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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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I recently have a short talk at the Birmingham Interfaith. It seemed worth sharing here as it relates to the current sequence.

Ever since I studied English Literature, and long before I eventually specialised in psychology or discovered the Bahá’í Faith, the words of a poet-priest from the Elizabethan period have stuck in my mind.

John Donne wrote:

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.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

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

It is clear, if this is as true as I think it is, that we would all move faster upwards if we were able to compare notes humbly and carefully.

I think an aspect of the Bahá’í path is particularly useful for this purpose.

It stems partly from our core beliefs that all the great world religions are in essence one at the spiritual level, coming as they do from the same divine source, and that all of humanity is one at this spiritual level, not just at the level of our increasingly global material connections.

Bahá’u’lláh expresses this second form of unity in powerful terms. We are all created from ‘from the same dust’, and he explains why it is important that we recognise this: ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

It’s perhaps important to clarify that the unity He describes is inclusive of diversity: it does not mean uniformity. So, there will be cultural differences affecting our perspectives, creating a need to reconcile them if problems are to be solved.

This radical concept of oneness and interconnectedness is at the root of two Bahá’í practices that relate to our ability to work together in a way that transcends our differences. The skills appealed to me deeply as a way of enriching my therapeutic work with people whose perspectives on life were causing them painful problems.

One practice is shared by just about every religious tradition to some extent, and perhaps most extensively by Buddhism, which has the longest and richest tradition in this area.

This is termed reflection, meditation or contemplation in the Bahá’í Writings. There is one particular fruit of the meditative process that is most relevant here.

This spiritual skill or discipline helps create the necessary detachment and humility for true consultation to take place, because we are able to step back and withdraw our identification from our thoughts and ideas sufficiently to listen sympathetically and open-mindedly to what others are saying.

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without this complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith,  describes it at one point as the ‘faculty of meditation’ which ‘frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1972][1] He also uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán 1982]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences just as a mirror captures what’s in front of it.

A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, our consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people.

Acquiring this skill is not easy.

An existential philosopher called Koestenbaum expresses it very clearly in his book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy.

He states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? True reflection at the very deepest level, it seems to me, has to ultimately depend therefore upon the degree of our reliance upon God, but can also be achieved to some degree by disciplined practice alone.

Koestenbaum is optimistic about our ability to acquire this skill (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection what he means is definitely something closely related to meditation. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Reading Koestenbaum has helped to deepen my understanding of this concept.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life. In developing that capacity we will have to strive for perfection and be content with progress, as the saying goes.

As a process within the individual, it is complemented by and interacts with the process of consultation, as we will now explore.

Once we can reflect, we can then consult. Interestingly I see this as a two-way street. Just as reflecting more skilfully makes for better consultation, so does striving to consult properly enhance our ability to reflect.

And consultation makes the creative comparison of paths and perspectives possible, as we will see. As far as I am aware no tradition other than the Bahá’í Writings makes this link between these two skills so clearly nor emphasises so strongly the need for consultation as a dissolver of differences and enhancer of understanding both at a practical and a theoretical level.

Why is all this so important?

A statement on prosperity from the Bahá’í International Community, an NGO at the UN, states a key weakness of our culture’s basic approach:

Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.

Karlberg, in his book Beyond a Culture of Contest, makes the compelling point that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution, rather than on the basis of an careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how we need to transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’

Karlberg describes this alternative model in far more detail in his book than is possible to include here. His approach is based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is that (page 131: my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

It isn’t too difficult to see how all this might be applied to our interfaith work.

Paul Lample, a member of the Bahá’í supreme body, the Universal House of Justice, explains further (Revelation and Social Reality – page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context. Consultation is therefore, the practical, dialogical means of continually adjusting relationships that govern power, and, thus, to strive for justice and unity.

So, exactly what is this consultation?

Shoghi Effendi, a central figure in the explication of the Bahá’í faith after the deaths of its Founder, Bahá’u’lláh, and His son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as saying that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1922[2]]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ (detachment – that key word again that helps us be united), ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1978[3]]

It should be clear by now that bringing those qualities to any process of collective decision-making will be made far easier if participants have already begun to master the art of reflection. In fact the link is so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality,expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

In the light of all this, to summarise the core aspects, we could say that consultation as Bahá’ís understand it, is a spiritually based process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that:

  • no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth. In a study group on consultation I facilitated at a Bahá’í summer school in Scotland last year, one of the participants nailed an extremely important point to the wall of our understanding. He said, ‘Being honest is not the same as being truthful. None of us can be sure what the truth is. That’s why we need to consult.’ An important implication of this is that even when we are convinced we are telling the ‘truth,’ we need to have the detachment to accept we might still have got it wrong, objectively speaking. So,
  • groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but still never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and
  • today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Only its proper use can be guaranteed to transcend differences and discover the most effective and constructive lines of action.

The unity we all both desire and need is an ideal that may not be possible without true consultation, which is a spiritual discipline not easily or cheaply achieved.

Hopefully we can all agree that these concepts constitute fruitful food for thought, or do I really mean reflection?

Footnotes:

[1]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:Paris Talks(Bahá’í Publishing Trust UK – pages 173-176).

[2]. `Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.

[3]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43.

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Tablets of Bahá’u’lláhpage 142

Once on board, each night before I slept I read at least 50 pages of Bate’s biography of Clare. This was usually after spending an hour or two on one of the decks watching the sunset and looking out for dolphins. I hoped it would help me get a better grip on what Bate’s had meant by poetry being the song of the earth.

Eventually, I’d settle down with my book, faintly conscious of the slight swaying of the ship and the constant grumble of the engine.

Bate’s compassionate account of Clare’s troubled existence brings to life some of the more abstract aspects of man’s exploitation of nature. Clare was both deeply connected from childhood with the nature around him and forcibly cut off from it first by the Enclosure Movement, then by an enforced move from his birth home to one he experienced as every different and finally by his incarceration in an asylum. All these dislocations were further confounded by his success as a poet, where his experience of London changed him radically.

This time I picked up the book from where I had left off, already with a clear sense of how damaging the process of Enclosure had been for Clare, his family and his neighbours. As Bate’s explains (pages 49-50):

Enclosure was… symbolic of the destruction of an ancient birthright based on cooperation and common rights. The chance of Clare’s time and place of birth gave him an exceptional insight into this changed world.

This was because a high proportion of local villagers held common rights, an unusually large area of the parish was heathland, and the open fields survived until an unusually late date.

Bate continues:

For Clare himself, enclosure infringed the right to roam, which had been one of the joys of his youth… E.P. Thompson grasped the radical significance of this, discerning that ‘Clare maybe described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.’

In Clare’s own words:

Inclosure like a Bonaparte let nothing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
and hung the moles as traitors –

Much later I came across this prose description in a similar spirit, which I’ll quote now to give another clear example of Clare’s unedited mode of writing (page 272): ‘what terryfying rascals these wood keepers and gamekeepers are – they make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers.’

His love of nature, I already knew, was quasi-religious (page 59):

. . . though he professed himself an Anglican, Clare’s attendance at church was mostly irregular. His deepest feelings of a religious kind were reserved for his experience of nature and his memories of childhood innocence and joy.

I was really looking forward to learning more, though I knew that Clare’s life had a tragic trajectory, ending as it did in an asylum over almost his last two decades.

Clare’s feeling for nature were not unique and he would have resonated to Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime’ of ‘something far more deeply interfused’ within it (pages 100-101):

. . . if someone who had never read – perhaps never even heard of – such nature poets as Thomson, Cowper and Wordsworth nevertheless responded to nature in the same way as they, then there must be ‘universal feelings’ about nature which poetry was but an echo… Clare saw it as his task to write down the poetry that was already there in nature itself.

That his gift was recognized by a publisher was a blessing to his parents (page 120):

Drury’s faith in the potential of Clare’s poetry saved Parker and Ann from the poor-house.

But this came at a price (page 166):

[On his way to London in the wake of his success] full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing a place known only from fireside tales, he looked out from the coach at the labourers ploughing and ditching in the fields: ‘the novelty created such strange feelings that I could almost fancy that my identity as well as my occupations had changed – that I was not the same John Clare but that some stranger soul had jumped into my skin.’

He had become disconnected from his old sense of self (page 171):

After his exposure to fame and London, he could never fully return to his old life. In this sense, his consciousness of a new identity as he sat in the Stamford coach was prophetic.

I put the book down and switched off the light. My head hit the pillow to the continuing growl of the engine. As usual, my sleep was fitful. Just as I was falling asleep again for the umpteenth time, I heard the ship’s intercom through the cabin door: ‘For exercise only. For exercise only. For exercise only. All medical staff to the muster room on B deck. Repeat – all medical staff to the muster room on B deck.’

My wife and I were both awake. It was 7.30 am. We groaned and got up grumbling.

When we were dressed and had left the cabin to head for breakfast at the buffet on Deck 15, we bumped into our steward in the narrow corridor outside our room.

Standing by the trolley piled high with towels and bedding, he greeted us with his usual friendly smile.

‘How are you both?’

We asked him if he knew about the recent earthquake. He didn’t. We apologised for worrying him but explained that we were concerned to know whether his family were all OK.

He was clearly concerned. He explained that he would not be able to find out yet but hoped to get in touch with family later in the day.

We parted without our usual exchange of joking comments.

En route to the buffet we picked up our newsletter and puzzles. The puzzle sheet had a fairly demanding Sudoku on one side and ridiculously easy crossword on the other. The newssheet was based generally on yesterday’s news and was only worth picking up if we’d missed Sky news the night before.

Horizon was a more valuable read. It told us what would be happening the following day and was left in our cabin the evening before. On this occasion, over my usual breakfast of oats, raisins and milk plus a slice of toast and for once marmalade, we looked at the day’s events and spotted a talk on Lowry, a joint favourite, in the theatre. As we both knew a fair bit about the artist from reading his biography and going to see his paintings at Salford Quays, we decided to give the talk a miss but to go to the gallery where some prints were on show.

This was probably a wise decision given the delay caused by having to queue for clean teacups at the buffet. We would’ve missed the start of the talk anyway. As it was there was only one print that caught our attention: The Brothers. I don’t have a copy of that in my Shelley Rohde’s biography, nor have I ever seen the original anywhere.

Lowry’s ‘The Brothers’ (For source of image see link.)

Its impact was quite intense.

The way the brothers overlap in the print conveys the strong sense of a symbiotic relationship. Their merged black hats make them seem almost like twins joined at the head. The colour of the arch overhead matches their coats and, along with the narrowness of the picture, seems to imply that they are both in some way imprisoned or at least overshadowed by their relationship. The townscape behind them is unusually constricted for Lowry and the church and flats, if that’s what the red buildings were, would not look out of place in a doll’s house, hinting that, in spite of the greying hair of the background brother, we are not quite in a fully adult world here.

Most of Lowry’s work contrasts quite strongly with Clare’s rural home, in which I was so vicariously immersed at the time. His less well-known seascapes, which I first encountered on visiting the Lowry gallery at Salford Quays, added a new dimension to my understanding of his work, and would’ve blended in better with my cruise perhaps if I’d found one of those in the ship’s gallery.

I didn’t realise at this point that I would soon be encountering a third very different environment in paint. Blended with the artificial world of the cruise ship, nature, art and town alone began to weave a pattern of insights I haven’t quite digested yet.

‘Head of Man with Red Eyes’ painted after spending an exhausting night ministering to his hypochondriacal autocratic mother’s imaginary needs. (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

Part of the pattern is clear. Clare was uprooted from the earth of his childhood with devastating effects on his mental health and an inspiring impact on his poetry. Lowry’s roots were in the Northern townscape, which fed his art but may have starved his emotional life, though his voraciously demanding mother and a possible poorly understood autistic tendency didn’t help.

The third world I entered, through prints again, opened up another world altogether, but that will have to wait till next time. Together they illustrate just how complex is the relationship between art, personal life and nature. This idea, that poetry might, at some level, simply be the song of the earth, was seeming slightly fragile.

Even Bate, in his biography of Ted Hughes, is clearly aware that poetry comes in many forms. For example (page 93), he describes Yeats as ‘the poet of the land and the spirit of place’ in contrast to Eliot as ‘the poet of deracinated modernity.’ This of course still leaves begging the question of whether a poet who simply ‘gives voice to a new terror: the meaningless’, is a poet in the full sense of the word, no matter how powerful and honest that voice may be.

This relates to my struggle, explored in earlier posts, with much modern art, if it seems to capitulate to the dissonance and disbelief of the modern world with no counterbalancing sense of meaning and purpose. Can true poetry be simply nihilistic? Not that I’m saying, as should be clear by now, that poetry is only authentic if it sings about nature. Nature is not the only higher value poetry can draw upon to give it depth.

Clare though made a strong case for nature as a front runner in this race (page 480):

‘Birds bees trees flowers all talked to me incessantly louder than the busy hum of men and who so wise as nature out of doors on the green grass by woods and streams under the beautiful sunny sky – daily communings with God and not a word spoken.’

To complete the picture, it might help here to fast-forward to where my reading of Bate’s whole biography of Clare left me.

After his brief moment in the spotlight and two less successful collections of what Bate feels were superior poems, Clare’s world was turning significantly darker. Not only was the impact of Enclosure still tightening but his success had brought with it the opportunity to move three miles away to a more spacious home, something which proved a mixed blessing.

Even before the move things were not going well (page 276):

The changes in the land wrought by enclosure were by now symbolic of his own narrowing prospects and the loss of the familiar landmarks of his childhood.

There was no going back (page 317):

Save in memory and poetry, there was no road back to childhood, to the unenclosed commons, to Eden. As his depression closed in upon him, the only future was alienation.

Now there was the impending challenge of a serious mental health problem, brought on by a combination of factors, not least his increasing sense of alienation. His move to Northborough did not help (page 388):

The accommodation was much more spacious than at Helpston… But the village never became home. It felt like a closed community, hostile to newcomers.

Clare describes his feelings of loss and displacement in The Flitting (Page 389):

I’ve left my own old home of homes,
Green fields, and pleasant place:
The summer, like a stranger comes,
I pause – and hardly know her face.’

His poetry, which Bate sees as rooted in Clare’s ‘art of noticing’ and ‘intuitive responsiveness to minute particulars’ (pages 300-01) had so far lost nothing of its power though in this unhinging process (page 390):

His remembrance is not just of his old home, but specifically of the pre-enclosure landscape. It was also at this time that he wrote another of his great enclosure elegies, a vigourous poem of political complaint spoken in the very voice of a piece of land, ‘Swordy Well’. . . . With the enclosure, it was taken by the parish overseers as a source of stone for road mending. In the poem, the land speaks out against its own enclosure in the same terms as a labourer would have used to complain about his loss  of ancient rights. ‘I ha’n’t a friend in all the place,’ sings the desecrated earth, ‘Save one and he’s away.’ That one is Clare himself, both physically away from Helpston and mentally distant from his own unenclosed youth.

And again (page 405):

Clare’s sense of his own status as a perpetual outsider, a man who did not fully belong in either the world of London property or that of literary propriety, is nowhere better caught that in a sonnet on his fear of trespassing: ‘I dreaded walking where there was no path.’

I can resonate to this to some degree, as I was transplanted from lower middle class roots at the age of seventeen to the lofty heights of privilege at Cambridge in the early 60s. Since then I have always felt déclassé, belonging neither to my culture of origin nor to the rarified atmosphere of dinner suits and cocktail parties. This may partly account for why I found the cruise concept of ‘black-tie dining’, something that happened on four nights of our journey, a somewhat bizarre experience: I tried it once, in my green suit not a dinner suit, and stuck to the casual dress of the buffet after that.

Compared to Clare though my experience was relatively mild. The stresses of it did not strain me beyond endurance so that I would end my life staring from the window of an institution which felt like a prison, as Clare did in his asylum according to one of his visitors (page 475):

‘There was a birdcage, with a skylark in it, near the window; and pointing to the iron bars in his apartment, he smiled gloomily, and said, in a strong provincial accent, “We are both of us bound birds, you see.”’

I couldn’t help but remember Hopkins’s poem as I read those words[1]:

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –

In a sense that Clare does not express as far as I know, this would make him double-caged, as of course was Hopkins in the Jesuit order, though he never admitted that explicitly in any of his poems as far as I’m aware. Hopkins shared another passion with Clare (Robert Bernard Martin’s biography – page 212):

When an ash tree was felled in the garden, he ‘heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.’

Clare would certainly have been familiar though with the words of Blake that came tumbling into my head a this point:

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.

I was beginning to feel that the motif of the prison was becoming an uncomfortably frequent theme.

In the end, divorced from nature by the Enclosure process, by his well-meant but unavoidable move to a different locality and by the social elevation his obsessive versifying earned him, he broke down and entered the final alienation of the asylum. He registers the ultimate consequence in his poem An Invite to Eternity (page 491):

Clare had coined the term self identity. Now he coins its opposite: sad non-identity. The absence of home and family has stripped Clare of his sense of self. At the same time, the very act of writing is a defiant assertion of the self. ‘At once to be and not to be’ is a breath-taking riposte to Hamlet’s question.

Even so, he is able to capture this in powerful poetry that does not completely capitulate to his sense of annihilation.

In the end there was no viable escape from his distress, except through poetry. Concerning his poem I am Bate writes (page 505):

In imagination, even in the asylum, he could complete the circle of vision, undoing his troubles by laying himself to rest between grass and ‘vaulted sky.’ He longs at once for both childhood and the grave.

He does not, if Bate’s sense of him is to be trusted, invest as much meaning in the horizon, or perhaps even in nature, as Emily Dickinson did, according to Judith Farr in her book, The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity,’ and she makes this explicit. This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Maybe though for Clare, even though poetry began as a song of the earth, in the end it was more than that. I’m not sure I can quite find words right now for what that means. All I can say at the moment is that poetry itself can be a kind of transcendence, that brings meaning, perhaps even consolation, into the darkest moments of our lives.

When we spoke to our steward later that day to check how things were back home, he looked quite worried and told us that his cousin was missing, but the rest of his family were thankfully OK. We commiserated with him and assured him that we would remember his family in our prayers and hope that all would be well.

Footnote:

[1]. It would be fascinating to explore this further here but the post is long enough already. For now it is enough to indicate that R B Martin’s biography of Hopkin’s suggests (page 268) that an enforced move from St Beuno’s in rural Wales, where he had been studying for the priesthood, may have accounted in part for this sense of (page 264) ‘limitation, entrapment, a kind of stifling imprisonment of the spirit.’ The intensity of his connection with nature (page 203) would be more than enough to suggest a close affinity with Clare at least in this respect, and a comparable reaction to being torn away from nature by his move.

Hearticulture

Heart to heart

Humanity’s crying need . . . . . calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.

(From a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001)

This seems worth republishing at this point, given its relevance to nature as an issue in the current sequence.

I had a recent deep discussion with an old friend (of course, I mean old in the sense of ‘known a long time.’) We are close in many ways. We share a similar sense of humour and many core values. However, we are hugely different in our interests – hers practical, mine theoretical – and temperament – she, extravert: me, introvert.

She was completely unable to understand how I could combine a deep love of nature with a completely passive attitude to gardening.

I gave into the temptation to react, which generally involves treading on dangerous ground and attempted to point out that she similarly fails to understand why I spend so much time and energy reading and writing, even though she values some of the ideas that come out of all that effort.

I referred to her passion as horticulture. It’s then that the concept of ‘hearticulture’ came to me in a flash, as a good way of contrasting our intense enthusiasms.

This idea has had a long gestation period though.

First of all there was the slogan used many years ago in the Bahá’í community ‘Uniting the World: one heart at a time’ with the logo that accompanied it (see picture at the head of this post). I used to joke that this meant we were involved in heart-to-heart resuscitation.

Then there was the idea of ‘psy-culturalist’ which I coined in my discussion of my approach to mind-work, more specifically working with those who were experiencing distressing and abusive voices and the delusions that sometimes accompanied them. I wrote:

Because, to do mind-work, I drew on lots of other disciplines and traditions, including philosophy, psychology, biology, religion (especially Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith) and the arts, I could sometimes feel like giving myself a fancy title such as psy-culturalist. This captures the richness of the traditions I could draw on and also captures the essential purpose of mind-work which is growth. It also meant I didn’t have to label myself a psychologist with its one-sided implication that I study the mind but don’t work with it, nor did I have to call myself a Clinical Psychologist with its implications of illness and therapy, which are insulting to the client.

Psy-culturalist, as a term, has a similar problem to Clinical Psychology. If we think about gardening, it’s a one-way street. Plants, as a general rule, don’t grow people. Mind-work, though, is both reciprocal and reflexive. I grow you and you grow me and we grow ourselves as well!

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

Thirdly, there was all my pondering on the issue of the ‘understanding heart.’ In that process I attempted to unpack some of the implications of a key image in the Bahá’í Writings: the heart as a garden. I wrote:

The garden image implies that many of the processes that promote spiritual development have a far slower pace than either light or fire would suggest. The image is also powerfully suggestive of how the processes of spiritual growth are an interaction between what we do and what is accomplished by infinitely greater powers that work invisibly on the garden of the heart over long periods of time. It takes only a few seconds to plant a seed, it takes some degree of patience then to nurture and protect it, but by far the greater determinants of what happens in the end come from the soil, the weather and the sun.

When, for example, I read a passage of Scripture I am sowing seeds. When I perform acts of kindness as a result I water that seed. My heart’s garden then benefits with flowers and fruit because of the rich nutrients of the spiritual soil and the energising power of the divine sun. By analogy, these fruits yield further seeds that I can plant if I have the wisdom and caring to do so, and my heart will benefit even further.

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.

But that is not a reason not to persist in the attempt.

O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh  No. CLII)

My wife and I were sitting reading on the upper deck as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. The sea was calm. There was a low band of cloud floating just at the bottom of the sky-line. It didn’t look as though we’d get the spectacular fire-forge of a sunset we’d been hoping for. Still, it was pleasant to sit, stroked by a relatively gentle wind, before a sky far wider than we usually enjoyed.

I took out my copy of Mindfulness and the Natural World by Claire Thompson. I had decided to use one of her meditations (page 124) to help me tune in more to nature.

‘Write a list of five things in nature that you noticed that day and feel grateful for.’ I started to work on my list, glancing at the sinking sun as I scoured my memory.

There was the fig tree in the square in Cadiz, at least I think it was a fig tree. The fruit hanging from its branches might have been just a tad too large to be a fig, but I wrote that down anyway.

Then there was the old tree in the coastal garden there. We’d been hurrying back to the boat at that point so I didn’t really have time to savour fully the complexity of its system of branches, but the impact it made even so had stuck in my mind.

I was beginning to struggle at this point. Clearly my campaign to connect with nature was getting off to a bad start here.

As I gazed at the slowly reddening sun, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a woman with an expensive camera leaning over the rail and staring at the water.

The melons I had eaten in my fruit salad came to mind for some reason. I wrote it down. That concoction was going to be a regular feature of my on-board diet, though I didn’t know that yet. Gratitude would shift into boredom.

Then I remembered the flocks of seagulls swooping down towards the waves as we pulled out of Cádiz.

As I worked on remembering another item to make my list of five, and tried to summon up a feeling of gratitude for the experiences I had remembered, the lady with the camera approached.

‘Hallo,’ she said, in a clearly Spanish accent.

‘Hi,’ I responded. ‘Glad you came up to speak to us. I was wondering what you were hoping to catch in your camera.’

‘Whales or dolphins.’

‘Ah, that explains your badge,’ I said, catching on slightly late to something I had noticed earlier even at a distance. I could read it clearly now. ‘Orca. What does that mean exactly?’

She gave me her opt-in card.

‘We’re giving a talk tomorrow. Would you like to come? It’s at 10 o’clock in the theatre.’

‘We will do. By the way it’s a bit of a coincidence that I was trying to tune into nature better when you showed up.’

I showed her the page I was working on and what the meditation was about.

She expressed polite interest before moving on to the next deck chair.

Later, at her talk, we learned, amongst other things, that the Orca, though it is known as the killer whale, is really a dolphin because it has teeth, which whales do not. There are 29 species of the whale/dolphin family in the Mediterranean. The tongue of the largest whale is large enough for an African elephant to stand on and its heart is the size of a VW car, apparently. The Orca is more modestly sized as a bus. The sperm whale can hold its breath for two hours. I’m not sure this factual approach was helping me in my efforts to tune in to the natural world.

After she walked away, I remembered the pigeons cooling off in the fountain just off the Plaza de España in Cádiz. I was kicking myself for not having taken a photograph.

I had a half-hearted attempt to meditate with gratitude on the five things in nature I’d recently noticed, before picking up the book to read some more, glancing at the setting sun as I did so, but failing to wonder why I hadn’t used that in my list instead of the melons.

Unfortunately I bumped up against one of my bêtes noirs almost as soon as I started reading (page 33

Like our bodies and our senses, our minds came from nature and were shaped by living in the natural world.

It is amazing to me how deep-seated and taken for granted this reductionist view of the mind is, spawned within the default materialism in which our minds swim. A materialistic model of the mind leaves us only with the Earth as a self-transcendent source of meaning and a motivator to lift our sights higher and behave more morally. This is the problem I have discussed before in reaction to Rifkin’s prescription for a change that would save our civilisation. Rifkin clearly feels our connection with the earth is the best hope we’ve got (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

As I expanded on in that post, my sense is that, sadly, nature alone will not be enough to lift us above our tendencies to self-destruction.

Of course, I also accept that some forms of ‘religion’ have led to the opposite problem, an exploitative contempt for nature and recognize that we need to integrate both religion and nature constructively if we are to survive.

Thompson’s reductionist assumptions continued (page 49):

To live in the realms of our minds and to cling to the idea of a constant separate ‘I’ experiencing our entire lives lies at the heart of most of our unhappiness.

It is true that our idea of who we are can cause unhappiness, but it does not prove that believing there is no self at all will make us happy. She is conflating mind with its contents. She is not considering the possible nature of pure consciousness, another issue I have dealt with at length elsewhere in a discussion of Sam Harris’ position in the light of his meditative practice. The part of it that is relevant to recall here, because of Thompson’s attachment to Buddhism, is this:

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied centre of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

I put the book down again and picked up that day’s Sudoku puzzle, something the cruise printed off every morning for all passengers to battle with between watching the waves, the sunset or the dancing lessons in the Atrium (that term is an interesting remnant of the Roman civilisation which made it difficult to shake of the amphitheatre associations I described last time).

Instead of focusing on the numbers, I found my mind drifting back to another book I’d read before setting off on this trip, one that dealt with nature, this time in the context of poetry, and hadn’t pressed my anti-scientism button to quite the same extent, but enough to explain why my mind now drifted off in that direction.

Before setting foot on any deck, I had completed my reading of Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth. Its rich and intriguing exploration of the relationship between poetry and nature was reshaping my understanding of both nature and poetry. I took it with me onboard ship along with his biography of John Clare, a sensation in his time as a peasant poet, an English equivalent of Robert Burns. The lifelong theme of his poetry was nature. His almost obsessional life’s work was a vast collection of poems rooted in his passionately intense and minute observations of the natural world.

I had naively thought that the cruise would bring me closer to the sea in a way that would deepen my relationship with nature. I had underestimated how hard the glittering carapace of the cruise ship would make connecting with the sea it sailed on, and how the instrumental architecture of the docks we landed at would virtually delete from sight the land we disembarked on. Cranes and containers, warehouses and duty free shops, competed for my attention instead.

Even driving through the countryside near Livorno, on the way to Pisa, had its ironic contrasts: on the right flourished green glades of umbrella pines opposite the war machine of an American army base.

Even so the conclusions Bate had reached in The Song of the Earth were still rattling round my head.

An important insight towards the end of the book comes from a poet whose complete works I recently took to the local Oxfam shop as not worth keeping. Bate writes (page 238):

Murray implies that the vastness and untamability of Australia mean that the peculiar power and sacredness of that land may still be sensed. He christens this religious sense ‘Strine Shinto.’ His own poetry – though tempered with wryness, irony and self-deprecation – undertakes a complex integration of the ancient idea that nature is the book in which a transcendent God writes his presence with a kind of secular Shinto which serves as the ground for an environmental ethic.

The insight, combining as it does the sacred and poetic with the natural, resonated strongly with me. I have written before of how repellant I find our exploitative relationship with the earth, a point that Bate touches on (page 244):

Advanced Western culture has a distinctive and perhaps exceptionally divisive understanding of humankind’s relationship to nature, an understanding which may for convenience be traced back to Baconian empirical science and Cartesian philosophical dualism, and which was further developed in Kantian idealism.

He pushed me to confront an issue that I hadn’t really thought much about before (page 251):

If ‘world’ is, as Ricoeur has it, a panoply of possible experiences and imaginings projected through the infinite potentiality of writing, then our world, our home, is not earth but language. . . . There is a special kind of writing, called poetry, which has the peculiar power to speak ‘earth’. Poetry is the song of the earth.

I’m not sure I agree with his point about where our home is, but I was eager to explore the idea of poetry as the ‘song of the earth.’

The sun was almost set now. Time to go back to our room and listen to the news before attempting to go to sleep, in my case with the usually reliable sedative of a good book.

As we took the lift down through the eight levels to Deck 5 after our conversation about whales and dolphins, I remembered the point in the mindfulness book that had linked with Thompson’s reductionism and Bate’s use of the example of one poet who has always intrigued me, though also frustrated my full understanding of what he is attempting to say (page 263):

In a letter of 13 November 1925 to his Polish translator, Rilke explained his purpose in his master work, the Duino Elegies. He considered these meditations as responses to the transience of all earthly things. In the face of transience, the poet must undertake the work of transformation. . . The language of unification and transformation, the yoking of earth and consciousness, the divinisation of the immanent world as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm: these are all the moves which Wordsworth made in ‘Tintern Abbey’.

The phrase ‘as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm’ struck a warning bell to which I will return later in this sequence – shades of reductionism again perhaps?

For now the key point is the haunting truth that (page 281):

The poetic articulates both presence and absence, it is both the imaginary recreation and the trace on the sand which is all that remains of the wind itself. The poetic is ontologically double because it may be thought of as ecological in two senses: it is either (both?) a language (logos) that restores us to our home (oikos) or (and?) a melancholy recognising that our only (oikos) home is language (logos).

It relates to something I was already aware of: transience. A haunting example cut literally across my path in China when I saw a man writing in water on the path of a Shanghai park. I learnt that this was a symbol of transience, of how all things fade eventually as time goes by.

When we got back to our cabin we watched Sky news, our default channel and not my preferred fare, which on this occasion was focused partly on the earthquakes in Indonesia. There had been a second one, slightly weaker than the first but still causing damage and possible loss of life. We promised ourselves we’d check with our steward the following day to make sure his family were all OK. 

Writing with Water in a Shanghai Park – a Buddhist symbol of Evanescence

Progress

This seems an appropriate moment in the current sequence to republish this poem from early 2017

[Y]e walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you.

(Bahá’u’lláh Persian Hidden Words No. 20)

There are four main things I have learnt from mindfulness of the natural world: acceptance, patience, impermanence and interconnectedness.

(Mindfulness and the Natural World by Claire Thompson – page 109)

An Overview

When I was floating on the Mediterranean Sea recently, I read Richard Fortey’s words in his ‘intimate history’ of the earth (page 33): ‘ The floor of the Mediterranean Sea is a collage of tectonic plates. Ultimately, that sea is doomed to obliteration when the main body of Africa ploughs into the European mainland in thirty million years or so.’

My peaceful experience of floating on the barely rippling surface of this ultimately doomed stretch of water served to reinforce, by its gigantic contrast, his later observation about humanity’s predicament as a whole (page 192): ‘Mankind is no more than a parasitic tick gorging himself on temporary plenty while the seas are low and the climate comparatively clement. The present arrangement of land and sea will change, and with it our brief supremacy.’

In a way this captures the whole ambivalent nature of my cruise experience.

I was travelling in a microcosm of our larger world, a mobile self-contained community culture in itself – a massive technological marvel, more like a floating city centre than a boat. As the more than three thousand of us moved across the planet fed, entertained and watered in our apparently innocent pleasures by a crew of more than one thousand, floods killed in Kerala and earthquakes in Indonesia, hurricanes threatened Hawaii and there was talk of impeachment in America. We were not quite emperors fiddling while Rome burned, but certainly we could not unfairly be described as the privileged many indulging ourselves while the Arctic icepack melted in unexpected places.

In a very real sense this was a mind-broadening journey on many levels and across many different kinds of territory. There was the literal journey, which had its peak experience moments, such as the one in the Amphitheatre in Cartegana.

There was the arc of travel via the visual arts, of which our encounter with Goya via Dali in the ship’s Gallery was the best example. These images from the tensions and tragedies of the Spanish past brought us face to face with the ongoing trauma of the Rohingya and the refugees from Syria, forcing us to see that we are still replaying the same heart-rending situations as were enacted in Europe in the 19thand 20thcenturies.

There was my journey to somewhere closer to the centre of the earth via my reading, something already hinted at in my references to Fortey’s book, but which was deeply enriched by my exploration of the poet John Clare’s life, courtesy of Jonathan Bate’s biography, which I read as a kind of sequel to his equally enthralling Song of the Earth.

The ship too had something to offer in that respect with a talk about and a brief glimpse of dolphins, along with, of course, some spectacular sunsets. Watching the wake of the ship one day I also came to realize with what stunning accuracy Hokusai had captured the behavior of deeply disturbed foam. Art and nature are often not very far apart.

I’ll come back to all these later.

Getting used to it

Adapting to the cruise experience was initially quite demanding for this fussy septuagenarian. The cabin was tiny, and the hall of mirrors effect did little to compensate. I never felt like a king of the ‘infinite space’ Hamlet refers to, though the mirrors facing each other created an illusion of infinite regress. I remained very much ‘bounded in a nutshell’ throughout the journey, but that bothered me less as days passed by. In a way it was more like Macbeth than Hamlet, even though I had not ordered anyone to be killed. I was ‘cabined, cribbed, confined’ rather by the doubts that come from possibly contributing to the deaths of others by my life style.

Just as the idea of the ship as a microcosm of our society stuck with me, so was the prison cell aspect of the cabin something I could never quite shake off, partly I think also because the freedom afforded by the decks outside was still constricted, except when we had docked. I was, and am still, very aware that a luxury cruise is about as far from a real prison experience as it’s possible to get, but I am also very aware that if I chafed to this degree over these minor constraints how painful must a real prison be.

This was another way in which the cruise experience deepened my understanding of apparently unrelated things.

Sleep was another unexpected addition to the price tag. I lost quite a lot of sleep as a result of the grumbling engine and other noises at night. As a result I’m now not quite as rested on my return as I had hoped to be, another trigger to deeper insight into how it must feel to be even more sleep deprived in far more testing circumstances, such as the involuntary travel demanded to escape death or persecution.

You may be wondering by now why I ever booked onto a cruise in the first place. I’m shaping up to be the archetypal killjoy and spoilsport. Partly it was in memory of my Aunt Anne, who went on a cruise to ease her grief two years after the relatively early death of her husband. It certainly helped her.

She was someone I felt close to, admired and respected. Somewhere deep down I’ve always had the feeling I should try out the same experience, in spite of my reservations about its being an unnecessary indulgence. So, eventually I bit the bullet with mixed results.

To be completely honest, there was also the need I felt to step off my treadmill of tasks for a short time, and the cruise seemed to offer a good way of doing that.

On the whole though, in spite of these whinges and of the poor quality of the vegetarian food options, I can’t really complain.

We were well looked after, and the ship provided all the customary escapes and distractions we need to keep our trance of materialism deep enough to persuade us we are happy. My disappointment is my fault. How would I realistically expect a holiday cruise to bring me closer to nature in a rapid well-encapsulated sea journey and enrich my understanding of other cultures in a series of one-day exposures on land to basically shiny tourist resorts?

The Upside

I am grateful to the cruise company that we were assisted to arrive where we could enjoy at least two enlightening self-conducted explorations, one in Pisa, where I found treasures I’d missed in a 1978 visit, long before the more recent spate of suicides from the Torre Pendente, and one in Cartagena, which I would never have dreamed of visiting had it not been for this cruise.

I now need to spell out in more detail some of the ways that the literal voyage intertwined with other kinds of journey to expand my understanding and awareness.

I can begin to look at the first kind of voyage straightaway.

Cartagena took us completely by surprise. We never expected to find something as breathtaking as these remnants of the Roman amphitheatre that had been so recently uncovered. Built originally in the last decade BC, it had been lost completely to sight after the 13thcentury cathedral was built over the seating area. In 1988 the first remains of the theatre were discovered during the construction of the Centro regional de artesanía. The archaeological excavations and the restorations were completed in 2003. In 2008 a museum, designed by Rafael Moneo, was opened.

My response was complex.

The size of the intact span of the seating area was stunning. We stepped from the relative darkness of the museum, rich in background tamed by display cabinets, into the full glare of the Amphitheatre’s arc at the level of the very top of the seating.

I gasped.

As we explored the magnificent ruin, in all its damaged glory and pride, my admiration and pleasure began to mingle with a sense of sic transit gloria mundi. As this leached more deeply into my experience of the sunlit stonework, I couldn’t help but apply the same warning to the cruiseship I was travelling on, especially as many places in this part of Spain, not just Cartagena, have a complex history involving fallen civilisations still detectable not just in Roman, but also in Byzantine and Moorish traces. The ship was tempting us all to remain trapped in a glittering simulation of reality, in the same way as the Roman people were placated by that Empire’s bread and circuses. In terms of its purpose, and setting aside gladiators and the perhaps exaggerated connection between Christians and lions, the Amphitheatre was just the Roman equivalent of the Cruise and of all the other trance-inducing trappings of our materialistic civilisation. Its ruins, a symbol of the typical fate of all civilisations no matter how apparently invulnerable, were making it impossible for me to evade the real nature of the journey I had embarked on. 

Why should our cruise and all it stood for be an exception? Why should I not be at risk of the shock of similar losses? After all, the kind and helpful steward who took care of our cabin would soon be distressed about the disappearance of his cousin in the wake of the second earthquake in Indonesia. That was a reminder quite close to home.

Other insights triggered by the cruise will have to wait until next time.