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Archive for the ‘on my bookshelf’ Category

I’m not sure if the author had any say in the cover design, or the title, of this book, both of which, to my mind, speak to a different audience to that perhaps intended. Talk of an afterlife is pretty much a taboo subject in polite secular, and even some religious circles. Those expressing belief in it are dismissed as naive, and in thrall to woolly minded thinking. Pastel shades, fluffy clouds, and soft focus apple blossom sums up the popular audience to whom such works as this might appeal. Those wishing for a more sober, scientifically minded approach might be put off, as indeed I was. Had it not been recommended by other trusted writers, I would have passed it by, and that would have been a pity because I think it makes a valuable contribution to the literature.

Many works on this subject deal with anecdotes of the near-death experience (NDE) itself, but, whilst interesting at one level, even compelling, such accounts lack intellectual impact, when taken in isolation. They require us to have faith in the bona fides of the teller, and actually do little to further our understanding of the phenomenon itself. And it is a phenomenon, one very much a part of the human experience, with reports going back to the beginning of recorded history, but more-so in recent years, as resuscitation techniques have improved to the point where we are reviving more and more people who, would once have died. And some of them are telling us strange stories.

Jens Amberts trained in philosophy, and is not an NDE experiencer himself. Philosophy strikes me as a subject in which nit-picking is honed to a fine art, and nit-pick, expertly, he does. In order to explore the subject, he sets up a thought experiment in which he likens the NDE to a sealed room into which people are chosen at random to enter, and explore its contents. They are not able to make recordings of what they find in the room, and must rely entirely on word of mouth in describing what they saw, to others, when they emerge.

Taken at its simplest then, the proposition is thus: how many people do we require, coming out of that room, and all reporting similar findings, for the people outside the room to believe those accounts to be the truth, given that some people are honest, while others are liars, fantasists, attention seekers, easily confused, and so on. Will it take a thousand? Tens of thousands? Millions? As the title suggests, Amberts concludes it is no longer philosophically, or even rationally, reasonable to doubt.

He points out four characteristics of the NDE supportive of the case for their authenticity:

One: in the entire history of the research we can pinpoint nothing, psychologically, sociologically or physiologically that will predict whether a person close to death is likely to have an NDE, or how deep that NDE will be. So, we don’t need to be sympathetic towards the idea, be religious, agnostic or atheist, in order to have one. It’s entirely random.

Two: Of those who have had an NDE, whether they were previously sceptical or not, the overwhelming majority are convinced their experience was indeed what it purported to be, i.e. a glimpse of some form of psychical continuation of life after death.

Three: Those reporting an NDE often describe the experience as “more real” than real life, in the same way that waking reality is more real than the dream state, that the NDE is an experience of being, of cognitive bandwidth, and sensory awareness, that is a quantum leap beyond anything previously known. Indeed, regaining ordinary consciousness after an NDE is likened to seeing the world in black and white, after having first seen it in colour.

And finally, four: We return to how common NDEs are, and the estimates are somewhere between 4 and 15% of the world’s population, or 320 million to 1.2 billion people, have reported an NDE. This means an awful lot of formerly rational, sceptical people are now convinced there is such a thing as an afterlife state, who would never have contemplated holding such a view before.

But for all of that I find myself still very much on the fence, at least as regards what it is we are seeing, exactly, in that room. But this is not to detract from the power of Amberts’ argument. It is more perhaps to illustrate, through my own doubts, the persistence of a perhaps defensive scepticism that will disregard even the strongest logic, and which also lies at the root of human experience.

What is not in any doubt is that something psychologically profound happens during an NDE, an experience that has, as yet, no rational physiological explanation, yet which has a deep and lasting effect on the psyche of the experiencer. What we don’t know, of course – should the experiencer not return to tell the tale – is does the NDE persist? Nor do we know if the 85 to 96% of those not reporting an NDE do so because they were denied entry through the Pearly Gates, and if so, the odds aren’t looking too good for the rest of us, no matter how well we conduct our lives, or swear allegiance to the various religious faiths who profess to be keepers of the gates.

The book was a fascinating, thought-provoking read, and Amberts’ argument will be of interest to believer and sceptic alike, also to students of philosophy who might have no interest in the subject one way or the other, but are looking for a case study in the diagnostic power of a thought experiment.

As the serious literature on this subject mounts, I find myself growing cautious of where the affirmative NDE arguments might lead, I mean socially and even politically. Indeed, it takes very little imagination to foresee societal structures emerging that will precipitate our departure for the next world on grounds purporting to be humane, whether we like it or not – and we don’t know anywhere near enough to be taking risks like that.

If it is true, it may be we’re not supposed to possess any certainty about it. Indeed, I suspect we may be psychologically predisposed to doubt, no matter how convincing the argument, be it religious or secular, and for our own good. Because, again, if it is true, we’re here because we have a contract to fulfil to our own being, and knowing for sure there’s a sure fire get-out clause, if things get tough, well,… that might defeat the whole point of us being here in the first place.

And if it isn’t true, well, it doesn’t matter anyway.

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J B Priestly was a writer with a broad scope. He was also a social commentator, playwright, broadcaster and literary critic. Born in Barnsley, he began his working life as a clerk in a wool firm. Writing in the evenings, he found success with articles placed in London newspapers.

He was badly wounded in the first world war, and indeed experienced much at that time that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Post-war, he gained an officer’s scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he studied literature, and from there he went on to become a well known, and rather well-to-do English man of letters.

Published in 1971, Over the Long High Wall is, as he describes it, a reflection on the nature of life, death and time. Time is where Priestly and I meet, both of us having an interest in the precognitive nature of dreams, a subject it’s easy to lose one’s way with, but to which I find him a sober and sensible guide.

He was a powerful dreamer, occasionally stumbling across things in his dream life that subsequently happened, and could not easily be explained away as coincidence. This is a difficult subject to deal with, since there is no explanation for it, and indeed much scepticism. Readers of a hard, rational bent will understandably reject it out of hand. But when it happens to you, you’re compelled to take an interest, which inevitably leads to questions concerning the nature of time and being, and here we need a steady hand if we are not to fall foul of crack-pottery. Better we acquaint ourselves with the thinking of a no-nonsense, pipe smoking Yorkshireman, like Priestly.

If we can dream ahead of time, it suggests the mind is not as firmly fastened down in space or time, as we suppose. It can wander some way ahead, which begs the question, do we have free will? If we have already dreamed a thing, is it inevitable we shall encounter it? Or, being forewarned, can the future be changed? And if it can, what happened to the version of things we saw? It also begs the question, if the mind is not so firmly coupled to brain function, can some part of it survive beyond bodily death. These are interesting questions, but anyone, particularly a famous person, bringing them into the open, is liable to be attacked by rational sceptics, and pilloried as a fool, or charlatan.

J B Priestly – 1940

Throughout the book, Priestly describes the world, as constructed by rational sceptics, and goes on at some length to explain why he doesn’t think very much of it. Written in 1971, he could easily be describing the world as it is now. He calls it narrow, and life-shrinking. These sceptics, these zealous debunkers of all speculative forays of the mind, are the architects of the long, high wall of the title. It is a construct, he says, which prevents us from gaining a view of a higher, more noble, more meaningful mode of being.

His interest in the time question placed him within the orbit of the time theorist, J W Dunne, whose book “An Experiment with Time” (1927) was very popular, and indeed, still is. Like Priestly, Dunne had also run into precognitive dreams. Dunne was not what one might call an artistic, literary or dreamy type. He was a former military man, a man of science and engineering. Building on the theories of the mathematician Howard Hinton, and physicists Eddington, and Einstein – very much in vogue at the time – Dunne suggested the dreaming self operated in a so-called “fourth dimension”, one at right angles to our familiar three dimensions of space and linear time.

The fourth dimension allows the dreaming mind a full view of our line in time, while our waking mind is restricted to awareness of a single slice of space-time, this being “now”. But here’s where Dunne is an infuriating character to get a handle on. His book is fascinating up to the point where he goes on to explain his theory of precognitive dreaming, which, though he claims is simple, has me wondering if I have not suffered some sort of brain injury, since my own college days. His later books, intended to further simplify things for a more “popular” audience, I find even more bewildering. Reassuringly for me, Priestly is of a similar view.

He warns us that Dunne provides little service to brevity, no matter how hard he tries, but their friendship helped nurture the plot of several of Priestly’s plays, in which he “played” with the idea of time. “Time and the Conways” and “An Inspector Calls” are perhaps the most famous, though my personal favourite is the strikingly Ouspenskian: “I have been here before” set in a remote inn in the Yorkshire Dales, and archived (along with the others) as MP3 here.

Setting aside the entanglements of theory, the idea of there being a looseness to time opens up the human psyche to a more speculative field of enquiry, one into which the spirit soars, while the rational sciences tend only to shut it down. There is no such thing as precognition they say, there is a single line in time, we live, we die, and there is no point to anything. They create a closed world, in which the seedlings of spirit find only stony ground. Of course, science is correct to build itself up from foundations of solid evidence. But by this same yardstick, spontaneous cases of precognition in dreams must always be dismissed as anecdotal, as mere stories.

Which brings Priestly to the phenomenon of the professional sceptic. This is a person who sets themselves up as investigator and debunker of phenomenal claims. They are not necessarily of the scientific profession, often conjurers and showmen, or psychologists. He calls them the “camp followers” of science, who see it as their role to ruin the reputation of anyone daring to stick their necks above the parapet. And, whilst often the most shrill, their explanations, explaining away things like precognition, can also be the most tortuous and ridiculous, yet, having the “rational” on their side, the tortuous and the ridiculous are, sadly, the only explanations we are allowed to arrive at. Anything else is dismissed as bunk.

Clearly then, Priestly stuck his neck out, but there was more of an appetite for this kind of thing in the early part of the twentieth century than there is now. As for the evidence, or the theoretical expositions, he writes he didn’t much care one way or the other. He deals in greater depth with Dunne, and his own insights into dream precognition, in his longer work “Man and Time” (1964). Over the Long High Wall is more a rallying cry to the artists, the writers and the dreamers to dream their dreams anyway, regardless, because their lives will be all the larger and the richer for it, and to never mind the debunkers and life-shrinkers. For Priestly, there never was a long, high wall. He used his powers of imagination and intuition to simply walk right through it, and he invites us all to do the same.

Acknowledgements: Photo of J B Pristly by courtesty of – By National Media Museum from UK – J B Priestley at work in his study, 1940.Uploaded by mrjohncummings, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26198117

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It was reading the psychoanalysts that introduced me to the interpretation of dreams. But I also read Dunne’s “Experiment with Time“, which said if you make a note of your dreams for long enough you’ll dream of things you’ll later encounter in waking life, like a premonition. If I’m being honest with myself then, it was more on account of Dunne than the psychoanalysts I began a dream journal. I was looking for personal experience of something anomalous, something that would challenge the rationalizing ego, and grant credence to the possibility there was something beyond the face value of the material life.

And you know, Dunne was right. Time is not the straight line we think it is, or at least my own experiments along his lines – basically recording one’s dreams as diligently as possible – convinced me it was so. Sometimes we do dream of things that subsequently happen, as if the dreaming mind can borrow images from both our past, and our future. What do you do with that? Well, you think about it for a bit, then screw the lid back on, tight, because having established the fact there’s something wobbly about the way we view the world, something strange about our concept of time, you discover you’re not equipped to explain what it means and, in spite of his valiant efforts to the contrary, throughout several subsequent books, neither was Dunne. Then I read Priestly’s “Man and Time” which covered some of the same ground as Dunne, though without the analytical ambitions. Priestly, the artist and playwright, was able to look differently on the results than Dunne, who was a scientist and an engineer. He was able to say (and I paraphrase): “yes, it’s a rum one this, and we’ll likely never get to the bottom of it. Best just to go with it then, and don’t worry about solving all the equations.”

So, instead I turned back to the psychoanalysts and tried interpreting dreams. This is something of a hit-and-miss affair. Plus, those psychoanalysts will throw you deep into symbolism and mythology, stuff you’ve never heard of, nor will you ever discover in a lifetime, and I worry if you think long and hard enough there’s a danger you’ll read something into nothing. Personally, I’d rather the dreams spoke in a language tailored to one’s own ability, otherwise what’s the use? Sometimes they do just that, but mostly they don’t.

So while it is indeed possible to glean some insights from our nightly adventures in dreams, I reckon it’s best to simply let the dreams be. By this I mean, don’t try to dismantle them and examine the pieces. James Hillman’s book “The Dream and the Underworld” says something along those lines and discourages any particular practice in following dreams, other than, well, just following them. Sometimes you’ll get a definite “Aha!”, but overall the impression is that the dream has its own life, and we’re giving ourselves airs if we think its business is to interfere in our every waking step along the way.

I’m still in the habit of remembering dreams. Mostly though, I recall only fleeting glimpses. At one time I would have beaten myself up over that, worried I might have missed out on a vital insight, so the most valuable lesson there is to let them go their own way if they’re not for hanging around. I’ve a feeling we dream all the time anyway, night and day. Slip into an afternoon nap, and the dream-life is right there again to pick you up and carry you along in its surreal flow. It’s like a soap opera, no matter how many episodes you miss, you can jump back in anywhere and pick up the threads. Dreaming is one half of our natural state of being, but mostly I’ve no idea what the other guy is up to in there. Sometimes our paths will cross though, and then the one world mirrors the other in ways that mean something.

There’s a school of psychology which holds our brains to be computers made of meat, that we are nothing but biological machines, that dreams are junk, and we shouldn’t bother our waking consciousness with them. But I suspect those who say such things don’t dream very well, or very deeply. Anyone who’s had a big dream and been moved by it knows that, while they cannot always be understood, dreams are certainly not junk. And sometimes, yes, they’ll trip you up with hints of the non linearity of time. And maybe you wished you’d not seen that, because in fact it’s easier to go on believing we are indeed just biological machines with an end-by date, that time is a straight line, and that there’s nothing more to the world than a swirling bag of dust and a black void at the end of it.

True, most of the time that’s the way it looks, and you wonder at the point of plodding on. Then you have a big dream, and you wake up knowing that’s not the way things are at all, and you’d better keep going because there’s a bigger picture here, and while you might not understand it, you’re a part of it, and you don’t want to let the team down by giving up on it. Like Dunne discovered, you’ll never explain it, because we’ve not the language, neither mathematically, nor philosophically. Yet, like Priestly tells us, it adds another dimension to the world, if we’re only prepared to think on it without a view to explaining anything, and rather just accepting that things may just be so. And if we can do that, it’s like opening a door without wondering how the lock and hinges work.

As for what’s on the other side, well that’s more a sense of being, than a way of thinking.

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I inherited this book from my father who also taught me the rudiments of chess. The rest I learned from Fred Reinfeld. He does it in a friendly and amusing way, without reference to so-called book moves – those things with names like “The Sicilian Defence”, the “English opening” or “The Queen’s Gambit”. The book assumes you know the basic rules, the names of the pieces and how they move. Then it teaches you logical strategies for playing a competent game.

More recently I’ve enjoyed watching the Netflix series, “The Queen’s Gambit”. This is the fictional story of Beth Harmon, an orphan girl who aims at becoming World Chess Champion, while battling various demons, and addictions along the way. The series was unashamedly stylish, the chess set-pieces highly dramatic, even if you didn’t understand chess. Its popularity has led to a renewed enthusiasm for the game, but it speaks perhaps more to those who would ape the elite players in their arcane and highly technical knowledge. This is understandable, given that the story gravitates towards the International chess circuit. But sit yourself down in front of any one of those characters as a newcomer, and you’ll be pushed off the board in a couple of moves. You need to ground yourself first in some basics.

Reinfeld’s book is perfect for beginning chess, speaking as it does to the ordinary man and woman who wants to learn how to be a stronger player, while not forgetting the main thing is to enjoy playing the game. Dedicated to his wife who, he tells us, wanted him to write a book on chess she could actually read, its popularity is attested to by the fact it’s still in print. Unlike my copy from the 50s, modern editions have been edited to replace the older, descriptive notation with its algebraic form, but otherwise the humour and the engaging plainness of language are intact.

Fair enough, if you want to be a champion at chess, like Beth Harmon, you’ll need more than this book. But if it’s friends and family you’re up against, it’ll help make you a winner, and perhaps whet your appetite for the next step, to club or competition chess.

The Elephant Gambit, Pirc Defence, Ruy Lopez,… such names speak of the infinite complexity, depth and beauty of the game, but you needn’t have them off pat to play. Indeed, for a beginner these are pointless distractions. Reinfeld makes no mention of them as such, but on the subject of how to get started, he begins in this book with what chess buffs would recognize as the Kings Pawn opening, and from there the King’s Pawn game, which is what I realize I’ve always played, and mainly because it was my father who got it first from Fred.

I’m not immune to the renewed popularity of chess, thanks to Beth Harmon and “The Queen’s Gambit”. That’s why I’ve turned to this book again in order to sharpen up my game a bit, and to stave off defeat at the hands of my off-springs’ keener minds. There are plenty of other openings to explore from other sources, and maybe that’s where my game should go next, but for now, I’m still trusting in Fred Reinfeld’s wit and logic to help me be at least an occasional winner at chess. I’m sure he could help make you an occasional winner too.

I leave you with Borgov v Harmon (1968) Warning: BIG SPOILER.

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On the face of it this is a simple story. But at three hundred and eighty pages there has to be more than that. And sure enough, for our setting we have a lovingly painted, highly detailed, and very broad canvas of life. This is rural Ireland, a place that began to emerge from the nineteenth century sometime in the late fifties with the arrival of the telephone, then electricity. But its embrace of the modern led in many ways to its demise, for this is an Ireland that no longer exists. The location is vague – County Kerry, a fictional village called Faha, somewhere on the Shannon river. It’s quiet, remote, and it rains,… and rains and rains, until one day, around the miracle of Easter, the sun comes out, and stays out,…

Our narrator is Noe, now an elderly man, looking back on his time in Faha, when he was seventeen. He had been sent away to train for the priesthood, but abandoned it. Now he’s gone to live with his grandparents Doady and Ganga while he decides on his future, or rather while his future reveals itself to him. The electricity company has also arrived and its men are erecting poles to bring the wires for electrification. They bring with them Christy McMahon, a mysterious, charismatic and well travelled man. He lodges with Noe’s grandparents, and he and Noe form a bond. But Christy has another reason for coming to Faha. He confesses to Noe that he wronged a woman, long ago, and has come to find her, and now, in the autumn of his life, make amends. Haunted by the idea Noe finds himself an accomplice to Christy’s vague plans. Then Noe himself falls beautifully, chastely and intensely in love,…

This is a novel to be read slowly, to be savoured for its depth, it’s wisdom and its richness. If you think reading a half a page describing the different kinds of rain blowing in off the Atlantic will irritate you, then I advise against it. But then again I’d sooner say that to enter the world of Niall Williams is to enter a world so richly layered the ordinary becomes magical. And, with a lyrical prose such as this, that half a page of rain is no bother at all.

There are a bewildering number of characters, as there are in life. Many are passing vignettes, but they linger in the memory, and it’s hard to convince yourself afterwards you never actually met them. As for the central characters, they will grow as close to your heart as your own family. Doady and Ganga, become your own grandparents. Faha is your own fondly remembered place of retreat and healing from tragedy. But it’s a place already under threat from a crass modernity, as symbolized by the coming of electricity, and the promises of “convenience” that threatens to eclipse a slower way of life, one led closer to nature, and to God.

There’s a danger in writing nostalgic accounts of places on the edge of time, like Faha, that we gloss over the terrible hardships and the poverty that underlies the bucolic sheen. This was clearly a tough place to live, and it bred a tough, resilient people. But there is also a wry humour in them, and Williams brings this out beautifully. Doady and Ganga’s house, Ganga says was built in a puddle. This explains the mushrooms sprouting along the line of the dresser. And at the slightest hint of sun, belongings are hauled outside to dry from their exposure to near perpetual damp. But then all memory is selective. It is sentimental and forgiving of hardship when its quest is for the metaphysical origins of love, and the nature of happiness.

It is Christy who nails it one evening as he and Noe are setting out by bicycle along the quiet lanes, in search of pubs and music. Both are trailing their respective tragedies. Noe is looking ahead into what he sees as the abyss of his future. Christy is looking back into the abyss of his past, both men caught also in grip of a possibly doomed love:

“This is happiness,” says Christy. And Noe understands the meaning in it, that it’s true simply by virtue of the fact both of them are alive in the world to say it. Reading this story was a sublime and deeply moving experience and I shall remember it for a long time.

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inner work

Robert A Johnson (1921-2018] was a pioneering Jungian Analyst and a respected figure in the international psychoanalytical community. A student of Jiddu Krishnamurti and the Sri Aurobindo school in Pondicherry, he was also an author of many insightful works on human nature and self development.

In “Inner Work” he deals with dreams and active imagination as ways of communicating with the unconscious mind. The unconscious, while largely unknown, holds great influence over us. If we can meet it half way, it can be a powerful ally. It will fill our lives with enthusiasm, colour and meaning. But if we ignore it, our world becomes grey and meaningless. Worse, the unconscious will come back at us as depression and neuroses. On the world’s stage, those neuroses manifest as chaos, authoritarianism, and war.

To pre-modern cultures, unhindered by materialist prejudice, dream-work comes naturally. We all dream, but moderns tend to explain them away as an artefact of neural processing – in other words, garbage. But we have only to spend a little time with our dreams to see this is not so. Dreams provide us with an abstract picture of the flow of our inner psychical energies. They also provide a channel for making those energies conscious, and they challenge us to accept them as part of our waking lives. We feel better, more relaxed and motivated, and the world becomes once more a magical place of infinite possibility.

Serious dream work is not about looking up the images in a dream dictionary. Dreams are personal, the images in the dream being for us alone, and that’s how they must be interpreted. But dream-work isn’t easy. Its imagery is at times beyond bizarre. It can be by turns seductive and horrifying, and all too often incomprehensible.

A more direct way of engaging the unconscious is through active imagination. Here we seek dialogue with the personifications of whatever imaginary energies we can summon. We close our eyes, relax, a figure appears in our mind’s eye, and we talk to it.

Active imagination is risky because it can get out of control. Most authors advise against it unless you’re under the supervision of an analyst. That’s fine, but reading this book, I realize I’ve been doing it all my life. Also, writing fiction, we talk with the archetypal energies who take shape as characters in our stories. If you’re a writer you know what I mean, and this is probably safe territory for you. If you’re not, then best leave it alone.

Both techniques, as described here, come straight out of the Jungian tradition. In dream analysis, we write the dream down, then work through each dream-image. We list all the associations we can think of, returning each time to the image. Then we ask what dynamic, what mood, what emotion it might represent. Having done the groundwork then, the actual interpretation of the dream – the message – drops out more easily and the energies are released as a powerful “aha!”. Johnson then advises us to honour the dream by acting out an appropriate real-world ritual.

Dreams sometimes recur, but for most of us they last just the one night. In that single set piece they present us with an allegory of our inner psychical disposition. Active imagination is different and can go on for days, weeks, years. This is a difficult thing to describe, because it’s easy to say we’re just making stuff up, and it might indeed start out that way as we set the opening scene with our characters. But then we must prepare for the dialogue to go off script very quickly as the unconscious becomes an equal partner in the conversation. It can tell you things you did not know you knew. But it can also dominate the conversation and is therefore dangerous.

Dealing with archetypal energies, Johnson advises us to be mindful of the moral sense that comes with human consciousness. The archetypes are instinctive drives. They are often insightful and numinous, but they are also amoral and ill equipped for life in the conscious realm. A vulnerable individual might all too easily subordinate themselves to an archetype and become possessed by it. Then they act out its amoral tendencies in real life. It’s crucial therefore the ego uses its discernment, and brings to bear its moral sensibilities.

This touches on Jungian metaphysics which describes the universe as an idealist realm of pure mentation. The archetypal energies pour forth as collective or personal myths. The purpose of the human being then, is to use the gift of consciousness to shepherd these raw drives as best it can into something more compassionate and moral. Without that intervention, nature remains red in tooth and claw, and our evolution towards something higher is stalled.

Inner work can sound self-indulgent and new-agey. But unless enough of us attempt to awaken to these powerful energies, and deal with them positively, they will possess us in negative ways, possess the world too and run amok. They’ve done it before – just pick your century. The difference between past generations and ours though is we have the power to destroy ourselves several times over. Meanwhile, the doomsday clock approaches midnight, and right now it’s touch-and-go if we’re going to make it.

The book is very approachable, and clarifies for me some of Jung’s more difficult concepts. It features several fascinating dreams and examples of active imagination from Johnson’s work as an analyst. It’s a valuable guide for anyone undertaking serious inner work, but it will also appeal to anyone simply interested in dreams, the imagination, and the fascinating conundrum that is human nature.

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dragon

Robert L. Moore (1942-2016) was a Jungian analyst and professor of psychology, psychoanalysis and spirituality, also a champion of Kohutian “self analysis”. Self analysis is a school of psychoanalysis which seeks understanding of the nature of the unconscious “self”. We might think we know our “selves”, but mostly what we think we know is a collection of memories that makes up our life-story. What actually motivates us, whilst shaped in part by that story, is largely unconscious, and the unconscious part of us is so complex, so bewilderingly vast, it’s taken a century of psychoanalysis to even scratch the surface of it. Meanwhile, this lack of understanding of our selves, both individually, and as a species, threatens to overwhelm us as we are assailed by forces entirely of our own making, but which we seem no longer able to control.

The unconscious engages us in dreams and reveries, in a language of emotionally charged images. It shows us something in the imagination, but its meaning is never literal. So we dream of a dragon, but the dragon is a metaphor for something else. Dragons feature large in myths and stories all over the world. A myth is a story that’s been pared down, sometimes over the millennia so it contains only its most potent and reactive essence. We read a mythical story, and even if we do not immediately understand it, we react to it, and it holds our attention like nothing else can.

Myths are a shorthand way our ancestors found of passing on the secrets gleaned from their own times, secrets of how to live properly, how to live in harmony with others who might appear superficially different to our selves. Thus, we avoid the worst in human nature, which has a pathological tendency towards murder. In order to do this, we have to live mythically, while at the same time renewing the myth for the times we are living in, so the story remains relevant for each passing generation.

The problem with our own culture is we have lost our way with myths. We have dismissed them as belonging to a more primitive, pre-literate, pre-technological era. Yet we look around at the world, and we see that it is filled with so many poisons, all of them entirely the result of pathological thinking, and we struggle to begin to analyse it. So we’re not actually as smart as we think we are.

The human race is very old, and in all that time it’s been telling stories, weaving myths, so whatever the situation we are in, there’s a good chance there’s already a myth that defines it, already a story told by someone who has been this way before. But the difficulty is, it’s often impossible to identify the myth we’re in, just as an eye cannot see itself.

In “Facing the Dragon”, Moore boils down the world’s ills into a dragon myth. Dragons have two aspects. One side of them is evil and chaotic. They fly about breathing fire and razing our civilized structures to the ground. It takes only a small metaphorical step then to identify our world, our civilization, now, as besieged by rapacious dragons. But remember, these are not literal dragons. It is us who does the dragon’s work, killing, lying, and razing cities with fire. The other side of the dragon, the positive side is its potent wisdom and its creative energy. So, like with Saint George, there are rewards to be gained from facing the darker aspects of the dragon, and slaying it.

Psychologically speaking, Moore equates the dragon to the human propensity for self-inflation or grandiosity. We think we’re perfect, or we’re the centre of the universe, or if only people would listen to us everything would be all right. Then reality hits, and we feel small, we react badly, we feel jealousy, resentment, hatred, indeed the whole gamut of Evil’s play-book. Moore is very much concerned here with the nature of evil as it works through the collective human experience, and how we can identify it both in ourselves and in world affairs. Spotting the dragon at work is crucial because that’s the thing with dragons: if you deny their existence, they get bigger.

One of the most striking Dragon motifs Moore identifies, and which resonated with me was :

The chief tactic of evil is to present the human individual and community with a false, deceptive representation of reality. In short, it lies.

This is not so much a self-help book as an attempt to encapsulate our collective pathology in a myth that underlies the nature of our times. It is based partly on edited transcripts of lectures Moore gave to, among others, the C.G Jung Institute of Chicago, and the Parliament of the World’s Religions but, although it is intended primarily for the psycho-analytical and the theological community, as an interested layman I found it both accessible and enlightening. First published nearly twenty years ago, the book has proved prescient in many ways, and reveals us as an increasingly benighted people living a dragon myth, yet blinded by the fact we no longer believe in dragons.

No wonder contemporary world events leave us feeling so bewildered.

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long walkFirst published in 1956, mine’s a used 2010 reprint in paperback, presumably intended to cash in on publicity for the Peter Weir movie, “The Way Back” – 2011 – and which is allegedly based on true events. It’s a best seller, half a million copies sold, and translated into 25 languages. But there’s a problem with it.

We begin with the narrator, Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish officer, wrongly arrested for spying by the Russians after the invasion of Poland in 1939. He’s tortured into signing a false confession which results in his being sentenced to 25 years hard labour in the infamous Gulag system and is sent to one of the remotest labour camps in northern Siberia from where he escapes with a group of fellow captives. But instead of heading east, the more obvious and shorter route to freedom, via a boat to Japan, they go south, walk four thousand miles, through Siberia, across the Gobi Desert, the Himalaya and eventually find sanctuary in British India.

Apart from being an epic of adventure and survival, this would be one of the earliest known accounts of life in the Gulags, perhaps the more famous being Alekzander Solzenystin’s “Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch (1966)”, so it might be considered quite a find for anyone interested in that period of Soviet history. Solzenystin’s story, though based upon his own harrowing experiences in the Gulag around the same period, is sold purely as literary fiction, whereas the Long Walk is sold as heroic fact.

However,…

Rawicz’s arrest and torture, also his transportation by railway cattle-wagon to Siberia ring true enough, but his depiction of events at the camp began arouse suspicion, suddenly reading more like a boy’s own comic-book story, especially when held up against Solzenystin’s forensic descriptions of actual camp life in “Ivan Denisovitch”. Then we are sold a somewhat simplistic escape, implausibly aided by the commandant’s wife, to say nothing of being persuaded malnourished men could travel thirty miles a day, on foot, over trackless tundra in the teeth of a Siberian winter. And then there’s the eerie encounter with a couple of Yetis.

All of this gave me pause, so I set the book aside and did some digging.

Sure enough there’s been considerable controversy about the veracity of this story ever since publication. Ghost-written by Daily Mail reporter, Ronald Downing, the suspicion is that the pair have spun us all a bit of a yarn. Later documentary evidence suggests Rawicz was actually released from the Gulag in 1942, that while the early part of the book might be based upon the facts of his arrest and torture, the escape is pure fiction.

Or is it?

Well, here’s where we leave the text of the story and turn instead to the story of the story, as traced by researchers working on the film adaptation. They became aware of the controversy early on and wanted to get to the bottom of things, like was it a true story or not? Their researches duly turned up another man living in Cornwall called Witold Glinski. Glinski claims to have been the one who actually made the journey, that he never spoke a word of it to anyone, except to British officials on his arrival in India. The explanation for his silence, he said, was on account of one of his fellow escapees, a murderer who’d threatened him and, on settling in England, he’d not wanted to draw attention to himself for fear of his life.

On subsequent publication of Rawciz’s “true story”, Glinski recognised the gist of his own escape, including details of his companions, though with much added that was implausible. It was then he recalled being accosted by a pair of chancers back in the 1940’s, wanting to know how he came to England, and whom he suspects were actually Downing and Rawciz. He told them nothing but speculates they had somehow got hold of the transcript of his interview with officials at the Polish embassy, and wanted to pass the story off as Rawciz’s. That said there is no evidence to support Glinski’s claims either, so we’re still left wondering.

There is however tantalising evidence that someone did indeed make that incredible journey, this being from the account of a retired British intelligence officer who recalled interviewing a group of ragged men who had come out of the Himalaya, claiming to have escaped from Siberia, an account corroborated by a Polish engineer who had acted as translator.

While much has obviously been lost in the fog of war, on balance it seems likely the story is true at its heart, though it’s less likely we’ll ever know the real identities of the men who took part, or what happened to them afterwards. The only thing that seems certain from here is that Rawciz was not one of those men, and it’s for this reason his character was written out of the movie.

I didn’t finish the book, felt a bit cheated by it actually, and didn’t get past that encounter with the Yeti. Still, it’s a remarkable tale in many ways, though not for the obvious reasons.

Personally, I would rather have had Glinsky’s version of events.

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Sweet_Tooth_(novel)By a process that is both conscious and subliminal we form a picture and an opinion of the world from the images presented to us, and from the stories we are told. We pick them up from culture, both popular and highbrow, from the print media, and from the movies we see. Whilst inevitable and obvious, it also renders us vulnerable to manipulation, because what if the world isn’t really like that? And how do we form a truly independent opinion of reality anyway? Is it even possible?

We accept that oppressive regimes will censor the media in order to control a population and to manage its image abroad, but what if we in the west are also subject to a subversive manipulation of the media so that everything we see, read and hear possesses a slant that tips our thoughts in a particular direction? What if, say, even certain authors of high-brow fiction gain prominence and publication for having political views considered favourable, while others are forced to languish in obscurity? What if the very bedrock of intellectual thought itself is tilted by design to enourage a certain line of thinking?

This is the plot of McEwans “Sweet Tooth”, so named after the security operation to recruit unwitting authors into a propaganda machine, to fund them through an apparently bona-fide arts foundation so they might quit their day-jobs and focus on their writing, unaware they are in fact serving other interests.

Our writer Tom Haley, struggling literary author and lecturer at the University of Sussex, is duped by low-level secret service minion Serena Frome into signing up, and the pair become lovers. Set in the early 1970’s McEwan plunges us into a world of power cuts, fuel shortages, the three day week, striking miners and hunger-striking IRA prisoners, all of which serves to remind us that while we think we live in politically perilous times, they are as nothing to what has gone before. But that’s just something else I took from the book, probably because I’m a little late coming to the postmodern party and realising that, as a cultural movement, it’s not completely bonkers – that it’s never wise to accept uncritically the prevailing Zeitgeist as being the only truth there is.

Serena is herself subject to scrutiny by the “service”, result of a past affair with a disgraced officer, and this lends further intrigue, as does the tension caused when operation “Sweet Tooth” begins to fall apart. Worse, Serena is no cold-hearted career-spy; her love for Haley is genuine, but this can only mean two things: the future of their relationship is doomed when she’s finally exposed, as are her prospects for advancement within the service due to her percieved incompetence by her mysoginistic male colleagues. But then all is not quite as it seems,…

Written in the first person, from Serena’s viewpoint, McEwan is convincing as a woman, but is this story really McEwan writing as Serena Frome? Or is he writing as someone else, writing as Serena, and if so, how did this “someone else” come by all the material of Serena’s life including her recruitment to the secret service?

Although ostensibly a spy story, the spy stuff and the political shenanigans of the times, provide only the background music to Serena’s otherwise unglamorous and poorly paid life as a low-ranking officer in what could have been any other drably routine Civil Service department. Instead McEwan steers us into a different territory and tells us something interesting about the times, about the nature and the power of fictional narratives, and the world of the literary intelligentsia. On top of that, he weaves us a cunning love-story while the spies themselves, as drab as they are sinister, display the same petty jealousies and banal office-intrigues as the rest of us.

To finish, he pulls off a satisfyingly crafty twist when we finally get to know just whose story this really is.

 

 

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Themagus_cover.jpgNick Urfe – young, middle class, self-loathing, classically educated prig and womanising misogynist finds escape, and half hearted employment teaching on a remote Greek Island. Here, he meets the wealthy recluse and aesthete Maurice Conchis who befriends him. Also living under Conchis’ protection is the mysterious and ever so winsome Lilly, with whom Nick falls in love. So far, so predictable then. But that’s your first mistake, and there will be many more if you try to second guess this outrageous labyrinth of a novel.

In short, Nick finds himself way over his head at the centre of a dark psychodrama in which he seems to be acting a part among a cast of other baffling, shape-shifting characters, with Conchis as director, manipulating him at every turn. Meanwhile Lilly transforms from one role to the next, becomes Julie, or her twin sister June, all of them leading Nick on, drawing him into deeper intimacy, then pushing him away. Does she really have feelings for him, or is she always simply acting the part Conchis has written for her? Who is the real Lilly/Julie/June anyway? Who is Conchis? Just when Nick begins to think he’s worked things out, and us with him, Conchis changes the narrative again,… reveals all that went before was a lie.

To what end are we playing this game is, of course, the question. Perhaps there is no end in the normal sense, and if we cannot trust the narrative why should there be a reliable end anyway?

As we, the reader, like the hapless Nick, are drawn ever more deeply into Conchis’s web we begin to wonder if the story is actually a psychological metaphor of the state of our own selves. Although at times inscrutable, like Conchis himself, this makes for an unsettling, disorientating and at times disturbing read. Hailed as an example of post-modern literature, The Magus shatters the accepted norms of story-writing where a protagonist works towards some goal and, in voyeuristic fashion, the reader simply follows along in the background to be gratified by a conclusion, neat or otherwise. Reading the Magus, Fowles drags us in with him, cautions us at every turn against trusting the story. Indeed, its occasionally ad-hoc nature has us wondering if he’s not just making it up as he goes along, that, like the Magus, he’s bamboozling us, with smoke and mirrors and none of it means anything other than what we project into it ourselves.

Peppered with psychological and mythological references, the story shifts from present to historical flashback, at times dramatic, erotic, horrific, and all of it quite possibly absurd. There is always the feeling here that if only I was as intelligent as the writer, and the critics who have lauded the story, I would know the difference; I would know, like Nick wants to know, if I was merely being taken for a ride, or if there was some point to the experience, that Conchis is more than simply a fraud at best, and at worst a dangerous psychopath.

Nick returns to England, penniless, disturbed by his experience, but seemingly also deepened by it. He’s more self-reflective, kinder to others, but like him we’re left wondering, waiting for a conclusion that never really comes, which suggest that if the story is indeed some kind of psychological experiment and we’ve come some way along the road to recovering our potential as a decent, self-aware human being, the final step is up to us. Nick is not the first young man to experience The Magus, and he won’t be the last,.. but who truly benefits? The subject, or Conchis?

Read as a straight novel, the main problem with the plot as “psychological experiment” is that nobody warrants that much elaborate attention, and former victims (or subjects) having been so abused and humiliated by Conchis in the process would probably be inclined to return to his island with a machine gun. Except angry loathing and a desire for revenge appear not to be a side effect of Conchis’ methods, just as the reader is left feeling disorientated, breathless and none the wiser, but rather more thoughtful and certainly not resentful of the time spent on this compelling, but ultimately bewildering labyrinth of a novel.

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