Sunday, 27 April 2014

Crucifixion overload, part two - Fra Angelico

We gave up on the Easter crowds in Florence, huge queues at the Academia (Michaelangelo's "David" etc etc) and the Duomo and the Uffizzi and moving amongst other quieter locales, made eventually for the frescoes by Fra Angelico in San Marco. After a while the LSO* became a little downcast, oppressed, by the agonies and the sadness of the crucifixion story we had already seen in a parade, and now in very many pictorial representations.

In the fresco above, what you see is three men being tortured to death, especially the man on the right.You might point out that counteless thousands of people died thus, and have died since in similar agonies. I'm leaving aside, of course, any question of belief, of the idea that there is a central importance to the Passion as the sacrifice that saves us all, because I don't share that belief. But great art involves us. Once you tune in to the conventions of such works, they are mighty powerful. Such works make one more likely, perhaps, to value the essence of such beliefs, if not all of their manifestions.

This one is calmer, perhaps more about sacrifice and love rather than just torture and agony. Still, look closely at his feet. Blood everywhere. Look at your own palm. Imagine having a big nail right through it.

"And his mother was there, she had to watch all this," murmured the LSO. It was, for once, an Easter experience that was about - well, Easter. You don't have to be a Christian to respond to the power of the story and the representations of it that we saw.

Then we found this famous Annunciation. If you've never seen it - it's quite large, and it's at the top of the stairs, so you walk up towards it. It's a knockout. In a peaceful Italian domestic setting there's suddenly this whacking great angel, just arrived, entirely present in an everyday sort of way, not with a backround of gold leaf, but with a background of a pretty little garden and a peaceful verandah.He is super real, with wonderful Technicolour wings and a gracious, courteous manner. 

He's breaking the news to Mary that although she has never "known" (as the Bible puts it) a man, she is in fact pregnant. And Mary? "She looks gone out," says the LSO. As well she might. Bit of a shock for a girl. Her arms are folded across her tummy. The two figures almost echo each other's posture. 

She looks almost sullen, astonished for sure. Maybe she's thinking "Me? Are you sure? Why me? What am I going to say to Joseph?" Nothing formulaic about it. Later maybe, she might get around to "blessed am I amongst women," but just now she is shocked to her core.

I think it's the combination of the spiritual (or supernatural, if you prefer) narrative context, and the humanity, the insight, of the presentation, that makes it so moving.

What a huge gift, what skill, to make something that makes no literal sense in terms of our daily world, so emotive and immediately real.

*The Long-Suffering One, because she puts up with me, funerals, nonsense etc.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Crucifixion overload: the power of the image, part 1

Easter in Italy brought me hard up against a lot of crucifixion, as you'd expect. In Buonconvento, near Siena, they do a Good Friday parade - not unique, I'm sure, but a first for me. 

Centurions on horses (one looking very wobbly, and grinning a bit at one point because his mates were gently ribbing him from the crowd) and centurions on foot with spears; scary black-robed and hooded people carrying a big cross; Jesus carrying his cross; children singing; white robed and hooded people; a sculpted jesus on  a bier; a big statue of Mary; women praying (throat miked leader, firm responses); Pilate at the start, of course; townspeople, mostly female; candles; some lovely a cappella singing; and mostly quiet or close to it from the watching crowd. 

All very solemn and despite the wobbly centurion, carefully and seriously done. They stop at places around town, thus creating local stations of the cross to link, symbolically and emotionally, their town and their Passion journey with Jerusalem and the original one. It was impressive and effective.

Behind me some teenagers were giggling and being a bit noisy. I couldn't help but think that if I were an independently-minded Tuscan teenager, what with the uproar over child abuse by the clergy and the attempts to cover it up, I might feel more like sniggering. Some locals, Catholics themselves, apparently don't like it either - they regard it as "witchery," we were told. 

But opposite me in the crowd a woman was weeping, and some people quietly crossing themselves. However one feels or whatever one thinks about the belief bases for Easter, the representation of it was powerful, because of the commitment of those involved. Drama doing its job.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Irony and a warning from Zbigniew

I'm not sure about irony. I'm addicted to it, being a middle-class sort of Brit well into those retirement years during which fewer and fewer of us actually do or can completely retire. 

It's certainly useful as a distancer in social and interpersonal contexts, and as a way of trying to hang on to what's left of the idea of personal privacy and cultural restraint.

But: it's easily misunderstood, especially in emails, blogs, forums - in fact, through any quickly-written and hastily read electronic output (i.e. a lot of it.)

It can be mistaken for coldness, now that everything is awesomely wonderfully marvellously lots of lovely so brilliantly done (even if it's really, just ok) but many kinds of restraint can seem cold in whatseems to me like an age of linguistic emotional inflation.

Here's a prose poem from a survivor of Eastern European totalitarianism, the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert,

by way of a warning:

"Prose Mythology

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leaped, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end, only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes."

(translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Swift)

Until the barbarians arrive, I'll continue to carry the little statue in my superstitious neurotics' pocket. 

Or: maybe the barbarians are already here, but instead of stamping on my precious little statue, they are eroding it away bit by bit with the tears of an easy emotionalism. It's easier to shed such tears than to take the full weight of the suffering of our times. Zbigniew knew that - he fought the Nazis and resisted the Stalinists, and one of his weapons, alongside his surrealistic imagination, was irony.

Friday, 11 April 2014


It seems to me that the person with real understanding, true enlightenment with regard to states of being and ways of living, avoids the concept of "guru" as one would avoid a mad dog. The cult of personality is like a lethal and easily-caught virus, and you don't have to belong to some horrible cult to come across it in those seeking to dispense wisdom, especially wisdoms that can't be "dispensed."

Shunryu Suzuki was a Zen Buddhist teacher who settled in California and worked at a zen centre there. 

One morning a student at the centre arrived early and was horrified to find the Zen Master cleaning the toilet. He asked Suzuki to let him take over such a menial and unpleasant task. Suzuki merely said "Why don't you go and make the coffee?"

Gautama Buddha is believed to have told his followers "Be your own light." 

Any true teacher doesn't want the people s/he is working with to follow his example, or to use his ego to dominate them. S/he wants them to shine their own light into every corner, question everything, work for their own understanding.

Here's poor old Brian, in the Life Of same, telling his followers not to follow him, they are all different, they are all individuals:


But it's hard, especially when times are uncertain, to work through Big Stuff with your own devices. We like to be led. Brian's followers - well, you know the response:

"Yes! We are all individuals!" (In unison...) 

The difficulty lies in an internal conflict; to be widely-regarded as having unusual insights, powers or authority is to receive ego-inflating responses from those who feel they have benefitted from your particular kind of leadership. It is a pleasant thing, to be told you have helped others. It reinforces your sense of self-worth. 

But what many people want from such a leader-figure is a way of lessening the clamour of ego, and if the leader-figure shows just the kind of egocentric insensitivity s/he is supposed to be leading us all away from, the result is: disillusion.


Saturday, 5 April 2014

mindfulness, mountains, water

When out walking in the hills, the usual attractions include: the scale of it all, the high, isolated peaks with huge views, the wind sighing and whistling through the rocks, the steady plod plod of feet that are mine but eventually seem to be moving quite independently, to fit the rise and fall of the land's surface rather than my instructions. These feet swing round a boggy pool, lift up yet another step, clatter across some scree, until they, not me, reach the top.

So a distant view of the highest peak in the area:

or the pleasure of contact with the very last snow of the season:

These are the elements of the day that expand consciousness until it takes in the swing of the seasons, the flow of life, of geological time itself. And as the day wears on, the shadows change, the clouds roll, disperse, gather, regroup: you can feel the planet rolling you towards the evening. These are the big things, the spaciousness, in the face of which your own mortality seems not to matter very much.

Increasingly these days, another element of the experience holds me, a smaller, more immedate thing - the water. I'm stopped, about to cross a little torrent - not a  mighty waterall, just this:

The changefulness of the water is indescribable - water, air, light, rock, gravity, all interplay - play - and I am held, to pause and focus in for a while, just to be with the water, in the moment.

I don't need the concept "meditation," I don't need bells or cushions, this is enough, for now.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Tolkien, Pullman, Le Guin and the problem of evil

Powerful myth-makers all three. I'll argue here that "His Dark Materials" and "The Earthsea Quartet" are better for us than Tolkien, and that it does actually matter, because it relates to how we see evil and good in human behaviour.

Fine writers all three, Tolkien (above) in particular an eminent scholar and prof. But in The Lord of the Rings, creatures tend to be either good or evil, and the source of evil is ultimately supernatural. I mean, what is the Dark Lord? Orcs, some humans (Wormtongue) bad, skewer 'em. Hobbits good, most men good, elves good. OK, there are exceptions - Boromir gives way to jealousy and greed for power, and dies for it - but mostly, evil in the book comes from without, not within, the major characters.

In Phillip Pullman's trilogy, evil is altogether more complex. Bad things are done for what might be good reasons. It helps that Will and Lyra are well-rooted in their own worlds. Individuals behave both badly and well, and it doesn't take a Dark Lord to tempt them. In fact, there is no external Dark Lord.

A more profound thinker on the problem of evil, yet a creator of unforgettable characters and events, as all three of these writers are.

Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Quartet takes us back into the land of wizards and dark forces, but it's not MiddleEarth, because her wizard is much more complex than Gandalf; the harshness and cruelty of his early life makes him a difficult person, and out of this comes, in the first book, a dangerous and damaging act- he releases a supernatural evil thingy into the world, and eventually he has to deal with it.
Less well-known now than the other two, she is under-rated and comparatively under-read. There is much of Earthsea in the Harry Potter stuff. (I'm being polite...I seem to remember that Le Guin said yes, she was a bit startled at first, but took it as a compliment and moved on. A lesser soul might have reached for the lawyers. )

OK, so what?

If we simplify evil it is much easier to dismiss the Other as "the bad guys." Nice and simple. A War on Terror, as The Simpleton President put it. Islamist terrorists do dreadful things, but there is no Dark Lord, there is no Mordor. The way to deal with evil is surely not to simplify it. 

There is hatred, cruelty, fear, greed within each of us, to differing degrees and we come to terms with it, control it, or fail to do so. A War on Evil would be a war on ourselves, each of us. Oversimplifying evil is a dangerous temptation.

In this song, the character feels lost and confused in a world full of grey.

That's right Oscar - it's hard dealing with the complexities of life, it takes a lot of emotional and intellectual maturity. We surely deal with terrorism by combating terrorist plots and actions, and addressing the causes of their rage, intolerance and hatred, not by oversimplifying them as "the bad guys," servants of Mordor.

The moral world of the Lord of the Rings, much as I love it, is infantile, compared with that of Pullman and Le Guin, and it seems to me that powerful cultural artefacts do influence at some level how we see the world. In "Despatches," Michael Herr describes young marines in Vietnam behaving like the John Wayne characters they had seen in movies.... 

If we are lucky enough not to live in dreadful poverty and danger, if the circumstances of our lives don't drive us to bitterness desperation, we should at least stand a chance of finding the Balance within us that stops us running for easy answers that are no answers. Even North Korea isn't Mordor (though I confess it's not my ideal holiday destination.)