Saturday, 10 October 2015

Agnes Martin

Until very recently I had not heard of the American artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004). And yet, having now twice visited the Tate Modern’s retrospective* of her work, there is no doubt that she was a major modern artist. Her paintings are stunning, and her overall body of work must surely claim to be among the greatest art of the second half of the twentieth century.

At the most basic level it is easy to describe an Agnes Martin piece. Most of her best work consists either of grids, or of bands of washed out colour, repeating in patterns horizontally or vertically. There is nothing approaching ‘representation’ in any of this: the grids or the bands of colour, sometimes both, are, it might be said, all there is to see. But that would be to miss the point entirely. For there is in fact so much to see in Martin’s work, and not only with the eyes. 

A good place to start is with Martin’s own words (as quoted in an essay by Nancy Doyle) about how to view her work: ‘You just go there and sit and look.’ It is worth reflecting on the three parts of this guidance. First: ‘go there’. The actual painting itself has to be viewed. Martin is an extreme example of an artist whose work defies reproduction. Second: ‘sit’. What she means, I think, is that her paintings require time. The experience of viewing a Martin painting cannot be hurried. Third, ‘look’. Martin’s work requires attention, but attention of a particular kind. It needs to be ‘open’, careful not to judge or to overthink or to grasp at meaning. As befits an artist for whom Zen Buddhism and Taoism were influences, her work is best looked at without thought, with as clear a mind as possible. 

Consider a painting such as Morning (1965).


Agnes Martin, Morning (1965), Acrylic paint and graphite, 182.6 cm x 181.9 cm


Initially, if merely glancing at this painting, one may feel perplexed, perhaps even dismissive. It is simply a grid drawn in graphite on a large canvas painted in off-white. But the longer one looks, the more one sees. Viewed from a distance the painting has a hazy effect, rather like mist or fog. The grid is indistinct, even to the point of being barely visible. Approach closer and the grid takes on detail. At a certain distance the grid appears to have the perfect regularity of graph paper. Move in closer still, right up to the canvas itself, and one can see the irregularities in the lines: some are stronger than others; there are small kinks as the lines respond to variations in the artist’s hand or the variations in the texture of the paint. If distance is akin to viewing a mist, then closeness is like seeing the defined, fine droplets that constitute the mist. Morning is typical of Martin’s work in its invitation to observe and reflect on this relationship between minute detail and the whole.**

The painting is evidently not representational. Or, rather, it does not represent an objective world. Instead, in so far as the concept of representation has any meaning here, Morning is attempting to portray a feeling, an emotion, perhaps a truth or reality that transcends the visible world. Martin said of Morning: ‘I was painting about happiness and bliss and they are very simple states of mind I guess. Morning is a wonderful dawn, soft and fresh.’ In short, the painting is trying to capture the nature of a morning’s beauty, but the beauty that is felt and experienced—it is not attempting to define the ‘seen’ beauty as it may reside in the object, but rather the inner feeling of beauty we may have when experiencing the morning.

The majority of Martin’s paintings are untitled, but they are all doing something similar to Morning: they are trying to convey what lies behind the visible, and our inner responses to that, the feelings and emotions that defy verbal articulation or traditional representation. It comes as no surprise that, as well as eastern philosophy, Martin was influenced by, among others, Calvinism, William Blake and Platonism. The latter, in particular, seems everywhere evident: the grids, the geometry and the ‘mathematics’ of Martin’s work can be thought of as a sustained meditation on the Platonic theory of ideas, the perfect forms that exist, real but hidden, beyond the visible world.

There is a sublime sense of calmness and silence in Martin’s best work—indeed, to the point that the experience of viewing her paintings has often been described in religious or spiritual terms. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of this is Islands (1979), a set of twelve paintings intended to be displayed as a group.

Agnes Martin, Islands (1979)

From a distance they appear to be no more than white canvases. Again, close viewing is repaid, as faint lines and bands of pale blue emerge. As a whole, meditation is perhaps the best way of viewing them—Islands, as a work which depicts nothing, in so far as they are ‘about’ anything it is the intimate experience between the work of the art and the viewer. But beyond that, articulation is almost impossible: as Martin said, just sit and look.

There is a singularity of discipline and purpose throughout Martin’s work that amounts to an extraordinary body of work. Painting after painting (as well as an outstanding portfolio of screenprints entitled On a Clear Day) sticks resolutely to the same styles and themes. Yet each individual painting rewards long attention on many levels. (And it is worth noting she was a superb colourist, with a distinctive use of washed out blues and reds, as well as a fine period in which she painted predominantly in grey.) The simplicity of her art is only apparent. For Agnes Martin was a profound artist.
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* 3 June to 11 October 2015

** It also reminds me of the earliest experiments with the microscope, recorded by Robert Hooke in Micrographia (1665). One of the most wondrous discoveries—captured in the remarkable illustrations to Micrographia—was how objects that appeared perfect in form, such as a pinhead or a printed full-stop, were full of numerous imperfections when viewed through the microscope.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The long way

I’ve been exploring writings on solitude and silence. Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence (2008) is a wonderful reflection on the subject, thoughtful, profound and based on extensive study of the literature and experience of silence. Among the examples she considers are the experiences of solo yachtsmen, for whom solitude and the silence that solitude brings are intense.

A notorious episode in the history of solo yachting was the 1968-9 Golden Globe race.* Around this time various sailors were progressing with plans to make the first non-stop solo circumnavigation of the world. Sponsored by the Sunday Times, the race was designed to award a prize to the first sailor to accomplish this achievement, with a further prize for the fastest time (since the competitors were setting off at different dates). Anyone embarking on such a voyage within the timescale was entered by default, whether they wished to compete or not, without any other qualification or eligibility criteria.

Nine sailors set out, but only one, Robin Knox-Johnston, returned. Several competitors were forced to retire, their boats or themselves unequal to the task; Nigel Tetley, who was finishing after Robin Knox-Johnston but was well placed to take the fastest time prize, was only a few days from finishing before his boat fell apart and he had to be rescued at sea. But the two most remarkable stories were those of Donald Crowhurst and Bernard Moitessier.

Crowhurst set out with limited experience in a boat that soon proved badly ill-suited to the challenge. He drifted around in the Atlantic before hatching an intricate plan to fake his log book and return to claim the fastest time prize. But the gradual realization that he would never get away with it (and perhaps guilt too at Tetley’s sinking, since Tetley had been pushing his boat hard to keep ahead of Crowhurst, supposing the latter to be in close contention for the prize) resulted in what appears to have been deep psychosis. Giving up entirely, he devoted his last few days at sea to writing a strange, deranged metaphysical treatise, before committing suicide by stepping into the ocean.**

Moitessier was an experienced French sailor with a fine yacht; he was considered one of the favourites to win the fastest time prize. But he had had initial misgivings about the competitive nature of the race, and it was only with reluctance that he agreed to participate. He made solid progress towards the Cape of Good Hope; in the Indian Ocean his spirits were low, so he took up yoga to revive them; by the time he was past Australia and into the Pacific he was deeply in tune with the sea and increasingly reflective about the purpose of the voyage. It seems he was facing a kind of spiritual crisis, one that loomed ever larger as he closed in on Cape Horn. His dilemma was this: should he return to Plymouth to complete the race? Or should he keep going, past Good Hope again and on into the Indian and Pacific oceans to Tahiti or the Galapagos?

On 28 February 1969, by now in the Atlantic again, he wrote in his log that he was ‘giving up’—by which he meant that he was intending to complete the race. What he had decided to abandon was what he most wanted to do: to stay on the ocean where he felt happiest and most free, avoiding any return to European civilization. The next day, however, his spirits revived: he changed his mind and resolved to sail on. Shortly afterwards he wrote a letter to his publisher:

Dear Robert: The Horn was rounded February 5, and today is March 18. I am continuing non-stop towards the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul.

And so Moitessier circumnavigated the globe, solo and non-stop, one and a half times, before eventually touching land once again, ten months after he had first set sail, in Tahiti.

Moitessier’s own account of his voyage, The Long Way (1971; English translation 1973), is a fine book. Engagingly written and appropriately exciting, it is also movingly reflective. It conveys the intense calm and joy that Moitessier felt on the ocean, his sense of connection to the sea, to the elements, to the seasons, to the birds, fish and dolphins that he encountered, his freedom, and his sense that he was in close contact with the beauty of life, the world and the universe. It also captures his acute dismay at the impoverished nature of ‘civilization’, its obsession with money and its destructive impact on the environment. To have returned to Europe, to western society and civilization, would have been to imperil his soul—the only way to save it, and to stay in touch with what was really important in life, was to sail as far away as he could.

The decision he took seems so right. I admire him for it—even to the point of envying his clarity and strength of purpose in following his heart. He turned away from the fame and wealth that could have been his (he signed away all royalties from his book to the Pope in the hope that the Church would take action to save the environment) because he was questing after something that transcends the superficial values and priorities that prevail throughout most of society. He comments that his wife and children would understand. They probably did. I understand.  
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* Peter Nichols, A Voyage for Madmen (2001) is an excellent account of the race.

** Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (2003) is a detailed account of Crowhurst’s participation in the race. In a subsequent twist, a couple of years later Tetley also killed himself, perhaps unable to adjust to life after the race.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Do I dare to eat a peach?

‘And how should I begin?’ asks J. Alfred Prufrock. We might begin by considering questions. There are fifteen questions dotted throughout T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Not one of them is answered. There is also an ‘overwhelming question’ that Prufrock wants to ask but never does. What is this overwhelming question? And who is Prufrock, who is he addressing, and where is he going? The poem seems to spawn more questions. It is infuriating, often troubling; it is also superb.

I first read ‘Prufrock’ more than twenty years ago. I was certainly a young man at the time. Of this initial encounter I can recall only my struggle to make any sense of the poem amid its unsettling aura of weirdness. So much of its imagery seemed disturbing:

‘When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall’;
‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas’;
the evening sky (or maybe ‘You and I’) ‘Like a patient etherised upon a table’;
the women repeatedly talking of Michelangelo;
‘Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter’;
‘There will be time to murder and create’.

I put the poem away, perhaps not daring to engage with it for fear of what I might discover.

Many years passed before I looked at the poem again. I no longer knew whether I was a young man or not, only that some sort of crisis was attending the cusp between youth and middle age. Second time around I lingered on the poem; or, perhaps, I became entangled in it, reluctantly. Over several days I read and re-read it, I singled out lines for reflection, I dwelt on the epigraph from Dante’s Inferno. ‘Prufrock’ now seemed like some sort of warning:

‘I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker’;
‘I grow old… I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’;
‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’;
‘And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions, / Before the taking of a toast and tea’;
‘Time to turn back and descend the stair’;
‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’.

I came to detest Prufrock, his pathetically unrealized erotic life, his hesitancy, his aging, his inarticulacy, his nothingness. He was everything I did not want to be; the warning was that I might become him. I performed an act of catharsis: I wrote three short prose-poems on my hatred of Prufrock, enclosed them within the romantic correspondence I had just begun with a literature student, and enveloped myself in the brief but passionate fling which followed. I could put ‘Prufrock’ away again.

Nearly a decade has passed since then. I am now undeniably middle-aged. The poem itself was first published one hundred years ago; it ages better than I do. A radio discussion marking its centenary prompted me to return to it. ‘Prufrock’ now seems less like a warning and more like a prophecy realized. Where once I used to interpret the ‘you’ of the first line (‘Let us go then, you and I’) as referring to a nameless, mysterious woman, now I read it as a direct address to me. Prufrock ushers the reader towards a journey. He may be leading us through the streets, rooms and atmosphere of a place or he may be guiding us through the frustrations, longings and failings of his own soul—it can be read either or both ways, but always we are to understand that the journey is really through a circle of hell. Dante’s epigraph tells us that nobody ever returns from this hell; Prufrock’s reverie of mermaids and sea-girls in the final lines may seem like an escape, until the final line itself: ‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’

I was right to be fearful of the poem when I was young, to resist it when I was almost no longer young, and to inhabit it now that middle age is upon me. ‘Prufrock’ is the finest poem I know about middle age (which makes it all the more extraordinary that Eliot was such a young man when he wrote it). Without doubt it conjures a certain sort of experience of middle age, but surely not an uncommon one: the experience of observing how time has borne a life relentlessly on the back of the all the things never done or said, the questions never asked or answered, the person we imagined we might be but never became. The poem invites a crisis, almost certainly the only means to redemption, but one that will surely not be realized:

‘Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?’;
‘Do I dare / Disturb the universe? / In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse’;
‘After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, / […] / Would it have been worth while, / […] / To have squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question’.

‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ can, of course, be asked at any age. And the not asking and not answering questions, the decisions to turn back and descend the stair—they too are not limited to middle age. But it is a poem about time, and how there comes a time when the questions will never be asked or answered, when the stair will always be descended and the room never entered. It is about the fear (and certainly the poet’s anxiety) that some truth we believe we hold, whether about love or life or the universe, will never be understood by others; twice Prufrock says (or imagines he says) ‘That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all.’ And it is about the dawning awareness of not being ‘Prince Hamlet’ but

‘an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two, / Advise the prince; no doubt an easy tool, / Deferential, glad to be of use, / Politic, cautious, and meticulous; / Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.’

And finally it is a poem about self-consciousness, love and sex. The last question asked by Prufrock is: ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ Does Prufrock dare to make a foolish spectacle of himself, juice dribbling down his chin, his tie, his shirt? Does he dare to taste forbidden fruit? Does he dare to experience the erotic? (One hardly needs to reference ‘Peaches’ by The Stranglers to understand the erotic resonances here.)

Prufrock ends on the beach, the peach perhaps not far from his mind while he tells us that he has ‘heard the mermaids singing, each to each.’ But: ‘I do not think that they will sing to me.’ It is an astonishingly sad and pathetic line. I want to yell at Prufrock (and perhaps also at myself), ‘Eat a peach! Disturb the universe!’ But the poem asks, I think, two further questions: Would it make any difference? Would anyone notice? The sadness of one possible answer to those questions—and our fear of that answer—lies just beneath the surface of the entire poem.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Godfather and fascism

The thick, jutting jaw, the mannered physicality that demands admiration and respect: Vito Corleone could easily be Benito Mussolini re-imagined in a different life as a mafia boss in New York. It was while watching The Godfather trilogy again this week that this resemblance between ‘Il Duce’ and the original ‘Godfather’ occurred to me—but only once I had realized how the films can be viewed as a reflection on fascism. (Or, at least, the first two films; I have tried to like the third part, but it is a bad film in many ways, and it lacks any real centre or thematic coherence.) The way the films focus on power, order, hierarchy, respect and the bonds of blood surely invites a ‘fascist’ reading of them, whether or not this was intended by Coppola or Brando or Pacino. Indeed I would suggest, beneath their mythologizing about the mafia or organized crime or family, parts one and two of The Godfather are really about fascism.

Benito Mussolini
Fascism, Italian-style, was characterized by the concentration of power in the single leader who assumes an authoritarian and paternalistic rule, the valuing of corporations over the individual, the obsession with an ordered, regulated and stratified society, and a morality that combined the tough ‘realism’ of business and war with a deeply conservative and traditional set of values (including those stemming from a macho culture and a Catholic religiosity).

Pretty much all of that can also be said of the mafia world presented in the Godfather films. Like a fascist dictator, Don Corleone presides over his corporate world, ruthlessly expanding and wielding power. Superficially, at least, one might wonder why Vito and, subsequently, his son Michael bother: the power and wealth they acquire come with a heavy price of perpetual threats, misery and loneliness. The rare times when either Vito or Michael smile or laugh never occur when they are in the position of ‘head of the family’. Yet the power they grasp and grip so single-mindedly is never purely for the sake of power itself—it is based on a set of values and a conception of the world that is essentially fascistic in nature.

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone
Order, and the security that order brings, is perhaps the key value. The world view of Vito and Michael is one that detests chaos. Vito resists adding narcotics to his portfolio of criminal enterprises both for the moral disorder that will follow and for the potentially out-of-control criminal rivalry and violence that comes with the drugs trade. Michael’s doubts about investing in Cuba are confirmed when he witnesses an arrested bandit blow himself and a police captain up; the disorder and instability that threaten to engulf Cuba are unsuitable for the kind of ordered business Michael wants to do. Of course the Corleone family also go to war with rivals and other families, but this is never a simple case of empire-building; rather, it is an example of seeking peace through strength (‘si vis pacem, fac bellum’—‘if you want peace, make war’—as the variation on the original Latin phrase goes). An occasional war among the families, it is noted in the film, is a good means of clearing bad blood and hence re-establishing the peaceful, harmonious relations conducive to good criminal business.

That order is the central rationale guiding Vito and Michael comes across most clearly in their dealings with immediate family. Neither Sonny nor Fredo embody the type of fascistic values so essential to the Corleone vision of how to run their world. Both are too human with all the failings that come with that: Sonny is too emotional, impulsive and pugilistic; Fredo is weak and lacking in the authority and charisma befitting a leader. Each provides, in different ways, a stark contrast to Michael. Whereas Michael keeps his thoughts hidden and his emotions under control, Sonny and Fredo voice their thoughts at the wrong moments; whereas Michael has carefully created an ultra-traditional family life, Sonny is fathering illegitimate children and Fredo impotently confesses to being unable to control his wife; whereas Michael dresses in immaculate suits, Sonny and Fredo exhibit sartorial flamboyance.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone
For the Corleone vision to be realized, both have to die. Sonny’s murder is, of course, at the hands of rivals to the Corleone family, but the family’s grief is accompanied by unspoken yet evident relief that Sonny will not succeed as the Don—he was a ‘bad Don’, Vito comments in reference to Sonny’s brief moment of absolute power while Vito was recovering from the assassination attempt. Fredo, however, is killed on the orders of Michael; while ostensibly this is the long-delayed retribution for Fredo’s betrayal of Michael, the murder is logically the culmination of Michael’s extreme intolerance of any form of disorder. The murder of Fredo is a classic instance of the fascist’s instinctive repulsion at the weak individual, a repulsion stemming from the fear of the disorder, decay and degeneracy that the fascist believes accompanies weakness.

If The Godfather trilogy is a study of fascism, then it is also a particularly interesting presentation of the attractions of fascism. Vito and, in particular, Michael may be monsters, but who is not drawn, at least a little, into an admiration of them? Their genius for power, their ruthless and brilliant control, their charisma is rendered into something glamorous and attractive by the performances of Brando and Pacino. Surely there are times when we all wish we could be a little more like Vito or Michael, in control of ourselves and everything around us; and perhaps, too, times when their supremely effective organizational skills and strategic thinking would be welcomed in our worlds of business and politics.

It is often difficult from our vantage point in history, looking back on the wreckage, horrors and atrocities of fascism, to understand why so many millions of people were once attracted to the fascist vision. Just as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is perhaps the best insight into the aesthetic attractions of the Nazis, so Coppola’s Godfather films hint at the allure of fascism. It is what makes the first two parts of The Godfather such great films: the world and philosophy they present is dreadful, yet it also has a disturbing beauty—and no attempt is made to hide that dangerous reality.

And perhaps more disturbing still is this: the films depict a world of corporate capitalism (and the blurred lines between legitimate and illegitimate corporations, as well as their similar moral universes), yet once we recognize the dark heart of fascism beating at the centre of The Godfather and its sequels, we may well wonder where corporate capitalism ends and fascism begins.  

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Fool and the Angel, part 3: The Angel


i. Brooklyn

Panic rarely afflicts those with faith. I had faith in the Angel. So I enjoyed the last of my cigarette and made my way to the taxi rank. Only flickers of concern brushed me. The Angel and I had exchanged thousands of emails over the past six months, so why would I let one unanswered phone call shake me? I hired a cab. The months had become minutes; the thousands of miles had become a short ride to the next borough. I was heading to Brooklyn, to the address she had given me. I was getting close to the Angel.

For a few minutes I tried to take in this new city. Through my distraction I caught only glimpses, none of which endeared me to the place. But I wasn’t visiting New York, I was here to see the Angel. I dialled her number again. The taxi driver put on some loud music. I blocked it out of my mind. Everywhere I looked there were cars, snaking along freeways, bumper to bumper, but moving steadily. It was rush hour. I noticed how exhausted I was after the flight, and I was aware of the warmth of the afternoon heat. But I was struggling to engage with anything apart from the connecting tone from my phone. I need you to speak to me, Angel…

And then she did, uncertainly, cautiously: ‘Hello?’

It was the first word to pass between us that hadn’t been tapped away on a keyboard. And it sounded so strange, because it was so ordinary—the voice of a woman with an American accent, a little wary, perhaps a little nervous. I had, of course, played out this moment, and the moments that were to follow, many times in my mind. I had imagined sparse words cresting an ocean of feeling; I had imagined a stream of words, flowing seamlessly and effortlessly from the same source as our virtual correspondence; what I hadn’t imagined was the everyday awkwardness and hesitancy of two people speaking to one another for the first time. What had seemed so natural in front of screens 3,500 miles apart now began to assume the contours and gradients of reality. Shading was appearing around the wispy lines of our relationship. We had voices, accents, tones—we were real people doing the things real people do, talking into phones, feeling out situations, confirming meetings, giving definition to arrangements. Instinctively I knew this was good, for this was where we had been heading, and, as she had once written to me, we couldn’t make love to our computer screens.

Our conversation lasted only a couple of minutes. It was no more than a brief courtesy call. She said that she’d be waiting outside her apartment. We told each other, with formal reassurance, that we were looking forward to meeting. We said our goodbyes and hung up.

I tried to relax and to find my way into the feeling I had always imagined would wrap itself around what was soon to happen—something that would defy articulation, that would be transcendent and sublime. But reality was overpowering. My tiredness, the brightness and heat of the afternoon, the cars, the forbidding housing projects and crumbling freeways, all intruded on my reverie. And now the driver—who had turned down his music at my request—began talking to me, asking where I was from, but mostly telling me about Haiti, his country of birth. Normally I would have seized on such rare moments of encounter and would have engaged eagerly; now my mind was screaming for him to shut up. But politely, and with enormous effort, I played the role of interested participant in the conversation. The taxi laboured through the interminable traffic. My efforts at conversation were fading fast. I was willing us to be near but the city seemed to go on forever. Then suddenly we pulled around a corner and I saw her street name—and there she was, sitting on the steps outside her building, a glass of wine in her hand, the bottle beside her. She was real, she was beautiful, she was human.

I took my bag from the taxi and paid the driver. The Angel stood to greet me. We faced each other, said hello, smiled shyly. It wasn’t a transcendent moment; it was a real moment in all its dimensions, and that made it great. Then, an experience I had not had for over a year: lightly, gently, we touched and kissed.
     

ii. Nasreen

The Angel has a name, of course. In fact, she has two names: one is her real name; the other is Nasreen, a name that has been given her and by which she has acquired some notoriety. How and why she came to be known as Nasreen comes later in this story. It was never the name I knew her by, and it feels odd to use it—when talking about her, I still have to pause to check myself from accidentally revealing her real name, a name that had once been magical and wondrous and ultimately painful to me, that I suspected had become etched on my heart. But I wish her the choice of anonymity, so her real name stays inside me. Once, during a period when I was in danger of being consumed by hatred of her, I would have wildly and gladly made public her real name. But, on that September day in 2007, as we kissed on a street in Brooklyn, that time was still some way in the future.

Nasreen took me up to her apartment. There were two large rooms, with a further small room adjoining her bedroom; books, a few pictures, papers, sundry bits and pieces made up a comfortably messy atmosphere. We sat opposite one another at a large table in the centre of her living area. She poured wine, we lit cigarettes, we eased into talking, relaxed but unsure how much we knew one another. Then I did something—or rather didn’t do something—that I have never fully understood. She asked if I would like to sit closer to her. Perhaps I was a little overwhelmed by the situation, perhaps my inexperience in these situations inhibited me, perhaps my lack of physical closeness to a woman for fourteen months had rendered me too tentative… What would have happened if I had picked up her invitation? But I replied that I was fine, and almost immediately regretted that I had stupidly carved out distance between us, a distance that would possibly be difficult to cross now. There was a brief silence, the moment passed and we resumed chatting, drinking and smoking.

After a while I asked her how the novel was progressing. ‘That’s something I need to talk to you about,’ Nasreen answered.

‘Okay,’ I said, and waited.

She paused for a few seconds. ‘I don’t want a lover, I want a patron.’

I felt numb. Is this what the months of emailing, the decision to fly halfway across the world, the investment of hope and faith had all been about—for me to help her finish her novel? Had it all been a trick? Did she suppose that I had money, and that I would be prepared to fund her novel if she slept with me? I said none of this, for I was struggling to know what to say—do I express crushing disappointment, or shock? But I’d only just arrived, I was tired, I decided I had to remain calm.

‘You know I can’t be your patron. I don’t have that kind of money. I can barely take care of myself. And anyway, even if I could be your patron I wouldn’t be. That’s not the sort of thing I’m looking for, it’s not an arrangement I would want to be in. Nor is it what I thought all our emails were about, not to me at any rate.’

‘But you know how important my novel is to me, and you know how much I need someone to help me with it…’ And so she tried to explain things I already knew, but which I thought (but did not say) had no need to be entangled with us, with her and me. I partially shut down; I was tired and would rather curl up with my disappointment than engage with this crap. I accelerated my wine drinking. The conversation was going nowhere, and so we steered away from it. We stuck to lightness, wine and cigarettes; we found some laughter.

Then we went to bed, self-consciously and shyly, and, like every night I was there, chastely. Carefully we lay and slept next to one another, affectionately and innocently, but only rarely touching. She was the most physically beautiful woman I had ever met, yet, though I desired her, I never once desired sex. For that, I wanted her to desire me, and I never sensed that she did. And anyway, I had been celibate for so long—as had she—that celibacy seemed to have become engrained in my being.

The next couple of days were difficult. Nasreen was tense and brimming with anger: against her family, against her country, against the literary world, and particularly against James, her former creative writing teacher. She was gloomy and moody, as if the world oppressed her, and she would suddenly launch into arguments with me. She dismissed my left-liberal views as a typical product of a sexist, racist culture, and she labelled me as an unwitting representative of white male misogyny. Her own views were violently bitter. She was fixated on the Middle East, and her opposition to western aggression in the region, an opposition I shared; but I disliked the tone of her opposition as angry, irrational and lacking compassion, and she criticized mine as complacent, apologetic and excessively intellectual. She identified as an Iranian and a Muslim, yet her upbringing had been almost entirely secular, western and privileged. I tried to connect, but her outbursts were aggressive and alarming to the point that I imagined her capable of physical violence. Only when she smoked dope, and she did a lot of it, did she seem to relax, to the point often of spacing out completely. I began to wonder about her state of mind.

By the third day I was struggling with the situation. I told her that I didn’t think this was working, and that maybe it hadn’t been a good idea—and that I was thinking it would probably be best if I flew home early. She became very upset. In tears, she told me how alone she was, how difficult she found her life, and now she was being abandoned by me. I held her and consoled her, I told her how talented, intelligent and beautiful she was, how much I cared about her and wanted her to do well, how I would not abandon her. So I told her I would stay. We became calm and soothing.

But nothing really changed. We carried on as before, with moody tension and arguments, even a fiery and vocal row one evening. Still, I was in love with her, but so impossible was she to reach that it assumed a kind of torture. And just as I worried about Nasreen’s state of mind, so I began to wonder about my own. I was finding the situation increasingly emotionally stressful. On the morning of the anniversary of 9/11, I wept by myself in the bathroom. I feared I was heading for a breakdown. I needed to get away, to have some time and space out of this craziness. So I headed off, alone, into Manhattan.


iii. Manhattan church experience

Nasreen lived close to Brooklyn Bridge, so I decided to walk through her area of Brooklyn, over the bridge into Manhattan, to visit Ground Zero, and then to wander and think. It was a dismal, grey day, as I set out, a fine drizzle in the air. I was sad and fragile, a kind of soul-sickness was afflicting me, but I hoped that the view of Manhattan from the bridge would distract me. But my state of mind was such that I thought it horrifying—it looked so inhuman. What were individual humans in a city like this? Little more than insects, it appeared, part of a hive mentality amid these monuments to finance and capital. I was utterly disenchanted. But I ploughed on, my melancholy intensifying, and entered Manhattan itself. Ground Zero was bleakly uninteresting, and it was impossible to connect what had happened there six years earlier with what I was looking at. Just after leaving Ground Zero a storm broke, almost biblical in its ferocity. Thin rivers of water gushed down the streets, and, from the partial shelter I had found by a building, I watched a limp and bedraggled American flag being lashed by the wind and the rain. I wondered what this sign from God was. I needed God…

Finally the storm cleared and was replaced by bright sun. Aimlessly, and cold and wet, I headed up Broadway. On the sidewalk a man had collapsed and was receiving assistance. I was alert to signs of apocalypse and to my own impending collapse—I didn’t know how much more I could take. I walked and walked, trying to escape, somehow, from something, to something? I had no idea. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be there. And then, quite unexpectedly amid the grimness of everything around me, I came across a nineteenth-century Gothic church. I had to enter, to find a sanctuary.

Grace Church Broadway, Manhattan
The peace and stillness instantly overwhelmed me. Barely able to stand, I sat on a pew—and wept and wept. My anguish, my pain poured out, torrentially, relentlessly. Never, before or since, have I felt so alone as I did at that moment, so far from home, so far from anyone who loved or cared about me. My life had fallen apart, through nobody’s fault but my own, and I had pinned my hopes on an angel who, if she existed at all, was going to destroy me. I wept about all this, and about nothing tangible. On the other side of the church I spotted a priest, and for a moment I had an urge to fling myself at his feet and beg for him to help me. But I could barely move. Through my tears I mused on the images of saints and angels and Christ in the stained-glass windows. I began to pray. I asked God for a comfort, a saviour, I asked for Christ to come to me. I waited for his embrace, but I felt nothing. I continued with my prayers. I asked for forgiveness: for all the pain I had caused so many who loved me, for the way I had pulled apart the lives of people who cared about me. I understood why I was suffering now. I deserved it. I told God I was truly sorry. And I was.

I sat in that church for a long time. I experienced no presence, nobody came to comfort me—but I did feel a catharsis, a release. Taking some deep breaths, I dried my eyes, and sat for a while meditating. When I emerged once more into Manhattan to embark on the long walk back to Brooklyn I was not perhaps any happier, but I was calmer and stiller.


iv. ‘We’re idiots, babe’

I spent nine days with Nasreen. We continued to argue, but with less frequency and intensity. Around the edge of the emotional wasteland were bright points: we read poetry together, she introduced me to Rilke and Anne Carson, we talked about F. Scott Fitzgerald, she showed me photographs and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, we listened to music, we smoked and drank wine, occasionally we got high together, there were jokes and moments of laughter. We tried talking in upbeat and positive ways about our futures. But an unspoken hopelessness, a melancholy fatalism pervaded the atmosphere.

We were also hungry most of the time. There was never any food around, not even for her cats: lacking any cat food, Nasreen presented them with the only thing she could find, ice-cream, which they refused with a disgust we found hilarious (since we were both slightly high). But I have never felt as famished as I did during my time with Nasreen. It occurred to me that if we were together long enough we would probably waste away into oblivion together, starved and lonely and lying next to one another. Neither of us had the strength, energy or will to arrest our collapsing lives; we both wanted to be saved, but we were never going to save each other. One afternoon, as we sat looking out of her window, smoking, doing nothing, talking rubbish, I compared our lives to Bob Dylan’s ‘Idiot Wind’:

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats,
blowing through the letters that we wrote.
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves.
We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

Early in the morning of my penultimate day, lying and talking in bed together, she suddenly became extremely upset. I could see how much pain she was in. I moved over to her, caressing her, stroking her hair and face, wiping away her tears, kissing her tenderly, and, with tears in my eyes, telling her that I loved her. Briefly, as we gazed into one another’s eyes, I felt a momentary connection and deep feeling between us. It was the closest we got to intimacy. Later that day, as we walked along a street in Brooklyn, she put her arm through mine and told me how sad she was that I was leaving. We stopped and embraced, holding one another closely and tightly. Despite everything, my feelings of love for her were still overpowering. I wondered about possibilities of staying; she seemed open to the idea. But I knew it was hopeless, I knew that slowly we would have destroyed each other.

On my final morning, amid the heavy air of a significant departure, with my taxi due in half an hour, she again told me how she would miss me. She offered an unsolicited apology for being a poor host; I told her not to worry, it had been fine. We spoke vaguely about meeting again, and she said she would be in a better state when we did, that things had been particularly tough for her recently. Then she suggested, and I had a sense that she was being serious: ‘Maybe we should bang each other quickly, just so that we can say we’ve done it.’ But even if she’d expressed it as ‘making love’, I didn’t want to. I told her that, no, that was not the way I wanted us to part.

We hugged and kissed as I stood by the taxi, and she told me that definitely we should meet again. Then we parted. I watched her walk up the street. She didn’t turn round. I wondered how she felt. The taxi pulled away. I wondered how I felt. Sad, but strangely relieved too, as if I had survived an ordeal. Would I ever see her again? Intuitively I thought not, but as I made my way back through Brooklyn and Queens to JFK airport, as the distance between Nasreen and me grew, so I sensed the return of something—the return of the person that I had been for the past few months, as if I had left him behind nine days earlier, the return of the pure love of the Angel.

I texted Nasreen from the airport to say that I was missing her. She replied that she was missing me too, and that she loved me. Joy filled my heart at the prospect of going back to who we were. We would rediscover our pure, ethereal love, we would pick up where we left off. When I arrived back in London there were emails waiting from her. She missed me. She thought that ‘perhaps we should have made the beast with two backs’. She loved me. We were virtual lovers again.

But soon things were to become very strange and disturbing…

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Fool and the Angel, part 2: On angels

A long way below me is the Atlantic ocean. A few hours ahead of me is New York and an encounter that I believe will change my life: I will meet the Angel for the first time. She will save me, and I will save her, because I could sense she was in pain. I will mend her broken wing and help her to fly, and she will heal my troubled, guilty soul and help me to love again. We will touch each other lightly, with barely concealed desire, in a shy silence surrounded by all the words we have already exchanged and pregnant with those to come, and we shall tenderly undress one another and embrace joyfully under soft, white sheets, smiling and laughing as we slide and roll together into an ecstasy of love and salvation…

Did the Angel exist? I know now that she didn’t, but when I flew to her in the late summer of 2007 I had placed my faith entirely in her existence. My romantic adventure demanded full, unwavering commitment. The Artist, despite fully approving of my act, nevertheless advised me to draw up a plan B. But what could this plan B possibly be? I had little money, I had never before been to New York and I knew nobody there, and, besides, to start devising back-up plans ran counter to what I deemed to be the necessarily full commitment to flying to the Angel. It was barely thinkable, but if there was no angel then I imagined I may have some sort of breakdown in Brooklyn and throw myself on the mercy of others, and of fate, to manage my personal disaster. But this was only a dim idea, since I had little doubt that the Angel would be there. How could she not be? For she was an angel, and angels guard and save.

She first contacted me on Valentine’s Day of that year. I had placed a personal ad in a literary journal, the details of which I no longer remember except that it included an intended witty reference to Sweden. ‘Take me to Sweden’ was, in its entirety, that first message sent by the Angel. Of course, I replied, let's go to Sweden and skip our way around the Baltic. And so it had begun.

We asked offbeat questions of each other and gave offbeat answers. We explored in the manner of the sightless, feeling and probing carefully and attentively. Flirting shimmered at the edges. She described herself as a Persian princess trapped in Brooklyn and in need of rescue. I was not a knight, I told her, but an academic in London gradually emerging from my own private nightmare. She seemed pleased and curious. We discussed politics, the Iraq war, swans, love, creativity, yoga, food and books. I learnt that she was a writer trying to finish her first novel. She told me about her creative writing teacher in New York, an Englishman named James. She seemed to be infatuated with him, possibly in love, but hadn’t seen him for a long time and was finding it hard to adjust to his absence, particularly now that he was in Europe for an extended stay. She was convinced that James loved her, but also admitted that there was nothing between them and never had been anything. So the emails danced lightly back and forwards, a welcome pastime, to which I gave little serious thought, while I was focused on moving to a new flat, to a radical change in my life, to solitude.

At the time I was reading the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. I mentioned this to the Angel. She replied that I sounded just like James. This was a good thing, she wrote: ‘Let’s meet. When? I’m sick of the solitaries…’ A few minutes later a new email appeared in my inbox: ‘I’m serious!’ And then another: ‘I think you will come here in June. That’s what I think…’ A little more time passed before another email arrived: ‘I want to cuddle and read in bed and have sex.’

The Angel in the mind of the Fool
Was that all it took? The Fool, becoming ever more reclusive, struggling with guilt over the mess he has recently made of his own life and those of others, and a mysterious woman he knows only as the Angel and who wants to hold him and have sex with him—is it really a wonder that he might suddenly be gripped by the prospect of love and salvation? Did he not need an angel?

Angels are divine messengers; angelos is the Greek word for a messenger. They carry out the will of God, linking the human and the divine. It is an angel who tells Hagar that she will bear Ishmael; an angel who intervenes to stop Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac; angels drive Adam and Eve out of Eden and angels destroy Sodom and Gomorrah; the angel Gabriel who tells Mary that she will bear Christ; an angel who moves the stone from the entrance to Christ’s tomb; an angel who frees St Peter from prison. They are everywhere and they are numberless and, so Revelation tells us, at Armageddon they will do battle with their fallen brethren.

In the most prevalent and influential medieval systematization of angels, stemming from the fifth-century De coelestia hierarchia (On the Celestial Hierarchy) by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, there are nine orders of angels, ranked in three triads: Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; Dominions, Virtues and Powers; Principalities, Archangels and Angels. At the top of the hierarchy, the Seraphim eternally revolve around God in attentive worship—they have nothing to do with humanity. It is only
Angels comfort, love and save...
(Carl Heinrich Bloch,
An Angel Comforting Christ in
Gethsemane
, 1873)
the Archangels and Angels who ever have contact with humans. In the Bible that contact was extensive; wherever the divine will is operating, there invariably are to be found angels.

But what happened to them? Where did the angels go?* In the Old and New Testaments they are busy conveying God’s will, healing, saving, fighting, killing and destroying. But miracles cease and the angels disappear. Or, rather, they reappear as something different—as objects of contemplation. They drift off into the ethereal sphere; left alone, humanity sought consolation by filling religious art with depictions of the angels. The almost obsessive attention to portraying angels in art is evidence of how much humanity seeks a bridge to the divine. In 1586 a papal Bull affirmed that everyone had their own celestial companion, and in the early seventeenth century the Catholic Church instituted a universal feast of the Holy Guardian Angels. At best, however, angels now only guarded and loved, but they did so at a distance. Dreamers and prophets still received angelic messages. A few adventurous souls attempted to communicate with the celestial order. The English mathematician, astrologer and occultist, John Dee (1527-1608/9), conversed with the angel Uriel via his scryer Edward Kelley. Blessed with knowledge of the Enochian language of the angels, Kelley conveyed to Dee Uriel’s message that the two men were to share their possessions, including Dee’s wifea message Dee dutifully obeyed. Dee may have gained divine knowledge from his conversations with an angel, but his life was one of hardship thereafter, meeting suspicion and hostility from all around and declining into ever greater poverty until his death in Mortlake.

...and they kill and destroy
(Guido Reni, The Archangel
Michael
, c.1636)
It is a dangerous business to talk with angels. What seemed to have been forgotten by Dee and everyone else in the centuries after Christ’s resurrection, was known to Rilke: angels are powerful, fearsome and terrible. Nor did I know this. Like Dee, I scarcely knew what I was doing by communicating with the Angel.

But communicate we did, the Angel and I, voraciously and incessantly. Over the course of seven months we exchanged nearly 6,000 emails. How could I begin to describe this body of correspondence? It was beautiful, it became the centre of my life, it gave meaning to my days and to my nights too. Many of the messages were brief, no more than a few words; others took on essayistic form. We exchanged playful messages, often only minutes apart, and long messages that explored literature, philosophy and love. We discussed writers, music, spirituality, Sufism and God. We exchanged photographs and I discovered that she was beautiful, genuinely and stunningly so. Sometimes we argued; occasionally there were online rows. But affection, romance and passion flowed through our words. We signed our messages with kisses and promised each other there would be real kisses soon. Each morning, after waking, the first thing I would do was sign into my email account to read and respond to the messages that had floated overnight from the Angel. The next few hours were time passing as I waited for the earth to turn and bring morning to New York, and with it the first messages of the day from the Angel. I would ache not to hear from her for any extended period; I suspected she also ached, for occasionally I would receive the message ‘Where are you?’ 

I was in love with her. We discussed my coming to visit her. But we did so tentatively and nervously, for we were both lonely and fragile and secure in the pure atmosphere of our virtual romance, unsullied and untroubled by reality. Eventually, however, the Fool has to step off the edge of the cliff, to make the leap of faith. So I booked a flight to New York—and then something happened that might, and maybe should, have sounded a warning bell.

Not long after buying my ticket to New York, on what happened to be the hottest day of the year, I visited my children before they went on holiday for a couple of weeks, after which I met the Artist for a drink. By the time I returned home I was fit for nothing but to collapse into bed—I would have to write to the Angel in the morning. When, first thing the next morning, I checked my emails I was greeted by a stream of messages from the Angel. At first affectionate, the emails quickly turned to questions about where I was, and then rapidly descended into angry invective about my silence, my ‘sadism’ in inflicting pain on her by not responding, until they culminated in expressions of near hatred towards me. Calmly, reassuringly and lovingly I replied with an explanation of what had happened. But this did little to appease her, for, when she wrote later that day, she accused me, bitterly, nastily and with growing irrationality, of spending the night with my ex, of being cruel, of being a liar. My repeated endeavours to persuade her that she had the wrong idea were failing ever more spectacularly until, in despair, I questioned whether it was a good idea that we meet. She didn’t reply to this. Her silence, and the exhausting and, to my mind, incomprehensible craziness of the correspondence that had preceded it, led me to question whether it was sensible to meet her—how could I be the guest of someone who clearly now thought so little of me? I investigated the possibility of obtaining a partial refund on my flight, and I resolved that, next day, I would cancel my booking.

The following morning I woke up to an email from the Angel. It contained no message, only an attachment—a photograph of her breasts, bare and beautiful. Relief, joy, anticipation and desire coursed through me. I laughed as I reflected on how in love with her I was. I banished for good any ideas about cancelling my ticket.

Possibly it seems strange now that I was not more alarmed by the Angel’s volatility and her capacity for anger—an anger that, virtual though it was, came tinged with violence and destruction. Yet I regarded these characteristics as simply the reverse side of everything else she was: spirited, passionate, creative, unusual, exciting. That she was challenging was obvious, but surely, I reasoned, what is most worthwhile in life is usually what is also most challenging. And I felt ready to take on the challenge. I wanted to feel enriched and alive, and the Angel held out the promise of both. It had crossed my mind that she may be mad; yet I concluded that, more likely, she was precisely the type of eccentric, unpredictable spirit of fire I was seeking and needed. If she destroyed me, I decided, then so be it. The Fool has to take a risk. I had to be brave.

And so we continued with our messages. One trivial row about the Iraq war aside, an eerie calmness descended upon them as the day of my flight neared. She seemed a little distracted and frustrated by her writing and work, and both of us struggled to disguise the traces of apprehension about meeting after such a long and intense correspondence. Would this be, as I fantasized, the most beautiful moment of my life? What would we say—for we had never spoken to one another? How, after the countless written words, the virtual and textual romance, would we be able to interact away from our computer screens?

It was only as the plane made its final approach to JFK that I really began to consider the chance that there may be no Angel—that she might not exist or that she might not be who she seems (‘it would be a bit of a disappointment if she turns out to be a large Mexican wrestler’, the Artist had once
JFK airport
reassuringly commented). I was to phone her after landing so that she knew I had arrived, and then I would hire a taxi to take me to her apartment in Brooklyn. After the slow crawl through passport control and baggage reclaim I was finally able to step outside to smoke a very welcome cigarette.

I took three or four deep drags to calm my nerves. I found the Angel’s number on my phone and pressed dial. It started ringing… I looked around, feeling the unfamiliarity of my surroundings; I observed the snappy, brusque manners of the airport officials and the taxi drivers, the worldly, tough, no-nonsense tone; slithers of wonder shot through me, wonder at what I was doing here, with little money, listening to the ring tone on my phone, in this huge, fast, aggressive city, where the only person I knew and the only place I had to stay might not even exist. I let the phone ring a little longer. I waited. There was no answer…

_______________________________

*These questions are asked, and given an interesting answer, in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, trans. by James Anderson (London: Portobello, 2008).

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Human Condition

René Magritte's paintings raise philosophical questions about the nature of representation and reality. Of course all art inherently concerns such questions, but few artists have been as overt in addressing them. A case in point is Magritte's La condition humaine (1933), a painting I have long found fascinating. What is the human condition that it purports to reveal?
René Magritte, La condition humaine, 1933

At first glance it is a reassuringly straightforward example of a familiar genre, the landscape, albeit a rather dull landscape. But the more we look, the more unsettling the painting becomes. The scene is enlivened its being viewed through a window, and further by what appears to be a 'joke': part of the landscape is obscured by a canvas on which is painted in meticulous and realistic detail that portion of the landscape it hides from direct view. Or does it? There is no way of telling what is really behind the canvas: there may be a cottage, or a family enjoying a picnic, or a flock of sheep.

Even supposing the canvas accurately represents what it obscures, it soon becomes clear that the whole is an impossibility. The canvas is an absurdity. It only works from one precise angle: imagine being able to shift our perspective slightly, and what this would do to the alignment of canvas and landscape. Furthermore, it only works at one precise moment in timethe exact second that the clouds form the arrangement we see. The absurdity, of course, is the idea that a painter could depict the clouds exactly as they would be arranged at some point in the future.

By teasing us with a realism that under closer examination becomes transparently artificial and impossible, Magritte explodes the whole notion of realism in art. There is always a gap between reality and representation, and no matter how hard we try we can never close that gap. The world as it is and the world as we see it are two different things; the human condition, Magritte's painting tells us, is that we are forever denied grasping the former.

There is a further way in which La condition humaine plays with the problem of reality and representation. When we look out onto the countryside we describe what we see as a landscape, and may also consider it beautiful; an artist may even want to paint this landscape. It becomes ordered in our minds, and possibly on a canvas too, as a landscape and possibly as something of beauty. But as Simon Schama, with reference to La condition humaine, argues in Landscape and Memory (1995): 'What lies beyond the windowpane of our apprehension... needs a design before we can properly discern its form.' (p. 12) Landscape and beauty are simply our projections of order and ideas, our way of making sense of what we see. Magritte's painting comments on the way we look at the world: we see it not as it is but artificially as if on a canvas. Landscapes and beauty exist in the mind, not in nature. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Fool and the Angel, part 1: On folly

In the late summer of 2007 I committed my greatest act of folly. Aware of what I was doing, I texted the Artist with my doubts. 'Folly is the way to go', he replied. Of course, I thought, for I was never likely to go any other way. This was a journey I had to make, with all my heart, even though I sensed disaster. I inserted myself once again in the flow that was taking me—and had been taking me for several months—to the airport, to the plane, to New York, to Brooklyn, and finally to the Angel. The Angel—an angel out of Rilke, but I had not then read the warnings from the Duino Elegies:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks / of the angels? Even if one of them clasped me / suddenly to his heart, I'd wither in the face / of his more fierce existence. For their beauty / is really nothing but the first stirrings of a terror / we are just able to endure and are astonished / at the way it elects, with such careless disdain, / to let us go on living. Every angel is terrifying. (Duino Elegies, 'The First Elegy', lines 1-7, trans. by Martyn Crucefix)
'Jeder Engel ist schrecklich'—would it have mattered had I known, before boarding the plane, that angels are terrifying? Or, as Rilke describes them in 'The Second Elegy', that they are 'deadly birds of the soul' who will destroy us should they take one step towards us? No, for folly is vital and important, and I had determined, for once in my life, to adopt the role of the Fool. And so the Fool was on his way to encounter the Angel. Of the Angel, who was eventually to acquire notoriety, we shall learn in due course. But the starting point of the journey is folly.

Folly ascends the pulpit; marginal
drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger
to Desiderius Erasmus,
 Praise of Folly (1511)
Fools, it is often supposed, are deserving of contempt. We are told that they are not to be suffered gladly. Yet in the old courts of kings and queens and in the guise of comedians and clowns and jokers they have long been sought out, valued and esteemed. It takes a certain kind of grim, humourless, intolerant character not to suffer fools gladly—and, ironically, a lack of wisdom. The Renaissance humanist Erasmus (c.1466-1536) knew this. In his Praise of Folly (1511) the essential role of folly in the world is extolled. Personified as an old woman, Folly tells us that without her divine gifts there would be no love, no joy, no friendships. Who would marry, who would have children, who would devote time to drinking with friends, to playing games, to hobbies and interests, indeed to most of the things that make life worthwhile, if it were not for folly? How dull life would be, Folly insists, if we only ever followed the sensible and rational course!

Much of Praise of Folly is a light-hearted rhetorical exercise; Erasmus is having fun, particularly at the expense of self-important bores who would caution against any leavening of life with a dash of folly. But the tone of the treatise progresses to a satirical and often scathing critique of his contemporary society, particularly its superstitions, scandals and corruptions, and finally to a serious philosophical point: the simplicity of faith, the acceptance of ignorance and the poverty of the spiritual life are greater rewards than the supposed worldly wisdom of dogma, superficial certainty and material wealth. It is not necessary to be a Christian (I am not) to get Erasmus' point: once we look deeply it turns out that the fools are really the wise and the wise are really fools.

This idea that the fool is actually wise, and has the function of exposing the true folly of others, is a commonplace. In Shakespeare the comic characters, disguised by wit and folly, frequently serve to highlight the shortcomings of their social superiors. As Isaac Asimov observed in his Guide to Shakespeare, 'the great secret of the successful fool [is] that he is no fool at all'. The Fool in King Lear is wiser than the king he serves, understanding the truth where his master does not. The shifting, hazy boundaries between folly and wisdom are captured in Touchstone the clown's comment in As You Like It (V.1) that 'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.' At widely different times, and in different cultures, similar ideas have been voiced. The 4th-century BCE Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu, wrote that those 'who realize their folly are not true fools'. Francis Bacon considered that he 'who thinks himself the wisest is generally the greatest fool'. And perhaps more than ever we still laugh at the absurdities of satire while grasping its serious point: however absurd the satire is, it is not more absurd than the target at which it is taking aim.

To be a fool, as I increasingly thought I was during the summer of 2007, may paradoxically therefore to be in possession of a deeper wisdom—or at least to be open to the possibility of wisdom, just as the philosopher is not the wise man but the desiring seeker after wisdom. I reassured myself with this idea, and with its rendering as the figure of the Fool in the Tarot deck.
The Fool, from the
Rider-Waite Tarot
deck
The divinatory aspects of the Tarot can safely be set aside as nonsense; but (a possibility that also occurred to Jung) there remains, nevertheless, an interesting iconography and symbolism to the Major Arcana, the set of twenty-two cards preceding the four standard suits of wands, cups, swords and pentacles. Some commentators have seen the Major Arcana as charting an allegorical path to wisdom, a journey that takes in such familiar symbols as The Lovers, The Hermit, The Wheel of Fortune, The Hanged Man, Death, The Devil and the Sun, and ends with The World. The journey is being made by the one numberless card (in some decks it is designated as zero), The Fool, the Joker in the traditional deck of cards, the wild card. In the classic Rider-Waite Tarot deck the Fool is depicted as a seemingly wistful young man, evidently embarking on a journey
—one that will begin by stepping off a cliff. It is the classic leap of faith which only a fool would make. Ignorant but seeking something more than the world he is leaving behind, it is the fool who sets out on the path where the outcome is uncertain and unknown.

Ray Bradbury once said: 
If we listened to our intellect we'd never have a love affair. We'd never have a friendship. We'd never go in business because we'd be cynical: "It's gonna go wrong." Or, "She's going to hurt me." Or, "I've had a couple of bad love affairs, so therefore..." Well, that's nonsense. You're going to miss life. You've got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.
Of course, it is also possible that you plummet and crash at the foot of the cliff. Or maybe something else happens—maybe an angel catches you on the way down.

As I sat on the plane waiting for it to take off I mused on all these possibilities, and on wisdom and folly, on life, on love, on the leap that I was about to make. The leap was likely to end horribly, so my reasoning told me. I was putting my trust in faith and love, and my hope in the Angel—even though the Angel and I had never spoken to one another and I wasn't sure she even existed...

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Rilkean beginnings, or, loving the questions

I should begin with Rilke. As well as his poetry, his Letters to a Young Poet are well worth reading. The 'young poet' was Franz Xaver Kappus, a military cadet with poetic leanings. Kappus sought advice from Rilke, about poetry, about the choice of poet as a careerand about love. The turbulent nature of Rilke's own relationships might suggest that he was not the ideal advisor on the subject of love; reading his poems and letters soon dispels such suspicions.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
Love, according to Rilke, is 'hard':
The fondness of one person for anotherit may be that this is the most difficult task that we are set, the most extreme, the ultimate trial and proof, and the task for which all other tasks were no more than a preparation. (Letter VII)
For this reason, he writes, the young are not 'capable' of love; they are still, like apprentices, to learn how to love. The characteristic of young loverstheir most grievous mistakeis to 'hurl themselves at each other when love overcomes them and scatter themselves abroad in whatever state they may bein all their prodigality, confusion, madness'. In doing so, 'each is lost for the other's sake, and loses the other'; what will come of it is ultimately 'aversion, disappointment and deprivation'.

Far from seeing the essence of love as the union of two people, Rilke emphasizes the importance of retaining the individual self in love. There is a logic to this that escapes some of the most common presentations of love. To fall in love is to fall in love with the other personideally we love that person for who they are, just as they love us for who we are. To become a union with that person is to change and to lose two selves, precisely the two selves who loved each other in the first place. Love, in Rilke's view,
is a high occasion for the individual spirit to ripen and to develop into something in itself, to become a world, to become a world in one's own self for someone else's sake: it is a great, immoderate demand upon the self, choosing and summoning it to far-distant places. (Letter VII)
Perhaps that (youthful) quest after union is really a search for answers to the troubling questions that love inevitably arouses. For Rilke, the young should abandon this pursuit of answers, as he urges Kappus:
You are still so young, so uncommitted, and I do entreat you as strongly as I can, my dear Sir, to stay patient with all that is still unresolved in your own heart, to try to love the very questions, just as if they were locked-up rooms or as if they were books in an utterly unknown language. You ought not yet to be searching for answers, for you could not yet live them. What matters is to live everything. For just now, live the questions. Maybe you will little by little, almost without noticing, one distant day live your way into the answers. (Letter IV)
To love and live the questions, and by doing so, to live one's way to the answers: this could be the basis for a philosophy of life. It resembles the idea of mindfulnessto live attentively in the present. It resembles too the philosophy of Socrates and its seemingly interminable questioning without ever fixing on an answer.

I have taught many students over the years and most of them are eager to rush towards answers, in life as well as their studies. They regard this time in their lives as the acquisition of answers. Rilke reminds us that first it is necessary to live and explore the questionsand that this is a long and difficult, but ultimately rewarding, process.