Thursday, 8 December 2011
Built into a hill with sheer rock walls and a dizzying collection including ancient Mesopotamian tablets, paintings by Australian greats and modernist sculptures and installations, it was clearly meant to impress. Informed by an avante-garde sensibility, MONA had the flavour of something one might find in Berlin or New York.
After walking through its many levels in cavernous semi-darkness, I pondered the meaning of the experience. Many of the works, particularly the more recent, were about sex and death. There was an element of shock to them, a purposeful desire by the artist to confront the viewer with what lurks in the Shadow.
This is obviously not new in art - consider Caravaggio's brutal, sexual paintings in the 17th century, through to the modern day with Dada, Surrealism and all the rest. The artist is a transgressor, pushing the boundaries of culture and society, challenging the norms of acceptability. Working functionally, this approach renews society by cutting through its stale and restrictive forms and opens the door for new, life-affirming possibilities. It also exposes underlying issues with the hope of change. Chaim Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev explores these dynamics beautifully. The artistic soul of the main character, Asher Lev, demands the creation of a crucifixion painting that is taboo in his rigid, ultra-orthodox Jewish community. The painting symbolises the inner torment and hope for redemption in the psyche of his community. The artist holds the seed for change.
There is also a dysfunctional side to the artist as transgressor in which shock is elevated as a goal; boundaries are broken for the sake of merrely doing so, not in the service of a broader context. The artist disgorges whatever is in the unconscious, without proper discrimination or maturity. At MONA one of the works on display was a framed photograph of a dog humping a naked man from behind.
I wondered whether integration/synthesis could be a valuable underlying idea or goal in art. That is, the aim is not so much breaking boundaries as playing with boundaries so that they dissolve and a new whole is created; not so much confrontation and discord as unity and new life; and not so much shock as something that, while it may be challenging, is also deeply pleasing - not in a conservative, anodyne way, but in a way that nourishes the soul. As an example I think of the work of Melbourne artist Godwin Bradbeer, whose black and white figurative drawings convey a depth and mystery that is difficult to put into words. Images of faces and bodies appear on a black background, dreamlike and incorporeal as form emerges from nothingness. There is little that is shocking or subversive, just a numinous reverence for the human body and the mystery of creation.
So too I think the poetry of Mary Oliver is an example of art that aims for integration and wholeness, not merely the breaking of forms. In exploring the joy and suffering of life, Oliver seeks an underlying unity, meaning that can tie all experience together. What comes through is a celebratory wisdom immersed in nature as the path to soul. In her poem Sunrise (from Dream Work, 1986) she writes of climbing a hill at dawn and feeling the light that shines across the world:
What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it
whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
Beyond art, integration/synthesis can act as a template or overarching idea for culture and society as a whole. Human exploration, still largely rooted in individual gain and ego achievement, can have at its centre "the many that are one", where one person's quest is that of the entire human race and the planet as a whole. The adventure of life is undertaken not merely for oneself, but mindfully for all, for "the liberation of all beings" as Buddhists like to say. This would mean the entrance of a level of mysticism into human self-understanding and require a shift of foucus, a leap in consciousness. It seems to me that Bradbeer, Oliver and many others are laying the foundations. Wide cracks are opening in the materialistic world order that currently dominates, and as economic, social and environmental crises deepen, we are being called to new vision. Perhaps T.S Eliot had something like this in mind when he wrote the following in the final stanza of his great work, Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Sunday, 13 November 2011
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Sunday, 30 October 2011
You who kindles the sun's rays
and lets the day be day
and night to follow
Oh Great Ordinariness
You who lets the children down the ladder of sleep
and wakes them in the morning
You who keep my feet warm in winter
and allow my body to do what it needs
You who make the bread rise
and the baby squirm in its parcel of skin
You who move mountains one millimetre every 300 years
who sends the millions to work
and brings them home
You who drops words in my mouth
and silence when required
who lifts me up
and lets me sink into my dark unease
You who tumbles empires
and gives birth to prophets
Oh Great Ordinariness
How I've known you
as I count the days
as I watch the lichen on my neighbour's wall
as I watch the smile of my sleeping lover
as I feel your soft grip in every moment.
Thursday, 20 October 2011
A few days later, Occupy Wall Street appeared. It has now touched off an international chain of protest with, at its core, a rejection of the crisis-ridden political and economic model that emerged out of the process of industrialisation and has everywhere been dominant since the latter part of the 20th century. The dynamic of this model is the generation of monetary wealth and a constant expansion, a never-ending growth of that wealth. The complex needs of human beings and the planet as a whole figure only in relation to the primary drive of economic growth.
Despite the confusing array of demands and slogans of Occupy protesters, the essence of what they stand for is a humane system that privileges human and environmental concerns above the narrowly economic. And that means opposition to the present form of capitalism, overstretched and floundering as it butts against the reality of finite global resources.
There is a spiritual dimension inherent in the opposition to the current order. As protesters seek justice, a fairer system, they are essentially looking to establish what some spiritual teachers describe as "right relationship". This is a mid-point where material reality accords with Spirit, where the inner needs of the human being for love, security, meaning and community are reflected in the social, political and economic structures. Life flows from the soul into the world. This might sound like naive and idealistic ballyhoo, but small concrete examples abound in the everyday world. Think of the radiant smile of a baby, or a loving relationship between two people, or a stranger helping an old woman off a tram - ordinary instances of the soul radiating outwards. Right relationship establishes a balance where everyone's needs are taken into account within the needs of the whole community and the planet. Justice or fairness is about creating the conditions in which each individual and the entire community can develop to their full potential. Without justice there is suffering, and when injustice is set into the structures of society the potential for suffering is immense.
Perfection is the not the goal of right relationship. We don't have to imagine a utopia when thinking of a balanced, harmonious society. A loving relationship also has its ups and downs and is not without pain, yet the core of the relationship is inviolate. So too with larger systems and structures. It is possible to imagine and achieve a new global order with justice and fairness at its centre that is not perfect and where people disagree and make mistakes. Ultimately transformation occurs when enough people with enough balance and maturity create the right conditions for long enough. I'm very hopeful for the Occupy movement, even as I hear that here in Melbourne the authorities are breaking up the vigil in the city centre. The seeds are sown - let love triumph over greed!
Thursday, 8 September 2011
I'm interested in symbolism, metaphor and the big picture as much as the small-scale and personal. I love the texture of narrative and people's stories of the day, and I listen to the grief and tragedy and the sheer monstrous horror of what happened; but when discussion remains on the level of the personal story, something is missing.
I had a picture in my mind 10 years ago that still feels relevant: the barbarians are at the gates of Rome. What does this mean? The United States, the most powerful nation on the planet, is the contemporary equivalent of classical Rome, the most powerful empire of its time. Rome, over-reaching itself militarily and economically, suffered a long decline that ended with devastation at the hands of Germanic invaders. America, over-reaching itself and dependent on gigantic military spending, is on a downward slope from which it might not recover.
The barbarians are at the gates. The demons emerge from America's long shadow and go on the attack. America's contribution to the world has been enormous and incredibly enervating in many ways - think of the symbolism of freedom ignited by its revolution and the far-reaching effects of its ideals; think of its key role in stopping Nazism and fascism in World War II; think of the potency of its culture, its music, its cutting-edge thought and research in my different areas. Yet as it has created, so it has also wrecked and destroyed. The shadow of America's elevation of the ideals of freedom and individual liberty has been its own narrow self-interest, love of power and vast over-inflation. Here's a telling example: 3000 people died in the 9/11 terror attacks, but at least 300,000 (according to some reports) as a result of America's mad invasion of Iraq. Add to that the millions who lost their lives in various conflicts in south-east Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa either directly at the hands of US forces or through bloody dictatorships supported and funded by Washington.
In many respects, the US stands for the past and what is no longer relevant or life-enhancing. In some parts of the world, individual liberty and freedom of expression are still goals for which people strive, yet there is an emerging paradigm that goes beyond that framework. We are seeing the slow dawning of a global civilization in which the notion of the self is expanded beyond the individual and what is good for me, my tribe, my country. Its central notion is that we are all one on this fragile, beautiful planet. Global climate change and the interconnection of economic and communications systems make such a broadening of human horizons seem inevitable. In the meantime there are questions about how the old powers, the old ways, will be transformed. Can the unleashing of forces at a time of great change be harnessed to the creation of the new order, or must the barbarians rush ever more violently to sack Rome?
Thursday, 1 September 2011
The way someone is portrayed in the mass media becomes reality for the vast majority of people, and the particular portrayal extremely difficult to challenge. That's not to say there is no truth in the Libyan rebels being labelled freedom fighters or in the counter image of Muammar Gaddafi as the "evil dictator", only that propaganda is typically used in the service of the powerful and the full truth of the matter is usually a lot more nuanced. I would guess that in the years prior to the Libyan uprising, when Western governments were trying to court Colonel Gaddafi for access to his nation's large oil reserves, he would have usually been referred to in the media as the "Libyan leader". Now with Western opinion against him again, he is roundly the "Libyan dictator" or just "the dictator".
Why are simple picture images so powerful and why do they sway people so easily? The reason seems to be because picture language is the language of the psyche, the inner language of our mind. It's the language of dreams and the archetypes that appear in them. "The tyrant" and "the hero" have been with us for thousands of years and have helped shape the way we think and respond to our world - they have been an important part of culture and civilization.
A long parade of tyrants and heroes appears throughout Western history, myth and culture. Among the tyrants we can list King Minos of Crete (who fed the youths of Athens to the minotaur), Pharaoh who kept the Hebrews enslaved, Herod who tried to kill the baby Jesus, through to various kings, popes and feudal lords and in our time such people as Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. Tyrants represent illegitimate rule, power for its own sake - that is, in the service of private interests and not for the common good. Among the parade of heroes: Hercules, Moses, David, the Christian saints, George Washington, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and often these days various celebrities and sports stars. The hero is one who is able to bring a radiant new spark which lights up their community or transforms it in some way for the better - a leader who represents the best that every person is able to achieve in their own life. It is possible to differ on whether a historical figure is a hero or something else (for instance, Napoleon may be a hero or tyrant depending on your point of view), but it's hard to dispute the general power of archetypes or their deep influence on the human psyche.
To me there is an imperative that we understand the image language of our mind and identify when archetypes are being triggered or used. And it's not solely about being manipulated by politicians or the mass media. With the decline of organised religion, which once ordered and gave coherence to the energies of the psyche, the archetypes and their power has been pushed back into the unconscious. When there is no conscious relationship to them, their outward projection into the world can be destructive - just think of the devastating consequences of fascism in the 20th century. But the hope is that through awareness and through new myth and ritual relevant to our time, we can find ways of consciously holding and channelling their power to further the cause of life and compassion on our fragile planet.
Monday, 15 August 2011
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
WB Yeats, The Second Coming.
The commentary on the riots in England makes for interesting analysis. The shock of the riots caused a deep, collective taking of breath; and out of the rush of air from the exhalation has come the great word WHY.
Why is this happening? Why would young people want to trash and loot? Why in a stable and relatively wealthy country? What is it all about?
In the relatively simple way the world is portrayed in the mainstream news media, the first possibility was that the riots might have a political cause. Reporters looked for evidence of the purposeful trashing of buildings belonging to multinational corporations. Was the disturbance a reaction to the economic austerity measures imposed by the British Government? Was it an outpouring of hatred against police and their violence and heavy-handedness in the poor areas of London?
The answer came swiftly and determinedly: there was no justifiable purpose. The chain of spreading mayhem was just that – criminal lunacy. It was simply wanton destruction by people who should know better. “Feral rats” is how one London woman was quoted as describing the looters. “What are their parents doing?”
It’s understandable that in the heat of shocking events like the riots in England words come without thought or reflection. My hope is that some of the more nuanced and complex views are given credence. Unfortunately it is a tendency in our culture to think in dualistic, black-and-white ways. Shades of grey, which are by far the norm in the complexity that is life, are pushed aside. We prefer the either-or approach because it calms our fears and makes sense of the world in a simple and seemingly logical way. The implicit formulation is this: WE are good, peaceful people. THEY are bad people intent on criminality and destruction.
But this kind of binary thinking inevitably leads to more suffering. We fail to see our social and spiritual interconnectedness with the other and so close ourselves off to our own complexity and the dynamic life of the world as a whole.
The looting and destruction in England were criminal and crazy. But they were other things as well. To me at least, in a context of poverty and urban alienation, the riots were a shocking result of the spiritual vacuum at the heart of our culture; a sign of the crisis of meaning that is eating the fabric of society. What creative and life-affirming direction do young people receive nowadays? What guiding role-models? What identity? What life-enhancing stories and myths?
When society does not hold a meaningful, enriching place for young people or offer an identity for them to grow into, then anti-social behaviour is a likely result. The kinds of riots seen in England are a sign of the unravelling of the social order, the decay of moral, political and economic institutions. The bizarre aspect of it all was that the looters were simply following the one remaining god society holds dear – consumption.
And what is the likely result of the disturbances? Inevitably the authorities talk of crackdowns and getting tough on crime, but there have to be strong and creative measures that give young people hope and direction. If poverty and hopelessness prevail, next time the vortex of rioting could be a lot worse.
As WB Yeats said, “the centre cannot hold”; things are indeed falling apart in Europe and elsewhere. However, the death of old forms presents the exciting challenge of renewal and rebirth. It is up to each of us, in millions of ways large and small, to bring the new order forward.
Thursday, 28 July 2011
C.G. Jung, Man and His Symbols
It has often been said that we humans are capable of the best and the worst, and history provides numerous examples of both. Yet speaking as an outsider who has never been to that country, Norway has provided the world not just one of the most striking examples of the contrasts of human nature, but reconfirmed the existence of ancient mental forms that have refused to die after centuries of evolution.
An ostensibly peaceful country with a highly developed welfare state and a pride in being a peace broker among nations has witnessed a massacre by a madman purporting to defend the values of Norway. The perpetrator, Anders Breivik, sees himself as a kind of "holy warrior" for Truth, a crusader resisting an invading Muslim immigrant tide. He justifies his barbarism because he is "at war".
The idea of the holy war has existed since biblical times. On God's orders, we are told in the Old Testament, the Hebrews wiped out the inhabitants of Canaan before settling the promised land (Joshua 10:40). A development in the Western mythology of war came about 500BC courtesy of the Persians, who were the first to fight and conquer for universal values of Truth and Light (see Joseph Campbell's book, Oriental Mythology). They believed in an apocalyptic clash between good and evil where evil would be destroyed and thereafter peace reign forever.
Since then the Islamic conquests and notion of jihad, the Christian crusades of the middle ages and countless other wars have been fought by groups claiming God and Right on their side. To this day the United States, "one nation under God", still gives such justifications. Now move to Norway: Breivik gives the world a stark reminder that its ancient and outdated ideas can have catastrophic consequences; the shocking difference this time that it was not al-Qaeda or extremist Islamists waging jihad, but a Westerner attacking the West from the inside with its own version of the "holy war".
Clearly Breivik's own individual psychosis had a large part to play in what he did. With exceptions in certain parts of the world, it is mainly now unstable individuals who identify as divine warriors. But it would be wrong to dismiss the horrific acts in Norway as simply the work of a lone madman. We have not collectively digested the consequences of our own past, nor come to terms with the fear and separativeness that give rise to the re-activation of deadly old archetypes. They wait in the shadows, ready to possess their victims and burst forth in blood.
Thursday, 30 June 2011
I watched a TV show this week where an Australian comedian investigated the phenomenon of UFOs, travelling to Roswell, New Mexico, to a kind of festival of UFO believers. In many ways it was fascinating and funny to hear people’s stories of space ship sightings, alien abductions and weird encounters with otherworldly beings intent on bodily probing their victims.
These kinds of shows, humorous or not, inevitably come to the position that people who believe in UFOs are deluded or mad and that it’s “just their imagination”. Ironically, such a black-and-white position is the mirror opposite of the wide-eyed credulity of many UFO believers. Fundamentalist rationalism meets fundamentalist supernaturalism.
I wonder if in the 21st century we can come up with understandings that are a bit more sophisticated, a little more nuanced. Imagination doesn’t have to be synonymous with unreality, nor should it be taken as some kind of hard, absolute truth. Imagination is vital – we couldn’t live without a mental ability to broaden the horizon of our everyday world. Nothing new would be created by humans without it. Everything would be immensely dull and lonely.
Imagination is a bridge between the known and the unknown, between the outer, concrete world and the inner world of the human psyche, between consciousness and the unconscious. Carl Jung, in Man and His Symbols, says: “Even when our senses react to real phenomena, sights, and sounds, they are somehow translated from the realm of reality into that of the mind ... thus every experience contains an indefinite number of unknown factors.”
So when someone investigates a phenomenon like UFOs that goes beyond the boundaries of the known accepted reality, inevitably imagination comes into play. The proper attitude of the investigator should be humility. Why would a person believe they had encountered an alien? What does it say potentially about them, their psychology and their life? They may be barking mad, but they may not. Even in madness certain truths about them and the kind of society they live in will be revealed if questions are asked. And the widespread occurrence of something like UFO sightings points to fascinating, broader patterns in the collective psyche.
Inevitably, such an investigation comes up against a battery of unknowns and factors that cannot be fully answered by the rational mind. That’s OK. Humans are more than one-dimensional rational beings. We ought to be celebrating ourselves in our full roundedness and the role the imagination plays in making us who we are.
Sunday, 26 June 2011
A Militant Atheist on His Death Bed
When they speak at my grave
they will say that I died
in a reasonable manner
They will say I was disciplined in dying
as in the fullness of life,
demanding answers and proofs.
The candle flame by my bed
was fed by oxygen,
not the draught of superstition.
Among them there will be no voodoo
of the imagination.
They will say I went into the void
in a reasonable manner.
Sunday, 29 May 2011
It’s the silence that draws me there, a deep and magnetic emptiness that satisfies my need to find a place of quiet reflection in the midst of the city crowds and the feverishness of my own thoughts. It’s a giant cavern and I welcome the opportunity to just sit with myself and be enveloped in its heavy, reverential air.
I don’t belong to any organised religion, so it’s fascinating and novel to be in such an impressive spiritual place. I come from a family of non-observant Ukrainian Jews and as I sit in the cathedral I perform a simple Zen meditation of observing the flow of my breath. Despite my heathenness, I carry the same respect for the divinity of the place that I see in the faces of the few people worshipping there.
Everything about St Pat’s – its massive stone pillars, its lofty roof, the altars and stained glass windows - speaks of the immensity of God and the spiritual calling. Everything is pointing upwards, from the material world to the transcendent and everlasting beyond. The individual is made small and humbled, submitting the ego in the all-powerful womb of the divine. From the windows streams a yellow light that germinates the dark interior, a soft grace that falls into a deep well of silence.
Entering the cathedral I am compelled to answer the call of Spirit, and everything around me is telling me that is what I should do, is designed for that purpose. There is something deeply attractive about the silence in this place. It is like the sense of awe one feels staring at a mountain or looking down into a forested valley from the top of an escarpment. Like dropping into a well and being held by the nothingness that is there.
After my little meditation sessions in St Pat’s, as I walk the short way back to work, I’m always struck by the contrast with the outside world. I wonder how the experience of the sacred can make its way out of the wooden doors and into everyday life; not clothed in the old and outworn forms of religion, but in some shape that is alive and relevant.
Religion built a vessel for the Spirit, allowing people a conscious relationship to the transcendental forces at work in their lives and in the world. In modern society we have not eliminated the spiritual journey, but simply driven it into the unconscious. As the Jungian critic David Tacey says in Gods and Diseases (HarperCollins, 2011): “The spirit still pushes us from one state to another, and nothing can stand in its way, not even a materialist society that has no belief in the sacred.”
There is hope. It comes in the form of the quiet moments when we connect with the deep silence beyond life’s myriad distractions; the moments in which we can simply be. It happens in nature and in loving relationships; in times of celebration and sharing with others; in music and dance; and, though we usually don’t seek it in this way, in times of suffering.
Sacred ritual doesn’t belong solely inside a place of worship. Outside the cathedral is where the challenge, and the fun, begins.
Sunday, 8 May 2011
I broadly agree with the people criticial of the way bin Laden was targeted for killing rather than being brought in like other criminals to face a proper system of justice. And the equivocation of the US Government over what went on in the moments before he was killed and the way his body was swiftly disposed at sea adds to the moral shoddiness of the whole operation.
My chief interest, though, is how the affair demonstrates the principle of duality that is a constant in human affairs. It was fascinating how Barack Obama, in his speech after the death of bin Laden, described it as “justice”. America, he said, was the place of “liberty and justice”. Effectively an extrajudicial killing, probably a summary execution, was “justice” meted out by the military of a country that stood for justice and freedom.
In the early ‘90s, about the time of the first Gulf War, I saw a documentary based on a book by the American author Sam Keen called Faces of the Enemy. In it Keen pointed out that an individual or country that has a one-sided picture of itself, as being pure or on some kind of holy mission, creates a psychology of opposites in which there has to be a demonic adversary. Good incarnates evil, and the defenders of liberty and justice will inevitably find terrorists bent on their destruction. As the ancient Greeks said – hubris invites nemesis.
But duality is not simply about absolutes, not simply freedom versus al Qaeda. It exists as an inner fabric of temporal life. Indeed all life can be seen as a relationship of opposites: day-night, black-white, man-woman, mind-body, subject-object, rich-poor, left-right, earth-heaven, positive-negative, life-death, good-evil, being-nothingness, and so on.
In my work for a not-for-profit community organisation in Melbourne, I am aware of one such element of duality – progress. By that I mean how the aims of the organisation, which is to spread the benefits of renewable energy and environmental sustainability, translate into change in the community. At the moment there is a new state government that shows little interest in sustainability and the progressive agenda in mainstream discourse is under fire from conservative critics and seems stalled.
I can only see it as a process of moving forward and back. Inevitably and inexorably as some challenge is met, some synthesis made, some enlightenment gained, there will be a dark and regressive element that will seek to undo that which is achieved. It applies to the psychology of groups and whole cultures as much as to individuals. It’s true the regressive element will tend to thrive in certain conditions – particularly where there is fear, ignorance and uncertainty – but it is a constant companion no matter what circumstance.
It’s also true that dark material will tend to surface just after a point of enlightenment. A beam of light inevitably exposes that which has been festering in the darkness. This can be seen, for instance, in the way countries that embrace democracy and greater openness after long periods of dictatorship find themselves initially torn by divisions and strife. Old conflicts that lay dormant break into the open. Criminal gangs, ethnic violence and economic chaos came in the wake of the demise of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The current upsurge in violence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt could also be an example of this process.
There is a lot to be learnt in the way that Eastern philosophy tackles the problems of duality. Broadly speaking, it counsels not to identify with any single element of a pair of opposites but to embrace and integrate them as a whole. The West’s tendency has been to split one opposite away from the other. For many centuries Western religions told their followers to identify with goodness, creating a monstrous shadow of evil that ran amok in various ways including wars and genocide.
Duality menaces because of our limited vision and lack of preparedness to bring the opposites together in a meaningful way. There is wholeness beyond the opposites, a point of harmony most of us are aware of at different times, if briefly, in our lives.
In this context the US President might want to consider the following excerpt from the Taoist classic Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu:
If one does not know the Constant,
One runs blindly into disasters.
If one knows the Constant,
One can understand and embrace all.
If one understands and embraces all,
One is capable of doing justice.
Saturday, 30 April 2011
Thursday, 24 March 2011
Thursday, 3 March 2011
Sunday, 20 February 2011
Thursday, 17 February 2011
Published in The Age newspaper, February 2010
Published in Wet Ink magazine, September 2009