Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pursuing the Millennium

Imagine a group that responds to significant social dislocation by creating an ideal society that is defined by both an expectation of a religiously sanctioned utopia and by defining itself by what it is not and acting violently against anything or anybody who represents that 'other'. A violent acting that is both driven by conviction and by the need to reinforce identity. You might think I was describing ISIS and its attempt to reconstruct the Caliphate, attracting to it people in search of a place and meaning that rescues them from either the mundane ordinariness of their lives or insecurity as a minority, apparently or actually threatened.

I am not. I am describing a current that flows through the history of north-western Europe in the Middle Ages that is compellingly described in Norman Cohn's groundbreaking study, 'The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages'.  Here he describes how throughout the period in response to displacing uncertainty - social and economic - specific groups sought to overthrow the existing order, often violently, and establish a religious utopia in expectation of a final end commanded or organized by God.

At one level this can be read as a fascinating outing into bygone history for who now expects the apocalypse (to which the answer is millions, if not billions of actual people, if only in a subset of their minds, in diverse ways, yet a potent myth always available to waken)? But as I read, the contemporary parallels were only too apparent. Cohn himself made connections with these patterns and the unfolding of National Socialism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union. For myself, I could not help being reminded of the Middle East.

Most noticeably in Cohn is his identifying that it was neither the elite nor the socially secure (in his case the peasant in his or her feudal village) that found millenarian fantasies attractive but those whose social position was contested or uncertain - the new urban worker or the marginalized friar or the minor aristocrat. It struck me that we ought to think carefully about the demography of those who slip off to Syria or Iraq for there might lie a significant part of the explanation of why they do so - the push factor at least.

But this aside, what also strikes is the long and continuous pull of a utopia, the ideal place, that lies just over the hill; and, how resilient this is to failure. Repeatedly people donned the role of 'the savior' only to be defeated, only to be 'resurrected' again. Yes, that was not the time but the time is coming.

It feels like a hydra, no simple beheading is ever available. This itself tells us something about the necessary strategic response - it cannot be simply one of reciprocal violence for this only offers temporary release. It is the underlying social dynamics that must be addressed.

What would make people feel at home in the world, engaged meaningfully in stable and accepting communities, and authors of their own fate? For ultimately the response to all fantasies of utopia are in building a somewhere, rather than a nowhere, in which everyone is at home.

This need not be a counsel of perfection only one of humanity.


Friday, September 18, 2015

C.S. Lewis revisted

'Shadowlands', the play, then film, on C.S. Lewis' later life and relationship with Joy Davidman over-emphasises the shift from bachelor to husband, from the rationalising uptight Oxford don to the sympathetic, if challenged, loving partner. For Lewis was, in truth, highly unconventional, having lived for many years with an older woman, Mrs Moore, mother of a fallen comrade in the First World War, and her daughter, until the former's death. Earlier biographers tended to assume that this relationship (with an older woman) was Platonic, but Alastair McGrath in his excellent biography of Lewis rather doubts this (at least in its early stages).

Interestingly too, his closest and oldest friend, Arthur Greaves, was homosexual if a cloistered one (in line with current mores); and, though Lewis was clear that his sexuality flowed in a different direction, it never seemed to give him any pause for prejudice and he happily shared, by letter, his own sadomasochistic fantasies with a discomforted Greaves!

It was not only in his domestic arrangements that Lewis is not quite what he is projected to be (especially by his huge US Christian evangelical following) because though undoubtedly a gifted apologist for Christianity both in formal apologetic terms and in his imaginative fiction, he was by no means, I think, a conventional nor possibly wholly 'orthodox' one.

Nor should we be surprised, I think, not least if one looks at his friends - though Tolkien was a rather conventional Roman Catholic, Charles Williams was a highly original Anglican with a background in the practice of ritual magic and Owen Barfield was an Anthroposophist, follower of Rudolf Steiner. Friendships for Lewis never imply agreement; however, it does demonstrate a certain capaciousness in his own religious universe. It betokens too possibly a shared belief with one of his mentors in imagination, George MacDonald, that every person in the end would find their way, in however circular a manner, to paradise. As his own image has it, sooner or later, a person would find sufficient focus to get off the bus and enter the gates of heaven.

One of the great virtues of McGrath's biography, beyond humanising Lewis is to contextualise his thought both in the context of his life and in the history of ideas. You see a person truly engaged in fashioning their understanding of life, its experienced meaning and, in Lewis' case, how that was so widely shared with others.

It, also, shows how, without in any way diminishing the importance of either his academic or his apologetic work, that it is Narnia that is his lasting achievement.

It is true (as Philip Pullman has noted somewhat obsessively) that this world carries anachronistic features of the times in which they were written, but these are, I think, fully transcended by the vigour of the stories and the imaginative vision of another place that provides spectacles through which you see your own world, opened out to new possibilities and ultimately to eternity.

I remember my own first acquaintance that came not as a child but as an adult on holiday at a friend's house in France and finding a bookshelf of all the children's classics that I had missed reading as a child (for being a child much wedded to facts)! I read the Narnia Chronicles through (and E. Nesbit too) and was entranced and able to see how skilfully webs of ideas had been woven together and hung in a magical atmosphere that spoke of the possibility of a world that answered our desire.

McGrath points to a central feature of Lewis' understanding that we carry within us a desire that is always anticipating something yet other, delightfully and yet with a sense of loss, until it rests in God (or as Gregory of Nysa would note until it realises that it's infinite stretching out, being met and emptied is precisely what it means to be present in the unfathomable that is God).

This will be, I realize, the third biography of Lewis that I have read over the years, and the best. I realize that only two other people have been 'awarded' this level of biographical attention; and, coincidentally, one of them, Aldous Huxley, died on the same day as Lewis. Much divides them in background, context, and content but they were both engaged in what 'AE' Russell called the 'politics of eternity' and both imagined that this first and foremost required an individual conversion of life that required a commitment to a practice (or practices) rooted in religious tradition(s) that was a call to holiness, that sainthood is ultimately the measure of humanity. It is a 'high anthropology'  of whose call we need to hear more not less and to which McGrath's biography is a welcome addition.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Mr Bennett's conversions

''Witness; The Story of a Search" is J.G. Bennett's autobiography blending the life of an intelligence agent, businessman and leader of research institutes (mainly related to coal) with a spiritual seeker and teacher. Topical is the culpable stupidity of the post-First World War leadership whose 'settlement' in the Near East reverberates to this day, fashioned out of almost complete disregard for the realities of the cultures with whom their dealt. Nothing much changed there then...

Like any good spiritual autobiography - St Augustine and Thomas Merton come to mind (and Bennett too was a convert to Catholicism) - it is unsparing in its self-criticism. One thing is striking  that Bennett (until late in life) did not trust himself and this inability to trust impaired his ability to form healthy judgements in whom to place his trust. He was a faulty disciple, too eager to (miss)place his trust in others (and a wise Sufi intimated this to him but in the twisted way of self-mistrust, he recognised this yet knowing he would fail to do anything about it)!

Unlike Augustine or Merton, his conversions (Catholicism was only one) were always being superseded by a further discovery; and, though there is nothing inherently wrong with this (not least because I sense the trajectory in my own soul), his do have an unsettling, slightly frenetic quality. The enthusiasm comes, he over commits before a careful assessment, it propels him forward but never as far as he would like, he hears of someone or something else and maybe, just maybe, they are the answer. All the while parts of this magpie like acquiring of spiritual insight is slowly coalescing into patterns of thinking that can be written about, systematised (in so far as that is possible) and taught. Nevertheless the sincerity of the shifts of consciousness (however temporary) is clear and lucidly described.

The continuous thread, however, was the relationship with Gurdjieff - the mercurial master of 'The Work' whom Bennett met in Turkey and came to know well in two periods spent in Paris, one after the First World War and the second, up to Gurdjieff's death, after the Second War. In an autobiography, of course, you have both an intimate and yet personal account; and, given the squabbling to which 'Work' groups became prone (both before and after the Master's death), I feel you must tread lightly. The accounts, however, ring with a certain suspected truthfulness, partly because of Bennett's transparency and self-questioning and partly because he so beautifully captures the mobile nature of Gurdjieff's character, weaving every response out of his perception of the person's need. Bennett sees this responsiveness (which he experienced for himself) as uncannily accurate (even when harsh as it often was), saturated in compassion and yet not wholly free of the potential for error. Indeed, Bennett intimates one such large area of error was in Gurdjieff's engagement with Ouspensky, a feature noted by a number of writers on both men.

In his second encounter, he met Gurdjieff after another of G's automobile accidents and when in recovery mode he had allowed himself to appear as 'himself' - compassionate yet vulnerable, essentially loving - a feature most recognised not by his disciples but the ordinary people, especially children, who lived in his neighbourhood; and, flocked to his funeral in sadness and mourning. It is a very moving account where you see the costliness of being 'the master' confronted by disciples who are refusing the offer of themselves, rather conforming, dependently, to the master's perceived wishes.

Like Gurdjieff's own autobiography, you only get glimpses of Bennett's driving, illuminating experiences or of the views they gave rise to but sufficient to sense that he was a remarkable man, not least for the quality of shedding skins and admitting mistakes, even as others manoeuvred him into the character of a sage.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Fashion world, Creative Eye

If one was to draw a Venn diagram of myself and the intersecting worlds I inhabit - myself and the world of fashion would overlap only to a small degree (though that is a change from a time when there would have been none). This would have been through disinterest rather than disdain though I do wish we could better distinguish a love of clothes, colour, expression from the apparent treadmill of 'fashion', the twice-yearly shows of new collections (but that probably reflects a more general disagreement with an 'economy' that colonizes every aspect of life and imagines constant change or 'growth' as a sign of maturity rather than of a deep lack).

But one intersection with it came through a friendship with Annette Worsley-Taylor, who very sadly and after a rapid illness, died last week. She was a key driving force in shaping the fashion industry as an entity in the United Kingdom in the 80s and 90s, a force that the obituaries acknowledge had been underrecognized, but very real; helping many designers to be recognized and flourish, and, to which she brought steely charm, organizational gift and a discerning eye.

It was the eye that brought us together for in her last decade she began to suffer from macular degeneration a major cause of sight loss, advancing as the general age of the population rises. This led her to research the diverse challenges to vision that people face throughout their lives and the gaps in awareness and the provision of support that exist in the UK (and further afield). In response, she had an idea, as yet unrealized, to harness the creative industries, most of whom depend on sight, to raise money to support existing charities as they research, raise awareness and help people in the field of sight loss. It was to be called 'Creative Eye' and I, as a presumed expert in charity, became a trusted advisor on how such a vision might be realized.

Apart from anything else, this led to many delightful invitations to lunch and dinner, preceded or followed by earnest discussion of the proposed charity, whose basic insight I trust will be picked up one day by others and brought to realization. Sight is a surprisingly neglected area given how vital, when asked, we all feel it to be! A case of taking for granted the most familiar, until that is, it begins to leave us.

What I will most remember of Annette is her wonderful gift of being interested in you, your life, its condition and prospects, about which everything was wholly genuine and nothing feigned; and, her, and Anthony, her husband's, wonderful hospitality, as one obituary writer had, it was not always punctual, but it was always splendid - for eye, taste and intellect.

Wild Geese Overhead: Where does reform begin?

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