Saturday, May 19, 2018

Bright Day - an unsung great novel

J.B. Priestley's own favourite novel was 'Bright Day'. Here a jaded scriptwriter, returned to England from Hollywood, in the immediate post Second World War period, has a chance encounter in a Cornish hotel that translates him back to his earlier life in Bruddersford (Bradford) before the First World War.

Here Gregory Dawson, now the scriptwriter, is working in a wool factory, an aspiring writer, he sorts threads and idolises the family of his manager into whose circle he is drawn. But the magic of projection slowly unwinds into his witnessing a family tragedy. As he works on in the Cornish hotel, Gregory is drawn into remembrance of this past and, in parallel, into encounters in the present that will significantly readjust that remembrance inviting a better, indeed liberating, understanding of what it might mean for his future.

The portrayal of that gilded, hopeful Edwardian era is beautifully drawn. You taste its hopefulness just as surely as you know that it was to be broken by the unfolding terrors of war and the failed aftermath to build a world fit for heroes. But equally you are reminded that people are people, whatever the hopes of their age, we work through time carrying all the lumber of our personal possibilities and failings. It draws powerfully a common Priestley theme that every step we make is a choice towards possibility, individuation, gift or away into a shallower, shrunken, disappointed image of who we could be.  Likewise it carries that other key Priestley theme that the past is never done with, it can be returned to. Memory can step back into it, return it to life, and a path not travelled, a choice not taken be relived in a way that carries import for the present. As long as we live, our character is not fixed (and that life is always intersecting with an eternally present that brings all of that life potentially into view).

What is remarkable about Bright Day is that both Priestley's vivid social realism, his fundamentally Jungian psychology (Jung thought him the best of lay interpreters) and his metaphysical depth - a man, as he said, haunted by time and by eternity - flow effortlessly into a 'realistic' story. A story of youthful ambition, folly and love making its way into a valley of outer success and inner dislocation and out the other side to the prospect of a maturing validation.

It beautifully captures too the ages it traverses - Edwardian England, the vicissitudes and seductions of Hollywood and the austerity of post-war England and its social hopefulness being reborn (more successfully than after the First World War and in which Priestley as a public intellectual played a not insubstantial role).

The wonder is that such a good novel moves in and out of print and that Priestley's own reputation is so unsure. 'An Inspector Calls', his most famous play, sits on the GSCE syllabus, studied widely by children at school (and given a recent and excellent outing on the BBC) whilst many of his works languish waiting republication of which Bright Day is one. It is true that his work is more uneven than many of his contemporaries, that its multiple dimensions do not always mesh as effectively as here; and, his texts sometimes feel more 'of their time' than other texts equally of the same time (such as, for example, Graham Greene) but the best stand comparison not only with his direct compatriots but with literature as such.  Let us hope that his admirers, of which I am undoubtedly one, keep plugging away until he settles securely into the canon of the should be read.

P.S. The painting, except that it is of a 'bright day' has nothing directly to do with Priestley. It is a painting by Hermann Hesse. It does occur to me, however, that one observation of Anthony Payne in his recent excellent book on Priestley and Time has great merit namely a secure literary reputation might have come more easily for Priestley if he was positioned against continental literature more secure in the magical/metaphysical than traditionally English literature finds itself - perhaps like Huxley, he should have gone to live in California! But like his contemporary the Scottish author, Neil M Gunn, whose early social realism took a mystical turn - to the bewilderment of many of his readers, Priestley was too identifiably of his place to make that possible. It is we, the readers, who need to be more 'catholic'!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Exploring the roots of and the routes to empathy

One reason for being in Toronto was to check in on Roots of Empathy and attend the first day of their annual Research Symposium.

Roots, founded by Mary Gordon, is an evidence based intervention that enables children to develop deeper empathy for, and with, others, a greater ability to navigate and understand their own feelings and develop better pro-social skills. It has been able to show that its program has long lasting results in reducing negative behaviors, such as bullying, and promoting well-being and positive social interaction.

At its heart is an opportunity to engage with a young infant from four months (over a period of eight months) and their mother in ways that enable them to see and better intuit a child's developing range of responses and emotions and through that identification be helped to better understand their own and of the people around them. A process beautifully shown in this recent short BBC film . It was made with the same group I went to see on Tuesday. It is the baby that is the teacher - and baby Naomi was a fabulous one!

Roots is closing in on reaching its a millionth child and is now available in eleven countries and counting.

The Research Symposium was quite the most interesting event of its kind I had been to in a while. Partly no doubt because I was not in my well-trodden path of enterprise development, in which I am the expert (apparently a global thought leader, God help us), but a listening novice.

We had four excellent presentations:

The first from an emergency room doctor and broadcaster, Brian Goldman, on his journey to understand kindness and why empathy is essential and what drives it, now turned into a new book: "The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life." This ranged from a moving story of how he came to recognize his own empathetic failures in the emergency room , through how empathy, in habituating self protection, declines as you proceed through medical school to fascinating stories gleaned from around the globe of empathetic people and their sources of motivation. My favorite was the Tim Horton franchisee a quarter of whose staff had a learning challenge. This was rooted in the franchisee's own deafness and critically how it had given him a deep sense of exclusion.

The second was from Graham Allen, the former Labor MP in the UK, who helped found the Early Intervention Foundation to champion early intervention as a core public policy and to do so on the basis of the most robust available evidence (with the caveat that evidence ought to be 'good enough' rather than complete: what indeed does complete ever look like except as an excuse for doing nothing?) It was an astute account of how (and how not) to achieve credible public policy and included the sage advice to always collaborate with one's 'enemies' (as he has done with Iain Duncan Smith, his political adversary).

The third was the most nerdy (so its positioning immediately after lunch might have been a mistake). This was Christian Keyser from the Netherlands Institute for neuroscience discovering the root of empathy in mirror neurons and demonstrating eloquently that we are hard wired for empathy - even psychopaths can be encouraged to exercise their neglected 'muscles' - indeed working with criminal psychopaths had suggested a more complex view of empathy. It is both a propensity and an ability and both need to act together to realize an empathetic response. This reminded me of 'mindfulness' which is not simply a skill of attention but needs to be suffused with the right intention if an ethical, compassionate transformation is to be realized.

The fourth was from an Icelandic sociologist who explained how Iceland had gone from having the worst substance abuse figures from young people in the 1990s to now the best. Like Graham's talk it was a compelling account of how public policy within the right patterns of collaboration can work marvels, changing the dynamics of a whole culture where, in this case, parents spend more time with their children, where the country has invested in meaningful youth activities and services; and, where the new cool is engaged sociability rather than getting hammered (in one form or another)!

I came away happily and realistically optimistic - we genuinely know things, grounded in evidence, social and scientific, that enables us to address the challenge of how to live more effectively together. There is no magic pill or formula but there is a challenging invitation to build the interventions necessary to help us improve.

In 1990, 45% of Icelandic schoolchildren at the age of fifteen reported that they had been drunk in the preceding thirty days, now it is 5%. Change is possible.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

George MacDonald - Visionary Dreamer of reconcilation

George MacDonald was C.S. Lewis' master. Lewis credited a reading of MacDonald's 'Phantastes', his first fantasy novel, with giving him a model of the search for holiness and that this search had a stop, a home, a place when it was fully realized in God. MacDonald was not only a principal factor in Lewis' conversion, he was a model for that conversion. He came after the manner of a literary saint.

MacDonald, himself, occupies a rather ambiguous place in literary history. A popular and accomplished nineteenth century author - of novels, poetry and theology - what principally survives is his striking reinvention of the fairy tale for the child in every person and his two striking novels of imagination and what would become known as the unconscious namely Phantastes (written at the outset of his career) and Lilith (written at its end). Here he creates imaginative worlds that are both resonantly beautifully and metaphysically complex inviting the reader to undergo their own self-reflective journey towards wholeness, holiness as Lewis' found. He is an author whose striking content in these books overcomes the inadequacy of his style (both in itself and in its ability to contain the reality of his vision).

As William Raeper compellingly argues in his 'George MacDonald - Novelist and Victorian Visonary', Lilith is MacDonald's 'Divine Comedy' where its central character, Mr Vane, is taken through an other worldly journey from ignorance to self-revelation, a revelation that brings redemption not only to and for himself but to the world he inhabits, the real world of dream of which this world is only an imitation.

For MacDonald believed passionately that this world is enfolded in a greater one, the beauties of this world, as a disciple of the Romantics, was a foreshadowing of an ideal world, where life continued in a deepening pattern of revealing meaning, a world in which God lured every soul back home to its home in God who was both our Father and our Mother. Death was never an end but a transition to this world foreseen. It was a vision that was accompanied by, and contend with, much actual death - MacDonald`s family being wracked by tuberculosis as so many were.

Reading Raeper's intellectual biography reminded me of the difficulty of reading Lewis as an 'evangelical'. MacDonald himself had rejected his birthright of Calvinism, had failed to become a successful Congregational minister because of his purported heresies and had settled into Anglicanism (and laity) because it allowed him a capaciousness of thought that allowed for little censure. After all he hoped for the redemption of all at the end and imagined that this included the whole of the created order, animals included. He was in the jargon of the time - an universalist.  As was Lewis himself. More than this, their imaginative lives stretched them to a sympathy towards the 'pagan' both of antiquity and (notably in MacDonald's case) towards other religions. They were both more complex than simple classification allows.

Both too were wonderful defenders of the reality of the imagination as the key category of being in the world. As Coleridge acknowledged, the world came to be continuously as an act of the divine imagination and grasping the contours of the world required our own imaginative acts. Poetry was a vehicle of truth telling not simply of fancy. We navigate best when we dream most deeply aligned with the world's own dreaming. MacDonald regularly quoted with appreciation the German poet-philosopher, Novalis, remark that life becomes only truly real when you realize that it is being dreamed.

Strikingly MacDonald`s two novels of adult faerie have the capacity to transport you closer to your dream, the reality of the life you are meant to be living not didactically (MacDonald left his capacious ability to sermonize behind here) but by creating symbols complex enough to mirror any soul, to meet it where it is in its struggle towards consciousness and invite it further and deeper than many a more superficially accomplished author. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Happy Easter in a hazelnut

God's wounded hand
reached out to place in hers
the entire world, 'round as a ball,
small as a hazelnut'. Just so one day
of infant light remembered
her mother might have given
into her cupped palms
a new laid egg, warm from the hen;
just so her brother
risked to her solem joy
his delicate treasure,
a sparrow's egg from the hedgerow.
What can this be? the eye of her understanding marvelled.

God for a moment of our history
placed in that five-fingered
human nest
the macrocosmic egg, sublime paradox
brown hazelnut of All that Is-
made, and beloved, and preserved.
As still, waking each day within
our microcosm, we find it, and ourselves.

From The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416 No. 4 from "Breathing the Water" by Denise Levertov

In the icon above, it is the crucified Christ that shows the hazelnut to Julian witnessing to her the three properties she understood from it: The first that God made all, that God loves it and that God preserves it ever as gift.

Of which the resurrected Christ is ever the seal on that understanding. Death is no more, violence can never be the final word, you, all of you, every particular thing in its uniqueness is loved because God is at the heart of all things and love is the meaning. You can forget this, misplace it, rail against it and it makes no ultimate difference, delaying only the moment when 'waking each day within our microcosm, we find it, and ourselves' and in our neighbour.

Who is our neighbour? Everyone, everything that is gifted with its loved meaning within the hazelnut. Unless you are a citizen of everyone, everywhere, how can you be a loving citizen of any particular place? Their identity, our identity rests in the gift, and the gift is one.

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Adventures in time: Magical adventures with J.B. Priestley

J.B. Priestley was a myriad-minded man whose outward appearance -gruff, blunt Yorkshire man birthed in the Edwardian era - and authorship of popular novels and plays of social realism disguised deeper veins of interest - in metaphysics, in time and in depth psychology.

The outward form has tended to contribute to a decline in his reputation. The inward life at the cutting edge of thought should revive it.

This point is admirably argued by Anthony Payne in his new book on Priestley's inner interests, "Time and the Rose Garden: Encountering the Magical in the life and works of J.B. Priestley".

It outlines Priestley's engagement with Indian metaphysics that convinced him of the unity of consciousness - we belong to one body that is mind- what we do to another, we do to ourselves. His life as a time haunted man both reflecting on his own and others' experience - of precognition, of time slips, of deja vu and of emotionally anticipating the future - and contemporary speculations on time - in J.W. Dunne, Ouspensky and quantum mechanics. One of the fascinating aspects of the book is Payne's own discussion of the letters Priestley received after a BBC program where he requested people's accounts of 'abnormal' time experiences. These letters deserve a fuller analysis that Payne hopes to do in due course. They are deeply moving not least for how many times the author tells Priestley that he is the first person they have ever told. Our dominant reductionist paradigm exerts a repression on exploring the possible. Finally, his experience of a vivid dream life and an ability to make sense of this in the depth psychology of Jung of whom he was one of the first popular expositors in English and a friend. And how, critically, these three fields overlapped, resonated, and deepened, one another.

These understandings are unfolded both in relationship to Priestley's own life story and in an examination of many of Priestley's works - novels, essays and plays - some of which have had little critical examination - including Priestley's last play, unperformed until very recently: "Time Was, Time Is."

The text well-establishes that Priestley recognised the importance of dreaming, how it (and other experience) gave access to a deeper self than the surface ego, how that self had the capacity to observe from a higher perspective that included embracing a person's past and the future; that past, present, future are continuously present seen from this observation point; and, that a recognisably individual consciousness survives bodily death; and, that this individual consciousness is enfolded in a collective, unified field of mind.

It, also, well-establishes that Priestley was an experimenter after truth, who explores these notions vigorously and engagingly in the varied patterns of his art so that we approach them not as 'dogmas' but as enlightening thought experiments that help you re-explore your own experience and conception of the world. I remember my own reading of his, 'The Magicians' that granted me an act of 'objective remembering the past' similar to the one granted Charles more than once in the novel. A novel that actually triggers a 'metaphysical' experience is, well, novel!

I did have a number of quibbles with the book.

First, Payne possibly over-labours Priestley's neglect. I lost counting how many times he reminds us of this. His neglect is real but that is not simply because his ideas were unconventional (and one hopes ahead of their time) and he had a metaphysical depth for which the English are not known. He wrote a great deal, probably too much, and not always under the inspiration of compressed, unconscious imagination (which was real). His dominant chosen vehicle - social realism including thrillers and putative science fiction - sometimes have a sense of haste, of loose plotting and a characterisation, especially of women, that is thin and carries a definite aura of their age. These can create real obstacles to appreciation. You need to sift the oeuvre and be alert to its depths for sometimes they are too casually on display.

Second, though Priestley attempts a 'theory' of time and bodily survival in his remarkable book, "Man and Time" and in his essay collection, "Over the Long High Wall", this is never directly addressed by Payne (unless I am missing something) which is a mite odd. One thing to explore the intimated patterns in the art, another to explore the author's tentative conclusions laid bare.

Third whereas Priestley's indebtedness to Dunne and Ouspensky is acknowledged, there is no mention of Maurice Nicoll. Nicoll was highly important to Priestley as both a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, an early follower of Jung; and, the author of a remarkable book on time, "Living Time" whose influence Priestley acknowledged. I happen to own Priestley's copy (sadly without side notes)!

None of which should detract from a highly admirable account of how dream, time/eternity, and Self play a seminal shaping role in Priestley's life and art and a spirited and successful defence of the importance of that art and of recognising it as a major artistic and spiritual achievement. It happily adds to the Priestley revival that gathers pace, if slowly, and does what all good secondary literature should do return you to the source with your perceptions enriched and your enthusiasm stoked.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The edge of holiness is simply practicing it

The nineteenth century Russian author, Nikolai Leskov, was apparently not an easy man. The friendships he made were often fragile and ended up broken. Part of this brittleness was conditioned by his own sensed 'inferiority'. He had come from a relatively poor background, he lacked a formal education; and, he singularly failed to master the art of the long novel. Yet as a 'self-educated' autodidact, he absorbed expertise in multiple fields and deployed this knowledge to great effect in his multiplicity of works: fictional and non.

He is a master of the short story and of the form that has a narrator introduce a story teller that allows for the immediacy of colloquial report, that gathers you to a place where you listen attentively to an uninterrupted voice.

In "On the Edge of the World", this too allows him to present the first person account of an elderly Orthodox bishop in such a way that the bishop can express potentially heterodox positions that no 'third person' account could admit (under the prevailing conditions of censorship). The bishop's story is one of taking up a bishopric in Siberia as a relatively young man and receiving an education in what was and was not possible in a missionary context.

He learns through the life witness of one of his priests and that of his indigenous guide on a mission expedition (that goes seriously wrong in a blizzard, beautifully and harrowingly told) that nothing can   hurry the demonstrated acceptance of faith and that Christ is available to all without any outward signs. We might want to curtail this timetable and availability for our own purposes - number counting of the legitimate faithful say - but this is our concern (for position and status) not God's.

This is all wonderfully contained within the bishop's humble perception of what is possible given the nature of our humanity, best displayed by his guide who recognises God's presence and refuses baptism and risks his life to save the bishop's. It seeks, gently, to undermine any, more aggressively, evangelical approaches and, for its time, gives a progressive and open view both of shamanism and Buddhism - Christianity's then two perceived competitors. Needless to say, their institutional forms behave no better than the Christian one's being equally obsessed with numbers of adherents and structural power.

No wonder that it is Tolstoy amongst all Russian intellectuals that Leskov most identifies (or, given his character, refuses to actively criticise)!

What matters, for Leskov and his bishop mouthpiece, is not belief but the practice of compassion and forgiveness. We cannot, as Yeats says, refute either the song of sixpence or the saint - either the simplicity or complexity of holiness. It stands before us and ought to undermine any other consideration. The bishop returning from the humbling experience of being rescued by an 'unbeliever' (at the potential cost of their life) seeks subsequently to practice the humility of this expectation - the person may come to a fulness of faith in recognised belief but, more often, they may simply enter by the back door of their own holiness. Only time will tell and the suspicion is that God does not mind!

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.

Bright Day - an unsung great novel

J.B. Priestley's own favourite novel was 'Bright Day'. Here a jaded scriptwriter, returned to England from Hollywood, in th...