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Posts Tagged ‘John Clare’

. . . . 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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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.

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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

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[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.

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