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Archive for the ‘Autobiographical’ Category

After my somewhat heated encounter with my parliament of selves I had hoped that they’d stay out of my dreams for that night at least and give me time to think. Fat chance.

It felt as though I hadn’t been asleep long, though it was way past halfway through the night. For some reason I found myself walking along Edgar Street towards the Courtyard Theatre. I think I was expecting to join a meeting of the Death Café. I went to the counter as usual to get my decaf cappuccino. I sensed something was not quite right when I bumped into Ian. He had died recently but was standing there ordering his usual hot chocolate.

‘We’re not in the usual place,’ he said. ‘We’re up near the Arts and Crafts bit.’

‘Let’s hope they don’t have a rock band next door like last time we were in there.’ I didn’t feel it would be quite right to ask him how he was.

As he picked up his chocolate, he said, ‘You go on ahead. There’s someone over there I need to talk to,’ gesturing towards a woman in the far corner holding a scythe.

I couldn’t get my coffee quickly enough. I dashed off upstairs, spilling it all over the free biscuit in my saucer in my haste to escape, hoping its cellophane wrapping would protect it.

On the next floor, between me and my destination, a group of skeletons in evening dress were practising the salsa, Mediterranean cruise-style. I had to creep cautiously around the wall protecting my coffee as best I could from swinging bones.

As I opened the door of the meeting room I realised I was in deep trouble. I could hear the strains of Hotel California coming from the next room. As soon as I stepped through the door, there they all were, every single member of my parliament of selves, including the toddler. There was no backing out.

‘Hi. Good to see you all,’ I lied.

‘Don’t lie,’ Mires grinned. ‘You’ve been dreading this. Anyway you’re here, and we thought this was the best place to meet. It’s where you claim you can come to have deep conversations about things that really matter, and that’s just what we all want to do isn’t it?’

‘I suppose it is,’ I grudgingly agreed.

‘There’s a chair over there for you,’ Pindance said, pointing to a place across the table from her.

As she spoke and I walked through the room to my place at the table, the words of the song next door came through the wall.

Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’

‘Thanks,’ I thought. ‘Just what I wanted to hear.’

But I knew that in a sense it was completely true. This was a group of people from whom I could never be free. I had to find a way of integrating our different agendas to create some kind of effective unity, a sense of common purpose.

‘Is it OK if I act as a kind of chairperson here?’ Humfreeze asked.

As he spoke I tried to calm my nerves by pouring the coffee from my saucer into my cup and rescuing the biscuit.

‘I guess so,’ was my faint response.

‘OK, then. Let’s get started. You know already that Indie wants to know how the child fits in with your plan, and that Emma values her projects and Wordless his poems beyond almost anything else. So, we probably don’t need to rehash all that, do we?’

‘No, definitely not.’

‘Right. So I’m going to ask Fred to share where he is coming from. OK, Fred?’

‘No problem.’ Fred cleared his throat to give himself time to clear his head.

‘In a way I’m a bit more anxious even than the others about where I fit in exactly.’

‘Why’s that?’ I asked. ‘We’re both trained in psychology.’

‘Well, yes, but the problem is that you’re an applied psychologist, while I’m more interested in the theory. So, your take on it will be closer to what Emma wants as an activist and is probably OK with Chris because of all this mindfulness stuff you do nowadays.’

Humfreeze grimaced but kept his mouth shut. Pancake didn’t look convinced either.

‘I get your point. I think I’ll be able to reassure you on that issue later.’

My hands shook slightly as I peeled the dripping cellophane off the biscuit. It wasn’t too damp in the end thankfully.

‘Good. I hope so. I do realise that my anxieties about my more academic approach is probably a bit the same as Chris’s need to take meditation far deeper than mindfulness as currently practised can ever go. We both share an interest in mystical states after all. But I’d better let Chris unpack all that. I think I’ve said all I need to say for now. Over to you, Chris.’

‘Thanks for that piece of clarification, Fred. I think you’re absolutely right. Meditation though for me goes even beyond transient mystical states. I’m really worried that this hearticulture idea will mean we end up being jacks of all trades and masters of none, if you see what I mean. I see different meditative practices as requiring a huge investment of time if we are to change evanescent states of mind into abiding traits, permanent dispositions to act, think and feel in creative and life-enhancing ways. Dabbling in all the bits and pieces you have stuck in that diagram, Pete, will leave us all frustrated amateurs rather than accomplished professionals. D’you get my point, Pete?’

‘Absolutely. You’re describing the sharp horns of a dilemma that has bedevilled me most of my adult life. I have too many interests to become a real expert in any. That’s why the hearticulture idea was such a breakthrough. Anyway, I’d better wait until I’m sure you’ve all said all you need to say before I try to explain.’

‘Anything that anyone else wants to throw into the mix?’ Humfreeze looked around searchingly.

Pindance, who was cradling the sleeping toddler at this point, stared hard at me across the table.

‘You know, don’t you, that I will never collude with any plan you have that doesn’t take this small child properly into account. Whether we all realise it or not, and even though he can barely speak as yet so is nowhere near as eloquent in expressing his needs as we are, our fulfilment absolutely depends upon caring properly for him so that he can thrive.’

‘Believe it or not, I agree with you completely, Emma, and I think my model does rise to that huge challenge. When you are all ready I’ll try to explain.’

‘Are we all done then?’ asked Humfreeze. After a short silence he decided they were and turned to me.

‘Over to you then. Convince us if you can.’

My heart was beating fast. The critical moment had arrived. I drained the last of my coffee.

‘I’d like to take it up from the challenge Indie left me with. My answer starts from the dream you are all familiar with, the hearth dream. I won’t go over it in detail at all, but you remember the powerful charge it has had and still has.’

They all nodded.

‘I’ll just focus on the word hearth and its implications for our present purposes. It combines heart and earth. When I was born, for the reasons we discovered in our last exploration together, part of me stayed buried in my heart, almost stillborn in a way with the force of amniotic grief, as though it was in a grave underground, in the earth. The work we did made it clear that the chamber of my heart that contained the child was more of a womb than a tomb. Even so I have an intensely strong feeling that this part of our family, as it were, has a strong affinity with the earth, even more than yours, Emma, in spite of your strong desire to campaign on environmental issues. The child’s connection is an intense emotional and intuitive bond.’

The intent silence with which they were listening was almost scary. My throat felt really dry. I asked for some water before I could continue. I took a sip before I marched on.

‘You may feel that what I am going to say is simply a joke but it’s not. I feel that the child needs a name that belongs to the earth but connects him as deeply with me as well. I would like for us to agree to call him Peat Humus.’

The tension in the room broke into gales of laughter.

‘You can’t be serious,’ Pancake howled.

‘I am. Really I am. Think about it. He doesn’t have to mix out there in the world. He doesn’t need a birth certificate or a passport. What he needs and what we need is the most powerful reminder of his true nature and of the deep and powerful connection our hearts have to forge, not just with the transcendent realm of the spirit, but also with the earth upon which our material selves ultimately depend. Our heart is the bridge between spirit and matter and this will help us always remember that. When our hearts and the earth are consciously and closely connected we have our hearth, a symbol of our true home and safety.’

‘I think I’m beginning to see where you are coming from,’ Pindance whispered, rocking the child gently as she spoke. Wordless, the nature poet with writer’s block, couldn’t have looked more pleased.

The others didn’t seem so sure.

‘And after we name the child so, then we can go on to see how the words heart and earth can also be used to remind us of how our different aims and skills are ultimately unified. The letters of the words can be used to remind us of the arts, for your poems, Bill, and of action, for your preferred way, Emma, and of reflection, Chris, and teaching, Indie, and the head’s deep experience, Fred. I know that’s not perfect, but it’s as far as I have got at present, except to say that hearticulture, to be effective, needs to draw on all your disciplines and modus operandi. It needs to keep them all in balance though, at the same time, rather than have any one of them dominating and becoming a single area of expertise for its own sake.’

I paused at that point to check out the reception I was getting. There was a puzzled frown on all their faces and an unhappy exchange of glances between Pancake, Humfreeze, and Mires. Maybe they weren’t happy that the word for their passion in life had only its first letter. Wordless was bought off by the presence of the word art as a whole and the connection with nature in particular, and Pindance was perhaps somewhat reassured by my sense of the infant’s importance.

I pressed on regardless.

‘Hearticulture is the discipline at which I want to become as expert as I can, and that will only be possible if we all pool our preferences and skills and work towards the same end. That may be tough sometimes, because it won’t allow any of us to become the world expert poet, psychologist, meditator/mystic, activist, teacher we might dearly love to be. What it does mean though is that as a unified team we can be an expert hearticulturalist, before I die and take you all with me.’

I was relieved to see that cracked a smile on everyone’s face.

‘To be honest though that’s not why I’m doing it. The satisfaction of hearticulture will come simply from practising it however badly, and in that way learning to do it better. This is what needs to be done for its own sake, while all our other arts and skills are practised for hearticulture’s sake. All my life, I suspect, I’ve been unconsciously striving to achieve a creative fusion of all our different strands of activity, and now it seems we have achieved it. I think it will work because, for me and hopefully for all of you as well, the heart is at the core of us all and is a bridge between matter and spirit, earth and heaven. Does that make sense? Can we all pull together with this?’

There was a long silence. Faintly from the other room I could hear the words of Gerry Rafferty’s under-rated song and felt them ease my heart:

If you travel blindly, if you fall
The truth is there to set you free
And when your heart can see just one thing in this life
We’ll set out on the journey
Find a ship to take us on the way.

It seemed to go some way towards easing the angst of all the others as well.

‘I think I can begin to see how this might work,’ Wordless shared, ‘how it will stop us fighting each other over whose pet project should have priority, how it will help us recognise that everything we come across can be tested for whether it furthers this aim or not, and if it does we can all pool our skills together for the best possible result, and if it does not, we can just forget it and move on where possible.’ Strong feelings were making the usually carefully coherent Wordless hard to follow.

Not everybody was nodding as he spoke. The art, in a heart connected with nature, had got him on board at least. The rest, except perhaps for Pindance, were not so sure.

Just at this point, my wife got out of bed and woke me up. That was unfortunate but I hope it didn’t matter, because perhaps for the first time in my life it felt as though I might just have found a way to bring all my warring selves together in peace at last, and I at least had a clear and practicable sense of what I needed to do with the rest of my life and best of all, how I needed to do it.

I had come a long way from my diary entry of 17 years ago when I was struggling yet again to work out what my priorities really were, with only the metaphor of ‘carpenter of minds’ to help me, and I wrote, wondering whether underneath it all I really wanted to be a writer:

Many writers have been completely self-centred. They have, in the cliché, perfected the art but not the life. At present I think it’s fair to say I am perfecting neither the art nor the life. To paraphrase Landor:

I strove with some, I almost loved my wife,
Nature neglected, next to nature art –
Somehow lost contact with the fire of life.
It sinks but I’m not ready to depart.

Only half a joke really. I’m getting older and losing energy year by year. My poem The Quarry seems truer by the minute. If I’m not careful there’ll be no time, no energy left, and nothing done, unless being a carpenter of minds part-time face to face has been enough.

Let’s hope I have enough effective reminders in place to keep the train of this new plan on the rails and moving forwards. Only time will tell. It wouldn’t be the first time if I have mistaken a stopover for my destination.

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Digging Deeper

I needed to explore the implications of the hearth dream more deeply.

The progression up to the understanding explained in the last post and beyond is intriguing.

When I first had the revelation that the fuel was a pun on my name in its shortened form, I took a narrow view of what it meant. The name my parents gave me was ‘Peter’ with all the associations of rock. When I first began to work on the idea of ‘peat,’ I felt that the dream was saying that I should draw on the essence of who I was, not the persona my upbringing had fabricated in me after the image of my silent and stoical father, hiding his undoubted love behind a wall of reserve.

Then, pushing it somewhat further, the idea of burning Pete came to mind, which suggested the idea of self-sacrifice. But increasingly, as time went on, an even deeper meaning, complementary not contradictory, began to come through: perhaps ‘peat’ was not ‘me’ but came from something outside me and far richer and much more substantial. The earth became a symbol for the realm of spirit and peat came to represent the power that could flow from that realm into my being to give me the strength, energy and wisdom to do far more, far more effectively than I could ever do by any other means.

Even this leap of understanding didn’t get me to where I am now.

Even more bizarrely a post I republished in October this year after a three year gap didn’t quite clinch the matter, even though it reads as though it did. It’s about hearticulture. I wrote:

I know that the term ‘hearticulture’ could still be seen as one-sided. I’m the gardener and you’re the garden. But in terms of the Bahá’í perspective that would be missing a crucial point: I need to tend my heart, you need to tend yours and we can both help each other in this process. We both can help each other develop a growth mindset, to borrow Carol Dweck’s terminology.

Once we begin to see what this means, every interaction with another human being, or even with an animal, insect or plant, becomes an opportunity to facilitate our growth and the growth of the being with whom we are interacting. And, what’s just as or even more important, they can facilitate ours.

That heart is an anagram of earth just makes the metaphor even more appealing. I have come to realize that hearticulture is my true passion. Everything I do is influenced, perhaps even entirely reducible, to that purpose. I want to understand myself and others better, that’s true, but not just for its own sake, but for the purpose of growth. And if our hearts grow, so will the earth as a whole benefit. When our hearts shrink, the world dies a little. If all our hearts should shrivel completely, the world as we know it would be utterly destroyed. We would wreak such havoc that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be utterly dwarfed by the consequences.

Basically, I have to learn how to expand my heartfelt sense of connectedness so that it embraces the whole earth. I believe that’s what we all need to learn. I want to learn it too, and as fast as I can, but I have discovered over the years that the metaphor of gardening applies here also in a way. I cannot grow faster than the laws of nature and the limitations of my own being allow. To paraphrase a Bahá’í pamphlet on making the equality of men and women a reality, hearticulture will also take love, patience and the passage of frustratingly long spans of time.

What hadn’t I yet understood?

As I’d reaffirmed in my small portable notebook slightly earlier, hearticulture is my ‘passion.’ The insight I got at that moment, after my morning’s meditation, seemed a critical completion of this decades’ long process.

I realized that my central interests, including poetry, psychology, spirituality, culture, meditation, blogging, deep conversations, reading, writing, reflection, consultation amongst many other things, are all only tools for this purpose not ends in themselves. I don’t write poetry for poetry’s sake and the same is true for all the others in the list. It suddenly became as plain as a pikestaff that if anything I am doing contributes in some way to the nurturing of a heart including mine, it qualifies: if it doesn’t contribute in that way, it doesn’t qualify, no matter how reflectively I deceive myself into thinking I’m doing it.

When I wrote the original post I saw hearticulture as just one among my various passions, perhaps even my most important passion. But that was not enough. I had not really understood what my heart meant when it influenced me to write ‘Everything I do is influenced by, perhaps even entirely reducible, to that purpose.’

I’ve always known that I do not really understand all that my best poems mean when I write them, but I fooled myself into thinking my prose was another matter. There’d be no hidden messages from my heart in the text. I couldn’t have been more wrong in this instance. Reading it now I suspect many of my readers will have understood that post better then I did myself as its writer.

Right now hearticulture is looking like the organising principle, not just the main focus of the rest of my life. I hope I am managing to convey that this is a major leap of understanding on my part. It is going to affect my understanding of how I should live my life as a Bahá’í as well as how to deal with situations where I feel at odds with the people around me. In fact, the core of my understanding of a central aspect of Bahá’í spirituality adds up to exactly this.

This probably needs a bit of unpacking.

To the casual observer it may seem odd that I am fretting over my calling when it should be obvious I already have one. I’m a Bahá’í. What more do I want to know, for heaven’s sake?

I only wish it could be as simple as that.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of ways of serving the Faith. No one can do them all. Everyone has to choose. It is that choice that concerns me. Each human being, I feel, is called upon to contribute something special to the progress of the world of humanity and to do so in ways that utilize all their special gifts and capacities. Also, when what I am doing seems to be useful but bears little relationship at all to the Faith I believe in, how should I judge whether to continue doing it and in what way.

The Faith I follow has shaped the way I feel I should do whatever I do. It does not dictate to me how I should respond to all the demands life makes of me, beyond the obvious guidelines about what is right and what is wrong. For example, I had to determine for myself, in the light of my understanding of the Writings of the Bahá’í Faith, how I should work as a psychologist without infringing the ethics of my profession. Now I am retired I have to prioritise what I am doing, not just how I am doing it, given that I am free to choose how I use much of my time.

Gardening the heart is the metaphor, adapted from the references in Bahá’í Writings to planting seeds in the garden of the heart, that enables me to integrate all my practices and preoccupations into one coherent approach to experience, labelled a ‘calling’ in this sequence, and to distinguish what should demand my attention and energy, and what should not. It helps me prioritise. It resolves the problem of apparently competing claims, which the concept of reflection alone could not do. Reflection did not take away the tension and the guilt when I was doing something I felt was important, but which I thought should give precedence to something else, and I lacked any criterion for deciding on the matter conclusively.

I wrote the poem I’ve included above, though not one of my best, to remind me of key aspects of all this.

It’s ironic that with the relief at discovering that hearticulture is my calling (and probably always has been), my blood pressure, which had been a problem for some months, perhaps at least in part as a result of this struggle, almost immediately began to fall. Taking care of my organic heart needs to have its rightful place, it seems, among my new priorities.

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It was sunny but cold as I waited outside All Saints church. I was five minutes early and looking forward to seeing Daisy after such a long time. The last time I bumped into her briefly was at the Courtyard Theatre after a Death Café meeting. She’d come back from her foreign travels but we hadn’t met since as she was still settling back into some kind of routine.

I kept scanning the crowds in High Town but could see no sign of her. I checked my phone to see if I had her mobile number as well as her email, but I didn’t.

After another five minutes I saw a figure in the middle distance in a burgundy coat waving at me. After greeting each other we moved into the All Saints Café. Some people see this as rather like the money lenders in the Temple, but to be honest it’s hard to see how the church could be kept in good repair without some way such as this of raising large sums of money consistently over long periods of time.

It wasn’t busy and we were soon at a quiet table upstairs with our herbal tea and cappuccino.

I was lost in wonder at the places she had visited, especially in the four months she was on her own. She had even dared to go into the jungle some place I can’t remember, and been carried away by the intense beauty of nature in such a setting. She described it as a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ that she was glad she had taken when she had the chance, even though it seemed a bit of a risk beforehand.

When she asked me how things had been for me, the most dramatic development I could think of mentioning was my recent insight into hearticulture as the organising principle of my life from now on. For some reason I didn’t think of mentioning the cruise my wife and I had been on.

The hour we spent together flashed by. I gave her an invite card to our weekly wisdom meetings before I dashed off to walk home and get the car to pick up my wife from work.

As I walked back they started up again in my head.

‘Did you hear all that crap?’ It was Emma Pancake, my inner activist, whinging as usual about anything that might interfere with her incessant urge to be doing something as fast as possible. ‘Hearticulture! It was bad enough when we had the battle over reflection. That was a normal word at least. I’d got some idea what it meant. But he’s even invented his own word for this new fad.’

She sounded really worked up.

‘Calm down, Emmie,’ soothed the meditative Chris Humfreeze. ‘I really think he may be onto something here.’

‘You always take his side with these flaky schemes, Chris. I haven’t got time for all this. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. We’re speeding towards a tipping point with climate change and more species are dying out than when the comet that killed the dinosaurs smashed into us, and you want me to calm down. Grow up for God’s sake!’

‘Don’t bring God into it, Emma,’ Fred Mires, my Dr Psychobabble, chipped in. ‘You don’t really believe in Him – not most of the time, anyway. You’re far too busy to pray. If we want to know what someone really believes, watch what they do.’ He was trying to tease her out of her tantrum but it didn’t work.

‘You can shut up as well, Fred. I may be outnumbered but I won’t be outgunned on this. It’s too important.’

Humfreeze tried to defuse the issue by taking a more reasonable line.

‘What brought this on Emma? You’re usually only this passionate about the equality of women.’

‘The cruise he went on and that stuff he was reading about the earth opened my eyes. I suddenly realised how much as a woman, in this arrogant patriarchy we live in, I have in common with the earth. It patronises and exploits the planet in the same it has done and still does with women. And the potential damage is even worse.’

She was about to take off again into a rant.

I could hear Indie Pindance, who had been rescued from the cloud of oblivion left over from my childhood hospitalisations, murmuring something in the background but no one was listening. She was probably speaking quietly so as not to wake the baby we had exhumed and of which she was the main carer.

William Wordless stepped in.

‘Thanks for sharing that, Emma. I think it would be a good idea if we all stayed calm now and tried to talk about this sensibly. I love nature as much as you do, Emma, as my poems prove, but taking some time to talk this through properly isn’t going to kill many more creatures than we’ve lost already.’

He was sounding tense but managing to stay reasonably calm in the way he spoke. ‘I’m not sure I like this anymore than you do, but I’m not sure I understand it clearly enough yet to be sure.’

‘I agree.’ Pindance made herself heard at last.

I wasn’t pleased to hear Emma at the others’ throats over my insight that hearticulture would be the organising principle of my remaining time and energy in this material world. She clearly didn’t get that this included something important for all of them. I didn’t feel like tackling this as I hurried home. It would have to wait for another time.

* * *

At the wisdom meeting in our place that night there were only four of us there. I hadn’t expected Daisy to come to this so soon after our conversation, so I wasn’t unduly disappointed. The crucial thing was to keep running them every week.

One of the quotations we used included these words: ‘. . . when man does not open his mind and heart to the blessing of the spirit, but turns his soul towards the material side, towards the bodily part of his nature, then is he fallen from his high place.’ This reinforced my desire to win over my parliament of selves to my new plan: as far as I could see it was the best, perhaps the only way of motivating myself to lift my game to the required extent.

After the meeting and before getting ready for bed, I sat in my study and worked on a diagram that captured what hearticulture meant to me in a way that would help me remember and stay focused.

Even while I was doing so I couldn’t help catching fragments of the on-going heated exchange among my parliament of selves.

I remembered how I had felt, five months ago now, when we exhumed my buried neonate self, and I had hoped that my toddler self would be able to mature to the point of joining with the rest of us as we worked at creating a single sense of a unified self that could perhaps become capable, if not of tuning directly into spiritual reality, at least of developing a clearer sense than ever before of the direction that this transcendent reality required me to take for the rest of my remaining days. I felt I had found that clearer sense and what I had to do now was persuade my rabble inside to buy into the plan.

This was not going to be easy. I decided to meditate my way into their conversation. I closed my eyes and tracked my breathing for a short while. I wasn’t deep enough to see them but I could hear what they were saying clearly.

‘We’re going to have to talk to him about this. We need to explain that we’re not happy with yet another change of direction. We haven’t even sorted out what the last upheaval meant.’ Mires was drawing on all his knowledge of conflict management to articulate a way forward they could all agree to.

‘Can I join you for a short while?’ I asked gently.

They couldn’t hear me at first.

‘I’m on board with that,’ chimed Pindance, ‘but I can see that Emma is still chafing at the bit.’

‘Dead right I am. Still, my being furious isn’t going to solve anything. We can only sort this out together, and, though I hate to admit it, we’ll have to involve him as well.’

‘That’s good to hear,’ Humfreeze enthused. ‘I really appreciate that because I know it’s not easy for you.’

Pancake grunted something I couldn’t quite catch.

‘Can I join you for a short while?’ I asked again gently but louder.

‘What’s that you’re scribbling? Not another of your stupid flowcharts, is it?’ Emma barked. She might be on board but she was still rocking the boat.

‘’Fraid so,’ I said, wincing slightly at what might come back at me.

Before she could retort, Wordless took over the reins.

‘Listen, Emma. My poems have as much to lose as your potential projects, and I want to check out whether this new brainwave will make room for what we both need to see happen. If not I’d rather dump it. But a ‘kindly tongue,’ as they say, will attract more positive attention than angry rants and insults, so can we agree to cool down the temperature, and treat each other with a bit more respect.’

After a moment’s silence, Emma relented. ‘I’ll try,’ she said.

‘Do you want me to explain what I’m up to or do you want to ask me questions and share your reservations?’

I could hear the low buzz of ideas being exchanged.

‘We don’t need you to explain the model . . .’ Mires paused trying to find the right words.

‘We just want you to tell us how we all fit into your plan,’ Pindance finished his sentence for him. ‘And how is your plan going to help the tiny child inside you that I’m doing my best to look after without much help from this lot?’

‘Steady on,’ Humfreeze broke in. ‘We all take turns to look after him to give you a break.’

‘Yeh, great. But the sum total of the time you all give is less than half the time I spend with him. How fair is that? He’s getting to the age now where he’s learning to talk and he’s asking loads of questions, most of which I can’t answer. Don’t forget, I was shut out of sight for seven decades, while you lot were watching everything that the hearticulture manufacturer over there was aware of, and learning from it. So, be fair. This is just as important an issue as your poems, Bill, and your projects, Emma. And your meditation, Chris and your psychobabble, Fred, if it comes to that.’

The words sounded angry but she was clearly almost in tears.

I was beginning to feel quite daunted by the complexity of fitting all these apparently competing needs into the framework I was working on. I gave a desperate look at my diagrammatic model in the hope of some inspiration.

‘Pete,’ shouted my wife.

I crashed out of the conversation.

‘Yes, love.’

‘Can you switch off my phone when you come to bed.’

‘Will do.’

In a way I was grateful for the interruption. It might give me some more time to think on it over night. I just hoped I wouldn’t meet them all in my dreams just yet.

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As far as I can see, for just over 20 years I have been given hints of various kinds and have responded with varying degrees of understanding. The picture at the head of this post gives one example. Not till now though do I feel I have reached anything close to a full understanding. By now I mean mid-November 2018, the time of writing, rather than January 2019 when this post has been published.

There was an unexpected insight, which came to me first on the 7th of November last year. While I’d been clamouring, for months before that, for guidance about what I was meant to be doing with the rest of my time in this body, I discovered that my ‘calling’ had been staring me in the face for at least two decades, and I’d been more or less unwittingly following it in part at least for even longer than that – in fact, since at least 1982 if not completely unconsciously moving along the right path since 1976.

I just hadn’t had a name for it and was only aware of it in parts rather like the blind men with the elephant.

As I will explain shortly, even when I found the name for it a couple of years back I still didn’t completely understand what I was talking about.

The Dream 

A rag rug

My hearth dream was probably the first prompt I received. Readers of my blog will be familiar with this but in case not here is an abbreviated version of my most recent effort at decoding it more fully.

This is the dream: ‘I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.’

I want, for present purposes, to focus on what for me has become the core of the dream’s meaning, a meaning which is still evolving even though this dream is now more than 20 years old – still in adolescence really so there’s probably more to come.

Taking the imagery first, the image of the hearth is richly significant. The word ‘hearth’ is comprised of several other key words: ‘ear,’ ‘hear,’ ‘earth,’ ‘art’ and most powerful of all ‘heart.’ All of these words were separately of huge significance for me though I had some sense of how they might all fit together. I’ll skate over all but the heart for now.

This only got me so far though. I needed some other way of decoding the full import of the dream.

When we are doing dreamwork, we need to remember how each dream element is part of the dreamer and we can unlock the meaning of the symbolism not only by tracking our associations with it, but also by pretending to be the element in the dream and speaking as though we were it.

The result in the case of the fuel burning in the hearth was dramatic. I had been really struggling to make sense of this part of the dream. What had a coal fire got to do with my situation, except as a memory of childhood with relatively little relevance? I decided I needed to sit right in front of the hearth of the house I was living in at the time and speak as the fuel itself.

The Fuel: I am peat. You dig me from the earth and I burn. You feed me to the flowers and they grow.

Need I go any further really with what I said? The pun on my name is enough, really. That first moment contains the key to unlocking a whole treasure chest of meanings.

On the 26th April 2003, at least five years after beginning to work on the dream, I wrote in my journal, trying to summarise some of my insights:

I’m part poet/writer, part psychologist, part educator, (both subsumed by the term mind-wright) – the words wright and writer catch one part of my essence – my tools are words by and large – mind does not quite catch the other part – soul is too grand and beyond my competence – the nearest I can get is being a wordsmith and a heartwright. The word heart helps because it includes in itself the words art and (h)ear, an essential combination of skills or qualities entailed in heartwork. It leads back to my concept of heart-to-heart resuscitation. Hearts have to connect. That it also links with my archetypal dream of the hearth, where the fire of spirit burns to give warmth to the mansion of being, makes it all the more powerful a word to use in this context. The essence of my being – peat – is to fuel this process. An additional thought: 28.04.03 – if you place Heart and Earth overlapping you get Hearth. Each is also an anagram of the other. In the Bahá’í Writings the heart is often spoken of as a garden and of having soil. Also I have prayed for God to ignite within my breast the fire of His love and Bahá’u’lláh refers to the ‘candle” of our heart. Hearth eloquently combines these notions of the heart as a garden and as a container of fire. What does this mean in practice?

At this point, while I was aware that being a poet or a psychologist etc failed to capture the whole story, I had no real idea what the whole story might turn out to be.

At one point, I tried to capture the essence of all this in a poem, meant really for my own consumption, but it might be worth sharing here:

From my heart’s earth,
peat, my hearth’s fuel,
yearns to give warmth
to the chilled soul.

Even so the penny that dropped in November remained suspended in the air at that point. More about the penny’s descent on Thursday.

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I read an interesting article by Yuval Noah Harari in the Guardian some time ago, entitled The New Threat to Liberal Democracy. Astonishingly, from reductionist premises with which I completely disagree, such as that we have no free will, he arrives at the same conclusion as I do about a key mental skill: ‘renouncing the myth of free will can kindle a profound curiosity. If you strongly identify with the thoughts and desires that emerge in your mind, you don’t need to make much effort to get to know yourself. You think you already know exactly who you are. But once you realise “Hi, this isn’t me. This is just some changing biochemical phenomenon!” then you also realise you have no idea who – or what – you actually are. This can be the beginning of the most exciting journey of discovery any human can undertake.’

This is reflective disidentification in effect. More of that in a moment.

The article, from vastly different premises, confirms my feeling that developing the ability to step back from our automatic reactions is a key skill we need to acquire, but our culture militates against it – in fact, all the subliminal influences in our society are working in the opposite direction.

In Tart’s terms, our ‘trance’, and in Bahá’u’lláh’s words our ‘vain imaginings,’ ’superstitions’ and ‘delusions,’ control us, not because we have no will power, but because we fail to tune into the deepest levels of our being and we invest our trust in false gods.

On top of that, our reptilian brain, the amygdala, drowns out the soul’s whispers with its fear and rage.

What follows may not be entirely coherent as it was only recently, while sitting in the garden with a coffee, that an important penny dropped.

I asked myself whether, in my past attempts to look at what narrows the compass of compassion, eg labelling, the reptilian brain, inequality, power differentials etc, I had missed the more generic point that any kind of identification with a feeling, thought, judgement, self-concept, ego function, by definition:

(a) narrows compassion potentially to zero, and

(b) shallows wisdom to the same extent.

Strong identifications of this kind could lead to a container, whose width is compassion and depth is wisdom, to become the size of a thimble – an obvious but useful symbol. Using reflection to remove these false identifications would create an ocean, by comparison. When you add into the mix how reflection facilitates true consultation as a means of enhancing our simulations of reality through a constructive process of comparing notes with others in a spirit of objective exploration rather than adversarial debate, then the potential becomes even greater. The opposite is also true: failure to reflect impedes consultation and fosters conflict, resulting in impoverished representations of reality.

The other important factor is what we choose as our guiding light. As Reitan points out, simply believing we believe in God is not enough: the God we choose to believe in has to be worthy of worship. To make a god out of our ego or a dictator is a fatal mistake. Even our ideals have to be approached with caution, as Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ points out. In his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Another recent article in the Guardian by Michele Gelfand points up the impact of feeling threatened on our openness to others.

His core point in terms of this issue is: ‘Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.’

This maps onto my long explored idea that fear narrows the compass of compassion and makes intolerance and prejudice more likely. The narrower the container, the more likely we are to experience feelings of threat and a strong sense of difference between us and other people.

I’d maybe been putting the cart before the horse in seeing the feelings as ultimately causative rather than secondary. The wider we set our compass of compassion, and the deeper our wisdom becomes, the less likely are we to be fearful, threatened and reactively aggressive. When something disturbing happens and it’s a drop in the ocean you feel no fear. When something happens and it’s a drop in a thimble, all hell spills out.

This may be a two-way street, though, in that fear will reduce the size of our container, just as the smallness of the container is conducive to fear. There is, however, no guarantee that an absence of fear would be conducive automatically to compassion, as the combination of narcissism and fearlessness is found in the psychopath.

Where the process starts may be different for different people in different situations. If it is basically true, however, that fear shrinks compassion and reduced compassion fosters fear, and it seems likely, the dynamic I’ve described would create a vicious circle of a most pernicious and self-defeating kind. I still need to clarify these implications.

This is what I plan to do in a later sequence.

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

Before this account of the cruise is over there are just two more tales to tell.

The first concerns our stop in Barcelona. Unlike our first trip there some years back, when we stayed several days in the city, enjoying streets fringed with Gaudi and galleries teeming with Picassos, which compensated for three disturbing encounters with pocket pickers, on this occasion we only really had time to stick to La Rambla.

The Columbus monument (for the source of the image, see link)

The boulevard was only a short walk from the ship. The first landmark we encountered was Columbus’s statue, erected, as the tourist website puts it ‘in 1888 to honour Christopher Columbus when he disembarked from Barcelona to find the New World.’ It was only a few yards later that we saw the motionless figure of a gold painted man in a golden costume mimicking those of the 15thCentury. We couldn’t take a photo of him as he was charging everyone who did. For reasons I’m about to explain I didn’t feel comfortable giving money away for this purpose.

The sheer height of the statue speaks for the elevated regard in which Spaniards still hold this founder of their American imperialist ambitions.

So why is this relevant here?

Because it relates to nature again, but not nature as Clare experienced it, more as those he railed against saw it. Patel and Moore spell this out in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. They write (pages 50-51):

[Columbus] launched a colonisation of nature as pecuniary as it was peculiar. European empires, beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese, obsessively collected and ordered natural objects – including ‘savage’ human bodies – always with an eye on enhanced wealth and power. Columbus’s cataloguing of nature to evaluate (put a price on) it was an early sign that he understood what nature had become under early modern capitalism.

I love Spain for many reasons, not least for its culture, language and the warmth of its people. However, if I can’t condone aspects of the history of imperialism of my home country, I’m obviously not going to feel comfortable with the exploitative imperialism of anywhere else. So, yet again the cruise dropped an uncomfortable reminder in my lap. The heyday of national imperialism is long over, but a different kind of imperialism continues with societies that boast industrialised and technologically savvy societies feeling justified in regarding themselves as superior representatives of a global elite.

A more measured position was expressed by the Bahá’í Office of Social and Economic Development in a Statement on Social Action (page 5 – my emphases):

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialised. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

There is therefore a lingering and destructive form of imperialism still at work in the world and I was travelling on one of its products.

Before I say what the cruise’s second experience was that I want to share here, I’m going to move onto an artist who worked in Spain across the divide between Europe before the French Revolution and Europe afterwards, a time of considerable political and personal tension.

Goya

Back home I began my efforts to store the pollen of wisdom my bees of reflection had collected during the cruise. This sequence as a whole is part of that attempt.

Time now to examine a key figure in art that the prints of Dalí in the cruise ship’s gallery pointed me towards. This was an after-gain of the cruise experience but a result of the cruise none the less.

Once I was home I had time to check the background to Goya’s Caprichos, works that he tried to sell in the 1790s.

It took a while before one discerning critic realised that at least two modes of thought were blending in Goya’s caprichos. Werner Hofman in his book on Goya (page 79) points out that Baudelaire recognised the presence of ‘two complementary features’ in Goya’s art: ‘the sharp eye for événements fugitifs, “fleeting events” and what he called the débauches du rêve, “dream debaucheries.”’

Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya’

Before we dig deeper I want to flag up a general point that applies to all this work, I suspect, and relates to Capricho 43 – The Sleep/Dream of Reason. Hofman explains (page 130):

Bearing in mind that the Spanish word sueño can mean both ‘dream’ and ‘sleep’, this means ‘the dream/sleep of reason produces monsters,’ but generally this double meaning has been ignored by scholars.

He feels that dreams are an important source of Goya’s inspiration, as they were with Dalí, but they have to be considered in the light of the tradition that distinguishes between deceptive and true dreams (page 131).  ‘What then,’ Hofman asks, ‘were Goya’s dreams – the benevolent, helpful dreams, or the oppressive variety?’ Is there a realm in-between?

Telling the difference can be difficult (page 132):

Light and dark enter into a symbiotic relationship, which is difficult and fundamental to Goya’s art: between concealing and revealing, between masking and unmasking.

Bearing all that in mind let’s plunge in.

Baudelaire’s was the first ‘rave review’ of the Caprichos. According to Hofman he claimed that (page 104):

. . . they represent a seamless interweaving of transient reality… and wild dreams which emanate from the imagination. Baudelaire was particularly impressed by Goya’s artistic control, which enabled him to bind heterogeneous elements together and to accommodate the absurd and the monstrous within the everyday spectrum of human life.

Goya argued that (pages 95-96)’ it is as proper for painting to criticize human error and vice as for poetry and prose to do so,’ though he felt this should be directed at a general level rather than at specific people as targets. He ended his attempt to sell these images and went into hiding to escape La Santa– the Inquisition. Out of 300 sets only 27 were sold.

Baudelaire (page 104) labelled Goya ‘artistic caricaturist.’ What he missed though, ‘what Baudelaire would not see was that Goya worked with both levels of caricature. He lashed out at contemporary Spanish uses and abuses, made fun of vices, ignorance and self-seeking… but at the same time he transcends the specific context of the society scenes and turns them into paradigms and generalisations.’

He concludes (Page 111) that ‘It might all be described as a panoramic view, which includes social disablement and oppression…’ What is absolutely true is that (page 114) ‘Goya strikes at the heart of those who abused their political power.’

He gives an example (page 115) to illustrate his sense that nightmares are contextualised to make a critical point about society:

He brings [imagined monsters] back into the prison of human vice: And Still They Don’t Go!(Capricho 59). An emaciated, naked man is trying to hold up a gigantic slab. Those who remember the horrors of the extermination camps, or who are still living today under the iron fist of oppressive regimes, will recognize the despair and the helplessness conveyed by this scene.

Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya’

This element is consistently present in the caprichos and the black paintings of Goya, but absent in Dalií in erms of his own original art. Goya’s art in this respect at this point, and also in the black paintings, continues to fuse dream and reality in this way. Fantasy has a positive purpose. Concerning Capricho 43 – The Sleep/Dream of Reason, Hofman quotes Goya (page 123):

‘Fantasy, having been abandoned by reason, brings forth impossible monsters.
Combined with reason, it is the mother of the arts and the origin of wonders.’

His inventions concern (page 128) ‘putting together things that do not belong together, the linking of figures, the combination of people and animals… as well as the charm of fragmentary, exaggerated caricatures, and the terrors of things themselves…’

This echoes a poet we are moving on to in a moment, of whom Johnson said he yoked disparate ideas by violence together. Goya did something similar by bringing such incongruous elements together in his caprichos.

From a technical point of view (page 129):

He wanted to transplant his inventions from fiction into reality, to endow them with convincingly realistic features that would distinguish them from the impossible forms and reveries . . .  regarded as aberrations.

Unlike Dalí, he does not seem afraid to risk the condemnation of his society nor does his primary concern appear to be profit. This was definitely the case with his black paintings which enriched the walls of his home and appear never to be have been intended for purchase.

One of the most famous yet enigmatic of the black paintings (Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya”

Hofman’s view is that (page 133):

Guided by reason, Goya can enter the abyss of irrationality and bring forth monsters in the form of people, animals and hybrids. In other words, he can control and subjugate them with his creative power.

In a sense (page 133) ‘He exorcises himself as the inventor and the summoner of monsters and demons, by transforming his dark obsessions into the images.’

Ultimately, (page 135) ‘Freed from the web of Christian and humanist values, Goya – [an] impenitent [in contemporary terms] – places his faith in the power of creative self-healing.’ Perhaps in Goya’s mind his paintings were not just ‘ilustración meaning “illustration”’ but ‘ilustración . . . meaning ‘enlightenment.”’

He was passionately convinced that reason and feeling should not be divorced, and Hofman quotes Forster to unpack the reasons why (page 146):

One of the first Jacobins, Georg Forster [in a letter to his wife of 16 April 1793] describes where reason leads when feelings have gone. There is a new despotism: ‘The dominance, or rather the tyrannyof reason, perhaps the most iron-fisted of all, is still in store for the world.’

I begin to feel we are closing in on a familiar quandary but in somewhat different terrain. Just as Clare, in his intense observation and idealisation of nature, almost made it a faith, so does Goya seem to do a similar thing in placing his trust in feeling to curb reason in a reciprocally constructive relationship.

Just as nature is not God, so neither reason nor feeling nor their combination, as Goya hoped, are in themselves enough to avoid the traps of despotism and deception in the realms of political and domestic power. Goya’s quandary stems from discounting, as Clare also does I feel, a spiritual or transcendent dimension. They try to make either our world, in Clare’s case nature, or our mind, in themselves transcendent, an enterprise that is doomed to failure.

A useful compass reading to take at this point might be the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Son of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith (Some Answered Questions Chapter 83 – new revised edition):

. . . what the people possess and believe to be true is liable to error. For if in proving or disproving a thing a proof drawn from the evidence of the senses is advanced, this criterion is clearly imperfect; if a rational proof is adduced, the same holds true; and likewise if a traditional proof is given. Thus it is clear that man does not possess any criterion of knowledge that can be relied upon.

This is what led me to explore, in an earlier sequence of posts, what I called the third ‘I’ – something beyond either reasons or emotion or gut feeling. It would be too much of a diversion to recap that here. For those interested click on these seven links.

Towards the end of the cruise, I had finished Bate’s book on John Clare. I stared at my modest pile of books on the bedside table before going on deck one morning, wondering which one to take with me. The choice fell between The Islamic Enlightenment and the Norton edition of John Donne. My choice was swayed not so much by which would be the more interesting book but which would be lighter to carry, a surprising factor as I wouldn’t have to carry the book far on board ship and I had no plans to take it on land.

Did Donne help me deal with the issue of the need for transcendence?

John Donne

Nature is not enough – despite the almost compelling case mobilised by Bate. Neither is art. Which is perhaps why I am glad that, towards the end of the cruise I gravitated towards re-reading John Donne and looking at some of the critical comments in the Norton Edition I had taken with me. All the page references below relate to this book unless otherwise stated.

When we were in Barcelona, sharply aware of Spain’s imperial history, we were probably closest to the Spain that got closest to conquering England when Donne was 12 years old in 1588. This conflict between two powerful nations piled further fuel on the fire of religious prejudice already blazing in Elizabethan England.

I’ve already mentioned Samuel Johnson’s comment on the metaphysical poets, as he termed them, including John Donne (page 194):

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

A different pattern of daring from Goya’s but one that seems to make them kindred spirits in some respects.

John Carey, writing about what he calls Donne’s ‘Apostasy’, suggests that Donne’s faith was not easily won, as he struggled to choose between his family’s Roman Catholic and his country’s Protestant/Anglican religion (page 220):

The poetic evidence of this crisis is Satire III – the great, crucial poem of Donne’s early manhood. . . . a self-lacerating record of that moment which comes in the lives of almost all thinking people when the beliefs of youth, unquestioningly assimilated and bound up with our closest personal attachments, come into conflict with the scepticism of the mature intellect.

The tolerance for all faiths embedded in the most famous passage of that poem may have had its roots in his ultimately divided loyalties (page 223):

Though Donne eventually came to accept Anglicanism, he could never believe that he had found in the Church of England the one true church outside which salvation is impossible. To have thought that would have meant consigning his family to damnation. Instead he persuaded himself that the saved would come from all churches.

Marotti’s line of argument points in the same direction (page 238):

In the third satire Donne refused to defend or reject either Catholicism or the Established Church.

He goes on to strongly suggest that Donne’s decision was unlikely to be self-serving (page 238-9):

He would not abandon the religion of his youth until he had satisfied himself intellectually and morally that it was the right thing to do.

The private circulation of the document, Marotti points out, was Donne’s safeguard against dire consequences.

The lines in question from the satire are:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

His sense that all religions may be in essence one is confirmed in the same poem:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.

Basically, Donne implicitly believed in a transcendent realm, but the context in which he held that belief was a polarised one.

Plantinga

It may seem unlikely that faiths that were so fiercely divided could be compatible with a dispassionate quest for the Truth. However, the picture may be somewhat more complex than that, as Plantinga argued when he made the case in his book, Where the conflict really lies, that religion and science are compatible

He claims to show, and I am inclined to agree, that the motivation of early science came from a felt need to explore nature to find God’s order there. Nature was a teacher, in this case, not something to be exploited in the manner of Columbus and others. It complements, in its rationality, Clare’s emotional exploration of nature, while Hopkins’s intense search for signs of God in nature, of which he felt a part, is an additional perspective. Martin describes the poet’s recurrent theme, in his biography of Hopkins, as (page 204) ‘the unity of man and nature as parts of Divine creation.’

Plantinga summarises his main points (page 265):

Recall my overall thesis: there is superficial conflict but deep concord between theistic religion and science, but superficial concord and deep conflict between naturalism and science.

Most people who have bought into the prevailing myth will have expected the exact opposite and he knows that.

He opens with an obvious truth which most of us may well have overlooked and whose implications he is keen to unpack (page 266):

Modern Western empirical science originated and flourished in the bosom of Christian theism and originated nowhere else. . . . it was Christian Europe that fostered, promoted, and nourished modern science. . . . This is no accident: there is deep concord between science and theistic belief.

I am setting aside something he does not discuss: the debt European science owed to other traditions such as Islam.

He defines what he means by science in this context (pages 267-268):

the fundamental class to which science belongs is that of efforts to discover truths—at any rate it is science so thought of that I mean to deal with here.

He accepts that what distinguishes the scientific approach or method is empiricism, the need to test belief against experience in a systematic way (page 268):

While it is difficult to give a precise account of this empirical component, it is absolutely crucial to science, and is what distinguishes science from philosophy.

He is looking at the notion, commonly held by Christians everywhere, that we are made in God’s image, and this will have an unexpected link to empiricism (ibid.):

God is a knower, and indeed the supreme knower. . . . We human beings, therefore, in being created in his image, can also know much about our world, ourselves, and God himself.

Alvin Plantinga

This capacity to learn about our world is a key aspect of our being and relates to this issue in his view (ibid.): ‘this ability to know something about our world, ourselves and God is a crucially important part of the divine image.’ And this is where he springs on us an unexpected point in favour of his case (pages 268-269):

God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties. . . . . For science to be successful . . . there must be a match between our cognitive faculties and the world.

That match is not at all what we should necessarily expect. The world could just as easily, probably far more easily be an incomprehensible and apparently random puzzle to us, but it is not. This predictability makes successful empiricism possible.

His key point is that an expectation of such predictability is built into theistic religion (ibid.):

It’s an essential part of theistic religion—at any rate Christian theistic religion—to think of God as providentially governing the world in such a way as to provide that kind of stability and regularity. . . . . The world was created in such a way that it displays order and regularity; it isn’t unpredictable, chancy or random. And of course this conviction is what enables and undergirds science.

If we see one role of religion as to help us find the Truth, as far as we are able, we have to accept that we will not arrive at the ‘whole truth,’ and probably not achieve ‘nothing but the truth.’ We will only see part of the truth as ‘through a glass darkly.’ The Bahá’í view is that true religion and real science complement each other, and are not contradictory.

If the idea of truth as standing on a hill that can be approached from various sides is true for religion, does it also apply to philosophy, art and science? Can each within themselves only see the truth from one angle? Even if we pool them in our consciousness, presumably we are yet again limited by the same constraints, even if the angle becomes somewhat wider.

Habermas

I think it may even go further than this.

Michael Pusey I have quoted in a previous post. He explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Jurgen Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Discourse from the other two positions plays second fiddle to the ‘instrumental’ (sorry! I couldn’t resist the pun!) This impoverishes the decision-making processes of our public lives. Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.

It looks as though we need to add beauty (the aesthetic), practical usefulness (the instrumental) and morality (the ethical) into the mix. How fairly can we expect art of various kinds to blend and integrate all four of these – beauty, usefulness, morality and truth – into a representation of reality? Is this how we should distinguish great from lesser art?

This is a complex problem and I’m by no means the first to wrestle with it. Interestingly, almost as soon as I began to ponder on it, I re-read, in Robert Martin’s life of Hopkin’s (page 131), about the way the issue surfaced in Hopkins’s relationship with Walter Pater. Hopkins was being tutored by Pater and knew of his essay ‘advocating Beauty as the standard by which to judge morality. Hopkins himself certainly recognised the dangers of such a position, as well as its attractions.’

I’m entering difficult waters but here goes.

I don’t share the perspective that John Keats places in the mouth of the Grecian Urn:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

What looks beautiful is not always true, and the truth is quite often not even slightly beautiful. Once you begin to factor in the possible need for representations of truth to also capture the good and beautiful we may be asking the impossible.

I think Goya in art and, for example, Wilfred Owen in poetry, offer some kind of potential solution. Neither of them shies away from depicting the worst aspects of humanity, but their underlying positive values are still detectable in their way of presenting the unacceptable. It is partly expressed in what I experience as the outrage of the utterance. They neither condone nor capitulate anymore than they mitigate. Something gives them the strength to contain and convey the unendurable.

My argument would be that they manage to combine a special kind of haunting beauty with the horror. I think the revulsion I feel is in them and in their art as well, so there is a moral compass orienting their perspective, but it does not preach.

Is it useful? I think it is, but not in the simplistic sense of prescribing a clear line of action. It is useful socially and culturally because it does what perhaps nothing else can do as well: in its immediacy and power it can change our consciousness, can help us feel what a soldier feels or a victim of tyranny. It can thereby enable us to resist whatever social forces operate simplistically in those contexts. It can enhance our sense of connection with other creatures and even with the earth itself, in the case of Clare.

It can make the world a better place.

In spite of the doubts expressed in this sequence, I accept that science, technology and the Enlightenment have brought huge material benefits, but as I tried to express in a poem, we’re out of balance. We also always need to recognise that every such advance from fire to atomic power is a double-edged sword and cuts both ways, and we must always therefore be vigilant about the way we use them.

Perhaps I’d better leave it there, except to say that the unintended consequence of my failed attempt to escape from the pressures of our complex world has been to help me deepen my understanding of the purpose and potential methods of the arts, something that perhaps the temporary freedom from mundane tasks gave me the space, time and energy to do. Being on a big ship worth millions should, if anything, have sailed me further away from reality into fantasy. I was fortunate that in this case, more by good luck than good management, it did the opposite.

This experience has also reinforced something I have always felt. It is impossible to run away from all your problems because you carry most of them in your head.

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As to your question concerning the meaning of physical suffering and its relation to mental and spiritual healing: Physical pain is a necessary accompaniment of all human existence, and as such is unavoidable. As long as there will be life on earth, there will be also suffering, in various forms and degrees. But suffering, although an inescapable reality, can nevertheless be utilized as a means for the attainment of happiness. . . .  Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us to better adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self-improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom. It is sometimes only when all our suffering has passed that we become aware of its usefulness.

(In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 29 May 1935 to an individual believer) 

Architecture

With both my reading and the anxieties about our steward’s missing cousin, the positive side of the experience on board ship was becoming overshadowed by darker realities.

We really needed our excursion into Pisa, not simply to get off the boat but also for the uplifting nature of what we found there, and I’m not talking about the Leaning Tower. We knew that we would not be able to go up the tower anyway. To do that we would have needed to book in advance. However, that was not a problem as there was so much else to see.

It was a short drive of 30 minutes from Livorno where our ship had docked. The coach parked in the bus station and the guide escorted us to the Square of Miracles or Cathedral Square.

We found the ticket office after retracing our steps the entire length of the square, and booked ourselves to go into the three main buildings in the square: the Baptistry, the Cathedral and the Cemetery, the latter rather unusually being a building enclosing a burial site. As the tour guide had said en route, those three buildings encapsulated birth, life and death.

The tall and circular baptistry was quite a surprise to me. The guide had explained why it was separate from the cathedral. At that period of history in 1363 the belief was that the unbaptized could not enter a church so baptism had to take place somewhere else than the cathedral. Even so, I was puzzled as to why such an extremely lofty space, with its font of octagonal design, should have been constructed for such a simple ceremony. It is apparently the largest baptistry in Italy. Because of the underlying sand, the Baptistry leans 0.6 degrees toward the cathedral – rather appropriate really.

Despite my bafflement, or perhaps partly because of it, the Baptistry was a good preparation for the very different experience of the Cemetery or Campo Santo, its rebuild completed in 1464. It may seem bizarre to have dislocated the natural order of things by visiting the Cemetery before the Cathedral and immediately after the Baptistry. It seemed to make sense at the time because of the long queue waiting to enter the Cathedral.

Although the sarcophagi and the stone slabs or plaques marking a grave were striking in themselves, I found myself captivated by the frescos high along the walls. The first had been applied in 1360, the last about three centuries later. On 27 July 1944, a bomb fragment from an Allied raid started a fire.The frescos had had to be removed due to extensive fire damage to the building. They were now in the process of being transferred back into place.

Here was yet another complex message about the human predicament. The frescos captured both the faith in Christ of their original creators and a very real sense of the thriving communities that effectively financed and admired them. Their near-destruction captured the fragility and transience of all things, as well as the role in their vulnerability of human discord. The clash of ideologies is still with us and now it has once more a quasi-religious twist reminiscent of what lay in store for England barely 70 years after the Cemetery building had been completed.

It was a more subtle message than the amphitheatre’s, but a powerful one none the less.

The Cathedral was a more conventionally extravagant celebration of worship and did not detain us long. In fact, the most memorable moment was a friendly exchange with an Indian tourist whose camera fell out of her selfie-stick onto the stone floor. She retrieved it fortunately unharmed. She exchanged some pleasantries with my wife, both clearly pleased to find someone from the same culture in this stridently Christian context. Or perhaps I am reading too much into their instant connection.

Anyway, this had been a distinct if brief shift to spirituality, something in short supply on board.

On returning to the ship and examining our Horizon bulletin of the next day’s events, we saw there’d be a talk on Dalí, some of whose prints were on exhibition in the gallery.

That evening we were glad to hear that our steward’s uncle had let him know that his cousin had been found. He had taken safe refuge in a friend’s house and was alive and well.

Feeling lighter in heart we took to our beds looking forward to hearing more about Dali after breakfast.

Art

The most intriguing fact that came out of the Dalí talk was that he was told by his parents and came to believe that he was the reincarnation of his brother, who died before he was born. I suppose it would intrigue me as I was in a way a replacement for my dead sister, Mary. Too much of that already on this blog.

Other details were less compelling. He met Picasso through Miró and copied his moustache from Valázquez. More illuminating was Dalí’s explanation for his bent clocks. They were apparently inspired by the sight of a melting Camembert, not, as many critics have supposed, by the abstruse metaphysics of time’s recently discovered relativity.

We were pleased to learn that the Dalí prints would be on exhibition in the gallery the following day.

This was to add another world to my growing list. I’d so far gone from the landscape of Clare through the ‘archaeoscape’ of the amphitheatre to the townscape of Lowry: now was to be the turn of a dreamscape, with associations to one of my favourite artists of all time.

I was about to encounter prints of three tributes from among many that Dalí had paid to Goya. I just can’t rate Picasso, whom Dalí had met, as highly as I rate Goya, mainly because the ego is still too obvious in most of his art, as was also the case, I feel, with Dalí.

However, I need to acknowledge that Dalí was the bridge on this ship between Goya and me, and triggered some further mind-expanding processes.

A sales catalogue is the only source I could find for a copy of the picture and an explanation of some of the background to these works of Dalí:

227 years after the birth of Spanish master Francisco Goya, Salvador Dali had an idea to transform Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’ and present a new work. Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’ was an artistic experiment exposing the foolish superstitions in 18th century Spanish society. Goya described the series as depicting ‘the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual’. The body of work was withdrawn from public sale before their planned release in 1799. Only a formal order from King Carlos IV kept Goya from being called before the Spanish Inquisition. In 1973 Salvador Dali created a metamorphosis of Goya’s suite into a colourful surrealist masterpiece.

Between 1936 and 1939, Spain was going through a civil war with many artists taking sides or going into exile. In 1948 Dalí and Gala, his wife, moved back into their house in Port Lligat, on the coast near Cadaqués. For the next three decades, he would spend most of his time there painting, taking time off and spending winters with his wife in Paris and New York. His acceptance and implicit embrace of Franco’s dictatorship were strongly disapproved of by other Spanish artists and intellectuals who remained in exile.

In 1968, Dalí had bought a castle in Púbol for Gala; and starting in 1971 she would retreat there alone for weeks at a time. By Dalí’s own admission, he had agreed not to go there without written permission from his wife. His fears of abandonment and estrangement from his longtime artistic muse contributed to depression and failing health. Franco died in November 1975.

Dalí’s surrealist version of Goya’s caprichos falls between Gala’s withdrawal and Franco’s death.

When we visited the gallery my attention was held longest on one etching print in particular.

This is the picture at the head of this post: Si no amanece nos quedamos. Goya’s original is rather different:  Si Amenece nos vamos.

As I stood before the image in the gallery the first thought that came to mind was of refugees. I thought of traumatised Syrian and Rohingya families fleeing their homeland in desperation. In terms of the original image that Goya created I was probably post-dating it, getting confused with his black paintings, created some 20 years later, after the war with Napoleon, and with Dalí I was taking it back in time to the horrors of the Civil War.

The lady in charge of the gallery came up as I was digesting these slightly inaccurate implications.

‘You’re interested in that one?’ she enquired.

‘I’m finding it interesting to look at and reflect on,’ I replied, careful not to indicate that my interest extended to making the £875 purchase. ‘It’s so evocative of those times in history when people are displaced.’

‘Exactly,’ she murmured sympathetically.

‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose, in a way,’ I replied, catching myself feeling slightly pretentious.

‘I’m afraid it is. Anyway we’re not selling any of these now, but there’s a special showing tomorrow. What‘s your cabin number?’

I replied without thinking.

‘I’ll send you an invite. It’ll be in your cabin tonight. See you then.’

‘Hopefully.’

It was slowly dawning on me that, although I was standing in what called itself a gallery, it was really a shop. Art has been a commodity since somebody somewhere at some point in history bought the first picture. Nature became one in a big way for certain with the Enlightenment, and without the technological advances which that brought with it, I would not have been on board this ship standing in front of this print. The pains John Clare endured from Enclosure were only a sign of worse things to come.

‘Did the benefits outweigh the costs?’ I found myself asking myself, as we walked away.

I apologise for the poor quality of the versions of these pictures. They’re the best I can find that I feel free to use. I felt it would be useful to pause a moment and reflect on them.

Basically, the figures seem much the same.

Given that Dalí lived in Spain, seemingly complicit with the rule of Franco, it is hard to be sure what he was intending when he revisited Goya’s Caprichos in 1973. Was it only the dream element and not the political that appealed to him?

We have only the change of title to go on, in this case. No dawn for Dalí means staying put, while the dawn for Goya means leaving. I can only guess at what the different implications might be. Dalí’s suggests pessimism and passivity, whereas Goya’s implies hope and action. This conveys to me that it is more dream than politics which stands behind Dalí’s work, whereas, for reasons I’ll go into later, Goya’s work is more a dynamic fusion of the two.

Image scanned from Werner Hofman’s Thames and Hudson ‘Goya.’

Another pointer for me in that direction is the stark difference between image number 79 in both sequences. Goya’s title and subject is Murió la Verdad: Dalí’s is Reflejos de Luna. The images are completely different. Given the times through which Dalí was living, the death of truth was clearly as much an issue as it is now. His evasion of it here seems significant. Passivity and pessimism may indeed have led him to collusion. With Franco not dead yet as he did this work, Murió la Verdad may have seemed a step too far. (Incidentally, I did search the rest of the Dalí catalogue for an equivalent of Goya’s image, in case it had been renumbered, but could find nothing.)

Where next?

Later, I was prompted to look at the life of a poet who took the drastic step of abandoning the religion of his entire family. Whether he did this to avoid execution and to obtain preferment, or out of genuine conviction even at the risk of possible eternal damnation, is a moot point. To be fair, it is perhaps equally difficult to be sure of Dalí’s motives.

In the end though the main point is that this etching sent me back to Goya and a comparison of those other parts of Dalí’s sequence I’ve just mentioned, something I obviously wasn’t able to do till I got back home. None the less it is a legacy of the cruise and therefore an extension of that experience.

The echoes evoked by Dalí may seem from the outside to have spoiled my experience of the cruise even further, but in fact they enriched it. I benefited immensely from my encounter with the Goya/Dalí blend, in fact as much as I did from the sunsets and far more than from the dance floor or the black-tie dinners.

Incidentally, we did go back to the gallery for the special viewing, just to see a fifth print unveiled. It depicted what at first looked like a fish skewered for dinner above a serving dish that looked like a sarcophagus: on closer inspection it was a woman/mermaid – a characteristic product from within the Dalí dreamscape and definitely without a trace of politics that I could detect.

I’ve since tracked it down on a cookery website which stated about two years ago:

This fall, Taschen published a handsome facsimile edition of Les Diners de Gala, a cookbook the artist wrote in 1973 [Apparently the same year as his tribute to Goya’s Caprichos]. Named after his wife, also a legendary gourmand, it’s one of the most unusual recipe books ever created, a bit like Escoffier on acid. Today, signed copies sell for as much as $25,000. I once sat at the New York Public Library for hours, flipping through Dalí’s illustrations of dishes and meals in a kind of terrified thrall. Crayfish towers are topped with the torso of Joan of Arc, her amputated arms gushing blood. Chickens are trussed with barbed wire. A swan, its head chock-full of human teeth, is served on a pastry dish. Dalí is there, too, pictured at the swanky Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, wearing a plush velvet suit, holding a golden scepter, surrounded by a Rabelaisian feast of his own devising.

It was not long before a photo-shoot took place with the gallery director and the proud purchaser of the print standing on either side of it as the cruise photographer recorded the moment for promotional posterity.

Dalí seems to have been in his element as a commodifier of his art, an unenviable skill that escaped Goya when he attempted to sell his Caprichos. That’s one of the reasons why I feel his ego compromised his art. Possibly significantly, my only way of tracing the images we’d seen in the gallery was via sites which involved selling something. The sites I tried which were more focused on art in a slightly purer sense contained not a hint about them. I’m trying hard not to read too much into that.

Next time I will examine a key figure in art that the prints of Dalí in the cruise ship’s gallery pointed me towards. No prizes for guessing who.

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