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Moving to Paradise

Sep. 22nd, 2010 | 08:13 pm

This blog is moving to: http://ncolloff.blogspot.com entitled 'Golgonooza' (which was Blake's ideal city) partly because some people have had problems with this site - leaving comments have either failed or worse destabilised their own computers; partly because I wanted to be less anonymous!

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Making Hay

Sep. 19th, 2010 | 05:05 pm
location: Oxford
music: Poulenc

Back from Hay with my modest purchases:

A copy of David Gascoyne's 'Selected Poems' signed (as a gift) by his wife, Judy. When T.S. Eliot was asked which English language poets he had 'missed' failed to identify as important voices (and, therefore, not published by Faber of which he was the editor). He named David Gascoyne (and Kathleen Raine). Gascoyne left school at sixteen and went to Paris where he befriended the Surrealists and became one. (His 'Short Survey of Surrealism', written when he was only eighteen, remains one of the best, insightful introductions to the movement). His early poems are full of arresting images, piled up but in ways that hinted at future patterns as he journeyed from the 'unconscious' to an explicit, if tentative, Christian existentialism. I remember sitting in the bar of Dartington Hall, talking Buber and Berdaeyev with him: his quiet, probing voice, always questioning, exploring. He was mentally frail, always sensitive to breakdown, and had a painful struggle to overcome an amphetamine addiction (used as a treatment, become a curse). Security came in late marriage to a wonderful, nurturing woman and a Royal Literature Society pension!

Snow in Europe

Out of their slumber Europeans spun
Dense dreams: appeasements, miracle, glimpsed flash
Of a new golden era; but could not restrain
The vertical white weight that fell last night
And made their continent a blank.

Hush, says the sameness of the snow
The Ural and Jura now rejoin
The furthest Arctic's desolation. All is one;
Sheer monotone: plain, mountain; country, town:
Contours and boundaries no longer show.

The warring flags hang colourless a while;
Now midnight's icy zero feigns a truce
Between the signs and seasons, and fades out
All shots and cries. But when the great thaw comes,
How red shall be the melting snow, how loud the drums!

Christmas, 1938

A copy of 'Stanley Spencer by his brother Gilbert': a good artist on a great one - an illustrated memoir of a shared childhood, of similar influences taking different paths.

A copy of the fifteenth anniversary edition of Agenda. The best poetry magazine (in English) of the second half of the last century. This edition came after the death of the painter-poet David Jones and has the autobiographical fragments on which he was working at his death (and two essays of appreciation - on the art and the writing). Not since Blake had there been an artist who combined both vocations so completely.

A copy of 'The Way Things Are: conversations with Huston Smith'. Smith wrote the best introduction to world religions (that still sells and sells and sells). He is a lucid defender of the 'sophia perrenis' with a great turn of phrase (that has made him a periodic performer on PBS in the US)

A copy of 'Searching for the Emperor' by the Italian novelist by Roberto Pazzi. I bought this because it is a re-imagination of a failure to save the Tsar in Ekaterinburg (a period of history that has always arrested my imagination, even before I knew I would have anything to do with Russia) AND because I continue to search for a modern Italian writer to like! (With the exception of Eco's 'Name of the Rose', including Eco's subsequent novels, this has been, to date, a litany of failure)!

A copy of 'The Deer Cry Pavilion: A Sory of Westerners in Japan 1868-1905' because how the 'West' encountered, understood and failed to understand the 'East' is a continuing interest (though usually I focus on India).

And, finally, (apart from a present) something completely different a (new) CD of Poulenc.

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Buber on the plane

Sep. 17th, 2010 | 04:41 am
location: Oxford

Back from America, where I had a fabulous time, and on the plane home, I re-read Martin Buber's 'The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism'. This is 54 pages of distilled wisdom where Buber, through the lens of a tradition that shaped him, gives mature expression to his own being and thought.

When Buber left Germany for Palestine in 1938, it was quipped that he would not be able to write as obscurely in Hebrew as he was capable of in German but here he is wondrously lucid.

As always, when he addresses this material, it is on the stories of the founders of Hasidism on which he concentrates, utilising them , and his commentary on them, to illuminate a way of being in the world that seeks to hallow it, and free it to be fully what God intended it to be. He quotes the Rabbi of Kotzk answering his own question of 'Where is the dwelling of God?' by saying that 'God dwells wherever man lets Him in' and s/he does that by being most fully the particular person they have been gifted to be. 'In the world to come I shall not be asked :'Why were you not Moses?' I shall be asked: 'Why you were not Susya?' Finding oneself is a balance between 'beginning with oneself' finding (and finding again) the wholeness out of which you can act faithfully in the world and not being pre-occupied with yourself because happiness flows from being for and with others.

But on each re-reading I am struck by something new or renewed: this time it was the passage on guilt. That if a person dwells in their feelings of guilt, that is simply where they dwell, their 'self' drowned in a remorse that is its own reward - and how true I remember that to be of the people in prison that I once worked with. If they harped on how guilty they felt, in the short term at least, there was little hope for real change. It was only when they found their self was larger than their guilt, that it was not identified with it, that a prospect of change offered itself. That we are 'sinners' is true, that we are more than 'sinners' is essential if we are to become who we are meant to be.

It is a lovely book, only marred perhaps by being such on 'old' translation that fails to capture the 'non-gendered' nature of 'man' in German, but that is hardly Buber's fault!

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A lesson in anthropology

Sep. 13th, 2010 | 03:01 pm
location: Plymouth, NH

Yesterday I visited the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard with friends.

I always find these places at once both fascinating and disconcerting. The first because they speak to a primary interest in the diversity of ways of being human. A diversity threatened by our 'progress' and a diversity we have to recover if we are to continue to progress in time. We cannot all become 'Western consumers' at American levels of consumption (and waste) and rightly survive.

Disconcerting, some times distressing, because many of the artifacts rendered partial and static what remains living tradition. It is akin to being invited to know one's friends only through visiting their empty houses.

Though many of these exhibits are both beautiful and informative.

We focused on Meso-America, and the Mayan murals that are an object lesson in the unfinished nature of knowledge. Before these particular murals were discovered, we had a consensual story of a peaceful, agricultural Maya, at one with their neighbours, egalitarian and organizing their lives according to the pattern of the seasons and their complex calendars. Afterwards we needed major revision as hierarchy appeared, both aristocratic and priestly, with a darker panoply of rituals, including blood sacrifice. Oh dear...how...human...

At the same time, I am reading Hugh Brody's 'the other side of eden', a fabulous account of the differences in culture, and in mind, between hunter gatherer and farmer. There is a very moving passage where a group of Inuit elders describe the meaning (and experience) on an Inuit word that might be translated as 'indeterminate fear' - the fear that underlay Inuit encounters with 'Southerners' - the bearers of power. A fear that often had the Inuit say 'yes' when they deeply felt 'no' - like, for example, acquiescing in the terrible process (also movingly described) of sending their children to distant residential schools where they were intentionally stripped of their language and culture (and often abused as well).

I wonder how often our own transactions in 'development' are conditioned by similar anxieties: people saying yes when they mean maybe or no!

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Musical traditions

Sep. 8th, 2010 | 07:52 pm
location: Oxford

On my way to Essex University today, I was listening to my latest acquisition (and being antediluvian this was a CD in a player rather than a download to my i-something) from Hesperion XXI. They are a music group of great range and ability. This particular disc is of sixteenth to eighteenth century music from Spain and the 'New World'.

The music raises many questions - the fact that its beauty is shaped out of a tragic encounter foremost. The way in which the musicality of the indigenous population was appropriated (and subsumed) under that of the dominant culture, subsumed but not buried. It enlivens the whole in remarkable ways - and you can see that it did flow back into the main currents of Spanish music. This feels like a small fragment of redemption in a darkened whole.

There is also a wonderful album of Sephardic Jewish music from Spain from which this is a hauntingly beautiful example:

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Sep. 5th, 2010 | 09:19 pm
location: Oxfford

I bought a painting. It is by the artist Andrea McLean and it is called 'Conigree'. A 'conigree' is a wood especially attractive to rabbits. England has many such: small, enclosed places of great beauty, and often stillness.

Andrea often paints very particular places, weaving into them both elements of their remembered past, whether myth or history, and of her own intense, inner imaginative life. The painting becomes a map - not like the most modern ordnance survey but more akin to a medieval map where fancy, history and geography intertwine.

From a distance they look intensely colourful as you advance nearer details, often layered, emerge,onto each can be hung a story, invited by the image and your dialogue with it. When we first met she was artist in residence at Bleddfa (the centre for art and the spirit that I then ran) and she created a beautiful circular painting (six feel in circumference) to which she invited visitors to add their small piece of imagined addition, which she then wove into the whole.

You can see examples of her work here (though reproduction manifestly fails to show forth the intricacy of the enfolded particulars): www.andreamclean.org

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The Telling

Sep. 1st, 2010 | 05:06 pm
location: Oxford

I have re-read Ursula Le Guin's "The Telling". It is a cliche to say 'this is the book that changed my life' but like many cliches it happens to be true.

I read it twice during the critical process of discernment to a Dominican vocation and it twice forestalled the saying of a 'yes'.

The Telling is the process by which the people of Akan bring the world into being. People, unlike animals, need the guidance of words, shaping narratives, bodies of knowledge. This is what the Telling provides but as
guidance, enterprises after truth, neither as infallible command or certainty. The Telling is a hallowing of this world and is rooted in cumulative experience: it cannot be definitive, it cannot create boundaries
of belief. It does not ask that anything be sacrificed for a hoped for future. Its model in Le Guin's mind is Taoism, especially in its philosophic and empirical forms - an aid to contented living, here and now.

On Akan it has been repressed as 'unscientific' a halt to the progress of reason, the newly enshrined god. The new order has echoes both of communism and of religious fundamentalism.

Reading it (and trusting that its vision is proximate to my own) made Dominican life impossible. This is not because in itself Dominican life bears any of the intolerances of that new order but it does participate in an institutional pattern of certainty that is not my own. It does claim truth, and certain exclusive rights to that truth; and, I discovered I could not. All I had was my own experience tested against that of trusted others, essays after knowing, always falling back into question.

I realised I could not represent more than this - and that the value of such representation is significant in a world where clashing certainties are only too real. This dwelling in question, tentative answering is
surprisingly hard work but it would appear where I belong, mostly.

It is not that I do not hold beliefs (I think I am a Christian neo-Platonists with Taoist tendencies) but I do so quizzically. I certainly sense/know what I value and care for and will always try to embody these, often undoubtedly failing.

There is a beautiful passage that tries to capture the posture of identifying with yet not being captured by your perspective on the reality presented that any 'Observer' (of which the central heroine is one) needs:

"A yielding, an obedience, a willingness to accept these notes as the right notes, this pattern as the true pattern, is the essential gesture of performance, translation, and understanding. The gesture need not be permanent, a lasting posture of the mind or heart; yet it is not false. It is more than the suspension of disbelief needed to watch a play, yet less than a conversion. It is a position, a posture in the dance."

It strikes me as a good rule of practice towards the world - to enter fully yet hold to any one position lightly. Perhaps it is not what we believe that is the most important but how we hold to that belief in the face of otherness, the other.

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Close to the bone...

Aug. 31st, 2010 | 12:26 pm
location: Oxford

With thanks to http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/

This is both highly imaginative, close to the bone, and oddly off course. Many Russians will not, and from the comments on YouTube, have not, taken kindly to this 'dark' compression of Soviet history. We all like to imagine that our history is what we can safely own, with a sense of honour, witness how in the UK, we even manage to turn Gandhi to our account by imagining that 'other' colonial regimes would probably have had him assassinated (or at least locked up permanently with a dash of torture thrown in for good measure)!

Though this piece does acknowledge the 'high' points of the Soviet Union - defeating the Nazis and putting a man in space - they slip pass quickly in a flow of 'greyness': Soviet man labouring to build a state that consumed its own - which, of course, it did, and the inability to come to terms with this shadow side impedes Russia's progress today.

But it does nothing to capture a parallel reality which was people's inexhaustible ability to cope, make do and mend, shape patterns of friendship and solidarity (detached or insulated from the State) and flourish.

I suppose this is what is always missed in the official flow of history (or, in this case, satire on this history). It is a kind of satire, however, that insulates people from addressing the harsher truths. Look how they see us, they can say, all grey, no colour. This is not who we are.

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Aug. 30th, 2010 | 02:20 pm
location: Oxford

Today I finished the last volume of Kathleen Raine's autobiographies 'In the Lion's Mouth'. It is an extraordinary volume, telling of her relationship with Gavin Maxwell. It was an asymmetrical relationship - on her side an intensity of self-offering that slipped dangerously into possessiveness, on his an unacknowldeged need to be seen, recognised, that Kathleen offered, but ultimately failed to achieve. It is a story that is both ennobling and sad.

It speaks of love as a reality in which we indwell and whose obligations go beyond the exchange of mutual feeling; and, which yet is bound to the frailties of feeling. A force that we do not control and which we so want to control. The book is one of the most sustained meditations on both the possibilities and failings of love that I know.

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Gloomy doomy

Aug. 28th, 2010 | 11:08 am
location: Oxford

I made a presentation to colleagues this week on 'global trends' especially the shift in power away from 'the West'.

From a capitalist-communist duopoly, we briefly 'enjoyed' a monopoly of power but as the United States wanes (notwithstanding the Economist's rallying support this week) and China waxes, does this mean a new duopoly and what would that look like? A G2 rather than a G8 or G20 (or indeed the collective security mechanisms that the UN was meant to underpin).

A G2 would not be uncontested either by the EU (economically powerful but politically dysfunctional) or by Brazil, India and Russia (the remaining BRICs).

But neither would a G2 be necessarily stable - the US has not (and apparently cannot) face its fundamental financial long term instability and China (as one analyst friend said) may go 'phut' (I am not sure this is a highly analytical expression) given its political instability on the back of deepening inequality, a rigid political structure and an underlying history of centripetal forces.

So power is likely not to be concentrated but more diffused, with countries allying (and dis-allying) around shifting interests (a bit like the globe in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century) until two sets of powers briefly settled into one another and went to war! Not a happy prospect...

Throw into this mix climate change, gathering resource constraints and demographics (overall if stabilising expansion and some very quirky outcomes - China's rapidly ageing population for example) and by the end, I was thoroughly depressed - though I hope my audience were merely dosed with a realism to counter-balance their optimism. You cannot I think work in development without being fundamentally an optimist!

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