Thursday, 26 September 2013

In praise of otherness

The bush stone curlew is a bird like no other – none that I’ve encountered. Not colourful, like many other Australian birds, not especially pretty or graceful, not outstanding in any discernible way. What it lacks in superficial charm it makes up for in a kind of strange, engaging presence.

You first hear its cry – a sharp, mournful “wee-loo” as night sets. Then, if you are lucky as I was recently to be in an open-sided tent kitchen in the northern Australian bush, the curlew appears, almost on cue at about 7 o’clock, when dinner is ready.

A surprisingly large bird – a kind of mini-stork – it materialises out of the dark on hesitant, quiet feet. A grey and pale-coloured body with black streaks ends in an implausible short beak and big, doleful eyes. It slowly walked the perimeter of the kitchen, looking in for any scraps it would no doubt snaffle once the humans had finished and left.

Every night when I cooked, the siren of the bush stone curlew announced its presence somewhere in the she-oak scrub nearby. Then came the sight of the bird and its cautious long-legged stepping round the outside of the kitchen, its eyes, as if painted onto the body, always still.

I was reminded of the curlew when I came across a newspaper review of a book called Birds and People, by Mark Cocker and David Tipling. The book examines the relationship between birds and people, exploring the wonder birds have held for us over the millennia, the power of certain birds in our imagination, as well as the ways we have used and abused many species. One salient quote is mentioned: “Birds dwell at the heart of the human experience, furnishing us with an imaginative and symbolic resource that is as limitless as their fund of flesh and feathers.”

I mused on that quote and thought of the bush stone curlew. I first saw the bird only recently and I know practically nothing about it, but its strangeness and otherness were what struck me most. Perhaps the story of the curlew appears in local Aboriginal myth. Maybe its habits are well known to ornithologists, and ecologists have mapped out its role in the local environment. But I would wager that no matter how familiar you are with it, the bird would still be strange and other.

There’s something that we need to remind ourselves often in our inquisitive Western culture: the more we know, the greater the mystery. That is, as our understanding of reality grows, so too in proportion grows that which is unknown. It’s like opening the door to a room and noticing that there’s a door at the far end of it; opening that door reveals another room with a door, which opens into yet another ... and so on. At some point, the realisation dawns that there is a never-ending process of unfoldment going on attended by mystery, an uncertainty not only about what awaits behind the next door, but the meaning of the process itself.

An experience of otherness can be deeply humbling. Birds do indeed “dwell at the heart of human experience”, we have evolved with them and share a common ancestor many millions of years ago, but they are also other. They are another life form that exists in its own right independent of our needs and whatever uses we may want from them. An important paradox lies here: though all life is one, it is also multiple. Though at certain times and in certain states of consciousness we can experience the oneness of life, we must never lose sight of the various forms it can take, of the amazing multiplicity of vessels in which it is carried.

This is important because our culture has become intensely human-centred. Empowered by science and technology, we believe we control our destiny and that all other life should serve us. We are the masters of planet Earth. In ages past we were much more attuned to mystery – humble before the awesome nature of the divine and its manifestations all around us. Whether it was God or multiple gods or sacred groves, rocks or animals, we existed in relationship with other powerful beings or energies. Our own power was kept in some state of balance. Now, there seems no limit to the human capacity for mastery and domination.

The falsehood of absolute human power has become increasingly apparent in recent decades as we destroy life on Earth through rampant industrialisation, overpopulation and overconsumption; the more mastery we attain the more tenuous existence on the planet becomes, including for our own species. The truth is that we are not in control and never will be – the ultimate nature of power is quite beyond the human. If we are to live in balance, we must rediscover otherness as a dynamic reality in the universe. That means an acceptance of the unknown and the unknowable as a constant presence in human affairs and in everything. It also means a relationship of respect with that otherness.

I think again of that peculiar bird of the night, the bush stone curlew. In some sense it can never be known, never adequately categorised or catalogued, and perhaps never fully appreciated unless with an openness to mystery. But then, the same could be said for all that is best in life.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The revolutionary

I remember, I remember when my world was hardly grown,
The daughter of a dead, dull king ascended to the throne.
Though I was but a lad at school I saw it all with scorn,
The solemn, sacred emptiness, the monumental yawn ...

"On Her Silver Jubilee" by Leon Rosselson

The advantage of accumulating possessions over the years is that, when the time comes to sort through everything you have, certain long-forgotten gems are rediscovered. I made such a find the other day among a collection of old audio cassettes (yes, such things once existed) I was preparing to throw out. On one of them was the song “On Her Silver Jubilee” by the British folk musician Leon Rosselson.

The song is simply composed but brilliantly written, a scalding attack on the British monarchy moving between parody and irony and laced with disgust. Rosselson sings: Oh the magic of the monarchy, the mystery sublime/Growing gracefully and effortlessly richer all the time and The monarch walked her corgis behind the palace wall/Never once betraying what she felt or if she felt at all. He attacks the fawning of the press: The slime exuding daily from the sycophantic slugs and the nobility and high officials associated with royalty: All the swarms of bloated blowflies the majestic turd sustains. In the chorus, the Queen’s ordinariness, beyond all the hype and sycophancy, is made plain: She’s as poised as a picture, she’s a sight for all to see/With a glass cage around her on her silver jubilee/With a glass cage around her she feels free.

The song is, to my mind, a fairly potent distillation of what may be called the revolutionary spirit. It’s something that has been present, at least in Western culture, for more than 2000 years, perhaps originating with Spartacus’ slave revolt against Rome. It is an attitude of opposition to the fundamental structures of a society, a radical rejection of its basic tenets, its cherished ideals, values and priorities. Where the reformer seeks to replace one ruler with another, the revolutionary wants to overthrow the system that underpins the rulership. The aim of the revolutionary is systemic not piecemeal change.

And Rosselson’s song provides one of the defining features of the revolutionary: the ability to see and expose the truth of corrupt systems, to declare forthrightly that “the emperor has no clothes”. When most people are happy to accept the norms of the system, the revolutionary is defined by talking truth to power. The message is a shattering one of the reality of the situation.

The revolutionary appeared when the Western mind took on a certain amount of dualism. When monotheism arrived, in the form of the Zoroastrian and Jewish faiths, the absolute goodness of the universal God was balanced by an opposing force bent on destruction. The archetypal revolutionary was born – Satan. The one-sided bias of the Judeo-Christian tradition towards “goodness” and “light”, its inability to accept and integrate the dark side of human nature, meant violent upheaval and revolution were inevitable.

Once the vitality of the all-embracing Church of medieval times began to wane, revolution gained force and momentum. First and foremost, the Reformation tipped the old certainties of the Western world upside down; an incredibly wrenching upheaval, it was followed by decades of war between Catholics and Protestants. Then came revolution and civil war in England in the 17th century, the American and French revolutions in the 18th century, the Napoleonic wars and uprooting of the old monarchical order across Europe, the revolutionary wildfires of 1830 and 1848, the national liberation wars in Latin America and Haiti, the Paris Commune of 1871. And in the 20th century the scale of conflict increased dramatically, with revolutions and wars of global significance unleashing unprecedented levels of destruction and suffering.

Notwithstanding the romanticism that is attached to some revolutions and revolutionaries, systemic upheaval in recent centuries has not necessarily been about creating a better and more just world. Rather, the function of revolution has been to clear out the old and decaying structures and to bring a new balance and order. The revolutionary is a psychically necessary figure under any system that rigidly believes it is right and true. When a society is unable to reinvent itself as it needs, to revivify itself through the creative use of its potential, but continues upon an outworn track, the revolutionary is present as a marker for the future. He or she is necessary balance.

One of the more celebrated revolutionaries of the 20th century, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, said “the revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love”. In this he marked a challenge for anyone under the power of the revolutionary archetype: love has to be at the core of their actions. The revolutionary’s oppositional stance means they are vulnerable to be captured by negativity and hatred. If the sweeping away of the old order is not to descend into a maelstrom of violence and destruction, as has repeatedly occurred through history, vision and action to create new forms has to be part of the revolutionary drive. The revolutionary is then as much a creator as he or she is a destroyer, helping to release and feed society’s generative tendencies. The new way is born and develops while the old is still in process, ripening until the time comes for it to take over organically.

As humanity evolves, there will be less need for the revolutionary. Conflict will still be present, but in the form of creative tension to spark the new into life and not in the manner of warfare. It all depends on how much self-knowledge we can bring to every human endeavour and how much goodwill – or love – we can muster. Eventually, though perhaps still some way into the future, the grace-filled evolutionary will carry as much power as the incendiary revolutionary once wielded.