Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Living in the moment: Bashō and mindfulness, via Tony Conran

This by Tony Conran from September 2005, Blithe Spirit vol 15 no.3, at www.poetry uk:

"In Bashō, as far as one can understand him through translation and commentary, what he sees is totally transparent to his humility. It becomes a vehicle for a kind of saintliness, a 'helpless' trust in the world as it blows him along his path, so that what he sees and writes about is in no real way to be distinguished from what he is. He feels love and compassion, for example, for the prostitutes who try to join him on his journey; but ultimately he knows that this love (caritas, or agape, as a Christian might call it) is not his business. If the gods or the great Buddhas wish to 'absent them from felicity awhile' to interfere and with compassion to help others on the way to enlightenment, that's their choice, but neither on them nor on us is it a mandatory demand.

The haiku is a sociable but not a social form. It is almost totally unrhetorical, having nothing to say to the will....Loneliness is the gift the haiku poet prizes above all, because it is the loneliness of detachment, not the bitter isolation of frustrated desire...haiku poets call it tenderness - fellow-feeling, a gentle acknowledgment that things exist outside yourself, which suffer and have their being in the Tao of enlightenment just as you do....

And a haiku must be slender because it makes no claim upon us other than an invitation to share its moment."

May I gently, in the spirit of tender loneliness Tony so eloquently describes, suggest you take a gander, if you don't already know it, at "The Narrow Road To The Deep North," Bashō, Penguin. *

*other editions are available - but there's only one Bashō, and there was only one Tony Conran.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A poet (Tony Conran) at a painter's funeral (Victor Neep)

When I was a student, I knew Vic Neep a little; liked him a lot, greatly admired his directness and clarity, and his guitar playing (40s-style jazz on a Spanish guitar, gentle, melodic and swinging) - oh, and of course - his strong, sometimes enigmatic paintings. 

Vic died far too soon, in 1979.

Tony Conran died in January, and I've already posted in his honour:

Looking through some things written by Tony recently, I found this, about Vic's funeral, in a magazine, "Blithe Spirit," volume 15 no. 3 

"Haibun - The Funeral

Victor Neep (d.1979), painter of derelict industrial Gwynedd, lit by the moon; of abstract still life, portraits of jagged sculpture-like forms; shaper of terror and wit; sculptor of savage birds and warriors from the detritus of machinery and slate.

All the riffraff of Caernarfon and Waunfawr, painters and jazz-guitarists, poets, spongers for a drink, an eisteddfod bard, even a solicitor who'd bought some paintings once - we were all at his funeral that cold January day. I threw my clod of cold earth and heard it rattle on the coffin. There was reassurance in the ordinariness of the sound - minimal, but enough to make me almost cry out loud, "O my man, my man." We wandered around the graveyard trying to be near to each other, but at the last minute avoiding contact. Many of us were old acquaintances because we'd loved him, but now we'd probably never see each other again, or be awkward and unsure if we did.

    Under the silver sky
         Ghost of a half-moon - 
              A hall-mark."

I think - I hope - I realised at the time how fortunate I was to know these men.

Here's Vic quoted in a reference in "Zones of Contention," by Carol Becker:

"If pressed on the subject of the political significance of certain types of art, philosopher Herbert Marcuse often recounted an anecdote that pleased him a great deal. It was about the painter Victor Neep, who, when challenged to explain the alleged element of protest in Cézanne's "A Still Life With Apples," responded, "It is a protest against sloppy thinking."

O my man, my men. Such integrity, such dedication. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Ryszard Apte: powerful drawings

Probably a couple more posts to draw from my Krakow experiences.

At the Galician Jewish Museum in Kasmierz, Krakow, there was a remarkable exhibition of small drawings.

Ryszard (Richard, I guess) Apte was the son of a leading Krakow Jewish family, part of the intellectual elite of the city, pretty well-assimilated - liberal Jews, not ultra-Orthodox. That's his caricature self-portait, on the left. He was very talented, in languages, music, and art. Such achievements, such distinctions counted for nothing in the face of genocide. On the right above,a little shadowman seems to be pleading with a house that leans over and towards him. For shelter? For escape from the lethal streets?

To cut a long and awful story short, his family shuttled to and fro, escaping the Nazis and heading East, to Lvov, but finding the Soviet occupation there brutal and oppressive. 

In 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. German forces occupied Lvov, and they and Ukranian troops launched brutal pogroms against the Jews there. So the Aptes went back to a town outside Krakow, Wieliczka. 

At first, life there seemed almost normal. Richard carried on drawing. He knew what was going on around him; he had a feeling he would not survive the war and said that it did not matter to him. He only wanted to save his work from destruction. 

In 1942 the round ups and deportations to the camps began. When they came for the Aptes, Richard's mother, who was paralysed, was shot on the spot. Richard went to a work camp with a cousin, escaped, and was recaptured and killed. He was 17 or 18.

In these frail school-type exercise books, his work did indeed survive; it only came to light quite recently. The exhibition at the Galician Jewish Life museum was entitled "Anxiety."

This drawing is called "Ghosts at the Hairdressers." Here's how I see it: there's no-one in the barber's chair, just a terrified face in the mirror, and a huge skeleton cutting his hair. So the anxieties of life at the time sweep away the reassuring normalities of the settled life he'd had until 1939. Even the barber shop is a place of ghosts, terrors and absences. The skeleton it is that is most sharply outlined. In Poland in 1940/41, death will cut your hair for you, because you'll soon be his.

Several of the drawings seem to me to have a similar theme. Others, like the one below, use some symbolism drawn from Christianity, and feature German soldiers. Almost incredibly, it seems to me, Apte was realising a vision of what their cruelty and wickedness might mean to the German soldiers, in their own terms, their own iconography.

This drawing is entitled "Bitter Wisdom." A Christ-like figure has a barbed-wire crown of thorns, and German soldiers are suffering and dying in front of him.

Another drawing, "Pietà," shows an ancient face in the sort of robes Mary is usually portrayed as wearing, behind a dead male figure holding his hand over a big chest wound. Behind them both is a cross with a German soldier's helmet on it.

The final picture is "Absolution." A serene Christ-like figure, with a crown of thorns and extended arms, is looking down at skulls in German helmets.

How astonishing that a young man could capture so much of  the meaning of what was happening around him, and turn it into powerful symbolism that still speaks to us.

There is an excellent catalogue to the exhibition, which you can purchase very reasonably online from the museum bookshop at:

So out of the sordid foulness and cruelty of the life around him, a teenager finds these visions, and hopes they will survive him.

They survive, Ryszard, and they echo, they warn and they inspire.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Light out of Darkness

Three wonderful books come to us out of the foulness of Nazi genocide. One is "Schindler's Ark," by Thomas Keneally, of which enough said for now - see previous post.

Then there's "If This Is A Man,"by this magnificent writer:

Primo Levi, who also wrote wonderfully on other subjects, inclcuding chemistry. "The Periodic Table" is delightful as well as enlightening for a non-scientist like me.

And finally,  "Man's Search for Meaning," by:

Viktor Frankl, who turned his experiences into the basis for a whole new approach to existential psychotherapy.

The Schindler book is, of course, not a first-hand account of the camps, but it is against the background of the camps that Schindler did his miraculous escapology.

There are quite a few first-hand accounts of life in the camps; these two, by Levi and Frankl, are horrifying, but also inspiring, because of what the horror generated in these men: the sort of insights that reverberate around the world for generations. These books are light out of darkness, guidance for us from the depths of human suffering. Schindler, Levi, Frankl, names to treasure.

Friday, 8 March 2013

There's remembering, and there's trying to understand...

Visiting Krakow has given me a lot to think about, so there may well be two or three posts that emerge from all that painful effort at something that might pass for thought. 

This post emerges from:

A well-known photo. Perhaps too well-known; perhaps familiarity doesn't help us as we try to understand, to internalise and come to  some acceptance of what happened. We have to accept that it happened. We should, perhaps, never come to terms with it.

I've a problem with the term "Holocaust." It seems to me too easy a shorthand, and gives rise to "Holocaust deniers." That isn't a position we should even acknowledge, it's just non-sense. The Nazi genocide (see? less easy to say...) is undeniable unless you are a deeply malevolent person, or disturbingly disconnected with what the rest of us call the world. 

We are often urged not to forget. I'm puzzled as to how anyone could forget - though I'm all for Holocaust Day etc, so the collective memory and the individual understanding is enriched, and the dead are honoured.  We should do more of that for our own families, let alone for huge numbers of people.

Remembering the Nazi genocide is far too easy. The familiar conundrums emerge: what would I have done? The horribly familiar photos and descriptions pop back up in the memory, and the sun clouds over for a while. It can be, perhaps should be, bewildering- and intensely depressing. 

Until we remember Schindler, and all the other impossibly brave people who did what they could, however small an action it was. I helped with the funeral of a woman born in Germany who lived near Berlin during the war; her parents were Communists, they listened in secret to the BBC. On her way to her Land Girl-type job, she passed the work place of Russian prisoners of war. As "untermenschen," Russian soldiers, like Poles, were treated very badly indeed. She used to smuggle food (of which she had little enough) out of her house and hide it as she passed in the log piles they were working on. A small action, that reverberates wonderfully.

Remebering Schindlers of all scopes of action brings the sun out again. Even there, in the depths of cruelty and fear, in that place, ordinary people did such things because they simply had to, even though in terms of their own survival (you know: the selfish gene, the survival of the fittest etc) it was a very bad idea. The Problem of Goodness - why do some people do dangerously unselfish things, out of the blue? It's a problem for our reasoning faculties, I'm pleased to say.

I don't know that it's possible ever to finally understand the Nazi genocide. How could a civilized nation...etc etc. Auschwitz and all the other such places are surely one utter extreme of human history on the planet. I can't, in one sense, understand it. I can't even go near it, yet I can't leave it alone. And that's because I do think it is important to try to develop our understanding of it. 

Reason only gets us so far - it was, in terms of resources and manpower, a mad policy even from the point of view of the German war effort, and the depths of it are perhaps beyond any accommodation our imaginations can reach.

Here are some people who don't seem to have understood anything useful about it.

Sorry it's such a lousy photo. It's a shot from our hotel balcony in Krakow of a demo by the extreme right. They were chanting angry-sounding stuff, but it all looked quite pretty from a few stories up, blue lights on police vans, flaming torches and all. 

Flaming torches? Well, now. The first Olympic flaming torches were at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. The Nazis rather liked flaming torches. Something heroic and ancient about them, something uncompromising and privileged (we bring the fire and the light into your darkness....flaming torches came in handy on Kristallnacht.)

Sure enough, when we asked a taxi driver about this, he said the extreme right were blaming immigrants for the country's problems, and also, of course -  the Jews.

Well, of course.  They are such powerful people, you see. About twenty thousand Jews living in Poland today. Two thousand in Warsaw, two hundred in Krakow. Poland has a population of 36 million. FFS.

I don't expect these people to hang their heads in shame, or to try to understand the history of their country and of Europe in the 20th century. Either of those things would put out their torches. If you are poorly educated and badly paid or unemployed, if you've had a lousy upbringing, it might seem like fun to march about with flaming torches blaming a tiny minority for economic difficulties which are actually on the macro scale of things. 

Except that there are poorly educated badly paid people who have had a lousy early life who do not vandalise cemeteries or look for convenient scapegoats. Happily, the Problem of Good arises once again. The extreme right in Poland is at present, very small. Nevertheless, as one graffiti artist summed it up so neatly in Krakow recently:

Where, I asked the taxi driver, were the rival demos, where were the students? He said (and he is a student) "They only demonstrate about money."

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Schindler and the "Problem" of Good

We need heroes, people to look up to in admiration. Do you recognise this man? Conventional, business-man-type middle-aged person? 

If not, I bet you'd recognise Liam Neeson, who portrayed him in a multi-Oscar winner. There's a pleasing if random collisions in names...Oscars for Oskar...

The story of Oskar Schindler is well known, largely as a result of Spielberg's film "Schindler's List;" I haven't seen the film, but I recently finished Keneally's docu-novel "Schindler's Ark." 

Most readers of the book, I'd guess, swing between tears, astonishment, and an impulse to stand up and cheer. His courage, skill and compassion were beyond praise. And - he was a member of the Nazi party. Well, I never expected to write up a Nazi as one of my heroes.

He could only do what he did because he knew powerful Nazis, he knew how to work on them, he had a huge personality. He changed radically, as the world changed round him. Schindler is one of those Reasons to be Cheerful we need to remember when parts of humankind behave like an unpleasant infection on the face of the planet.

Philosophers and psychologists chew away at the problem of Evil; if you don't believe in a supernatural personification of Evil, i.e. Satan, if you don't think evil exists as a separate force in the world, if you doubt that new-born babies are "born evil," then     ???

It's perhaps too easy to say that evil derives entirely from the social and family environment, though no doubt much of it does. But then some people behave magnificently despite having been brought up in an evil environment. 

Schindler might give us an enlightening mirror image of the problem of evil: the Problem of Good. Not a problem in the sense of an undesirable obstruction preventing us doing what we want. More a problem of explicability.

He doesn't look like one of The Just, at the start of his time in Krakow. He "behaves badly," you might say. Heavy boozer, charming, highly successful seducer, briber and corrupter (albeit of corrupt individuals.) Not an actively cruel or ruthless man, might be the best you could have said of him back then. All of this swings around and works through to the saving of 1,200 lives, in fantastically unlikely settings. 

At one point, late on in the war when the SS were trying to obliterate all traces of camps and their inmates, a desperately ill worker at Schindler's factory is hidden away  in a boiler room for warmth, so she can recover. Back in the camps, she would not have lasted a day. Keneally says there was not one other place in all war-torn German-occupied Europe where such a person could have survived. 

From that warm safe place radiates the Problem of Good. How can we explain why Schindler swung round from being an ordinary businessman who was a Party member, to become a saviour of the Schindlerjüden? A turning point was when he witnesses the emptying of the ghetto. Most of the Jews are led away. Some are murdered right there on the street. He realizes that the SS don't worry about witnesses amongst the Jews to these arbitrary murders; they don't believe there will be any witnesses left when the war is over. None.

He sets to work. From being someone who was simply temperamentally disinclined to be cruel, he becomes possessed. He will not let his Jewish workers die. He himself is at very great and continual risk of being exposed and executed.

So there's the puzzle, and it's wonderful. We can't explain how someone turns their sense of common humanity, into a refusal to go along with the prevailing climate of evil, and finally into a weapon that outwits the foul apparatus of genocide. He just did. 

We should remember that it could all have ended otherwise; if he'd had less courage and skill, the 1,200 could have gone to Birkenau and Schindler could have been hanged.

Some have pointed out that it was "only"1,200 people, against the millions. One could ask the descendants of those 1,200 people about that; they all owe their existence to Schindler. But more broadly, we need to acknowledge the way his achievements continue to vibrate around us; we need to acknowledge the potency of what he symbolises- a dangerous, illogical and relentless drive to do some good for totally vulnerable people, people to whom he stood in no objective relationship other than employer. And saviour.

Schindler died in 1974. What he did ripples on, influencing us, heartening us, helping us put things into a different, better perspective. One of the things about visiting Krakow, delightful destination though it be, is it's recent history. A Jewish community of 60,00 in 1939. Today, 200. It's unbearable to contemplate what happened - but then, at least there's Schindler to remind us of what can be done, what was done.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Eternity, Spinoza and an airport

So on the way to Krakow I'm trying to lose some time at the airport, and I have a quick dip into Alain de Botton's book "Religion for Atheists," and I come across a bit about Spinoza and "sub specie aeternitatis." 

It seems Spinoza didn't buy the idea of an omnipresent deity, who notes the fall of the sparrow and so if I pray to Him about my bunion it'll get better..

If "God" means anything,it's the universe itself, it's structure, forces, etc.....I'm a bit vague here I know, but a) I'm shamefully ignorant of Spinoza, which I'll be putting right soon, and b) I was trying to read in the middle of a bloody airport, so cut me some slack, eh?

Furthermore, given that perspective, says Spinoza, we should be better able to put into perspective our sufferings and joys- we should better be able to face our own mortality. Sub specie aeternitatis, the transitory nature of one life may be easier to accept.

There's a mindfulness meditation practice that involves bringing to mind an issue causing angst, and then widening the perspective around it until it begins to lose its immediate potency, and comes to seem part of something much bigger, more objectively "there" and less obsessively "mine," to tune out some of the interference between me and the present moment.

These two things seem related to me, and both perspectives may help us to live with unpleasant things we can't avoid. Under the aspect of eternity, the huge cycles of galactic time, or even just against the rolling generations of centuries of human history, we may bring to bear a calmer view of our troubles. 

H'mm. One of those times when either I'm getting a real sense of 
unity between apparently different things, a sense of belonging and 
fitting in, or it's medication time. Ether way, Baruch (as Spinoza was known to his nanny) sounds like a geezer worth checking out. 

Cheers, Barry!