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HOW MUCH SHOULD WE LIKE GAME OF THRONES?

FORTUNES OF A BLOCKBUSTER

One could say that HBO’s big as Ben Hur Game of Thrones series is like the proverbial curate’s egg  “good in parts”. If so, approaching a seventh season touted to be something of a continuous nightmare, viewers may, like Clive James earlier on in the series, ask themselves why they are still watching.. The question is pertinent if like James you don’t relish the by now distinctive violence and aren’t especially interested in the (effectively soft porn) sex either.We may have a clue to the fandom and sometimes addiction Thrones engages from the fact devotees include politicos such as Barack Obama, David Cameron and Julia Gillard. I suspect they and audiences generally appreciate depictions of the unvarnished ruthlessness they increasingly sense politics is about. And as people love to hate a bad character, the series offers plenty of opportunities to do just that. The tradition of the Jacobean revenge drama has returned….with a vengeance.

THE GOOD

     (A picture of Dark Hedges, site of Princess Aryas’ escape. Incredibly I was told this is now N Ireland’s most visited natural site (bar presumably Giant’s Causeway) and certainly the tourist traffic and crowds are all apparent)

What’s good about GOT has always been obvious enough: the sheer spectacle (realized across Ireland and 32 locations from Morocco to Iceland), the twists of plot and the intrigues, the well choreographed battles etc. The production alone is enough to fascinate anyone, especially if like myself you have ever had anything to do with drama or scripts. When in Ireland recently and on a trip that included some of the series’ locations, I was told more people are involved in the production of GOT than the whole civil service of its Northern Ireland home. So I have enjoyed insights into that side of things having moreover watched the series in the best possible way. This is not on TV but via DVDs which include features about precisely the settings, the production, the actors, the script writers, meanings and symbolism viewers might otherwise miss – some expect the series and its books to become the subject of doctorates!

More certain is that there are always going to be less than academic debates about how the epic ought to wind up. The script writers who have already imposed some variations upon the first volumes have now got ahead of the rather displeased author (who supplied only a few clues as to his final intentions) and are preparing for the last and eighth series before the final volume of the epic has been written. One might guess that the stoical, romantic Jon Snow, bastard of House Stark, will discover his true origins and (the author’s original intention of marrying him to Arya being dropped) get to marry the long suffering, reformist Daenerys, mother of dragons and so bring peace to the seven incurably warring kingdoms of Westeros. This would fit with the epic’s at least intermittent sympathy for underdogs and women. The dragons belong, incidentally, to the more magical side of an epic fantasy more realistic than magical or “poetic” in any Arthurian style and located in a para-medieval world that is nonetheless pagan and has existed for millennia.

I don’t know if and how much Irish mythology may have influenced the author, but with or without its influence there are real affinities for a work like Lady Gregory’s Complete Irish Mythology in its sprawling nature and tendency to switch between the big picture and the small item. For that reason I should perhaps not have been so surprised as I was  to come across a copy of an Irish translation of GOT in a Dublin bookshop this June. Not that the author’s writing style notably recalls anything Irish and due to certain bittiness I never found reading  GOT that easy by bestseller or any other standards. I will not try to summarize the plot here, there are plenty of sites on the Net where you can find explanations and summaries including précis of each season and episode on Wikipedia but beginners might use Game of Thrones for Dummies at http://www.thedailybeast.com/game-of-thrones-for-dummies .

AND THE NOT SO GREAT

Ultimately however, and despite some satisfaction at how much GOT has put not just Ireland but even and especially its dourest corner (Northern Ireland) on the emtertainments map, I am not a devoted fan, more an interested observer. The cultural critic in me is fascinated by the fact the series is quite such an unprecedented hit and there are things I want to understand about this. How much is this blockbuster real art and a mirror of the times with a message or just overrated sensation and questionable entertainment? I will concentrate on what’s most controversial and sometimes just bad, because this is where the crux of the popularity question resides. It does seem that so often there’s a widespread liking of the series despite this or that and the doubt list grows.

When two of the lead actors of the series, John Dance and Kit Harington were introduced to the literary source for the series, the former thought the books “frightening” in their thickness (how could one read so much – the first volume alone is over 750 pp?!) and the latter felt the material “the weirdest”. Lengthy Tolstoy himself couldn’t outdo this bestseller – except for literary power. Game of Thrones and its sequels are not classic literature. They can be over-complicated with in places a constant addition of characters making up for strength of narrative – quite a lot of readers and viewers do give up on account of the intricacy, something compounded by even the author’s bizarre use of names. These are often either unnatural, forgettable tongue twisters like Viserys Targaryen or too similar for comfort. For example the leading character (as opposed to the hero) who is the dwarf Tyrion of house Lannister, must hold its own against among others, Tommen, Tywin and the whole house of Tyrell and the house of Tully, and Samwell Tarley and Brienne of Tarth and Theon Greyjoy, Tion Frey… and quite simply the author has a running love affair with the letter T.

Ordinary names, words and titles get altered around like Joffrey for Geoffrey, Jon for John, Eddard for Edward, Maester for Master or Meister, Olyvar for Olivia, while numbers of royal or noble characters like Sir Jamie have inexplicably to be written as Ser. There can also be mythically suggestive names like Cersei which is obviously Homer’s Circe though Cersei isn’t really like that anyway. This queen of intrigues is not a solitary witch but a very socialized woman. House Lannister into which Cersei is married is an echo of Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses which is one source of author George R R Martin’s general mythology. Its chief inspiration is admitted to have been The Lord of the Rings, though perhaps even CS Lewis’s Narnia just a little to the extent winter and snow is a theme – the motto of the northerly House Stark is “winter is coming” .

LANGUAGE AND ACTING

The profusion of often weird names is almost minor against the strangeness of whole sections of the drama being interspersed with quite lengthy orations and conversations in an invented foreign tongue associated with especially the Dothraki people. Subtitles offer no translation. I take it the idea is inherited from certain late experiments of Tolkien with Elvish but it’s hardly either very entertaining or revealing- in fact it’s boring.

Odd too is the crazy patchwork of accents among the actors, posh, cockney, north country, Irish etc which I imagine belongs to an increasing pop culture, post modern will to include and diversify at all costs, even if it doesn’t fit natural expectation for the characters involved. But it also belongs to increasing emphasis on the visual over the auditory, a preference for strong presence over powerful delivery. (Sometimes there is near incomprehensible gabble or whisper instead of clear diction, though again that’s hardly unique nowadays to GOT). A few of the actors, especially among the younger ones, struck me as pretty weak. They delivered their lines in ways that trivialize or infantalize the sense, but then you later realize they were probably chosen because they are otherwise versatile – good acrobats, dancers, horse riders, swordsmen, good lookers or whatever.

Both book and film script are free in their use of the vernacular. Together they convinced me for once and for all that, paradoxically, vulgar talk and four letter words simply don’t automatically lend realism and power to drama at all, they may even reduce it to the atmosphere of a kid’s playground. ( I have just been re-reading that strangely violent Victorian classic Wuthering Heights, and find it loses no power but simply noting someone began to curse).

It’s true there are nowadays journalists to tell us that when things hotted up between Prince Charles and Princess Diana they might scream at one another fit for the gutter. But that’s still not necessarily representative for them or  royal history or anyone. More typical of royals and aristocrats across history has been their inability to unbend and leave the high style or etiquette. Before her execution Marie Antoinette even said “pardon” to her executioner when she tripped on his foot. Occasional verbal outbursts may therefore be the reality for individuals, but fiction and drama offer summary (caricature) only and thus authority figures can’t afford too much characterization via the merely exceptional or they become less credible…..And the atmosphere for actors and audience itself evidently risks infection. It’s almost but not quite amusing that in one of her DVD interviews Cersei actor Lena Headey employs variations of the F word so much, so often she sounds like a case of Tourette’s syndrome!

VIOLENCE

The fantasy is set in violent “medieval” times but some of the violence like that periodically directed upon a blind Arya by the Waif in the black and white house of the heads, is pointless and unexplained. Series Six included skull crushing, eye gouging and burning at the stake  (of a child) so one wonders how and why the seventh season is supposed to be more violent. With DVDs it has been easier to avoid some of the gorier and morbid violence by fast forwarding. Extended scenes of torture are quite simply unnecessary, especially in a show which is ultimately entertainment and fantasy of sorts. The torture and castration of Theon, dubious character though he might be, are objectionable and morbid as is also portrayal of his humiliation – he is to be gradually reduced to the animal or to a contemptible non entity called Reek. (Much later in the series he is deprogrammed back to reality and dignity or sorts and even helps save Princess Sansa from her marriage cum imprisonment. It is one of the oddities of the story and its often disjointed script’s lack of exposition and explanation that we see the pair jump off battlement walls in what seems as though in despairing suicide only to find them hail and free later).

I have only read book one, but the TV series seems true enough to Martin’s violent realism which is persistent, ugly and everywhere. If I open Volume One taking just a sentence or two at random I get (and this is mild) “Blood had gushed from the boy’s mouth as he collapsed, and more was seeping from the slit in his belly, pooling beneath his body. His palms were cut where he’d grabbed at the blade. She backed away slowly. Needle red in her hand….”

We learn the production company use a concoction with blueberries for vivid blood, and they make it all sound very funny, but one gets weary of blood streaming from mouths, eyes, stomachs, and sometimes necks. Series three ends with “The Red Wedding”, a spectacular and breathtaking orgy of bloodletting and decapitations at a wedding banquet. This is overkill (no pun) for what is only fantasy; but if you insist it’s life and  history, then life has enough of it for us to need to get away from it. However, if we aren’t being offered “realistic” blood for the inspection then we have to suffer such as Tyrion vomiting badly. I am not aware how the Belfast production unit composes the vomit.

SEX

I suspect that a recent confession by Dame Maggie Smith that she  probably couldn’t become an actress today because she would lack the now requisite courage to keep removing her clothes, is influenced by the nudity of GOT. There’s plenty of bare flesh and sex in Thrones but a major part of it has to do with Lord Baelish’s (Littlefinger’s) King’s Landing brothel. It is used in plots against enemies and to manipulate people. The dwarf Tyrion through perhaps inferiority complex, gets through many women but almost loses his heart to one whore.

I would agree with Clive James that the sex is basically Hollywoodized (one might say Playboyized) as it directs upon women. An emphasis on women might seem only natural and inevitable except for one vital point. If you are not directing porn as such (and in fact adult film actors were brought in for some of GOT’s sex scenes), stage and TV portrayals of nudity have long been justified provided they were essential to the plot and perhaps reflected also something more like honesty, vulnerability, spontaneity rather than glamour. Not only is some of GOT’s exposure of the glamorous whores and the lesbianism of some of them irrelevant to any plot, but a key element in the story, a princely homosexual intrigue with major consequences, a trigger to the religion/inquisition threat to House Lannister, is almost skated over by comparison. Its psychology is unexplored and its expression little shown. In short, if relevance and realism were any criterion, a series as frankly outré as GOT should have shown more male and less female nudity. That it hasn’t raises question of artistic integrity, sexual equality, etc. (Granted there was intended to be a nude scene for Kit Harington’s popular hetero Jon Snow character, but it didn’t proceed because the actor broke his ankle….life on set in GOT is dangerous!….but if it had gone ahead would it have been relevant save as gratification for Harington’s fans?).

The sole light relief from the controversial slave market erotica of the brothel and the suggestions of primitive sex among the Dothraki is in my opinion the hilarious first night of the jubilating, innocent Tommen with his queen. The young and exquisite Dean-Charles Chapman reports it was extremely demanding to perform. This can be believed and he deserves a medal. However you won’t see more of him clothed or unclothed as he has committed suicide out of the palace window rather than been killed off like his mad brother Joffrey and so many others.

AND THE MEANING IS?

Although a story doesn’t have to have a meaning, with the source text stretched over vastly more than War and Peace, and drawing in huge audiences across years, meaning could be expected. We may have to be satisfied with absorbing a general message or even just feeling about life rather than anything more philosophical or theological though sometimes the story veers in that direction. There is a whole plot line in the conflict of new and old religions, specifically one that holds to seven gods and the other to a new god of fire and light, the latter suggested to the author by Zoroastrianism in its struggle against polytheism. The supporters of the one god are fanatics or hypocrites. Their behaviour appears to look back at the medieval inquisition and thus fictionally seems like a dig by the agnostic author at Christianity especially as it’s followers of the old gods who seem a little more enlightened and generous. It does however get suggested, contemporary style, that perhaps all the religions are the same anyway.

Unless the series’ conclusion will indicate otherwise, I think all that we can derive by way of “message” is that war is always more or less futile, that human existence offers bleak prospects, that just survival is the main game and that amid it any meaning arises from purely random individual acts of wisdom, courage and generosity. The dwarf Tyrion exemplifies the wit to survive but, with a nod towards feminism, it’s if anything the women like Arya and Catelyn Stark and Daenerys who beyond using the mind own some generosity. Jon Snow and his sidekick Samwell Tarley are not a bad second for male consciousness. ….

OR THE MORAL AMID AMBIGUITY IS?

Apart from random acts of sense and kindness there is no real moral principle or centre to this story of “you win or you die” situations. Even the better characters are distinctly flawed. Catelyn Stark has been rotten to bastard Jon Snow though she has the grace eventually to admit it. Her principled husband Eddard, one of the more attractive characters of the saga launches the drama in a cruel way, insisting on the beheading execution of a soldier who having escaped an attack from the supernatural White Walkers and who thus provides useful news, is seen only as having deserted his post. The better characters don’t necessarily have more fortunate endings than the worst. Call this pagan amorality or postmodern moral ambiguity, but in the final analysis how really true to life is it if realism is any kind of aim?

The ultimately amoral quality of the saga is well represented by its treatment of one of its main characters, Ser Jamie, twin brother of Queen Cersei. From the first the pair are in incestuous relationship which they have justified from long standing Egyptian-style tradition. In a fantasy readers may allow them this alibi, but what they cannot or should not allow is that Jamie in covering for this affair throws Eddard’s son, young Bran who espies the pair from the castle window, to what is intended to be the child’s death though in fact it will be life as a cripple. Although this is criminal behaviour and pointless too (since would the child understand the situation or be believed if he reported it), Jamie is still allowed to emerge as something of a kindly, admirable hero. This marks an improbable character development which if it avoids ethical questions seems scarcely true to life either..

SOME CELESTIAL MARKERS

It might take astrology to explain the retiring author of GOT, his tastes and aims, and in fact I mention it because it does supply one or two clues to his influence and  and the virtual  cult he has launched. George RR Martin (born 20th Sept 1948 at 9.25 pm Bayonne, NJ) saw light of day with Sun in Virgo. He also had a Saturn hard on him at 0 degrees of that sign, a feature which belongs with the painstaking labour of his novels but also the over-intricate plot and the narrative theme of a celibacy in contrast less to romantic love than sexual chaos.

The actual concept of a “game of thrones” owes something to natal Venus conjunct Pluto in “royal” Leo, with the Venus then in positive aspect to Neptune (any fantasy and any film). Venus is the lesser benefic i.e. rather fortunate, and GOT was fortunate to get off the ground after its rather shaky pilot experience. The ultimate success and huge outreach of the series is helped by the expansive and fortunate aspect of fortunate Jupiter to Pluto (fame deserved or otherwise often shows this signature) and Pluto itself on a world point besides. Then too Uranus is found on another world point, at 0 Cancer, sign of Martin’s own nation, America. The grit and murk and the whole theme of war is however due to two factors, first a moon in bellicose Aries exaggerated in its effects through its easy trine to Jupiter and then Mars in the sign of Scorpio. The latter also has something to do with the raw sex.

I am struck by what I feel is the significance for the whole GOT phenomenon of the odd, disruptive if sometimes brilliant Uranus positioned extremely on a world point in Cancer. This is the sign of America, home, family and standard domestic values and pragmatism rather than philosophy. Notice GOT is suitably a production of HBO (i.e. Home Box Office)! In certain respects Martin’s fantasy challenges Uranian style, even smashes up, the happy home with its bleak, undomestic worldview which no philosophy supports unless the anti philosophy of a post Christian postmodernism. North Korea with its mad cult of a ruling family (not to say ruthless conduct) was born a few days away from Martin with Uranus in Cancer.

SYNCHRONICITY OR INFLUENCE?

   

With Uranus on a world point the author can with exceptional ease do as art and artists often can, namely anticipate, mirror and/or influence the times. It’s well known that beheading and hanging are frequent in GOT. The series was launched in 2011 (under Aries, sign of war and of the head!) prior to the major development of ISIS so notorious for brutality, vengeance and beheadings. Isis was founded in 2004 but only became strongly active when America withdrew from Iraq in 2011. So here life could be said to follow art… if art didn’t influence it a little too. We can’t know if the organization’s younger western recruits and the likes of Britain’s Jihadi John, active in 2014, would have been encouraged in a lust for heads by the images and action of GOT.

Also during the age of GOT, in 1916 Britain’s ever controversial Channel 4 initiated what critics have called the worst show on TV, namely the dating game Naked Attraction. Individuals select a date from among persons behind glass screens whose faces are blocked out but who are otherwise naked. What is obviously controversial about the show is not the nudity per se, such nowadays can crop up at least briefly in other programmes or on the streets as in events like The World Naked Bike Ride. What’s controversial is the spirit of the thing, the show’s affinity, however sanitized and polite  for slave market and brothel style objectification. Boundaries are broken when bodies and body parts are assessed for attraction like so many items in a shop window. If (cable) TV hadn’t pioneered in erotics via GOT, one wonders if this kind of show would have reached a national broadcaster and the mainstream. The same could be said about rape. If there wasn’t rape in GOT, would it have got itself against protest into the popular Poldark series? (And we know enough about the late author’s attitudes to be certain he wouldn’t have wanted it in any adaptation – he objected to the BBC’s earliest version of Poldark, when the hero’s wife was portrayed as sluttish).

If we look back in time rather than forwards it is at least ironic and as they say “goes with the territory” that of all places in Ireland it is the region of Ulster should play host to (and by now be half colonized by) GOT. Ulster has been famous for violence  and not just in recent centuries but back into the mythic past, which as said may have influenced Martin where the hero of Ulster, Cuchulainn, plays hurley with severed heads. In some respects GOT carries shades of the Roman games but it may carry some of Ireland’s wilder, darker side too.

TOWARDS THE END AND BACK TO THE QUESTION

With all this in mind I return to my original question about the popular culture phenomenon that is GOT. How much should we like it? Given all the barriers to appreciation I have outlined, one can’t offer more than qualified praise. This raises questions about those whose admiration is uncritical. What is it they really value and enjoy? Can precisely the challenge to accepted standards and censorship and with it the charm of belonging to the avant-garde in-group who approves that be suspected? It so, that could be serious. The fact remains that until laws and cultural values imposed greater sensitivity, executions and many forms of punishment were spectator sports. People enjoyed viewing death and torture in the public square or in the Roman amphitheatres. Too many probably still would – even today there apologists for the cruelties of the bullfight as “culture”. Arguments to the effect film and drama somehow sublimate and keep vicious desires within limits are dubious. Rape, torture, and violence generally can always be conveyed by shouts and screams off stage. By contrast images can sow seeds and foster obsessions. And as said, who knows if Jihadi John and his Beatles band or the insufferable Sally Jones weren’t encouraged as children of the West by modern entertainment of the GOT variety?

If you find elements of GOT plain distasteful, why keep watching? There are interest groups and persons from Christians to the Turkish army, from feminists to PETA who have their objections and even acting in the show can leave people with second thoughts (Jack Gleeson who fulfilled a childhood ambition to perform in a blockbuster by playing King Joffrey, is now debating whether he wants to act any more – he’s reverted to philosophy and theology studies at uni!). So the why watch question is meaningful. In my own case the answer (excuse?) is the very human one that I like to finish what I’ve begun and having travelled so far I wish to see what more of Ireland gets onto film, know how the saga ends and have a still clearer picture of what the bizarre phenomenon of the books and its series means, my writer’s purpose in the first place..

If it ends with the dragons as virtual saviours, since symbols and archetypes may be obscure but cannot lie, I might be forced to conclude the whole enerprise was about as bordering devilish as some imagine it to be (with Lucifer in direct aspect to the author’s Venus and Mars, his sex and violence themes, that can’t be entirely ruled out!).  The dragon is a variant of the serpent and in apocalyptic vision is a form of the devil. It is interesting just how many books and films of recent vintage have promoted images of dragons and serpents as friendly, helpful, harmless or unreal really. (Though I haven’t read it and can’t say it belongs to what I have in mind, top of several  fiction lists of 2016 has been a novel, The Essex Serpent.

I suspect that in years to come GOT could be seen as an aspect of the kind of general collapse of values and self-deception memorably described in a recent non-fiction bestseller, Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe. I wouldn’t be surprised however if once the series comes to an end amid arguments between author and adapters  about how it should end, it will die a natural death and be little remembered unless as a staging post in large and super-expensive TV production. (I could imagine a fate la bit like that of the once incredibly hyped and for its time costly and spectacular Taylor Burton Cleopatra film).  And we who took GOT seriously might then seem as silly as the curate who managed to find his egg good in parts. But time will tell.

 

 

 

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Posted by on July 11, 2017 in aesthetics, creativity

 

PRINCE CHARLES AND THE POETS: A CONUNDRUM

 A CONUNDRUM

charlespoet

Thinking outside the box, being or just seeming eccentric has its uses. It has had the latter In the case of Britain’s Prince Charles in everything from useful experiments in architecture and the environment to the training of unemployed youth. When it comes to literature and despite Charles being a patron of the arts (and known for a highly traditional Shakespeare fan), the picture is more complex, peculiarly so and with what looks like subjectivity to the point of self-contradiction.It does so not least in relation to poetry as the expression of beliefs, an area in which Charles once famously declared he wishes one day to be “defender of faith” rather than “a defender of the faith”.

Yet if Charles’ major predilections when it comes to poets and poetry was anything to go by, it might be more accurate to describe him as defender of unfaith. His personal relations with especially two notable poets presents nothing short of a conundrum, though I have begun to see the conundrum entails a form of understanding that makes his position almost inevitable.

As described later, I have had dealings with at any rate one of the two poets considered here. They were two very different individuals who were rivals for the position of poet laureate – Ted Hughes (1930-1998) narrowly beat Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) to the position in 1984. Hughes, easily Britain’s most controversial poet since Lord Byron, despite all the scandals became almost family to the royals. A great natural storyteller he often read bed time stories to Princes William and Harry and since his death in 1998 Charles has erected a shrine (with stained glass!) to the poet at his Highgrove home and given permission to a hidden memorial on crown land in Dartmoor. Charles used to fish in the wilds and dine at home with the poet and his grandmother was, the poet alleged, almost flirtatious with him.

THE WILDEST POET SINCE BYRON 

by Rollie McKenna, bromide print, 1959

Women tended to find Hughes irresistible and were the problem of his life starting with the brilliant but difficult poet Sylvia Plath whom to this day many feminists choose to regard as virtual murder victim because Hughes’ infidelity drove her to suicide. The claim gained weight because death seemed to cling to Hughes like a leech. Assia Wevill, the married woman for whom Hughes left his wife, duplicated the gas oven suicide taking her daughter by Hughes along with her; another lover, Susan Alliston, died young of cancer, and Hughes’ son by Plath suicided in a fit of depression  – in this some saw genetics, some saw a curse, some said Hughes had been a domestic tyrant in a way to affect his son’s mind.

Bad though his record was, I feel it is possible to overdo the scandal of Hughes with women and similarly his reputation as virtual black magician due to his (rather Jungian) interest in the occult, alchemy, Cabbala, astrology, and shamanism – he deemed poetry a form of magic. If Hughes’s sexuality could, like his poetry, be volcanic and even sadistic, it’s a fact that when he first kissed Plath (who wanted to be a Cathy to this Yorkshireman’s Heathcliff) she drew blood from him like a vampire. But the faithless Hughes did love and respect Plath deeply (his last major work Birthday Letters is testimony enough to that) and arguably lifelong there would have been fewer flings and infidelities if the romantic pair had reconciled as intended and Plath survived. As it was, an irresistible man left rudderless and confused by his fate, followed the line of least resistance. Hughes may never have been the ogre many believed, but in one less obvious sense he was one.

As modern and especially British poets go, Hughes can be considered spiritual but not healthily so. Indeed, especially if poetry has anything like the magical function the poet assumed, then Hughes has purveyed little short of spiritual pollution itself. The early poems which brought fame in such collections as The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal represent his Tarka the Otter or Kiplingesque line in verse. They project unusually forceful feeling onto the life of fauna and are healthy enough. After Plath’s suicide a new more shamanistic, less coherent, incomplete but highly dramatic and mythic form of verse takes over in the collections Crow and Cave Birds and this colours Hughes’ work across the next two decades.

THE TED HUGHES MASTERPIECE

The genesis of the cryptic Crow – Hughes’ masterpiece in his estimation  and that of at least some critics – arose from more than one impulse, but coming to terms with the death of Plath definitely had something to do with it.It’s a protest against common existence and notions of fate and God, to which it supplies alternative answers of a sort, even if because for Hughes poetry is “magic”, an act, resolution is like a shamanic dismemberment and reconstitution of self.  If the answers are personal they are perhaps perhaps indirectly also for England whose national psychology fascinated Hughes (author of the difficult but important Shakespeare and The Goddess of Complete Wisdom which  addresses this). And Britain for Hughes was symbolized less by its heraldic lion than the enterprising crow, the Celtic god Bran’s totem.

In the beginning was Scream

Who begat Blood…..
Who begat Adam
Who begat Mary
Who begat God
Who begat Nothing
Who begat Never
Never, Never, Never

Who begat Crow…..

hughescrow

It is hard to summarize Crow or even adequately excerpt from it; one can at best supply something of its flavour, relentlessly negative, profane, grotesque with its essential protest against creation.

“A final try’ said God. Now LOVE’
Crow convulsed, gaped, retched….
….And woman’s vulva dropped over man’s neck and tightened

The two struggled together on the grass
God struggled to part them, cursed, wept….”

Adam and Eve along with God regularly diverge from all canonical portrayals.

God ran and told Adam
Who in a drunken rage tried to hang himself in the orchard

The Serpent tried to explain, crying “Stop”….
And Eve started screeching: “Rape, Rape!”
And stamping on his head”

After creation God had been called upon to take it back and he suffers a nightmare which tells him to do better. Crow, a trickster figure, emerges to help correct things in the course of which he invents the chaos of sexuality and goes in quest of his female half.

At this level of story some might take Hughes’ picture to be almost humorous in a Monty Pythonesque fashion. But there’s enough of it and it becomes clear the inversions and negations of the canonical are a launch pad for the development of statements that cannot be taken as other than abusive and profane as Crow becomes some kind of image or shadow imitation of a Christ figure as in The Risen

When he soars his shape
Is a cross, eaten by light
On the Creator’s face…..

…In the wind-fondled crucible of his splendour
The dirt becomes God

And though the particular words aren’t within Crow itself but Cave Birds, one could guess that essentially the poet’s beliefs and attitudes as in A God, amounted to the following insulting grotesquery directed upon crucifixion and notions of salvation.

Pain was pulled down over his eyes like a fool’s hat…
He was helpless as a lamb
Which cannot be born
Whose head hangs down under its mother’s anus….

His patience had meaning only for him
Like the sanguine upside-down grin
Of a hanging half-pig…

He could not understand what had happened
Or what he had become

Though the verse is complicated, I doubt that the attitude that gives rise to them is. It may be almost too easy to make diagnosis of Hughes’ spiritual condition. Around the time of Plath’s funeral, Hughes had said he did not seek to be forgiven and if there was an eternity he would be damned (1). Did Hughes mean he would suffer his own guilt forever in refusal of all grace and redemption, or, since refusal of forgiveness can entail refusal of repentance, at some level there was nothing to repent of anyway? Either way the attitude seems singularly harsh and negative and it duly gives rise to negative effects. Almost everyone would agree there was something for Hughes to be sorry for. An attitude of ongoing self-criticism that tries to learn from failure, is almost fundamental to the Christianity that married and buried Hughes but did little else for him. Whether psychologically or spiritually, the guilt or unrepentance envisaged could automatically cut the individual off from God leaving them in precisely the death-dominated nay saying dark in which Crow operates.

CONSEQUENCES OF A SINGLE CHOICE

If Hughes had reflected more upon even just the symbolism of his beloved occult sources, he might have learned something. The images of alchemy include the mutilation of the screaming lion’s paws, an image of the lion (Hughes was astrologically a Leo) needing to be cured of his defiant pride if the process is to continue. Arguably Hughes represents only the latest among notable Leos engaged upon some theatrical collision course with deity. One thinks of Jack Miles God: A Biography, which aims to cut God down to size. Among poets there is Robert Graves who invented the White Goddess and more famously Shelley who waged a long war against a half believed in deity. Some critics have seen revolt against God in the both the fiction (Pierre) and poetry (Clarel) of Hermann Melville. Leo philosopher, Feuerbach, reduces God to nothing but a reflection of the human mind. Jung’s The Answer to Job does much the same. Leo simply does not readily admit to faults minor or major, is not humble…..like the devil one might say – in my always correct data for Christ, Lucifer (the asteroid) appears in the sign of Leo. (2).

So much of Hughes poetry is insalubrious and gratuitously violent (persons fainting outright at readings was not uncommon), one is inclined to think Prince Charles didn’t absorb too strongly what was written or said beyond the earliest offerings. Or perhaps core messages were passed over as being akin to merely Monty Python entertainments to which, like the Goon show before it, Charles was partial. (Eric Idle’s popular but distinctly godless song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from the Python team’s The Life of Brian, was performed for Charles’ sixtieth birthday).

KATHLEEN RAINE, UNEXPECTED ROYAL GURU

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Though the intrepid Kathleen Raine who died at ninety five after being hit by a car didn’t qualify for a Highgrove shrine, a personally commissioned  bust of her stands in Charles home among others representing a special influence. Some have called the pair soul mates. Exceptionally for royal custom, Charles attended the poet’s anachronistic funeral in Westminster Cathedral (anachronistic because Raine considered her brief conversion to Catholicism a mistake out of harmony with her beliefs and life work), and with the Queen’s permission he arranged a memorial service at the St James’ palace chapel. At that service it was mentioned how Raine regarded her connection with Charles as a fated part of her life mission. So this was a poet who had become another of those almost but not quite family figures. Prince and poet engaged a lively correspondence and Charles used to call in at the writer’s Chelsea home in Paultons Square for tea and cakes and pep talks where he was distinctly encouraged to pursue paths less travelled, was assured his position was the hardest and loneliest in the world but that he must  not surrender one inch “to the riff raff”.

In contrast to the relation with Hughes, Charles had to have been very certain about what Kathleen Raine represented as chief co-founding editor of the magazine Temenos (founded 1984). It began as a review “devoted to the arts of the Imagination” with the understanding that most meaningful  expressions of art are related to the sacred). Suitably impressed, Charles became its patron and later gave room space and lecture time in his new Academy of Architecture to those engaged on Raine’s project. He was so impressed by it the magazine became the Temenos Academy Review, effectively the review of a school Charles sponsored that was devoted to promotion of the Platonic Good, True and Beautiful across cultures. Charles himself contributed an article, A Sense of the Sacred – Building Bridges between Islam and the West. The magazine had been originally inspired by the work of Henry Corbin in France, an Islamic scholar who taught the fundamental unity of the Abrahamic faiths, though I think that emphasis minimally reflected any beliefs or interests of Raine who was drawn more to the faiths of Asia.

IN PARENTHESIS: BELIEFS OF PRINCE CHARLES

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Charles’ Temenos contribution is the sort of thing which especially early in the century fostered rumours about a private conversion to or profound affinity for Islam, a point on which I shall briefly digress though I can’t possibly know truth in this matter. Undeniably there were visits to Muslim shrines, a donning of Muslim garb, controversial words uttered about the possible integration of Sharia Law to Britain and at least one Sheik (Mohammed Naim al Haqqani, Mufti of Turkish Cyprus and a Sufi Grand Mufti) would affirm that Charles was unofficially Sufi, a Muslim in his heart as Allah accepted (3). It could however be that HRH’s enthusiasm (he has spoken of “the perfection and beauty of original Islam”) was the expression of an earlier era when few knew the finer or any details of Sharia, when Islamism had not emerged and appreciation of world faiths had a stronger aesthetic emphasis (If Charles is enamoured of Islamic art he fancies Greek icons too in harmony with Raine’s connection of the aesthetic with the sacred).

It belongs with Charles’ “out of the box” treatment of themes that recently he has bemoaned the relative silence of media in the face of the genocide of Middle Eastern Christians. This is not like a convert’s talk. What is known and certain is that Charles has been strongly influenced by the universalist religious ideas of Swiss writer Frithjof Schuon, who regarded at any rate mystical Islam as a potential unifying force in the world and converted to Sufism, though also being associated with Amerindian tribal religion and other systems in his quest for primordial faith and perennial wisdom.. Mark Sedgwick in Against the Modern World probably gives the best description of Charles’ belief and I cite this in note. (4)

RAINE: LINKING THE AESTHETIC AND THE SACRED

As said, Raine founded Temenos to promote precisely   “imagination” and a sense of the sacred. This was to be furthered amid modern deserts of materialism and ultra-rationalism. She considered all true poetry a form of Platonism and genuine poets Platonists at heart, though perhaps like Hughes she believed verse could be “magic” too. At one time and in imitation of Yeats, Golden Dawn ceremonies got performed in her home. At least a couple of poems seem to indicate she saw or was visited by spirits (The Elementals, In Paralda’s Kingdom).

A major, ground breaking  authority on William Blake, and a noted admirer of Yeats, (both figures seen as representing “imagination”), Raine was a distinguished critic and significant advocate of neo-romanticism in especially poetry. She was herself by general consent an accomplished poet if unevenly so as she half admits in her final Collected Poems. This  excised some pieces, the sort of soppy, sentimental, rather confused personal stuff you feel shouldn’t be there – KR’s love life had always been troubled and in the case of gay author Gavin Maxwell, guilt-ridden as she had (some said successfully) cursed him in a fit of rage when he couldn’t reciprocate her desires.

When not about love or urban and rural scenes, the more mystical or philosophical of Raine’s verse tends to oscillate between awareness of being isolated as perhaps a fragment of a larger whole and awareness of somehow being or warmly included in that whole.

Thus:

I am a wave
That will never reach the shore

I am an empty shell
Cast up upon the sand   (The Unloved)

……It is enough now I am old
That everywhere above, beneath
About, within me is the one
Presence…     (In my Seventieth Year)

I am old and alone but boundless
All is everywhere
Once is forever (A Love remembered)

This emphasis early on and continuously supplied KR a kind of spontaneous affinity for Hindu identity mysticism, though she did not realize this till late and the last two decades of her long life. Before that and as the daughter of a rather repressive Methodist preacher, she had been in flight from Christianity, unclear even what the word “God” meant. Earth’s great cry of joy and woe that KR hears and then a consubstantiality with the earth she feels is perhaps…..

….What men called God
Before the word lost meaning. This
That needs no doctrine to make plain,
No cult to offer or withhold
A union more intimate
Than breath of life…….  

Sometimes rejection of or by God (however described), strikes a strange note.

God in me beats my head upon a stone   (Storm)

Stranger still are statements as from Judas Tree to the effect that if it was remarkable Judas was a betrayer, it was almost more remarkable the other disciples, “So stupidly, so tentatively faithful” were stayers. The poet realizes she has more often been a betrayer (of Christ?) than Judas, but sorrowed less for it and isn’t like Judas hanging on a tree.

While Raine could hardly claim to have betrayed anyone to death, it seems plain enough that between her critical and poetic work for much of her life she was a nay saying neo-pagan. It was the combination of a belated discovery of India and then the discovery of herself by Charles, that gave Raine more purpose in life and something approaching specific direction of faith. It then took the form of hymns to Shiva (Prayer to the Lord Shiva, Nataraja, Millennial Hymn to the Lord Shiva) and even addresses to the sun

Sun, great giver of all that is……
How address you greatest of givers,
God, angel, these words served once, but no longer…
But no myth, as before our eyes you are or seem…
Am I in you or you in me….?                          (To the Sun)

In some sense and in a poem dedicated to Charles, she could see how by tradition kings were sun identified. (Legendary Kings).

The Millennial Hymn to Shiva, asks who else can we pray to with the days of praising the Creator over and so much of the world being destroyed, than the Lord of destruction, a destruction that purifies. In the violence of Shiva, Raine seems to find some resolution of the passive and aggressive elements of her divided self.

MEETING KATHLEEN RAINE

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                         Kathleen Raine                                               McCleary in 1987

Back in 1987 I knew Ms Raine chiefly for her well informed, insightful critical work, but I knew she had founded Temenos and was generally a promoter of the neo-romantic. I was hopeful she might perceive myself as a neo-romantic, more especially in poetry where I had produced material working towards a loosely tantric, East-West aesthetic. Earlier in the decade I had enjoyed an international critical success (in prose) on East-West cultural and religious issues as a result of living many years in Asia, but poetry was a sudden new arrival in my life. Even today I remain surprised at just how proficient some of the work like the Anuradhapura I offered to Raine, actually was given that it came without any real precedent. The poems now in Puer Poems (the title influenced by Jung’s theory of the Puer archetype I somewhat celebrate) (5), had nonetheless hit a brick wall. There wasn’t a magazine or publisher would give it the time of day for almost any reason. It’s wasn’t the writing itself was bad, it would have been hard to maintain precisely that. It was always something else. You must go through magazines first, magazines objected the poems were too long or exotic. It was quite clear anything neo-romantic,  East-West or “occult” (one of the poems evoked theatre in terms of kabbalistic concepts) was simply not to be considered. You need to be Yeats or Ted Hughes before you can be tolerated for such interests.

Since I lived in Chelsea when I wasn’t overseas, I decided to wander down the Embankment and call at Paultons Square and ask for a poem or excerpts of some to be included in Ms Raine’s esteemed magazine so that I might have the recommendation of it to wave at recalcitrant publishers. As I thought it might appeal to her, I was even bold enough to present myself as having some affinities for the world of Yeats. This was not as foolish or presumptuous as it might sound. Even a department head for my first degree on meeting me years later, remarked he wasn’t surprised at my development as he had always registered me as a type of young Yeats and within a year or two of meeting Ms Raine, a rara avis, a poetic drama based on a Celtic mythic theme, had been accepted by the ABC in Australia. Contemporary Irish verse which has largely followed the British modernism Raine abominated,  contains little or no romantic, mythic or religious content. I can state unequivocally I am closer to Yeats than any of Irish nationality writing today. (I could also claim to have been continuously discriminated against because of it too!).

So…. theoretically there was no special reason for Ms Raine to refuse me the favour of a page or two of print in a sizeable review. I knew I ticked most of the boxes or seemed to.

Having described Ms Raine and meeting her in my memoir, I won’t say much more than this. When she got round to checking me out more particularly CV wise, and I mentioned that my internationally well-reviewed The Expansion of God had been published in Britain by SCM (a respected publisher of theology and philosophy), she almost choked with horror gasping “Oh, so you’re a Kistian!”. And while I sat (quite likely where Charles would sit in full view of her dancing Shiva bronze), she launched into a lecture, almost a tirade, about the superiority of India over the West, the nonsense of Europeans trying to bring any religious wisdom to it, etc etc.

Raine’s biography states that some considered her an autocrat. Sensing as much myself, I felt virtually certain in light of her shock that I would not be accepted whatever I said or did and that I would be sentenced without trial. Unsurprisingly, the details of the later refusal proved not just mean in the context of my thankless task of being published for the kind of material Raine should support, but suitably absurd. How could someone admitting I had something of Wordsworth, then object I exceeded his expression of the egotistical sublime by admitting the purely private to my verse. Here was an objection (surely a Jungian projection!) from someone herself embarrassingly personal in her own verse to the point of complaining (since Raine was once celebrated for beauty) of her thin hair and old breasts and whose revelations include how she managed her cat, “Is Pussy coming to bed?”  (I see my little Cat). My own work would seem downright impersonal by comparison. And any religious prejudice was ironic too since, however Christian I might be personally or in the published book I’d mentioned to her, the reality was that the material that would constitute Puer Poems unlike more recent work such as Raphael and Lucifer and Other Visionary Poems, (6) had nothing Christian to it at all. Conservative Christians might even have objections to the content, and given the way I’d employed religious and mythic imagery I didn’t believe in, I could almost have been taken for a Buddhist or Yeatsian theosophist.

POSSIBILITIES AND LIMITATIONS OF POETRY

Poetry can be and do many things. At its higher reaches it can function to change perspectives, further unity through new thought syntheses, grant vision to people. Accordingly it can be all of Ted Hughes “magic” and national definitions and likewise Kathleen Raine’s “transcendence” and evocation of the Beautiful. However, even Raine’s devotion to the Platonic Beautiful cannot avoid the Good and True.

The greatest originality can never entirely circumvent basic psychological and spiritual principles. If, like Hughes, one refuses anything like “repentance”, one will be left raging in the dark, and if like Raine one dismisses all issues of truth-in-belief in favour of the claims of tradition, love, inclusion or whatever, one will merely finish in self-contradiction…. not to say the discrimination that officially one’s position may claim to be opposed to.

Raine may establish Temenos to unite cultures, beliefs and creativity across the board, but practically she would be strongly opposed to and exclusive of all Christianity (outside possibly the Meister Eckhart ultra-mystical “heretical” kind) and caught in the branches of her own Judas Tree. The position exemplifies the biblical statement “Whoever is not for me is against me and whoever does not gather with me, scatters” (Luk 11:23).

THE UNIVERSALIST PIPE DREAM

Prince Charles has never been notably fortunate in his gurus – the “Jungian” adviser the late, Laurens van der Post (another Chelsea resident and a friend of Raine) has been shown to be such a lying fraud and some claimed a pedophile, he is today best forgotten and unmentioned – but I suggest that where poetic gurus are concerned, the complication repeats itself if more mildly. More mildly, but not with less potential significance for the Prince’s credo, and perhaps increasingly that of many who incline to the same would-be universalist views.

One sets out to include everyone, to defend “faith”, to love the world over its component national or whatever parts, but one finishes with discrimination in fact. At its worst, it is precisely tolerance, acceptance and inclusion of all people, races and faiths that in Britain has allowed the Trojan horse scandal in education and the sexual exploitation of minors through police fears of “racist” charges if they point to crimes and values protected within specific cultural and religious groups. In this way the moral ideal breeds the immoral one and the religious ideal fosters spiritual pollution.

Arguably the truest., most appropriate poetry for our times would be prophetic satire, nothing more, nothing less. I could envisage a sort of update of Pro 7 with this time a lost, aimless Europa and her unruly offspring wandering “in the twilight, in the evening, in the time of night and darkness”. But I sense it is already too late to tackle the momentous subject of rapid western decline in all its daunting complexity. Albeit from a different perspective, I share some of the pessimism of Raine’s Millennial Hymn to Shiva. in which already there is something less to warn against or correct than to resign to and mourn. It is has become apparent to me that writing well and relevantly today only raises insecurities and resentments in those who determine the face of literature. I mentioned last article the case of a leading Australian poet who while giving me the back-handed praise rather like Raine’s Wordsworth compliment that I had the musicality of Virgil (not a bad hit – tell the Dartmoor shades of classics translator and astrologer  Ted Hughes that asteroid Virgil conjuncted my sun at birth!), the fact I had included such “hopelessly archaic words” as “conduct” and “bestow” meant I could not be published with Penguins.

The rapidly increasing decline of the West is due not just to its materialism and PCness but among other things its artistic decadence, pundits like Raine invoking light but too often fostering darkness. As said, this decline is a theme already almost too large, too late for any one person or artist to tackle and after much striving to be allowed any kind of voice, finally I refuse to attempt such tasks, though my Beyond Dover Beach is a gesture in the direction (7). As the Taoists have it, “to retire is best”. In my own case I am satisfied that retiral and silence are the appropriate response. “Where there is no vision the people perish”. But if help is not wanted, often it is not right to insist upon giving it either; casting pearls never helped anyone or anything.

As to Prince Charles and because he does enjoy influence, one can only hope he is more fortunate in future with his gurus of art, avoiding the contradictions into which they could lead him and others.

NOTES

1) Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, p.219
2) Testament of the Magi: Mysteries of the Birth and Life of Christ, goo.gl/I28aCm
3 ) Alleged Sufi conversion https://goo.gl/MF2qYF and  for continuous updates over the years on Charles’ statements and gestures vis-à-vis Islam see https://goo.gl/YnNndW
4) “…..Charles’ own position might be described as anti-modernist Jungian and Emersonian universalism. At the opening of his Institute of Architecture he defined “spirit” as that overwhelming experience of awareness of a oneness with the Natural World, and beyond that with the creative force we call God which lies at the central point of all….It is both ‘pagan’ and Christian and in this sense is surely the fundamental expression of what we call religion”. In the same speech Prince Charles spoke against “scientific rationalism:” as “destroying the traditional foundations on which so many of our human values had been based for thousands of years” Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History. Mark Sedgwick. Oxford University Press 2004. n. 45 p 328.
5) Puer Poems  (2011) goo.gl/ymnMmr
6) Raphael and Lucifer and Other Visionary Poems (2016)  goo.gl/Xqd5BF
7) Beyond Dover Beach: A Poem of our Times http://wp.me/p2v96G-gY

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2017 in aesthetics, Poetry, religion

 

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RAPHAEL and LUCIFER: Religion, Vision and Verse

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Lucifer, the Prince of Air, descends to the lower hells to teach his minions how to launch a great deceit upon a sophisticated but unsuspecting humanity. Elsewhere the foreseeing Archangel Raphael explains and reveals what this will be, but will his warnings be heeded?

RAPHAEL AND LUCIFER and OTHER VISIONARY POEMS is unusual as poetry today and definitely different in its ideas.

VIDEO  recording from WildSound of Part  One of the four part  Raphael and Lucifer  mini-epic is available at this address: https://goo.gl/SkBFL1

THE BOOK with essay and notes is available on Amazon  at http://goo.gl/C32i3H\  and The Book Depository at  http://goo.gl/YOyEB0

(The book’s brief INTRODUCTION is reproduced below).

IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING – THE PROMOTION QUESTION

It’s not because Raphael is  “just” poetry, and certainly not any kind of “bad” poetry that this published author’s rather ambitious project doesn’t come with the imprimatur of  standard publication and promotion. One of the few UK publishers who accepts both religion and poetry today, acknowledged this is poetry to the highest  standard; but since I am not known for a performance poet nor am resident in UK for promotion purposes (so vital in publishing today), they couldn’t afford the risk of taking me on.

Actually they suggested  a certain Australian publisher might oblige. Of that story perhaps another time, but sufficient to say any religion/poetry combination is seriously hard to get through any hoops anywhere today. Agents don’t normally reckon to represent verse of any sort. Also I am not living in a metropolitan area to be in contact with the club of “right” literary persons and circles – who probably wouldn’t be interested anyway. Years ago a leading Australian poet refused me for Penguin New Poets for presuming to include – despite what they admitted was some superior “Virgilan”  writing –  “such hopelessly archaic words as ‘conduct’ and ‘bestow'”. …..

With almost everyone and everything to hinder  – the reason I abandoned anything poetic as a waste of time for over two decades – all the more reason  if you appreciate this project, that in the interests of supporting a wider range for poetry today (not to say freedom of thought more generally) you care sufficiently to  “like” it, review it, buy it, share it but essentially do whatever helps spread the word in a world of social media.

RAPHAEL AND LUCIFER:  THE INTRODUCTION (REPRODUCED) 

All the poems in this collection are to a lesser or greater extent visionary or metaphysical in a way poetry today doesn’t tend to be. Even so, they are still much involved with contemporary issues, persons or feelings. In theme and style however, Raphael and Lucifer stands apart from the rest of the collection as being a mini-epic.

Raphael is a deliberate experiment on two levels. First and obviously it is an exercise in poetic composition, specifically an adaptation, or at least evocation of, the now half lost traditions of epic and the Miltonics of especially Paradise Lost. (Mini-epic looks back to Catullus).

Second, there is an exercise in presenting and representing some often ignored, virtually censored but still developing ideas with regard to human origins. My own views as a doctor of religious studies are more fluid and liberal than those of any true blue creationist would ever be, but broadly I accept notions of theistic creation and ID (intelligent design which last, incidentally, is not the province of specifically Christian thinkers only). Given my bias, I have become increasingly aware how such belief can too easily finish treated in ways which leave meaningful argument, new facts and simple logic out of the picture. The situation can be unhelpful to the cause of truth generally and the spiritual life more particularly (even the question of divine existence and speaking of it in schools may now be involved) and we need to consider this.

Poetry is one medium that has always supported wide and sometimes unusual perspectives on things. Also, from the mythical Orpheus on through the Roman Lucretius and the English Milton and numerous tribal bards around the world, poets have been concerned with the nature of things, the mystery, spectacle and origins of life. Modern poetry has largely abandoned the theme although Ted Hughes stirringly translated Ovid’s curiously biblical evocation of a creation in the celebrated Metamorphoses. In my own case it has been appropriation of the mysteries of existence (and effectively the popularization of unbelief too) by media gurus like David Attenborough and Brian Cox, spurred me towards some poetic reaction.

Though both creationists and evolutionists can be charged with a literalism that insufficiently appreciates Genesis as poetry, it could be objected no one not a scientist, whether evolutionist or creationist, can really enter their arena of contention today with much authority. I disagree. It is well known and notoriously so, that the greater part of the educated public that bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was not able to understand it. The smallest minority of us are qualified scientists (or theologians) but this need not preclude us from drawing a few general conclusions about life and our place in the universe. Sometimes the issues science presents to laypersons invite almost more the application of some logical and philosophical thinking than negotiation of the most rarefied physics and mathematical theory. If Richard Dawkins openly disdains even to reply to dissenters, it is maybe time for dissenters to dismiss the blizzard of scientific data thrown at them in favour of more insistence upon examination of the basic reasoning involved with it.

Apart from the fact – a generalization but not unfair – that the operation of evolution is extrapolated from evidence for examples of micro-evolution not notably demonstrated at the macro level (which instead reveals sudden changes), essentially we are faced with two parties who claim a guiding authority for whatever declarations they make. In one case the authority is the bible and on the other “science” with its methodology. But just as biblical studies can open upon considerable divergences of opinion over sources and the interpretation of texts, so the empirical science which gets packaged for popular consumption makes claims which often conceal the range of speculation, theory and disagreement behind them. It is not unreasonable for example, to stress, as would especially creationists, that there can be quite a gap between “observational” science which treats of data reliant on tests that can be repeated, and “historical” science which offers data not directly testable and observable.

Since moreover even evolutionists are compelled to concede the limits to any account of origins via natural selection and genetic mutation alone, practically much of the argument beyond the welter of facts boils down to two differing treatments of a time factor. There is the story of a development across a time span necessarily assumed rather than absolutely proved to be almost infinite in order to cover for observed changes in the absence of a Creator to guide them. Then there is the narrative of a more designed creation over a short, or at least shorter, time span by a Creator who wouldn’t need time on an extreme scale for the often statistically improbable accidents and transitions of evolution to arrive at present human life. For both parties so much is involved with just interpretation of their facts and a species of faith that there can never be too much agreement. At most one can hope for the open discussion by no means always in evidence.

We hear much of the prejudices of creationists because they can seem obvious – almost everyone knows at least a little about Genesis which can then be dismissed as mere myth as against recently made scientific discoveries whose authority will go unquestioned. We hear less of the insufficiently examined a prioris, prejudices, even eccentricities of atheist evolutionists. These are well symbolized by the way in which the distinguished Genome Project scientist, Francis Collins, an evangelical but one who nonetheless accepts evolution, is still dismissed as a clown by most fellow scientists simply because their position is effectively that today no one but an atheist can be a true scientist. This is unacceptable and absurd, especially now there are some scientists in the style of Francis Crick, the pioneer in DNA research, prepared to attribute life on earth to extraterrestrials because of the difficulty of letting evolution account for just everything.

No more need be said in introduction. Any further points can be referred to the notes and the postscript since otherwise there is a danger the reader will not open themselves to the spirit of the poem and will approach it with already too many arguments to absorb it for what it is on its own level.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2016 in aesthetics, Poetry, religion

 

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JESUS AND WABI-SABI: THE STYLE AND IMAGE QUESTION

JESUS AND WABI-SABI

WabiSabi2

THE MISSING PORTRAIT

What Jesus looked like has been a subject of endless speculation and artistic representation. Almost inexplicably the most popular article I have written for this blog has been Colton Burpo’s “Real” Heaven, Akiane’s Jesus and New Christ Images http://wp.me/p2v96G-lH. I suspect its popularity could be involved with its inclusion of an attempt to make theological sense of certain biblical claims about Jesus’ appearance and go some way to “identikit” a true image of him aided by the true and still working astrology for Jesus I claim to possess.

But something was absent from that exercise because I didn’t know it until recently. And because I believe the heavens do “utter knowledge” as per Ps 19, do tell us the truth and help to reveal real mysteries, I have to add the following to my perception of the subject.

There are many asteroids in the heavens and many will be irrelevant to us because they are just names that must land somewhere. Even so, name, place and concept asteroids when significantly placed in a birth chart repay our attention. Accordingly I believe the following fact has some value. It tells us something about the appearance of Jesus and even supplies clues to the nature of incarnation because the relevant celestial factor was within conjunction of his ascendant (the body, the personal style) at the time of birth.

WABI SABI: CONCEPT AND ASTEROID

The relevant asteroid is the almost untranslatable wabi-sabi, a key concept in Japanese aesthetics, especially Zen aesthetics, and of chado, the related tea ceremony. It involves beauty of a special kind, unconventional and sometimes, though not necessarily including what might seem almost ugly or at least a little rough because it can include imperfection. Yet it can be elegant – the tea ceremony and raked sand and stone Zen garden obviously are. Overall and typically however what is wabi-sabi is modest, unpretentious, muted, evocative, rustic or rooted in nature, intuitive, intimate and inward, unstated or understated. It is often accidental, muted, more shadowy than light, perhaps incomplete, faded or asymmetrical, more interested in the detail than the grand plan.

Wabi-sabi is almost the complete opposite of the West’s typically measured, idealized and idealizing, rationalized, finished, explicit and “solar” Apollonian beauty which aims to shine like the midday sun rather than lighten with the beginning and ending of things as of early dawn or evening twilight. Within the West something like desire for wabi-sabi is expressed in Robert Herrick’s famous poem, Delight in Disorder which begins “A sweet disorder in the dress…” and after enumerating examples like a loose shoe lace finishes, “Do more bewitch me than when art/ Is too precise in every part”. Yet, if we examined the “precise” figures and proportions of the Apollonian up close we would find that they too were imperfect. The perfect circle is never perfectly circular nor the perfect square square. It is only a matter of degree and perspective. The perfect circle is a Platonic idea.
Zen

THE BEAUTY UNDESIRED

In the Colton Burpo article, I suggested that Isaiah’s prophesied Messiah who “has no beauty that we should desire him” (Is 52:3) means most essentially that he won’t manifest the style and appearance of the hoped-for conquering hero, himself perhaps a Hebrew militaristic version of the radiant, Greek Apollonian male ideal. While I still believe that is the main and original idea (especially as no Messiah could be ugly since even just a priest was required to be without blemish and note that anyway modern translation like the NRSV’s may substitute majesty for beauty), wabi-sabi can still enlarge upon and illuminate the original prophetic claim. It can extend it into something more positive and spiritual than just a declaration rejecting a type of historical or cultural bias in a people’s expectations.

Wabi-Sabi involves a beauty that reveals itself essentially to the trained, teachable and alert mind, these being essentially humble. The tea ceremony is not the Last Supper or Holy Communion, but practitioners of the ritual must prepare themselves and even (like entrants to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity) bend beneath a low door to enter. They must also dress and act simply, because in the ceremony all become equal. Only given the right mood, attitudes and gestures will the beauty of the ceremony reach into awareness and become an epiphany of existence.

SEEING AND SEEING THROUGH

Surely something of this attached and attaches to the Jesus of the incarnation. His appearance is elusive. He does not immediately impress in the Apollonian fashion and he does not aim to. Speaking of perception generally, the Jesus of the parables, citing Isaiah, warns the people will look without seeing, will hear without listening (Matt 13:14).

The Catholic church currently has a well meaning but often contradictory Pope who has surprised many by proposing that atheists can be saved although it’s a biblical dictum that no one can please God unless they have faith (Heb 11:6) ). If one accepts that statement then in line with its claim I would suggest one might always need to have a degree of faith for the eyes to be sufficiently opened to perceive just what the beauty of Jesus was and is. I suggest that (again a bit like the tea ceremony principle!) the beauty would be integral, something that would satisfy and express at more than one level…

The biblical tradition is much opposed to the idol and by association somewhat the image too, often the psychological cum spiritual servant and equivalent of the idol. The idol/image can paralyse and confine the mind especially if it seems very ideal because then appreciation becomes essentially intellectual. There is no identification with it because we are not and cannot hope to be like it. Even in just everyday life men especially can pursue the perfect woman in terms of appearance though she may not in any sense be a soul mate or even someone who could gratify authentic erotic desires. She is desired as a possible possession, the token of an ideal to be seized or won. However, as said, true beauty is and needs to be integral, satisfying and fulfilling at more than one level – the psalmist even suggests we “taste” and see that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8). As the poet Ben Johnson suggests in “Still to be Neat” and in agreement with the mentioned Herrick on the charms of simplicity and occasional disorder:

Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Than all the adulteries of art:
They strike my eyes, but not my heart (Italics mine)

And of course in religion and for its devotion the heart must be struck. The eyes easily deceive and mislead.

There is no grounds with heretical and culturally blinkered Gnostics to maintain that Jesus was necessarily ugly and stunted or even to think of him as what the French in their own a nod towards wabi-sabi values would call un beau laid (a beautiful ugly person). As already indicated, the assumption is not even strictly possible in terms of traditional Jewish culture and values, nor could it fit any more Christian theological notions of Jesus as “A Second Adam” free from the effects of anything like original sin. Jesus would have to have been attractive and even ideal in some fashion but just not in any merely standard and obvious way. Humanly any beauty would be somehow elusive and inclusive as indeed might even be the heavenly kind too – I think of one alleged afterlife experience of Christ in which the person describes Jesus’ face and person always slightly changing as he gazed at it.

Certainly at the level of teaching, but doubtless too in some respects as regards his appearance, with Jesus one is always invited and required to see more and beyond. One needs to reach into a spiritual world beyond the material and everyday rather as an aim of wabi-sabi is to reach into “the Invisible” (even if for disciples of Christ the Invisible is not a revelation of a world that evolves from nothing only to transform back into nothing as per strict Buddhist philosophy).

A SOMETHING OR NOTHING AND THE ANGEL OF THE LORD

Wabi-sabi is relevant to and has coincidental affinities with Christianity in terms of its revelatory style rather than core philosophy because for Christianity there is creation of something that will return to something. What is mysteriously revealed in Christ – hidden in plain sight wabi-sabi style but often missed by almost everyone from liberal Christians questioning incarnation to Hindus teaching Jesus as one of numerous “avatars” to Muslims proclaiming a non-composite Oneness that denies God can have any “Son” – is “The Angel of the Lord”.

This figure is the “form” or visible manifestation of deity and for early Christians the pre-incarnational Christ. This person appears to humans as a human even while it is declared at Sinai that no one may see God (the Creator) and live (Ex 33:20). Thus a judge of Israel, Gideon, encounters this person, first as a man in the field then suddenly panics because he realizes he has somehow encountered God and so fears to die. (Jdg 6:22). The slower father of Samson is at first just puzzled by sight of an angelic man whose name he eventually asks only to be told it is too wonderful to be said, (again a bit like the wabi-sabi revelation that can’t quite be stated, the YHWH name revealed to Moses was not to be pronounced or taken in vain by Jews).

It follows that the eyes of Jesus’ disciples need to be opened to see who and what Jesus is – and to initiated disciples he and it can of course even be perfectly “solar” as at the Transfiguration. A solar, regally messianic Jesus exists – as such he is “the Lion of the tribe of Judah: (the lion is always symbolically solar) and the figure of apocalypse itself. But within time and towards his era, to this age which is the age of grace, the age of Pisces which Christ’s birth introduces and which is now drawing to a close as belief declines (perhaps in line with Jesus’ question/forecast of Luk 18:8), Jesus is more hidden and simply evocative of many things. He is so like the symbolic ruler of Pisces, Neptune.

It is crucial, expected and a proof of correctness of any major issue in astrology that everything must agree and be mutually enlightening. Thus, if we presume to say that Jesus is the very essence of Neptune, hidden ruler of the era as astrologers maintain, then it is appropriate that the eminently “Neptunian”, inclusive aesthetic of wabi-sabi be complemented and echoed in the asteroid that musteriously rises at the birth.

Most western representation of Jesus, even including through the early icons, is more or less Apollonian at very least in being fixed rather than elusive and evolving. This corresponds to the fixity of some early creedal statement and Apollonian models in earlier pagan and imperial art rather than the element of fluidity in biblical narrative which carries such information as that Jesus “increased” in wisdom and favour with God and man. (Luk 2:53).

Through participation in life Jesus’ wisdom is increased and I think it would be true to say, though many would disagree, we can perceive some enlargement in Jesus’ realization of his person and mission as his work continues. Thus in the apparently early Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ programme seems largely to be perfectly living out the life of the Jew in a Jewish society still under the Law whereas later realization of purpose and destiny seems more absolute, mystical and universal. And whether that impression owes more to Jesus or to those recording his words, there are undoubtedly some gaps, puzzles and apparent contradictions in the gospels with which commentary has been wrestling ever since. Wabi-sabi style the reader is not permitted the luxury of the completely finished work (with Mark’s gospel absolutely not!) but must instead work and live with the material to grasp some of its elements. The gospels have their real and distinctive literary style yet they are also rough edged or etched like a chado cup. Sometimes the problems of reading can be resolved by scholarship and background awareness of historical factors, but not infrequently resolution may come with something like a Zen flash of insight. Regardless, any tensions inherent in the understanding of the gospels, Jesus and incarnation are not usually sensed or expressed through western religious art of the standard kind.

The test and drama of Jesus’ life was that the divine nature and characteristics are present but condensed. They needed to be claimed, realized, taken with faith so that Jesus struggles like an ordinary mortal unaware, (unless by vision and faith), that his being cannot fail in ordinary human ways when faced with ultimate challenges of his fate. (I endeavoured to stress this point in my poem The Hidden Deity, http://wp.me/p2v96G-wZ).The human Jesus, though theoretically and in the long term his Second Adam nature could always be renewed, is still temporarily subject to exhaustion, stress, hunger, frustration, temptation. The divine is neighbour to the human in Jesus, there is a rather wabi-sabi blending of effects, including that of time.

Wabi-sabi is about a beauty subject to time and gesture rather than one that aims at a timeless transcendence. Jesus is “perfected through suffering” (Heb 2:10) because as long as he is within time he (on the human side) is in some sense incomplete, developing and growing into the potential he has. To that extent Jesus might be called “imperfect” or unfinished; certainly he is in a position where he can become “sin for us”, something which outside of time in eternity he could not strictly be. Once out of earth time he is seen fully for what he is more divinely as in the visions of Revelation which conclude the biblical record.

AN ALTERNATIVE AESTHETICS

Can we draw any comparisons at all with anyone known who has wabi sabi near the ascendant? Assuming a correct birth time, one instance would be the poet Walt Whitman of the once notorious Song of Myself. In this his rough (but almost deliberately assumed) persona is offered to the world like an incarnation of something – in his case the new democratic American or even the new gay male. The essential point amid the obvious difference with Jesus is that there is the same distinct sense of “This is my body”, the self in some fashion offered, very exposed to and for everybody and yet still a mystery.

The matter is beyond present scope, but with Whitman in mind I imagine (thinking of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae and her provocative but meaningful statements regarding gays and the formation of the West’s crucial Apollonian aesthetic which almost dominates in Christianity) that wabi-sabi might be a clue for analysis of aspects of gay aesthetics and desire. These don’t as often imagined all readily correspond to the Apollonian. They can be also be more shadowy and even murky (as in, say, the erotics of leather, bear or grunge cultures, the glamorizing of industrial settings or docklands as sites of desire. These zones belong more to the elements of earth and water than the fire and air through which much spiritual imagery customarily tends to translate). Anyway, if the Apollonian is considerably gay perhaps we might say that wabi-sabi at the secular level was closer to the concept of queer.

A SIMPLE AND UNAFFECTED BEAUTY

Walker2

Reverting to specifically images of Jesus as I discussed them in the mentioned Colton Burpo feature with its “identikit” work on Jesus’ figure, practically I think the wabi-sabi finding could encourage one to place a bit more emphasis and focus upon the exampled Virgoan images as they contributed to the exercise. One needs for Jesus an appearance not ultra-special but just generally pleasant, healthy, open and attractive in an almost country boy way, not notably dramatic, alluring or shining forth like his ancestor Solomon – noticeably Jesus prefers the lily of the valley to the glories of Solomon! I illustrated this earthy, almost plant-like attractiveness through the late Virgo screen actor Paul Walker and a Walker-like portrait of Jesus from artist Richard Hook.

Quite what we might want from (western) painters is still hard to say. All religious art, not to mention the image of Jesus, is having a hard time. Modernism hasn’t helped and probably never will. It is itself becoming repetitive and tired. Probably we need a new romanticism in art with elements of Caspar David Friedrich, Turner and Blake to convey a different, more fluid, growing essence of life and hence in Jesus too as “Lord of Life”. Perhaps it is an oriental or a new form of East-West art which is needed; the one certainty is that new inspiration and some change is required.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2015 in aesthetics, religion

 

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JUDAS STOPPED AT DUBLIN: A Poem of Spiritual Pollution and Ablution (in Yeats 2015)

   Judas    Dublin

This blog and my books are sufficient witness that as writer and poet I don’t oppose criticism of Christians, Christianity or any religion. It is, or should be, a universal democratic right though increasingly non-western religions, not just militant Islam, oppose it. (Hindu nationalism, emboldened under Modi, shows a sudden increase in persecution of Christians with last Christmas believers even attacked for carol singing!). Even so, I still find unacceptable some levels of lampoon and abuse of beliefs that – practically – are the psychological and cultural equivalent of racism. Their unimpeded expression amounts to a pollution of the social atmosphere. To surround religious issues with gutter talk and obscenities is not “satire” or “free speech”, among other things it’s just aggressive bad manners….

To revive an old issue, but as it happens at a relevant time, Brendan Kennelly’s The Little Book of Judas (2002), a selection with additions to the  400pp The Book of Judas (1991), is a case in point. I was reading Judas in early January before the Paris massacre, but though its poetry is one of a kind, it  seems newly topical,  especially now  those of us outside France finally know more about what Charlie Hebdo beyond the tragedy really represented,  and could wonder if Christians didn’t  always have  more reason than Muslims to be offended by it. (With at last report 70 churches in Niger torched, Christians have paid more than enough for the ultra-secularist rights claimed by the cartoonists  and defended by  sympathizers as though the quintessence of western freedoms they never quite were). Whatever, I don’t accept that material like Judas can be justified as ‘really” therapy (discover and express your inner Judas!) or a special kind of truth telling society needs. Nothing and nobody terribly needs it………[This introduction is continued below with the notes]

JUDAS STOPPED AT DUBLIN: A POEM OF SPIRITUAL POLLUTION AND ABLUTION IN YEATS 2015 (1)

PART ONE: POLLUTION

Judas I am, so damned I’m full of
The highest of wisdom you wouldn’t
Believe, (though you need to for sure).
A reason don’t pray for me please,
You’ll only be cured of yer Oirish lies
And deceit and forgiven when you stare
Down my tunnel of darkness faithfully
Hearing my own and Beelzebub’s verbiage.

Which I couldn’t stop if I tried.
Just as I couldn’t do ever. You maybe
Heard how, irrepressible always,
My saucy questions and filth made it,
To that Last of the Suppers at which,
You may trust me, I wasn’t blootered (2)
Unlike B Behan being himself as usual.
I had too much to spout out
At that solemn occasion and later
Because, you know, Jesus couldn’t have
Done things so well – “salvation” and all that –
Without me as enabling guide and
A Mouth the better to have your attention.
Consider for even the average occasion
Jesus keeps butting in with his talk
And you’d need to remind him
To pass you the salt. [3]

My power with words has good nuns transfixed
And they writing me letters, recognizing
My insight which conveys them
More grace and insight than
Counting their beads and swallowing bread,[4]
While the youth of mixed-up new Erin
They come to me just as to Jesus –
Even their favourite old rocker
From Joshua Tree says I fly high as
The Holy Ghost flies (3) (while I talk Spiriteff).(5)
But it’s fine if and when they blaspheme:
Their laureate told them it’s hatred of God
Brings the soul back to God and
Fair needs foul any time.(6)

I’m the very best voodoo. I visit
The poet by night and can raise him
Higher than Keats for skill in that negative
Knowing that absorbs things from
Grass blades to angels.[7] I let him hear
Voices, his own, your own, Erin’s own,
Lucifer’s, you name it, there’s no
Psychic or shaman will be in contention.
Hearing my voices my poet, alert, grabs
His pen or the laptop – instant creation!
Any labour of mystics – and isn’t the poet
A mystic? – that can’t combine all the input
From awareness all’s’ One, has not
Yet found truth, not learned with the Serpent
That truth too’s a lie. Come join me on journeys
Through muck of the mind, for some it’s a way
Of the cross, for others just fun. Whichever
It’s all much the same, your chance for
Some carousel rides at life’s fair where it’s
Laughter will save and purify “soul”.

For you too can hear me, you eventually will,
I really can’t hold back the words more
Than I can my bladder and bowels. Beginning
Is what I most do and am replaying always;[8]
I don’t understand the meaning of “end”.
Nor for that matter “empty”. It’s a fact
The colostomy bag of my verse
Is so full there’s hardly room in
All those houses of Erin that publish
To contain the treasure of dark pearls
And slime that I pour over pages and
People when I’m not wandering
Dublin to see the night sights, the sick
On the streets, the dead in the Liffey.
It all so reminds me of beauty, indeed
Is beauty itself as the pen of the
More mindful of poets always knew
Since Jim Joyce could look out at sea
And think it fine as a nose-dirty hanky.

Humour, it’s something I’ll always retain.
I like to see life’s funny side,
Like Lazarus back from the grave and
Begging for tea or Flanagan asking
How much he’d receive for nailing
You know who to what and just when.
And then that day I was thinking
God was an unmarried mother in
Limerick, somewhere out West. God
Hasn’t heard half my jokes yet. I tip him
Good Morning and suggest that Nazareth
Folklore carries some interest. But I don’t
Have reply. Never mind, I persist in the
Hard work that’s mine though I can’t know
Why it is I’m the chosen any more than
A poet from backwaters Kerry…. You
Want my advice? Off with you all if not
To Lough Derg, then for penance I’ll say
Take a look at yourself, see just who you
Are, like Cromwell, Hitler and lords of IS
I say there lies your labour and duty.
Let nothing constrict your imaginative
Life, your sublime logorrhea or cheek.

PART TWO: ABLUTION

DALKEY  Dalkey Bay Twilight

Dismissed but not followed we may pause.
Where are we? Today perhaps anywhere:
Dublin Bay, Dalkey, Killiney, even Dover [9]
And there surveying the sea you’ve remembered
Or those oceans imagined which are always
Moving within you whose secrets in essence
You know. Whichever, just look and hold
Those waters in view and hear them. For now
It is evening, and the tide is returning
But winds gusting and high waves are rising
With new force under twilight’s soon darkness.
They sweep in, rushing forward the time of the
Curse-ridden final degree of the fishes, [10]
Its wild depths, long and notoriously site
Of too many drownings, of suicides, losses,
Of lies and betrayal, all that supports
The great sum and weight of human despair.
“Then where”, soul inquires, “is the place for
Our shelter, where the protection that there
Surely must be? Does not even the deepest
Level of darkness precede or hide light?”

Maybe and sometimes indeed, but an age
Must have end and the weather and fashion
Of minds obscures the divine which
Itself is already and mostly withdrawn.[11]
Till all times and seasons will change it’s
Evil that reigns. All rule by the Good,
All justice, protection, these mark but
Intervals only, favours to right deeds
And faith. But if prayer asks the wrong God
Or the right name too late, souls risk
To become or to stay victims still.
Too many voices will silence soul’s hearing
Of God and too many voices lend
The divine many names. Beside the
Oceans of time and of life the peoples
Are waiting, but waiting for what?
For whatever flatters the human,
Appears the most easy and binding.
A new name will arise, but will only deceive.

I thought us alone but he hears us,
The traitor, the one born of this sign.[12]

“No, but how strange”, muses Judas, I take
The so minor role of the old cheeky kisser.
Me? Wouldn’t you think it’s another example
Of how God is always making wrong choice?”

Well, for love neither of God nor of man could
Your choice alter ego, that poet presuming, check
Any words on his tongue or committed to page.
His being could never envisage a too lowly task
On the stage of this so ugly beautiful world
That invites the uses of art…Be assured, then,
Since your mouthpiece in Dublin disfavours
All thought of vocation that’s minor
Your role was never so minor (the while
Its choice was far from divine). Beelzebub
Smelt out the weakness, saw how your mouthpiece
Could finish those non serviam labours
Of JJ, how, using a vocal psychopomp’s aid [13]
In a few years alone with the laughter of fools
He could spirit whole mesmerized masses away
From reasonable mind, conduct them with flair
To the summits not of Sidhe but the silly.[14]

“Conduct”, can it be I’ve uttered the word,
That word deemed “too archaic” now issuing forth
Like a symbol from out of the maw of
Spiritus Mundi, seven letters of sound  [15]
Forbidding a poet, myself, to be published?
Seven letters, seven, the all-sacred number?
Yet how suitably suspect and banned
When the behind-scenes secular venom
Is busy excluding whatever that’s sacred
It can. For from homes of the poets
To publishing houses the last degree’s
Arts are simply perverse and unholy
Can’t bear or share light, can’t teach or inspire
Too often double-faced to the core,
In feeling or ethics but few levels
Higher than what might fill Dante’s inferno,
Whip and spur into action dark minds in
The houses of Erin’s children abused. [16]
See them, poets when not raking in muck heaps
Chasing the most arcane, technical word
While injustice enlarges and genocide follows [17].
Hear them, Judas’ comrades, the artists
Moaning, protesting the power of who or what
Limits and censors, hear them blaspheming
At home yet cowardly docile not to offend
The rule of belief that threatens and struts
In the role of implacable bully abroad.
Saeva Indignatio! Swift,Yeats, who
Could express, who seize the world’s now
Brim full cup of mad reeling?

Who was it the “tolerant” Voltaire pursued?
Whose career was he eager to hinder?
The same one who’d learned the rule is:
Be too kind to be kind at all. It’s the same [18]
For the good, though alas and by contrast it’s
The small leaven leavens the lump. No poet
Is called to deep feeling and friendship with evil
The project’s too easy, caught and spread
Like a cold. Who is it needs to feel through,
With or for the mind of a traitor?
Why justify (by)ways of Judas to man?
Sing him no more, you need only summon
His name and he’ll come to you and to Dublin –
Be assured he’ll make his home and hearth there.

BONOKennelly2

 [ Intro cont ]……In the wake of the Paris massacre it was surely rather irresponsible of Salman Rushdie to propose that all religion “is a medieval form of unreason that deserves “fearless disrespect”. (With 39 people including the author’s Japanese translator dead on account of his The Satanic Verses one feels Rushdie of all people might express himself with more restraint!)

As we have seen, in societies and faiths beyond the West considerably less than Kennelly’s high and persistent level of poetic profanity of which my poem gives only moderate evocation, entails far severer consequences. I don’t of course approve those consequences or agree with their ideological basis, but some permitted western literary freedoms should give us pause to reflect just how long-suffering especially Christians have been, (and shouldn’t have to have been), in relation to the values of a supposedly democratic society. For example, jokes about crucifixions – any crucifixions whether of Christ or anybody – should be deemed unacceptable whether on a  religious or humanistic basis. Such gallows humour isn’t humour. The abuse of Christianity being”democratically” tolerated only heightens the impression outside the West that it is not simply “infidel” but is so contemptibly infidel as to be undeserving of respect or rights. (a sort of attitude as in extremist  Niger that If you can’t support it over the insult to the prophet, you can’t complain if we destroy your places of worship in retaliation!). Muslims at this point ignore the reason Christians tolerate abuse of their faith which is because, unlike Islam, their belief system is most essentially a faith to be recommended and chosen, not imposed. It is not ultimately a political faith that envisages certain rights to imposition  – Islam means Submission – some would maintain globally. Democratically however Christianity and any faith still has rights that could and should be more affirmed to basic respect in the public forum.

Publishers and leaders of opinion in media have something  to answer for in what has happened to the sheer values fog overtaking public opinion in recent decades. Personally I don’t believe any publisher would be justified to issue what Kennelly produced. And though undeniably Ireland in the last century has known too much censorship for which Catholicism is not guiltless and though – fittingly for a betrayal theme! – it was a UK rather than an Irish publisher issued Judas, it is still controversial that, so far as I know, the Irish literary establishment has never seriously criticized Kennelly. Rather and as usual they (like the eccentric Bono) hastened to flatter the Kennelly of the profane and obscene ramblings that became a shock value bestseller by at least poetic and Irish standards. It is moreover amazing given the remarkable inflexibility of  Ireland’s management of such as its abortion laws, that Kennelly didn’t run anywhere near foul of the existing but never applied blasphemy laws. Be that as it may, in this year of the Paris magazine massacre and Ireland’s Yeats 2015 (see my blog for Nov 2014), we should think again about what western values are and where going. And I do have more right than most poets and writers to protest what (as indicated towards the conclusion of the poem) I claim from long experience is the situation. I don’t incidentally care if my criticisms should chance to give a little belated publicity or sales to poet and the publisher, Bloodaxe. Let them take what’s little better than blood money anyway. It is more important that truth be stated and recognized regardless. It’s the only possibility of some freedom from pollution, some exorcism of the rot.

NOTES TO THE POEM

1) The title echoes Carlo Levi\s memoir,  Christ Stopped at Eboli. Dublin has long been the residence of Judas poet Brendan Kennelly, formerly English literature professor at Dublin’s Trinity College.
2) “Blootered”, one of many Irish slang expressions for drunk. In the poem Unauthorized Version, dramatist Brendan Behan arrives at the Last Supper drunk and demanding Jesus to give him more drink. See Brendan Kennelly, The Little Book of Judas, Bloodaxe, 2002 p.78. Another Last Supper poem will speak of Judas preventing a bomb going off.
3) Kennelly op.cit. The Dinner p.167-9
4) There is a kind of person, especially in religion, who will always treat denial as higher affirmation, obscenity as the disclosure of beauty and blasphemy as the greatest praise. With its reviews of Judas publisher Bloodaxe cites Sister Stanislaus Kennedy who declares Kennelly’s “poems shine with the wisdom of somebody who has thought deeply about the paradoxical strangeness and familiarity and wonder of life’. Judas/ Kennelly must have laughed.
5).”The Book of Judas – Reviewed by Bono”, http://u2_interviews.tripod.com/id133.html
6) Kennelly, op.cit, SpiritFuck  pp.125/6.  This poem alone but many others would place Bono decidedly in the wrong in identifying/associating/comparing anything in Kennelly’s work with the Spirit  (Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit Matt 12:32 is believed to mean calling demonic evil good and divine good evil – Jesus warns the Pharisees not to blaspheme by attributing his work to the devil). The work of Kennelly and Bono, the literary professor and the rocker has been surprisingly intertwined and supported one another as high profile figures in Ireland. While I don’t vouch for all the following evangelically inspired article has to say,  the sheer mystery, often just wild ambiguity of Bono’s influential take on Christianity is treated in the following feature http://www.holybibleprophecy.org/2012/08/12/u2-frontman-bono-christian-or-antichrist-by-elliott-nesch/      And I’m bound to say from the astrological standpoint evangelicals wouldn’t care to acknowledge, I am fascinated that for someone who has so played around with Christian doctrines and reguarly acted MacPhisto on stage, we find Lucifer on an angle for Bono and what I empirically judge to be the regularly Antichrist factor, Achristou, conjunct his ruling Saturn, the devil’s planet in the devil’s sign, Capricorn.
7) Reference to Keats’ theory of negative capability whereby one loses oneself in identity with the other. “Hatred of God…” is from Yeats’ Supernatural Songs and  ‘fair needs foul”  from Yeats’ Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop.  While it would be possible to misunderstand Yeats here whose meanings were not negative or radical in the style of Kennelly, some mystery does attach to just what Yeats did believe and what kind of darkness it sometimes embraced for himself and/or Ireland. I examine this in Secret Yeats and the Hidden Arcana:  http://bit.ly/1jt9zOH
8)  Beginning is the title of one or Kennelly’s earlier, successful and celebrated persons – fittingly for an Aries, the sign of beginnings but not famous for concluding anything.
9)  Dalkey bay is just south of Dublin. For the inclusion of Dover consider Matthew Arnold On Dover Beach and my poem Beyond Dover Beach  http://bit.ly/1gLlckG                        .
10)  Dolphins, which can be sometimes seen off Dalkey Bay, were anciently one of the symbols, perhaps the original symbol for the sign of the fishes, Pisces. The 29th degree of Pisces is deemed evil and unfortunate. To live as now at the end of the age of Pisces is comparable to living on the unfortunate last degree of the sign. Especially anything maritime from floods, tsunamis, major pollution of the seas and the drowning of refugees will be highlighted.
11) Although optimistic Christian philosophers and theologians teach otherwise, biblical and early Christian tradition is that the Creator is withdrawn and the devil rules the world. All understanding of and relation to God, all understanding of suffering should be predicated on that ignored belief. See my Cosmic Father, and The Great Circle http://amzn.to/128eGOQ
12) There are ancient traditions to the effect (endorsed in modern times by the seeress Jeane Dixon from alleged vision) that Judas was born under Pisces.
13) JJ is James Joyce to whose negative attitudes I would regard Kennelly as heir. See Why Ireland Needs Yeats 2015 and more. A psychopomp, Mercury being a good example, travels between heaven and earth or between conscious and unconscious. as per Jungian psychology.
14) Sidhe (fairies) is pronounced Shee
15) Yeats:The Second Coming “….A vast image out of the Spiritus Mundi  troubles my sight…”
16) The Murphy and Ryan reports shocked Ireland by revealing decades of abuse, some of it almost fit for the Inquisition, practiced without restraint within church institutions like orphanages.
17) Irish and western poets have been almost wholly absent from  protest of anything like the persecution of Christians in Muslim lands from Egypt to Pakistan and the genocide in Iraq and Syria.
18) Voltaire had an irrational dislike of the dramatist Marivaux and sought to keep him out of the Academy possibly due to the fact Marivaux was a Catholic who was not a supporter of the Encylopedie.. The celebrated quote about kindness is from Le Jeu de L’Amour and du Hazard.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2015 in aesthetics, Poetry, religion

 

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