Sunday, April 29, 2012

An Obscure Man



I first read 'Coup de Grace' which described a three-cornered relationship on the fluid front as the Baltic states fought for their independence as part of Russia's post revolutionary civil war. It beautifully captured the tension of waiting that any conflict inspires: short bursts of intense activity are preceded and followed by long periods of waiting.

Years later I read Yourcenar's masterpiece, 'The Memoirs of Hadrian' - one of the great novels of the last century: the only historical novel that I know that allows no contemporary thought or feeling to obtrude. There is no hindsight in the writing - the Christian sect persecuted and briefly alluded to is just that, a minor tremor in the consciousness of the Emperor. His perception and values are allowed to speak as if the conceit were true: these are his memoirs. It is a remarkable achievement.

I read yesterday her novella, 'An Obscure Man' set in seventeenth century Holland (and England, the West Indies and an island off the north east coast of Canada). It traces the life of Nathaniel, son of a Dutch ship builder, and traces a life of obscurity until its early death (of tuberculosis). What makes it stand out is how Yourcenar shows how the world is seen by Nathaniel, how his biases, prejudices, capacities shapes a particular world that is both plain and yet stranded with glimpses of something yet other. She describes beautifully Nathaniel 'at sea' lying on deck, encompassed by a dual darkness of sky and sea, and how it makes him feel at one, in place, able to surrender to a greater whole, but with no necessary assumptions about 'immortal survival'.

Nathaniel dies, alone, as caretaker of an island off the Dutch coast, and walks off into the wilderness of it, knowing his time is at hand. It is one of the most beautiful accounts of a dying I have read. It is truly 'pagan' in that it assumes nothing but nature gathering itself to itself and yet is truly agnostic: Nathaniel does not know into what, if anything, he steps. He may die 'an obscure man' but everyone is in death and obscurity to others and the world does not mean that one's life is not charged with an individual significance, held to oneself.

She was a very great writer - the first woman to be elected to the Academie Francaise - and too little known in the English speaking world - even though her 'great friend' (read partner) Grace Frick was a distinguished American translator.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Dim in the twilight

On the plane back from Yerevan, I caught a fragment of the seemingly endless 'Twilight' saga - the one in which the heroine is about to be married - and was puzzled.

She wants to marry the pale, intense Edward and lose her soul, be frozen in her current body, and live with a friendly 'family' of vampires. The younger members of the family seem to endlessly repeat their last High School year, cannot go out in the sun (where the glow suspiciously rather than fry) and with whom vegetarianism is not an option. She cannot change nor have children nor grow old, accumulating the wisdom that comes of bodily ageing (or of experience outside the woods).

She choses this in preference to the hunky intense Indian guy with whom she could go out into the sun, have little Indians, and pass over at the end into the happy hunting grounds, soul intact and luminous. He is, also, a werewolf - how cool (and warmly furry) is that!

I am obviously missing something...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Chaplain supports sharia

Fr Chaplain, the Head of the Department for Church and Society in the Moscow Patriarchate, has made a statement suggesting that the Russian Orthodox Church does not have any objection to the Muslim community establishing sharia courts (within clear limits) in the Russian Federation.

I wish I could imagine that his motivation is purely directed at supporting the Islamic community establishing parameters for organizing family and community life in alignment with principles understood and agreed by that community for their betterment and wholeness. This would be in line with a similar (though more tentative) statement floated by Archbishop Rowan Williams in the United Kingdom that was genuinely aimed at measures that might reduce the felt alienation of recently arrived immigrant communities. It was genuine in its intention, if, I think, misguided in practice.

However, on past form (including actual encounters with the said Fr Chaplain), I fear his interest may be more self-interested - a desire to undermine the universality of rights across a state - and a suggestion that obligations to the community should trump individual rights. The primary shaping of community in the Russian context ought to be the Church, he has argued, as the public guarantor of morals, as it should be by sharia within the (smaller) Islamic community. It is a toxic analogy.

I recall a talk he gave that outlined the importance of community and the necessity of the individual to subordinate themselves to the needs of the community. This was the Russian way. The irony of the conversation was that it might have been offered word for word by any loyal Stalinist. A point, I am afraid, that I made to him!

My wider, and deeper, point was that human rights was not the invention of 'coffee swilling French atheists' in the eighteenth century but of Bartolome de la Casas, a Spanish sixteenth century Dominican bishop, as a direct extension of the recognition that we are all made in the image and likeness of God and that, however, deeply we are beholden to and responsible for the communities we inhabit, we are individuals gifted with conscience, shaping in freedom our own lives (and judged accordingly). We are our histories but always more than our histories - and indeed Christ came to liberate us from bondage to our stories.

Human rights are not a sufficient framework for guaranteeing human flourishing but they are a necessary condition. Different 'legal frameworks' for fungible communities (whose boundaries are fluid) is deeply undermining of one of the last centuries most significant (and very much unfinished) achievements. I fear in Fr Chaplain's intention it is meant to be.

One prominent cleric (also blessed with meetings with Fr Chaplain) noted, when I told him of this encounter, that they doubted whether Fr Chaplain made much distinction between coffee swilling atheists and Roman Catholic bishops!

It is hoped that it is a proposal that is resisted - the following of religious principle should always be voluntary  - and the state's legal system and constitution (concordant with fundamental rights) should be the final arbiter without exception.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Glorious Art of Peace

The Glorious Art of Peace is a highly informative book, written with admirable clarity. It consciously sets out to re-balance our perception: to allow us to see that peace has been as important as war as a feature of human life and that ways of making and sustaining peace has absorbed the minds of our history's most important thinkers.

There is an informative contrast between Erasmus and Machiavelli both widely read in the sixteenth century (and influential) but it is Machiavelli's realpolitik that you will find in a contemporary bookstore (and on the tips of people's memories). He resonates in a age grown weary of conflict, and cynical of idealism.

I sense, however, that Erasmus is not 'down and out'. His compelling vision of the benefits of peace re-emerge periodically, and I dare to hope gain ground. For example, it was he that first formulated the notion of arbitration - a feature of life that we now take for granted.

We do need to celebrate images of (and arguments for) peace, and deepen the honour we owe to those who make it. It is a service that Gittings' book admirable provides.

I am reminded of Dostoevsky's alleged difficulty over painting the portrait of a saint - and making him (or her) interesting. It is a necessary task - for peacefulness as for holiness - and it can be done, must be done.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The road to Yerevan


We went the 'quiet' route - through the hills of Georgia, down narrow valleys, bursting with Spring, along fragile roads, to a border post where we were the only one's crossing. The Georgians had a better post, spruced clean, computerized and efficient courtesy of the EU and the Armenians had the better road. Their new post was imminent, promised by UNDP. I delayed things as I noticed my name spelled wrongly on my visa, necessitating calls to the boss for clarification on what needed to be done.

The countrysides were a stark contrast - the lived in, human scale of Georgia gave way to the bleaker, higher mountain views of Armenia, with snow capped peaks and treeless expanses of brown, showing green. Both beautiful after their own fashion - though the Armenian villages were very poor in comparison (and indeed simply very poor). But prettier as you descended towards Yerevan as the blossom - cherry, apple, apricot - is out.

We stopped at a motel on the way down - it was making an effort, being refurbished (though in a rather odd colour scheme of green and purple) and the food was simple and excellent. It did have a pond, out into which had been constructed a roofed platform - a romantic dinner for two except it overlooked the pig sheds from which an aroma wafted that was anything but romantic.

Yerevan (indeed Armenia) is in election mood - as you close in on the capital, most of the roadside hoardings are given over to portly politicians trying to appear amenable and saying that they truly care. As I sit and I write this the distant sounds of a political rally can be heard.

It is also the week of genocide memorial: April 24th is the day and many of the hotels are full of diaspora coming to commemorate the tragic events of 1915. It is an event clothed in ambiguity - it is important and Turkey's inability to fully accept its importance is wrong; and, yet, often you feel that it is the diaspora's principal focus, rather than on the present and future development of a deeply isolated country (80% of whose borders are closed and where many young people's only hope is emigration).

I struck as always by how memory re-shapes places - they are an admixture of the correctly familiar and the re-imagined. The hotel is the same but re-furbished - post-Soviet has succumbed to place-less modern. The bed is happily firmer (and longer). I think I remember sleeping sideways last time!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Christ's robe and the True Cross



Today I went to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta where the robe that Christ wore at the Crucifixion is buried, accompanied by the mantle of the Prophet Elias and a fragment of the True Cross. This abundance of relics has made it the most venerated site within Georgia and the religious home of the Patriarch.

We were shown around by a vigorous elderly lady, dressed in somber black, who knew no English but had learnt her tour by rote and had it by memory. She had been a history teacher, we discovered, and now supplemented her meager pension by giving tours.

There is an operatic story of the cathedral's reconstruction in the middle ages, symbolized outside, and high up, by a bas-relief of a hand holding an architect's instrument. The said architect was young, arrogant and fatally in love with the same woman admired by the King. Through the machinations of an older, displaced architect, the King had the young architect's right arm severed leading to his death. The Church banished the woman to a convent but she chose suicide instead and the King, remorse filled, abandoned his throne for the woods and his grave! I can see it now, suitable for Donizetti perhaps!

Within the Church was an unusual fresco (re-painted in 17th century) of the Psalms of David  (of which the lower part is given below)- of all creation singing its praise and in the middle Christ sits in glory within two circles - an inner one of the Apostles and an outer one of the signs of the zodiac. Every day is marked by the creative activity of God - and Christ transforms fate into destiny. It is very beautiful and joyful.




The surrounding town is having a radical face-lift that rather gives it the character of a film set awaiting actors but no doubt it will settle down with time and ageing into a felt place again.

The wider surroundings were beautiful broken out in spring green and by the roadside people sold baskets of gathered lilac branches in purple, pink and blue hues.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Politics and the Occult

As with 'exoteric' religion, esoteric (or occult) forms lend themselves to supporting initiatives of right or left (or indeed centre). For example, Freemasons could be found on both sides of the revolutionary divide in France (and neither acquits itself well). This is the main thrust of Gary Lachman's account in his ' Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right and the Radically Unseen' that occult/esoteric traditions lend themselves to political solutions across the spectrum; not only the better known (and overblown) connection between the occult and Nazi Germany. 

It is an informative and entertaining progress through the political aspirations of the occult practitioner from renewing the world through the humanist unifying tendencies of the Rosicrucian manifestos in the seventeenth century (whose intentions were swallowed up by the Thirty Years War) to the post- Second War World of Julius Evola inspiring Italian rightist terrorism.

Lachman is, as always, a balanced and sober guide, keen to puncture the inflation of conspiracy theory while recognizing the genuine neglect of the subject's real importance.

The best chapter is on the Traditionalists and their hatred of modernity. A modernity fashioned out of the Renaissance that ironically created them by way of reaction. One of the features of Guenon et al is that they rarely inhabited the tradition of their origin, tended to only attach themselves to an 'elitist' version of the tradition they adopted, and proceeded to 'correct' that tradition from their own metaphysical viewpoint rooted in a neo-Platonic/Vedantic non-dualist metaphysic that was often alien to the contours of the living tradition they found themselves inhabiting! Their preference for eternity over time left them profoundly hostile to the understandings of history and therefore in reality too 'idealistically' focused to be effective in the political sphere. A failure for which we should give repeated thanks.

Guided by their emphasis on the primordial and the elite, they were supporters of the conservative cause which in the case of Eliade and Evola led to commitments to facisim (that the former aimed to hide and the latter proudly maintained).

At one time, I read them with real engagement and interest - and I continue to hold some of their membership in high regard for those aspects of their work that are relevant to particular and demonstrable scholarship -  Philip Sherrard on Greek poetry and his translation of the Philokalia, Marco Pallis on Buddhism and A.K. Comaraswamy on art. However, their over-arching vision strikes me as too narrow, ahistorical and elitist and strangely disembodied- they defended an abstract Tradition rather than the actual traditions they inhabited (often at the margins). 

The two most attractive people in the text for me were Edward Carpenter -little read now but deeply influential at the opening of the twentieth century linking an open, mystical faith with progressive social causes and Rudolf Steiner whose practical interventions in agriculture, education and finance continue to flourish and grow. The linkage between the two is their emphasis on 'experiment' - on the religious life being enterprises in knowing - and though Steiner elaborated a complex edifice of thought - it was offered as a work in progress rather than a complete, closed system. There is significant space for new knowledge always judged against the valid,tested criterion of the past.

Third time lucky

The first time I tried to visit Georgia I had a fire in my apartment in Moscow that waylaid any travel plans. The second time inconveniently there was a war. So yesterday clinging wood and crossing toes, I embarked on the bmi flight to Baku and Tbilisi...and arrived!

The flight was emptied at Baku of its burly, Scottish accented men (oil engineers) and a more diverse group carried on.

I cannot claim to have seen anything of the country as yet - a day work-shopping in the office was followed by a hospitable dinner at the Senate restaurant. Here I was introduced to the Georgian custom (not in evidence in Russian Georgian restaurants) of piling plate upon plate of food literally...and fabulous food especially the cheese and the wine, both unique to their places.

In the workshop, I was exposed to the challenges of working here, especially with the current government. In many ways it is set on a well-intentioned course of reform but carried out at breakneck speed and without attending to wider currents in society that might, if consulted, correct egregious errors. You feel the 'wheels may have to come off the bus' before deeper sense prevails - a correcting spell in opposition, in fact, may be the tonic needed (and it has worked elsewhere - Sali Berisha, Albania's current Prime Minister, is a much less divisive and more measured individual now than when he was the authoritarian coloured President of the 90s).

I am looking forward to Saturday when I can get out and breathe in the place.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Inner River - a review




The language of mysticism is performative. It not only seeks to convey content about the nature of the divine but is configured to trip the mind into a realization of that divine. Its strategies are many fold but one of the simplest is the dialogue form. A charismatic elder seeks to impart their wisdom to one or more listeners. The wisdom is didactic but shaped by the living presence of receptive listeners and their particular personalities. We, the reader, are invited into imaginative sympathy and identification with the listener (s) and, thus, made more existentially receptive to what is being said. Undoubtedly the greater the diversity of different type of listener the greater the chance that one or other sparks a recognition in the reader: this is ‘me’ we can say, this is my question, and my listening deepens in this empathy.

It is a form of writing that is explicit in the distinguished books that Kyriacos Markides, a sociologist of religion at the University of Maine, has produced on the Orthodox elder and bishop, Fr Maximos of which Inner River is the third. Indeed a core framing of the book is around a running symposium (and this resonate Platonic word is chosen to describe it in the text) on the nine fruits of the Spirit outlined by St Paul in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Core to the project is Markides himself as participant observer, questioner and listener bringing the contemporary world into an interrogative relationship with Fr Maximos as a representative of Orthodox spirituality and allowing that spirituality to put ‘our’ world to the test. Fr Maximos is a product of Markides’ own Cyprus but also of the monastic discipline of a reviving Mount Athos, the cultural and spiritual heart of Orthodox monasticism. It is this tradition that he is seeking to re-root in Cyprus. This is not without controversy generated both by more complacent, worldly strands of the faith and the secular who have accused him of stealing the minds of their young in a renewed monastic development (as if he were the practitioner of some dubious cult)!

However, the primary focus of all three books is the inner transformation of the person on a path towards holiness. Holiness that is seen, in Orthodoxy, as a process of ‘theosis’ or deification, a restoration of our primal inheritance as ‘made in the image and likeness of God’. This image has been obscured through sin, a missing of the mark of our own true being, and the life of the Ecclesia is therapeutic aiming to restore us to health. Markides use of the word ‘Ecclesia’ (italicized throughout) is rooted in Fr Maximos’ strategy of reconfiguring our notion of ‘Church’. He does not gloss over its many historical and continuing failings. It is after all an institution in the hands of fallible, all too human beings but wants his listeners/readers to see it as bearing tried and tested approaches to bringing us step by step to a renewed wholeness. It is a wholeness that is testified to in the lives of the Ecclesia’s saints. The stories of which anchor much of Fr Maximos’ teaching giving it embodied examples, many of which are living or recent and to which Fr Maximos himself can give witness. “The commandments of God are the medicines that He offered us for our cure,” Fr Maximos tells his audience and how they are and how they have worked is the substance of ‘Inner River’, explored here in their ascending hierarchy, beginning with self-control and ending in love.

In the course of this journey, Fr Maximos is humorous, engaging, thoughtful and wise, responding to the different kinds of question that are put to him by Markides and others. Around this central core, Markides builds other key illustrative episodes of which a dialogue between a hermit and an atheist writer friend both of whom began their lives rooted in Communism and a pilgrimage to Mount Athos are the most memorable. Markides, also, takes ‘time out’ from his underlying structure to reflect on what such an understanding of spirituality brings both to narrower, more literal forms of Christianity and to the dominant secular materialist paradigm.

Thus, in the context of the former, in exploring ‘self-control’ and ‘anger’ there is an illuminating discussion on how many might indeed secure mastery over the physical, leading outwardly modest lives; and, yet be consumed inwardly by an attachment to their opinions and ideology. “From the very moment that someone is a fanatic, he is into delusion...Such a person is outside the spiritual teachings set down by Christ and the great saints...The entire  therapeutic pedagogy of the Ecclesia is built on the practice of humility. To follow Christ means to have the capacity to co-exist with other people who may be radically different from you.” (Fr Maximos).

In the context of the latter, Markides continues to pursue a long standing interest in the experiential - in how the testimony of the lives of saints (and their interaction with others) gives us glimpses of a deeper understanding of the nature of reality. Here he explores such issues as near death experiences, the capacity of saints to notify others of the time of their own deaths and communication with saints after they have died. In this last case, there is a wonderful story of an Australian disciple telephoning Elder Porphyrios, a monk of Mount Athos, who served as a parish priest in downtown Athens. Unbeknownst to the disciple, it was a month after Fr Porphyrios’ death, but the Father answered informing him not to call him on the phone anymore because he was no longer in this life but in Heaven! Saints undoubtedly have a sense of humour.

This parallel exploration of the ‘miraculous’ blends well with that of the therapeutic. We may not all need ‘sign and wonders’ but, in truth, they have been and are an integral feature of the attraction of religion, confirmatory signals that we do inhabit a different world than the one offered by scientific materialism or secular humanism, and that hope for a transformed life is ‘material’ as well as ‘ideal’. We live in a world made for holiness. There is no dichotomy between our ideals and their realisation in actuality if we accept the challenging practice on offer in the therapy of Ecclesia (or parallel traditions of holy making). 

In these three volumes (The Mountain of Silence, Gifts of the Desert and Inner River), Markides has given us an engaging, erudite and highly accessible account of a critical strand in Christian spirituality, rooted in a living tradition that is home to charismatic and humble elders able to be channels of guidance, correction and healing. They allow us to see beyond the distorting (often self-inflicted) images of ‘the Church’ to another place, behind and within, that is thought proving, challenging and above all compassionately helpful.

In the course of doing so, we are in exemplary hands: Makides is a participant observer of engaged empathy, transparent about his own journey of rediscovering the tradition of his origins, intelligence and real literary skill. Fr Maximos is not the only practitioner of a therapeutic pedagogy in evidence whilst reading ‘Inner River’.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Place on Earth, not in Church

Two books helped disarrange my neat path to priesthood and religious life.

The first was Ursula Le Guin's 'The Telling' that I found myself reading and re-reading at critical junctures in the process of vocational testing and reaffirmed my sense that no narrative is a closed account of the truth. Each story is an enterprise after knowing and truth is embedded in the gracefulness, poise and vulnerability of the telling. The story is offered compassionately to the world as a way of seeing and it is judged by its fruits - in the wholeness and harmony it grants to a society. It is manner of story telling that the church, sadly, has often failed even though it is embodied in the parables of its founder.

The second, I realised on re-reading it now, is Wendell Berry's 'A Place on Earth'. This is a marvellous telling of a community bound to a place and to one another who lives are measured by their responsibility to one another and to the care and use of their place (and their failures towards that responsibility).

It is, also, a compelling study of the pathways of grief and the responses of mourning. Virgil, the son of Mat and Margaret Feltner, and the husband of Hannah, is announced as missing in action (during the Second World War). The local pastor comes to 'comfort' them and in a brilliant set piece of writing, he wholly fails to connect with the reality of their feelings, even as they listen politely to him. He does not share the reality, the particularity of their lives. He speaks of heaven but they now are bound in grief to earth and memory. Reading it now, I remember its effect on me a decade ago, how donning that place - of priest - would put me 'apart', make me separate. I often feel isolation enough as it is, without making it so apparent, visible.

The priesthood was doomed! I cannot represent anything as embodying the truth. I would rather be quietly invisible than set apart.

Meanwhile, Berry's novel, I think, is a great achievement - full of moments that arrest you into feeling just so, seeing something utterly close and real, as if for the first time. There is a moment when he is describing through Mat what it feels like - the responsibility of being a parent - that caught me up and made me see and feel what it must be like to be my parents. I rested my feeling in his words and my seeing was permanently changed. Literature that does that is truly remarkable and his is. It is 'didactic' in the best sense - it wants you to embody a renewing moral vision but it is done so seamlessly with the grain of imagined lives as to soak in to your feelings, to touch the depths, before rising to the consideration of thought. And the two, feeling and thought, are strikingly well-attuned.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Divine Image

The Divine Image


To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, pity, Peace and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man of every clime
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,

Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.


William Blake


As if my prior sermon was insufficient, a reminder from Blake that 'all must love the human form' as is appears in difference, for ultimately there is no difference only a common human form. There is no prejudice in love.

Propaganda and vulnerable children

The 'propaganda bill' presented to the Russian Duma this week, seeking to prohibit gay 'propaganda' targeted at minors, modelled on legislation already passed in St Petersburg, reminds me of our own, now notorious 'Section 28', passed under Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s. This prohibited local authorities 'promoting homosexuality' (and what promotion meant was left suitably vague).

The only known effect of this legislation, under which, to my knowledge no one was ever prosecuted, was to ensure that young people, in many instances, had no access to information or support as they came to terms with their sexuality. Meanwhile, many schools fought shy of tackling homophobic bullying because to do so they feared would fall foul of the legislation (though, sadly, more generally, many schools are extraordinarily bad at addressing any kind of bullying). It imposed a form of self-censorship.

The already significant tendency for young gay and lesbians to suffer mental health problems caused by the pressures of growing up in a hostile or indifferent environment were exacerbated. The purported intention of 'protecting children' had exactly the reverse effect. The most vulnerable children were made yet more vulnerable.

The Russian Church with its developing Catholic sense of wanting to pronounce on every aspect of social life will (has) undoubtedly popped up to affirm its assent for this bill.

It is remarkable how quickly the Church discards the Gospel in these matters. The Gospel is proclaimed to shelter the most vulnerable, and Christ placed children at the heart of that vulnerability. What you do to each and every one of these, you do to Him. There can be no doubt in my mind that a child confused about not 'being normal' (according to the mores of this bill) is not going to be liberated from his or her vulnerability by the promotion of this bill, fashioned as it is with a disfiguring hatred of his or her difference. It will simply compound an already abiding lack of love and acceptance.

Sadly, there is no progress in morals, certainly not simply by advancing in time. Spaces of decency and the protection of rights have be created and vigilantly maintained so there is only a portion of hope in realising that Section 28 feels like an 'age ago' in the UK (and no doubt there are many who lament its passing - the Cardinal Archbishop of Scotland for one)!

But attitudes do change, and sometimes for the better.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Whisperers

"Wonderful...I've rarely read anything like it," proclaims Claire Tomalin on the front cover of the paperback edition of Orlando Figes, 'The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia".

It is not the epithet I would immediately reach for. Antony Beevor's 'heart-rending' on the back cover is a more accurate summation of this terrible text.

Terrible in a literal sense - both the terror of people, caught in a system that devoured its own (and many of its victims, at one level at least, appeared resigned to its justification, in a recurrent phrase, 'you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs') and terrible because it seems so beyond comprehension; not least because the broken eggs were not making an omelette! For all its vaunted achievements, Russia stayed behind the living conditions of the West on virtually every front (as it does today).

There is no reason for believing that the liberal/social democracy inaugurated by the February revolution would not have arrived at similar levels of material well-being at significantly lower human cost had not the Bolshevik coup of October 1917 not interrupted and shattered it.

It is the accumulation of individual stories that works Figes' dark magic. You taste communal living. You taste the life always overheard. You taste the fear of the misplaced word or the argument over living space sparking denunciation. You feel for the children abandoned, their parents arrested, and their relatives too fearful to take them in, consigned to swelling orphanages in often appalling conditions. Even the moments of light are subsequently despoiled, the teacher at school who afforded protection, paying your fees out of her own pocket, is subsequently arrested and shot. Figes even makes you feel for the people who made this revolution and were then consumed by it, blinkered by utopian hopes.

It is a terrible tale, made more so by realising that, at depth, neither historically nor societally has it been addressed, spoken of and to. It lingers and you can only guess at what cost.

In my own history, I find myself wondering what impact did my grandfathers' sustained trauma of fighting on the Western Front for four years impart on their children's lives. From my parents' accounts it was significant - their obsessive valuation of silence, their retreat from the challenges of fully making a living (a burden carried by my grandmother) etc. What then the impact of thirty years of waves of terror bringing out the best but more often the worst (or simply the numbing) of our humanity?

I, also, recognised in myself how debilitating such reading is, whatever its necessity, on my own sense of well-being. The psychologists call it a capacity to 'introject' to carry as if my own the feelings of others, sometimes to a crippling extent. It permeates me - the sadness of it - insinuating itself. I was so relieved to stop reading it! But the traces, the traces in memory, and more than memory.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Happy Easter! The Mad Farmer Liberation Front


Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

I remember well when I first heard this - in the Great Hall at Dartington in 1986, read by Wendell Berry its poet author. I remain haunted by its last line 'Practice resurrection' and what it may mean.  

My answer is informed by Stanley Spencer...


His Resurrection at Cookham has at its heart particular people rediscovering their essential relationships and discovering forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is at the heart of things. I am reading at the moment Orlando Figes powerful and heart rending "The Whisperers: Private Life in Salin's Russia". There is a episode when a 'kulak' family is being expelled from their village. Every one is assembled and the cart is waiting.The 'kulak' mother approaches it crossing herself and turns and bows to the assembled onlookers and asks forgiveness from anyone present in case she has failed them. They are too frightened to offer any response. She has humbly asserted that she belongs only to the truth. She steps into the cart and is gone.

We are invited to that life that fearlessly embraces the opportunity to be ourselves - broken in sin, remade in the vision of our resurrection. Spencer's figures, uniquely ourselves and safely encompassed in love being transformed.

How might the world look if we practiced that resurrection? Forgiven and forgiving, and unafraid.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Monk by the Sea




The Monk by the Sea by Casper David Friedrich


William Vaughan's book on Friedrich was the first volume I had read in Phaidon's Art & Ideas series. It is a series that seeks to put art back into its historical and intellectual context and write art history from the perspective of the art's meaning as well as its formal characteristics and to do this in language that is accessible and jargon free.


If this volume is any indication, it is an excellent idea admirably executed. Vaughan's reading of the paintings (and the man) are sympathetic, intelligent and illuminating. His simple, but not simplistic, account of the different uses of the 'the sublime' and 'the beautiful' in the Romantic period are worth the price of the book on their own. He confirmed for me that the brilliance of Kant (in aesthetics) dissolves the closer you bring him up against the texture of living examples. The generalizations of this philosopher are alluring, captivating until you put them to actual work!


But, more importantly, the book helped me understand why I am so drawn to Friedrich's work - even the most 'modest' example that I saw recently in the Pushkin held my attention longer and deeper than the more 'significant' works of other artists.


Friedrich was an unashamed painter of 'feeling', what counts most deeply in his work is that the painting places you in a place of communion with the particular situation evoked and only then does that particularity open out into a deeper whole. As here with 'The Monk by the Sea', you taste the place 'inwardly' - the melancholy isolation of a shore wrapped in mist but a mist breaking down and out towards a more distant prospect of light. It is both a particular place of one's man's being present and a parable of the dilemma and opportunity in which we all stand. It, also, speaks to my own contemplative sense that is always deepened by being placed in just such contexts - of solitude and bodies of water.


Vaughan convincingly argues, I think, that Friedrich, pace some of his most distinguished interpreters, was not a 'symbolic' painter with each 'item' of a composition articulating a known symbolic content. Symbol is dissolving into a wider, deeper experience of being addressed by nature sustained by a Creator to whom Friedrich owed life long commitment. He was a friend of the German Protestant theologian, Schleiermacher, who wrote:


"Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. ... Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one's own finite self."


It captures the underlying 'metaphysic' of Friedrich's art beautifully, even if Friedrich retained both faith in God and a hope for immortal redemption.


Friedrich's comes over as an admirable man - though in his old age he did become disturbingly jealous with regard to his (much younger) wife, accusing her, without foundation, of having affairs. This may have been the deteriorating impact of several strokes on his own sense of mental balance. But he upheld his liberal convictions - political and social - to the end even where these undermined his market as an artist, as he did his faithfulness to an 'inward' art that saw nature balanced and interpenetrated by spirit. He refused either to become a simply naturalistic painter nor one who saw spirituality as retreating into a faux medievalism!



Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Haunted Woman

If you want to know what it felt like to be a second century Gnostic, convinced that the world was a prison forged by an evil (or incompetent) demiurge, keeping you apart from the truth, and that the ascent to that truth was a path of stripping away ever-subtler illusions, whose intensity of suffering and, thus, quality of illumination, deepened with each level achieved, read David Lindsay's 'The Voyage to Arcturus'.

It might not be a fully digested as a spiritual text but as a summons (or sounding) of the depths of alienation and a calling to a vocation of search, it is brilliant. It has become a minor classic of imaginative literature.

His novel, 'The Haunted Woman' is an attempt at describing a similar imaginative space but within the confines of a more 'normal' landscape. Here there is no voyage to a distant star but within a novel about the conventions of a proposed engagement (in the 1930s), a haunted house and an ultimately tragic relationship between a man and a woman. The 'haunting' is not of ghosts but of rooms that hide and reveal themselves only to those who seek (knowingly or unknowingly) the truth of themselves and the world. The rooms reveal- the first yourself, the second your relationship with others, the third the true nature of the world. But descending from the rooms, you find yourself progressively forgetting what you have seen except as a distant summoning, a quiet melodic vibration that draws you on.

It leaves you with a sense that you have a read something alluringly dissatisfying and when you try to think what it is, you realise that the novel is trying to embody a 'set of truths' that are seen but not embodied in their author (neither intuitively nor intellectually). It gives both books a sense of their underlying 'fury' - I want to know, I want to communicate what I know but my knowing is but second hand. It does not sit as an embodied wisdom, emanating from a tradition of knowing, in which the author sits. Neither is it an experiment in knowing, it does not have that humility.

The sadness of that reaching after something and not grasping it is pervasive and makes of 'The Haunted Woman' its tragedy. Lindsay's gifts (which are many) you feel were not ultimately planted in the 'right soil'.

I found myself relating this failure to two other contemporaneous novels - Mary Butts' 'Armed with Madness' and T.F. Powys' "Mr Weston's Good Wine' - both of which throw metaphysical happening into conventional settings - a house party in the south of England, an English village - and ask you to accept an element of the 'miraculous' in the familiar.

It is the latter one that 'works', that holds the two worlds together most fruitfully, and, paradoxically, precisely it is the most sceptical of any underlying metaphysical reality and posits its reality primarily to question the soundness of our daily lives rather than reaches out of those lives to attain 'truth'. It is, also, the case it is the only one that is shot through with humour.

This brings us back, neatly, to the 'gnosticism' that underlays Lindsay's vision and the quietly devastating question that Plotinus put to it in the second century. If this world is of no value, simply a delusion, there would be no ground on which to base any valuation at all. We are embodied, here and now, and from here, we must explore the truth. If this ground is not, at least, grained with signs of the truth, we have no foundation.

It was that sense that Lindsay had that perhaps there is no foundation that unbalances his novels into tragic attempts at truth sharing. He has a vision that he burningly wants to offer in which he cannot wholly believe, perhaps even this is delusion. It is in evoking that tragedy that gives his novels their poignancy. 

The Girl who sang to the Buffalo

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