Saturday, March 26, 2016

Harrowing of Hell and the perpetrators of evil


Pope Francis has newly inaugurated his own Instagram account and following the attacks in Brussels this week, there was a message of prayerful solidarity with the victims and, more broadly the people in and of Belgium. The account is too new, however, to see whether this will become a continuous feature, if so it will be an all too sadly common one. It is, also, too soon to see whether it can show an admirable equality in its regarding of the victim for as many have noted the atrocity in Belgium has generated significantly more attention than the equally recent and horrific events in, say, Istanbul.

At one level this is understandable - we tend to focus on 'home' rather than on 'abroad' yet every life stripped of its dignity in violent death is the same, equally valid in sorrow.

At these points, ever more regular, however, I, also, wonder at an element that is missing. That it is missing at the immediate point of violence is wholly understandable but afterwards, on subsequent reflection, where is the prayer for the perpetrators? After all their darkness, lostness, is certainly, palpably real.

Yesterday, as Christ hangs on the cross, he asks that they be forgiven 'for they know not what they do' but I would be hard placed to remember moments when in our prayers of intercession, the perpetrators have been similarly lifted up that they might be broken into the light. In truth, I can remember only one very compelling instance - on the day after 9/11 at mass in a small contemplative Dominican community where I was staying. Here a French Canadian sister prayed for the perpetrators, for the beginning of the long, aching path of forgiveness and for a world reflective of the manifold sources of evil from which such violence comes. It was a prayer made more poignant by knowing that this sister had played a significant and heroic role in the Rwandan genocide, protecting lives at the considerable risk of her own, where the path of forgiveness was anything but simple or straight or ever ending.

This too is all too understandable. A small boy of eight once when asked by a friend, an Anglican clergyman, what Jesus was doing on Holy Saturday, he had answered (as the only person in his class to put his hand up) that Jesus had gone in search of his friend, Judas! It a remark more striking for what the Gospel account itself makes of Judas' betrayal delighting in the miscreant's subsequent suicide (yet another illustration that even scripture is a work of all too human hands). It reminds me of what would we make on an average Sunday in church of someone getting up to deliver the intercessions and focusing fully and wholly on the perpetrators as human beings in need, most in need, of prayer. It would be a brave soul that attempted it - and no doubt there are places where this is so, would that there were more of them.

For several years, once a week, I visited a Jungian analyst. I could say this was an 'analysis' except the unusualness of this woman and her approach might belie that too simple description. Behind her seat, there was always an icon of the Harrowing of Hell, thus, always facing her client. This is where we are going, it seemed to say, a trip to the depths; and, the measure of where we can aspire to, will be the depths to which we can descend (to quote St Augustine).

This it strikes me is one of the messages of Holy Saturday - the measure of our grace will be how far we can travel into the reality of the darkness and extend in prayer to all those whose actions exclude them from the kingdom but whose common humanity does not. For it is a core belief of the Church that our human dignity is inalienable (however much it may go in disguise in each and everyone of us) and a measure of that belief ought to be how we stretch out after the perpetrators of harm.

Maybe this might become a new tradition of Holy Saturday - that we go in search of our friends that are Judas?

Friday, March 25, 2016

Eranos - an alternative intellectual history


Olga Frobe, who founded the Eranos meetings in Ascona, Switzerland thought of herself as possessed by the archetype of this particular place, an unknown localised genius, and was compelled to serve it. In doing so, she brought together a remarkable number of people, who, though in many ways markedly different, bore a 'family resemblance' in wanting to infuse a rationally valid approach to the world, and their study of it, with yet something other. That 'other' was an acknowledgement of 'spirit' - of the world as a 'cosmos' - a purposeful place that was intrinsically meaningful. A cosmos that called forth a quest and the fulfilment of which required the response of a whole person - a wholeness that transcended the rational. An Eranos conference was meant to call forth the academically rigorous yet freed of those narrow confines of the only rational than can be rigor mortis.

As Hans Thomas Hakl argues in his history of Eranos (Eranos - an alternative intellectual history of the twentieth century), they can be seen as having an 'esoteric' dimension, broadly defined, if seen as a way of balancing the demands of the spiritually as well as the scholarly valid approach to truth. Indeed the roots of Eranos were indeed more explicitly esoteric as Frobe had a deep (and possibly lasting) interest in those patterns of thinking renewed in the west by Theosophy. It was Jung who steered Frobe away from an explicit acknowledgement of these patterns onto ground more conducive (in his mind) to a study of the human that resonated with a more empirical and scientific attitude. The trajectory of Eranos in a sense mirrored Jung's own search for 'respectability' for his ideas - a meeting place between ancient currents and modernised formulations.

Whatever the balance ultimately struck (and unsurprisingly it oscillated with its changing cast of characters), it was experienced by many remarkable scholars as a place where they could breathe freely in sympathetic company and map out their patterns of understanding in renewing ways. It is undoubtedly a striking roll call - Jung, Erich Neumann, Martin Buber, James Hillman, Henri Corbin, Gershom Scholem and D.T. Suzuki to name only a few, who found at Eranos a place of intellectual conviviality (and in the Bollingen Foundation's involvement often material and publishing support for their works).

Hakl's book as a history focused on the place can only touch on the content of the ideas explored but his deft exposition and judicious quotations are continuously inviting, glimpses of the worlds of ideas conjured forth, year on year, by the lakeside. As a history too, however, Hakl also wrestles with a number of issues of controversy that hover yet over Eranos. Two of the most important are whether a concern for myth (a continuous leitmotif of the conferences) is inherently conservative and whether that conservatism (if real) at a critical moment in Eranos' history gave explicit (or tacit) support to the emergent Fascism of Italy or National Socialism in Germany. This is question that embraces, but goes beyond, whether one or more of the 'closer' members of the Eranos circle were (or were not) 'fascists' (and related to this anti-Semitic).

In the first instance (and Hakl does not make this point), there is an irony in advancing the notion that myth is inherently conservative and aligning that discussion with either 'Fascism' or 'National Socialism' that were, whatever the archaism they gave rise to or manipulated, radically and wrenchingly 'innovative' and 'revolutionary'. Meanwhile, in the second instance, Hakl's account is a model of sensitive balance, a balance that is strikingly difficult to maintain, if looking back with all the dark hindsight that this implies. It certainly true that some of the invitees, post 1933, were tainted (and possibly more than tainted) with fascist connection (one thinks of Mircea Eliade's entanglement with the Rumanian Iron Guard, never subsequently acknowledged or atoned for). It is certainly true too that the conference compromised to secure attendees - not publishing Jewish authors contributions to the annual yearbook, for example, to enable its publication in Germany. But, on the whole, Eranos emerges, on balance, exonerated - Frobe herself certainly does though she served her archetype, her conference, this was never at the expense of a transparent and basic humanity (and with a prescience that few, I suspect, could equal).

Hakl ultimately notes that the spirit of Eranos is indeed carried by the sculpture (that the Foundation to this day carries as its masthead, see above) - a dedication to the unknown spirit and genius of a place - where something greater comes from above to meet something important yet lesser from below - and which do not yet touch but if they continue to travel together, and towards each other, may forge a deepening wholeness, captured in the 'star of David' patterning that may emerge.






Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Duracell president




A brief (and first) visit to Uganda this week to see present and potential partners allowed one to become rapidly acquainted with the picture of the recently (and controversially) re-elected President Museveni since his multitudinous election posters remained up and he beamed down as a sunny uncle figure in a curiously circular hat (as if he had just stepped out of the garden where he was tending his bees, see above).  Of his opposition, this very amateur observer could see no trace!

Uganda is the 'youngest' country in the world, with a median age of 14, so it may be unsurprising that, as our driver put it, many people would like to stay with the devil they know, have always known, as an ever-running president, rather than the devil they do not (and our driver took it for granted that every leader/politician was a devil of some kind and, given the sometimes murderous history of Uganda, a benignly corrupt one under which the country continues to modestly develop is to be prefered.

So if one is to develop a better narrative for democracy, one is going to have think harder about the benefits beyond the more abstract sense of its rightness, even a narrative about 'inequality' has no traction if this is pitched in terms of what simply might be possible if it were reduced. What are the examples of what is possible when it is?

Then you touch down 'home' in Switzerland and find yourself inhabiting one - a kind of living example. It would be easy to dismiss this (or indeed any example) as 'exceptionalism' but that is a mite too easy. It is hard to recall, in this land of well distributed plenty, how strikingly poor Switzerland has been for much of its history. It is only at the outset of the last century that the country fully came into its own and it has done so (like Singapore in the post War period) with virtually no natural resources.

One important element in that journey has been 'trust'.

I found myself telling my driver on the way back to the airport, in response to several of his stories illustrative of a low trust society, my story of how at a restaurant last year in my home canton, the card reading machine was malfunctioning when it came to paying the bill. 'Did I have cash?' 'No,' I replied, 'I have not got used to carrying that amount of money about with me' (after all it was a Swiss restaurant bill)! 'You live here! In that case put your address on the top of the receipt and we will send you a bill'. They did and I paid it. I thought my driver was going to go off road and my days would end wrapped round an Ugandan tree as he turned in incredulity and took his hands of the wheel to emphasize it!

One of the challenges of a 'duracell' president is that it exemplifies both a fundamental lack of and inhibition to the development of trust.

I cannot let go, build succession, be ultimately replaced for I do not trust anyone else - neither to preserve my legacy nor, of course, to ensure my abuse of that trust, in corruption, does not come back to haunt me. In the short term, this can reap the rewards of stability, of a continuity of policy, but at the serious risk of failing to build a deeper continuity, one that is culturally embedded in a society, not freighted with it being imposed by one man; and, that is a society that trusts itself and one another. This may or may not go hand in hand with recognisable democracy but it does appear to be a grounding foundation for a successfully prosperous country, in the long term, that can survive any individual, after all even the best batteries always run out.




Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Time to be Born

My first ever public speaking event was at a meeting of the 'Friends of the Centre'. This had been founded by a woman called Alison Barnard who had sadly died before I met her. She was by all accounts what would now be known as a consummate networker. This she did amongst a particular kind of person in the post World War II world - the spiritual alive, questing, who may or more likely may not belong to an established tradition (or if they did, felt a freedom in transgressing boundaries in their quest for the truth at the heart of things).

One of the people in the audience in the hotel in Hove (where later that weekend I succumbed to my first ever bout of food poisoning) was Lois Lang-Sims, seeker and author, who, also, had briefly served as one of Charles Williams' intense attractions - young women who he guided and who became swept up into his intense mythologizing (see http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2015/11/the-third-inkling.html ). For her, this was an intense yet short lived relationship.

I have been reading the first volume of her autobiography, sadly now out of print, and it is an extraordinary book.

First you notice that it is without chapters, two hundred and fifty-one pages of the most intense, scrupulous self-scrutiny flow as if in one seamless image of a self.

Second you come to realise that it is dominated by one central obsession - Lois' relationship with her mother. The tone of which was set at Lois' birth, as the book's title implies, for she arrived in the world just at the point when her much older (and only) sibling, John, had died. She was a substitute, wrapped in the longing, resentment and desperation of loss, felt by both parents but especially keenly by Lois' mother. They entered a life of mutual dependency, love and hate, that continues until the last page of this (first) volume that describes her mother's death (and almost certainly beyond).

At times so all consuming is the analysis and description of this relationship, you want to cast the book aside and say something like, 'Lois, do get a grip. Grow up!' 'Leave'! 'Get a job in a tea shop'! Virtually anything to escape the claustrophobia of this mutual encirclement. But I feel this is part of the point, the reader is being invited to taste what it is like to be caught within a binding complex, to have your identity partly confiscated by another as you in turn confiscate, to sense the real inertia in such relationships that are especially strong whenever one seeks freedom. If ever there was a book that unpacked the Jungian notion of a 'complex', this is it!

Third, however, the book would be too claustrophobic if this dominant reality was the only one shown forth, even if so vividly and with such remorseless honesty. You are invited, as well, into a past world of discrete hierarchies not to be transgressed, of a world of Anglican clergymen of diverse eccentricity, of the challenges of 'going over to Rome'; more domestically, of leasing cottages for ten shillings a week and rooms for less; and, more historically of the depredations of wartime and the raids on Canterbury (in retaliation for similar raids on Cologne).

Fourthly, there is the underlying story of a remarkable and serious religious quest that is strikingly individual and yet captures a common shared reality. It is a quest rooted in experience and imagination, not belief. It takes Lois through religious institutions, gathering their given grace and having her break out when the institutional compromises are seen too clearly to obscure that grace; and, it is grace that comes to her. As Simone Weil remarks of the Gospels, it is a story of being found, not of finding. She is also resolutely clear how this quest, and the self it addresses, transcends the psychic complexities of her actual life. Holiness does not, of itself, embrace a making whole though it is a key departure point and necessary reference.

Finally, there is the account of her brief, intense encounter with Charles Williams and I feel she gets him right, so right that it explains his ultimate discomfort with her. She describes him as a 'genius' not a saint (despite people's desire to make of him so). A genius because his ability to delineate some of the key features of the world seen from his Christian vision, enriched by his encounter with the magic of the Golden Dawn, is compelling, truthful and enriching; and, yet, he remains too caught in his vision (and too enamoured of capturing up others into it) to touch the everyday earth where true holiness is ultimately born, lived, suffered. It was his function to uphold such ways of seeing, a necessary one, but such necessities can conflict with the deeper one of being simply present, compassionate with whatever is, where the holy finds.

I can happily admit to both looking forward and not to the second volume (which I have) and will need a respite before another dose of such intensity (though her key may have changed) and I regret not seizing my opportunity of better acquaintance in person but happy that our paths crossed and can only wonder at what she made of my callow talk!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Reviewing the review: Charles Williams faulted

The 'progressive' Catholic weekly magazine, 'The Tablet' has this week an unperceptive review, of which there is a depressing number, of Grevel Lindop's excellent biography of Charles Williams. It is a review only redeemed by the author, Raymond Edward's positive revaluation of Williams' poetry. 

I find baffling how reviewers have become caught up with Williams' addiction to rather mild and broadly consensual, if disruptive and sometimes manipulative, sado-masochistic fantasies to the virtual exclusion of all else, as if this invalidated the gifted dimensions of a complex man. 


This apart, however, Edward's review reveals other dimensions of concern. 

First there is the fact of getting somethings simply wrong. For example, Williams' notion of substitution, where you consciously and voluntarily take on the suffering of another, is confused with co-inherence, Williams' explanation for why substitution works. It seeks to show that we are all part of one another, uniquely ourselves yet enfolded in an abiding whole, this is what makes such substitutions possible.  

Second there is the breezy dismissal. It is true that many of Williams works were 'hack', jobbing demands to make money, and better forgotten but this disregard is then casually extended to the novels which we are assured still have some fans but are obviously of no lasting consequence. Since the 'fans' range from their publisher, T.S. Eliot, and extend to such notably and enthusiastic contemporary readers as Rowan Williams, this is, at best, an over hasty dismissal! 

Third we have been alerted to the reasoning of this dismissal, Williams was enamoured of something here labelled, 'Christian theosophy' that sounds dangerously occult and was a 'self-made' theologian who consorted with dubious, possibly heterodox High Anglican priests; and, this presumed mish mash infected the metaphysical contours of the novels to their everlasting detriment! In other words a casual assumption of a Christian orthodoxy (in league possibly with an equally casual 'materialism') is being used to repel searching explorations of the nature of good and evil, power and love, arrogance and humility, framed in a world where what is possible is stranger than any of our current, complacent conceptions (and ironically would rest easily with any doctor of the Church prior to the Enlightenment or possibly any true understander of the weird world that is the quantum)!

Fourthly we have, and this is revealing, a desire to distance Williams from being a contaminating other. Edwards is the author of a study of Tolkien and wants to stress that Williams by no way influenced Tolkien (which is probably true) and yet seeks to do this by claiming that the Inklings (to which both belonged) was not a movement (a claim none of its members would have made and indeed which none of the studies of the Inklings, that I have read, has ever claimed). What is afoot here? 
I can only imagine that Edwards is spooked (an appropriate word) by the fact that of the Inklings core only Tolkien was, by any measure, a wholly conventional Christian (and Catholic too), Williams was not, neither was Owen Barfield as an Anthroposophist nor, in spite of subsequent Christian evangelical appropriation, was C.S. Lewis. 

Does this matter? Only if you care about doctrinal boundaries and want to police them, the Inklings did not (to the possible discomfort of Tolkien) for what linked them was not a common programme but a shared sensibility - the world is a sacred reality and imagination is a core faculty for its exploration. You can differ on the details of the outcome of that exploration whilst sharing in the joys of exploration. This is a sensibility that Edwards, to his credit, might allow to poets (after all their have a certain license) but not apparently to theologians (or even novelists) who want to make claims over the world that are objective, especially not those who are 'self-made', exploring the contours of their imaginative experience, first and foremost, rather than the offerings of traditions ready made.




Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Lady and the Unicorn

Growing up, my almost all white primary school class had one child of mixed descent - English and Pakistani - and we did not always treat him kindly alas (though how much of this was implicit racism or simply now more memorable than the other, less obvious, traits with which we persecuted one another, I cannot now be sure). Had he been born in colonial India, he would have been labelled 'Eurasian' and caught betwixt two worlds, neither his own.

The dilemma of this community, too loose to be closely bound and economically and socially supportive, too present not to stand out, is the source of Rumer Godden's early novel, 'The Lady and the Unicorn' (1937), sensitively introduced by Anita Desai in the newly reprinted edition of all her main works (courtesy of Virago).

The Lemarchant family live in an annex of a tumble down mansion, owned by another Eurasian family, and home to a panoply of ever-changing tenants (given the landlord's disinterest in maintenance). The Lemarchants are too poor, however, to think of moving - Mr Lemarchants is feckless, his wife dead, his sister, 'Auntie' carries the burden of care of his three daughters, all adolescents - twins, Belle and Rosa are seventeen and Blanche is fourteen. All are marked in their community by having 'free' schooling from the local nuns for even a displaced community has its hierarchies.

Belle yearns after a trajectory of escape and is willing to deploy all her charms of physical beauty and a certain self-confidence to find a man capable of extracting her from this life and propelling her elsewhere. It is an uncertain path, full of the risk of serial abandonment, and even at novel's end, we do not know whether this strategy has met with success.

Rosa, her sister, is more 'romantically' inclined, whilst associating with Robert, the Eurasian son of the house's owner, she finds herself thrust by Belle into the unexpected orbit of the Englishman, Stephen Bright. He is out from 'home' to work,and in love with a 'constructed' India from his voluminous reading; and, not yet enculturated with the necessary rules for distancing ruler from ruled (a fact of which his cousin, William, and his employer are quick to remind him). The love affair is imbalanced and will end unhappily but sensitively shows in the process how desire can fail to conquer culture, however, apparently 'petty' and 'constrained' that 'culture' appears to be.

In truth, Stephen is as in love with Rosa's house and its mysterious past as he is with the girl herself; and, the house is haunted. The story slowly unfolds of a French family, exiled by revolution, failing to embed themselves in a new world and of a tragic match that ends in the death, possibly suicide, of a young bride. This failure to take root, to find a place, becomes an image that deepens both the particular failure of Stephen and Rosa and the more general failure of both the Eurasians to find a place in society and of the ruled to offer that place, bound, as they are, within distancing conventions.

Inevitably the book draws comparison with the two great English works of colonial failure, of mismatching culture - E.M. Forster's already published, 'A Passage to India' and Paul Scott's to be published, 'Jewel in the Crown' and certainly as works of critique they all spare no prisoners for their countrymen's failings but Godden knew India better than both, especially at the personal level, the flowing of people's everyday emotional lives. Neither Forster nor Scott, for example, ever ran a dancing school (in Calcutta) many of whose pupils were Eurasian nor found themselves effectively abandoned, through an estranged marriage, coping with a young family, in an isolated Kashmiri village. This adds a level of colour and individuality to the characters that, though risking sentiment and caricature, gives you a vivid sense of the personal nature of the dilemmas faced rather than seeing a drama illuminating ideas.

This too being Godden, there is the assured touch of portraying adolescence on the verge of adulthood permeating the characters. There is no one better at capturing the dance between child and adult, even in the same moment, as Godden, as a character swings with vehemence into one age only to be undone by the characteristics of the other.

Present also is the fact that the house is haunted - the old French family is caught, present, timelessly in its own emotional trauma; and, in passing Godden offers a fascinating 'theory' of ghosts - they may be repeating endlessly, as in No drama, their trapped, traumatic emotional state - but we can only see this at moments of our own high emotional intensity; and, if they have a gift to offer, it is to allows us to remember that it is emotional intensity unmanaged or refused, not lived and shaped and navigated, that binds us to a life unlived.

The novel ends on this note - every character has found or accommodated themselves to the necessity of change, it is never ideal but the ideal can be the enemy of the good, much there may be to be changed in the outward forms of our shaping society, but whilst we wait (and work), personal navigation is possible.

In one last image, the haunted mansion that binds is sold to be converted into a cinema and brings new opportunities to Rosa now reconciled to a life with Robert - a place of a haunted, repeating story will become a theatre of dreams, of manifold stories.




Monday, March 7, 2016

1599

If we lived in more ideal world, the accounting after, say, the US Presidential primaries in the newspapers would mirror less partisan editorialising masquerading as news and be closer to Shakespeare's portrayal of Julius Caesar.


This, as James Shapiro argues, in his '1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare' beautifully captures both sides of the perennial debate about this critical character in the history of our 'West'. Was he a proto-tyrant deserving of death or a martyr for a Rome in need of a renewing order (or indeed an uncertain admixture of these conflicting possibilities even unknown to himself). As soon as you are allowed by the play to imagine one possibility, some other evidence intrudes to unsettle such certainty, you are invited not to redouble your prejudice but pay attention, re-think, re-imagine, and move out of the theatre with a better appreciation of the complexities out of which any judgement should be made.


Like his subsequent, ''1606..." see here: http://ncolloff.blogspot.nl/2015/12/catholic-terrorism-and-its-lessons.html, this probing of history is saturated with present time concern. Shakespeare is finely tuned to the anxieties of his age - the timelessness of his art is fashioned by leaning into history, not by stepping out of it.


In this case, we are nearing the end of an age, Queen Elizabeth is ageing (inspite of zealous application of her time's equivalence of botox) and has no heir. This is destabalising and makes her regime increasingly sensitive to perceived sedition. It is too a regime beseiged by conflict - in the Low Countries where she aids the Dutch in their never ending rebellion from Spain and, in turn, is faced by an Irish rebellion against her own colonizing that, understandably, the Spanish aim to manipulate to their advantage. In steps the Earl of Essex as purported military saviour - and possibly more than this - loved and feared in equal measure by Elizabeth (and seriously undermined by his enemies at her court). He fails in Ireland, returns, is arrested, launches a failed coup and is executed - a low note in Elizabeth's body politic (if more than once a display of her own personal courage). How to rule, the limits of rule, the justification for tyranny and for its overthrow, and more, get subtly woven into the fabric of Shakespeare's plays and which, with Hamlet, take on a new depth and direction in Shakepeare himself.


All of this, and more, Shapiro explores in his detailed reading of texts against diverse historical backgrounds - from those of high state to the intimacies of Warwickshire life (in which we discover, amongst much else that Shakespeare was a food speculator, hoarding malt)!


Shapiro aims to show that Shakespeare was not an unalloyed genius deposited from heaven (as later Romantics might have had it) nor, however, if transposed to the twenty-first century, likely to be found working as a scriptwriter on Eastenders but that his genius arose out of history (his own and his times) and yet remains striking for its capacity to see beyond history to the complex weaving, recurring patterns in time that are recognised throughout history as compelling questions - and how he is a genius not at providing answers but of deepening questions, of directing our attention to the attention we need to genuinely ask beyond prejudice and into the complexity of life; and, only sitting here are answers likely to emerge that are 'not fixed' (for all time) yet are true responses to what needs are here now.

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...