Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Reading with Daddy.


As a teacher, a lot of my life has been given to “ teaching” reading. I really wonder what that means. I have taught reading for “pleasure”, reading for “information” and reading as a “life-skill”. I even remember an address to an educational conference on excellence in the classroom where the author Anne Fine discussed how to teach reading as “therapy”. But none of these ever really fitted with my own experiences of reading. Suddenly, today, it struck me that all of these are time-bound, it is reading for the “now”. “Let’s talk about why you like this. Now put your books away while we do some Science work”. “Look at this paragraph. Can you see the words that describe the spectrum?” “Turn on your computers. Today, we are going to learn how to make a questionnaire about people’s favourite colours. Here are the Key Features for a form-based text.” “Sometimes when we are sad we say that we are “blue”. Reading often eases pain. Have you felt like this lonely little dragon? Oh yes, you are right, racism makes you feel like that”. And on it goes. But perhaps the finest reader who ever taught me was a young guy from Botswana. He would come back to his reading, days, weeks later, and suddenly say, “Do you remember that word? It has made me feel this…”

Education has become so “time-bound” through teaching that we forget to learn about the hatching of words. Nor Hall, in her wonderful book on feminine ways of knowing, The Moon and the Virgin, would have said that father-civilisation has driven out mother-culture. We forget that words are seeds for germination. And this came into my thoughts recently as I read a “blog” by a man about his father. His father, like mine, valued memorisation. And this too has become another main idea in reading reform in the UK: “reading for memory”. “It is important that you can remember your reading, so let us find a poem and learn it off by heart because that is such a good thing to be able to do.” Why? Father-civilisation uses memory to pass on advice. But mother-culture knows that wise words live in memory because they are life-giving. Reading is not about forcing closed thoughts into memory, but we have examination systems based on just that. Reading is about being gently open to the suggestions in words, so that we come back even years later and see a passage, a poem, a novel suddenly open up around a word felt anew. As I read this man’s sensitive writing about his father (yes, sensitive, capable of sensation and being alive, let's get this right before men run off and hide in their closets) I became aware of two different world views. Here was an African father requiring that his African son knew by heart, of all things, Lincoln’s famous “Letter to his Son’s Teacher”. And here was a son responding from his heart with what he had learnt about the father he loved. Remembering speeches (Father-civilisation) had been transformed into speaking from memory’s land (Mother-culture).

…Oh yes, reading as transformation, as alchemy. Later, having read this honest writing, I returned to James Hollis’s Under Saturn’s Shadow, a penetrating reflection on men, father-pain and warrior-culture. Nine years ago, I had marked a passage for memory:

The feminine is experienced by a man on three levels. He encounters it in the presence of an outer woman and in a gay relationship through the feminine side of the other man. He meets it in his relationship to his own anima. And he encounters it in his relationship…to nature… to the life force in general.

How wrong that passage is! What I had taken as gospel spelled itself out into something more concerned with human goodness. Reading as transformation over time. Firstly, there are four levels. How a man encounters a woman and an implied “feminine” man are not the same thing: two, not one shared level. Secondly, why is “gay” allowed to intrude into that sentence? Why did the author not write this? “A male encounters the Feminine Principle outwardly in a woman. A male encounters the Feminine Principle inwardly in the Anima/Archetypal Feminine Principle of another male.” The first is not sexualised, so why is the second? Just because a man responds to the inwardness of another man, a nature that flows from the other man’s indwelling nature, that response does not become gay. This insertion is really odd given the theme of Hollis’s book: men are afraid to be close because they fear their own warrior natures. It does in fact identify where so much male aggression comes from (as does Hollis elsewhere): a fear of loving likeness. Fathers fear sons and sons fear fathers…insert distance…because of what openness might imply to patriarchy. (Incidentally, the whole of Brokeback Mountain could be read in light of the above passage: two males related to "nature…the life force”; two males un-related to "outer women" and to their "own" inner natures; two men who can only relate sexually because the father-land has damaged them so much. Not a gay love story, but a study of brutal isolation and how humanity is cast into a wilderness). It speaks volumes that my own father wished me to recite his favourite poem, "The Highwayman", as an act of filial bonding, for it represents a masculinity that is aloof, fugitive, a high man wayward on the road of inner life, a thing of Saturn’s night. No less interesting is how Lincoln’s address, though it recommends the love of books, has real anxiety about the feminine:

But do not cuddle him
Because only the test
Of fire makes the fine steel.


There speaks a true patriarch who requires affiliation to his political order…a teacher of reading…not an hermetic learner. Such raises little boys who act big, against whose shadows men take time to grow. And time leaves regrets which have to be healed, though not by time; rather by imaginative reading and writing.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sculptural Love and Hermetic Space:Antinous.


In his early, but fascinatingly complex poem Il Penseroso, Milton’s persona views Divine Melancholy. She is not the dark spirit commonly described by writers on the four humours, but a humanistic conception, a medial divinity (like the Holy Ghost) who lifts the individual, in an intellectual frenzy, towards God. As Melancholia appears, Milton writes:

Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes:
There held in holy passion still,
Forget thyself to marble…
(ll.40-42).

Echoing Browne, Chapman, Tomkins, and Shakespeare, Milton outdoes them all with a conceit whereby the divine soul is caught between active rapture and passive passion, and in a moment of stasis becomes “marble”, a monument enduring time. There is something of this hermetic mood in the current exhibition “Antinous: the face of the Antique” at the Henry Moore Institute. In a perfectly white and silent space (two galleries and one alcove), a visitor is faced with images that are divinely melancholic. They express the rapture that Hadrian felt for his beloved Antinous. Heads of shimmering Luna marble demand that they be read as expressions of the passion between a mid-forty year old Emperor and a late teenage man. Their beauty—enhanced by the pure and sealed space in which they appear—are memorials to loss and go beyond it towards Beauty. Before his mysterious drowning in the Nile, Antinous became a type for Roman and Greek ideals of beauty, then faded from memory. Wilde, in precious prose, could speculate on Antinous whilst dreaming of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but in fact, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and the mythologizing tradition did not know of Antinous. Encountering the beautiful images of Antinous, still fresh and new, today, says something about the direction which Hermeticism has taken. Kathleen Raine, in an early editorial for Temenos, a journal devoted to the Spirit and the Arts, argued that a New Age drawn towards magic and mysticism without any real appreciation of Imagination and its education through artistic traditions inevitably goes down a wrong spiritual path. And how right her statement seemed to be when looking at an image of Antinous in the Henry Moore Institute whilst simultaneously being aware of New Age nonsense which believes that Antinous is secretly Anti-Nous, an astrological mantra expressing the gay generative sexual force. Hermeticism has always been about Imagination and an ability to feel and connect to the cosmos: the mystery of the image in mind and in nature and in language. It is about imaginative encounters, not dull de-coding and en-coding and the engendering of abstruse axioms. The beautiful head of Antinous as Egyptian God, in this exhibition, exists to rebuke an Age which believes that badly written mystical poetry and ritual babelism will save the human spirit.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The alchemy of "race".

Rights and Riots are appearing frequently in the UK media. Probably—somewhere in the media’s mind—this comes about as a response to the London bombings and a continuing fear of social insurrection. In a short space of time, there have been programmes on the Bradford Race Riots (2001), the Soweto Riots (1976) and the Notting Hill Riots (1976). Most interestingly, there also has been Jack Straw and Condoleeza Rice discussing the Civil Rights Movement in America and drawing a parallel between Blackburn and Alabama. Both places, apparently, had to re-build a social-structure based on slavery. BLACKburn was almost created as the UK’s welcome to the USA. One word that struck oddly in this political discussion was “transformation”, as if some magical event had taken place in the USA and the UK. A description that is unnervingly close to another song that is still being sung: the “alchemy” of race.
“Alchemy” is used quite freely as a metaphor, but its usage sits very uncomfortably in the context of race (and racism). More than anyone, C.G.Jung has drawn attention to alchemy as a psychological process. The Collective Unconscious has become a commonplace and the archetypes are no strangers to public consciousness. But there seems to be little questioning of how these archetypes are drawn. In the mainstream, the archetypes are visualised through their classical forms. They are whitened. Though the origins of alchemy are supposedly deep in Africa and the word itself translates as “(of) the Black Lands” alchemy is not exactly friendly towards blackness. Much of what is known about this art-science is passed on through the writings of the white imagination and Jung, himself, as a white patriarch, isn’t a neutral observer.
A reading of Jung’s Die Psychologie der Uebertragung (1946), described by Jung as the crux of alchemy and psychotherapy, shows this position. By 1946, Jung’s political positioning had changed: he had severed any links with Nazism (and its Wotan-archetype?) and become a psychological advisor to the Allies. But his “uncritical” depicting of alchemy, I would suggest, looks today more like Riefenstahl’s photographs of the Nuba. This is not to imply that Jung held any Nazi sympathies. But just as a Nazi propagandist (fully aware of her country’s racial hatred towards the Black “race”) could turn into an admirer of an African tribe and be unaware of her racial fetishism, so Jung leaves the Nigredo of alchemy unquestioned: it is emulated, like Riefenstahl’s Nuba men, whilst the negative primitivism surrounding it goes unnoticed. In his work on the transformation phenomenon, Jung refers to the Nigredo/Blackness as the Unconscious, the Shadow, the Black Sun, the Black Shade, uncleanliness, sin and the spiritual pole to the Whiteness/Albedo. All of these terms assemble in the alchemist’s image of the Ethiopian, the Moor, the Black Man who needs to be washed clean. Surely, this archetype is a product of the White, European, Patriarchal, Capitalist, Colonial-minded imagination, something that betrays the interpreters of alchemy. It is hard to imagine how such a destructive image could be a worthwhile structuring principle for an individual from Africa or of African descent. The alchemy of race? Not with a racist alchemy!

Monday, June 12, 2006

"The Double" by Jared French.

















"The Double" by Jared French: is its imagery racist?
Jared French was born in New York, 1905. Like many artists who followed European thought, he left the USA and died, in seclusion, in Rome, 1988. French was fascinated by mystery, but moved beyond Magical Realism into a world view that accepted Jungian trains of thought and mythology. Part of the mystery, in French’s work, comes from realism (quality figure drawing) and the surreal. “The Double” c1950 shows this exactly.

“The Double” operates like a piece of music without a key signature…only at the end of the piece, in the Black figure, does the key become clear.

Seemingly, “The Double” begins in its background. From an industrial background a Victorian matriarch emerges. Dressed in black, with a blood red wreath and crowned with a phallic feather, she stands (literally in the painting) for the linking of Eros and Thanatos, sex and death. She carries a shadowy parasol, but its relevance is not clear as yet. (The 8 pointed parasol points to arachnida and spider webs-- the matriarch is envisaged as a Black Widow, a women in Victorian mourning with the ability to poison male lovers). Out of the grave, a White male rises. As Grimes rightly observes, this is a resurrection scenario. If the oppressive matriarch represents how cultural deathliness drives generations on—a forward backwardness—so the transfigured youth, born out of death into life, seems to stand for life coming from the dark/deathly subconscious. The third youthful male (some critics see the figure as female, though this makes no real sense in a painting about Oedipal conflict and son-mother bonding) beckons towards the rising figure, as if the figure is a projection of his nature. Dressed in green and red, full of bloody innocence, this figure kneels. He is alive to the vision, but unable to fully participate. He is swaddled in clothes, at once entranced but bound up, quite simply: over-protected. French’s final figure is a physical Black male. For French, this figure represents solar consciousness. He is a medial figure, neither entirely clothed nor entirely naked. His nature “sits on the fence” between the conscious and the sub-conscious. The vigorous Black male is not shaded from the sun. French is responding to the lumination of black skin (almost as a fetishist) and seeing the Black male as a figure entirely possessed by consciousness. This stands in opposition to the White resurrection figure whose paleness comes from a dark subconscious life without solar consciousness. The Black figure allows a re-reading now of the other two figures. The sallow young man’s hat shows a life screened off from consciousness. The black parasol of the elderly female reveals that she is a symbol which shuns consciousness: she is not the life-giving Anima, but a death force that merely gives animation.

“The Double” is a mystery that uses the Black male figure as its key. It works through an unsettling mythology, however, which reflects the psychology of race in the 1950s. The White male is the cultured self, full of inner life, too much so, and is overwhelmed consequently by sub-conscious drives from the past. The Black male is the natural self, without an inner life, and is a being therefore grounded in consciousness and the present. French does not allow his symbolism to resort to Primitivism and its deification of the Black male. He rather keeps the Black male at a distance, on the edge of his canvas and thought, as a convenient symbol. By taking up the racist imagery within Jungian/alchemical thought, French has created his own mythology, a mythology that creates a startling mystery and an unsettling revelation.