Site map

732 posts categorized as follows, where numbers alongside are the number of posts:

category  
Angels 14 Animals 18 Beginnings 4 Being human 38
Bible 9 Blessings (in disguise?) 9 Books 49 Childhood 55
Chilterns 14 Civilisation 30 Curiosity 20 Dreams 17
Encounters 46 Films 8 God 14 Interviews 4
Life-story 7 Make & mend 18 Mainly pictures 17 Might-have-beens 5
Moments 23 Mortality 16 Music etc 8 Neighbourhood 46
Not-doing 8 Reminiscence 16 Seasons 9 Speculations 30
Spirituality 26 Trial & error 4 True knowing 9 Wayfaring 42
Whisperings 9 Who am I? 31 Writing 59

 

Advertisements

Is this who I am? I’d like to think so

This is from one of the wisest books I know—which means that it’s in tune with my own thinking—opened at random, when seeking inspiration for the day. It was published 88 years ago:

. . . To return to the lonely ichthyosaurus-ego. This ichthyosaurus-ego exists in every man, woman, and child. It is the feeling of the soul in relation to its body and in relation to what surrounds its body. It is profoundly susceptible to moods of goodness and moods of evil. If it selects the former mood it grows slowly happier. If it selects the latter mood it grows slowly more miserable. But it has selected “ the mood of good ” if it feels kindly and acts pitifully to all that come near it. Apart from this, the more indolent, irresponsible, careless, profane, delicious sensations it can enjoy, the better for it, and the more luck to it !

Our rulers at the present day, with their machines and their preachers, are all occupied in putting into our heads the preposterous notion that activity rather than contemplation is the object of life. I admit that if the lonely soul is to be a “ good soul ” it must put into action a certain modicum of its tender pitifulness for other, less lucky, souls. Fortunately there exists in the world a certain material, a certain stuff, a certain talisman, that makes it possible for well-intentioned people to do the maximum of good with the minimum of exertion. I refer to money. The busy-bodies who agitate themselves from morning to night in taking away our drugs, would do much better if they stinted themselves of a few comforts and handed us some cash ! What we all want is money. We don’t want to revolutionise our habits. We don’t want to drink the dregs of our responsibilities. A bolt from the blue may kill us tomorrow. A few hours, a few days, a few years of peace is what we crave ! Give unto us, O Haroun-al-Raschid, the golden ducats of a little freedom and a little rest !

If a bolt of catastrophic moral lightning, forked and terrible, were to shiver down through the psychic tissues of all layers of organic life, from the highest to the lowest, dividing the “ good “ from the “ evil,” there would be found “ good ” angels, “ good ” dogs, “ good ” horses, “ good ” fishes, as well as “ good ” ichthyosaurus-egos, who have the same good-will to the sentiencies that approach them.

And of what ultimately consists the mood whose gesture is so healing to the touch ? It is the mood of acceptance. We need not love these other souls. Love is always an ambiguous thing, rarely free from a vicious itch of possessiveness, ever on the thin edge of turning into resentment and hatred. As our lonely self-awareness gathers together its strength to endure, its strength to select, to forget, to enjoy—as, in its hollow electric shell of isolation, with vibrant universes above it, beneath it, and around it, it casts its heavy-lidded, scale-slit, sleepy dragon’s-eye upon the dizzy abysses—its feeling toward other consciousnesses is one of cold, quiet, demonic acceptance. Why should it love them or hate them or seek to change them ? Absolute lord and god of its own happiness, independent of every external circumstance, it allows itself the last supreme self-deception of assuming that all these other lives are governed entirely by fate. “ They are what they are,” so it thinks to itself ; “ nor have they any chance of refusing to be what they are. I alone ”—so doth the proud, sly, weary ichthyosaurus-soul soliloquise—“ I alone am possessed of the godlike power of freewill.” This deliberate self-deception about the responsibility of other entities is one of those noble illusions which, as Goethe says, Nature herself encourages us to cultivate.

Nothing could be further from the truth than the lively contention one hears so glibly tossed off, that all the philosophies are false, and that the redemption of our race lies in science. Never has our race been in greater need of a new philosophy ; nor is there any doubt what instincts in us this new philosophy must satisfy. It must satisfy the religious instinct ; and at the same time it must satisfy the sublimated sex-instinct. One might, indeed, maintain that it must satisfy the megalomania-instinct. For this last is a perfectly legitimate and entirely natural feeling. All individual human souls, when left to themselves, indulge in megalomaniacal feelings ; and they are entirely right to do so !


Scanned from In Defence of Sensuality, by John Cowper Powys, 1930. I have the first edition but not the wrapper shown above. So this is the first time I’ve read the blurb on the front:

To the Reader
who may be tempted to pick up this superb book pour le mauvais motif it may be said that (while the author’s title is the best possible for his purpose) “In Defence of Joy” or “In Defence of Saintliness” would be titles more obviously descriptive of the contents: and that not more than six pages in the whole book are devoted to Powys’s noble treatment of sex.


I may have inherited a few genes from this long-extinct fish

Meister Eckhart & a message for today

eckhartThe most popular game in the media, social & journalistic, is to cheer for one side and boo the other, like spectators at a gladiatorial contest, or a modern football match.

For a moment I find myself pleased with this vivid analogy; then I realize it will not do. It doesn’t convey the sense of outraged virtue, which easily leads to scorn, anger, verbal hate & violence—& who knows what in real life? For it’s still a game, anyone can join, players and spectators all in it together. And if it gets too dull, bait the enemy, provoke a reaction.

Should we be surprised that politicians play the same game? They learn to use the same media, ridicule their opponents.

All this is proxy conquest, the thing that’s built deep in the human psyche from the inception of homo sapiens. I cannot vanquish (kill or enslave) my enemy unless I can see him as unworthy of understanding, compassion or loving solicitude; and as someone who’ll deal with me the same way unless I get him first.

Before we dismiss this as behaviour of primitive and brutal characters, observe that there are intelligent players too. These are the worst. They rationalize their stance, instinctive though it is. They get others to do the dirty work on their behalf. They make the case that the “enemy”, as defined by their ideology, represents all that’s preventing this world becoming a wonderful place.

But then, if we are more intelligent, we can see that the enemy, as we define him, can never be vanquished. He is our negative shadow, whose unforgivable sin is to take the opposite view.

I propose that the remedy is Disinterest. It’s not an easy path. Disinterest is a better word than detachment, which evokes the idea of haughty disdain—a deliberate disconnect from what’s going on; perhaps like a cartoon Buddhist; or a hermit, monk or nun who’s had enough of “the world”.

I once did a piece on Disinterest, linking the 13th-century Dominican Meister Eckhart audio-visually with the trumpeter Miles Davis and the singer-song-writer Sandy Denny; all wrapped up in a visit to Screwfix on a rainy Sunday.

Many of Eckhart’s sermons survive, addressed to a mixture of celibate monks and lay worshippers. From these we see that his idea of the Christian life was so far from the orthodoxy of obedience to the Roman Catholic church that he was examined for heresy, as a warning shot to toe the line.

In brief, the essence of his doctrine is to leave an empty place within our hearts for God to enter. This is the preparation, without which union cannot take place. No set of God-beliefs is necessary. I’ll go further and declare that such beliefs get in the way. I cannot do better than repeat this Eackhart quote from the earlier piece:

Now I ask what the object of pure disinterest is. I reply that it is neither this nor that. Pure disinterest is empty nothingness, for it is on that high plane on which God gives effect to his will. It is not possible for God to do his will in every heart, for even though he is almighty, he cannot act except where he finds preparations made or he makes them himself. I say “or makes them” on account of St. Paul, for God did not find him ready; he prepared St. Paul by an infusion of grace. Otherwise, I say that God acts where he finds that preparations have been made.

Many discriminating persons have discovered that this simple idea is the kernel, the nourishment which remains even if, or especially if, we strip off and discard the shell of Christianity or other religious doctrine.

But I would like to append an argument from a different source. It’s the beginning of Walter Kaufmann’s Prologue to his translation of Martin Buber’s I and Thou:

Man’s world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold. What is manifold is often frightening because it is not neat and simple. Men prefer to forget how many possibilities are open to them. They like to be told that there are two worlds and two ways. This is comforting because it is so tidy. Almost always one way turns out to be common and the other one is celebrated as superior. Those who tell of two ways and praise one are recognized as prophets or great teachers. They save men from confusion and hard choices. They offer a single choice that is easy to make because those who do not take the path that is commended to them live a wretched life. To walk far on this path may be difficult, but the choice is easy, and to hear the celebration of this path is pleasant. Wisdom offers simple schemes, but truth is not so simple. Not all simplicity is wise. But a wealth of possibilities breeds dread. Hence those who speak of many possibilities speak to the few and are of help to even fewer. The wise offer only two ways, of which one is good, and thus help many.

Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived. The truth is too complex and frightening; the taste for the truth is an acquired taste that few acquire. Not all deceptions are palatable. Untruths are too easy to come by, too quickly exploded, too cheap and ephemeral to give lasting comfort. Mundus vult decipi; but there is a hierarchy of deceptions.

Near the bottom of the ladder is journalism: a steady stream of irresponsible distortions that most people find refreshing although on the morning after, or at least within a week, it will be stale and flat.

On a higher level we find fictions that men eagerly believe, regardless of the evidence, because they gratify some wish.

Near the top of the ladder we encounter curious mixtures of untruth and truth that exert a lasting fascination on the intellectual community.

Though Kaufmann wrote these words in 1970, as an introduction to thoughts by Martin Buber published in 1923, they are uncannily descriptive of content I habitually encounter online in 2018.

My own view, or hope, is that a few may discover for themselves the joy that comes with the practice of disinterest. They will realize that chronic concern for a perfect tomorrow, and what it must look like, blinds us to the moment.

For the moment holds the only kind of perfection we can ever see: in this moment, and the next.

eckhartb

Prompted by the recent passing of V S Naipaul

The other day I briefly published a piece on the late V S Naipaul. It was a synopsis of a lecture he gave in 1990, which he called “Our Universal Civilization”(1). After 24 hours, with vague misgivings, I took it down again.(2) It was fun to revive an old skill, the one they used to call “précis” in our English lessons: convey the gist in fewer words. But to publish it here was presumptuous and did no service to Naipaul’s memory. His writings show a timeless concern for civilization, and ways to escape the the selva oscura(3). His lecture drew on visits he’d made in 1979 to Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. This was before his return to the same places in 1995. In each case he wrote a book: Among the Believers: an Islamic Journey(4), and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples(5).

Now that I’m working through Beyond Belief, and getting the full nuanced tale, I can’t do better than quote this sentence, though I’m not sure how true it still is:

Islam sits more lightly on the shoulders of the Arab than of the non-Arab peoples.(6)

I claim no special insight into these matters, but in various ways they have impinged on my life. V S Naipaul was merely a name to me until I went to Jamaica in 2004, to join Karleen there. She had worked for many years at the University of the West Indies in Mona, near Kingston. It was there she met Earl McKenzie: first as a lecturer in the Faculty of Education and later in the Faculty of Arts. She typed many and varied manuscripts for him: poems, short stories, essays on literary and philosophic topics.

During my six months in Jamaica, I learned to make sense of his handwriting and took over her typing load. It extended my education, offered an unexpected viewpoint: that Western civilization (British, European, American) had its own bias and blind spots. One day I typed Earl’s manuscript of a piece on Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas. I don’t have the text any more, but I think it was part of a series he was working on, to reveal the contributions of various authors (of whom he is one) towards a home-grown West Indian school of philosophy.(7) This in turn would have drawn on roots in Africa, India, Britain & China, for these countries provided its people. When Jamaica gained independence from Colonial rule it adopted the motto “Out of Many, One People”(8). Its coat of arms shows two of the aboriginal inhabitants of the island, the Arawaks (also known as Tainos). They were wiped out, one way and another, by Christopher Columbus:

The Spaniards, when they came, tortured and killed the Arawaks to get their land. They were so overworked and ill-treated that within a short time they had all died. The process was aided by the introduction of European diseases to which the Arawaks had little or no resistance. (10)

Culturally therefore, Jamaica was shaped from immigrant populations, a mere 500 years ago. Naipaul was from Trinidad, with a somewhat different history and ethnic mix from that of Jamaica. But his writing, based on West Indian childhood and arrival in England as a young adult, gave him plenty to brood on: colonialism as a double-edged sword. Later travels enabled him to see at first hand how Islam had spread beyond Arabia long ago through conquest and its own form of colonialism, often alongside the colonialism of the British and Dutch. Already in 1979 he saw a resurgence of Islamism as the threat to what he sees as “our universal civilization”. I can relate personally to some of what he says, having spent time in Malaysia, West and East, on consultancy assignments in the early Eighties. But most of all I see Islam in my own street. In the thirteen years I’ve lived in this part of town, I’ve been witness to a gradual change. It sits more heavily on my neighbours’ shoulders these days. What to think?

A blogging friend has written a new piece about Hope, renewing a topic he touched on a year ago:

Those who have reached a certain age are able to look back over decades of events and sense that, in terms of creating a decent world for the mass of humanity, no progress has been made. None at all. Instead, they look at May, Johnson, Corbyn, Trump, the EU, Merkel, Syria, climate change, fake news, environmental catastrophe, the current inability to trust or believe anybody of influence – and just give up all hope.(11)

Yes, there are all these factors coming into play, and I won’t even begin to say anything about them, except to observe that hope is a mood, not a solid thing. Some of what we see is frightening or ugly. How much attention I give it, how much I let it get under my skin, depends on my own underlying mood; just as some thoughts are troubling when I lie sleepless at night, but evaporate with the morning dew as I deal with my own reality. I was tempted to say “we” and “our” in the last sentence, but that would obscure the important distinction. Your underlying mood may not be the same as mine. I am trying to find words for something in the heart, which doesn’t come easily, cannot be taken for granted: a kind of anchoring in something solid. I’m suddenly reminded of

a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded on a rock.

I’ve never been a Christian and don’t read those words as necessarily those of Jesus, nor do I think of the rock as representing Christianity or any belief at all, unless the words were massaged centuries later to give justification to some Church.

One thing I do know, is that in the course of my life, full of lostness, mistakes and harsh asperities, I have stumbled upon a rock and built my house upon it. It has been a singular journey, and I’ve not been able to extrapolate any general rules that might serve as a map for anyone else.

But I haven’t given up on that. I recently took down from its shelf a book of philosophy I bought many years ago, I can’t remember the date or circumstances: Process and Reality, by Alfred North Whitehead. It’s vast in its scope and couched in difficult-to-grasp language. Whitehead was a mathematician, an academic administrator, an historian of science, someone whose views on the reform of education were respected at the highest levels. But when he moved from London to the University of Chicago, he delved into the things that scientific materialism had rendered unfashionable: metaphysics. I’m eager to share my thoughts on this, but not ready yet.


(1) Click here for the full text https://www.city-journal.org/html/our-universal-civilization-12753.html

(2) Click here for a copy of the withdrawn post https://drive.google.com/open?id=1NY_Kzxw5zY-BGsdWScuh_q-9K4vL6_tU

(3)First lines of Dante’s Inferno:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita . . .

Midway along our road of life I woke
to find myself in a dark and secret wood
for I had lost the narrow path. To evoke . . .

(4) Among the Believers (not to be confused with a documentary film of the same name) see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Among_the_Believers

(5) Beyond Belief see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_Belief:_Islamic_Excursions_among_the_Converted_Peoples

(6) From a review of Among the Believers by Malise Ruthven, London Review of books 1981 https://www.lrb.co.uk/v03/n18/malise-ruthven/onward-muslim-soldiers

(7) see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Philosophy-West-Indian-Novel-Mckenzie/dp/9766402159 and https://philpapers.org/rec/MCKPIT

For an example of Earl McKenzie’s philosophical musings, in the stream of thought which so impressed me as I typed his manuscripts, see “Can Philosophy Be an Art Form?” https://muse.jhu.edu/article/628741 Earl himself is an accomplished poet and painter.

(9) Out of Many, One People: I co-wrote a book of this title. It’s available on Amazon.

(10) https://jis.gov.jm/information/jamaican-history/

(11) “We’re Doomed”, by Ian T https://palegreenvortex.blogspot.com/2018/08/were-doomed.html

Yin and Yang

When one considers how dependent we all are—especially such parasitic weaklings as artists, poets, writers, priests, philosophers—upon the hard one-track energies of the industrious producers and shrewd traders, it seems only fair to make our obeisance to enterprise, strength and cunning, before we proceed to show the limitations of such things. If we refuse to make such an acknowledgment, if we indulge in unqualified abuse of the solid, sterling qualities upon which our very existence depends, there is a danger lest our protests, instead of representing a free, detached wisdom, should represent a weak, violent, impotent rage.

“If we are not blinded by prejudice, we must confess to observing, every day, how many among the competent, energetic producers and traders are honest enough in their ‘deals’ and prepared to show indulgence, at a pinch, to their less sagacious rivals. We must also confess to observing how there often radiates outward from one of these successful men a vigorous aura of general well-being, of which all sorts of weaklings living at the circumference, so to speak, of this centre of energy get the benefit. Let us therefore make our bow to these dynamos of unsympathetic force. But at the same time let us remain devotees of happiness.

“But what of those weaker and poorer than we are? According to what we call necessity, we stubbornly go on our way, leaving so many consciousnesses behind us obviously suffering from various degrees of tribulation, such as, if we stopped and took the trouble to concentrate upon them, we might, after repeated and patient efforts, materially relieve. It is according to necessity, too, that we pass by the dead—pass them by, and unless they be of our own flesh-and-blood, take small thought even so much as to bury them!

“I picked up a dead frog this morning. Withered it was to a veritable husk of hollow emptiness, like a snake’s skin bleached by months of burning sun. I suppose many a bird had hopped against it, brushing it with wings or tail, many a butterfly settled above it, many a rabbit spurned it with unstartled, jerky indifference. Why should they care?”

From John Cowper Powys, In Defence of Sensuality, a self-help/philosophical book published in 1930.

I first published the above excerpt in a blog post on 21st October 2006, calling it “Powys and the Dead Frog”. I commented thus:

“I don’t normally post extended quotes, but this—including the dead frog—expresses in more masterly language what I would have liked to write today.”

Today, even more so:

According to what we call necessity, we stubbornly go on our way, leaving so many consciousnesses behind us obviously suffering from various degrees of tribulation, such as, if we stopped and took the trouble to concentrate upon them, we might, after repeated and patient efforts, materially relieve.

And playing the role of Powys’ “parasitic weakling” is Lokesh, from Ghetu’s story, “The Wretched“, published in my previous post. He is the anti-hero, who feels deeply about suffering. He tries and fails to understand the indifference of his fellows, whether it be the victims of terrorism and poverty in Mumbai generally or one starving cripple who catches his eye. His heart bleeds to the extent of bringing on a psychotic episode where he cowers among rats in the darkness until he realizes that they, like everyone else in the world, have no time for him. I guess he feels guilty for having so much when others have so little. The price of appeasing his conscience would be to give up all his privileges to help the poor and disabled.

But then there’s Ravi, who displays “solid, sterling qualities“, for he is one of

these successful men [who radiate] a vigorous aura of general well-being, of which all sorts of weaklings living at the circumference, so to speak, of this centre of energy get the benefit. Let us therefore make our bow to these dynamos of unsympathetic force.

 

He’s quite unburdened by any of this bleeding-heart baggage. Untroubled, he simply gets on with things , performs the needed acts.

As to which of them is the more useful or virtuous in today’s world, Lokesh or Ravi, I cannot say. This is not a sermon.

There is Yin and there is Yang. One cannot exist without one another.  And so it is with all the different kinds of people in the world: Levites, Samaritans, Marthas, Marys, Lokeshes, Ravis, Gopals, Ghetus, Anup Roys, terrorists, their shadowy “handlers”; politicians, news outlets, Hollywood, Bollywood, capitalists; you and me.

yinyang
Yin & Yang by William Mulder, 2015. Pine and ebony