Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

On Othello 5: the Character and Death of Othello.

Othello clearly has issues.

It's not just critical thinking skills Othello lacks; some sausages are missing from Othello's barbeque. And he dies strangely content with the memory of a cruel act of justice he once dealt to a Turk, a non-Christian like he once was. Does Othello recognize his karma coming back as a tragedy from that act of rough "justice"? I think so.

Where Desdemona's death is the shock of the play, Othello's is a relief. I burst into tears reading Desdemona's last lines; how could I have read this play four or five times as a teenager and NOT wept, I wonder? Nothing could underline the difference in kind and degree between the teenager and the adult than the fact that only the adult who is experienced in the extremities of suffering can be adequate to comprehend the astonishing moral victory of Desdemona's last words. Desdemona reveals herself a warrior; by forgiving, she defeats Othello.

Coming back to Othello: Othello seems to recognise that his brutal nature is the true man at the end, but does that mean that the noble and sophisticated Othello of act 1 to 3 is fake? This is clearly false, but not an easy charge to avoid.

Othello of act 1 to 3 IS the real deal, but so is the completely different Othello of act 5. The intervening tormented Othello (act 4) is merely the alembic of Iago's alchemical psychiatry, not a man but a patient, a case study. What are we to make of these two different Othello's? And what are we to make of the transformations of youth and adulthood, whereby the same individual can become as different in himself as night from day?

The key lies in Iago's silence.

Is Iago the first psychiatrist? Undoubtedly.

I can't feel anything other than genuine satisfaction in Iago's total silence. Iago is complete, having returned to that avenging Element from which he arose; we feel the human aspect of the man was merely for show, and that in his silence the real man at last is revealed. We feel relieved, not of his speech, but to know him as he really is; Iago is not a human agent, and by his silence shows this is so.

Iago's silence illuminates the character of Othello as a product of primordial darkness and ignorance. Recognising the aboriginal depth of Othello in ourselves, we are humbled. How can we be sure we are just and wise? We can't, unless we become intimate with that darkness which we foolishly disown as evil in ourselves. Othello signifies that intimacy with our blackness, and the terrible cost of becoming estranged from our soul.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

How Reflection Creates the Past: On Reading Conrad's 'Youth'.

Joseph Conrad writes with great style and heart!

I just read aloud 'Youth'. Into this little book which Conrad wrote as a youth of 24 years he poured all the experience of aliveness and joy from his formative years.

Reciting 'Youth' disclosed the breath and the silence and the difficult play of words in the author's throat. So when the narrator, old Marlow, asks his listeners to pass the bottle of claret, I reached over and sipped my cup of peppermint tea, and mindfully breathed a moment. Conrad means you to rest when Marlow rests, because he requires you to work when Marlow remembers. If you do not rest when Conrad/Marlow rest, you will probably miss much of the meaning of the story, which is encoded in the emotion and style. This kind of reading is great fun, too!

"...the whole terrestrial globe had been one jewel, one colassal sapphire, a single gem fashioned into a planet."

See how Marlow piles up the three clauses on one another? He uses this technique for three quarters of the text. It happens whenever young Marlow, the hero of the story, is powerfully moved. The effect when recited is rhapsodic - it builds complex waves of feeling and image - it crests and foams into the last quarter of the story, which is written very simply. If you do not follow the waves, you probably will not feel the impact of the simply written last scenes. That is why recital is best for this story. But it also expresses the emotional rollercoaster of being young so very well!

If being young is like being asleep, or like being in a dream, then becoming an adult is like waking up and remembering the dream even as it fades from memory's lips and leaves a faint bitterness. Likewise, I didn't understand 'Youth' until I had slept on it. When I woke up all of a sudden the mind cleanly took hold of the whole story as a single object, and I understood what Conrad is up to.

This is not a coming of age story at all. This is a dream of youth and age, as mythical as the sport of the gods, and as golden. The sweetness of immortality and the bitterness of age come together and heighten one another. The authentic taste of the passing of time is here in these pages, intangible and subtle.

"Allegory" is a dead word for a living form. According to wikipedia it comes from αγορευειν, agoreuein, "to speak in public". Wiktionary tells us that allegory is "the representation of abstract principles by characters or figures". I see many problems with the use and meaning of the word (too many to go into here), because it presupposes a break between presentation and representation, between the abstract principle and the concrete image.

In my experience, sometimes the abstraction IS the character - these is no difference between Achilles and vengeful wrath, is there? Likewise, in Conrad's 'Youth', there is gap between abstract and real, presentation and representation. The thing is the idea is the thing.

And in this case the thing is Youth and Age. The story shows the essence of both so well, so powerfully, that is is almost jejune of me to speak of it with ordinary words. It is a very powerful presentation of poetic truth!

The entire story of 'Youth' is an allegory for the nature of youth, complete with invocations to Jove, the god of juveniles. The moments when Marlow uses the triple repetition signal the efforts to hold back the unconscious contents of the actual event - the twining repetitions of threefold horrors are gorgonic snakes of words that ward off the actual experience of youth from Marlow's weather-beaten consciousness.

Marlow's story, with its rhetorical flourishes, is old Marlow's defense against the authentic experience of youthfulness. The story is not just about a sea adventure, but about the life Marlow has lived since then. That is why the first three quarters of the story are charged with such sorrow and sagacity.

And what about the actually young Marlow? We remember pumping water til the cook goes mad, waiting in dry dock til the rats abandon ship, and sailing til the ship burns and sinks. But what do we feel about all this stuff we see of the young Marlow?

We feel the moody turbulence of adolescence in the constant rain and water pumping. We feel the sense of waiting to become an adult in the social embarrassment of dry dock. We feel the fiery concupisnce of puberty in the smouldering invisible fire beneath the vessel which bears a freight of fragile human lives to a new unknown world in the East.

Conrad's 'Youth' is a precise allegory for adolescence! Every detail provides an exact imagining-forth of the essence of being juvenile. So 'Youth' is immortal. And so what? Every adult of character has been through the same transformation in her or his own way.

Old Marlow's perspicacious warding-off of genuine feeling breaks down at the end of 'Youth'. This is signalled by the loss of complex language when young Marlow wakes to see the faces of the East, loses the repetitions altogether. It is simply written. The faces of the East are an image out of dreamtime; consciousness has been broken down by the storms of adolescence, but in being broken, has become adult.

And so what? We wouldn't want to repeat the ordeal of losing these sweet illusions so bitterly, nor would we want to forget the pleasure that the delusions of youth brought us.

For old Marlow in his drink youth is a bitter illusion, until the moment when he breaks through to the direct experience of young Marlow once again, and for a moment the old man is soft and vulnerable once again.

But Conrad seems to be saying also that as adolescence dreams of the man he is to become, so the adult who reflects on her adolescent dreams can always take the opportunity to make them real... reflection is the work of a well lived life.

This is the greater attainment of 'Youth': Conrad through the voice of Marlow realizes his own adult self through reflexively investigating, probing, testing and deepening his perceptions of his own youth.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Dan and I Visit Open Day At The South Australian Governor's House

Dan and I visited the governor's house on March 29 2009 and here are the most memorable aspects:

The governor of South Australia has lots of mirrors in his house. "Because," Dan says, "he needs to make sure he looks good all the time."

All the art is either distinguished portraiture or realistic landscapes. Why? We decided between us that it has been decorated by previous governors, with a consideration of the taste of future ones and the dignity of the previous ones; and if it is bland it is nevertheless in excellent taste.

We come across two unfortunate activist friends in the ballroom. Their suits are too tight; they seem puffed up a little with anxiety; unfortunately, their tight suits are matching green and maroon.

They show us their document, which is unintelligible. It asks immediately for something undefined for big group of people. It uses exclamation marks and the words "we demand". Like I said, unfortunate.

I hand it back and smoothly lie: "It's clearly written."

"It's been through many drafts," they tell us, "We're going to present it to the governor today."

Dan, fortunately, has noticed something shiny which requires we attend to it instead of arguing with fanatics. I reckon Dan's social graces make Michelle Obama's seem gauche.

Out in the yard a crowd of about forty tourists have gathered around a tree where two Kookaburras laugh. Other nations have governors' maisons galore, but no hilarious avians. The crowd is still there discussing the event excitedly when we leave.

The pool is meagre - private enough for a nudie dip, but not large enough for embarrasingly fatal set of swimming laps while drunk.

I spot the Great Books of the Western World in the main office, with great satisfaction. The office is roped and officiated.

"What does the governor do?" I ask the official.

He rambles about presiding over occasions requiring a show of pomp domestick. I nod until he lapses into silence, and for a few more seconds while he looks at me.

"He's a figurehead really," the official says sadly.

"And what," I ask, "does he symbolise? What values or ideas?"

He surprises and delights me by giving a really great reply:

"The governor symbolises the Westminster System of law. He stamps all the legislation that goes through State Parliament, just as the governor general stamps legislation through Federal Parliament."

"Cool.. thanks mate!" I tell him. His reply inspires me with considerable respect for the position of state governor.

Later Dan spots in the ballroom a little man in a shiny suit puffed up anxiously into his shoulders and chest half bowing as he shakes old ladies hands who cluster around in a dense cloud of perfume. Dan whispers "It's the governor!" and I spare him a glance.

But respect goes to principles not people. And I have already met the governor in my conversation with the official in the office.

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Augustine's Four Rules of Reading A Book

Today I learnt how Augustine read.

His style of reading reminds me of Dante's letter to his patron Can Grande - no doubt Dante learnt to read through Augustine. But what I was unprepared for was how very wide the gap between Augustine's view of reading and the modern view.

Augustine's rules for reading are (to me at least) still relevant. They are four, and I state them as principles rather than practices because of their general usefulness:

1. PURITY - reading that subserves cravings and appetites distorts the mind's ability to read the text. Maybe a text serves the lower appetites; nevertheless, the meaning of it can only be got at with a mind free of bias and a pure appetite to understand.

2. FAITH - You must suspend disbelief, but you must not suspend belief, in reading. That is to say, faith must be present in reading, and cynicism must be suspending in reading, for comprehension to occur.

I would add that faith can be conditional on historical context or limited to the space of the reading of the text, but it must be present according to Augustine in order to read well.

Faith in the text is primary in making sense of it. Why? Because reading is an inclination of the will and appetite towards clarity and freedom, therefore right from the start the will must be freed from doubt, the enemy of good faith.

These two rules for reading, purity and faith, pertain to the appetites and the will. Purity of appetites and a faithful will are the ends of their application.

3. LOVE - I read Harold Bloom's criticism from love of his mind. Why do I love Bloom's work? Because he has taught me that only by love can I win access through the text to another person's consciousness. For me, as for Bloom, Augustine and Dante, love is the only entree into the mind of greatness. A strong love will take you to the heart of any text.

Simply put, love makes reading and writing worth while. Since reading involves the love of that which reads - in other words, reading is intellectual vanity - the most literate books win the greatest love, since they most intimately put us in contact with that quality of intellectual vanity which does reading. Even more deeply, the love that creates a text and the love that reads the text are the one substance, and the love that carefully appreciates a text arises from the same kind of love as that which created the text. Love is the common human factor in reading and writing.

Criticism without love is worthless. A critic without love, even in the form of courtesy, respect, or polite restraint from abuse, is not worth a hearing. Any misreading (in the sense of Harold Bloom's map of misreadings) that adds love to the text is good or at least harmless.

4. MULTIPLICITY - Simple, clear passages of a text offer a meaning which is unarguably revealed by purity, faith and love. The consensus of informed opinions around a great text is fairly fixed, and there is little freedom in it. But Augustine offers a view of free interpretation of the text in the case of ambiguous passages.

Multiple readings, imagined, invented and supposed, are good and useful when the text is ambiguous and poetic, and when they do not violate the good faith of the text. Obscure passages provide freedom to play and explore the text more fully.

These are Augustine's four rules for reading a book, then. Let's put them in their historical and intellectual context now!

Augustine came to value the pagan tradition negatively, as an example of ignorance and error in human thinking. So much of his rules for reading concern the Christian and Jewish religious writings of his time, many of which came to be our present day bible. Augustine's reading was informed by a deep seriousness or purpose, and a moral and devotional aim.

Perhaps the primary challenge to we moderns is Augustine's stark vision of the human good to be got from reading. But Augustine differs not greatly in this from Samuel Johnson, who read voraciously and judged by very high standards of moral purity.

I suppose the biggest difference from we moderns is the more broad sense of what is proper in books - we are less offended and less corrupted, I suppose, by impure and appetite-stimulating images or words. Perhaps it is because we are so constantly overfull with stimuli, that we end up becoming accustomed or unaffected to the tides of vicious and sex-loaded content or screens and pages wash up. Certainly we seem to inhabit an alien and noisy world compared to the agrarian north African environment of Augustine.

Take these rules, then, as you will... a stimulus to your reading more spiritedly, or a window on a kind of reading past and long gone.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Saint Augustine on Sex and Body Image

Augustine is authoritative on body image and sex issues. He ought to have his own column.

Here's my rendering of his key idea from out of fusty antique English:

"So there's no need to insult God in our addictions and errors by blaming the body, because the body is good in its own kind and in its own degree. Being human means accepting both body AND soul on their own different spiritual terms.

"A man who goes on about the soul as if it were the highest value, and condemns the body as if it were evil, I assure you is trapped in his body by his love of his soul as much as by his hatred of his body."

Saint Augustine's striking recovery from sex addiction has a lot to teach us all.

It seems that sex addicts like Saint Augustine only recover when they accept the body on its own terms of what is good, and appreciate the body as good in its own degree and kind. Sex addiction seems not addiction to sexual pleasure, but addiction to conflict in regards to sexual pleasure.

Similarly we could usefully describe eating disorders as an addiction to the body expressed as hatred, or perhaps the false expectation that the body to provide the quality and kind of satisfactions that can only be derived from the living soul.

Augustine's quote above strikes to the heart of the nature of the imbalance between soul and body, and the lopsided otherworldly view of spirituality which denigrates the body, and seems to me to call for discernment in relation to body image issues.

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