RSS

Category Archives: creativity

DISSIDENT ABOUT DANTE

DANTE AND HIS STATUS

To have problems with either Dante or Shakespeare might be to have problems with western civilisation itself. According to T. S. Eliot, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third”.

If you can ignore Goethe, for literature that may be true enough  – in music we might substitute Bach and Wagner – but what renders Dante and Shakespeare a crucial pair  is not just their similarity in terms of poetic brilliance but their complementary difference. Dante aspires heavenwards as surely as a gothic spire, while Shakespeare, world-conquering as a Renaissance mariner, explores outwards. One is explicitly religious, the other implicitly (as in Macbeth).

Some people, especially the Irish, see the two poets in competition and keep asking who wins? Having lost both their historic language and culture, the bard’s linguistic freedom appeals in one direction while the architectonics of Dante in another. The Catholic side of Ireland would like to think Dante wins by a slight margin, which in effect he does if a rare poetic sublimity as opposed to general elevation of tone is the consideration.

T.S. Eliot felt nothing in western poetry quite compares to parts of the Paradiso and certainly little enough in English does – the nearest comparison would be a piece influenced by Dante, Shelley’s Epipsychidion, with its waves of orgasmic emotion. The Protestant Yeats allows Dante to be the “greatest imagination in Christendom”. But here my unusual problems with Dante begin and the more I thought about it, the more I felt I should pursue to its source my at times real irritation with him. It has led me to a radical conclusion about what and  how the West thinks and believes, things which, beyond his originality and encyclopaedic range, Dante often simply reflects almost too well.

A PARADISO PROBLEM

Because it is great and sublime poetry I should like to like Dante, but as regards especially the Paradiso, I can only manage reading it in short spurts to get through it at all because something about it grates and jars and it gives me a hard-to-describe feeling of being cheated.

It must be immediately stated this is not, or not fully, based on reactions either Protestant or modern. It’s true that Protestants only began to discover Dante after the hauntingly beautiful illustrations of William Blake caught their attention two centuries ago and they have usually hesitated before a Purgatario (arguably the most charming and colourful part of the Commedia) they don’t believe in. However, many read it as just symbolic of a “sanctification” process associated more with this life than the next. And in some respects, especially in his criticism of the popes and Rome and given his quite extensive biblical literacy, Dante can anyway strike a quite “Protestant” note.

Nor is my problem the “modern” one which regards the whole of Dante as terribly “medieval” and its Paradiso, drenched in light, as good as someone on drugs gone bonkers. (The drugs theory of Dante’s inspiration owes something to the fact the poet belonged to the guild of apothecaries who also functioned as booksellers  in Florence for the latest manuscripts. So it’s possible Dante enhanced a natural visionary sense with chemicals).

The fact is you can be a modern unbeliever and still be entranced by Dante like Samuel Beckett for whom Dante was some of his preferred reading, and  atheist Clive James who has produced his own critically praised translation and who says somewhere that if there is any work should qualify as a bible, it should be Dante’s Commedia. Certainly there are people for whom Dante is a kind of bible. There is for example a Daily Dante Lenten Discipline of reading him!

But with that kind of recommendation I am a bit nearer to my visceral problem with the poet. He challenges, denies or revises at times to the point of near blasphemy, everything from scripture to the nature of inspiration and the poetic role itself in order to unfold, and often impose his vision.

I remain to be convinced that Petrarch’s cool response to Dante and his legacy marks simple resentment and jealousy as opposed to discretion. I suggest that as a poet with himself at times a “prophetic” message, he was simply unhappy with things Dante and his opus represent; and these did have critics from the first. But the sheer popular success of Dante as a new style poet employing  the vernacular would soon render his legacy hard for especially any Italian to question without bringing the house down.

The very language Italians now speak is the dialect of Florence which, by a nineteenth century political fiat it was decided, because of Dante, would be privileged above all other dialects as the national tongue. And for all time the vignettes of Dante’s cosmic journey have captured essential Italian character as surely as his contemporary, Masaccio, captured still recognizable Italian looks. Dante is taught in schools like so much bible and Shakespeare. So many of his lines are undeniably haunting like the famous “E’n la sua volantade e nostra pace / ell e quel mare al qual tutto se move “, (in his will is our peace/ that is the sea towards which all being moves”) words which seem to come from afar, drifting like a bird over a bright scene.

PROPHETIC SEEING OR FAKING JUST WHAT?

So altogether Dante can’t be avoided, so much so that as a national or international treasure he can scarcely be criticized either. He himself, with shameless vanity, declares himself as early as Inferno’s Limbo region, equal companion with Homer, Ovid, Virgil and others. He doesn’t go so far as to say he is the equal of the biblical prophets; he nevertheless as good as assumes their mantle as though he was one of them, especially as (even while admitting he has forgotten and can’t describe much of it), he claims to have seen or visited heaven itself. Biblically at least, it is only prophets who have been admitted to heaven and the council of Yahweh (Jer 23:18).

Any errors or memory lapses are plastered over and concealed, with exclamations “I saw, I saw” as though he really did see. Affirmations get chanted in tones fit for Isaiah and offered as though pure scripture …. at the same time as the poet incongruously calls upon Apollo to be his muse and evidently thinks so highly of this figure of pagan myth, he even seems to approve his cruel skinning of his musical rival. the satyr Myrsus. While obviously I am not Dante, I chance to be one of the very few today who has produced anything like visionary/metaphysical poetry and I know I could not, whether seriously or in play, treat of inspiration in Dante’s cavalier manner. One stresses as a sort of honest courtesy to readers what any inspiration means. (1)

By the time Dante arrives at the Paradiso, he has learned some lessons, but the overall impression is still of a rather self-glorifying and at times unforgiving soul. The enraged cursing of the already damned Filippo Argenti in Canto 8 of Inferno and still more the treatment of Bocca in Canto 32 where Dante actively tortures a hideously damned soul whom he impels to speak through a promise he doesn’t keep, has something obscene about it, while having Virgil exclaim in praise of the poet’s rage against Argenti, “Blessed the womb that bore you….” is disconcerting if not distasteful.

In presenting himself and/or Beatrice as redeemed, enlightened spokespersons for the inspiration of a world in spiritual darkness, Dante is necessarily compelled into some painful exaggerations or scripture-ignoring distortions at times preposterous. For example in Paradiso Canto 21, Beatrice (who has become Dante’s mentor in place of Virgil and as a vehicle of grace is teaching him including through her celestial beauty), become brighter than the sun itself in the heaven of Saturn, can’t now smile at Dante lest he be burned to a crisp. It is not possible, especially not before the general resurrection of believers, that Beatrice could be either so powerful or transformed as to do this. Dante has already accorded her power beyond perhaps the angels.

IMAGINATION AND IMAGE

But in modification of this severe judgement and to repeat Yeats, the latter was, however unintentionally, right to define Dante is the imagination of Christendom. Yeats meant this approvingly but “imagination” can have a downside and be deceptive. In religion it can bolster the vain dreams of the false prophets (Jer 23:16) and Dante largely reflects directions of the western imagination  to whose shape his vision conforms. It does so even when it makes assumptions of a kind which turn the Judaeo-Christian tradition on its head and psychologically into a kind of idolatrous expression of soul over spirit.

Dante’s is the supreme religious literary expression of a larger western idolatry of the image, and thus of the desire to see rather than to hear God, to contemplate as opposed to interact with God and to shift ordinary religious experience into a matter of seeking favours and contacting with intermediaries from saints to angels rather than deity. Dante himself embarks on his saving quest through the intervention of no less than Beatrice, St Lucy and the Virgin working together. What he discovers  about God is arguably less than what one might derive from the seventeenth century Metaphysical poets.

While, as said, Dante like many people today claiming NDEs, admits that he has forgotten much of his paradise vision and that he can only reconstruct it, the reconstruction is too often unsatisfactory no matter how glorious the poetic tones and images that sustain it. It corresponds neither to what the scripture he otherwise often refers to in the Commedia indicates about the afterlife, nor to the kind of things we might reasonably generalize from the diverse testimonies of NDE experiences today.

Nor does it satisfy the ethical sense or spiritual feeling to read of the dubious persons supposedly enjoying high blessedness in heaven like for example the emperor Justinian (seen as super corrupt and even demon possessed by some Greek Christians according to Procopius’ The Secret History). Numbers of Dante’s glorified notables have been chosen largely to fit the poet’s political theories and bolster his underlying conviction about the need for a secular saviour. This should be someone in the style of Emperor Henry V11 who had inconveniently died, someone independent of the corruptions of the papacy and ruling within an ideally church/state divided world, fulfilling the greater destiny of Rome first outlined by Virgil, Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.

ODD HEAVENLY CITIZENSHIP

Because the emperor Constantine’s established toleration of Christianity rendered the Virgilian ideal at least possible, this ruler (albeit criticized by Dante’s Justinian for transferring the imperial capital from  West to East ), is still glorified in heaven. The level of distinction is in blind disregard  that this emperor only formally converted on his deathbed, having largely used the church to further his position and support imperial unity, while he himself was guilty of murdering his wife and son. Arguably Constantine also stands as chief inspiration of the evil of most subsequent holy wars because of his dream that he could win battle victory under the sign of the cross. (Here, if ever, was a lying dream no Christians should have ever endorsed, given its source in a clearly unrighteous person not even at the time adhering to the faith).

The Holy War ideal is nonetheless celebrated in Dante’s heaven of Mars where knights of Christ, crusaders etc, have their reward. The whole of Paradiso is divided up into heavens of the seven planets (lowest moon and highest Saturn) in accordance with some notion of universal “justice” which with “love” should rule all things including celestial cycles. Saturn as a symbol of highest heaven below the Empyrean is odd given that across history, and certainly in medieval times, Saturn was a devil planet, source of misfortune, and misery. Dante places in this exalted sphere the dubiously uncorrupted St Peter Damien, a fanatical ascetic whose enthusiastic condemnation of gays had inquisitorial effects. St Dominic, a major promoter of the Inquisition, is found in Dante’s heaven of the sun.

In fairness, it would obviously be hard for anyone from poet to theologian to convincingly imagine the divisions and rewards of heaven; all would probably be unsatisfactory. Dante’s celestial levels at which souls are able to manifest to him (they really dwell in the Empyrean and elsewhere) are a sort of appearance only within the larger celestial rose, an exquisite garden overseen by the Virgin for Christ. It may sound all terribly mystical, but Dante’s distribution of bliss and glory is really quasi-philosophical; and as opposed to the would-be objective, schematic arrangements that ensues, it would have been closer to Christian tradition to have simply housed souls according to either or both of

a) how closely the individual had been to fulfilling the divine will and generally “knowing” the heart and mind of God (like the Beloved Disciple or the prophet Jeremiah to whom some of his contemporaries compared Jesus) or

b) emphasising the qualities of the planets over their order outwards to the Empyrean. Thus the poet could have put the heaven of Venus (signifying love) at the summit, if only because the Christ of the last things, the apocalyptic Christ, is self-declared as “the Bright Morning Star” (i.e.Venus) who has overcome Venus as Lucifer who is source of evil). Or again, since the Paradiso describes a progressive increase of light, Dante could have placed the Sun at the planetary summit.

One of the weakest points of the celestial organization (indeed of the Commedia’s entire system of value judgement at its three levels) is exemplified by the treatment of Cunizza da Ramono within   the level of Venus. Having earlier doomed to the hell of incontinence the unfortunate Francesca da Rimini, who surely had some case for divine forgiveness, Dante lets off the also real life Cunizza lightly, even glorifies her. A sort of Good Wife of Bath figure, she had had four husbands and two lovers, and left the first husband to become mistress of the poet Sordello, (whom Dante meets up with in Purgatorio). She is permitted to rejoice and she even laughs that she has forgiven herself because she has at last found the meaning of love in its divine aspect and thus she can make what was her occasion of sin the basis of redeemed life.

Ignoring that one could well stress God alone forgives sins (Mk 22:7) and that all redemption has something to do with “predestination” (as higher up even St Bernard concedes) never human choice alone, Dante’s depiction has to be understood against his system of values more generally. According to this – and it would have seemed more meaningful to medieval persons imposed on by tradition and parental authority – we have an inborn nature that must be fulfilled. Denied, it becomes unhealthy and will run to evil. This is true enough, as is also a belief that if God forgives us we need to forgive ourselves too. Even so, here and at points throughout the Commedia, Dante’s treatment of evil finishes over-rationalized, at times shallow vis this emphasis (perhaps never more so than when he attributes what today we would call homosexuality to mostly bad wives). To cite an Italian example against him, Italy today is the chief centre of revived practices of exorcism. Its exorcists would be the first to insist evil can run deep, and some bad impulses can even result from such as occult involvements and family curses, a case of the sins of the fathers visited to the fourth generation ( Ex 20:5). Much more is involved than a few thwarted impulses.

MARIA AND BERNARD OBSESSIONS

Having read and written in the past on this subject of exorcism and its effectiveness (2), I would further add that the effectiveness of exorcism (some are carried on over years!) can be weakened by another factor which features as one of the stand-out contradictions of the Paradiso and which I would associate with especially St Bernard of Clairvaux.

At almost its highest point of the Paradiso, from the Empyrean emerges Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. St Bernard is one of the most important figures in the Paradiso because it is his prayers to the Virgin permit the poet to “see” God. However, even if by divine grace Dante was granted some kind of visionary glimpse of the Beyond, we can rest assured he did not see St Bernard in highest heaven. Not only do the gospels famously declare “The first shall be last and the last, first” but Bernard could be grateful if he was even permitted the level of Dante’s moon.

At one time the almost uncrowned ruler of Europe for sheer influence with its rulers, as a preacher of the Crusades that caused the unnecessary death of thousands and an interferer in lives – his unrelenting attacks upon the philosopher Abelard as a heretic was behind the attack on him and castration, Bernard was one of the maddest of the Catholic mystics. This was less because he was so unwashed his fragrance was hard for his devotees to manage, but because he was an eccentric who believed the Virgin had fed him drops of her breast milk. Bernard couldn’t doubt this and nor could Dante and all devotees  because had not Bernard declared one only needed to have the Virgin perpetually in one’s mind never to be deceived?

Bernard’s devotion to the Virgin which Dante so trendily follows, helped form a vision which turned the West towards a cult of the Virgin exceeding anything prior to it. As in Dante’s vision, Christ for Bernard, though notionally acknowledged as redeemer, becomes as good as subordinate to an all-encompassing vision of the Virgin’s glory, “empress” of heaven.

Standard Catholic teaching is that the Virgin is venerated, not worshipped, but practically that can hardly be said to hold and one needn’t look far in the Paradiso to trace the effects of Bernard’s doctrines upon Dante’s representatively western/catholic spirituality as they are already dramatically present in the Purgatorio. In Canto 5 there is the case of Da Montefeltro the leader whose place of death was unknown but to whom the poet endeavours to supply an ending and a pious one to somebody religiously indifferent. Staggering towards the river losing his lifeblood.

There my sight failed me and my last word sped/ Forth in the name of Mary; there headlong/ I fell; there left only my body dead.

Hell shrieks in rage at this saving of this soul, in effect by Mary at a very last minute call. Here if ever is the neo-medieval gospel according to St Bernard. Last minute conversions are not a feature of biblical record, the individual is supposed to be working out their salvation in the virtual purgatory of this life (Phil 2:12); but there is undeniably the case of the thief on the cross – whose same day transfer to Paradise itself bespeaks a system of grace in which the toils and waiting of Purgatory have no place. The thief however makes appeal to the crucified Jesus, not to the Mary beneath the cross. This is entirely consistent with two lead statements from earliest tradition and which exclude Mary from any salvation equation: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved “ (Rom 10:13) and “there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven, given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

SEEING AND APPROACHING GOD: BEATIFIC VISION

Dante’s Bernard-inspired distortions of the original doctrine, are not limited to this rather crucial point. They enter to infect the whole aim, attitude and basis of his Paradiso vision, which is to “see” God, the Beatific Vision. In Canto 32 we read, what by some standards could be called pious blasphemy, the following words of Bernard to Dante: “See that face resembling Christ/closer than all; for that bright light alone/can make you fit to look on Christ”. This is then followed by around a page of the bliss and glories of Mary as the angels chant “Salve Regina” to heaven’s own “empress”.

There is much that’s between ignorant and shocking here. Fit to see Christ? Dante and Bernard should be aware that in numerous instances like 1 Pet 1,2 the original message it is the Spirit who sanctifies and prepares whether souls or church to become faithful disciples or devoted bride of Christ. Moreover – at least theoretically – there should never anyway be any problems about “seeing” Christ any time, anywhere.

As the human face of God, as divine incarnation and mediator, Jesus is simply available, as in his lifetime, to be approached. In Revelation the redeemed of many nations plainly see the enthroned Redeemer as a matter of course (Rev 7:9,10). Nothing could be further from the author of Hebrews with its “let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness” (Heb 4:16) than this remarkably over-awed approach to a Jesus so unavailable that it takes Bernard and the Virgin working together to make even the hope of seeing him possible. This is a whole new alternative religion and absolutely no longer one of “to God through Christ” than “to Christ through Mary” and in a way to render the Trinity virtually irrelevant save as Dante’s parting, suitably abstract and impersonal image of the intermeshed circles which sustain existence. This is scarcely Christianity; it is a colourful new form of neo-platonism.

And before briefly descending to Inferno level, reverting to the point made about weakness and contradiction introduced by the influential St Bernard, practically his Marian cult would successfully undermine fundamental spiritual energies of the faith. One arguably sees this in even the embarrassing failure of two modern popes to be able to exorcise. This was something which early Christians were well known for doing without prior permission of bishops and boards of clerics and in the name of Christ alone, not Mary and the saints under whose patronage, amid elaborate rituals, the exercise now exists to what is often its confusion – absurdly, modern exorcisms can function like therapy sessions that are carried on over years, never coming to any real conclusion, just as Dante never – quite – gets to see God despite the prayers of Bernard and the Virgin!

THE INFERNO

Even as a teenager when I first encountered Dante, I was disappointed with the conclusion of Inferno which has an almost pantomime Satan at the bottom of hell, tormenting not just Judas Iscariot but Brutus and Cassius. Surely this pair who rid the world of the tyrannical Julius Caesar, himself opposed by righteous individuals like Cicero (accorded a place in Limbo), couldn’t deserve the lowest point of hell for being “traitors”. Shouldn’t figures like, say, Caiaphas (who is higher up among the hypocrites) and Nero (who’s nowhere) be there? Of course it makes no sense – except that Dante is fixated on the need for a just imperial ruler and Brutus and Cassius interfered with the foundations of the empire he admires. But condemning the pair with Judas is like making Julius Caesar a Christ figure he very obviously wasn’t.

Which reminds us how much Dante’s is a political text and a semi-pagan one. The sins of hell are not organized as they could be according to, say, the ten commandments, but rather notions of virtue and vice as defined by Cicero and Aristotle (the latter being appropriated around the time by the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas). Thus the sins of love and lust can’t be covered by the circle of incontinence alone which carries the adulterous tragedy of Francesca da Rimini, but much further down hell will deal with seducers and panders under the head of Fraud. “Sodomites” and suicides are treated under the head of, and thus in the circle of, Violence because they have been “violent” against nature or the body. It all gets quite intricate and involved, more so than Purgatorio and Paradiso which have fewer sections. It also gets colder as Dante and Virgil descend rather than hotter, though sight is never really lost to effects of any nether gloom such as would apply to the nether gloom of especially Tartarus, prison of the fallen angels, that Dante doesn’t portray.

If Irish otherworld journeys influenced Purgatorio, it is believed the third century apocryphal Apocalypse of St Paul was the main inspiration for the Inferno and its gruesome, torture chamber type details and its icy lower depths. Necessarily so since the bible has little to say about hell apart from affirming its existence and declaring that (through a body of death rather than of resurrection), there is a gnashing of teeth and some torment by worms and by thirst, and then that at the end of time as we understand it, the Hell/Hades zone gets thrown into a lake of fire for “eternity”.

The Inferno is nonetheless truer than other parts of the Commedia to things we can know about the afterlife, if not from the Bible then negative NDEs. Those persons who report experiences of hell, frequently refer to pain and harm vented on them from tormenting demons. These demons moreover seem to torment people in relation to a single sin, or if demons don’t do that, the person torments themselves in relation to one besetting sin, like the alcoholic who is thirsting for and being burned by alcohol.

I struggled over this in my own poetic experiment, an attempt at an updated Danteque journey as in The Hell Passage (3). The poem drew upon especially one reported vision from South America of a visit to hell led there by Jesus. The sinners allegedly encountered on this journey sometimes had their besetting sin branded on them as surely as Dante can know the sinners and their sin by the circle they inhabit. Is this even likely, whether literally or more symbolically, since sin is of all kinds and is present in everyone?

FINAL IDENTITY TAGS

My (provisional) conclusion is that since hell is most essentially about separation from God and whatever makes for that, it could be that one besetting sin is what confirms that separation. And since everyone’s final identity is with and through God, in hell personal identity becomes whatever is not God. Alternatively some inhabitants are shown as branded (as none of Dante’s sinners are) not with a sin but with 666, evidently people who have taken the mark or who willingly would do so given the chance, an action which insures separation.

The activity of tormenting devils seems hardly credible or fair – if they are really fallen angels, why aren’t they themselves tormented? – but perhaps their role should be seen as the equivalent of biblical claims to the effect that (until finally overcome by the returning Christ) the world belongs to the realms of evil. Ultimate damnation would include the tormenting demons too. The final destination of damned souls is not Hades/Hell but the Lake of Fire, evidently a mirror of God who is “fire”, and entails an existence through God as fire but nothing else, hence God negatively experienced in proportion to the degree of spiritual separation.

Given how much Dante is prepared to send doubtful cases like Francesca da Rimini to hell and blast the already suffering damned, curiously, if generously, he is still concerned about who is lost and saved according to their beliefs. It prompts him to allow the good pagans Cato and Statius a place in Purgatory and the Trojan prince warrior Riphaeus even a place in heaven’s sphere of Jupiter for his righteousness. And it obviously pains Dante that Virgil has to return to the Limbo of the good pagans (among whom he includes that author of the arts of seduction, Ovid!). It was for this kind of juggling with doctrine some early critics considered Dante’s work heresy, but the salvation problem he wrestles with is and should always have been a non question.

Despite his wide reading in bible, Dante, like many to this day, never absorbed how St Paul teaches that ignorant pagans outside the Law will be judged “or perhaps excused” by their thoughts at the Last Judgement (Rom 2: 14,15). While undeniably the bible appears to assume that once the individual has heard and understood the gospel, they have responsibility for their decisions, no one is automatically damned for what they cannot even hope to know. Besides which, the whole subject of ultimate salvation is anyway subject to the statement, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy” (Rom 9:15), which however is not a give-away. It is certainly no justification for notions that Dante sometimes borders on and that a modern Catholic mystic like Thomas Merton renders explicit, namely that each soul independently “chooses” whether they will be saved or damned.

READING DANTE TODAY

There are many benefits from reading Dante, and today perhaps especially from the enforced work of imagination which takes the reader outside of normal existence to hear people doing what everyone should periodically do, which is to assess their lives and motivations. The contemporary restlessness and materialism virtually imposed on everyone by media and the rat race, renders this imagining and self-distancing task increasingly difficult.

At the same time, we may also be drawn to awareness of something else we ought to know.  Dante is an imaginative summation of a particularly European way of perceiving reality but which is a distortion, at times even a negation of the Christianity it seeks to defend. There is a reason why deity for the poet, even as the love that moves all things, is so remote and abstract while women from Beatrice to Maria are so magnified, and a reason the religion of Jesus and the prophets becomes a faith politicized to the point of violence and corruption. The noted rationalism and romanticism of Europe are all of one psychological and philosophical piece.

Around the fourth century and the times of SS Augustine and Jerome, who between them rid Christianity of its chiliastic legacy (the prophetic dimension that believed Christ must return to Israel to rule in the Millennium – for Dante the Second Coming is reduced to the Last Judgement), it was reported that spiritual gifts (the charismata) of the early church were rare to non existent. One of the features of especially speaking in tongues was that the person did not usually know what it was they were saying to God (1 Cor 14:2). This was the original Christian via negativa, the not knowing which is nonetheless revelation and an uttering of the mysteries. This element of secrecy apart, it was assumed that individuals should relate to God more or less directly in a basically personal way and entering before the throne of grace boldly (Heb 4:16). And even if the glorified Christ or the enthroned God the Father were not exactly like humans, the long tradition of biblical references to their hands and eyes indicated an essential identity with the human. Christ is even described as the “icon”(image) of the invisible God (Col 1:15)

FROM CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE TO NEO-PLATONIC VISIONS

The fourth century revolution began a movement away from anything like this, and  it transposed practice to another level. It was no longer a case of saying unknown things to God but rather of not knowing or describing deity at all who must be described in negation (not good because beyond good etc) reached through the darkness and silence (the language of heaven itself according to the late medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart!) or who perhaps even was darkness or a superior Nothingness, attained by mental exercises rather than any more spontaneous means. These exercises needed to travel far, high and long as God became ever more remote, much helped by the influence of one of Dante’s own inspirations via Thomas Aquinas, (the latter high in the realm of the Sun) ,namely the Greek Pseudo-Dionysius.

Dante didn’t fall for the deception of the Donation of Constantine, but like many directly or indirectly he fell for Dionysius. Medievals decided this mendacious writer must be identical, as he tried to make out he was, with St Paul’s philosophical convert in Athens, not some fifth century subtle underminer of the entire Christian tradition via neo-platonic means.

Greek philosophy which was favourable to contemplation, almost despised the body as a prison of the soul and which held notions of a remote unmoved, mover deity, had never been entirely at home with the Hebrew legacy and its anthropomorphism dismissed in passing remarks of Dionysius. The Greek church had moreover been introduced to poisonous levels of anti-Semitism (Hitler would even approve it) through the Golden Mouth preacher St John Chrysostom. Pseudo-Dionysius is almost the summation of a Greek dissociation from a disdained Hebrew legacy. At the height of Pseudo-D’s system are angels, who, far from being co-workers with the faithful as per Rev 22:9, are exalted beings like Platonic ideas virtually barring the way to the hidden deity.

The anti Hebraic mindset of the Greeks was for all practical purposes sealed by the 8th Council of Constantinople in 869 which rid itself of the bible’s trichotomy or threefold anthropology of the self with its, Body, Soul and Spirit, substituting in line with Greek rationalism, a dichotomy of simply Body and Soul. Soul was now  what contained Spirit, a spirit as intellective spirit more or less reduced to Reason, the same Reason that underlines Dante’s entire rationalizing treatment of evil.

Originally, however, human spirit under the influence of Holy Spirit is what shapes and helps organize the imagination of soul. Soul (Gk psyche) is the reactive yin type function, the Hebrew/biblical nephesh or animal soul (the basic radiant aura or astral body of esoteric traditions). It is often what St Paul means when he refers to the “flesh” or lower nature which is more than just “body”  and which  is perceived as in conflict with the spirit (Gk pneuma, Heb  ruach) which should be allowed to dominate it. (One can picture the trichotomy as either body and animal soul nephesh together, with beyond it  spirit ruach  and then neshamah, the divine lamp,spark or higher soul, or you can portray the trichotomy as simply body, soul and spirit. Either way you have a possible reflection of the interactive Trinity that the simple soul/body dichotomy does not permit),

SPIRIT AND SOUL

If one reduces the whole drama of the self to simply a dualistic contrast and conflict of soul with body which in no way reflects the interactions of the Trinity, one is left with Logos or Word seen as purely masculine Reason tasked with dominating an unruly and despised purely feminine body. Whether in religious or cultural contexts, this distorts the masculine yang factor in man and God alike. What is masculine becomes a fixed, often cold, inflexible Reason, not a higher lyrical, adaptive, creative force. God is not a Creator whose creation can be also be poetry and sung over ( Zeph 3:7).

There is a Spirit of God, but there is also a Soul and Christ is that Soul; and because Soul is for humans the problem of what’s “fallen”, it is into the image of the perfected Christ to which the believer is supposed to be conformed (Rom 8:29). This does not and cannot happen in Dante where Christ is a dim figure, a cross, a griffen, “our pelican”, a wheel, because soul function  through the form and the work of woman (a Goethean  Ewig Weibliche  Eternal Feminine leading us ever on), has almost completely taken over obscuring the person. Dante in his ascent  instructed by Beatrice as a model of divine grace, is also teaching him via the beauty she embodies. This is problematic. Beauty is a reactive  yin force, its power dependent upon power before or beyond it.

Effectively substituting for the person of Christ, Beatrice even examines Dante in what is the equivalent of the believer’s presentation before the bema or judgement seat of Christ (Rom 8:10, 1 Cor 3:15). The entire image of Jesus  in the Commedia is suitably odd, empty or just vague. As said, it can be glimpsed (reflected in Beatrice’s eyes! ) from the head of the Christ-linked griffin in Purgatorio, to the forming and reforming cross of the heaven of Mars whose inhabitants are supposed to be close to Christ because, as or like crusaders, they literally took up the cross! And Dante at this level of heaven even identifies himself as a kind of Christ figure because of his exiled life! But ultimately, unlike other, especially female figures of the Paradiso, Christ is never quite clearly drawn, never quite characterized. He is an object of catechism, a sort of functionary to manage salvation, a precious symbol, but never quite either a recognizable person or inspiration. (Admittedly, over seven centuries later this treatment remains basically consistent with controversial statements  from  Pope Francis in July 2017 to the effect any claims to personal knowledge of or relation with Jesus can be dangerous and harmful; it is collectively through the mediation of the Church community and Mary that one may know of him).

On the social plain, the spiritual result of mis-vision in Dante’s style is that the very abuses he hated can still thrive because the outer forms (objectivised Reason) are respected as a sufficient perfection  and spiritual development (through controlled exercises rather than inspiration) can continue. And they can and will do so because they take individuals the way of soul rather than spirit. This is liable also to mean via the inspiration of women, for Dante from Beatrice to the Virgin. But this is not the way of will-shaping and correcting Spirit working on spirit as indicated by Jesus from the first in rejecting the salutations of the woman who praises the mother who bore him and the breasts that gave him suck (Luk 11:27), insisting only those that do the divine will are blessed.

DANTE THE MAN

A brilliant, erudite walking encyclopaedia of a man, Dante with his quirks is almost the epitome of the “mad” genius and poet, perhaps starting with the near crazy obsession with the indifferent and early deceased Beatrice dei Portinari. Eros and sexuality (the realm of especially “soul”) is one way to understanding the poet and not just of the Commedia but La Vita Nuova where he discovers Lady Philosophia.

Dante scholar Barbara Reynolds points to a connection in feeling and reference between the treatment of the sodomites Brunetto Latini in hell and Forsi in purgatory which she takes as a virtual confession of homosexual involvement (4). While we needn’t greatly doubt her – Florence like ancient Athens was a leading centre of openly expressed same sex feeling and art in especially the Renaissance, and Dante’s mentor Brunetto Latini was gay. But I am just not sure why Reynolds speaks of “homosexuality” when obviously in Dante’s case she should be speaking of bisexuality.

One of the clues that this orientation was the case is the astonishing way, often noted, that Dante simply never mentions his wife (from an arranged marriage) and mother of his children,Gemma (to whom he is anyway believed to have been unfaithful). I am however less surprised than some by the silent avoidance. It may not be quite  PC to say it, but it should be recognized that bisexually inclined men are often seriously bad news for wives. Dante exquisitely joins two other major  bisexually inclined poets: Shakespeare who famously bequeathed the wife he hardly lived with his second best bed, and the bible’s King David who loved Jonathan but banished one of his wives, Michal, from his bed without reprieve lifelong. From the outset doubtless Beatrice represented at any rate one way for Dante of dealing with his creative and erotic complexity. Obviously she represents an anima figure who carries the weight of his massive imagination at the same time as her inaccessibility helps prevent his being too overwhelmed by the opposite sex and by eros generally.

If Dante has been more “homosexual” even within his bisexuality, he would likely have developed spiritually more along the lines of Michelangelo who reflected himself in the rather anti woman and even rather gay prophet Jeremiah (5). And he would have given a quite different emphasis to portrayal of the Virgin. Rather notoriously, Michelangelo’s Last Judgement  fresco portrays a very human Virgin figure, almost cowering away from a commanding Christ figure. Anyway, I  consider Dante’s sexuality could use more critical attention as it affects his work. So too could another theme, not liable to be emphasized and even downplayed in academic circles.

As he enters the region of the fixed stars, Dante makes it very clear he was born under and takes the character of Gemini, the celestial sign of words and communication but also division. In a way, this is a vital piece of information for all sorts of reasons (including to some extent the poet’s rather experimental, flitting eros). Europe is traditionally put under Gemini and certainly Christianity, born at Pentecost amid a speaking in tongues, belongs to the sign. Also born under Gemini was modern Italy which has taken Dante’s language for its own (reflecting the indelible role of Dante,incredibly the horoscope for Italy shows a conjunction of asteroids Dante and Virgilius in the hell section of the chart) (6),  and so too were Dorothy Sayers and Barbara Reynolds who have translated and popularized Dante in modern times. Even if you say that politics is of Capricorn, the fact is that democracy itself, the idea of divided church and state, a prominent Dantean theme, is of Gemini. Quite simply Dante is a Geminian person broaching a mass of Geminian themes  and thus for better or for worse his opinions can both reflect and make what the West is in itself – which has been a rather dark/light, changeable phenomenon in harmony with the sign’s “mutable” status.

FAITH AND VISION SOULED OUT

Dante never went to any heaven, or if he did it wasn’t like the one he described. The Paradiso is the equivalent of Bernini’s stunning  but questionable The Ecstasy of St Teresa in sculpture. Dante was a visionary poet who incomparably faked rather too much of his vision because ultimately it arose out of  soul function rather than descended on him through the spirit function and depended too much on virtual orgasm. That vision and mystical religion  could  be thus dependent to  some extent is inevitable and we needn’t automatically dismiss it for that – unless  it’s allowed to become  the whole story which, when soul takes over at the expense of the impulses of Spirit, it risks doing so that religion falls towards the sensationalist idolatry which is also materialism.

I am not saying that Dante was a false prophet (if he had a sin it was overweening vanity!) but that he was sometimes victim to those who were, and that he expressed their beliefs by default at a particular point in history to which he was somewhat hostage and has left others hostage too. Dante is, as Yeats had it, the imagination of Christendom, but sometimes unfortunately so. Because what the European imagination in its Christian mode has too often done, is, like a divided Gemini,  run in one or other of the opposed directions of  elaborate superstition and reductive humanism, pursuing a religion of numerous pious forms or alternatively political agendas because in both cases it is not grasping God aright at the centre.

Dante’s God of (remote and static) light and love joined to his dream of an elusive perfect ruler,  a Roman rather than the early Christians’ Christ of history, the Millennium and Jerusalem (Dante turns the Second Advent  within historical time into the Last Judgement beyond it), is also remote  from original and authentic Christianity. It is so adrift in a sea of intricate symbols and allegories (each episode organized to give four different possible meanings) it could be appropriated by almost anyone today from New Agers to one world, one religion Globalists. The turns of history and culture are so peculiar such might yet even be the case.

NOTES

1) In Raphael and Lucifer p 10 I write:

So may you, Inspiration, now draw near
To assist, reveal, declare because
More felt than seen by me or anyone
The forces are too bright and dark
Too fair and foul to be directly held….
It’s thus by symbol and through fantasy
You will convey the truths unrealized…..

2) Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency esp Chapter 6   https://goo.gl/Xi1jv8

3) The Hell Passage https://wp.me/p2v96G-7e

4) Barbara Reynolds, Dante  p.296

5) Jeremiah’s Loincloth   https://wp.me/p2v96G-Hm

6). A Picture of Italian Life and Mind  https://wp.me/p2v96G-Nc

 

 

Advertisements
 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

STAGING SWEENEY FRENZY: Irish parable or problem?

 

The legend of Sweeney’s frenzy or madness ( Buile Suibhne) carries a variety of messages and can be read as a parable of unresolved issues in Irish life.

If only for some impressive poetry, it has received occasional literary attention as in Flann O’Brien’s rather Joycean dense and difficult At Swim Two Birds, and the late Seamus Heaney  provided a modern “version”, basically a  translation, Sweeney Astray. But  the legend itself  has never really undergone the more psychological examination it deserves. It’s only in recent years that psychiatrist, Peter O’Connor of Melbourne, has given any Jungian interpretations of even standard Irish myth (in Beyond the Mist), never mind medieval legend…Perhaps one needs to be here at the safe distance of Australia to conduct objective inquiries into the Irish psyche?!

This has been Sweeney’s year, at least in music –  a Sweeney song cycle  by  composer Neil Martin was premiered in Dublin on St Patrick’s day and I see that in July that Clonmel Junction Arts Festival in Tipperary combined music with readings from the legend.  (I gather that this year a mad Sweeney character is in  a TV series American Gods but I haven’t seen this and know nothing about it, not even if the above images owe anything to it). But staging Sweeney, the original mythical character?

At the beginning of this month I had one of those moments of apparent enlightenment where everything clicks and connects and I realized things I had not seen many years ago in this story. I began to envisage its dramatic re-telling as outrageous tragi-comedy. For presentation and style it should be somewhere between Beckett’s minimalist dead pan and Denis Johnston’s more flamboyant and dream filled The Old Lady Says No, but anyway something recalling revelatory moments of Irish drama while telling us something about the current spiritual condition of Ireland.

At first blush, it seemed one could hardly go wrong if I tried – I was at Swim three or four Birds.  All sorts of issues and questions nicely and neatly  lined up for the tragic or comic treatment on a stage I imagined riven by flashing lights and sudden intervals of darkness suggesting confusion and general destabilization of familiar thought and worlds. Sweeney’s “madness” could be a mental condition, a case of bad nerves and undiagnosed tinnitus, or part of a larger unacknowledged element of troubled spirituality within the culture. All this could be suggested in the course of extracting the true meaning from behind the layers of high fantasy and propaganda interwoven with  the sources of a complex tale.

Things begin with an excitable “King” Sweeney (more like a local lord) who hates the sound of a saint’s bell and the thought a  church can built on his land without permission. But that someone could be cursed  by a saint to perpetual nakedness for his reactions (and  later to  die by spear point, a curse not able to be undone by another saint more merciful), invites questions like what really is a curse in Ireland  – many have long felt Ireland has existed under one!  It also raises question the significance of nudity in religious and secular terms, (I happened to have recently explored the latter theme  in the unusual perspectives of Naked in Thessaloniki: Riddle and Sign https://wp.me/p4kNWg-fD). Especially near its conclusion, the Sweeney saga in its kitchen level humiliation of the king drinking milk from a bowl of cow dung, has an element of the hidden, unfamiliar, sadistic Ireland that has sometimes lurked in the shadows behind the walls of orphanages, schools and  convents. Finally exposed, it has half traumatized the nation some of whose once trusted leaders had apparently been acquiescent in unacceptable conditions that have woken many from easy past loyalties,    

So, here were themes like plums for the picking. Sweeney  seemed an open sesame to some catharsis and national therapy session via drama. The characters were forming in my mind and making themselves heard……

Eorann:  What are you doing there, putting your hands to your ears? You should be ashamed of yourself, a silly paganish man that calls himself a king but can’t stand the sight and sound of a handsome bell resting on the sacred bosom of a holy saint. 

Sweeney:  You know the sound grates on me something terrible. 

Eorann:  More like the holy man grates on your dull conscience and you don’t want to sing a psalm of praise or repentance when it’s time to do so.

The character of Saint Ronan would obviously be crucial. Behind all the hagiography about “God’s faithful servant”, he is a vindictive wretch and one who opens up questions about what may have been flawed in the practice and beliefs of some Irish religion over the centuries.

Ronan:  Sweeney was in such devilish frenzies he seized hold of my painted psalter and threw it into the lake. Screaming against my bell, he said he preferred the sound of birds in the trees and the rushing waters of the glens. I stayed calm, rewarded with heaven’s blessing. An otter rescued my psalter. Brought it to the bank, not one precious painted page damaged by water. A miracle! A reason I could forgive Sweeney his unspeakable wickedness. I did so for a good example, though it’s not right or possible  to  pardon fully. Given heaven’s clear mandate to rid us of druids and replace their power, there must be signs of authority with impositions of penance. And my curse has the salutary grace of that. What upstart heresy was it taught grace was free and forgiveness absolute? For the good of all, Sweeney must suffer to shiver  naked in the night airs as long as he lives. He can hardly complain when I have brothers singing psalms stood  night long in the freezing waves of the ocean.

I was not sure if the sufferings of Job element to Sweeney’s story and his laments call for a treatment by chorus as he makes his way to the perhaps historically real Valley of the Madmen in Donegal or whether his faithful companion Loingsechan would be sufficient for the role. I envisaged the character of Loingsechan as an appearing and disappearing figure, almost a stage Irish type, a wise/naïve who sounds and acts a bit dim at the same time as he knows quite a lot. Sweeney is liable to forget who he is….

Loingsechan:  Forgotten again? Well, I’m used to it. I’m Loingsechan that some say is your natural brother and some say is your foster brother. But that’s only the beginning of the confusions people have around me  because they can’t agree what my name is, or should be, or if I’m under a curse like Ham that saw his father naked. Some say my real name should be the word that can’t be mentioned among Christians, whatever that is. I’m not striving to discover. I don’t draw attention to myself talking to people, even to my wife who’s disappeared off, the saints alone know where. I just keep travelling and keeping myself to myself when you’re not in one of your moods for the lively talking.  

However he later complains:

Loingsechan:  Aren’t I the loyal relative that’s always going around collecting peat or sticks to burn to keep your head and feet head warm against the night airs? And don’t I say to the holy prudes who keep looking or refuse to look, King Sweeney of the blond locks and the blue eyes, he doesn’t look too bad at all, now does he…? I mean, with or without clothes there’s not a man among us can have quite the fabled beauty of Naoise that Deidre loved. What do they expect?

The weird nature of the curses on Sweeney which I imagine Loingsechan asl confusing with a curse on Ham whose true meaning he will need to discover, may in the original texts  have been intended to evoke memories of the more striking effects of Gaulish Celtic warfare which included spear carrying naked warriors as recounted by  Posidonius.

NAMING A BLOCK OR WHAT ?

So far so good, but then after a few pages of notes, outline and sensing the voices, I suddenly stopped. It’s not advisable to do this mid flight because inspiration should be taken at the flood. It may not return at a  later date. Even so  I stopped, consented to it, willed it.

“Never say never” is sound popular wisdom and I don’t say it’s impossible I would resume. I just don’t sense it’s likely. It’s true that following some ghastly weather I felt suddenly tired and in my experience you need to be in top form to write even a poem – there’s something a bit athletic about the process. But that alone can’t explain my complex and conflicted mind in the matter. It was somewhere between just not wanting to finish, imagining there was no point (it’s hard to get anything to stage these days and my track record for being heard for anything in Ireland is abysmal) and that it probably wasn’t quite my fate to engage with the themes involved. These are points I return to in conclusion.

But if anyone wanted to be almost superstitious in the matter, it could be suggested that there was something else. It could be argued the Sweeney name partakes in, or itself names, a kind of curse that hampers expression, a reason it might be better to leave him to music! Consider that T.S.Eliot, beyond a couple of fragments, could never finish his Sweeney Agonistes which, despite its modernist content and non Irish setting, was influenced by awareness of the Irish material. The artist can never quite dissociate from whatever energies  the archetypes represent.

The early Irish gave a high status to poets, not least because they associated them with prophets and prophecy. It’s not hard to see how they might think so. The poet wouldn’t need to be any Nostradamus; things would need only to happen around them. I have given an example in the introduction to my first poetry collection Puer Poems.(https://goo.gl/avJhm7).In it I recount how I presented a copy of the introductory poem, Puer, celebrating the  archetype, to an actor who I felt exemplified the type. The poem happened to include the words, “and if he fell he’d bleed and bleed”. I managed to give this to the actor around the time he would shortly be performing  in a play with blood in its title. But he would also fall badly during performance, getting rushed off to hospital having bled across the stage or the dressing room, I’m not clear on this. The matter was never fully explained to me and that could have been because a notable star of screen may have been more responsible for events surrounding this than some would care to admit. All I know is that I was disconcerted by the news.

THE SAINT, CURSES AND A BIT OF THEOLOGY

There are twelve Celtic St Ronans, one of them a venerated evangelist to Brittany, so I have no idea to which Ronan the above icon applies. The half or wholly mythic saint of Sweeney’s Frenzy was St Ronan of Finn.  That St Ronan’s cursing is nonetheless  as good as canonical hagiography is bizarre and raises questions. Christians, not even saints and especially not saints can pronounce a curse as opposed to stopping and binding them. Ronan curses Sweeney more than once. That an Irish saint would even be thought to do this reflects a strong identity of early medieval clerics with the earlier druids much feared for their bans and curses. It also reflects a one time liturgical over-reliance on the Psalms and chanting them, which we know the Irish did. Some communities kept a perpetual round the clock chant. The psalms are more emotional than strictly theological and do thus include a few imprecations. Any influence from this might have been more balanced out if the liturgical  exercise (employed like a spell)  hadn’t been almost at the expense of the rest of the Old and New Testaments and theological teaching in general.

I looked into the often ignored, rather complex esoteric field of curses and exorcisms in Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency  (https://goo.gl/Xi1jv8 ).  Here I”ll just say it would be possible for someone to as good as curse themselves, a point of which presently; but the nearest any Christian leader might come to pronouncing outright curse on someone would be to refuse to declare a sin forgiven, normally if it was believed it was never genuinely repented in the first place (Joh 21:23 ). More in condemnation than outright curse, the disciples can shake the dust from off their feet against those who won’t hear their message (Matt 10;14). But in Christianity everyone is deemed under a curse anyway so that without divine intervention, often the result of prayer, individuals are constantly open to forces of evil whose powers over the earth it was the purpose of Christ’s incarnation to undo (“The Son of God was revealed…to destroy the works of the devil” 1 Joh 3:8). This is a work not completed until the Second Advent when the earth is reclaimed from the end times Antichrist.

St Ronan, either as cleric or person, fails to forgive (in the first instance almost comically because he feels disrespected that an infuriated  Sweeney dashes in  naked after his wife tears the clothes off his back). This offence taking is so unchristian it has to represent druidism. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” ( Matt 6:14,15). Such would be the standard Christian position, though in cases of extreme offence (such as some Irish have suffered under child abuse where time is needed to heal and it’s a special virtue to forgive at all), even if and when seeking justice, the victim still needs – for their own good since hatred corrodes – to “let go”, accepting that “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19).

The fact that the early Irish church promoted tales like those of St Ronan, is proof positive that no matter what St Patrick may have taught more evangelically, there would be little clear notion of forgiveness in the early Irish churches. We know there wasn’t or there could never have been the perverse labour of the Irish Penitentials that would greatly influence medieval Europe through some of  Ireland’s missionary monks. These imply the very opposite of any “amazing grace” but serve instead  a religion of salvation by works in harmony with the British Celtic heretic monk, Pelagius, for whom Christ was a perfect example, not a redeemer. What sociologically the penitential system bolsters is clerical power modelled on the ways of the druids and the value system of the Brehon lawyers.

Quite why Ireland was so merciless to sin and committed to the most difficult possible salvation by law and works is a mystery. A contributing factor could be the “matriarchal” dimension to the culture. Women are liable to be both more and less forgiving than men. They may forgive in pity and emotion, but alternatively may feel they augment their power by withholding forgiveness or behaving like witches to apply curses.

As I pointed out in a previous article on Ireland’s perennial spiritual problems (https://wp.me/p2v96G-126),  the crucial issue of the Irish and grace is anticipated by St Paul epistle to the Galatians i.e. to a basically Celtic – if by the apostle’s time fairly Romanized – Christian community. Oddly enough, however, exceptionally for the whole New Testament and almost against what I have just said above, the apostle declares to his Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let him be accursed…I repeat if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you have received, let that one be accursed” (Gal 1: 8,9)….We might interpret this as tantamount to declaring: let St Ronan and the brehon lawyers who inspire the legalistic spirit of  the penitentials be accursed”!

But St Paul doesn’t direct church members to pronounce curses on legalists. As I also said above, within Christianity people can only really be self-cursed. Rather as “the wrath of God” is not like Jove throwing thunderbolts but more like what happens when a basic fund of divine protection is removed so that evil takes its full and natural course, so it is with any “curse” in the Christian context. The Hebrew style that colours much of the bible’s expression is “extraverted” and often says God does something when it plainly means God allows it. Harmonious with this, what the Jewish  apostle effectively declares to the Galatians re potential self-curse, is that if certain fundamental principles of the spiritual realm are ignored, benefits are almost automatically deactivated or even go into reverse, backfiring on the individual.

Spiritually gifted though the Irish may be, arguably their Penitentials applied by a few ruthless saints (like Colmcille in permanent penance for starting a tribal war), indicate they have given away their spiritual power and rights, handing them over to  bureaucrats of religion who dole out more duties than inspiring ideals. “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (Gal 3:10). This situation is seen as  ruling out, or lessening, any claim upon divine blessing and protection, the more so if one doesn’t also reject the spirits of place, the apostle’s “elementary spirits of the earth” (Gal 4:3). He associates them with precisely Galatian practice and certainly feminist post-Christian thealogians like outspoken Irish American Mary Daly would gladly restore them.  I considered this old gods matter in Ireland’s Old/New Spiritual Problems (https://wp.me/p2v96G-126 ) where I suggested the nation remains in strange psychological thrall to especially the deathly Morrigan archetype (which some ill-advised neo-pagans are attempting to contact and channel !)

SWEENEY AND THE ULSTER SHADOW

At the everyday level, I don’t wish to imply that the Irish are chronically unforgiving. They are not. If anything they are more conciliatory than the at times rather shrilly self-righteous and intransigent citizens of Ulster.  Influenced by Calvinism, those north of the border are  less inclined to share the view further south that everyone’s a sinner, but more prone to take the moral high ground permitting attitudes too close for comfort to siege mentality and  cultural apartheid. But whether  the Irish, especially historically, have quite forgiven themselves or left matters of forgiveness to God, is another matter, and confusion in that area may have  had  a few consequences for the spiritual life and collective destiny.

I find an odd and potent symbolism in the fact the Sweeney legend is based in the kingdom of Dalriada, a province of historic Ulster. Sweeney banished to a tree within the kingdom of both the  High King and the original centre of Irish Christianity, is like a symbol for Ireland itself and even perhaps  a warning of its destiny. Sweeny as Ireland is someone doomed to lose history and culture to those who take the heartland, dismissing what it represents as little more than a threat to the settlers’ indelible connection to an idolized Britain and/or King Billy, a  point to which I add a few words in note (1).  At this level of reading one could perceive  the Irish destiny as subjection to an essentially materialistic system (which despite the Bible and Calvinism is what Ulster, supreme servant of Victoria’s empire, has always represented) and subject to this because a potential spiritual liberty was never quite accepted and claimed. Ulster and its plantation then  arrives to function as a kind of psychological cum spiritual shadow to what Ireland is, could or should be. It was often remarked that Viking and Norman settlers in Ireland became “more Irish than the Irish”. With Ulstermen development seemed to be in the opposite direction, the desire to more British than the British and thus truly an opposite or shadow force.

Yet if only mythically, the centrality or supremacy of Ulster for Ireland cannot quite die. It would be Belfast born writer C.S.Lewis invented Narnia with its high king at Cair Paravel (its model Dunluce Caste in Antrim). Ulster is a  strange “game of thrones” territory and one is hardly surprised that the super-successful TV series  (based on novels that can’t be attributed to any Irish American author though they are as intricate in their way as The Book of Kells)  should be mainly filmed in Ulster with its rather bleak landscapes in harmony with the region’s bleak and contested history.

But beyond any shadows, Ireland’s beloved emerald colour esoterically relates to transcendent, high ray spirituality and is the Venusian colour of love. The colour emerald subsuming the colours of the rainbow, surrounds God’s throne (Rev 4:3); but in a variety of myths emerald is also the colour or stone of Lucifer, Hermes et al who steal or claim to possess it. There’s no need dismiss this symbolism as entirely irrelevant to Irish destiny. I pointed out in the ” ‘Real Irish’ and Irish Reality’”  feature (https://wp.me/p2v96G-17D ) the rather astonishing fact that in the chart for modern Ireland, asteroids Lucifer and Theotes (Godhead) are locked in close combative conjunction. Eire  represents among other things spiritual influence and conflict

TO LAY MY BURDEN DOWN

I don’t think Sweeney means just one thing, but if it’s true he can equate with Ireland, its loss and  its silencing, then I think I should avoid the bullet he might deliver me in the role of interpretive artist. Years ago the director of the film Jesus of Montreal remarked he hoped its lead actor wouldn’t perform the part too well or it might not be fortunate for him. The archetypal dimension really can impose and take over in creative, original ventures.

I have had to learn that especially in trying to convey to the world that, (enlarging on the theories of astronomers  D’Occhieppo and Hughes) I have well and truly solved the mystery of Jesus’ birth astrologically down to the last asteroid, impossibly supplying data of a kind even the layperson can grasp, like the names of Jesus’ ancestors in his house of origins. But no matter the truth level involved and that the pattern still works today, when it comes to Christ truths, the principle “he was despised and rejected” (Is 53:3)  is par for the course . Even as a doctor of religious studies, published author and astrologer, and even while every tin pot, half crazed theory about Jesus gets proposed and promoted, I have never in years been officially published in this area or allowed so much as an author’s op-ed in the press of Australia, UK or Ireland on this vital theme, in its way like some Dead Sea Scrolls Discovery.

In the one exceptional case of Jesus-related material, one must just be resigned and leave a blind and secular world to its devices – “make the hearts of the people dull…..lest they understand with their hearts…” (Is 6:10). But otherwise I’m not prepared to hurt myself going around with begging bowls to  literary and artistic elites for Irish and Sweeney material. As it is, my treatment by what Kevin Kiely would call Ireland’s more or less West Briton establishment prominent in relevant elites where I’m concerned, already beggars description. It could put in the shade what James Joyce suffered in Ireland around publishing the single word “bloody”. My part in Sweeney madness was for even a day or two to imagine composing anything in the line that might register somewhere.

The hugely conflicted but at times unconsciously hilarious Louis MacNeice where Ireland is concerned exclaims (in Autumn Journal) “Why should I want to go back/To you, Ireland, my Ireland? The blots on the page are so black/That they cannot be covered with shamrock…”  A bit extreme, but even so I might need to remember and people should perhaps be more aware that:

  • I have never had a single poem published or broadcast in Ireland. This is odd given a poetic Celtic drama of mine managed to get performed here in Australia and other poetry would have been broadcast had it been published first.  I fortunately forget which literary or culture critic of The Irish Times it was never acknowledged receipt of a book, handed them by a would-be helpful fellow journalist, that contained the relevant play with some of my poetry. I do remember I had to ask a Dublin friend to go and collect it.
  • Last year the RTE national broadcaster refused to showcase anything poetic of mine because legally  it has already been published, even if only on the Net or Indi – the exact opposite situation to the mentioned Australian one where not being published was the problem. They required I offer something virgin. When I did so, rather efficiently and quickly on return to Australia, I never received acknowledgement.
  • I have never got a smidgen of  real interest  out of Poetry Ireland whether visiting in person or contacting with by email with material. When I last visited their centre and spoke  to a polite enough  couple of the team, I left behind for their publication manager a copy of my Raphael and Lucifer and other Visionary Poems https://goo.gl/DWsnZH with its updated Miltonics.  I explained it had been described by one of the few UK houses to accept metaphysical verse, as poetry to the highest standards. It had been recently refused solely  because of promotion problems. It was deemed unhelpful that I neither live in Europe nor am already known as a performance poet. Promised a reply from Poetry Ireland, which might have tried to help as I am an Irish not UK citizen, I would no more hear further than from the RTE.
  • The Irish Times has never given me a voice for anything whatsoever, its religion editor uninterested even to allow me back in 2016 space to comment on, or be interviewed topically about, the same sex marriage referendum. This is despite my published doctorate on the varieties of gay spirituality marking a world first from any religious studies department.( https://goo.gl/1Pr94i ) so that I could well be considered an expert voice. Other subjects I proposed like the Christ material were simply ignored.
  • I have never got material into the Irish press  of a more tabloid kind like Is the Patrick Prophecy for Ireland Encoded? (https://wp.me/p2v96G-MR) . “We don’t do anything like that” was the brief response from The Irish Examiner to which I had been recommended to apply. With regard to the potentially popular astrological Christ theme, after being left waiting to see Jerome O’Reilly at The Irish Independent, this journalist took time  to glance at only the title of the page handed him and declared “We wouldn’t do anything like that”. In which case just what would he/they do or even take the time to considering to do? The title was “Proving an Historic Discovery and Answering Pope Benedict’s Question“. I’m not a Catholic, but let none say the Irish Press doesn’t do news and  features on Popes! Pope Benedict had openly wondered what we should think about the eminently plausible D’Occhieppo/ Hughes thesis on Christ’s birth. I alone have the answer and proofs.

This by no means exhausts the list of complaints, it merely lists some ironic highlights I remember and that are relevant here.  Nobody needs this and I’m finally at an age (my Sweeney inspiration came hard upon my 71st) I am not  prepared to trouble myself with needless, abrupt dismissals or to waste time promoting myself night and day on the Net to obtain some gone viral status that protests the unjust treatment.

The ironies are nonetheless exquisite. If it weren’t that boasting has been an allowed part of Irish culture, I wouldn’t say here (what’s nonetheless a truth  it might by now be embarrassing for some to admit),  that I am closest, at least thematically and sometimes more, to the tradition of Yeats. Also that the standard at which I sometimes write can reach to better than much that gets published and called “Irish poetry” today. If, following Seamus Heaney’s decease, Brendan Kennelly is supposed to be Ireland’s leading poet, then I can write to and above that standard as should be apparent from even just my Judas stopped at Dublin ( https://wp.me/p2v96G-Bm ) which is satirical of Kennelly’s distasteful and super-profane Judas cycle of poems. I consider the limitations of modern Irish poetry  in Why Ireland Needs Yeats 2015 and more (https://wp.me/p2v96G-xA).

Enough said!  As the Taoist sages would have it, “to retire is best” and I  can’t disagree. Nunc dimittis! Why burden myself further?  I’ll not start quoting the gospels on such as casting pearls, but where Ireland is concerned it’s tempting to conclude with Yeats’ words over the Synge controversy: “You have disgraced yourself again”. And, as I would see it, by not living up to full potential….. I only regret that Ireland has never helped me, starting long ago when in the late ’80s I first offered some poetry, to live up to my own full potential.

NOTE (1). Ulster is not simply a place or a controversial  intervention in Irish history, it is almost an entire mind-set and worldview insufficiently interrogated. As such it has had major influence on international values and is so much an Other to Ireland it really is a species of shadow. Ulster mind has been influential through especially Scots Irish emigration to America, Several signatories to the  Declaration of Independence and several presidents including the ruthless Andrew Jackson of bad reputation for his treatment of Amerinidians, have been of Scots Irish origin. America’s religion of the radical fundamentalist and homophobic kind, its gospels of the prosperity and no gun control variety and even its masonic mysticism, all these have links to the heritage of the Scots Irish who took their exclusiveness to America where they established societies that banned Irish immigrants. I don’t wish to get into partisan politics and write as though there was never wrong on the Irish side, but there is nonetheless something particularly objectionable, even and especially at the spiritual level, in the Ulster/King Billy connection. Idolized for winning the Battle of the Boyne against the Irish and saving a  beleaguered Londonderry, the fact is William represents Real-Politik lies and deceit on steroids. King Billy only warred in Ireland because he obtained support from The Dutch, Germans, Danes and even exceptionally the Pope, to be against what England’s James 11 was trying to do through Ireland.  Billy had support solely on the grounds that if, as was likely, the international force would win, William would protect Catholic rights. At Limerick following Ireland’s last stand at the Battle of Aughrim, the Irish sued for peace on the basis they could avoid persecution. William agreed. When he returned to England he went back on all agreements with Europe and Ireland, the old pattern of confiscations returned and the whole system of crippling Penal Laws that would ruin native Ireland for a century went into place. Busy thanking God for their saint, King Billy, Ulster never protested for Ireland and never has. Into the modern era, Home Rule to Brexit Ulster has never ceded an inch in respect of Irish aspirations in their own land; it has not appreciated and scarcely admitted Irish culture even exists. Britain has always existed to serve a monstrous sense of entitlement without concern for  or appreciation of the place the descendants of the planted  have made their home. This sort of thing breeds misunderstanding and infects the spiritual life of a people.
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 12, 2018 in creativity, culture, Mysteries, religion

 

THOUGHTS AT SIRMIO: A POEM

      

Grottoes of Catullus  at Sirmio ( modern Sirmione) and bust of the poet

I visited Sirmio in late May 2016 so would seem to have had plenty of time to  gather my thoughts poetic or other on the subject of Catullus! It will be evident I consider him a pivotal figure for poetry and art generally.

Despite great gulfs in time and culture dividing us  (but not temperament completely – he was a self-declared  Celt), Catullus (c.84-54 BC) is nonetheless a figure haunting me since adolescence for anything poetic, not least the idea I might  write some poetry myself one day. I regard this poet, along with the  Petrarch so important for his rediscovery, as giving me Italy and the West itself, which having  lived so much outside Europe in Asia and Australia, presents itself as a distinct, precious entity in my mind that I can’t take wholly for granted.  (I am not a globalist who like Macron doesn’t understand what “French” art could mean.  I believe in the value of difference, and even consider the West under threat rather as per Douglas Murray).

This is the last poem I will publish on this blog for reasons given along with the notes below.

THOUGHTS AT SIRMIO

You hoped for a century’s fame but fate,
Sometimes kind and surprising and often
Ironic, gave more. It granted millennia
And your birthplace, Verona, city of lovers,
By the rarest of fortunes and under
One barrel only, preserved written word
Of your pleasures and sorrows and pain
Long endured in the service of Venus’
Adulterous muse. Yet It was through
And beyond her before a too early
Ending, you arrived at more than just
Wisdom – new freedom of being as
Poet and person – and, though childless,
Bequeathed so much that’s Europa’s alone.

11

Sirmio, first home to wake inspiration….
See there those absolutes of blue and blue
A lake and sky, joined in transcendent
Reverie that, island-like, an isthmus meets.                 1
They’ve breathed together as the centuries pass
And still do now an era changes sign
Imposing images and words that guide
The slow and mighty turns of history’s round…..         2
A change that daunts, by many also mourned,
Though we must hope that what serves truth
Remains with western consciousness of self
And will to stand a single voice alone
“Caesar I am not keen to please you”                         3

111

No homage to person or place were better
Than that Sirmio’s pilgrims laid praise for
Homer aside, disapproved the violent
Thrills that were play for the offspring of Zeus,
Gods by Plato condemned yet who in
Centuries after still taught ambition
To monarchs looked down on from high
Palace ceilings. Likewise dismiss all Pindaric
Praise for the human as athlete, the riders
And wrestlers, victors in base competition
Securing each loser shame and rejection
Their limbs often needlessly injured
Even sight itself dimmed before time.
Nostalgia for old Hellas’ ways is misplaced.
Recall but the weight of their darkness, how
Olympian favours extended through
Earthly life only, never challenging Hades
And death, no matter how unjust and lamented.
The bard’s fickle gods loved especially heroes,
Steered the likes of Odysseus homewards
Ignoring the others, companions and crew.

1V

Flowing from Helicon’s streams, or tuned
To deceptive notes of a lyre
The muse was not heard in her fullness.
Amid stock, high sounding phrases of epic,
Their images glinting like sun on too
Weighty armour, the branches and fruit of
Poesia’s tree, natural shelter and fare
For insight and vision could scarce put down root.
Love’s lure and excitement, soul’s motions
Not closely recorded before you,
The struggle to personal knowledge and mythos
With willing refusal of popular value,
Such needed to flourish elsewhere serenely.
It would thrive amid requisite leisure
And dawning awareness that words, syntax
And passion of themselves could make music
And from rhythms first practiced on tablets
Of wax towards a finished perfection
On polished papyrus, their destination
Home villa, the forum or library box.

V

By deep blue and glassy Barcarus                      4
Was almost an Eden for new language
And dreaming, for life without competition
Directed to pleasure, above all to
The friendship that was lifelong your passion.
The city by contrast gave fame though love failed,
And betrayed. The most adored woman proved
Faithless, the idolized youth vented scorn.
But beyond disappointment, heart and mind
Much divided, you divined woman’s being,
Not just as beloved, held meaning,
Deserved new, wider description. From poets
Not least since, like Ariadne abandoned
On Naxos, soul itself was a woman,
And to know it served justice and truth.

V!

Through you as lover and dreamer and
Satirist sometimes, the incoming era
And mind of Europa was forming,
Piecing together a varied mosaic
Composed of ever more self-aware persons.
Though by nature divided and doubting
And often protesting, Europa’s descendants,
(Vaunting uniqueness and aided by arts.
Where Eros and love would  be often supreme),
Could never quite live in social denial
Of what was  a woman and soul’s vital place.

V11

You did not wish but imagined endless
Slumber in Hades. Did you never consider
Your words, like sunlight through branches,
Might pierce the veil of any dark’s dreaming
Or force an occasion to answer the questions
Of those who  heard you, feeling  addressed
And as though independent of time?
If your spirit had listened and answered
What might then questioners say in departure
Or homage? Surely not “Hail and Farewell”                        5
But rather “Hail now, tomorrow and always”.

NOTES

1  The ruins of  the supposed villa home of Catullus stand  at the end of an isthmus that juts into the lake appearing to be almost an island

2 The turning of the ages is assumed. Catullus lived near to the onset of the Piscean era with its distinctive themes which are now giving way to those of Aquarius

3  Catullus XC111

4 Barcarus – ancient name of  Lake Garda

5 Famously Catullus writes Ave atque Vale  (Hail and Farewell)  to his deceased brother.  Here  I am suggesting Ave atque Ave is appropriate for the poet but whether in Latin or English the poem cannot sustain precisely that

The above is my last poetic entry to this blog There is no advantage to putting such material out only to be told, as I have been in UK and Ireland,  this means that legally it’s published which these days no broadcaster or publisher seems to want or even allow. The whole thing is, and for me always was, a Catch 22 situation. Years ago and after I had a poetic drama broadcast with the ABC, they couldn’t broadcast other examples of my work (such as in the belatedly indie published Puer Poems) that hadn’t been published first. Which they were even prepared to recommend but to no effect with some truly insulting Australian publishers. In more recent times the likes of the RTE in Ireland couldn’t broadcast my work for their author-showcasing Sunday Miscellany because it was out on the Net. They said I could offer them new poetry – the poem 1793 :Before the Guillotine (September 2017 of this blog) is that, but I couldn’t obtain an acknowledgment for sending it. It is a waste of time, truly a waste of time, to produce almost anything for the minds that deal in broadcasting, and publishing, above all poetry which these days must conform to certain post modern standards including that they contain nothing metaphysical or religious, another barrier. Truly Catullan satire would be needed to address the abuse and the mean, small minded nonsense that the various literary establishments can represent. My article Prince Charles and the Poets https://wp.me/p2v96G-ZR gives a little idea of some of my long standing problems which I don’t expect to be resolved in my lifetime and which are so severe it might take half a lifetime just to describe them anyway!

 

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on May 17, 2018 in creativity, Poetry

 

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) onto 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 they are 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 really 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 by 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, seems 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 which stands in contrast less to romantic love than to 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 in  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, and 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 can be 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 attitudes of Poldark’s late author 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 Ulster’s hero, 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’ve outlined, one can’t offer more than qualified praise. This raises questions about those whose admiration is uncritical. What is it they truly value and enjoy? Can it be  the challenge to accepted standards and censorship and with that the charm of belonging to the avant-garde in-group who approves it that  we should suspect? 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 question why watch 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 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.

 

 

 

u

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 11, 2017 in aesthetics, creativity

 

THINKING ABOUT DISNEY’S “GAY MOMENT”

CHANGING THE STYLES

When I was young I was never a great fan of Disney films. Donald Duck might be OK but cartoonish versions of classic fairy tales were mostly a turn off, too knockabout  and yankee doodle. Early taken to those fairy tale-like villages and palaces of Mitteleuropa, I always felt I knew, helped by some classic illustrations, just how those stories should be rendered to screen but weren’t.

From what I would gather from clips, Beauty and the Beast which premieres in America on March 17th, promises to be closer to what I always imagined should have been a Disney treatment of fantasy. But just at the moment it becomes in some respects more fantastic real and European it also becomes a little bit gay too, briefly perhaps and almost exclusively towards its end, but evidently enough so to upset a sizeable minority of American citizens and some members of the Russian establishment. The latter regard it as bordering on forbidden “gay propaganda” but the nation has settled for a 16 + rating so that children won’t be influenced.  The chief “moment” – about two seconds of two men dancing together – is nevertheless said to be so subtle it’s likely to go over children’s heads anyway.

I understand that no one is called gay or admits to be so the length of the film, but there are occasional vague hints LeFou, the companion of Gaston, could have something like a man crush on Gaston straight though the latter is. The film’s director does understand LeFou’s character to be gay but many may not. The sudden controversy over what seems not too much could owe something to the fact Beauty’s innovatory “moment” comes to the big screen in the wake of another recent but small screen “moment” in a more typically Disneyesque  cartoon series, Star vs the Force of Evil.  Amid a celebrating crowd, gay couples are briefly seen to kiss and again you might almost miss it. But what has now been labelled the show’s “unbiblical kiss”  has drawn thousands of signatures from the Million Moms group (though given how many men kiss and embrace in the bible, “unbiblical kiss” can itself sound a trifle queer in the original sense of odd). Some Christians are however now debating how best to tell their children why they can’t be allowed to see Beauty and the Beast. 

HOW FAIRIE ARE FAIRY TALES?

Disney’s ostensible aim in this instance is to be, as it has always aimed to be, “inclusive”, a buzz word and almost automatic policy in liberal circles today. Ironically however, one might well ask whether Disney, no matter how accidentally, has not finally arrived closer to the spirit of a lot of fairy tale material not just in setting and atmosphere but in being a bit alternative too.

I don’t seriously suggest that Grimm, Perrault etc were senders of closet gay/queer messages albeit, for what the information is worth, Jacob Grimm never married. Tales like Cinderella can be allowed their romantic/straight vision of things.  Even so, a case can be made that “fairy tales” are a bit of a medium of expression for those persons themselves often called “fairies”. I made this point over a decade ago as a minor thesis within my at the time highly original doctoral thesis on gay spiritualities subsequently published in 2004 as A Special Illumination. goo.gl/qAqukK

From Oscar Wilde to Peter Cashorali (Fairy Tales: Traditional Stories retold for Gay Men), gays are masters of the genre with its observation and often subversion of custom. A Grimm’s tale like The Boy Who Wanted to Know What Fear Was, hints that marriage happy ever after and heterosex might not be so desirable, but rather something to be frightened of. In The Tale of the Two Brothers, who is that man in the woods who wants to adopt and mentor (classic gay roles) the lost sons of the brothers ? Why is he alone in the woods?

Inclusive though it wishes to be, it seems that Disney was somewhat pressured by ideologues of LGBT to include further. It will be clear from various blog articles that I don’t terribly like the direction in which especially American LGBT policy has been going. It’s arriving at something like the bullying of conscience and legal penalization of Christians. There are some tiresomely narrow Christians but all said and done why should they bake cakes for gay weddings if they don’t believe they should and be dragged to court and possibly have their livelihood ruined if they don’t comply? Would Democrats reckon to be forced to employ Republicans in their staff on the grounds of “equality” and “inclusion”? Some inequality and exclusion is a regular even necessary part of life. There’s a point beyond which no gay or straight person should impose themselves on society…..

DEMOCRACY WITHOUT VIOLENCE

However… where the Disney film is concerned, I don’t have democratic sympathies elastic enough to be generous to conservative protest and would-be boycotts and censorships…If you believe in democratic rights and freedom of gays within society at all, and especially if your idealism would wish that same-sex orientated persons interact at some level beyond the merely ghettoed, hidden and/or pornographic, then you must allow them what Disney is allowing them: the right to be seen, mentioned or self-declared. Also to help get beyond America’s unusually rigid  traditional gendering which until quite recently has too often been of the “Me Tarzan, You Jane variety” in a way to hurt many people, not just gays.

if you can’t consent to  this you are somewhere between blinkered or hypocritical. You put yourself in the socially retro position akin to that of Russia where homosexuality is technically legal but so practically unmentionable that any amount of homophobic violence is turned a blind eye to. And let’s face it, American Christians have traditionally allowed the bullying of gays and almost anyone different as a matter of course, accepting it as perhaps merely inevitable and deserved.

That attitude belongs to a whole social history that needs repenting before the spiritual atmosphere can be cleared; but far from any such thing happening the intolerance/aggression connection continues. Ironically I even note that the same evangelist, Franklin Graham, who has commended a cinema that refuses to show Beauty and the Beast and would like a general boycott of the film, is friend to the same pastor Saaed Abedini who has recently been guilty of breaking a restraining order put on him for abuse of his spouse. Abedini is OK in Franklin’s house though the increasingly conservative evangelist  is on record as declaring gays “the enemy” whom one shouldn’t allow into one’s home.

Not to be free to be known for what you are only makes for dangerous repression in the person who is “other” and for mixed, confused signals within straight society like women who don’t know who they are dating and dealing with. And even if you still believe there can be no possible justification for “homosexuality” as you define it, it is still not helpful to the young to have its existence hidden from their eyes and arsenal of general knowledge. So why criticize Disney? Go and enjoy the film…

ALONE TOGETHER: THE FINALLY ADMITTED UNHAPPY GAY PHENOMENON

……With that said I could leave the matter except that I almost need to make a Part Two or Addendum to cover something else that has cropped up at this time. It  has its connection to what I’ve been saying through its challenge to the very idea of being able to enjoy anything gay associated.

The same evangelical Christian Post which has featured re the Disney scandal has given room, yet again, to the inflexibly conservative Michael Brown (for whom homosexuality is just a curable disease or “lifestyle”, not any authentic or inborn orientation), to draw attention to an admittedly  significant recent article by gay writer, Michael Hobbes. The feature is Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness and it actually made it into the liberal Huffington Post (goo.gl/Jq9wsQ).  In light of it Brown cites the notable negatives of gay existence, which doubtless he is not unpleased to stress at a time when it has been claimed that the level of social acceptance implied by legal acceptance of gay marriage has in a short time reduced the chronic gay youth suicide rate in relevant societies by 7% .

Hobbes’ article stresses how despite all the advances in gay freedoms, virtually nothing has changed or improved. It tells how gays, many of whom spend (waste) their lives partying and chasing drugs, have fewer close friends and meaningful social lives than straights, are often (perhaps due to insecurities) unpleasantly mean to one another, and health-wise suffer more from cardiovascular disease, cancer, incontinence, allergies, asthma, erectile dysfunction. And overall there are more deaths from suicide than AIDS. Not just in America but even in Europe and liberal Sweden, places where difference is easier to realize than group conformist America, the facts are still confronting.

One could argue Hobbes’ picture is American extreme – healthy and well-adjusted gays do actually exist, I’ve known them – but I also recognize a lot of truth here too. The picture, by any standards grim, is the kind that the liberal press and tolerant society don’t know or don’t want to acknowledge but help nothing by pretending doesn’t exist. Yet however accidentally, I believe the truth, along with the possibility of a real healing linked to a sense of meaning and purpose, is contained in Hobbes’ conclusion: “We keep waiting for the moment when we feel like we’re not different from other people. But the fact is, we are different. It’s about time we accept that and work with it.”

DELIVERANCE TO AND IN  DIFFERENCE

…..It is indeed high time and past it. Gays are different mentally, even somewhat constitutionally – much like the artists which quite a few notable gays have been. (Earlier eras might have called them constitutionally neurasthenic types). As a neighbour in London’s much artist inhabited Chelsea once asked me: ”Have you ever met a contented, well-adjusted artist?” Almost never and a reading in the biographies of most writers, poets, painters, actors and musicians across history including the religious ones, won’t alter the impression substantially. Such turmoil and often tragedy!  And an honest reading of even various biblical figures like he poetic David who valued the love of men above that of women and the troubled unmarried Jeremiah who lived with Baruch, bespeak sexual marginality and its complexes and I would make a strong case for Jeremiah’s psychology being fundamentally gay (See Three Gay Theological Poems and its Jeremiah’s Loincloth  goo.gl/dOHgGC). Be that as it may….expanded or marginal vision, marked creativity and its accompanying sensitivity all take their toll on the system and impose special responsibilities.

It might seem obvious that gays are different, yet plainly to quite a few it isn’t. The secular mind is as blinkered as the conservative religious one when it comes to the real meanings and uses of sexual orientation. Gays and their straight supporters delight in stressing “equality”, “inclusiveness” and a potential or actual “sameness” (Andrew Sullivan’s “virtually normal”) rather than essential difference needing special management. This year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras made “equality” it’s special theme. It’s all feel good largely irrelevant hooey but due to the American influence upon Gay Lib, LGBT agendas get framed in the light of those American values that long ago the himself Socialist and Liberal Bernard Shaw dismissed as untrue. People are not in many respects born equal and there never can and will be perfect equality. As to the right to the pursuit of happiness that too is a tricky one. Some of the world’s greatest achievements are born of a necessary suffering. Too much striving for happiness can itself create the very opposite as arguably some American lifestyles amply demonstrate.

I have been insisting on essential gay difference and the need to work with it for years. Despite obtaining a world first doctorate in gay spiritualities from any religion studies dept and this research being subsequently published as the mentioned A Special Illumination,  I have been largely dismissed and ignored for it to a degree I now scarcely bother to make the important point further. All the while I have been painfully aware that too many persons, including academic leaders from Michel Foucault to Marcella-Althaus Reid who noisily espoused the basically amoral queer theory that teaches “identity without essence” and which virtually turns life into one long bi or pan sexual experiment, just don’t help gays to justify or manage their existence. Some might even be said to be exploiters of difficulty who lead confused minds to hell in a hand basket rather like Timothy Leary preaching the drug culture to sixties youth.

“Homosexuality is wasted on gay people” is one of the more meaningful statements for today from queer theorist, David Halperin. I’d say it often is; and my position is close to that of Camille Paglia in regarding homosexuality as one of the more crucial, vital elements in cultures (especially the western since the Greeks) and even, for good and ill, within religion.  It is absolutely necessary to recognize and work with what homosexuality is and does in society and to be rid of the mere lies and superstition that it’s all and always bad, something to be feared, suppressed and even unmentioned.  Without yet seeing the film, the controversy around Beauty and the Beast sounds like a storm in an evangelical tea cup amid which it’s just possible that Disney is helping something.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 10, 2017 in creativity, gay, religion

 

ELIZABETH GILBERT’S MAGIC: RIGHT BUT MOSTLY WRONG

gilbert1   gilbert2

FEELING AND BEING CREATIVE AT ALL COSTS

Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest easy read bestseller is a strange offering and not quite what it seems. It starts out in true American positive thought style as an encouragement to creative self-expression or actualization, specifically it’s an invitation in the style of fame-avoiding poet Jack Gilbert (no relation)  to find our inner treasures and cultivate “curiosity over fear”. Fear doesn’t like the uncertain boundaries and outcomes of inspiration, so to oppose it is key.

With this the reader is launched upon a sort of everyone’s how-to guide to living creatively and achieving fulfilment citing especially the example of the self-isolating Jack and  a middle aged woman who returns to her youthful love of just skating. But soon the book is morphing into more by way of a guide to inspiration and creativity as exemplified by work and inspiration as it affects writers and artists and Gilbert herself. This is something one feels the book shouldn’t quite do insofar as the ever democratic author would deny that the artist and art is anybody or anything special unless for the sort of committed work involved. So little is what’s special or any big C creativity involved that Gilbert, who says she “cannot even be bothered to think about the difference between high art and low art” (p.120), advises that if you feel like painting a penis on a wall, go ahead and do it (p 88).

Art’s essential normality will even become Gilbert’s pretext to berate writers less successful than herself as complainers or masochists with attitudes that poison the very wells of inspiration they seek to draw upon. Gilbert herself believes true inspiration has a lot to do with just pleasure or fun. While this will always be partly true (the artist needs both to take and convey some pleasure in their work to communicate well) such wild generalizations ignore even the science of recent years. This indicates that beyond any simple self-gratification, artists are differently wired from scientists and have more grey matter (literally not metaphorically) than the average person. It might be wise to allow that artists could have their own purpose and role in nature and life.

In harmony with its title, Gilbert’s pep talk book is also almost a theory of magic and so it is soon maintaining we are visited by ideas with independent consciousness like so many spirits. At one point Gilbert even admits, “I have invisible spirit benefactors who believe in me” (p. 96).  You need to entertain these sources of inspiration or one day they will just wander away from you and, as though offended, won’t return. Practically, the book revives and popularizes something like ancient theories of the daemon and Platonic ideas and archetypes.

In the course of Big Magic there is plenty of sensible advice for creative people like an insistence the artist usually doesn’t need much that passes for higher education today and pursuing which can leave a student with half a lifetime’s debt. The artist needs to live and learn from life except that modern life too often prevents this. Since there are a variety of helpful tips for artists plus Gilbert’s work ethic and history of stubborn persistence are exemplary in their way, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading the book. But they do need to do so critically and with caution. Amid interesting anecdotes and advice there’s much that is  misleading, even seriously so as regards what art is or needs to be and I’ll address especially that…..

GILBERT’S “BIG MAGIC” SURPRISE THAT’S NEITHER SURPRISE NOR SECRET

…. However,  let’s get what the author regards as her crucial magical notion of inspiration out of the way first. What Gilbert has learned is that, as in science which talks of a “multiple discovery” phenomenon, it is possible to find oneself pursuing the same project and even writing virtually the same novel as another writer and at the same time. Gilbert and Ann Pratchett did so on events in the Amazon region. This it seems is part of something larger and terribly occult that we ought to embrace though we can never hope to understand it.

As it happens, what Gilbert describes will not be any surprise to anyone aware of the principle of cycles in astrology. These oversee entire cultural trends and will produce the same styles and motifs that another generation may consider of no interest at all. Thought (and art) is indeed archetypally determined to a great extent. Revivals of interest in certain periods and trends are the marks of a return of a cycle from perhaps hundreds of years ago. This  phenomenon is and isn’t “magical” (you can read about it in detail in culture historian Richard Tarnas’ ground breaking study Cosmos and Psyche, 2006)) and the sub cycles of planetary transits then relate the larger cycles to the development of individuals giving artists their creative and fallow periods; so if Gilbert embraced some principles of astrology she would have clearer understanding in relation to the art and self-expression  that concern her. And then she wouldn’t think of what occurs across time as like “jokes” and tricks of a trickster universe but instead a more ordered programme or fate.

But even subject to the effects of cycles, people pursuing creativity are not necessarily influenced by active spirits or angels as Gilbert so radically has it. In extreme cases this may happen, or at least be thought to happen – we find it in William Blake who claimed to see angels on a regular basis and film director Ingmar Bergman who supposedly had  contact with spirits and demons. At the extreme end of the influence scale it can even be that a generation is inspired or misled by prophets possessed by whatever forces for good or evil. To that extent it is just possible that having opened herself up to everything from yogas to gurus and a fortune telling Bali medicine man, Gilbert herself has finished susceptible to the influence of actual spirits keen to impose on the collective at this time. At least some readers would regard Eat, Pray, Love less as a true guide to self-fulfiment than a siren call to promiscuous spiritual dabbling and unhelpful forms of romanticism. Since I don’t want to get into gossip it’s perhaps as well I forget what feature article I read a  year or more ago (and as I recall from an Australian Buddhist woman rather than an irate American Christian) who considered herself seriously hurt by and disillusioned with Gilbert as person and spiritual guide. Regardless, I think readers should just ignore Gilbert’s theory of inspiration.

ART IS MORE THAN FICTION WRITING

Beyond the whispering spirits one can’t help feeling that Elizabeth Gilbert’s notion of creative activity is considerably shaped by her undoubted talent for fiction and personal memoir. These are nonetheless in some respects the easiest forms of art – sometimes it’s like sitting down and tossing off a vivid, newsy letter or keeping a diary. It’s not identical to the struggles including with special techniques the dramatist or poet may have to wrestle with. Recently I was reading the biography of poet Ted Hughes, husband of poet Sylvia Plath. It soon becomes evident that for both of them capturing and retaining poetic inspiration (an aspect of the ecstatic function) requires rather specific conditions (often in isolation) that are marred or denied by everyday life. It is the rarest of rare poets like Shakespeare who could write poetry almost anywhere and quickly (without blotting a line according to Ben Jonson); but then Gilbert isn’t into special cases, still less genius.

Gilbert  is however an almost addictive writer or note taker in a way many writers aren’t necessarily. It seems that like De Beauvoir her day is dust and ashes when she has not written anything. Fair enough that’s just how she is, but it also the case such writing is effectively therapeutic, for self-expression and pleasure  rather than work or larger purpose, the reason she has no truck with complaining artists. She assumes artists do what they do because they have chosen that path – but if they are differently wired is that quite the case? – so the activity should give them pleasure just as it is without expectation of acceptance, reward or whatever.  If this sounds almost ascetical (and Gilbert even portrays herself as dedicating herself to writing during adolescence like a nun), in fact Gilbert’s outlook can also be almost breathtakingly selfish or self-regarding. “Whenever anybody tells me they want to write a book in order to help other people , I always think please don’t….I would so much rather you wrote a book in order to entertain yourself than to help me” (pp 98,99). For Gilbert there is no such thing as a vocation to write or do art; you don’t write for society, for individuals or a cause; and according to her ultra-American credo, providing you are willing and able financially to support yourself and will be bothering nobody unduly, you are at complete liberty to do whatever you please (including it seems those penis graffiti).

Again this is misleading. A great slice of significant art has been produced in service of some great idea and one can’t begin to imagine the likes of Dante, Milton, Victor Hugo, Dickens unless propelled by a sense of dedicated purpose to inspire, instruct or reform –Milton described the poet’s work as his life blood and did concede that the fame, which Gilbert doesn’t think should count, was some spur to the labour.

It is because there can be this element of vocation or at least sense of inborn necessity among artists, that something like their complaints which Gilbert so radically dismisses, is legitimate. She regards the emphasis on suffering and/or complaints arising from it, to be a legacy of especially Christian and German Romantic values that have allowed artists to carry on as though sentenced to harsh conditions under a cruel dictator (p.117). We can agree with her that there is a kind of artist who imagines if they are not in (or just acting the part of being in) pain, poverty or some dire bohemian situation half starved or their minds half addled by drink or drugs, they are not the real thing – we might call this the Kurt Cobain syndrome – but that’s not the whole situation by far.

MUCH ARTISTIC COMPLAINT IS JUSTIFIED.

It is quite possible, and especially so if you belong to the more vocational type of artist for whom ideas count more than immersion in life’s endless details,  that you may suffer the pain of non-connection and non-communication, feel truly blocked and half destroyed by publishers, critics, society and conditions in general. Shelley protested, “I have suffered the tyranny of neglect” and in the light of history and his biography that seems a fair enough, valid claim. The celebrated Ode to the West Wind was both a protest against and an imaginative effort to oppose what prevents the necessary role of bardic vision going out into the world.

Many artists anyway have plenty of reason for complaint because their conditions and permitted expectations are today often demonstrably worse than the average worker in ways that should not be tolerated in a civilized society. In the very age of grievance culture and stress upon victimhood, Gilbert wants none of it from the artists who might have more than usual reason to voice it. A century ago. Bernard Shaw helped found the Society of Authors to do at least something to improve the artist’s lot. The history of rejected and cheated authors is a long one (even the super-successful JK Rowling was rejected for Harry Potter twelve times). To this day the author will usually receive only a fraction of a book’s takings (somewhere between two and a half and twelve and a half per cent while the often necessary agent of which there are not enough to go round, may take up to 25 per cent). A huge slice of English literature would not exist if it had had to wait upon social acceptance and financial remuneration in the modern way. The likes of Milton, Thomas Gray, Shelley and Wordsworth in poetry had private means. Jane Austen’s prose wasn’t held up on financial problems. The Latin poets from Catullus to Martial were either comfortably off or had helpful wealthy patrons – the perfectionist, slow working Virgil had both advantages.

With or without means, by contrast the modern writer will often have to suffer unacceptably cavalier, dismissive behaviour from those who stand to affect their career and status.  Promises are easily broken, lies are often told, needless delays can be endless, payments not delivered, editors never available to discuss anything,  rules of contract not observed. Any old thing goes. (It’s true nowadays indie publishing is some help and a real alternative but a lot is involved and if only for publicity it is definitely still preferable to be published in the standard way). Much publishing and promotion can be a shark’s pool in which many are destroyed and devoured, feelings, health, the artist’s organization and planning of their life are simply not considered. Therapy itself might be required to cope. I have seen the problem for others, I have known it for myself – the life-destroying, soul-destroying, almost degrading experience of dealing with publishing and agency, is partially recorded in my Reflections of an Only Child. goo.gl/37dUUK

What the conditions of the artist argues for is less the mostly absent virtues of some American, egalitarian, competitive, over worked free-for-all that Gilbert seems to favour, but almost its opposite, a degree of almost elite privilege which would allow more scope to the observation of and experiment with life which art is about. The role of artist beyond the (self) entertainment level has some affinity with that of priesthood. Traditionally and certainly biblically, the priest, supported by the tithes which placed him above mundane concerns, was an individual expected not to compete but rather transcend, to live above ordinary conditions the better to study, observe and pronounce upon life. It was the same Bernard Shaw who helped found the Society of Authors who criticized the American Declaration of Independence declaring its doctrine of equality untrue and misleading. People are born with different and unequal levels of talent and ability  and one should organize society with that in mind.

PRACTICAL ADVICE: AVOID THE ARTS

Knowing what I know, I would never today lend encouragement to anyone keen to pursue a life in writing or the arts – or not unless I had perhaps first read their horoscopes to indicate their chance of fulfilment and success. And what would that entail? Gilbert denies there are any guarantees for success in the arts, but on especially a temporary basis there very definitely are  – with or without major talent and obvious relevance because sometimes, on a temporary basis, even the worst persons and ideas can get away with a few things given helpful celestial indications.

For success in many areas including authorship, one needs to have a strong Jupiter (it bespeaks fortune in general but not least in the realm of publishing and ideas) and something strong to Pluto to empower and relate to the masses. (Who’s Who has been found to be full of Jupiter/Pluto people). Thus in the chart of Alain de Botton who has made hay in the unlikely field of popularized, applied philosophy, we find fortunate Jupiter fortunately trine Mars and the moon fortunately trine Pluto for outreach to the masses. To make it big in fiction, it helps that George RR Martin of Game of Thrones has writer’s Mercury opportunity sextile publishing Jupiter and surprising, original Uranus on a world point (O Cancer). JK Rowling has publishing Jupiter in communicating Gemini, with Mercury spectacularly conjunct fixed star Regulus in Leo (potential mega fame) and Moon conjunct Uranus and Pluto for massive popular outreach. Elizabeth Gilbert herself could hardly go wrong with publishing Jupiter conjunct surprising Uranus on another of the 6 world points at 0 Libra (itself the marriages and relationships sign which is why she has done herself best on that subject).

I will not discuss here my own horoscope and chequered experiences – as said, anyone can refer to my memoir for at least some of the stories,but I will say against some of Gilbert’s claims that fate plays a considerable role in the life of the artist who is perhaps more on the wheel of fortune than most so that the idea one chooses to be an artist or chances to get successful  is controversial. In my own case unusual circumstances  of overseas residence where I was forbidden to take employment, kept me at writing when I would not  otherwise have got so involved. While that is perhaps exceptional and  this isn’t the place for my story, it is the right place to sound warning signals against anything to do with a career in the arts in today’s circumstances. My advice is simply don’t touch it, don’t go near it, but if for whatever reason you must, then feel free to protest your lot and complain loudly. It’s not to be “boring” as Gilbert maintains. If sufficiently organized (but authors and artists fear the black balling which does go on and the effect on media connections too) it might produce some needed reform.

I seriously mean it that the “creative” life usually isn’t worth it in any form today. It can finish like imprisonment or a stay in the mad house, frustrating, exasperating, unprofitable, time wasting and degrading. After years of effort I finally seriously admitted as much  to myself when despite high recommendations  I was meanly refused for Penguin New Poets by one of Australia’s leading poets because I had unpublishably  included “such hopelessly archaic words as ‘conduct’ and ‘bestow’ “. That was the last straw and for more than twenty years I had not the slightest desire to write any more poetry. If that was wasted talent and in my case there is real reason to think so, so be it. Health and sanity are more important.

Paradoxically and ironically, my distinctly negative feelings do in their way, I suppose, lend support to Elizabeth  Gilbert’s notion of creative work today as best thought of as personal entertainment and in effect the therapy she doesn’t call it. However, against Big Magic theories I will always believe creativity involves a higher, more “sacred” function than the play-around materialism of modern life allows it to be. Almost certainly real art and its acceptance now awaits the inspirations of the coming era. For now the arts could be considered in their death rattle.

 

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 11, 2017 in creativity

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: