Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Death of Genius and Mystic
John Moriarty 1938-2007
One of the greatest speakers and one of the greatest persons to walk lightly on this earth that I have ever met must surely be John Moriarty who died recently. One could hardly meet in a long lifetime a more integrated, passionate and compassionate human being. I count it a blessing to have attended some of his lectures back in the mid to late nineties of the last century. To be in John’s presence was like walking in the refreshing breezes of a mountainside or like smelling the turf on a day out in any Irish bog. To hear him speak was to be bowled over by the beauty, strength and depth of his appropriate words. In a second one knew one was in the presence of a great person, a great being and a great mystic. One imagined that Buddha or Christ or Confucius or Gandhi or any of the great spiritual leaders was speaking to you. John shook his listeners to their foundations. There was always a silence or a hush after John had come to an end of his discourse – we were all transfixed. No questions needed to be asked because one left his presence with one’s own questions deepened and sharpened, knowing that only you the listener could do this deepening and sharpening yourself in the quiet corners of your own soul.
Paul Durcan, the Ireland Professor of Poetry, had this to say when reviewing one of John’s last books, Invoking Ireland, (Lilliput Press, 2005) (Paul was a contemporary of John’s at U.C.D., Earlsfort Terrace in the late fifties of the last century): “In UCD around 1960, if O'Reilly was our film-star football idol, Moriarty was our unique conjunction in the one personality of Wallace Stevens, Heraclitus and Isaiah Berlin. When he was awarded a double-first in philosophy and logic, no one passed any comment, for not to have awarded him it would have been as absurd as not to award John Keats the Nobel Prize.” To listen to John, or to attempt to read any of his books, one realizes one is in the presence of a genius and guru, two words that truly go together where John was concerned. One would have to agree heartily with Durcan when he went on, in that same review-cum-encomium that, at least in Ireland, “Moriarty is the original, radical, non-conformist questioner.”
John, needless to say, was anything but conventional; to be such would have been to have sold his soul to the devil, to have compromised his very being. John’s way of being in the world was uniquely his, was totally uncompromisingly John – call it by all those terms that are doing the rounds these days: “authenticity,” “congruence”, “integrity” or “being true to self.” John was such and more. His writing is at once profound and disturbing, calling on us to question our prejudices, our shallow convictions and our easy acceptance of convention. He has published seven or so books drawing liberally upon the legends of Ireland, classical Greece, American Indians, Australian Aborigines, Ancient Egypt, Islam, Asia and the Christian Gospels to try and articulate the inner-most mysteries of human consciousness.
Also he is well acquainted with the best insights of modern science. Anything but a reactionary, which would have been anathema to both his fine mind and his sensitive instincts, he sought rather a melding of both, or more correctly and deeper again a compounding of both which could often antagonize both the hyper-religious and the reductionist-scientist among his audience or his readers. Such is the way of all geniuses – they have a habit of taking us beyond our frontiers. John was always a frontiers man. He would be the one asking us to go further into the wilderness, to climb the next hill, to cross the next river, to view the next valley. However, we are those poor weak souls who prefer to settle in our comfortable houses, near the more pleasant and pleasing surroundings of the duller towns and cities.
It is not surprising that John disappeared for some years. It turned out that he had spent his life living out his philosophy, just as Wittgenstein had done before him. He had wandered the face of the earth, working as a gardener mostly. “He had spent most of this time sleeping rough, walking, walking, walking where most of us would not dare to walk even for one day, not least those of us who would call ourselves environmentalists or cultural historians or artists.” (Paul Durcan again)
This brings me back to my own experience of John. I bought a good many of his books and tapes in the nineties. His books are brilliant and enlightening, but in many senses frustrating because they require so much from the reader. One needs experience of life to read John’s books. A philosophical education just is not enough. One needs to be a bit of a mystic oneself to some extent, or at least be open to the wonderful if frightening world of the great unconscious within us all if not to the spark of the divine. But his tapes are wonderful. His voice is moving, passionate and compassionate. You are transfixed. He remains the best speaker I have ever had the privilege to listen to. He remains the best crafter of appropriate words I have ever been privileged to read. More than anything, John connects with you, the reader or listener, immediately like the ancient storyteller of the Gaelic tradition.
Before typing these ciphers, forming these words, shaping these thoughts I had to go into my attic to find some old tapes of John. I played two of them. I was yet again transfixed, carried back to those lecture halls, to Dreamtime (Lilliput, 1994) the first book I read by him. Immediately John connected with me again. I loved and love his take on the word “love” which he says is redundant and meaningless in today’s world, cheapened out of existence by superficial and greedy advertising. John preferred the words “passion” and “compassion” to the now empty word “love.” This I think is brilliant. Like T.S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas or indeed the wonderful Randall Jarrell (all of whom I love listening to) to listen to these great human beings is to be enthralled, transfixed and transformed. To listen to John is to be shaken to the very foundations, but also to glimpse the valley from the mountain top.
John recounts on one of the tapes how that when he was 17 in 1955 he read Darwin’s Origin of Species under the covers by torchlight. With this reading he tells us: “My world died, my cosmology died, my religion died.” John ceased to be a member of the Catholic Church after this, but tells us that he kept culturally and spiritually in touch with real Christianity through art. Because European art and culture could no longer comfort him he told Andy O’Mahony that after he graduated he went on “a walk-about through cultures” to nourish his soul. He had felt that that European Christianity had not really grown up. He was affronted by a Church that could burn Bruno at the stake or could call Galileo’s marvellous telescope “the devil’s tube.” Moriarty said in that interview that Christianity could still be a great religion if it could “go on the modern voyage with the likes of Darwin and Einstein.” True mystic that Moriarty was he took the scientific revolution seriously. What philosopher with a double first in Philosophy and Logic could possibly not have done so? True mystic that he was, he was to outline a mysticism and a mythology that could take both science and spirituality, and later in his life The Triduum Sacrum of Jesus Christ as experience rather than theology as all part of one whole in the journey of humanity.
He goes on in this interview with O’Mahony to point out that “human intelligence is not enough. Behavioural psychology is not enough. I can’t heal myself. I need healing from outside the system that I am.” (My transcription, there may be some words left out.) This is where spirituality or grace or God comes in – these words are all interchangeable in a way, I think. This last sentence is my take on this, not John’s.
I agree with Moriarty where he said that the Church has never faced up to the new Copernican Revolution. I agree with him when he said so poetically and so passionately in that interview that the Church had never taken seriously Kepler’s horror at, Pascal’s terror of, Coleridge’s dejection by or Matthew Arnold’s recoiling from the sheer terrifying expanse of the universe.
Other little gems I have learned from John. He used say that we had all build “Berlin Walls around ourselves to keep other people out.” This was long before the Berlin Wall came down. He also went on to say that we also built “A wall of cultural immunity around us”. He said this again long before we have had the present flood of immigrants into our country. John always said that we must break down these walls of separation from others. He also said that most of us built up our own “wall of psychological immunity” to keep other human beings out. Shades of Sartre’s famous, “Hell is other people!”
It is in this sense that he said that both passion and compassion are the ultimate experiences we must seek because they break down all these walls of separation. In like fashion to say to someone you love, “How are you?” and to say it compassionately and wait for the answer is much more powerful than to say, “I love you!” The greatest discovery for John and for all of us is the discovery of another human being; the discovery of the sacred otherness of the other person. This I feel is John’s great legacy to us.
In all of the above I have not done justice to this great scholar and mystic. I have merely scratched the surface, but I offer what I have written as a token of my passion and compassion for all the things John helped teach me to love.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal dílis. Leaba i measc na Naomh go raibh aige. Go mairfidh a scribhinní go deo i measc iad siúd a chreideann ina fhís uasal ionspioráideach.