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

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

Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Exactly,’ she murmured sympathetically.

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

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

I replied without thinking.

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

‘Hopefully.’

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

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

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

Basically, the figures seem much the same.

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

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

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

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

Where next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[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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