Monday, August 31, 2015

Transfiguring thinkers

The Transfiguration by Patrick Pye

The common thread that runs through Andrew Louth's 'Modern Orthodox Thinkers' is the unity of being and knowing. Knowledge in pursuit of the spiritual life is never abstract. It can be reasonably, rationally argued, but it is fully truth only when lived out as the integral aspect in a transformed person, community; and, ultimately cosmos.

Louth weaves this thread deftly and with consummate clarity through the lives of a radically diverse group of people who yet belong to the same overarching tradition that of the Orthodox Church.

The story begins with the publication and dissemination of the Philokalia at the end of the eighteenth century that remarkable collection of practical texts on living the mystical life within Orthodox monasticism. What is striking is that most of these texts were meant for a monastic audience and meant to be read in conjunction with the live guidance of a spiritual elder; however, the editors took the risk of letting them out into 'the world.' Maybe they were (unconsciously) foreseeing the latter birth of what two of the twentieth century thinkers explored in the book call an 'interior monasticism'; and, the possible diminishment of reliance on external guides and the evolution of a more democratic spirituality (though, I expect, they would be consciously disturbed by such a trend).

This publication in turn fed into a revival of authentic monasticism, especially in Russia and particularly at the Optina monastery, that played such a significant role in the Russian Religious Renaissance at the opening of the twentieth century and into the diaspora following the Russian revolution.

Louth's book is deliberately embodied in the lives, not merely the thinking, of his selected thinkers, seeing how both their personal questions and cultural context shaped their responses to the world. They were responses that often went beyond simply writing and teaching, spreading into organizing Church life, developing ecumenism and serving the poor and the marginalized. This took Mother (now St) Maria of Paris into the heart of darkness, namely the Ravensbruck concentration camp, as she sought to protect Jewish families deportation from her adopted France. It led to her death there, a martyr, optimistic and smiling to the end, a good woman reproving hell.

The chapter I confess to most enjoying was that on one of the two subjects I have known - the lay theologian, translator of Greek poetry and the Philokalia and writer on art, Philip Sherrard. Though a delightful person in person, there was the whiff of the Old Testament prophet in Philip when he took to correspondence. He was, as I was, a friend of the poet, Kathleen Raine, and she would remark periodically on receiving a letter from Philip replete with multiple denunciations of the perceived intellectual failings of modernity. I remember we had a fierce exchange on the subject of salvation. I having had the temerity of suggesting that it had a communal (and indeed cosmic) dimension to which we might be evolving (evolution was not a word in Philip's lexicon)!

Be this as it may, Andrew Louth in a few pages brings out the essence of Philip's concerns - whether it be for the sacred nature, implicit and explicit, in Greek poetry, his sensitivity as a translator, his love of a particular place and all it can reveal to the person (in his case Greece), his defence of beauty and his analysis of how a failure to envision a truly sacred vision for the person corrupts our ability to live in and tend the world, broken as it is in deepening ecological crisis, and the need in that tending to recognise that all that lives is holy.

Most of all the book reminds me of what I have most deeply love in Orthodoxy - a vision (however differently and faultily applied) of a Christianity that at its depth offers a returning paradise where everything is at home, healed and at one.

St Silouan of Athos, also featured in the book, expressed it beautifully. He was once asked if, at the end of time, there would be anyone left in hell and he replied simply, 'Love could not bear it'. All would be restored in all and love would be the last, abiding dance.

 A theme most beautifully expressed in my favourite poet and poem:


The Transfiguration

So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? Was the change in us alone,
And the enormous earth still left forlorn,
An exile or a prisoner? Yet the world
We saw that day made this unreal, for all
Was in its place. The painted animals
Assembled there in gentle congregations,
Or sought apart their leafy oratories,
Or walked in peace, the wild and tame together,
As if, also for them, the day had come.
The shepherds’ hovels shone, for underneath
The soot we saw the stone clean at the heart
As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps
Were grained with that fine dust that made the world;
For he had said, ‘To the pure all things are pure.’
And when we went into the town, he with us,
The lurkers under doorways, murderers,
With rags tied round their feet for silence, came
Out of themselves to us and were with us,
And those who hide within the labyrinth
Of their own loneliness and greatness came,
And those entangled in their own devices,
The silent and the garrulous liars, all
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free.
Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred; no human voice
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
And blossoms for itself while time runs on.


But he will come again, it’s said, though not
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
And all mankind from end to end of the earth
Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden,
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.

Edwin Muir

http://ncolloff.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/my-favourite-poem.html

The Face in Glory


"Any face, however, worn or almost destroyed, the moment we regard it with the heart's gaze, reveals itself as unique, inimitable, free from any repetition. One can analyse its components, take apart coldly, or cruelly, the way they are assembled, and thus consign it to the world of objects that one can explain, that is to say, possess. Regarded against the background of the night, of the nothing, the face is an inhabited archipelago. a disqualifying caricature. Regarded from the side of the sun, the face reveals an other, someone, a reality that one cannot decompose, classify 'understand', for it is always beyond, strangely absent when one wants to seize it, but which radiates from its beyond whenever one agrees to open oneself to it, to 'put one's faith' in it, as the old language admirably puts it."

'Le Visage Interieur' by Oliver Clement

An Old Jew: Rembrandt


Saturday, August 29, 2015

Lamenting: a Filial Appeal to His Holiness

510061 signatures and counting (including 'personalities' - including a Polish MP and the Auxiliar Bishop of Astana that you are helpfully reminded is in Kazakstan) have attached themselves to a petition to Pope Francis ahead of the synod on the family in October hoping for a word to dispel the faithful's confusion. http://www.filialappeal.org/

This confusion, about the status of the family, known usually as the 'traditional family unit', is under sustained attack (apparently since the 'so-called May 1968 Sorbonne revolution') by dark forces that have resulted in rising fears "from witnessing a decades-long sexual revolution promoted by an alliance of powerful organizations, political forces and the mass media that consistently work against the very existence of the family as the basic unit of society." (The lack of understanding of the variegated history of the 'family' here is familiar and depressing as is the unwillingness to name and give a face to your presumed enemies. A failed grade in basic ethics from both St Thomas Aquinas and Levinas).

These sinister folk, helpfully unnamed presumably to allow the petitioner to evoke their own pet enemy - Jewish newspaper proprietors perhaps or confused French intellectuals achieving by gender theory what they manifestly failed to do with petrol bombs and sit-ins - are set on establishing "a morality opposed to both Divine and natural law" that is "been gradually and systematically imposed on us so implacably as to make it possible, for example, to teach the abhorrent “gender theory” to young children in many countries."

This creeping confusion may be about to enter the Church:

"Your Holiness, in light of information published on the last Synod, we note with anguish that, for millions of faithful Catholics, the beacon seems to have dimmed in face of the onslaught of lifestyles spread by anti-Christian lobbies. In fact we see widespread confusion arising from the possibility that a breach has been opened within the Church that would accept adultery—by permitting divorced and then civilly remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion—and would virtually accept even homosexual unions when such practices are categorically condemned as being contrary to Divine and natural law."

But a word from the Holy Father (though it is never specified what word or form of words) will dispel this confusion (like magic presumably) and children will be able to enter the light (freed from the wicked fairies brandishing their gender wands)!

They respectively remind the Pope that Jesus taught us very clearly that there should be coherence between life and truth and that the only way not to fall is by following His doctrines (quoting Matthew 7: 24-27 on the parable of the houses built upon rock and sand); and, close promising their prayers to the Holy Family (not exactly a traditional family unit) that the Pope may be enlightened. 

Now to concede a point - on divorce and remarriage. If you belong to a Church and are faithfully committed to it, you could imagine that it has the good sense to recognize that the truth in life is that marriages fail and that a humane and penitential process could allow for divorce and, likewise, for remarriage. This exists, imperfectly, but really, not in a bastion of post-1968 immorality, but in the Orthodox Church. You need concede nothing to the civil legislation of marriage and divorce and yet have a more loving and just regimen than you do presently. The 'legalistic' minds of the petitioners - that equate the current dilemmas of faithful Catholics, who have divorced and remarried in a civil context as 'adultery', does not give one much hope that this readily available option from a sister Church is likely to gain traction with them.  

However, it is not only the theological detail that most strikes one about this petition but its striking lack of historical consciousness (and the resulting lack of humility).

First and foremost is the irony of reversal - the Church was only too happy to impose its will when it had the institutional ability to do so and its darkness was not confined to teaching 'gender theory' in schools or proposing that free individuals make choices about their family arrangements (confused or otherwise). As Simone Weil noted, the Church will not recover (or discover) the true depth of its transformative possibilities until it repents of each and every moment it imagines (or imagined) that truth can be compelled. There should indeed be coherence, as the petition, reminds us between life and truth but that can only ever be a free act guided by conscience.

Second is the 'paranoia'. The Church now exists (as, in truth, it always has) in a pluralist society of competing value systems and ideas. Being opposed to (or disagreeing with) the Church's view on what constitutes human dignity and a flourishing society is not a 'sin' nor is it being 'anti-Christian' per se, nor specifically do the changes in morality (or societal arrangement) we have seen in the past decades emerge out of some grand conspiracy (of dark forces). Stuff happens, history is the flow of complex stuff happening and is usually experienced at the time as more or less confusing. By all means step into this confusion bearing clarity but do not imagine that you can simply impose clarity (a word or more from the Pope is not and never will be enough).

Third, and finally, petitioning (as an act of protest) is a valuable act but it is also a compromised one. As Alasdair MacIntyre, a convert to Catholicism, pointed out in 'After Virtue' - protest used to have a dual meaning as much as to bear witness to as to be against - you used to be able to protest the truth. It has been emptied of this meaning because we have lost a sense of human ends, an agreed journey point towards human flourishing, rooted in an accepted narrative of what it means to be human. The Church, at is best, is the carrier of a supremely beautiful narrative of humanity (that is, in practice, marred by many lapses both in thought and practice). At the heart of that narrative is the vulnerability to love, a love that embraces the stranger and the enemy. 

There is in this petition no indication of such a vulnerability, of stepping into a world without sides, but of being on 'a side', the 'winning' side (though presently afraid of 'losing') and it is fear, not love, that, sadly, hovers over the text.









Thursday, August 27, 2015

Does everyone have a ghost story?

For a period growing up to get to my (older) brother's bedroom, you had to pass through mine. One evening lying in bed (and before my brother had gone to bed), I lay awake and found myself listening to the drawers of my brother's chest of drawers open and shut, open and shut, in sequence, and with each drawer opening more than once. I was frozen in fear, jolted with excitement. Either there was a burglar with an unhealthy fascination for the contents of a teenager's cabinet or an unknown agency that was for unknown reasons opening and shutting the drawers. The problem with the first explanation was that he would have had to climb through a window suspended over a shared passageway at an hour unlikely to be undisturbed (and, in any case, it was winter, the window was shut and had as distinctive a sound as the drawers did).

A minor mystery that, though it remains wholly memorable, casts the kind of doubt that our cognitive conservatism sponsors. Draws do not open and shut by themselves (or by ghostly agency), so I must have misheard or be dreaming (or simply be fabricating this story) excepting, of course, that ghostly agencies are well attested - and presumably mine can be attributed to a poltergeist phenomena.

But apart from their shock value to our complacent materialist paradigm (not in itself unimportant) how might they feature in one's spiritual life?

A traditional religious viewpoint might be to acknowledge yet exclude them from consideration. Unusual experiences may be real but are distractions from treading the spiritual path, possibly simply distracting or indeed opportunities for subtle (or not so subtle) egotism. Look at me - I can see or manifest unique experiences! This is often the counsel over the siddhis - the powers purported to be manifested by practitioners of varied forms of yoga discipline, fascinating, maybe possibly useful, but tangential to the transformation of consciousness towards enlightenment (and St Theresa of Avila found her tendency to levitate wholly inconveniencing).

However, Michael Grosso, an American philosopher and artist, thinks otherwise. In his 'Soulmaking: Uncommon Paths to Self-Understanding', he explores ways that such uncanny experiences may help us to a better understanding of ourselves and our possibilities in the world. He invites us to pay attention to the marvellous (as well as the marvellous in the everyday). Many of the experiences that Grosso explores are his own or those that were directly brought to him when his interest and obvious sympathy became known. It is a sympathy that carries credence but never credulity and his 'explanations' are always explorative and open.

The story that moved me most was of one of his students who repeatedly dreamt of a young boy at a sea shore, with haunting eyes and a white cape. Everyone in the dream warned the dreamer not to touch him, a warning she ignored. The first time she did so, she woke to find her hand coated in a black substance of unknown origin, a manifestation that was to recur. What was most striking, however, was every time she refused to follow the young boy's promptings in her waking life, her life began to fall apart, accidents would strike, misunderstandings abound. Every time she followed the promptings, most deeply relating to the expression of her own gifts, her life returned to an even keel and a sense of accompanying wonder. Following her gifts, however, required her to swim against the tide of her immediate families resistance to her following her 'weird' (as the Anglo-Saxons would have called it), a destiny with which her dream child appeared to be intimately related. One of her family that belittled her was an aunt who, sadly, lived a life of quiet desperation having failed to live out her own aspirations; and, in a striking moment, Grosso dreams of this aunt in minute detail, even though at this stage, he did not know of her existence (and certainly not what she looked like).

You are left not only deeply pondering the relationship between inner and outer worlds (at multiple levels) and how subtly connected we may be, but cast back into thinking of vocation. Do we all carry within a 'puer aeternus' - an immortal child - that holds a key to how we may most fruitful be and serve the world?

There is, also, his story of how he dreamt (three times) of the assassination of President Reagan and how (given his interests), he had already communicated the details to a friend who could then confirm their accuracy. As he says, precognition truly does test our understanding of the world but the alternatives are equally disconcerting and all imply action between minds at a distance (unless one simply assumes one is mistaken or the world is improbably coincidental). You could wonder why Grosso did not try and warn the President (after all this was not his first precognitive dream) until, of course, you realise how it would appear (and the sheer difficulty of any public figure telling a true insight from multiple offerings given their capacity to generate all kinds of projection - as indeed Reagan was sinisterly from Hinckley, the man who shot him)!

Grosso at the opening quotes Heraclitus reminding us that we are unfathomed, that the scope of our possibilities are not known, and each of Grosso's stories and their accompanying meditation opens, rather than closes, future enquiry.

So what of the opening and shutting of drawers? How would they carry meaning? One they do carry is to remind me every time that, even in more mundane realms of life, I think I have it all sewn up and explained maybe my certainty is premature. Every system of explanation is an experiment after truth rather than its foreclosure.  It, also, reminds me that in listening to others, the first default should be honouring their experience (as a conversation only this weekend demonstrated). As I discovered when working with people in prison, people have extraordinarily rich, including uncanny, lives and we live in a culture that so often defaults to belittling them rather opening them out to wonder. The traditional teachers of religion rightly counsel caution, but caution should never be an excuse for closure.



Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tolstoy's paradoxical tomb

A short walk from the house at Yasnaya Polyana you come across the green mound that is Tolstoy's unmarked grave. It was, when I first saw it, preternaturally green, standing out from its surroundings (as if a Tolstoyan came by night sprinkling fertilizer). It is an apt physical parable for the paradox at the heart of Tolstoy's life - a man who wanted to be self-effacing, to surrender his worldly possessions to the peasants and go anonymously a wandering like a pilgrim or strannik yet who was every inch an aristocrat, equipped with an overlarge ego who found himself a global celebrity, a status not wholly unwelcome!

Rosamund Bartlett's 'Tolstoy: A Russian Life" is an accomplished account of this multi-faceted man.

Tolstoy was a passionate rationalist and rationaliser.

No sooner had he completed six years of work on War and Peace than he began work on a primer of Russian grammar designed to make acquiring literacy more possible for the newly emancipated peasants, simplifying and rationalising the teaching of a language as he went.

He adopted a similar approach to Christianity. Out went the miracles, the Trinity and the Church leaving Jesus a radical pacifist, close to the earth, living a simple life and hostile to organised religion, radically close to Tolstoy's own self-image!

The passion had its shadow side. He could drop a cause or strand of work as quickly as he had adopted it. A raid by the secret police on his estate (whilst he was away) so outraged his dignity as a nobleman that he abandoned for a number of years his experiment in schooling for the peasantry (which was the secret police's target)!

Tolstoy was a man of contradictions. That his identification with the peasants' simple life was accomplished in tailored smocks (carefully fashioned in Moscow) is but one (and a simple) example. He is a walking tribute to cognitive dissonance, his powers of rational thought notwithstanding.

He was too an endlessly difficult man. There is an episode she relates when Tolstoy went to visit the ailing Chekov in hospital no doubt with the best of intentions but ended up haranguing him so forcefully that it brought on another haemorrhage! I had a vivid image of being stuck in a lift with Tolstoy where he would challenge your use of this mechanical contrivance and upbraid you for it all the time forgetting that he was in the lift himself! Likewise, he abhorred both the railways and the telephone whilst utilising both!

If he knew and admired Chekov, his attitude to his contemporary and competitor as the 'great Russian novelist', namely Dostoyevsky, was more ambiguous, keeping, on the whole, his own counsel. One of the minor threads in the book is how these two literary giants failed to meet (though they were, unknowingly, once in the same room) at a lecture of the philosopher Vladimir Solov'ev (that predictably Tolstoy walked out of thinking it pretentious mystifying rubbish).

However difficult, Tolstoy was an undoubtedly highly principled and courageous man, as well as a great artist, who continuously challenged an oppressive state both in word and deed. For example in the 1890s, while the government fiddled in the face of widespread famine, Tolstoy was setting up soup kitchens and feeding people, raising money, attacking the government into action and persuading his friends, including Chekov, to muck in and help!

And a deeply influential one, you only have to ponder his influence on Gandhi to see this. 

However, not a prophet honoured in his own country, the centenary of his death was a muted affair in Russia (in 2010). An anarchist, a supporter of minorities, a non-believer in violence and in the Orthodox church, who had excommunicated him, is not one likely to endear himself to Mr Putin even if he is Russia's most famous writer (internationally)! It did not endear him to the Communists either who were happy to have him as a proto-revolutionary and a great writer but 'religious' 'anti-authoritarian' 'agrarian'...no thanks...and relentlessly persecuted the Tolstoyan communes that sought to bring his ideas to life (and Bartlett's last chapter commendably traces the tragic story of these communities).

You come away humbled by the achievements, spurred to return to his work and grateful that, unlike his benighted Sonya, one never had to live with him!


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Skillful post person arranging books

Back from a trip to Berlin (seven days) and I find my postbox full with skillfully arranged (and probably rearranged) packages as a result of my book buying mania having overcome the common sense of my approaching departure!

I can only be thankful that the curious nature of airline pricing (the true meaning of which will be one of the things that are revealed in the beatific vision) forced me home for a night before traveling onward to England.

I wish I could say that the cumulative pile offered an inner coherence but, sadly, my magpie nature, as usual, got the better of me.

The thickest book (one has to have some form of organizing principle) is a replacement copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch's 'A History of Christianity'. The previous copy having been lent out beyond hope of return, I thought I should acquire (and re-read) a replacement. It is as judicious and intelligent a study as one could hope for of the global religion which, despite the wishes of the new atheists, continues to grow apace; and, not simply as a reflection of demography.

Next in order of size is a secondhand copy of John Carey's biography of William Golding. Needless to say, I read 'Lord of the Flies' at school but later read his Sea Trilogy (and will again) and found them one of the most moving and deeply imagined of contemporary novels. I liked his resistance to the three modernist 'gods' - Darwin, Freud, Marx and his ability to intimate the transcendent without naming it.

That leads to another of Marx's critics - Isaiah Berlin - and a collection of his essays, 'The Proper Study of Mankind'. I cannot think of a more lucid conveyor of ideas - either his own or that of others and either as a philosopher or an intellectual historian. Together with Walter Kaufman, he has always been the liberal unsettler of my certainties and the guardian of that which truly matters namely the ability to scrutinise, scrupulously and honestly, any and all of my assumptions.

A need that Norman Cohn's subjects needed more than most in 'The Pursuit of the Millenium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages'. This is his classic study of the urge towards the apocalyptic and the willingness of people to sacrifice the present, in all its compromised messiness, on the altar of a hoped transformation to a kingdom of saints. Be careful what one prays for; and, a book, sadly, that preserves its timeliness as we confront new versions of an old malady.

This brings me to a wholly different approach to the transformative other - Ouspensky's 'Tertium Organum'. It was written before his encounter with Gurdjieff and is his careful exploration of the boundaries of possible experience seen in the light of the esoteric or mystical in dialogue with science. It is emphatically aimed at the transformation of the individual. Ouspensky distrusted groups, even, I suspect, his own.

Finally, there is a similar aversion in Hermann Hesse's 'Wandering' which I bought as a replacement copy for one that is literally falling apart. It was published in 1920 and is a series of short essays, poems, and paintings written as Hesse settles into his new home in the Swiss canton of Ticino. It is a beautiful book and the second of his that I bought as a schoolboy, recently besotted. This is a state, though critically deepened, I have retained to this day. There are passages here I know by heart including this one, from 'Trees'.

“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.”

Hermann Hesse, Wandering

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A poet's nurturing



Obviously I am in a mood to reminisce.

At the very same conference, the first Temenos Conference held at Dartington Hall in Devon, at which I met the artist, Thetis Blacker, http://ncolloff.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/a-painter-of-inner-vision.html, I met the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, for the first time, except in this case, the path of meeting had been prepared.

I was at university in London when, on one Saturday afternoon, I visited the Watkins Bookshop in Cecil Court, off the Charing Cross Road in London. I knew of it because it features in the second volume of Raine's autobiography, 'The Land Unknown', that I had read for the first time at school at the prompting of a friend. Watkins, which still exists, is a bookshop devoted to the 'alternative', the spiritual, the esoteric. That afternoon I found a copy of the second edition of 'Temenos: A Review devoted to the Arts of the Imagination' (published by Watkins) and edited primarily by Kathleen (and three others). I bought it and life was never the same.

I bought it because Kathleen had proved a 'key' - first to my readings of William Blake who I had encountered when at school (and had often read on afternoon's from school pretending to be ill) and found both entrancing and difficult. It was not until I found a copy of Raine's 'Blake and the New Age' in my public library that I began, fitfully, to see beyond the sense of Blake (to quote Eliot) into the meaning. Second because I read her three volumes of autobiography and had seen her when she came to give a poetry reading in Stratford, my hometown, and, with a friend, we had attempted, and failed, to screw up the courage to talk to her afterwards!

Now, having devoured Temenos, I wrote to her, speaking of an experience that I had at the age of eleven which, to that date, I had told no one. She wrote back with grace and sympathy and left a door open for further correspondence which I took. Four years and many letters later, I found myself, young, introverted and scared, hovering to speak to her at the Dartington conference.

She was talking to another participant and finishing turned to me saying, "And you must be Nicholas! I have been carrying your last letter to me around in my handbag as a talisman"!

What does one say? I have forgotten but for the remaining days of the conference she would come up to me and ask, "And how do you think our conference is going?" as if I were her most intimate collaborator! A young man, insecure, could only flower in that beam of light. I will remain always grateful for the attention paid that continued afterwards in frequent invitations to lunch and tea and the most wonderful of conversations.

One element of which I recall was always to ask her conversation partner whether they remembered - the X canto in Dante or the Y chapter in Proust - not whether they knew X or Y. It was an act of the most delicate courtesy because you could always either answer yes or feign temporary loss of memory! It assumed always that you were as well read or educated and you flourished in that assumption, even if its truthfulness was not always so, after all, afterwards, you could strive ever onwards.




Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A painter of inner vision.



One morning, attending a conference:

"Are you a poet? You look like a poet" asked the deep, rich voice over the breakfast table. "No,"I replied, a little startled, "but I do dream"? "So do I! Tell me one"! So I did. Thus did I become a lifelong friend of the artist, Thetis Blacker, one of whose paintings for a series on 'The Conference of the Birds' is shown above. (This was, also, used, as illustration, in book form, in a retelling of Attar's poem by the Jungian analyst, Anne Baring).

She was a dreamer, and many of the starting points for her paintings, would begin, seen in dreams, to be elaborated consciously, using the batik techniques she had adapted from traditional modes in Indonesia.

Her dreams were 'big', complex, of the nature of stories and indeed she published a volume of these: A Pilgramage of Dreams. Mine, by contrast, were brief, jewel like (and, so she claimed, purer than her's, a somewhat embarrassing claim when she introduced me to others, indeed once a whole lecture theatre of others, under this charge. On that occasion, I spent the rest of the conference sheltering from people siddling up to me wanting to tell me their dreams)!

She was larger than life. I went to see an exhibition of her's at Bleddfa in Wales, where in fact I bought my first painting - one of her's - a seed from the Tree of Life. Arriving early and puzzling where to go, I heard her voice lifted above an intervening, high hedge. I found a gate and walked through to, embarassingly, find myself amongst a private luncheon party! Retreat or forge on? Noticing the poet, Kathleen Raine, who was to introduce Thetis and open the exhibition, I forged on, planted myself down unexpectedly by the poet's side and took refuge in her welcome, shielded from the puzzled host, now forced to offer me food!

Once I went with Thetis to the Marlborough Gallery in London to a show of Francis Bacon. The Marlborough has a subterranean gallery and as we descended the stairs and seeing Bacon's paintings, Thetis' voice boomed, "Behold Nicholas, the Hell in which we pretend no longer to believe", much startling the assembled visitors, clinging to their wine glasses, but as apt a piece of art commentary as one is likely to encounter. Bacon was Thetis antithesis - a painter of unremitting pain, stripped of meaning (and whose reputation is as overvalued as Thetis' was undervalued).

Interestingly, however, such life (and colour) was haunted by the shadow of depression and she would disappear periodically when the 'black dog' struck with its seeping debilitation.

I remember vividly the last time I saw her, before I left to live and work in Russia. I had gone to lunch at her cottage in Shamley Green, as always, an excellent lunch for she was a brilliant cook. We were sitting, having tea outside, looking out across the Downs and she was describing the effects of the sun's light with a precise and artist's eye; and, very gently you were being given a lesson in seeing. You were, also, being invited to note that inner and outer worlds enfold each other. She was a painter of the inner but the triggering recognition, the invitation to go inwards, was often offered by the outer - a detail of the light, a pattern in a curtain - 'all' that was necessary, needed, was a dedication to seeing through, as well as with, the eye (to quote Blake) and to recognise that inner vision (to quote Blake again) is more, not less, precise. Imagination, when learned aright, is never akin to 'dreamy' (in the populatr sense of the word) and its depends on the quality and detail of your attention.

Publicly Thetis' work can be most readily seen in the cathedrals and churches that commissioned her work, fulfilling an ancient tradition of patronage: Durham Cathedral, St Albans, Winchester and St Boltolph's in London to name the most prominent.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ouspensky's burden

'The Strange Life of P.D. Ouspensky' is the title of Colin Wilson's brief, sometimes a tad breathless, account of the life of the Russian philosopher and esotericist. It is, however, a graceful and thoughtful portrait of a complex man, who became tragically entangled with the equally strange Gurdjieff. It was not a happy match and Wilson sets off to explore why.

At heart, Wilson pins the mismatch on Gurdjieff reinforcing, at a critical moment, Ouspensky's pessimism, suggesting to him that the possibilities of human development were so circumscribed by man's machine like nature that the possibilities of human evolution were remote, difficult and the practices towards them rigorous and communal.

Yet Ouspensky had already come to the threshold of illumination, prior to his meeting Gurdjieff and what he needed was assurrance of their validity and a better containing framework that would allow for their deeper reception and development. Ouspensky's world was graced and its grace needed reinforcement, not denial. Equally Ouspensky was essentially a romantic individual, not by nature a joiner of groups, or naturally the propagator of another man's ideas, indeed he responds best to Gurdjieff when Gurdjieff treats him as if he were different, a man apart. But this was rare.

It is also apparent that Gurdjieff himself was 'working it out'. He did not stand within a specific tradition that he had been initiated into and assumed (contrary to his assertions otherwise). He was weaving, with undoubted intution, intelligence and skill, an approach, drawing on multiple sources. This Ouspensky, I suspect, creatively misread to create an intellectual system (as was his want and need) that Gurdjieff himself recognised, but not as something already established, simply being revealed, but as something being made.

They needed each other but could not abide with each other. They remind us that it is a complex thing to find the right teacher at the right time and have the courage to recognise when it may be time to move on.

A traditionalist critic would point to this and say, 'See, see, what happens, when you deviate from a tradition, in both its exoteric and esoteric components, you end up sowing error, become unhappy and confused.'

There is an element of truth in this - both 'systems' feel like they require a deeper grounding in the exoterically ordinary - of service, compassion and the devotional - but we can also see them as brave experiments after psychological and spiritual development that open out onto possible dialogue with modernity, most especially science. Perhaps they too needed to realize that what the future requires of us is no longer gurus and disciples but co-creators of experimented truths.Not that this would impress the traditionalist given the future, for them, is a forlorn inversion of a romanticised past!

Finally, it appears that Ouspensky broke through to a new serenity in his last months - not least perhaps by surrendering the binding thought that there was a 'system' and moving forward by remembering his illumined moments of grace, that the world is, in truth, gift, not prize.

 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Bury the Chains

A former colleague drew my attention to a key series of texts to read in the field of 'development studies', one of which I happened to be reading: Adam Hochschild's 'Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery."

Reading it you can see why.

First because it is a hopeful book where what was simply a commonly accepted reality became, within a relatively short time frame, a great injustice. Second because the great injustice was campaigned against utilising many of the now recognisable tools - the use of mass petitions, newsletters to keep supporters up to date, paid organisers and such like. These were invented first during the campaign against slavery. Third because this campaign seeded many others, for example, against child labour in Britain, where comparative use of  the imagery of slavery was an essential rallying point.

But also, on the shadow side, in the recognition that no campaign is ever fully complete. Emancipation was won but the material and political conditions of newly freed slaves in the West Indies and elsewhere were not greatly improved and the struggle against colonialism and for equality and freedom would last for more than another century (if arguably it does not continue today).

It is, also, as a book, a wonderful illustration of 'cognitive dissonance'. Your passionate commitment to a particular cause - abolition - did not necessarily make you a thorough radical. Wilberforce, abolition's parliamentary standard bearer, was in virtually all other areas of his life and concern a thorough-going conservative and defender of privilege (though in his private actions he continually demonstrated a care for others such that his behaviour was not always, or often, of his own opinion). It would be good to remind ourselves of this when we hurl accusations of 'hypocrisy' at one another. We are manifold beings, multiply souled, of many contradictions.

It, also, raises powerful moral questions in the epilogue about the passage of time. You visit a Jamaican plantation house on a holiday and there find a wax figure of a white woman being served tea by a wax figure of a black woman. You do not find in the neighbouring fields wax figures of pregnant women cutting sugar cane or wax figures of black men being maimed as they feed the sugar mill. Nor would you imagine seeing at a former concentration camp a set of wax figures formed as an orchestra playing for the guards or indeed entering a gas chamber. How have we permitted ourselves to sanitise slavery in a way we would not sanitise the genocide of the twentieth century? You can say that slavery was not genocidal, which is true, but does organised suffering and death allow such subtle differentiations and if so why?

But, finally, it is a story that justifies Margaret Mead's observation that what changes the world is the catalytic effect of a few, determined just people. The first committee to abolish the slave trade was an assembly of twelve, mostly Quakers and the remarkable Anglican Deacon, Thomas Clarkson. Hochschild would add to being just, being able to feel empathy with the suffering of others but perhaps in the book's only false note, he wishes to separate that from the faith the twelve had in 'sacred texts' and the author of the texts. It is true you can have one without the other but it was not true for the abolitionists. Their empathy was both felt and a sacred duty.

Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

When Goethe was a student in Strasbourg, he became fascinated by the cathedral which, for two centuries from its ‘completion’, had be...