Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Patrick Pye: In gratitude

I met Patrick (pictured here with his wonderful wife, Noirin) at the First Temenos Conference on Art and the Renewal of the Sacred. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/art-and-design/visual-art/patrick-pye-stained-glass-artist-and-one-of-the-great-individualists-has-died-1.3386935

Our first agreement (of many) was that the conference title ought to be reversed. The sacred, as such, was never in need of renewal, it was for us to allow the sacred to be the re-newer in and to us. This agreement was reached over tea (and whiskey) at the end of the conference's first day and this late night gathering simply became ritualized over the course of the conference. Patrick, Peter Malekin, then Reader in English Literature at Durham University, and myself assembled over the appropriate liquids in the comfy corner chairs analyzing, celebrating and critiquing the days contributions, discussions and performances of what was, for all of us, a remarkable event. Not least remarkable was that these two accomplished men in their own fields should take into their conversation such a callow youth as I! Equally impressive was Patrick's ability to make definitive statement by asking a question and a sense that you were, however gently, always subject to scrutiny.

Meeting was followed by correspondence (paper and pen virtually always in Patrick's case with occasional unsteady detours into the world of the typewriter) and, after a further round at the second Temenos Conference, frequent memorable visits to his home and studio in Piperstown in the hills above Dublin.

The most memorable encounter, however, was a visit both Noirin and he made to the Republic of Macedonia when I lived there in the mid to late nineties. Macedonia has a high concentration of churches decorated with fresco art from the 10th century to now; and, we embarked on a road trip to visit them - one in the morning, followed by a leisurely lunch, followed by a second, if possible, in the afternoon, followed by a leisurely dinner - Patrick undoubtedly liked his food (and its regularity)!

The highlight was the Church of St George at Kurbinovo.

This unprepossessing building for whose key we had to track down the respective villager opens up into a truly miraculous world. It was a late September afternoon, warm, sunny. We stepped through the door (as in the picture) into darkness before the woman key bearer flung open a side door and the church was flooded with light. We were all flung into breath stopped amazement at the beauty of the place resplendent with its life size saints, Biblical narratives; and, as here, the Annunciation balancing graciously across the arch.

It was wonderful to see this absorbed by Patrick both as an artist and as a believer and as he commented both at the time and latter the play between, and the responsibility of, the two towards each other.

Art delights and it instructs and yet its instruction can only ever be by suggestion: look, see and wonder. Allow it to strike the depths and how it surfaces will depend on the qualities of the beholder and the seriousness of their attentions. Likewise with Patrick's own art - it delights, invites close attention and instructs by seduction never in anyway didactic. It was unfortunate perhaps that recognition in the world of Irish art was impeded by the uninhibited religiousness of many of Patrick's themes at a time when 'art' was trying to be conspicuously secular and distanced from the Church but I suspect, as with last year's exhibition at IMMA, "As above, so below", his reputation will grow. He was a good and important artist in all cases and in his themes and their handling a great one.

It is undoubtedly true that this encounter, and the following year's trip to Thessaloniki and a remarkable exhibition of Byzantine art influenced Patrick's subsequent paintings when, as he had it, they came back to earth! I like to think especially the anonymous artist of Kurbinovo with his extraordinary ability, like his near contemporary Giotto, to blend the hierarchy of the sacred with a then new rounding humanity.

Not unlike Patrick himself - a consistently challenging journey to the articulation of faith touched with a recognition that it is an incarnate one - and that incarnation always comes with a fair degree of foibles, failings and eccentricities of which he, like us all, had his fair allotment. I am deeply grateful to know him and wish him well on his continuing journey into the glory (as foretold in one of his paintings below).

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Art of Loading Brush: A beautiful instruction in loving attention

When St Augustine lay dying, the Vandals were literally at the gates of Hippo. He might have imagined that his legacy was at the point of crumbling away.

Reading Wendell Berry's latest collection of essays,"The Art of Loading Brush" put me in mind of this because they do have a valedictory flavor of a man poised if, not on his death bed thankfully, mindfully approaching his "endpoint", in his eighties, looking back, thinking of legacy. Not surprisingly too, he might find himself imagining that the Vandals are at the gate.

The dominant mode of "agriculture" is the industrialism of "agribusiness" that continues its apparently relentless march despoiling land, polluting waterways; and, destroying communities - especially the small mixed family farms that the agrarian Berry has spent his lifetime defending. He rightly recognises that, on one level, the membership to which he belongs, most closely, is diminishing - the number of small family farms in his native Kentucky is shrinking yearly, taking with them, as Berry eloquently argues, whole patterns of knowledge accumulated in an embodied and shared understanding impossible either to simply 'store' or 'replace'.

If Augustine's cultural legacy (for good or ill as one of the most formidable shaping factors of the West in the Middle Ages and beyond) survived in the context of monastic life, where are agrarian life rafts to be found? Where are the islands of sanity that are looking to provide for our need rather than our wants, working within and with the limits of nature, focused on the present and what is present now, rather than on a fantastic future of miracle fixes for our multiplying actual problems?

There are, thankfully, several - first there is the realities of Nature herself, instructive and increasingly and, sadly, corrective of abuse (at gathering costliness). Second is the tradition itself handed down and, as far as possible, stored in the knowledge of books and other media. Third are the faithful remnants of continuing practice - the Amish for example and more newly the experiments and ventures in community supported organic agriculture. Fourthly, there is new research - in sustainable intensification, in pest control management and in perennial agriculture being pioneered by Berry's long time friend and conversation partner - Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Kansas https://landinstitute.org/. It is not all bleak!

But these essays are more than simply the defense of a particular way of seeing and treating the world with regard to land use, agriculture and forest use, they are an eloquent instruction in how to think, how to inhabit a living conversation that leads to a whole range of embodied pathways to understanding. It is a beautiful defense of learning with and in a tradition.

Most resonant for me was when Berry tells us he reads 'even' poetry for instruction, not simply pleasure or delight, though they may be present too. He is ever alert to what he encounters as a possibility to change his life - to improve and enlighten it. It is intelligence of a very practical kind but its practice runs through us whole from spiritual demand to minute particular practical act - and neither of these two 'poles' are ever separated from the other. For the good, as Blake said, is done in minute particulars.

He writes beautifully too - with leisure - that unfolds his purposes and his arguments showing you how he has arrived at them and how you might arrive at them to - never by simple acceptance but by measuring them against what you know of yourself and what you can attend to in the world around you. Ever and again, Berry returns you to the importance of attention for how can you care and, out of your care, work meaningfully and well if you do not see, witness, and be witnessed to by, the complexity of things. How can you act effectively without the humility of knowing that there is always more to see, to know such is to act with care. To know such is to act, or try to act, always with love, because there is no knowledge outside the boundary of the actually loved and known.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The War at Troy

Lindsay Clarke's 'The War at Troy' starts with a simple conceit. This account is one given by Odysseus to a friend (and bard) at Ithaca, complete with the bard's sympathetic additions and amplifications. Thus, it can avoid being simply a prose version of Homer's poem.

What it achieves is a remarkably confident panorama of the trails leading up to the war that honors the reality of the Gods, the drive of 'fate' and yet inserts sufficient psychological realism and backdrop to connect you, the modern reader, with the unfolding realities. They, the Greeks and Trojans, were different, their world view explicitly saturated in myth, a world enchanted; and, yet, they are like you because, however, differently perceived, many of their drivers are ours. We have tended to hide our myths, not a overly helpful practice, as the repressed, as Freud noted, always returns, often in more painful guises.

Meanwhile, we too fall in love with an alluring fantasy that drives you to particular acts that if not anchored in other (and subsequent) patterns of wisdom (honoring other gods) can only too easily come to grief. We wake, with the fantasy stripped away, and have not allowed ourselves to find, and to work at, a maturer pattern of love. We too embark on a righteous cause only to discover the costliness of achieving it slowly drains it of the very righteousness with which we began. We too allow our personal vanity, and hurt, to hold us back from coming to our neighbors' aid.  We live in a world where power disposes - and women and children, so often, are disposed.

Simone Weil calls the Iliad in her remarkable, "Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks", a poem of force and such it is both in the sense that it is saturated in both implicit and explicit violence - and because it gives an intense sense of a world operating under restraint - of convention, of honor, of omen or conspiracy, of the expectations of the gods. It is as fresh and as fascinating account of those realities that could be imagined, utterly contemporary.

Yet it is positively claustrophobic - except glimmeringly in the life by whom this particular telling is related namely Odysseus (aided by Penelope his wife). His self-reflection, cunning and, yes, wisdom, come as a welcome counterpoint enabling you to imagine another way, a road less traveled, that might elude the binding of the gods.

Ironically perhaps I found myself as I read being relieved that I were a Christian (or a Buddhist). This archetypal dimension of the world - of the imaginal or psyche - is profoundly rich, and navigated aright, enriching, but thank God (or Nirvana), it is not the end word (or world), that there is the possibility of a transcending point from which all may be well.

For the gods feel like the principalities and the powers, as described by St Paul, that though created good yet remain in crying need of redemption! No wonder, however powerful, in Buddhism, they are confined to one of the six wheels of samsara!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Childhood exposed. The Battle of the Villa Fiorito

Rumer Godden described the genesis of her novel, 'The Battle of the Villa Fiorito', in wondering what if the children of a divorce, rather than always being seen as passive victims, strike back, wage war, seek to reverse the unfolding events (even after the fact)?

Thus did the novel come to pass.

Fanny has fallen in love with Robert Quillet, a film director, when he comes to direct a film in her very beautiful but socially confining village in Wiltshire. The first move was his but the passionate  engagement that unfolds leads to Fanny divorcing her husband, Darrell, leaving her three children in his custody (as was the default position in the 1950s). Phillipa, the eldest child, off to be 'finished' in Paris makes her peace given that she is on the threshold of her own adulthood. Hugh, fourteen, and Caddie, 12, do not and abscond from their father's flat in London (itself a consequence of the divorce) to visit Rob and Fanny, not yet married, at their beautiful rented villa on Lake Garda. The evocation of which, as was Godden's want, is itself worth the price of entry to the novel. The two children are joined by a third, Pia, a part Italian, part English child, from Rob's previous marriage (the mother being dead) and battle commences.

Godden must be one of the greatest novelists of that 'liminal space' between childhood and adulthood when a child is fully a child and yet is growing into something yet other. The otherness comes and goes, is seen and lost, and is both wholly alluring and wholly threatening. In very different ways the three children embody and enact these shifts, each modulated differently according to their age, temperament and upbringing.

Godden is also utterly realistic about the nature of childhood - it is a complex realm of its own - that has a capacity to be wholly self-centred, rigorously cruel and yet also piercingly perceptive, self-sacrificing and visionary. Indeed if you wanted to provide pre-reading to prospective (and actual) parents, I can think of nothing better (if not for wannabe parents as it might be too realistic and off putting of the struggles ahead)!

The children's war is effective - even if you can imagine in its course alternative parental tactics that might have secured a different outcome - and the novel ends with mother taking her children back to England and to a uncertain future with regard to the rejected husband and Rob nursing his child, and by implication, considering a different path for her upbringing.

The outcome is undoubtedly driven by Godden's personal travel towards Catholic conversion (and as a divorcee herself) and the Catholic elements are either clumsily intrusive or happily redemptive, according to taste, but remain interesting sidelines that never detract from the psychological truth of the battle.

Meanwhile, Godden, herself, was always concerned as to whether her writing was simply popular or literary - goaded perhaps by the effortless nature that a number of her books were turned into films, films that mostly emphasised the drama at expense of the thoughtful depth. She need not, I think, have worried.

They are fluid, accomplished narratives that both tell a story and question our understanding of life. No one touched by them can remain unmoved or uneducated as to the ways of the world. And, at her depth, she accomplishes extraordinary feats of illumination. Here, with Caddie, at La Scala, describing the effect of music on an impressionable soul encased in an exhausted body. The ability of an experience to stretch our selves beyond ourselves, to show us a new possible world and identity as it shows us how we are connected in a widening whole.

I am delighted that Virago has thought fit to republish all her significant works for she is a novelist that continually repays attention and is a simple delight to read.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Kahlil Gibran's journey beyond borders

Jean Gibran and Kahlil G. Gibran (namesake and cousin to the poet-painter) have written a comprehensive, detailed and engaging study of Gibran Kahlil Gibran (to give his full name) that is too beautifully illustrated with the paintings, drawings and book designs. It is a worthy addition to Gibran's biographical record. http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2016/05/kahlil-gibrans-legacy.html

They give voice to his complexity - the boy brought up in a Lebanese village clustered under Mount Lebanon and its majestic cedars, the poor immigrant into a slum district of Boston, the gifted youth who was taken up precociously by key figures in the Boston avant-garde, returning to Lebanon to complete his education, he returns, and apart from a year in Paris studying art, becomes an exile, betwixt two worlds - Arab and Western - an important voice to both yet often misconceived by both. In the former as an exotic product of the Orient and in the latter as a protagonist of the new (and the Western) spurning tradition and its customary hierarchies. Ironically both sides contained parties that disapproved of his nudes!

The authors show how he navigated these complexities fashioning a voice in both Arabic and English and an artistic practice that, though too little attended to, especially in the drawings shows a haunting facility of evoking the balanced moment between seeing and unseeing, revelation and mystery - both in the human form and in nature. One of his favourite images was of mist that flowing hides and reveals, withholds and connects, loses and finds.

What they especially do is remind us that the poet of the exhortatory wisdom of The Prophet was not an airy mystic detached from the real but was a man bound to his time and place who had deeply suffered - not least when mother, sister and half-brother all are felled by the sicknesses of the South Side tenements where they lived as poor immigrants - and he bears the responsibility of ensuring the welfare of his remaining sister (for a time running a small dry goods store) whilst seeking to remain faithful to his multiple social and artistic callings. He was rescued both by his gathering and deepening talent and the support of the very remarkable Mary Haskell, whom he came close to marrying before she shied off because of the difference in their age - she being older. She it was who enabled him to study in Paris and it was her lifelong subsidy (provided on the basis of a future claim on his art works) that enabled him to focus on his work. It was she too who as English tutor and editor helped him to make a transition from being solely an Arabic writer to being an English one - and in writing The Prophet - the best selling author of the twentieth century.

On reading "The Prophet" a few weeks ago, I was deeply struck both by its beauty but also its profundity. Gibran was striving after 'the Absolute' and for showing how that striving can be borne in daily life. He is an uncompromising idealist but one that never loses touch with the real - how, for example, might today's 'helicopter parents' be arrested by a recognition that their children are not their own, they cannot be possessed or made safe, they must be shot forth into life, loved but allowed to realise their own paths of discovery and inevitable mistakes, that the only path of realisation is an individuated one.

Meanwhile, since the biography is a recent one there are many undertones. Gibran's seeking after a common unity, not by surrendering difference but through its embrace, people secure in their own place free to embrace; and, the recognition of how such a demand breaks against the harsh realities of his beloved Syria-Lebanon. Also, too, ironically this week a discussion of the 1924 legislation in the US that restricted immigration from the Near/Middle East with the proposing Senator, David Reed from Pennsylvania, referring in full Trump mode to the, "hordes of aliens that fill our jails and asylums" characterising Syrians, people from the Balkans and SE Europe (in this case) as "the trash of the Mediterranean"! The path towards a shared humanity is a long one unfulfilled yet hope is not optimism, as Gibran knew, but a consistent pursuit of what is right regardless of success. A pursuit of calling people, in Gibran's case, to a realisation that their are greater than they know and that they are enfolded with one another as a common humanity borne of the Absolute and a sustaining earth.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A deeper conversion with David Jones

I recall going to an Orthodox service in Oxford where the tradition is followed of acquiring prosphora bread, shaped like a miniature cottage loaf, that is sent to the priest for blessing (not consecration) accompanied by small notes listing people (under a red cross for the living, under a black for the dead) for intercession. Adding my offering, I noticed one note, under a red cross, having a list of people after which, in brackets, it read Anglican! I was suitably shocked for what did it matter in the patterns of prayer and concern what denomination (if any) the prayed for person was?

I was happy reading in Thomas Dilworth's exemplary biography of the painter-poet, David Jones, that Jones was similarly shocked when, asking a Catholic priest to intercede for a friend crippled by arthritis, he was asked whether the friend was a Catholic!

Jones was a devout convert to the Catholic Church but as Dilworth shows, consistently, it was, and is, catholic for a reason, because, for Jones, it embedded and carried forward a universal culture of making meaning, gathering up all that was known and resolved anew within a transcending frame that was God's incarnation, sacrifice and resurrection. A transcending frame that was, paradoxically, one that was thoroughly immersed in the matter of things -including the essential need to focus on forgiveness, sunk as it is in the very felt texture of real lives, rather than the policing of morality (or of 'faithful allegiance)!

Jones was a deeply sensual painter - the world dances and flows (as here above in an apparently simple rendering of his desk and window) and speaks each of  its particular selves or objects into a world of light. Every sign of a thing is tumbling towards revealing itself as 'sacrament' - an outward visible side of grace. It was a vision that Jones held to, sometimes by the very edge of his fingernails, for his life had been through the shattering experience of war. He is, Dilworth notes, of all the famous war poets of the First World War (let alone the artists), the one who spent the longest time actually at the front, engaged in combat and the drudgery, fear of waiting for combat - and as a private soldier rather than as an officer.

He paid the price in a life long suffering of what would now be known as post-traumatic stress disorder - some of the treatment of which, unthinkingly, for a period of his life obliterated liveliness in a formidable (and futile) cocktail of drugs.

But through it all - and within remarkable bursts of creative activity - he painted and wrote - including the most beautiful and painful account in "In Parenthesis" of that very conflict in the trenches. One of the reasons that Dilworth's biography is so good is that it captures how seriously ideas matter in the life of a person. Jones' navigated his war by the light of them, embedded in the texture of living stories, living sights, that created a holding narrative of meaning. It did not, and could not abolish his suffering, but it could help bear and carry it.

Reading the introduction, I was initially somewhat put off, for Dilworth (who has devoted a lifetime of study and work to Jones) was, notwithstanding the buttressing quotes from the great and the good, claiming too high for Jones (and I still think Blake is the better poet). But as the text wove on, and the universally excellent illustrations built up with their accompanying and illuminating expositions, I was, I think, converted.

He is a very great painter, one of the finest English poets of the century; and, the possessor of a worked out and robust theory of culture that locates it within a profoundly sacred view of life.

It is a life that spills into and out of all his work - and even if one can never hope to catch all the qualities of its allusive references - to mythology, history, literature, technology, science and theology (as here in his late painting of Tristan and Isolde about to consume their poison) - you naturally respond to its vividness and its complexities by a willing journey of exploration. An exploration that goes on giving indefinitely reflecting the depths that it continually fathoms.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Challenge of Rudolf Steiner


The veteran documentary filmmaker, Jonathan Stedall, made this documentary to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Steiner's birth; and, it is an accomplished introduction to the life, work and, most importantly, the influence of this undoubtedly remarkable man.

Wisely perhaps Jonathan begins with Steiner's influence on the practical - on bio-dynamic agriculture; communities for the learning disabled and education - rather than the philosophical and esoteric indeed the completely esoteric  - the evolution and destruction of civilizations read from the Akashic record, for example, are not mentioned at all - except possibly very allusively. This is probably wise because in spite of the happy support of respectable talking head academics, this aspect of Steiner's oeuvre is hard to swallow - even when you are not schooled in the harder lines of contemporary materialism!

We visit many examples of Steiner inspired community efforts to create a better, more lively, healthier world in India as well as Europe and the United States; much of which is quietly impressive.  Testifying to the benefits of a wholistic, slower, more listening approach to the complexities of the world and the human person. Personally I can only testify that the people that I have met that have passed through a Waldorf Education have universally struck me as balanced, emotionally mature and creative adults - and everyone encountered in the communities here, on the film, convey a welcoming impression of thoughtfulness, care and engagement, as spiritually inspired, wanting to fashion a better, more sustainable world.

What would make it better, I think, is a harder look at 'results'; however, shy we might be about reducing the world to the quantitative, quantity does matter. For example, if you are farming, as well as the care for both animal and plant incorporated in bio-dynamic farming and sustainability, you cannot help being interested in yields. After all, the world needs to be fed. And even if one is talking of qualitative outcome, what 'success' looks like could have been better delineated or shown. And, many of Steiner's insights, do stand up to mainstream perspectives - the importance of play in early childhood and starting on literary/numeracy 'late' (at 7), for example, or the real benefits to farm and countryside of richly mixed agriculture.

So too, perhaps, a more open grappling with some of the more persistent criticisms of Steiner - evidence of health outcomes for example, or some of the ways in which Steiner's notion of karma has been used in relation to the disabled; and too, Steiner's too easy ability to talk in racial stereotype. All, I think, may be addressable, credibly, if not for every body, but occasionally the film strikes you as a little too polite, too un-searching.

Nevertheless, and on balance, if one of the criteria's of a 'mystic' (whose personal life certainly appears to be borderline saintly) is you shall know them by their fruits, many of Steiner's are (quite literally in the case of the high praise reaped by bio-dynamic wine) deeply fine (though I am yet to be persuaded of the pervasive use of ethereal pastel shades in every form of decoration)! And, this film is a fine testimony to his on-going relevance; and, indeed, challenge.

Patrick Pye: In gratitude

I met Patrick (pictured here with his wonderful wife, Noirin) at the First Temenos Conference on Art and the Renewal of the Sacred.  ht...