Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Mark Tobey’

 

The Wheel of Being (My idea of ‘how’ to approach experience)

I thought that the poetic element was not the word in its phonic value, nor colour, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep pulsing of spirit: what the soul supplies, if it does supply anything; or what it says, if it says anything, when aroused to response by contact with the world.

(Antonio Machado, quoted in Alan S. Trueblood’s Selected Poems – page 7)

As a result of the trigger described in the last post, yet again I come to the same kind of realization, of an insight into the importance of the heart, so recently diluted yet again by my habitual over-emphasis on left-brain pragmatics and planning.

Pattern-Breaking 

As  I have indicated in the previous post in more detail, I’ve been here before. This poem explored similar material to that which I am about to explore but from a more tentative angle.

On 6th January I scribbled in my portable black notebook:

Having worked out ‘how’ I want to do whatever I am doing, it looks as though I have been catapulted into being reminded of ‘what’ I need to bring more into focus. The book sent to me in the aftermath of an energizing conversation in Panchagani, with its themes of Rumi, poetry and The 40 Rules of Love, has forced me to recognize that spiritual poetry is something I need to read and if humanly (or do I mean Hulmanly?) possible write to keep my life in balance: at least that’s what it looks like right now.

Later I followed this up by writing:

The 40 Rules of Love parallels almost exactly my encounter all those years ago with the dancing flames dream itself and more recently with the rediscovery of my dream notes and the consequent epiphany, which I kept consistently discounting in the aftermath. In some way, because of the prolonged discounting, its impact this time has been even more powerful.

How am I going to break this pattern by which my left brain pragmatism and obsession with being useful keeps stifling my poetic heart until it almost dies. I must never let this happen again. I must keep poetry and song much closer. . .   I can get carried away with practicalities and fail to keep the two kinds of operation in balance as I am convinced the Faith would have me do.

And I am following this up by drafting this blog post to the strains of Beethoven in spite of the pressure to draft the minutes of a conference call yesterday.

I have now had three powerful reminders – the dancing flames dream, the hearth dream and now The Forty Rules of Love – to emphasise how important poetry is to my spirituality, to nurturing my heart. Maybe my recent enthusiastic and rather protracted exploration of the poetic style of Virginia Woolf’s late novels was nudging me in this direction but I failed to realise it by convincing myself that my focus was on consciousness – not that I have lost my interest in consciousness, I hasten to add.

Let’s hope it’s third time lucky!

Revisiting Gascoyne

But I badly need a plan. And it’s a plan that is going to need my left-brain on side. Usually, whenever I’m immersed in music, art or poetry, especially of the kind that is not immediately comprehensible, I can feel the fingers of my left-brain tapping impatiently on my skull. If that side of my mind doesn’t buy into the plan, its impatience will sink it, not just because it will be a distracting presence at the back of my mind, but also because I sense that I am too identified with my pragmatic and prosaic side. A tough bit of disidentification work and heartfelt persuasion is going to be needed to get that part of me on board. (Incidentally, this may go some way towards explaining my distaste for modernist poetry. It has little emotional appeal, so my right-brain’s not interested, and it usually doesn’t make any immediate sense, so both sides of my brain switch off.)

For now though, I am at least sticking to the spiritual poetry plan of reading and re-reading the books of that kind on my shelves as time permits, not at the expense of other priorities but persistently and mindfully.

Revisiting David Gascoyne is proving very rewarding. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to keep focused and remain fully aware that spiritual poetry is something that really matters. It will be easy to forget that this may be a key to help me bring all parts of my being to bear on experience and my responses to it, and that it may be telegraphing one of the most important things I am meant to be doing with my time from now on, not to the obsessional exclusion of everything else, but not to be sacrificed for anything else either, if I am to bring out the best in myself and become more integrated, unified, standing on the ground of my being rather than floating on the surface of my mind.

So, how is reading Gascoyne helping?

The introduction to my edition of his Collected Poems (edited by Robin Skelton) may help explain that. The comment I quote follows on from the editor’s outline of Gascoyne’s concept of the role of the poet as both ‘seer’ and ‘victim.’ He writes (page xiii):

This is a simplified interpretation, but it makes it easier to see how Gascoyne’s romanticism, left-wing sympathies, surrealist tendencies, and concern to explore deep into the world of dream, obsession, and suffering, could lead him towards a fundamentally religious poetry.

This is not done with arrogance or fanaticism. Skelton quotes from a poem I still remembered from my first reading of Gascoyne in 1982, just before I began to tread the Bahá’í path.

Before I fall
Down silent finally, I want to make
One last attempt at utterance, and tell
How my absurd desire was to compose
A single poem with my mental eyes
Wide open, and without even one lapse
From that most scrupulous Truth which I pursue
When not pursuing Poetry, – Perhaps
Only the poem I can never write is true.

As I began to read my way through the later pages of this collection I began to wonder whether I had seriously underestimated the influence of his poems on my eventual decision to tread the Bahá’í path. If poetry can do something so fundamentally important, it has clearly been a mistake to sideline it as severely as I have done at times.

I have always been aware of Peter Koestenbaum’s influence and have drawn attention to it many times in these posts. I feel I have done Gascoyne an injustice that I now want to correct.

Graham Sutherland – sketch for the Crucifixion

What really set me thinking in this way was re-reading a poem from which I have always remembered key lines but whose whole context had slipped into partial oblivion. I say ‘partial’ because re-reading it strongly suggested that it had continued to influence me in its entirety, not just by the few lines I remembered consciously.

The poem is ‘Ecce Homo.’ Only once on this blog before today have I mentioned this poet, and that was to quote, without comment, from this poem.

Not from a monstrance silver-wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man’s long journey through the night
May not be in vain.

And yet there is so much else I could have quoted from just that one poem, let alone the rest of his work. He speaks of us as ‘Callous contemporaries of the slow/Torture of God.’ He obviously has in mind the toxic ideologies of his time when he speaks of ‘Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,’ who ‘Greet one another with raised-arm salutes,’ but what he wrote resonates still, I feel. A key stanza reads:

He who wept for Jerusalem
Now sees His prophecy extend
Across the greatest cities of the world,
A guilty panic reason cannot stem
Rising to raze them all as he foretold . . .

Why do I think he might have influenced my attraction to the Bahá’í Faith?

Well, in this same poem he asserts that ‘The turning point in history/Must come.’ And, writing still under the shadow of war he speaks (The Post-war Night) of how far we are from realizing ‘the innate sense/Of human destiny that we are born with.’ He defines this as ‘truly our aim on earth: one God-ruled globe,/Finally unified, at peace, free to create!’

Does that thought ring any bells among my readers?

The status quo will continue, he felt, as long as we remain ‘Comfortably compromised collusionists.’

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

He speaks to the artist in particular (The Artist) as having a crucial role in reversing this process, ‘by offering your flesh/As sacrifice to the Void’s mouth in your own breast!’ There is some hope in terms of the wider society (A Vagrant) in that many of us are ‘gnawed by’ our ‘knowledge of [society’s] lack of raison d’être.’ He wryly admits that ‘The city’s lack and mine are much the same.’

Perhaps it goes without saying that he does not have a conventional or simplistic view of religion (Fragments towards a Religio Poetae – Stanza 7):

Really religious people are rarely looked upon as such
By those to whom religion is secretly something unreal;
And those the world regards as extremely religious people
Are generally people to whom the living God will seem at first
an appalling scandal;
Just as Jesus seemed a dangerously subversive Sabbath-breaker
Whom only uneducated fisherman, tavern talkers and a few
blue-stockings of dubious morals
Were likely after all to take very seriously,
To the most devoutly religious people in Jerusalem in Jesus’s day.

There is much more to his poetry than this, including his subtle and unnerving way of describing how minds work and how adept we are at avoiding uncomfortable truths, but this is probably enough for now.

It is certainly enough to spur me on not only to finishing my re-reading of this collection, but also to embarking on revisiting many more of the long-ignored volumes of spiritual poetry on my shelves. To my surprise this has taken the shape of carefully re-reading the poems of Antonio Machado. Progress is slow as I’m not just relying on Trueblood’s excellent translations: I’m reanimating the corpse of my long neglected Spanish to soak up the sounds and the sense of the originals. More of that in due course, I hope.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

My recent visit to Kelmscott and Inglesham made it seem appropriate to post once again a sequence which looks at the significance Morris’s life has for me. It might help make sense of why I felt it worthwhile trudging across wide fields between crowds of cows to reach a small and simple church in the middle of nowhere – though I suppose that was the place from which Morris wrote one of his best loved and most popular works. This is the last of three: the first two appeared yesterday and the day before.

SDF founder Henry Hyndman

Henry Hyndman, SDF Founder

William Morris was acutely aware of one way in which his greatest strength disabled him as the would-be leader of an activist movement (page 496):

Morris saw how day-to-day political commotion was damaging his intellectual concentration: ‘my habits,’ he explained, ‘are quiet and studious and if I am too much worried with “politics” ie intrigue, I shall be no use to the Cause as a writer.’ He saw his real value as his capacity to stand back and take the broader view.

There was another side to this coin though (page 497):

. . . neither May [his elder daughter] nor later commentators with a vested interest in promulgating the ‘dear old Morris’ legend make proper allowance for his streak of ruthlessness. He did not seek the quarrel [with Hyndman, the President of the Federation, and his followers]. But once the quarrels were upon him Morris could pursue them with a strength of purpose and a weight of anger . .

Morris pursued the split to breaking point. Writing to his wife he said (page 500):

The question only is now whether we shall go out of the SDF or Hyndman: we are only fighting for possession of the name and the adherence of the honest people who don’t know the ins and outs of the quarrel.

His ambivalence is revealed later in the same letter (ibid.):

All this is foul work: yet it is a pleasure to be able to say what one thinks at last.

I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t more than a touch of Gwendolen here:

On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.

(The Importance of Being Earnest: Act II)

In the end, though he won the vote against Hyndman, Morris left the SDF to form the Socialist League (page 502-503):

The SDF membership could only suffer damage when Morris formed a rival body, the Socialist League. Morris acted as he did because he felt an urgent need to redefine Socialist policy: Hyndman was pursuing policies of notoriety and intrigue that were giving Socialism, already, a bad name. Morris was reluctant to embark on a long programme of obstruction, tabling motion after motion, amendment after amendment.

According to Shaw there was a streak of the dictatorial in Morris. What is very clear is that the Federation offered him no hope that he could see of consulting his way towards a principled unity of thought.

'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

In the late 1960s this was still the problem I had with the Socialist/Communist cause. Violence had been added to the lies by that stage, making a mockery of the humanitarian rhetoric. I needed something that offered a more attractive and convincing route towards radical social change. The Bahá’í Faith turned out to be that something.

It is worth mentioning that in the aftermath of my conversion experience some close friends took me to one side and warned me that if I continued to attempt to bludgeon into submission everyone I met with my absolute conviction I’d soon have no friends left. I knew that I was prohibited from using a sword to change someone’s mind so I’m afraid I fell into the trap of sliding the ‘s’ to the back and used words as my weapon instead. I learned from humbling first hand experience that the human tendencies towards schism, personal advantage and the dogmatic imposition of deeply felt views upon the unconvinced have to guarded against with unremitting vigilance.

The core beliefs of the Faith are clearly antithetical to any use of force or compulsion in belief and this is explicit in the Writings of its Founder.

Consort with all men, O people of Bahá, in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and good-will. If it be accepted, if it fulfil its purpose, your object is attained. If any one should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him. A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding . . .

(GleaningsCXXXII)

Also vigorous measures are taken to prevent splits and disunity while preserving freedom of thought and individual investigation of the truth.

In these days when the forces of inharmony and disunity are rampant throughout the world, the Bahá’ís must cling to their Faith and to each other, and, in spite of every difficulty and suffering, protect the unity of the Cause.

(Shoghi Effendi: Dawn of a New Day)

None the less, untrammelled enthusiasm can easily erupt into milder variants of these disruptive and divisive ills, and the supreme governing body of the Bahá’í community spells out in many places very clearly the standards of conduct we must adhere to. For example:

Apart from the spiritual requisites of a sanctified Bahá’í life, there are habits of thought that affect the unfoldment of the global Plan, and their development has to be encouraged at the level of culture. . . . . [The friends] are called upon to become increasingly involved in the life of society, benefitting from its educational programmes, excelling in its trades and professions, learning to employ well its tools, and applying themselves to the advancement of its arts and sciences. At the same time, they are never to lose sight of the aim of the Faith to effect a transformation of society, remoulding its institutions and processes, on a scale never before witnessed. To this end, they must remain acutely aware of the inadequacies of current modes of thinking and doing – this, without feeling the least degree of superiority, without assuming an air of secrecy or aloofness, and without adopting an unnecessarily critical stance towards society.

(Universal House of Justice: 28 December 2010, paragraph 36)

Combining highly motivating conviction with this degree of humility and tolerance of others is a difficult trick not often consistently mastered in a lifetime. It’s hard to see, though, how we could build a more humane and genuinely united society without learning it.

Someone as warm, generous and creative as Morris found it was beyond him, even though he grumbled about it. One hundred and fifteen years after his death the same task he grappled with from his perspective confronts us still in our situation. We each have to learn the best way we can how to combine compassion with conviction in a world-transforming fusion.

I haven’t found a way better adapted to the conditions we are currently facing than the one described in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, not because His core Message was essentially different from or superior to that of the other great Faith Traditions but because the way the spiritual insights they all hold in common are translated into patterns of practical action is not bettered anywhere else that I can find.

So, this is my choice, the path along which I am navigating my way through the complex jungle of modern materialism. We each are free to choose our own way through. What we are not free to do without dire consequences, it seems to me, is to ignore the need to choose. For all his errors and his frailties, no one could accuse Morris of ducking that challenge, and if I had his energy and courage I’d be a better human being, I believe.

Read Full Post »

'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

Famous Brain Scan Joke (for original see link)

Everyman went to see the doctor to get the results of his brain scan.

The doctor said: “Mr. Everyman, I have some bad news for you. First, we have discovered that your brain has two sides: the left side and the right side.”

Everyman interrupted, “Well, that’s normal, isn’t it? I thought everybody had two sides to their brain?”

The doctor replied, “That’s true, Mr. Everyman. But your brain is very unusual because on the left side there isn’t anything right, while on the right side there isn’t anything left.”

Why have I changed the joke when the whole point is to poke fun at one man in particular? Well, for me the whole point is that the joke is on all of us. If Iain McGilchrist is right, and I believe he is, our society has placed almost all its faith in left brain functioning and denigrates what the right brain does as flakey and untrustworthy. And language has been almost totally commandeered by the left brain that constantly mistakes its descriptions – its maps – for reality itself, an error that is placing us all in danger. For a fuller discussion of this crucial issue see The Master and His Emissary link at the bottom of this post. To shorthand it somewhat, we increasingly tend to treat living beings as though they were machines.

Creative writing, and most especially poetry (currently perhaps the least popular art form in the West), represents one of the best ways, alongside spiritual practice, of re-establishing contact with the right side of the brain. This is the way out of the cul-de-sac we ended up in yesterday in the previous post.

To take Sir Phillip Sidney somewhat out of context:

So while pregnant with the desire to speak, helpless with the birth pangs,
Biting at my pen which disobeyed me, beating myself in anger,
My Muse said to me ‘Fool, look in your heart and write.’

So, maybe the best we can do is grope towards a better sense of reality, not just through language and not just through our senses, but also through our deepest intuitions as well.

Fay Weldon in her contrapuntal novel, Kehua, which is both a novel and a reflection on the experience of writing a novel, sheds some intriguing light on this issue:

 The sensation is that you don’t exactly write novels – you simply unfold them, or fish them up from a well, or hook them down from the sky.

In her interview on the Culture Show Hilary Mantel develops this in her different way:

It’s in invisible worlds that the writer spends her time.

In her engaging but unsettling memoir Giving up the Ghost another quote reveals in part what is unsettling but fascinating about her art (page 231):

What’s to be done with the lost, the dead, but write them into being.

All this makes writing seem more like a ghostly, or even ghastly form of gardening. Getting an idea is a bit like planting a seed. You tend it but it has a life of its own to some degree. You wait and watch for the shoots to appear on the surface of your mind from some deeper level. You can’t force it but you must tend them, work at it, create the right conditions as far as you can. But every piece has its own growing season though.

Hilary Mantel again:

Just because you have an idea for a story doesn’t mean you’re ready to write it. You may have to creep towards it, dwell with it, grow up with it: perhaps for half your lifetime.

(Op. cit.: page 69-70)

A friend of mine carries characters around in his head for years waiting for the right time to get them down on paper. Sometimes, I suspect, you might just wait too long. I wonder what happens to the dead who never get written into being?

In the end though, it seems to me, that this sensitivity, patience and humility in the face of the right-brain’s unseen and unpredictable processes of reality testing are far better for us as individuals and communities than the fast-fire gung-ho certainty characteristic of the left-brain’s arrogance which is so typical of both scientism and religious fundamentalism and which risks wrecking itself and many of the rest of us on the rocks of its own unrelentingly blind dogmatism.

 Related Posts

Read Full Post »

SDF founder Henry Hyndman

Henry Hyndman, SDF Founder

William Morris was acutely aware of one way in which his greatest strength disabled him as the would-be leader of an activist movement (page 496):

Morris saw how day-to-day political commotion was damaging his intellectual concentration: ‘my habits,’ he explained, ‘are quiet and studious and if I am too much worried with “politics” ie intrigue, I shall be no use to the Cause as a writer.’ He saw his real value as his capacity to stand back and take the broader view.

There was another side to this coin though (page 497):

. . . neither May [his elder daughter] nor later commentators with a vested interest in promulgating the ‘dear old Morris’ legend make proper allowance for his streak of ruthlessness. He did not seek the quarrel [with Hyndman, the President of the Federation, and his followers]. But once the quarrels were upon him Morris could pursue them with a strength of purpose and a weight of anger . .

Morris pursued the split to breaking point. Writing to his wife he said (page 500):

The question only is now whether we shall go out of the SDF or Hyndman: we are only fighting for possession of the name and the adherence of the honest people who don’t know the ins and outs of the quarrel.

His ambivalence is revealed later in the same letter (ibid.):

All this is foul work: yet it is a pleasure to be able to say what one thinks at last.

I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t more than a touch of Gwendolen here:

On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.

(The Importance of Being Earnest: Act II)

In the end, though he won the vote against Hyndman, Morris left the SDF to form the Socialist League (page 502-503):

The SDF membership could only suffer damage when Morris formed a rival body, the Socialist League. Morris acted as he did because he felt an urgent need to redefine Socialist policy: Hyndman was pursuing policies of notoriety and intrigue that were giving Socialism, already, a bad name. Morris was reluctant to embark on a long programme of obstruction, tabling motion after motion, amendment after amendment.

According to Shaw there was a streak of the dictatorial in Morris. What is very clear is that the Federation offered him no hope that he could see of consulting his way towards a principled unity of thought.

Mark Tobey: 'Void Devouring the Gadget World'

In the late 1960s this was still the problem I had with the Socialist/Communist cause. Violence had been added to the lies by that stage, making a mockery of the humanitarian rhetoric. I needed something that offered a more attractive and convincing route towards radical social change. The Bahá’í Faith turned out to be that something.

It is worth mentioning that in the aftermath of my conversion experience some close friends took me to one side and warned me that if I continued to attempt to bludgeon into submission everyone I met with my absolute conviction I’d soon have no friends left. I knew that I was prohibited from using a sword to change someone’s mind so I’m afraid I fell into the trap of sliding the ‘s’ to the back and used words as my weapon instead. I learned from humbling first hand experience that the human tendencies towards schism, personal advantage and the dogmatic imposition of deeply felt views upon the unconvinced have to guarded against with unremitting vigilance.

The core beliefs of the Faith are clearly antithetical to any use of force or compulsion in belief and this is explicit in the Writings of its Founder.

Consort with all men, O people of Bahá, in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and good-will. If it be accepted, if it fulfil its purpose, your object is attained. If any one should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him. A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding . . .

(GleaningsCXXXII)

Also vigorous measures are taken to prevent splits and disunity while preserving freedom of thought and individual investigation of the truth.

In these days when the forces of inharmony and disunity are rampant throughout the world, the Bahá’ís must cling to their Faith and to each other, and, in spite of every difficulty and suffering, protect the unity of the Cause.

(Shoghi Effendi: Dawn of a New Day)

None the less, untrammelled enthusiasm can easily erupt into milder variants of these disruptive and divisive ills, and the supreme governing body of the Bahá’í community spells out in many places very clearly the standards of conduct we must adhere to. For example:

Apart from the spiritual requisites of a sanctified Bahá’í life, there are habits of thought that affect the unfoldment of the global Plan, and their development has to be encouraged at the level of culture. . . . . [The friends] are called upon to become increasingly involved in the life of society, benefitting from its educational programmes, excelling in its trades and professions, learning to employ well its tools, and applying themselves to the advancement of its arts and sciences. At the same time, they are never to lose sight of the aim of the Faith to effect a transformation of society, remoulding its institutions and processes, on a scale never before witnessed. To this end, they must remain acutely aware of the inadequacies of current modes of thinking and doing – this, without feeling the least degree of superiority, without assuming an air of secrecy or aloofness, and without adopting an unnecessarily critical stance towards society.

(Universal House of Justice: 28 December 2010, paragraph 36)

Combining highly motivating conviction with this degree of humility and tolerance of others is a difficult trick not often consistently mastered in a lifetime. It’s hard to see, though, how we could build a more humane and genuinely united society without learning it.

Someone as warm, generous and creative as Morris found it was beyond him, even though he grumbled about it. One hundred and fifteen years after his death the same task he grappled with from his perspective confronts us still in our situation. We each have to learn the best way we can how to combine compassion with conviction in a world-transforming fusion.

I haven’t found a way better adapted to the conditions we are currently facing than the one described in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, not because His core Message was essentially different from or superior to that of the other great Faith Traditions but because the way the spiritual insights they all hold in common are translated into patterns of practical action is not bettered anywhere else that I can find.

So, this is my choice, the path along which I am navigating my way through the complex jungle of modern materialism. We each are free to choose our own way through. What we are not free to do without dire consequences, it seems to me, is to ignore the need to choose. For all his errors and his frailties, no one could accuse Morris of ducking that challenge, and if I had his energy and courage I’d be a better human being, I believe.

Read Full Post »

Broadway (1936) Mark Tobey

Tobey is a humanist, a traditionalist, a lover of the body as a subject and humanity as a theme. Nevertheless – under the influence of modern existence rather than modern art – he was led to fragment, obscure, and ultimately to dematerialise the human form and image entirely, in search of a valid expression of the human spirit.

(William C. Seitz Themes and Subjects in Mark Tobey/Art and Belief page 25)

The latest issue of the National Trust’s magazine dropped through the letter box the other day. It has an article about William MorrisRed House, about which a book has just been published. What I didn’t expect was that reading the article, in the context of my ponderings on giftedness, would set my mind wandering down an intriguing trail through memories of Morris to Dartington Hall and a book on Mark Tobey that I have had since 1998 but never read till now.

The book on giftedness had unsettled me in any case, reminding me of my Cambridge days when I was immersed in literature, film and folk song, when the arts were at the heart of much of what I did and thought.

The William Morris hint brought other intimations back to mind. When I was teaching English Literature in the days of the 60s protest movement, Morris’ spirit drew me like a magnet. He combined craftsmanship, artistry, ethical integrity, poetry, story, and social action into a seamless whole.

I had forgotten, until these memories were unlocked just a few short days ago, how much he had influenced me then and was almost certainly shaping my sensibility still. His way of integrating the diverse aspects of his character, interests and skills into a world reshaping pattern of being in action is still a valid model for how that can be done. That he was born in 1836 and died in 1896, his life’s trajectory overlapping the period in which a world changing spirit of unity, as Bahá’ís see it, was being released into the world, makes his example all the more compelling for those of us within the Bahá’í community who yearn for a powerful model of how the arts can fuel the transformation of a culture and society rather than simply be the expression of a prevailing norm. Ai Weiwei‘s activities in China seem imbued with something of the same spirit.

Fiona MacCarthy explains his relevance well in the introduction to her biography, William Morris: a life for our times (page vii):

. . . his highly original, painfully heroic progress through life impinges on us still, from old Socialists to new conservationists and ecologists. . . . Most of all he was concerned with proper human occupation, whether going under the name of work or play. In the early twenty-first century throughout the West this is our urgent problem. Technological advance and globalisation has made ordinary skill and modest pride in work redundant. But redundancy of people brings the threat of disconnection from real life.

And he was passionate about the need to link all manual work with genuine creativity and how this would form the foundation of a better society.

Not that the Bahá’í community lacks the beginnings of a sense of how this might be done. I have already published a post that includes a description of one Bahá’í poet’s career in brief.

The Dartington Collection

Thinking of Morris reminded me of Stedall’s book, Where on Earth is Heaven?, and its passages on Cecil Collins and Dartington  Hall. As my good friend Rob commented at the time, Dartington Hall has strong links with some Bahá’í artists. I’ve culled the next few paragraphs from their website.

A Bahá’í, Bernard Leach CBE, was regarded by some as the “Father of British studio pottery.” He set up the Leach Pottery at St. Ives, Cornwall in 1920. He was instrumental in organizing the only International Conference of Potters and Weavers in July 1952 at Dartington Hall, where he had been working and teaching.

Cecil Collins was an English artist originally associated with the Surrealist movement. In 1936 he moved to Devon, attending Mark Tobey’s classes at Dartington Hall. Collins held an exhibition in the Barn Studio (1937) and, after Tobey’s departure in 1938, he taught here (1939-43) alongside Bernard Leach, Hein Heckroth and Willi Soukop.

Mark Tobey, also a Bahá’í, was an American abstract expressionist painter. He sailed to England in 1931 to teach at Dartington Hall, in Devon. There, he was resident artist of the school. In addition to teaching, he painted frescoes for the school and became a close friend of Bernard Leach. It is intriguing that modern existence seemed to have forced him, as someone acutely conscious of the spiritual dimension, down the road towards the kind abstraction in painting that McGilchrist finds so symptomatic of over-logical left-brain zealotry.

Wightwick Manor

The Thursday before last my wife and I managed to squeeze in a visit to Wightwick (pronounced Wittick for the uninitiated) Manor near Wolverhampton. I was expecting a small-scale experience with maybe, if we were lucky, a couple of interesting artefacts. We were more than lucky. The whole place was crammed with beauty. Mander, the manufacturer who had built it, was a devotee of Morris’ work and every wall hanging and piece of furniture, just about, was in that style. As a bonus the Oak Room was devoted to the exhibition of rare archival pattern books, wallpaper designs and printing blocks, a feast for the eyes indeed. In fact, the only frustrating aspect of the whole experience was that we were not allowed to touch anything and as someone who experiences the world more vividly through touch than sight this is the major drawback for me of almost all museums, historic houses and exhibitions. This would not have been so much of a problem for Morris from what I am reading in Fiona MacCarthy’s excellent biography which emphasises how strongly visual he was in his relationship with the world.

The whole of the manor house demonstrates how fortunate Morris was, at this stage in the unfoldment of the modern era, to be able to be so modern in such an organic fashion. This whole experience has set me thinking afresh about the arts and their relationship to society. I’ll need a bit more time to mull all this over before I am able to put more of it into words. In fact, it’ll probably take a lot more time.

Read Full Post »