucid intelligence. If we are to 'save the world' (and ourselves for the Creation is one), we cannot rely simply on either 'ethics' or 'pragmatism'. We must learn to see, dwell in and love the world's beauty and see its disordering as a 'dis-graceful' enactment of our failure to be truly human.

We find the resources to explore this way of seeing and being in Orthodox Christianity (in which Dostoevsky dwelt) that, unlike Western Christianity, has systematically valued the Creation as our dwelling place and home, whose transfiguration is an integral part of our own redemption. It is a world that can be seen aright, now, as paradise, if we are led to step out of our 'half-tied vision of things', our 'doors of perception are cleansed' and we come to see with purity of heart.

This is beautifully evoked in a passage from St Isaac of Syria, a passage Dostoevsky treasured, and which Foltz quotes several times.

"An elder was asked, 'What is a compassionate heart?' He replied:

'It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person's eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation.'"

What is compelling about Foltz book is that he brings this tradition into dialogue not only with Western Christianity but with environmental philosophy and the tradition of nature writing (represented by Thoreau, John Muir, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry etc...) in ways that are deeply fruitful, untangling knots, correcting errors, salving dilemmas; and, deepening ways of seeing.

He shows how it allows us to see that the world as a place that dwells in God and through which God can be seen without ever sacrificing the transcendence of God, of a reality that always leads us deeper, that allows us to see the world as icon but never as idol.

But, essentially, it allows us to begin to reclaim a language about 'beauty' that is objective and that we sense in our hearts is a truth bearer. It recognises that the first place in which 'aesthetics' is born is in our natural home, the world, before it is applied to 'art', and that far from being a little populated sub-branch of philosophy, it is a way of seeing and thinking that is at the heart of things.

A recovery of which may just save the world.

"The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars... Aloysha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages."

The Brothers Karamazov: Dostoevsky.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Seeking friend Judas


An Anglican priest friend was talking to a class of eight year olds at his local Church of England primary school about Easter.

"Can anyone tell me what happened on Good Friday?" Many hands shot up, "That is the day they killed Jesus," they said.

"Can anyone tell me what happened on Easter Sunday?" Fewer hands were raised with a little less certainty but the answer was clear, "That's the day that He came back from the dead."

"So, can anyone tell me what happened, in between, on the Saturday?" One hand goes up, only one, and the boy says, "Yes, that is the day Jesus went in search of his friend, Judas."

Or, as the poet, Edwin Muir, put it, at the end of his poem, 'The Transfiguration'.

"And Judas damned take his long journey backward
From darkness into light and be a child
Beside his mother's knee and the betrayal
Be quite undone and never more be done."

For, as Muir also wrote, in his poem, "The Good Man in Hell":

"One doubt of evil would bring down such a grace,
Open such a gate, and Eden could enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
And love and hate and life and death begin."

This is, at its heart, the reality of Easter that evil is unwound and its dominion is no more. This, sadly, at the subjective level of our everyday doings does not appear to be true. Though goodness is coming to us, though it is always coming to us, few there are that have the simplicity and the courage to believe it, and act out of it. Yet the seed of doubt has been sown in Jesus' life, death and resurrection and our task is to remember it, nurture it, embody it.

Some, a few, not me, will do this saintly, others may simply be confined to growing a few seeds on a window ledge, my more likely path, but in this practice of sowing the seeds of doubt that evil and violence have a final word, have finally any word at all, lies the hope of the world.

We begin by going in search of our friend, Judas, whoever s/he may be for us.

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A baptised imagination

C.S. Lewis picked up a copy of George MacDonald's 'Phantastes' as a seventeen year old on a railway platform, not knowing what he was letting himself in for, given that this nineteenth century author had already fallen out of favour. It was, he later wrote, like having his imagination 'baptised'.

Baptised in a double sense. First it acted as a confirmation of the faculty of the imagination as a way of apprehending the world, a world enlarged from the patterns of common sense and 'realism', into a more spacious and flexible universe. Second that the tendency of that imagination to be 'polymorphous' (even 'polytheistic') could be aligned within a gifted and searching Christian sensibility.

In many ways it was reading this remarkable novel that sealed Lewis' fate both as a gifted scholar of the medieval and renaissance imagination (where MacDonald's sympathies also lay, coupled with German Romanticism) and as a writer of imaginative fiction for children of all ages (as MacDonald himself described his art or for the 'eternal child' that is in all ages).

Reading it again, after the passage of time, I am struck with how it both manages to be utterly Victorian in that weaving of romance, faery and fantasy that feels time bound (and a combination that MacDonald helped create) and which explains the falling away of his reputation almost immediately after his death; and, how it 'resurrects' as a work of timeless imaginative grace that if you allow it begins its work of speaking eternal possibilities. In this it is wholly unlike 'Alice in Wonderland', penned by MacDonald's great friend, Lewis Carroll, that is both in form and content of a piece, timelessly modern, and yet an highly gifted entertainment rather than a work of soul making.

'Phantastes' and C.S. Lewis' love of it, also, confirms for me my puzzlement that Lewis ever became such a 'evangelical Protestant icon' because though radically and deeply Christian, he shares with MacDonald an imagination that is 'universalist' in direction. Salvation comes to all who act out of purity of heart and God speaks to purity long before His voice penetrates to the merely believing! A faithful atheist, heartily at home in his material world, yet caring for all is more likely to taste the mystery of God than the 'Christian' who certain in his dogma cannot bring himself to love his 'neighbours' without first checking qualifying shared beliefs!

It is a beautiful book where its 'hero', Anodos, is taken on a journey into 'faery-land' and slowly learns that what matters most deeply is the 'de-centring' of one's ego, that dies into a new life where happiness is vicarious, it is born out of being centred in the joy of others. We spring into genuine being when our being is lost and found in the other. This is a process, a dynamic, rather than a once and for all event. We live in an ever-deepening journey into a luring mystery that has no end. The journey's logic is that of imaginative proximity, not the cause and effect of the 'real world', of a 'fairy story'.

You can see why it is a novel beloved of poets (even when MacDonald's own attempts at real poetry are frankly a bit dire)!

 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Beyond the House of the False Lama

"Well did you find it? Did you find Shambhala?" they would ask when I returned.
"No," I would say. "I found what in this world is truer."
"And what's that?" they might ask. "What is truer than Shambhala?"
And I would answer, "Its opposite."

Rather than discover a hidden monastery, fully functioning and graced, in the mountains of Inner Mongolia, in the footsteps of his friend and teacher, the engaging monk Tsung Tsai, the nomadic, sometime poet, Zen bum, George Crane, finds only ruins. He has come to Outer Mongolia, propelled ever forward and escaping a third failed marriage, to the Gobi Desert in autumn, and with his new friend, the filmmaker Jumaand, stand at the place of one of the many monasteries that were destroyed on the orders of Stalin.

Crane is (as his loving third wife intimates as she shows him the door) fabulous to travel with, impossible to live with. He is a man of relentless new directions, that he follows with either intuitive grace or a whim of iron (often both). He writes about his journeys, and encounters on the way, vividly, poetically and with a dash of philosophy mixed in. His eye is both honest and compassionate, and he never spares himself (of either the honesty or the compassion).

He is, at heart, a pessimist - the world, especially the human world, is a ruined place and we, all of us, more often than not, barbarians (as the above encounter illustrates) - and yet he wants to countervail this hard eyed knowing with a desire to seize the moment, lustily, openly, creatively. We can imagine ourselves into a different world, if only 'now'. He is most penetrating when discussing how our 'facts' last only as long as we can imagine them into stories. It is the stories that last not what is meant to have happened 'in reality'. Poetry carries an imaginative truth long after the facts pass into the unknowns of a forgotten history.

This book 'a sequel' to his best selling, 'The Bones of the Master' (where he travels to China with Tsung Tsai) but is less focused than the former book, and loses something for not having (except in its opening section) the foil of the engagement with the 'Master' but is nonetheless a marvellous reflective travelogue bristling with extraordinary characters, striking experiences, and the sensibility of a poet. His description of edging death in a failing sailboat on an edge of a hurricane is a tour de force and if his travelling companions are part real, part exaggerated, none the worse for that.

It's end is in discovering a place in Mongolia that is said to be the place where the wind is born and George sets off in pursuit. It would be an apt home for a man that the Spirit blows where it listeth and for whom the direction and the movement is all, hoping against hope, that there is never a final arrival.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book revealing

Newly arrived in Swiss apartment, shelves assembled (two in the living area, three in the study, two in one of the bedrooms) and now where to put which books becomes the question.

Konrad Adenaeur, Germany's post-war Chancellor, first act on entering a new house was to inspect its owner's bookshelves. I do the same at the first opportunity, probably more surreptitiously than he. I expect many people do. 

So what would I like people to see? And is it what I would like people to see or a genuine reflection of who I am?

As I happily went about resolving these dilemmas (and there is something satisfactorily physical about sorting, carrying and re-arranging books), I began to notice another pattern that I have noticed before but has never quite struck me with such force (not least for having sufficient space to lay out all the books I have bought with me).

I am both an intuitive reader and one that falls in love. 

The first is illustrated by how many 'subjects' might be covered by only one book. Since the books I have read that turned out to be false trails tend to have been disposed of, this does not illustrate a simple superficial skimming (though I have every temptation to accuse myself of this) but that in reading that particular book I have seen something I have needed, valued and reading more would add knowledge but no more 'insight'. I thought of this when handling Bebek's 'The Third City' - a remarkable and virtually unknown exploration of Plato in the light of the sophia perennis. It might have lead one down a path of Platonic scrutiny and discovery but rather it confirmed, gave frame, to what I had seen of Plato (reading him at university) that I use to this day but feel no urge to add to! 

The second is the small number of clusters around, usually, an author or a theme. With all of which I have vivid memory of my first 'encounter' and if not quite 'love at first sight' a bibliophile version of the same. Thus, there was Martin Buber, most of the key texts, and a number of secondary studies of that key 'framer' of my understanding (such as it is) or the 'prayer of the heart', book after book, on that key practice at the heart of Orthodox spiritual life and my core practice that I fell in love with when reading 'The Way of the Pilgrim' and in Metropolitan Anthony found a living teacher.

Then I was struck at just how personal this collection is - it has no 'external' ought associated with it - that I 'ought' to know this or that. Thus, for example, it is perfectly clear to me that in order to understand 'English literature', one ought to have read Milton (say) and that several of the people I do read have exercised great intelligence (and fortitude) entering Milton's imagination and responding to it both as poets and critics. This is wholly admirable but I cannot do it (and I have tried). In truth, though I could no doubt hold forth for a while on a potted history of English literature, I do not fundamentally care! I have no desire to be (in that sense) an educated person.

That last sentence might be a simple one to write but has probably taken all of my decades to screw up the courage to admit! I read out of love and essentially to help me navigate towards holiness (incorporating the felt wholeness of being a person) and that helps me act intelligently towards the care of the world. That is all that really interests me.

Is this, I wonder, the shift that Jung describes between the first and second half of life. After establishing oneself in the world, you turn inwards, towards a deeper crafting of meaning, and that, in this case, the library I have now got is a reflection of this turn - the 'ought' books having passed away (populating Oxfam shops in abundance)!



Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Revolting Gothic

I remember being taken through Skopje, in Macedonia, by my realtor in the 90s and asking her what she thought of the (relatively) modern Orthodox cathedral in its centre. 'It is too Catholic,' she replied. I puzzled over what she meant until I found a clue in an interview that the philosopher, Jacob Needleman, conducted with Metropolitan Anthony, in his remarkable book, 'Lost Christianity'. Metropolitan Anthony was the long running representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in London. A remarkable man: insightful, holy, penetrating with extraordinary eyes that looking at you felt seen, through and through.

In the interview, the Metropolitan is describing why he had always been revolted by the 'Gothic' in architecture. In it all is ascent, a striving after, something vertical that is absenting itself - it is not a place that you receive as 'home' as you would a Romanesque church (or a traditional Orthodox one), where you are encompassed in a story that flows horizontally around you, and where God is not 'up there' but present, presence. The vast, concrete interior space of the Skopje cathedral captured that Gothic displacement, not a Orthodox homeliness.

I was thinking of this in relation to my prior entry on 'Zen' and in continuing to read R.H. Blyth's classic, 'Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics', and why it matters that we 'see' 'symbolism' as a compensatory 'mistake' rather than an exalted form of meaning making. It is what emerges when a gap opens up between 'the real' and our current state as a kind of bridging mechanism. Ideally, we cross over the bridge, to the 'other shore' and leave it behind but, more often than not, we tarry on the 'bridge' finding every excuse for not crossing over. After all 'symbols' can be very alluring, we can spend any amount of time pondering their meanings (and arguing over them) and our attachment to them gives us an exalted sense of identity (rather than losing our identity in the presence-ing of things).

It is why 'religion' is so inordinately attractive and so dangerous and why, to quote a Buddhist parable, 'if you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him' rather than turn him into a bridging symbol of what you would 'like' to but cannot attain.

I remember another question and answer session with a remarkable Russian. This time the film director, Andrei Tarkovsky, where he was asked, 'What is the symbolism of rain in your films?' (as it often is). To which Tarkovsky replied, 'No symbolism, just rain'! What does it require of us to penetrate through to seeing 'just rain' in all its suchness?

 

The Girl who sang to the Buffalo

The final volume in Kent Nerburn's moving trilogy of books built around his relationship with an Indian elder, Dan, whose life commi...