Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why Homer matters

"The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters" by Adam Nicolson is a beautiful account of the author's adult rediscovery of Homer having labored unhappily to translate parts of it as a school child. It is an exploration of both who Homer was, where 'he' came from and why we continue to read him.

Of course, 'Homer' probably was not, by which I mean that there probably was a Homer figure who first oversaw the transcription of a living oral Homeric tradition onto the page turning the two great poem sequences into text. He was possibly the first of a number of such people who provided variant texts, later edited into a more or less 'whole' version in Alexandria. He may even have been called Homer or then again maybe not! Many are the mysteries that abound.

What Nicolson does argue for is a much older tradition than was, in the past assumed. Many of the motifs of both poems come from a world when the Greeks lived on the steppes of Central and Eastern Europe rather than on the Mediterranean shore. The poems show these new, restless, tribal people erupting into a more settled, civilized, communal setting. The war at Troy is a struggle between the country and the city, between the patriarchal men driven by honor and the family men of the town defending their own. Compelling is Nicolson's exploration of the archaeology, language and history to build up this vision of different patterns of life in confrontation. Equally so is Nicolson's use of the contemporary study of gangs - their language and mores and the endless quest for status - to illuminate the lives of Homer's Greek heroes.

But why continue to read Homer?

Because the Iliad is a most compelling account, told from on high, of our own capacity for violence of which it is a vivid, brutal account and of how the countervailing tendencies of pity and of peace, longed for, intimated, so often crumple in the face of this need to dominate, overcome and in doing so shore up what is in essence a fragile if mighty ego. All challenges implies escalation, Nicolson shows, until a winner emerges even if the victory itself ratchets up the next occasion for conflict. It is a sobering dose of reality to our hopes. It is, also, if I may be permitted a Buddhist moment, a great demonstration of what David Loy would call 'lack' - the profoundly disruptive effect of unconsciously acting out our sense of a fundamental instability in our identity: of finding 'ourselves' by continuously asserting our superiority over an 'other'!

Because the Odyssey is a most compelling account of a myriad minded man (and in Penelope his accomplice and worthy counterpart) who seeks to find a renewing way of returning home from the bitterness of conflict. Here to find, ironically, through possibly the most brutal episode of both poems, a brutality that cannot be evaded, a domestic peace that is finally re-established. Wholeness is bought out of costliness. Life is transient and should be lived to maximal fullness for afterwards comes only a land of shades.

We read Homer because, in truth, he is strikingly contemporary. He is so especially because he speaks from a time when 'life' appears to be all that is - immortality is only for the gods and that rare being elevated by the gods. Hades, where the 'soul' continues to exist is an unconsoling land of ghosts without apparent purpose apart from to lament the past.

It is a brilliant, brittle vision of things to contrast wonderfully with the neighboring Egyptian that for most Egyptians was exactly the opposite - life was the endless waiting point, laboring after the elite, from which you longed for a more hopeful afterlife!

I came away thinking that reading Homer was a beautiful invitation for looking out for what came next - namely the transformations of the axial age when this confined, if noble and intense, world is broken through with intimations of transcendence, a more democratic and accessible transcendence, the possibility of liberation from the suffering of transience -in Plato, in Zoroaster, in the Buddha. Whether that is a new glimpse of reality or a compensatory mechanism only each person can judge for themselves! But Homer's contemporary nature demonstrates that there is nothing new in our only living for the now for there is no then.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Luminous Spaces - the poetry of Olav H. Hauge

Don't give me the whole truth,
don't give me the sea for my thirst,
don't give me the sky when I ask for light,
but give me a glint, a dewy wisp, a mote
as the birds bear water-drops from their bathing
and the wind a grain of salt.

It began with a poem, this poem, in Mark Oakley's 'The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry' - a wonderful series of meditations on particular poems, one each chapter. The poet is the Norwegian, Olav H. Hague (1908-1994). I immediately ordered, 'Luminous Spaces: Selected Poems & Journals' and was enjoying dipping until, at the weekend, recovering from a stomach bug, I decided to read them through and fell wholeheartedly for a new friend.

Hague was born on a farm. His formal education was brought short by a combination of restricted means, an inability to conquer mathematics: and, a voracious diet of reading ranging beyond the confines of any confining curriculum. He went to a horticultural college instead and came back to the (small) family orchards by fjord's side that would remain his home until his death. He was a vision haunted man who, from his early twenties at five yearly intervals, would go mad, requiring periodic hospitalisation and extended periods in an asylum. Here through either enlightenment or neglect, they principally appear to have left him alone to engage his visions and stand by the window admiring the view in quiet solitude.

In his journals, he obliquely refers to this times with thanksgiving tinged with regret. You must be able to withstand truth in order to assimilate it fully and Hague felt he was receiving it in such a visionary rush that it disordered as much as it uplifted. Hence perhaps the wish embodied in the poem above for a more parcelled approach of incremental gift!

When he was in his sixties, he met Bodil Cappelen (pictured above) a divorcee in her forties, a weaver and writer, whom he married as he approached seventy after which his episodes of madness vanished and he did to all appearance life happily ever after!

His poems often have the deceptive simplicity and concreteness of traditional Chinese poetry (which he loved). A particular tree, river, mountain are observed in quick strokes of insight but in such a way that the mind that observes of both poet and reader are expanded with a translucency of presence and a connectivity of mind; and, yet too they often turn, at the last moment, into a more 'Western' exploration of the facets of that mind, its personhood as here:

The River Across the Fjord

It falls and falls,
as it did yesterday,
falls from that cliff
where only eagles
ever falling,
falling hard
against the rockface
without a sound,
without song,
strives and falls
- gushes forth
from gorge and cleft
a frothy beard,
hangs there
- falls
beyond time,
falls bound
in its nightmare
-cant get a word out,
not a sound ...

What sets out as a concrete description of a river cascading down the fjord side suddenly becomes an image of the mind's binding to a fated, given pattern that cannot speak its meaning.

Memorable poems flow - a meditation on the poet's shadow and how the shadow is itself possessed of a shadow, of a quarry returning to complex life its ecological niche conveyed, of a schoolyard after the children have just retreated inside; and, of the author wrestling with his internal troll, constant companion. Fewer are the poems that take up either mythological or historical themes - though certain Norwegian heroes\heroines appear as does both the Korean and Vietnam wars including a beautiful poem that connects Hauge's childhood lust for conquest with an understanding of the lure of conflict of which he finally disapproves.

The excerpts from the Journals too - 4 volumes in the Norwegian edition - are a fascinating complement. Never intended for publication, they range widely - from accounting for the day's activities- including how many apples have been created - to reflections on his time in the asylum, on poetry and particular poets and on religious themes.

At one point here, he confesses he thinks of himself as a Buddhist and, it is true, resonant in the background to both poems and journals are the thought that all life is suffering and yet there is hoped for, and illuminations of, liberation. A liberation that is here and now possible if one cleanses one's perception not somewhere other. And I love his judgements - talking of psychologists, he happily suggests that the only two worth reading are William James and Jung (I cannot quarrel there) seasoned with the findings of parapsychology!

All in all one of the best poetic discoveries I have made - and one not without a gnarled humour:


The other night, on my way home
I took the path across
the field where I knew
there was a spring.
That spring bubbled, gleaming
in darkness, catching the night.
Sitting by the dark mirror I saw,
quenching his thirst,

this bundle! Every spike
relaxed, at peace,
while his black snout gently,
sipped his drink.
Quench your thirst! I can wait,
so patiently I stood.
Perhaps the two of us are
alike in many things.

Like me you take a liking
to strolling through the darkness
amongst autumn leaves, finding springs,
berries and such
- prefer solitary exploration. But if
someone comes too near,
we withdraw and show them
our spines.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Be careful what you wish for: The Return from Troy

Ends never justify means.

The Trojans fell not only for the deception of the Wooden Horse but Odysseus' promise to the collaborator, Antenor, that anyone who surrendered would be spared. But both Agamemnon's duplicity and the barbaric logic of pillage swept such a promise aside leaving behind carnage and a burned, destroyed city.

During the course of which Athena's temple is desecrated. Athena, until then a dedicated supporter of the Greek cause, turns and out of the jaws of victory falls defeat. Many of the winning kings return to find themselves deposed from their kingdoms and Agamemnon is murdered by his wife consumed by the suffering he has inflicted on her. Many of the men are lost on their way home in the storms that Poseidon, a stalwart of Troy, sends in retribution at its destruction.

Odysseus is cast adrift by his own guilt - and wanders forth on a circuitous journey that will only slowly return him to home after great trials.

All of which is deeply re-imagined in Lindsay Clarke's 'The Return from Troy', the companion volume to 'The War at Troy' http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2018/02/the-war-at-troy.html. Once again using the conceit of the story as related by Odysseus' bard, freeing him from the parameters of Homer, he can wage further and with poetic license and a modernising eye.

For Clarke, Odysseus' journey becomes a process of interior discovery and healing, aided, rather than hindered, by practitioners of the religion of the Goddess - the earlier religion that was, in fact, historically being replaced by the newer minted, arriviste Olympian gods/goddesses. Thus does Circe and Calypso (and the journey to Hades) fall into a pattern of encounter with this older, deeper pattern of being rather than simply be occasion for female enchantment and entrapment. There is a deeper reality to the feminine that Odysseus must taste if he is to be redeemed. It is as if Odysseus were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and must go on an archetypal journey of transformation before he can return to Penelope, Telemachus and a life of renewed, deepened domesticity.

It is skilfully woven - sufficiently mythical to resonate with its abiding context from Homer, significantly modern to allow a deeper identification. It is a class balancing act from an author that imagines that the gods live but not precisely after the manner that the original story tellers imagined.

Behind each and every particular individual journey is the abiding question of war.

The Iliad has been called the first great 'anti-war' poem. Simone Weil in her penetrating essay on it calls it a 'poem of might' that unsparingly explores the impact of the practice of power on the soul's disfigurement - both of the victim and the victor and how often are they rapidly juxtaposed?

Clarke's contribution - apart from simply laying bear in gifted prose the war's abiding costliness - is to notice that the seed of the conflict is sown when Eris, the sister of Ares, is not invited to Peleus and Thetis' wedding. All the gods are present except her. Eris is discord, friction: why would you want her at your wedding? Yet it is she who brings the 'gift' of the apple - bearing the legend for the fairest - that sets Hera, Athena and Aphrodite at odds and sets up the 'solution' that is the judgement of Paris (and the rest is history). But, as Blake noted, in opposition is true friendship. There can be no ultimate harmony that is not a continuous balancing and in that balancing the shadow of strife must always be allowed its place and say for to repress is to invite its return greatly amplified in horrors that may be un-navigable.

Odysseus begins to learn through the ordeal and gift of his journey home that there can be no true healing that does not embrace this shadow and that does not learn to bear the reality of division where it truly exists in each and every human heart rather than betwixt me and an other. The guile you need is not simply in directing the outward arrangement of men (and women) but in the inward arrangements of your own self-knowledge.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Borders - what are they good for?

One day arriving at the office in Macedonia, my assistant informed that my Roma cleaning lady had been in touch. Under the mat outside my flat, she had found an 'object'. The intention of the object (whose character remained undescribed) was malevolent but rest assured, though she did not think it meant for me but the flat's owner, it had been dealt with safely! It was one of a number of tangential encounters with a world of magic that came my way living in 'the Balkans' including a memorable storyline about the 'evil eye' (equally, thankfully, not directed at me).

I was reminded of this reading Kapka Kassabova's "Border: A Journey on the Edge of Europe". Her exploration takes her further east than mine - to the place where Greece, Turkey and her native Bulgaria meet. It is a place - in her account - that remains 'apart' - depopulated by the shiftings of border, culture and economics - and saturated in both the edges of the known - ghosts, fire walkers, treasure hunters, healers - and the sharp edges of history.

The sharp edge of history because here the borders (and populations) have shifted in the flowing course of conquest and strife and, most recently, have first demarcated the boundary between east and west in the Cold War and now between west and the rest in the refugee crisis.

In the former case, the boundary was considered, erroneously, as a softer touch than the "Berlin Wall" and 'tourists' from the Eastern Bloc flocked to Bulgaria to try their luck on what was thought of as simply forest and a barbed wire fence.

Haunting are Kassabova's stories of those that failed slipping into a landscape complex even to locals of dense trees, ravines, fast flowing rivers -and guards helped by a population whose interiorised fear made them likely to turn you in (or face their own uncertain consequence) - and, of course, fencing. Many were killed, most returned to differing periods of imprisonment. None of them received any form of justice or recompense from their encounter with tyranny.

In the latter, the tables are now turned. The trial is not getting out of Bulgaria but of getting in.

Haunting too are the tales of people stranded on the Turkish side waiting for their opportunity, watching their savings dwindle on simply living or on the depredations of the trafficker who promises all and guarantees nothing. At least (for the time being) no one gets shot, 'simply' arrested and returned in an endless of loop of trial and failure that sometimes breaks down into 'freedom' - the uncertainties of Europe as a refugee.

Borders, in this part of the narrative, imposed by nation states seem intent on fracturing the complex mix of people's into the simplicities of a national identity but history and the people within it are more complex - at once more united in their common humanity and more multiple in their actual identities.

This painful narrative in itself would make the book valuable - as a witness and a reminder that borders have sharp edges and fences rarely make good neighbours.

But, for me, the book's deepest interest is of a part of the world open to another kind of border - betwixt the comfortably known and the perplexing strange.

Kassabova, though a sceptical witness, is always an open one; and, you are gently introduced to a world that may just be more different, strange than one imagines. The healer, she meets, at the end, for example, may indeed do what she claims just in the way that my Roma cleaner preserved me from accidental attack.  The fire walkers do dance on the embers. The treasure buried in the hills is sometimes found. The ghosts linger.

Through these edges, Kassabova is a fascinating companion with whom to travel and you encounter both wonderful (and eccentric and sometimes disturbing) people and sympathetically listen to their stories - the German survivor of an attempted escape who becomes an artist in Berlin, the shepherd and his wife hoping against hope for the revitalisation of their village; and, the disturbing opportunistic trafficker who appears to have a heart (and who has seen the monastery with a solitary ancient monk that is only heard of by others and seems to have an ability to apparently disappear and reappear with ease)!

The border as a liminal space, the border as a historical space, the border as simply a fact of life - all explored with an adventurous and attentive eye.

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!

Why Homer matters

"The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters" by Adam Nicolson is a beautiful account of the author's adult rediscovery of Homer h...