contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Creativity

JOHN COWPER POWYS: PORIUS AND TALIESIN

Porius (1) is John Cowper Powys’ last novel. It took him seven years to write, and he completed it in 1949, when he was 77. It is set in the year 499 CE, in North Wales. Porius is a Romano-British prince. Arthur, a suspect foreigner to most local people, reigns as Emperor. Rome is ruled by Goths, but links are maintained with Constantinople. The Saxons are an existential threat. People have to find a way of dealing with the situation in which they find themselves. But the book is at least as much about the inner lives of the characters as it is about the action they take.

Powys thought of Porius as his masterpiece. His publishers did not agree and insisted that he cut it by a third, which he did over two agonising years. Fortunately, a complete edition is available now thanks to modern editors Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir. In her foreword Krissdottir says, “I am always reminded when I read the novel of these lines: ‘we are always in error, lost in the wood, standing in chaos, the original mess, creating a brand-new world’. Powys was as gloriously lost by the time he had written Porius as the reader sometimes is … but he was still the superb craftsman, who knew that it was the story itself that had the power to shape the forest within and without, that had the power to create a brand-new world”.

Instead of writing a review, I want to focus on one character, Taliesin, and what Powys has to say through him about the creative life. Powys has a number of point of view characters, with a variety of stances. He seems to give them equal air-time, making Porius a genuinely multi-vocal novel. Taliesin is portrayed as a young, mercurial bard, popular thanks to outstanding skill in cooking as well as poetry. (The cover illustration above is of Merlin – old, saturnine, more central to the book as a whole). Powys builds Taliesin’s bardic character, and the idiosyncratic working of his awen, with care.

“Taliesin had indeed worked out for himself, quite apart from his power of expressing it in such assonances and alliterations as had never been heard before, a really startling philosophy of his own. This philosophy depended on a particular and special use of sensation; and its secret had the power of rendering all matter sacred and pleasure giving to the individual soul. And it had the power … of fusing the immense past with the immeasurable future and of doing this, moreover, not by means of an ‘eternity’ beyond experience and imagination, but by means of a quivering vibrating, yet infinitely quiescent moment of real Time.”

Taliesin can rely on an easy fluency with language. More important is his capacity for open creative reverie, based on a deep sensitivity to the perceptions of the moment. He is described as sitting on a four-legged stool in the deepening of a late October evening. As he sits, he feels the full warmth of a fire and is able to see “the glittering path of moonlight on wind-ruffled water”. He can see a hawk’s nest, and the “ancestral sword of Cynan ap Clydno, thrust to the depth of half its blade, in the buried stump of a vanished oak tree”. The sword is reminiscent of a cross. Taliesin muses that “any sort of thing happening near a cross, not to speak of a sword, always seems in some way to be watched – if not heard and guarded against”. J.C. Powys comments, “considering the sword and the cross, the moonlit space between that figure on the four-legged stool and Clydno’s rusty weapon may well have vibrated with dangerous antipathy as the words ‘The Mothers’ and ‘Nothingness’ and ‘Annwfn’ floated away towards the lake. Rather than writing, Taliesin speaks into the darkness. Writing may come later. The piece that follows is lengthy, and eventually settles into a contemplation of “the thing none can utter, the thing inexpressible” yet “known from before the beginning”. Here is the final section:

“I know it from pond slime and

frog spawn and grub spit,

From bracken’s green coral,

white lichen, yellow mosses,

Newts sinking with their arms

out to reedy pools’ bottoms,

Swords rusting in their oak

stumps, wrapped in the long rains,

Eggs rotting in their lost nests,

enjoying the wild mists, I know it from all these, and to

men proclaim it:

The ending forever of the Guilt

sense and God sense,

The ending forever of the Sin

sense and Shame sense,

The ending forever of the Love

sense and Loss sense,

The beginning forever of the Peace paradisic,

The ‘I feel’ without question,

The ‘I am’ without purpose,

The ‘it is’ that leads nowehre,

the life with no climex,

The ‘Enough’ that leads forward

to no consummation

The answer to all things, that

yet answers nothing,

The centre of all things, yet all

on the surface,

The secret of Nature, yet Nature goes blabbing it

With all of her voices from

earth, air, fire, water!

Whence comes it? Whither

goes it? It is nameless; it is

shameless;

It is Time free at last from its Ghostly Accuser,

Time haunted no more by a

Phantom Eternal;

It is godless; but its gods are as

sea sand in number;

It’s the square with four sides

that encloses all circles;

Four horizons hath this Tetrad

that swallows all Triads;

It includes every creature that

Nature can summon.

It excludes from Annwfyn nor

man, beast nor woman!”

The mid twentieth century was a time of considerable interest in the Matter of Britain and Arthurian themes. But generally, then, we find a polished and rather conservative Christian perspective, applicable even to Taliesin. The Inkling Charles Williams wrote two collections of linked verse about him – Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars (2). The latter collection includes these lines from the poem Taliessin in the Rose Garden:

“I was Druid-born and Byzantium trained.

Beyond Wye, by the Cauldorn of Ceridwen, I saw

the golden cycle flash in the forest, and heard

the pagans mutter a myth; thence by the ocean

dreaming the matter of Logres I came where the heirarchs

patter the sacred names on the golden floor

under the throne of Empire.”

John Cowper Powys, too, was a man of his time. But insofar as his Porius relies on legendary history, he borrows more from archaic Welsh tradition than the better known pan European literature that developed out of it. He himself is much more nature friendly and Pagan in sensibility. I see him as following a broadly emancipatory direction in modern spiritual culture, and we are his heirs.

(1) John Cowper Powys Porius: a Romance of the Dark Ages Overlook Duckworth, 2007. Edited by Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir, with a foreword by Morine Krissdottir. The first abbreviated edition was published in 1951.

(2) Charles Williams Taliessin Through Logres & The Region of the Summer Stars Berkeley, CA: The Apocryphile Press, 2016. Edited with an introduction by Sorina Higgins. (Taliesin Through Logres first published in 1938; The Region of the Summer Stars in 1944)

ARNE NAESS AS PHILOSOPHICAL VAGABOND

“Naess embodies the spirit of philosophy in its original sense as being a loving pursuit of wisdom. It is a deep exploration of our whole lives and context in pursuit of living wisely. The essence of Socratic inquiry is to know ourselves. From his work on Pyrrhonian scepticism to his … positive statements on pluralism and possibilism, Naess says he is a ‘philosophical vagabond’ or ‘wandering seeker’, what the ancient Greeks called a zetetic’” (1).

In 1968 Arne Naess (1912-2009) published Scepticism (2) two years before resigning as chair of philosophy at the University of Oslo to devote himself to environmental problems. Part of this book focuses on Sextus Empiricus (150-225 CE), the last recorded Pyrrhonist philosopher in a line going back to Pyrrho of Elis (c360-c272 BCE).

Pyrrhonists, as described by Sextus Empiricus, neither made truth claims nor denied the possibility of making them. Instead, they cultivated a deeply embedded attitude of suspension of judgement (epoche), allowing possibilities to stand open within the process of continuing inquiry. Such a turning away from the drive for intellectual closure enables peace of mind (ataraxia) in our engagement with the richness and diversity of experience. As Naess says, the Pyrrhonist philosopher “leaves questions open, but without leaving the question. He has however given up his original, ultimate aim of gaining peace of mind by finding truth because it so happened that he came by peace of mind in another way.” (2)

Naess was not himself a Pyrrhonist, but clearly valued the Pyrrhonist frame of mind. He took something from it into his later work, as is made clear in Alan Drengson’s introduction to Naess’s Ecology of Wisdom (1):

“… there is never one definitive interpretation of philosophical texts; there is never one description of an event and all processes are complex interactions involving changing forces and relations, internal and external. Experience and the processes around us form changing patterns or gestalts. The nature of reality is multidimensional and creative. … Our spontaneous experience is so rich and deep that we can never give a complete account of it in any language, be it mathematics, science, music or art … As a deep questioner and seeker, Naess remains free of dogmatic and monolithic doctrine about the world … [which]  partly explains why he celebrates a movement supported by diverse people with many world views”.

I enjoy this view of inquiry, and feel inspired to carry it forward more consciously in my own work. My sense is that it will bring my inquiry more into the world, without its losing its contemplative core.

(1) Arne Naess Ecology of Wisdom UK: Penguin Books, 2016 (Penguin Modern Classic. First published 2008)

(2) Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1968

See also:

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/04/27/pyrrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/spiritual-truth-claims/

 

WELL-BEING: CONTEMPLATING ACTION

“In The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett put inequality at the centre of public debate by showing conclusively that less equal societies fare worse than more equal ones across everything from education to life expectancy. The Inner Level explains how inequality affects us individually, how it alters how we think, feel and behave. It sets out the overwhelming evidence that material inequities have powerful psychological effects: when the gap between rich and poor increases, so does the tendency to define and value ourselves and others in terms of superiority and inferiority. A deep well of data and analysis is drawn upon to empirically show, for example, that low social status is associated with elevated levels of stress hormones, and how rates of anxiety and depression are intimately related to the inequality which make that status paramount.” (1)

What links contemplation and action? My answer is creative and powerful ideas. In a recent post (2), I cited Brendan Myers (3) proposition that a flourishing life is ethically desirable and good (a powerful, creative idea), and that it depends on us supporting each other’s well-being and that of the biosphere and the Earth itself (another powerful creative idea). The Spirit Level and The Inner Level concern ‘developed’ countries in the 21st century and to an extent the last two decades of the 20th. They paint a depressing picture, especially for the U.K. and the U.S.A, and for me it shows the need to champion a social ecology that supports health and well-being.

For some years I worked at the interface between public health (i.e. population-based health, largely concerned with prevention work and the creation of more supportive environments) and mental health. So, I am interested in the recent publication of The Inner Level (4) and may write further about it. Thinking about ‘health’ in the bigger picture (with service provision as only one aspect) is a positive way into social justice work, where powerful ideas can (in principle) be realised through ethical passion and political will informed by scientific evidence. It is a notion of how to do public policy that needs to be kept alive.

I know this doesn’t happen much, now, in a culture like ours with high levels of bullying, confusion, distraction and misinformation. We seem to be living with an orchestrated dumbing down of political discourse in the service of oligarchic interests. So, my first action – not always recognised as action – is personal resistance to any onset of cynicism, numbness and despair within myself. My second action – also not always recognised as action – is to work at maintaining an adequate level of knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the world, using the lens of ‘powerful ideas’ to make sense of the information I digest. This includes having an historical perspective – both backwards and forwards – on current events. My third action is to place myself within networks that share my concerns and are responding to them in diverse ways – hopefully modelling cultures of: compassion (including ruthless compassion); openness and creativity; curiosity about the world; and criticality (deconstructive where necessary and appreciative where possible) in the realm of ideas and action. Further developments will come from there, and I will write about them within this blog.

Over time my contemplative life has moved towards a blend of energy work and meditative connection to source, with the practice forms kept simple. It is also the clear, awake space out of which I act in the world.

(1) https://www.equalitytrust.uk/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(4) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being

WHAT IF …?

In my first post of 2018, I said, ‘I have woken from my hibernation but am not yet out of my cave’ (1). Getting out of the cave has been a slow and tentative process this year. We have reached Beltane, and I can at last say that I have done it. Gratitude to the Merry Month!

In the same post I also sensed that I had ‘reached peak inquiry’. It looked that way at the time. But now I find myself unsatisfied with the place that I have reached. I have a vision of an abundance in simplicity, reached through a closer focus on direct experience, and better ways of writing about it. I ask myself: what will happen if I identify myself as a ‘secular contemplative’, centring myself within a space of ‘bio-spirituality’?

Following on from this, I ask, ‘how much continuity will I find, and how much change? What new possibilities will open? Will a stance of ‘spirituality without religion’ support the simplicity and closeness to experience that I aim for?

There are certainly points of continuity. The Contemplative Druid Group* (disbanded early in 2017) used simple, flexible methods. These were meditative, without featuring long meditations, and modelled a minimalist approach to ritual. The project saw itself as an innovation within modern Druidry and did not claim the mantle of Celtic language speakers in ancient or medieval times. Above all, it was nature-oriented, an Earth spirituality, and followed the wheel of the year as it happened – in and out of festival times.

This blog was linked to that culture, whilst always reaching out to other traditions as well. It has been an exploration of contemplative spiritualities, where ‘contemplative’ points to practices that train attentiveness, open spaces for wonder, and provide opportunities to reflect. When I looked at posts which people were reading, I identified a universalist rather than tribal approach, and ‘a readership more inspired by poetry and parables rather than sermons and sutras. Poetry tends to be suggestive rather than dogmatic and speaks directly to the heart’.

Going forward, I will continue to give Druidry and other traditions space in this blog, drawing on their creativity, healing power and wisdom. I have thoughts about new kinds of material to include as well. I’ll be looking at the same view from a different seat and using a slightly different language to describe what I see. That is my direction for contemplative inquiry now.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/01/05/contemplativeinquiry-setting-a-direction/

*The story of the development of Contemplative Druidry, its views and practice, is told in my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, published in October 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

KAFKA’S ADVICE

You do not need to leave your room …

Remain sitting at your table and listen.

Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait,

be quite still and solitary. The world will freely

offer itself to you to be unmasked. it has no choice.

It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Franz Kafka. Quoted in: John Daido Loori The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life NY: Ballantine Books, 2005

METAPHOR: A MODERN TAOIST’S PERSPECTIVE

“Spirituality is applied Poetry. Metaphysics is applied Metaphor.

“All the methods that we have for knowing Tao came from observing the outside world and then applying it to the human dilemma. In the past, the body was seen as a microcosm of the universe, spiritual energy was compared to the sun, the duality of the body was matched to the duality of day and night, the habits of animals were copied for their innate wisdom, and the psychic centres of the body were imagined as opening flowers. Even if we apply these ideas today, they yield results.

“Metaphor is essentially a way to shape thoughts. The insights of poetry can often guide us out of our problems; the imagery of an opening flower is often used in meditation. Yet poetry is only a sensation of the mind and there is no opening flower inside of us. Human beings take objective reality and absorb it partially through a poetry of the mind. Without this, there could be no sense of humor, no creativity, and no spirituality. For until we make the connection between all things, we have no way out of the isolation that often infects us.”

Deng Ming-Dao 365 Tao: Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992

WORD POWER

“In Hebrew, the word davar … means word and thing. No distinction. We see and hear the world with our minds, with words, in categories, not in raw sensory data.   I believe in holiness because I experience it. I don’t view it as a personal presence, but holiness is as vivid as sexual pleasure or hunger.”

The words are spoken by Malkah, the central and anchoring figure in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1) and one of two given prominence as a point of view character. The other is her granddaughter Shira. Their spiritual lens is Jewish and they live in a 2059 imagined by the author in 1991. This world has experienced social breakdown, massive population loss and partial desertification due to the co-arising phenomena of corporate oligarchy and unchecked climate change.

I read this book again last week because I half remembered it and wanted to refresh myself. I had no other agenda. But as I went on it seemed to be contributing to my inquiry about the meaning of ‘creativity’ and ‘magic’  (Druidry’s Awen) in a context where material and social forces need to be addressed at their own level. For me, He, She and It also shows how speculative fiction may itself be a creative cultural force.

Malkah asserts that, “in fascination with the power of the word and a belief that the word is primary over matter, you may be talking nonsense about physics, but you’re telling the truth about people.    A person reacts and decides what’s good or bad. For us the word is primary and paramount. We can curse each other to death or cure with words. With words we court each other, with words we punish each other. We construct the world out of words. The mind can kill or heal because it is the body.”

Hence, the creative word is always “perilous”, giving true life to what has been inchoate and voice to what has been dumb. “It makes known what has been unknown, that perhaps we were more comfortable not knowing.” What we cannot name, we cannot talk about. When we do name something, we empower it, and the naming has consequences – “as when we call an itch love, or when we call our envy righteous”. More creatively, “we may empower ourselves” for if “we can think about and talk about what is hurting us”, then “we may come together with others who have felt this same pain,” and try to do something about it.

Malkah likes to tell the story of the Maharal of Prague*, who in 1600 defended the Jewish Ghetto there against anti-Semitic attack through the creation of a golem, a man of clay, large and strong, animated through Kabbalist magic. It becomes a second timeline in the book, though always in the form of Malkah telling the story. She describes the creation of Joseph, the golem, with relish.

The face of the Maharal is pale with ecstasy. He feels the power coming through him. It is the power of creation. It is always dangerous, it is lightning striking the tower and the world set on end. Word into matter and everything born again. He feels the energy of something strange and new and terrible and focused to a spear piercing through him and into the clay before him. He sees his own hands shining with a blue-white radiance. His hands are crackling. His hair stands up with electricity.

All the combinations of letters and vowels he chants, and the hidden name of G-d he speaks, and the sacred numbers that built the atoms of the universe. He has become transparent with power that is pouring through him. His flesh is blackened like glass that has stood in a fire. His eyes are silver as the moon, without pupils or iris. He knows in that moment more than he has ever known in his life and more than he will know in five minutes.

But we also know that power like this, even within the mythos,  is a rare and precious gift. When the assault on the ghetto comes, developing out of a Good Friday procession, the strong but simple Joseph says to the Maharal, “’your prayers as strong as my fists’”. The Maharal demurs. “’Prayer doesn’t work that way’, the Maharal says quietly and sadly. ‘It makes the heart and mind strong in belief, but it doesn’t keep one leaf falling from the tree. Still, I will pray’”. The ghetto defence is successful, though with many losses and much destruction. The aggressors are turned back. This is partly down to Joseph directly and partly because he inspires the community to rally. The Christian state levies reparations on the Jewish community for all the trouble that’s been caused, and life goes on. Survival – but with no change in underlying conditions. Joseph, who has an inbuilt tendency to violence, is put to back to sleep (though not destroyed) by the very magician who made him that way.

The same is true of 2059. The people there are vulnerable and have enemies. They live in harsh physical conditions, though without losing the capacity to recognise and create beauty. They too wrestle with the ethics and politics of what we now call artificial intelligence, which in their world has become, and in our world is becoming, a realistic proposition.

Malka’s conclusion seems to be that we can sometimes access resources beyond our little selves, though we don’t really own them, and can’t rely on them to exempt or rescue us from things we don’t like or want. But they do have a role to play and can at times make a difference. “We partake in creation with ha-Shem, the Name, the Word that speaks us, the breath that sings life through us. We are tool and vessel and will. We connect with powers beyond our own fractional consciousness to the rest of the living being we all make up together. The power flows through us just as it flows through the tiger and through the oak and through the river breaking over its rocks, and we know in our core the fire that fuels the sun.”

(1) Marge Piercy He, She and It (Kindle edition). First published in 1991 (as Body of Glass outside the USA). 1993 Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

*The Maharal was an historical figure, the title being the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu Ha-Ra Loew, used for Judah Loew be Bezalel,1512/26? -1609) and widely known to scholars as the Maharal of Prague. In 1592, he was granted an audience with Rudolf II, the mystically inclined Holy Roman Emperor. This was probably to discuss Kabbalah. The legend concerning his creation of a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks is thought to be a German literary invention of the early nineteenth century.

BOOK REVIEW: LESSONS IN MAGIC

 

In a seemingly artless little book*, Philip Carr-Gomm celebrates a kind of magic that is “supremely natural”, like conceiving a child or planting seeds in the earth. He defines it as “the art and science of bringing ideas into form, of making what is intangible tangible. It is, in essence, the creative process – but informed with spiritual understanding”.

Lessons in Magic is organized into six chapters and ends with a list of resources. The first chapter, Apprenticed to Magic, describes the author’s own journey and sets the tone for what follows. The other five are a series of lessons. The resources include poems, songs, films, books and meditations.

The author describes his life-long attraction to magic, beginning in childhood, and nourished in youth by apprenticeship to the Druid magician Ross Nichols. His understanding was later extended by Jungian analysis, the study and practice of esoteric spiritualities from around the world and a training in modern psychology. To capture the essence of life lived magically, he quotes Fiona Macleod: “there are moments when the soul takes wing; what it has to remember, it remembers; what it loves, it loves still more; what it longs for, to that it flies”.

The stance is unrepentantly romantic and transcendentalist, whilst earth and life loving as well: we are here because we are meant to be. This is our theatre of becoming. Thus, the five ‘how to’ chapters show us how to align ourselves with what our soul wants, rather than what we think we want as average sensual folk. How do we tell the difference? One suggestion is to draw up lists of what we want to have, to do and to be – and then reverse cultural custom and tackle them in the order of be, do, and have. Going first for what we want to be may save distracting levels of concern with doing and, more especially, having. Another recommendation is to look for unsuspected strengths in our apparent weaknesses and failures. They may be the key to our flourishing.

Through such means, the book suggests, we find passion and purpose. Following our bliss, in this sense, is experienced as the best and most natural way of serving a higher purpose, and of bringing healing and joy into the world. To achieve this, we will need to draw both on an open receptive capacity and on the powers of focus and intention. The author takes us through the processes of finding and establishing our magical purpose, letting it gestate and grow, and asking for help at all levels (including prayer and divination). We are also warned not to over-specify outcomes once the work is under way. In this magic, we are always serving a higher purpose as well as our own. We are working in a larger context than we can expect wholly to own or control. Eventually we find that magic is happening around us. Unsuspected possibilities present themselves. The quality of our experience changes. We are in partnership with the living cosmos.

Philip Carr-Gomm speaks with the authority of someone who has walked the talk. Just under thirty years ago he re-founded the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) [1] based on a visionary prompting. It has been a highly successful venture, both itself and as a catalyst for others, playing a major role in the modern Druid and Pagan revival. One of OBOD’s key offerings has been the distance learning course offered to its members. This isn’t just a training in knowledge and skills about Druidry. It includes a thread of personal development work understood in magical terms, which students may follow at their own pace and in accordance with their own inclinations. A kind of apprenticeship, made more widely accessible, to meet modern needs in modern conditions.

Although this book is an introduction, it clearly presents a significant lens on magic, as understood by Philip Carr-Gomm and within OBOD Druidry. Highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.

*Philip Carr-Gomm Lessons in magic: a guide to making your dreams come true Lewes, East Sussex, England: Oak Tree Press, 2016

[1] www.druidry.org

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