Monday, May 23, 2016

I AM not I

Over many years the philosopher, Jacob Needleman, has been exploring the nature of consciousness and the search for truth through the lens of the philosophical and religious traditions of West and East.

The first book of his I read was at university, 'The Heart of Philosophy' that, in its first part, describes Needleman's experience of teaching an introductory philosophy class and, in the second, looks at the authors of the classical Western tradition, beginning with Descartes, through the lens of his teaching discoveries. Like all his books subsequently, it beautifully evoked the guiding wonder and questioning at the heart of a genuine love of wisdom. It was less interested in the what of each particular philosophy's 'answers' as in how they deepen our critical questioning of the world and how such questioning might lead us to living a fuller, more abundant and good life.

His latest book, that I read yesterday (it is very short and my flight very long), is structured as a staged conversation between Jacob as he now is and Jerry his younger self (as a fourteen, sixteen and twenty year old). What would the elder Jacob tell his younger self? What questions would his younger self ask his future?

Three things stood out for me. Needleman's focus on the 'taste' of truth - how does an idea rest in our awareness? How do we consciously hold it? For Needleman, as for Plato, ideas are alive and an idea not fully tasted, digested, understood, can easily become toxic. How, for example, has our idea of 'freedom' been constrained by seeing it simply as freedom from? A freedom not to be rather than a freedom for? And for what?

Second, how we forget the first force of a truth, when it awakens wonder, stills us with awe, gifts us the possibility of a genuine awareness and how quickly we move from that state to seeking to capture and display it in the appropriate dress of words. The most moving part of the book is Jacob/Jerry's exchanges on Elias, their friend of childhood, who died at fifteen of leukemia. Jerry and Elias would sit on a stone wall, exchanging facts, mostly scientific, but would always end in silence, as their answering of information, slowly gave way to a wondering after meaning, where the friendly assertion of having gave way to the possibility of being with.

Third that as time (and books) have proceeded, Needleman's indebtedness to Gurdjieff becomes more overt (presumably because in retirement one can admit to such 'disreputable' company).  At the heart of this indebtedness is a commitment to 'self-remembering' (as Gurdjieff called it) as essential part of receiving truth. This, in part, a call to an ever-deepening awareness and observation. What has this to do with philosophy?

I was reminded of giving a talk to a combined meeting of the Faculty of Theology and the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge on the relationship between the Desert Fathers of the Church and people in prison who practiced yoga and meditation (with whom I worked through the Prison Phoenix Trust). I was struck by the myriad ways people did not attend to the evidence of the talk.

One such was emotional - how could one possibly compare the lives of criminals with saints? To which the answer was consider their lives? Consider the back story of many of the Desert Fathers, criminals amongst them. Consider the reality that as one deepens one's awareness - through a spiritual discipline of awareness and intending good, you become more vividly aware of all the barriers that displace you from missing the fullness of the mark of your being, sin? Consider St Augustine's observation that the 'depths to which you descend are an indication of the heights to which you can aspire'?

Another such was intellectual, surely the notion that conscience was anything but a 'social construct' was inadmissible? Here 'theory' took us away from observation, the phenomenology of conscience in both desert monk and prison inmate, as their attention deepened, as they remembered and observed themselves more deeply, was that conscience emerged, colored undoubtedly by their manifold experiences, but yet with something resonant, objective, speaking towards them from within (and beyond), calling to a new life, renewed struggle.

Philosophy, Needleman would maintain (and Gurdjieff would second) is born out of observation rooted in the deepening practice of awareness otherwise there is no place that can hold and nurture and withstand, as well as understand, truth and rather than be transformed by it, we merely put it to use from whatever level of consciousness (or conscience) we now are possessed by. We begin in wonder rooted in the close texture of observation.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Dark Forest

In the 1920s and 30s Hugh Walpole, protégé of Henry James, was a best selling novelist, lucrative and popular lecturer and writer, in Hollywood of the inevitable film script (David Copperfield). This goes to show that fame is ephemeral, as is literary reputation, for many of his books have fallen out of print, disappearing from view.

As his friend, J.B.Priestley, noted when he was starting out, he was lauded and supported by the 'highbrows' of emerging modernism but when he became popular (and, thus, inevitably 'low brow') such critical championing vanished not least because there was nothing original in the form of his storytelling. It was a fate that almost embraced Priestley himself until an original and accomplished staging of his 'An Inspector Calls' revived interest at least in his plays, on the coat tails of which new life has been breathed into the novels. No such reinvention has happened to Walpole.

Partly this is understandable because his very fluency (a book a year) and carelessness (his publisher Macmillan had an editor on stand by to receive and rework his scripts) means an inevitable unevenness of output but there are gems - his historical The Herries Chronicle (pictured being held by the author here) is one such, his novel 'The Dark Forest' another.

The commemorations of the hundredth anniversary of the First World War might have provided an opportunity for an enterprising revival of this fascinating novel not least for its novelty.

As a text it holds its own as an account of that conflict with more famous 'rivals' - Graves' 'Goodbye to All That' or the memoirs of Blunden and Sassoon or Owen's poetry - the novelty lies in it being based on the Eastern Front (the war between Austria and Russia) where Walpole served as a member of the Red Cross (his eyesight precluding him from military service) and where he was awarded a medal for gallantry in single handedly rescuing a wounded soldier when all about him were too afraid to accompany him.  A story that gets woven into the plot.

The book, well received at the time, was subsequently condemned for its stereotypical portrayal of character (Russian and English) and yet, of course, stereotypes are so because they are grained with truth and here they vividly come to life. So too does the reality of conflict - long periods of boredom, punctuated with uncertainty, followed by intense action haunted by the uncertainty of life or death.

One of the admirers of Walpole's fiction was C.G. Jung and you can immediately see why because quite naturally Walpole weaves the reality of dream (and the unconscious) into the lives of his characters. It is only when you notice the naturalness of this that you realise how uncommon it is in literature, not the dream as flagged and seminal or as a device but simply there to be accounted for or not, attended to or ignored just as in everyday life.  Nightmares can haunt a lifetime (as one of Death does here) but also they can fleet pass and you can turn over and return to sleep, as we do.

The novel, against the realistic backdrop of conflict, has as its theme two sets of rivalry for the love of two very different women both of which can only be settled through death and in which love is shown to be stronger than death (as St Paul's words, used in the funeral committal service, puts it). In the unfolding of which you are invited to contemplate very different forms of what it means to love someone and to slowly detach yourself from a too hasty judgement as to the 'rightness' of any particular one. Love, at the end may be one, but human beings in their fragility, bear it and shape it very differently and often awkwardly. It is, in the very best sense, a humanising text.

This thematic too, you could imagine, stems from Walpole's own status as gay at a time when such love 'dare not speak its name' (and indeed in later life he developed an unconventional attachment with a former policeman who came to live with him as his 'chauffeur' bringing his wife and apparently happy family in tow such are the myriad paths of human loving). Sadly, for reputation purposes, nothing in the novels overtly displays this so no leverage there as the first war novel too etc etc!

However, the book clings to print (in a inelegant copy that looks as if it has been photostatted) and, hopefully, one day may re-emerge in a format that it deserves on the back of a revival of this accomplished, sensitive story teller of observant detail and humanising intention.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Kahlil Gibran's legacy

After the Bible, 'The Prophet', it is said, is the bestselling book of the twentieth century. It has never been out of print since its publication in 1923 and has been translated into more than forty languages. It may be the most read book of the century, I suspect, given that the Bible is so often possessed without being consumed! Meanwhile, the two texts have often found themselves nestled together: how often has one been to a wedding or a funeral, for example, and had readings from both?

As Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins point out in their biographical study of Kahlil Gibran, 'Kahlil Gibran, Man and Poet', this popularity has rather harmed (or obscured) Gibran's literary (and artistic) legacy. 'The Prophet' appears to defy the classificatory mechanisms that scholars love and popularity can be a kiss of death to serious consideration either as a poet or as a thinker. Needless to say none of this is helped either by familiarity or the high Romantic rhetorical form in which the text is shaped. The latter is, however, I expect a key component to its popularity - it sounds as poetry is supposed to! 

Nonetheless Bushrui and Jenkins make an admirable case for why he ought to be thought of as both a great poet and a seminal one.

First is the undoubted impact of his work in Arabic on the development of modern Arabic literature. He broke the heavy burden of formalism (and with others, many of them his friends) injecting new possibilities of expression both in terms of form and content. He was a radical in both senses - new ways to write and new things to say, many of both controversial -  for example - on the suffocating nature of Church hierarchy and priestly prerogative in his own Maronite communities in Lebanon and on the necessity of equality for women. He was subversive too of Ottoman claims, helping birth Arab nationalism, some of whose later history would have horrified him, a birthing that earned him a Turkish assassination attempt.

Second for his prescience for here was a writer alert to and sorrowing for the degradation of nature whether driven by greed or poverty. There is no social justice without environmental justice, no home for human being without human being making a home in a nurturing mother Nature.

Third for his transformation of Sufi teaching, and most especially taking the style and form of that teaching, in story, parable and aphorism, in a universalising direction, making a treasure known to a wider audience (if, obviously, filtered through his lights). If Rumi is the United States best selling poet, it was Gibran who blazed the trail of its possibility (and, in passing, it is ironic that the United States best selling poet is a Muslim - perhaps Donald will move to ban him)!

Fourth because he does write and paint beautifully and saw both arts as mutually indwelling, each illuminating the other. In the past, when people have alluded to Blake in this regard, I have tended to assume that this was simply a default description for any 'mystical' poet/painter combo irrespective of any deeper affinity; however, the biography makes clear this was, in truth, a very real pathway of influence. Gibran was an avid student of Blake - both in form and content - and both shared a common sense of mission. Blake wore the mantle of a prophet consciously, Gibran, more modestly perhaps, felt himself allowing the prophetic to speak through him. Both waged an unceasing fight for the priority of the imaginative over the merely rational, of a world that was a sacred cosmos rather than simply a material order. Both loved the figure of Christ and interpreted him unorthodoxly, seeing him as a rebel with a cause, a passionate man riding his hallowed desiring, about which there was nothing meek or mild. Arguably Gibran's 'Jesus, Son of Man' is his best book, a remarkable, subjective, haunting multiple view of perspectives of Jesus, in its very form reminding us that any view, however penetrating, is one view among many possibilities.

Finally, and here too he shares a world with Blake, both shared a profound love of a particular place, London and Lebanon, that became the site of a cosmic struggle between love and forgiveness and anything and everything that in anyway denied it. They fought the politics of eternity as their mutually insightful critic AE, the Irish poet and visionary, George Russell, described it.

Both, in doing so, ended up as Christian radicals believing in a unity of truth that transcended any sectarian difference.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mr Jung goes to the East

'Jung and Eastern Thought' by J.J.Clarke is an admirable survey of Jung's indebtedness to 'Eastern thought' - Taoism, Yoga and Buddhism especially. It defends him effectively against most charges of 'Orientalism' and sees his thinking in this space of continuing relevance - though marred by certain infelicities of expression, a certain (and familiar) disorganization of thought; and, the utilization of sources that were (by contemporary standards) inadequately translated. W. Y. Evans Wentz, for example, when 'translating' the 'Tibetan Book of the Dead' did not even know Tibetan and used a Tibetan monk's English version that he then filtered through his own understanding of Vedanta! (This does not detract from the pioneering nature of his work but one does need to step beyond it)!

Jung was fascinated by the Orient partly because he wanted to see how its patterns of thought would help diagnose the ills of the West, a West that for Jung was in spiritual crisis; and, because they offered a set of confirmatory analogies for his own developing work in psychotherapy especially around individuation, archetypes and the collective unconscious. He was, except with perhaps Buddhism in his later life, always concerned that Westerners should not practise Oriental patterns of spiritual discipline because (a) they should look to their own historical/cultural traditions for spiritual revival and (b) because Western mentalities were different being more extroverted than Oriental ones such practises might be positively dangerous.

Where the book fails, I think, is to play down the very real conflict in Jung between the empirical scientist, heroically founding a new psychological discipline; and, the esoteric Jung whose primary concern was spiritual transformation of a decidedly Gnostic bent. It is clear that Clarke favours the former over the latter. He quotes Jung's dismissal of Theosophy (and takes it at face value) and indeed 'helpfully' adds a wonderfully disparaging description of that complex women who was Madam Blavatsky.

Thus, Clarke's Jung does present a series of problems when thinking of the usefulness of his approach to the Orient.

First and foremost is that Jung the psychologist bracketed any metaphysical question - this was sometimes seen as beyond his scope as a scientist and sometimes seen as beyond anyone's scope given Jung was a follower of Kant (and Jung flips back and forth unhelpfully). So what, say, the author(s) of the Tibetan Book of the Dead are really doing (with inadequate tools) is describing a series of psychological processes projected onto the pattern of a person's dying or contemplation of death. It is as if one day they should 'wake up' and realise, like the character in Moliere, they have really been speaking prose all their life. This may help Jung in developing his psychology but does not do justice to what the author/practitioner behind the Book of the Dead thinks they are doing. This is a manual about what to do when dying built on both a set metaphysical assumptions and observation (though the later would be discounted by any form of materialist science).

Second, Clarke supports this reading by seeing Jung as an early and explicit practitioner of hermeneutics - a pattern of thinking and dialogue later structured and codified by Gadamer. There is a significant truth here (both as to Jung and in understanding how we understand texts in historical consciousness) but herein lies another problem. Hermeneutics as so structured - seeing everything as historically conditioned and the discernment of meaning as an infinite spiral that is never closed - is an epistemological structure, that if not explicitly Western, is identifiable with it (and post/ modernity). What is never discussed is that the a-historicity of the metaphysical positions held by Buddhist, Taoist and Vedantic thinkers (in complementary but different ways) have the capacity to radically undermine this approach. If my consciousness is capable of a liberation from given space-time categories, liberated from my history, what then of a historically bound, indeterminate hermeneutics? We beg the very question that an encounter with the 'East' might be an invitation to address.

Interestingly Jung himself dismissed precisely the kind of consciousness - where the ego is radically transcended by a supra-consciousness - that is at the heart of Buddhism and Vedanta - as a logical impossibility - for any experience to be, there must be an experiencer according to Jung and, in any case, there is, in Jung, never a place where we come to anything other than a balance in the opposing opposites, never to a liberation from opposites.

Interestingly too both Clarke and Jung focus on the 'strangeness' of the texts before us and the distance between them and it (in their preferred hermeneutics). This is a wonderful demonstration to my mind as to how theory continually undermines phenomenology because one of the things that we consistently notice (not always but significantly) is the familiarity of an unknown text. There is no distance - understanding will require a journey but love and knowing has struck at first sight.

Strangely then at the end of the book, Clarke has made an admirable case for Jung's use of the Orient, a use that is never less than respectful and admiring, but never feels more than a 'use'. It never appears to rise to the level of a genuine dialogue that reaches into a genuine encounter with the 'other' that fully respects and struggles with the other on its own terms.

But what about the other Jung - the esoteric version - you get glimpses - the very vehemence of his dismissals of Theosophy are suspicious, his descriptions of the Buddha as the perfect instantiation of the Self and his later belief about the efficacy of Buddhist practice (maybe).

As so often with Jung, you admire the way he turned elements in the contemporary world to a (semi) respectable consideration of the more than rational, of the symbolic and the 'unconscious' by placing it within the frame of empirical science but are saddened by its perceived necessity and wishing he would shelve the neo-Kantian baggage for a more radical exploration in life and science of the multi-dimensional nature of consciousness.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Ascension

If you approach the Ascension through the lens of the Catholic Church's catechism you have three offerings as to its meaning - the assimilation of Jesus' humanity into the kingdom of God and the prospect of His return, Jesus' entering heaven preceding us giving us hope of doing likewise; and, Jesus as permanently established mediator for humanity in heaven, ensuring access to the continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

It is the third that has always interested me because Jesus rather emphatically tells us that unless He goes, the Holy Spirit cannot come. I expect you can spill much theological ink pondering why this must be so but it occurs to me that, at least, one potential meaning is that now the focus shifts from Jesus as model to the work necessary to be done by each and everyone of us if we are to be reborn of the Spirit.

It is as if Giotto's saints (depicted above) are fixing in their minds an image of what it might be to become ultimately human but that image must go away if each us is going to have their own image uncovered, made as a likeness after the divine. The problem then it seems to me is that too often we do not turn away (and in) to find our own image of the living God, animated by the Spirit, but settle for clinging to the model; and, the model, in some important sense, is gone or rather 'here' but yet not here, necessarily occluded so we might have it made anew in ourselves.

This is akin perhaps to the Buddhist saying that if you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him, not for extolling violence but to avoid the subtle ways an image or icon becomes an idol - even one that is the actual presence of the perfect being.

Holiness can only be lived, each time anew, in and amongst persons, it can never be allowed to become static and Jesus' Ascension is a profound image of this (that dangerously can simply become the opposite - one more belief to get fixed and right).

And, ultimately, of course, Jesus' return is not a 'descending' but when each and everyone of us has 'ascended' to the place where our divine nature has been restored, rather than looking into the heavens, we then find that the heavens are all around us, in us, amongst us. The humanity that Jesus is, is us.

Happy Feast!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

My aunt and Ben Hur

Early on Monday morning, my aunt died, peacefully by all account, following prayers with the local Chaplain. She was chugging into her mid-90s.

My fondest memory was my brother and I being taken to what (in memory) has become my first real restaurant - an Italian one in Birmingham - where our attempt to order the cheapest items on the menu was firmly (and kindly) reproved by her: that would not be necessary. What I did order I cannot recall but it added to my sense that this particular aunt was exotic. She, also, drank wine (the only person I knew who did so) and lager (that became a drink, a pale substitute for real beer, that I forever associated with women though this association, strangely, did not colour my appreciation of wine)!

As a single woman, with a mysterious white collar job at the strangely named 'Kalamazoo', she travelled to far distant places, even beyond Europe, going to the Seychelles once and excitingly (for me if not for her) found herself briefly stranded on the tarmac in Khartoum on her return journey whilst a coup unfolded or failed to unfold around her.

The other great event of the restaurant day was going to see Ben Hur (that must have been a revival) at a cinema with an exceptionally large screen (probably only the second cinema I had visited) and curiously, like the theatre, this cinema (for this production at least) produced a programme as if for a theatrical production. This I think I still possess and, at the time, I read it over and over. I vividly remember its golden cover and the stills from the earlier (silent) version of the film.

Our first loves leave their mark on us - and this was one. Films came charged with meaning as well as excitement. I was marked by an exciting epic and yet one stalked by an ever present but oblique Christ. The subtitle of Lew Wallace's original novel is 'A Tale of the Christ', so as well as my first restaurant, my aunt's other gift that day (if consciously wholly unintentional) was my first real encounter with the person of Christ in a way that intrigued me, capturing attention.

It is an attention that continues ever fruitfully for which my gratitude to my aunt can only be continuously boundless. May the presence she introduced me to then accompany her now.

Monday, May 2, 2016

After Many a Summer

"After Many a Summer..." is not, it must be said, one of Aldous Huxley's best novels for even a novel of ideas needs some form of plot to frame its intellectual explorations and this fable of a search for a means of prolonging life feels too contrived. The threads tend to come loose rather than weave a pattern.

Nevertheless it has many a good moment. The canvas of Los Angeles as the dilettante Jeremy is driven to meet the American tycoon (who is funding the quest for longevity out of a fear of death and consequent damnation) is Huxley at his observant satirical best. Mr Propter, the tycoon's only school friend and radical opposite, expounds Huxley's evolving emphasis on the need for spiritual liberation lucidly if in, as yet, unfinished form. The final denouement in the caverns under an English aristocratic house is suitably Gothic with the 5th Earl admirably demonstrating that longevity may not bring an upward cycle of self-improvement but a long slow spiral into decay.

However, two things linger in the mind most.

The first is Huxley's prescience where we even have Mr Propter singing (and practising) the virtues of solar power (and recognising that true democracy is dependent, as Jefferson argued, on the degree to which people exercised economic as well as political freedom). How he would have relished the potential decentralisation of energy production that new technology might begin to allow.

The second is the balance between pessimism and optimism, perfectly struck, as Mr Propter remarks if we take people as they are, often lost in either idealism or fear, we have little to hope for because both are driven by egotism (and recognising this is as true of the first as of the second is one of Huxley's great [and difficult] virtues) but if one focuses on each person's potential towards a seeing rinsed and cleansed, out of eternity and beyond a confining personality, what then would not be possible? This potentiality is at the heart of every authentic religion's heart (much as they fail to live from there) and is always, and continually, a cause for hope.

It was to light such candles of hope in the darkness that Huxley's later fiction existed and here is an early example of the taper being put to wick.

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...