Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Travelling in the Land of the Sublime

Let us start with a definition.  Something that is sublime can be astoundingly beautiful or grand, or in another meaning it can be something that is outstanding or extreme.  My dictionary gives a third meaning viz., something of the highest moral or spiritual worth, in short something exalted.  Of the three definitions, it's the second one that grabs me as it, to my mind at least, can be grasped by all tourists in this world.  Something outstanding or extreme.  Well, let's take going on a trip to either the Arctic or Antarctic regions; climbing up the side of a volcano - one can make such trips up Vesuvius and Etna under the watchful eye of skilled guides; climbing any mountain at all give me personally a feeling of awe before the sublime; more obviously visiting the great waterfalls of the world - Niagara Falls or the Victoria Falls.  There are, needless to say, many other sublime places to go than the ones I have mentioned here.  Today people seem to like extremes - I have even met some people who say they love extreme sports.  Why I have gone with this particular meaning is because something that is astoundingly beautiful or grand may be more subjective.  What is astounding beauty anyway?  Something astoundingly grand or big we can get our heads around alright, but the first part of this definition is still rather too vague and subjective.  Yes, today, we know extremes when we meet them, whether in weather or in people.  So much by way of introduction.  Now let me return to my last entry on De Botton's travel book.

For his journey into the sublime De Botton travels to the Sinai Desert and he brings with him the works of two great figures from literature and the Bible respectively, namely Edmund Burke and Job.  Our author begins by quoting Pascal and how small he felt in comparison with the huge extent of infinite space, and then tells us that he set out to visit Sinai "in order to be made to feel small".  Hence immediately we are being led into a feeling of awe for the sublime, and hence my beginning with an appropriate definition of our word.

De Botton quotes Burke because he had disabused the common mind of the confusion of beauty with sublime.  For him they were not interchangeable words at all.  Sublimity, he said, had to do with a feeling of weakness before the strength and power of nature.  No meadow or patch of ground suffused in sun or bunch of daffodils could excite the feeling of sublimity; it would of course create a feeling of beauty in the onlooker. 

Then the question arises as to why we should seek the sublime?  Why should we want to have this experience of feeling weak and powerless and small?  De Botton informs us that Sinai gives way to "a featureless, baking gravel pan described by the Bedouins as 'El Tih', or the desert of the Wandering." (Op.cit., 161) and then, to my mind at least gives an insight into how the imaginative idea of a god or of God (my words here) might have arisen historically:

Because what is mightier than man has traditionally been called God; it does not seem unusual to start thinking of a deity in the Sinai.  The mountains and valleys spontaneously suggest that the planet was built by something other than our own hands, than a force greater than we could gather, long before we were born... (Ibid., 169)

And so the deity or God becomes associated with vast open spaces or sheer sublime encounters.  At this juncture De Botton begins to ponder the question of innocent suffering or evil in the world, a topic I have discussed many times in these pages so I won't delay on that particular topic here, except to point out that the author of the Biblical book of Job has God answer from the heights and depths of the planet - mountains and oceans - so that Job may experience his smallness and insignificance before the might and power of a God who created all.  De Botton becomes almost a little preachy here, but we forgive him because he enraptures us with the beauty of his prose and his passion for his ideas:

If we spend time in them [the vast spaces of nature], they may help us to accept more graciously the great unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust. (Ibid., 179)

Then our author brings us to Provence and, needless to say, his guide this time is the magnificent artist Vincent van Gogh.  This chapter was exceedingly moving and I was quite enraptured by it.  De Botton calls this experience that of eye opening art.  Artists teach us to renew or senses because they teach us to see the world anew; to see the smallest and most insignificant things in a new light.  They teach us to see small details which we miss; even big details which we overlook because we are so blind to beauty in our workaday world - so caught up as we are in our own little private worlds.  That's one of the functions of art, to my mind at least, to call us out from our own little private worlds and to engage with beauty (even sublimity when captured) beyond the walls of our small selves.  Here's an interesting fact about Van Gogh: for fifteen months up until May 1889 the artist produced approximately 200 paintings, 100 drawings and 200 letters - a period generally agreed to have been his greatest.  He had read voraciously the French authors Balzac, Flaubert, Zola and Maupassant and these writers opened his eyes to psychology and to society in general.  They had taught him to see in a certain way.  Now he was to teach the world to see the world anew from his own unique artist's perspective.

I am always quoting that no two people see the same thing in exactly the same way.  There are as many takes on the world as there are people it.  I also quote quite regularly the fact that we see the world not as it is but rather as we are.  We all bring our own optic to our own way of seeing.  How can we see except with our own eye?  Van Gogh felt that he had trained his eye to see what was essential to reality that many of the realists before him had omitted.  An artist must, as it were, choose to leave out this or that or to show this or that in his work :

Bad art might thus be defines as a series of bad choices about what to show and what to leave out.  And leaving the essential out was precisely Van Gogh's complaint against most of the artists who had painted southern France until his own day. (Ibid., 193)

This chapter is well worth reading many times over and I certainly have not grasped it all as I should wish.  I shall return to it later when I eventually get around to discussing aesthetics in these posts.

In the final chapters of this stimulating book De Botton travels to the London Docklands and revisits Madrid, Amsterdam and Barbados with the eye of a sketcher, this time in the company of John Ruskin, the famous Victorian art and literature critic.  What an exemplary guide Ruskin proves to be, too.  Ruskin believed, as he expressed it, that we can possess the beauty of places that we travel through.  Essentially we could do this by attempting to sketch what we see about us. De Botton reminds his viewers or readers that we should not at all be too concerned with how good or bad our sketches are.  Rather, what is important is that we teach ourselves how to look anew at things.  By sketching what we see in front of us, however badly or well, we train our eyes to see anew.  Ruskin often became distressed at how seldom people noticed details; at how people could walk through a whole market - he gives the example of Clare Market - and come out the other side not one bit wiser.  He used say to his students:  "Now, remember, gentlemen, that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see." (Quoted ibid., 222)  Again this chapter is worth revisiting as I feel I have not done it too much justice.

I shall finish discussing this book with the following aphorism which an old teacher of mine never failed repeating: "There are none so blind as those that fail to see."  Let us try to see things anew this coming year.

Happy New Year to any readers of this piece out there.  May you all see your lives anew and consequently be revivified.

Above I have uploaded a copy of Vincent Van Gogh's painting Night Café. I was stunned by the amount of paintings he created. He was fascinated with everything, especially the landscape with his unique powerful cypresses. Hence I thought something difference from his brush might awaken something else in me. Why not the night café?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dallying with De Botton

For today's post I'm still processing the insights I gained from Alain De Botton's wee book  The Art of Travel.  In chapter 5, suitably called "On The Country and the City" he tours The Lake District (Cumbria) in the company of the quintessential nature poet - Romantic poet - William Wordsworth (1770-1850).  I found this chapter least satisfying in this book, probably because in the last 25 years or so I have steadily gone off Wordsworth, whom I have progressively found far too sugary and saccharine for my delicate constitution.  Likewise, I found his life story singularly unriveting, probably because I became so interested in his partner in crime - Samuel Taylor Coleridge whom I found fascinating because of his unorthodoxy in all the areas of his life and a great poet as well.  Therefore, I am singularly biased and admit this prejudice before I start this contribution.

However, De Botton regales us with interesting facts.  Here's a hard fact on demography:  In 1700, 17% of the population of England and Wales lived in a town; in 1850 it was 50%, and by 1900, 75%.  These are important statistics because they represent that great migration from rural to urban setting that was the result of the great Industrial revolution.  Our two friends Wordsworth and Coleridge lived during the height of this migration.  They helped launch the Romantic Age in English literature with their wonderfully new and energetic 1798 joint publication, Lyrical Ballads.

During his journey De Botton immerses himself in reading Wordsworth's famous Prelude which is a semi-autobiographical poem of his early years which the poet revised and expanded a number of times. The work was posthumously titled and published, prior to which it was generally known as the poem "to Coleridge". Wordsworth would become England's Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850.  That Wordsworth was the quintessential nature poet goes without saying:

And almost every day, he went on a long walk in the mountains or along the lakeshores.  He was unbothered by the rain, which, as he admitted, tended to fall in The Lake District 'with a vigour and perseverance that may remind the disappointed traveller of those deluges of rain which fall along the Abyssinian mountains for the annual supply of the Nile.'  His acquaintance Thomas de Quincey estimated that Wordsworth had walked 175,000 to 180,000 miles in his life.  (De Botton, 134)

I envy Wordsworth his closeness to nature and indeed his marvellous fitness.  He felt the very pulse of the divine in nature that abounded about him.  He wrote about butterflies, cuckoos, skylarks, daisies, daffodils, celandines, cocks, hens, nightingales, hills, streams, clouds, birds eggs and so on and so forth.  Of these observed facts De Botton tells us that

They were not haphazard articulations of pleasure.  behind them lay a well developed philosophy of nature, which - infusing all of Wordsworth's work - made an original and, in the history of Western thought, hugely influential claim about our requirements for happiness and the origins of our unhappiness.  The poet proposed that Nature, which he took to comprise, among other elements, birds, streams, daffodils and sheep, was an indispensable corrective to the psychological damage inflicted by life in the city.  (Ibid., 136)

Critics saw this as rather puerile and 'namby-pamby' in the words of the great Lord Byron.  In other terms, sickeningly sentimental or schmaltzy or sugary or saccharine as I have said above.  However, Wordsworth did not despair of the critics as he believed far too much in mother nature.  I remember at college how we used to have discussions as to whether he was a pantheist, that is, a person who believed in nature as if it were God, or whether he might have been a panentheist, a believer in a God who revealed himself quintessentially in and through nature.  These questions were or are, to my mind now, stupid and silly questions that are rather meaningless.  It is enough for me now to know that this wonderful human being believed in the redemptive and healing powers of nature - almost at the modern self-help level to superimpose an anachronism, but I think the reader will catch my meaning.

After 1830 Wordsworth became virtually the guru of poetry and the lauder supreme of nature's wonderful gifts.  His new approach to poetry by writing in the language of the ordinary countryman and woman was definitely a hit with the populace.  In fact, in 1843 he was appointed Poet Laureate, because he was held universally in such high esteem.  By the time of the poet's death in 1850 (by which time as we've pointed out about, half of the population of England and Wales lived in big towns and cities.) serious opinion agreed with his suggestion that regular travel through nature was an antidote to the evils of the city.

I remember reading Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey several times at school and college.  It's a wonderful poem to reflect upon when considering the Wordsworthian creed or belief in the redemptive and healing power of nature.  I shan't quote it here, but I would like to advert to what De Botton calls the nearest Wordsworth came to giving voice to an academic account of his philosophy of Nature:

'A great Poet... ought to a certain degree to rectify men's feelings... to render their feelings more sane, pure and permanent, in short, more consonant with nature.'  (Quoted ibid., 148)

In every natural landscape, Wordsworth found instances of sanity, purity and permanence.  What he would make of the destruction wrought by earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes I don't know.  They did not enter his ken, alas.  His world was possibly, too Romantic, to admit of too much evil or evil of too great or deep or horrific a degree.

However, one thing is sure and that is that Wordsworth taught whole generations to see nature with new eyes, with new depths, with a new and renewing vision.

If his poems can be accused of being 'namby-pamby' and to insult the machismo of Lord Byron and many other critics since, to modern humankind they can prove to be a veritable force for good, for healing the heart and soul of modern humankind by opening our eyes to the healing and renovating powers of nature.  They can bring us to a depth often lacking in this often sadly too superficial world.  That there may be sugar on the surface of the pie in no way takes away from its sustenance for the soul if not the body.

Above I have uploaded one of the many portraits of William Wordsworth. Unfortunately I failed to find out its author.

The Curious Nose

I remember when I was a first year student in secondary school having a very young teacher for science who informed us that we should all develop "a curious nose."  Curiosity is one of the greatest motives in the pursuit of knowledge.  What naturalist or scientist has ever not been curious?  Curiosity stands to reason in that profession.  Likewise, any good teacher, writer or psychologist will likewise be curious.  Needless to say the good traveller, according to De Botton, will needs be curious.

And so our author begins chapter four, entitled "On Curiosity" with an account of a trip to Madrid with a book of the great scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt as a vade-me-cum.  Alexander von Humboldt ( 1769 – 1859) was a German naturalist and explorer whose quantitative work on botanical geography was foundational to the field of biogeography. Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt travelled to Latin America, exploring and describing it in a manner generally considered to be a modern scientific point of view for the first time.  As a consequence of these and other explorations, von Humboldt described many geographical features and species of life that were hitherto unknown to Europeans, and indeed many species of plant and animal life as well as geographical features were named after him.  To see a list of these hit the following link: AvH List.  De Botton comments on the achievements of this great genius thus:

In the summer of 1799, this 29 year old German set sail from the Spanish port of La Caruna...on a voyage of exploration of the South American continent... Humboldt was to be away from Europe for five years.  On his return, he settled in Paris and over the next twenty years published a thirty volume account of his travels...He transformed the state of knowledge and travelled 15,000 kilometres around the northern coastlines and interior (of South America) and, on the way, collected 1,600 plants and identified 600 new species.  He redrew the map of South America...and he gave the first account of the rubber and cinchona trees... (De Botton, 104-106)

This gives one just a taste of what he did, as he also achieved so much else.  Our friend Humboldt was a sort of Renaissance man.  Charles Darwin even learnt large swathes of his work by heart because it was so good.

While our scientist here was a great collector of facts and a really brilliant observer of nature, De Botton goes on to quote Nietzsche who had an interesting take on facts and items of knowledge.  On the one hands facts can be cold and clinical (my words) - what Nietzsche calls the academic facts of the explorer or scientist.  This he praises as somewhat more than worthwhile as it advances the knowledge of mankind.  However, he also pointed out that civilised humans likes their facts also to be 'life-enhancing.'  Here is what De Botton has to say with respect to this distinction:

[Nietzsche] distinguished between collecting facts like an explorer or academic and using already well-known facts for the sake of inner, psychological enrichment...  The real challenge was to use facts to enhance 'life.'  (Ibid., 112)

In the work of Nietzsche we find suggested a second kind of tourism to that of von Humboldt viz., a type of tourism by which we can learn how our own society and our own identity have been formed by the past.  In this way we can acquire a sense of belonging and a sense of continuity.  Our author stresses the fact that for the learned scientist and explorer the question had been, "Why are there regional variations in nature?"  Then for the traveller called Alain De Botton or any of us on our trip to Madrid, when standing, say, outside the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, the question might be, "Why have people felt the need to build churches?" or even, "Why do we worship God."  (See ibid., 124)

I'll finish this post with a quotation from von Humboldt himself nearing the end of his long life:

People often say that I'm curious about too many things at once: botany, astronomy, comparative anatomy.  But can you really forbid a man from harbouring a desire to know and embrace everything which surrounds him?  (Quoted ibid., 125)

This rhetorical question needs no answer - obviously!


To be continued.

Above I have placed a copy of a portrait of Humboldt when he was 37 years of age by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Monday, December 29, 2008

Learning to See the World Anew

Once again let me begin by saying that of all the positive benefits of meditation, perhaps the primary one is that of learning to become aware of everything that's going on around you at any particular time.  This post is a continuation of my last one and, like it, it is inspired by my reading of Alain de Botton's wonderful wee book on travel, viz., The Art of Travel (Penguin, 2003)

De Botton's book is essentially about awareness, about being awake to all that is going on around you.  He argues that we are, in fact, travelling all the time.  The implications of his thoughts are that we do not have to spend much money on our holidays at all - all we have to do is learn to see the world with new eyes; learn to hear the world with new ears; learn to feel the world with more attentive hands; learn to taste the world with more awakened taste buds and finally learn to smell the world with a new nose finely attuned to the myriads of smells and odours around us.  These last words are mine, of course, not his.  However, I think the reader of these comments will get my point. 

Chapters three and four which constitute section two of this book explore our motives for travel and deal with the exotic and curiosity.  De Botton brings the French novelist  Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880) and the German naturalist and explorerAlexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)with him for guides on the way to deal respectively with both topics.

The first of these two authors was quite Rabelaisian in tone.  As a boy of twelve, Flaubert's cherished wish, De Botton tells us, was to become a camel driver in Egypt and lose his virginity in a harem.  Needless to say, we are not surprised when we hear that the young Flaubert was often bored and that he contracted a wide variety of venereal diseases including syphilis during his lifetime.  He also fantasized (when he was only 15) about killing the mayor of Rouen where he was born and where lived most of his life.  Also, while reading Rabelais, he wanted to fart loudly enough so that all Rouen could hear.  The young Flaubert was to visit the following exotic places (1849-1850): he went on a long journey to the Middle East, visiting Greece and Egypt. In Beirut he contracted syphilis. He spent five weeks in Constantinople in 1850. After 1850, Flaubert lived in Croisset with occasional visits to Paris and England, where he had a mistress. He visited Carthage in 1858 to conduct research for one of his novels.  So, our man was well accustomed to travelling.  Writing back to his mother from Alexandria, he states with enthusiasm that he "gulped down a whole bellyful of colours, like a donkey filling himself with hay." (De Botton, 75)

Flaubert had been driven to rage in France  by the bourgeoisie which he saw as a repository of extreme prudery, snobbery, smugness, racism and pomposity.  No better man than Flaubert to disabuse these silly people of such vices.  He loved the sheer chaos, visual and auditory, of Alexandria, and De Botton regales us with some wonderful quotations from this author which shows his wonderful style - so practised in "le mot juste,"  a phrase we will always associate with our man. (see ibid., 78-100)  Flaubert despised order which he saw as a sort of Bourgeois imposition on the natural chaos of nature.  Some order, of course, was necessary but the prudish bourgeois went far too far.  Flaubert noted the pissing and shitting donkeys, even a gentleman pissing in the corner of a café in Alexandria.  I quite subscribe to this description of Flaubert's beliefs according to De Botton:

Central to Flaubert's philosophy was the belief that we are not simply spiritual creatures, but also pissing and shitting ones and that we should integrate the ramifications of this blunt idea into our view of the world: "I can't believe that our body, composed as it is of mud and shit and equipped with instincts lower than those of the pig or the crab-louse, contains anything pure and immaterial."... Which wasn't to say that we were without higher dimensions.  It was just that the prudery and self-righteousness of the age aroused in Flaubert a desire to remind others of mankind's impurities.  (Ibid., 87)

Flaubert, according to De Botton, rejoiced in life's duality, something I have been writing about for some time in these pages, though I have called that duality the tension of opposites or the polarity of opposites and how both are always intermixed in reality, that we are never, or even things are never, either totally one or the other.  Examples of duality according to both the author and the one he quotes are: shit-mind, death-life, sexuality-purity and madness-sanity.  I have also calls these polarities continua between two poles and that it's the movement backwards and forwards between the poles that is essentially the nature of reality as we experience it. (see ibid., 87)

I loved this wee insight into Flaubert's motives for writing: "I'm obsessed with inventing stories for people I come across." (Quoted ibid., 90).  Then De Botton gives a beautiful account in Flaubert's words of one of his most human of sexual encounters with an Egyptian woman. (see ibid., 93).  This man spent nine months in Egypt and began to wear local clothing and with his command of the Egyptian language was often mistaken for a native.  Indeed, Flaubert then is an excellent if not the quintessential traveller.  He, we are told never considered himself a Frenchman.  Rather he considered himself a creature of the world.  He even proposed a new way of ascribing nationality: not according to the country one was born in or to which one's family belonged, but according to the places to which one was attracted.  This reminds me of the well-known quip from Socrates, who when asked where he came from did not reply that he was from Athens but rather from the world.


To be continued.

Above I have uploaded a copy of the famous painting of Gustave Flaubert by Eugene Giraud.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Learning to Appreciate the Senses

I suppose if meditation does anything for me is that it helps me wake up to my senses.  Commonly, we admit that there are five senses, but a friend who is a Occupational Therapist tells me that there are seven of them.  (OTs list some seven senses, adding the vestibular or balancing sense and the proprioceptive or kinaesthetic sense to the common list of five, though on some research I find, not too surprisingly, that there are also the sense of pain, the sense of temperature and certain other internal senses.)  However, here, for the purposes of this post, I refer to the common senses of hearing, seeing, smelling, touching and tasting.

Learning to See: 

How often have you travelled the same route to work and never really noticed this particular beautiful shop facade or that particular beautiful little park.  In other words, we block out a lot of things from our consciousness due to our taking care with our driving (a practice much to be advocated indeed if you use a car) or our daydreaming or our preoccupations with our cares and worries.  I remember an old teacher I once had always quoting the following quip: "None so blind as those who fail to see."  In other words there are a lot of things we fail to see.  In like manner with the other senses, too.  There are also a lot of things we fail to hear; that we fail to smell; that we fail to touch and indeed fail to taste.  And so meditation can awaken us from our self-preoccupation, from our "egocentric slumbers" if I may rewrite a famous phrase from Kant. (Kant had sad famously that the Scottish philosopher David Hume had awoken him his "dogmatic slumber" with his new emphasis on empiricism, that is testing the validity of everything through the senses.)

Who have taught us to see the world differently? So many indeed.  But once again, it is salutary to realise that there are as many ways of seeing the world as there are people in it.  However, the practical and pragmatic among us will realise that they all intersect at some very obviously and commonly accepted pictures of reality that we all accept - otherwise the workaday world would grind to a halt in chaos.  Be that as it may, we need some others to call us back to a deeper awareness of different levels of reality as it were.  I'm referring here to philosophers, writers, artists of all kinds, theologians, scientists of all varieties and visionaries in general who see the world through different optics as it were.

For the past few days I have been reading a lovely little book by Alain de Botton which one of my brothers bought me for Christmas, namely The Art of travel (Penguin, 2003).  I have read two or three of his other books already and have discussed them in these pages hitherto.  However, this is a travel book with a difference - one that teaches us to journey anew, to travel not to seek the rare and wonderful, but rather to travel by opening up all our senses, even if we only ever travelled 5Km down the road.  That reminds me of the well-known story, once again about Kant, namely that he had never travelled more than 40 miles outside Königsburg, yet from reading he had an extremely detailed knowledge of other places around the world, to the point that he could fool people who had visited some place into thinking that he had visited there too.

In my younger days I used travel more than I do now.  I remember travelling with many different friends, some of whom used drive me mad because they wanted to take in so much in this or that city.  They were often so rushed and so preoccupied that they failed to take in the little things around them.  This is what de Botton is about in this book, teaching himself to be very much an awakened traveller, one who is aware of all that is going on around him.  I've been to many cities and sure it's nice to take in the cathedrals, castles and churches and famous galleries and other public buildings, but I've often found that walking about, say in the Jardin du Luxembourg and then sitting and reading for an hour or two on a seat in that wonderful park is a very rich occupation indeed as one can learn much by looking about one, observing, watching the people go by, observing how people interact and how they smile and then meditatively closing one's eyes and breathing in the very breath of life.  Travelling is all about awareness, not about how much one sees - it is essentially about how one sees what one actually does end up seeing.

De Botton starts with that potent question, "Where should we travel?"  I suppose the Irish of the Celtic Tiger years, a phenomenon now just a rotting carcass, would have been travellers to the fashionable lands of the sun.  Perhaps many of them travelled because it was trendy and fashionable to do so, to sport a tan and to visit places only those with money could.  Again a poor reason to travel.  Our author argues, instead, that we should journey for one reason only - that is, in search of happiness.  I'd rewrite that myself by saying that we should travel in search of self and that the destination does not matter at all.  What really matters is how we make the journey, how open we are to all the life has to offer around us.

De Botton brings a novel called A Rebours by J-K Huysmans as his guide for the first part of this little book.  The effete and misanthropic hero of this novel is an aristocrat called le Duc des Esseintes who really feared travelling and all the discomfiture he'd have to put up with.  For the Duke reality must always have been disappointing.  This impossible hero remained in his villa and surrounded himself with a series of objects which facilitated the finest aspect of travel namely its anticipation. He had the itineraries of the major shipping companies  framed on his bedroom walls and even had an aquarium filled with seaweed to give him the sense of travelling by sea.  As our author says, "Des Esseintes concluded, in Huysmans's words, that 'the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience.' " (The Art of Travel, 27) 

In the section called "On Travelling Places" De Botton brings the French poet Charles Baudelaire(1821 - 1867) and the wonderful American artist Edward Hopper (1882 –1967) along as guides.  He writes about such an unlikely place as the service station and the more likely ones of airport, plane and train. Our author tells us that Baudelaire represents a new poetry of transience or a 'poésie des départs, or a poésie des salles d'attente.' (Ibid., 35 where De Botton is here quoting T.S. Eliot).  In this section our author turns to one of my favourite themes, mentioned many times in these posts, namely, our very smallness and insignificance in the scheme of things.  Another good lesson taught us by travelling:

And to think that all along, hidden from our sight, our lives were this small: the world we live in but almost never see; the way we must appear to the hawk and to the gods.  (Ibid., 41)

Then our author covers the themes of loneliness, solitude and even alienation in travelling and how this, then, is seen in the works of Baudelaire and Hopper respectively.

(De Botton has introduced me to the work of Hopper whom I'm reading up on and I'm looking at as many representations there are of his paintings on the web.  For this gift I am extremely thankful)


To be continued

Above "Automat" by Edward Hopper, 1927.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Time: The Greatest of Mysteries

I suppose this is an ageless question that has baffled humankind since the very dawn of consciousness, and indeed it has exercised the greatest minds human civilization has thrown up from St Augustine of Hippo to Einstein.  Yet no proffered reason has ever satisfied us.  Living as we do in a world of real chaos and chance unto which we humans have shaped as much order as we can startling accidents befall us humans about which we can do absolutely nothing.  And then, and then, yes, time marches inexorably onwards.  Will time ever conclude?  Indeed, when did it begin?  These are possibly stupid questions.  Are they worth pondering at all?  One might be wary of being wearied by a weight of metaphysical.  Any reader of these posts will know that I like quoting that venerable poet Robert Frost - I always picture him as the swarthy old man he became in his final years rather that the virile young man of his earlier years - and especially his quip by way of riposte to the question as to what he had learned from his long life, viz., "It goes on."  That about sums up the very nature of time for this writer of these words.  Time passes and marches ever onwards.  Again, I'm reminded also of that sage proverb we have in English - "Time and tide wait for no man."  Essentially we have the same sentiments here.

One of my favourite modern philosophers, who is both a scholar as well as being a marvellously clear popularizer, is A.C. Grayling whose website one can consult by hitting this link here: ACG.  Just read this wonderful reflection or meditation on time and you will get a flavour of his wonderful insight into matters important and profound:

The first mystery of time, then, is how little of it anyone has.  The second is how unimaginably vast time seems on either side of the mere moments humans manage to occupy.  If the universe's history were compressed into an hour, the time that humankind has existed would barely fit into the last fractions of a split second of that hour.  If humanity succeeds in extinguishing itself through ecological disaster or nuclear war, the spark of intelligent life that flared in this corner of the cosmos would be scarcely noticeable between the massive weights of time that stretched before and after it.  (The Form of Things: Essays on Life, Ideas and Liberty in the 21st Century,  London, 2006, 35)

In my own mind several memories and thoughts are tumbling around at the moment.  Indeed there are both thoughts and images in my mind at this moment.  Let me share them with you.  Firstly I have a picture of Marilyn Monroe in my mind, that famous one of her singing in her childlike voice "Happy Birthday" to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Then I also have that picture of her lying on her bed having taken an overdose of sleepers to end her life at the early age of 36, side by side with that of J.F.K. with his brains blown out over the trunk of his famous white Lincoln car.  Then there are pictures in my mind of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon and so on and all.  All of these men, bar Gandhi, were so young and died so tragically.  Let me now call your mind back to some sentences in my opening paragraph:- Living as we do in a world of real chaos and chance unto which we humans have shaped as much order as we can startling accidents befall us humans about which we can do absolutely nothing.  And then, and then, yes, time marches inexorably onwards

And there are other images to - that of the great Elvis Presley, swollen beyond recognition from years of heavy drug abuse, lying on the slab dead at an early age.  There were many others, too, who died quite tragically like the great Buddy Holly (23), Jim Reeves (43), Patsy Cline (31), Jim Croce (30), Tim Buckley (27), Jeff Buckley (30) and our very own Mic Christopher (32).

Of course, there are more personal pictures rolling around my mind like those of family members, friends and past pupils who died all to young.  The greatest lesson any of us can learn is that of our own mortality.  Hence all the world's greatest religions and major philosophies try to answer the questions thrown up by humanity, its creativity, its destructiveness and its mortality.  Buddhism, to my mind, comes closest to offering an answer in that it provides us with a way of looking at life from a stance of equanimity or from a still point in observing the breath of life right up until its extinction.  It's the essentially practical psychology of living that Buddhism offers that appeals to me, one little individual among its myriad of followers and practitioners.

I have forgotten what writer said that the goal of all good literature is to teach us to die.  Well, I suppose that is the goal of all religions as well.  Real wisdom is to accept what we cannot understand with as much grace as possible, and continue on with our lives.  We must learn not to live tied down by guilt or regret for any of our past misdoings or failures to do.  We must learn to live not tied down by dependence on those gone before us on the path to the world of shadows and death.  We must learn not to live tied down with unrealistic hopes and dreams for the future or, even worse fears about our future.  Let us live with courage to see our very own journey out to the last moment allowed us on this earth, until the train of life stops at our final destination.

As I started this post by alluding to and quoting from A.C. Grayling I'll let his words finish this short Christmastide post:

Some people use their energy to live many lifetimes in one lifetime.  Others, through timidity or lack of imagination, use up a whole lifetime living less than one lifetime.  These latter in effect, eat their soup with a fork; they walk about with eyes shut, fingers in their ears, cotton-wool in their noses.  Not for them the vivid, pungent sensations of living along their pulses, experiencing everything at its best... The injunction to live life to the full might phrased: live all the lifetimes you can.  (Ibid., 36-37)

That's it for tonight my friends.  It's almost 3.00 A.M. and I must away to bed.  I resolve, here and now, to eat my soup with a big soup spoon and certainly, unlike T.S. Eliot's Prufrock, I shall refrain from "measuring out my life with coffee spoons."

Above I have pasted a picture of the late great Mic Christopher, a picture in the public domain.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


And so this is Christmas Day - yet again.  I sit here at my blank computer screen and try to entice various words to take shape before my eyes.  I am tired and sleepy, though I have slept a lot.  Being too busy at work and the new medication I'm on are both conspiring to make me very sleepy.  Even when I try my usual mediation practices I seem to doze.  Anyway, that's the truth of it.  I slightly envy those who need little sleep and can function so well without much of it.  In this silence, only broken my the hum of my computer's fan, I sit and let the acceptance of things as they are for me settle gently in my mind and heart.

Christmas is a time essentially for being with family.  Within its bosom we refresh ourselves, recharge our batteries, take stock, renew the family bond, talk about old times, make plans, share hopes and sorrows and also within its caring bosom we can be healed once again before the start of another hectic New Year.

It is wonderful just to have the luxury to sit her on my own, in my own quiet space and let all my worries and perturbations settle down.  Come to think about it, luckily I do not have very great worries at all, thankfully, but I suppose, like everyone else, I do have pressing concerns.  All these concerns I am happy to let go of now for the next several days over the Christmastide.

As I sit and try to put my personal jigsaw puzzle together, as I try to make some shape of who and where I am this 25th of December 2008 several things come to my mind:  I remember a young boy sitting happily alone in the back lane behind our house in Railway View, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary.  I could have been no more than two or possibly three years of age.  I was alone and contented and was playing with a small toy lorry upon the trailer of which I was placing ice pop bags filled with sand.  Little did that child know that roll on some fifty or so years that he'd be sitting typing these thoughts.  Yet I remember other not so happy memories from way back then like nearly being run over by a Bacon Factory truck when I had run out on the road.  I can still hear the screech of breaks and can feel the palpitations in my chest.  Or the lonely feeling of seeing the end carriage of the Dublin train pull out of the Roscrea station bringing my Dad back to Dublin.  What child can make sense of his experiences or of his feelings.  For him feelings only come and go like the waves of the sea.  It's more the likely the same reality for us grown adults.  Feelings are just that - mere temporary visitors to the human heart.  In meditation we try to get under all those temporary feelings and arrive at some base point, some still point from which we can view the world with an easy equanimity.  That's what I'm trying to do now in this short meditative piece.

And yes there are so many other pieces to my personal jigsaw - transition to Dublin, junior and senior school primary and then secondary and then a sequence of colleges and work, all those different encounters I had with different people, the troubled and nod-so-troubled relationships, the degrees, the ceremonies etc etc - they have each and everyone of them added their little piece to the puzzle.  Things are taking shape only now and I am just eight or so days short of my 51st birthday.  My goodness, I can just about see pieces of the overall picture taking shape in this, that or the other corner of the puzzle.  I can sort of guess at the picture or intuit it.  That's about all.  What's in a life at all?  I am still left with Ger Smith's question from all those years ago in the staff room of my first ever real job as a teacher.  Ger had asked me "What's it all about?" and I replied "What's the what you're seeking to answer?" and he gave one word as the riposte "Life!"  Well, I was stumped needless to say.  I had never reckoned on Gerard's being a philosopher.  Some years later I realised all too well the provenance of his question - Poor Gerard had suffered from a congenital heart disease and had not told anyone of his colleagues.  He died in America some years later at a very young age.  His disease had made him question the shape or the picture in his very own individual jigsaw puzzle.

It's up to everyone of us to piece our own individual puzzle together.  Only I can do my puzzle, only you yours.  Okay, people come in and out of our world as we grow older, as we travel whatever our individual path in life is.  Each of them gives us a very small piece of the puzzle.  Okay, a spouse or partner will offer rather more pieces than casual acquaintances, but even they cannot do our puzzle for us.  I had not intended writing this particular piece of writing.  All I knew when I sat down was that I really wanted to write a reflective piece for Christmas Day and this is what has offered itself to me.  Today's image or metaphor is that of the jigsaw.  It could well have been that of journey.  I'm glad it's not the latter because I have overused that metaphor to such an extent that it's almost a cliché for me now.

On my shelves there is a brilliant book by Sogyal Rinpoche, namely  The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.  It is a masterpiece.  I dip in and out of this book as I meditate.  To live is to die, or more correctly to live is to learn to die.  I have mentioned this fact so many times in these pages heretofore.  Each time we sit down in silence we are learning to let go; learning to get to that still point of being; learning to be the Witness of our very own lives; learning to observe our breath in a dispassionate, objective way; learning to be still and calm; learning to go with life gently as it leads us inexorably forward in years; learning to listen to our own inner wisdom; learning to let go of the ego; learning to let love and compassion fall gently like the rains in spring or the snows in winter; learning to forgive the self as well as others; learning to age with dignity; learning to accept all our weaknesses; learning to let go of our youth; learning to welcome ageing and old age into our lives; in short learning to live and in learning to live learning to die.

And the silence falls gently on my soul as I type these few words.  The silence falls like a gentle spring rain or a gentle blanket of winter snow.  The silence falls and brings healing tears to my eyes to wash my tiredness away.  The silence falls with the Christ Child or with the great Buddha Shakyamuni himself.  It is the silence that embraces all and every mythology - even science, because in a special way that is a mythology, too.  I have no predilection for any religion.  I love the best in them all.  The silence that falls here now as I type these words is essentially a broad ecumenical silence that takes the best and purest message from all the great world religions and even from none.  It is a silence that is at ease with agnostics, sceptics and atheists.  It is a silence that acknowledges the good in all well-thinking and good human beings who wish for the brotherhood and sisterhood of all the human beings on this earth.  It is a silence, too, that embraces the environment, great Mother Earth or Gaia herself.  It is the silence of our very own blue planet so alone in the silent universe.

Above I have placed a picture I took of the solitude I experienced at the fountain in Nicastro, Calabria. I sat there sheltering from the early afternoon heat reading and writing, August 2007.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

All Those Mixed-Up Emotions

Nothing is ever really chemically pure, is it?  All elements seem to exist in combinations - in mixtures or in compounds or in stronger alloys etc.  Likewise in the human world, especially with our emotions, there is no pure love on the one hand, or pure hate on the other.  They always seem to exist in some particular combination - varying percentages of one or the other. I have always quite liked the quotation I learned from the ancient Greek lesbian poet Sappho who hailed from from island of Lesbos: "I am a bitter-sweet creature."   (Because of this association, the island, and especially the town of Eresos, her birthplace, are visited frequently by female homosexual tourists.)  In this quotation, I feel, Sappho summed up the angst and pain of life. Her birth, it is said, was some time between 630 BC and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC. Enough history.  Back to that sense of being a "bitter-sweet creature."  For a poet from antiquity she certainly has a modern existential ring to her insight into emotions.

These thoughts were inspired by listening to Jeff Buckley this afternoon as I worked away on my PC.  I played his version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah maybe five or six times on my iTunes player.  Then I went in search of any videos of Buckley's rendition of this number on YouTube and was rewarded with a superb video that can be accessed here: Jeff Buckley.  I played this again several times and was really touched by such a superb rendition of this song.  Then, if I had not got enough of this great song, I listened a few times to Leonard Cohen's own version of the same song.  Oftentimes I can bear the continued repetition of brilliant songs.  Brilliant songs to my mind capture something of the complexity of our lives, something of the impurity of our emotions and something of the intricate interweaving of good and evil, joy and happiness, black and white, good and bad, life and death and so on and so forth.  It becomes clearer and clearer to me as I grow older that all polar opposites exist in a sort of tension and that between them there is a continuum.  For instance, consider the polar opposite pair Black and White and eventually you will have to admit that there are hundreds of shades of gray in between them.  The same to my mind can be said of Good and Evil, Happy and Sad, Homosexual and Heterosexual or any other possible pair of opposites.  We all exist somewhere on that continuum, I feel, with shades of both extremes within us to a greater or lesser degree.

Hallelujah is one of those infinitely ponderable songs from the pen of Leonard Cohen, masterful lyricist and brilliant poet who knows so much about paradox and complexity.  He may possess a clarity of expression in his lyrics, but we are always left pondering their many possible meanings, just as we are with life as we experience it, which is always a mystery to us.  As soon as we think we have summed it up or come to terms with it, it catches us unawares and brings us on a further roller-coaster ride to deeper depths and new meanings.

Leonard Cohen is a poet and writer of note as well as being a singer-songwriter.  His lyrics are capable of many layers of interpretation and should be allowed to be paradoxical and multi-referential, like all good poems.  Hallelujah makes reference to the story of David and Bathsheba, and possibly Samson and Delilah as well. The "secret chord" part is mysterious, I admit, but being a disciple of the wonder of existence, I am happy to let that "secret chord" remain secret and hence beyond literal meaning.   These are great lyrics and hence they could mean a lot of things.  Then there's the enigmatic allusion to the kitchen chair which works as a simultaneous reference to domesticity and also sexual bondage.  Let both meanings and references stay because Leonard Cohen can be freaky like that as can life now and again.
Leonard Cohen himself made the following remarks with respect to this song:
Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means "Glory to the Lord." The song explains that many kinds of Hallelujahs do exist. I say : "All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value ." It's, as I say, a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion....
It's a rather joyous song. I like very much the last verse. I remember singin' it to Bob Dylan after his last concert in Paris. The morning after, I was having coffee with him and we traded lyrics. Dylan especially liked this last verse, "And even though it all went wrong, I stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah."
  (See this link for this reference
Leonard explains)
Here he's not speaking of love as a joyous, chemically pure, victorious thing.  Rather he seems to feel that love as he experiences it is a type of bewildering torture.  Perhaps, he's suggesting that our love of another person can be just as puzzling, frustrating, and elusive as trying to understand God's love.  If you listen attentively to the song you will notice a transition from the more divine references to love in the earlier verses to the more broken human personal ones of the later verses.   The last three all move into more personal territory about his own love (where he starts using the first person).  Then again, perhaps Leonard Cohen was simply relating a sexual experience to a religious one.  Perhaps also the small personal additions and interpretations Jeff Buckley made to the words seem to be his own personal reply filled with much more angst than the original.

It's interesting to note that Cohen is always altering his texts.  He's said several times that he never believes a work is finished. I've heard him sing several versions of Bird on a Wire over the years and yet another one at his recent concert here in Dublin at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. That's a great thing about going to see Cohen live - you may well hear an old song made new again. It wouldn't surprise me that Hallelujah has evolved or will evolve too.

It is further very interesting to note from some little research on this song that many artists have done versions of this song.  This is surely a testament to its intrinsic and inherent brilliance.  There have been versions by John Cale, Rufus Wainwright, K.D. Lang and even our own Bono

Let me quote only the final verse here verse here as it is extremely powerful:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth,
I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
We are broken and imperfect.  We are limited and pathetic.  We live in an all too fragmented world of our own making.  We are losers as well as winners and oftentimes when we win we rub the noses of the losers in it.  Oftentimes when we lose we become embittered and ungrateful wretches.  Put all this in religious or metaphorical language and you get this rendition of these human sentiments - We are sinners.  We are unredeemed.  We are a sort of damned mass to quote Augustine through Luther and Calvin.  A lot of the time we humans get things so wrong, including our love or acts of love which will always fall short of perfection.  This is what Leonard Cohen is saying to us in this great song.  We are imperfect creatures striving to better ourselves.  Cohen is too much of a realist and too much of a Buddhist to ever believe that perfection exists. He is an enigmatic man and so are his lyrics.  After all he started out a Jew, became obsessed with Jesus Christ and ended up a Buddhist.  I got to admit I have a certain sympathy with him in his pursuit of meaning.  He strikes me as being an existentialist in the Kierkegaardian, Sartreian and Heideggerian senses of that word as I tried to elaborate in my own idiosyncratic way in my last post.  Nothing is perfect in this less than perfect world, but we will always try to improve our lot.  While we will never achieve perfection we can at least sing the praises of a greater meaning beyond us - for some this will be God, for others the heights of Humanity at its best or some other ideal. By way of a final, if sad note, I should like to suggest that perhaps the fact that Jeff Buckley died rather too young at 30 years of age in a tragic drowning accident, lends a certain note of pathos and depth to his songs.  Perhaps we are reading our own sadness at his early demise into his renditions.  If this tragedy were not enough, Jeff's father, Tim Buckley, also a great singer and musician, died at an equally young age of 27 from an overdose of heroin.  However, their voices live on as does their great creative work.

Listening to Cohen, Buckley and the many other artists that we are all lucky to hear, is a way of healing our brokenness, a way of integrating some of the fragments of self into some sort of tattered garment of meaning.  Let us wear such frail though painfully woven garments of meaning with the dignity equal to that of these great singer-songwriters who sang their very own meaning in both sacred and often mysterious words.

Gifts Aplenty and Absolutely no Sugar!

It's Christmastide once again, and as we get older Christmases seem to roll by very quickly indeed.  It's hard to get my head around the fact that this is my 51st Christmas in this world.  As Robert Frost said so perspicaciously, when asked what he had learnt from life after all his many years of living, "It goes on."  How true and how obvious, and yet how straight to the point.  The obvious, after all, does stare us right in the face.  And, all too often, the obvious is least acknowledged because so taken for granted.

Life as Gift:

This subtitle is quite a cliché, simply because its overuse, if not abuse, has demeaned it and reduced its meaning to little or nothing.  Too often we give lip service to this phrase and its sentiments.  Yet one hears it said very often, and indeed one is not too slow at using it oneself.  These last few days I have spent some time in various shopping centres, or malls, as the citizens of the USA call them, looking for presents for people, seeking out things that might delight them or bright light to their eyes.  As my mother, and all good mothers, used to say, "it's the thought that counts."  Once again this is a truism, verging on the cliché for exactly the reasons as outlined already above, but nonetheless an important truth upon which to reflect.

In preparing these thoughts I googled the words "life as gift" and "gift of life" and came up with some 243,000,000 results for the first combination.  Surprised?  No, indeed, we're not.  After all, the truth always abides and abounds.  Let me name some of these results in a random fashion:- Gift of Life donor sites from all over the world for many essential organs, hearts, kidneys and livers to name but several; Gift For Life Rwanda, an AIDS charity; Sail For Life - kids open heart surgery charity; Holocaust site; Children Action, a site for the rights of children; Adoption and even the gift of mosquito nets which are quite literally gifts for better life and living in Africa.

A little Philosophy:

We experience our life as somehow been given to us or gifted to us.  We are essentially receivers of the very life that is us or that lives in and through us.  It was gifted to us by our parents whose lives were gifted to them and so on back over countless generations.  Some philosophers say we experience life as a being thrown, as it were, into existence without prior warning.  To be thrown into the stream of time is a fundamental and unalterable feature of our human situation. We have to accept the historical conditions of our existence. We can try to interpret them because we cannot change them.  This is essentially Heidegger’s concept of the Geworfenheit of Human Existence.  The site Poem Hunter gives the following lovely wee poem penned by poem-maker Gershon Hepner which goes thus:


Heidegger declares it is the throwness
of our existence that provides its onus;
everybody’s lonely as an orphan
because they are condemned to be geworfen. Link


I have always been taken by this idea of "throwness" as we do experience life as being thrust upon us, or literally we experience ourselves as being thrown like a paratrooper into foreign territory.  In this "foreign territory" we have to learn to acquaint ourselves with our surroundings, to survive in it and literally to conquer the obstacles around us.  Heidegger contends that we experience this throwness as a type of alienation from our real selves or our real existence or Dasein.  Of course, unlike the paratrooper, we have our family to care for us, to set us on the right track, to support us, to educate us.  Then, we have society at large to socialise and educate and make good citizens of us.  However, we still have to make ourselves, to take whatever life we have been gifted with and make and mould it into some project called personal identity.

Here, let me refer to the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre(1905-1980) because I have always loved his contention that we experience our lives as projects thrust upon us.  I believe and feel that this is another way of describing the giftedness we experience life as being; almost another way of describing what it's like to be catapulted into existence.  Sartre was not so much interested in metaphysics at all and merely made some references to it.  Metaphysics was largely an irrelevant area of philosopher which asked useless questions about where we came from, about God and angels, about Heaven and Hell etc.  In fact Sartre was almost solely concerned with Ontology (the philosophy of being).  In his case, ontology is primarily descriptive and classificatory, whereas metaphysics purports to be causally explanatory, offering accounts about the ultimate origins and ends of individuals and of the universe as a whole.  Sartre, being the ultimate or essential existentialist (to mix my philosophical categories as my adjective is quite metaphysical a term) and is quite content to describe what it is like to exist here and now, to describe what it is like to be human on this earth.

Consequently he subtitles his large philosophical tome Being and Nothingness a "Phenomenological Ontology." Its descriptive method moves from the most abstract to the highly concrete. It begins by analysing two distinct and irreducible categories or kinds of being: the in-itself (en-soi) and the for-itself (pour-soi), roughly the nonconscious and consciousness respectively, adding a third, the for-others (pour-autrui), later in the book, and concludes with a sketch of the practice of "existential psychoanalysis" that interprets our actions to uncover the fundamental project that unifies our lives.  This is so amazingly in harmony with many of the theories of the various psychotherapeutic schools.  We are indeed on a quest to uncover our very own "fundamental project" (call it self-identity, self-realization, individuation, making the unconscious conscious, the search for meaning etc) in which we engage in integrating ourselves.  In short, Sartre believes that life could have no meaning unless we gave meaning to it. I think anyone pondering this notion to any depth would agree.

The Sartreian project is an angst-ridden struggle, and a worthwhile one to make because by making it we fashion a meaning out of literally the 'nothingness' of our existence.  I like Sartre because there is no sugariness or saccharine quality about his work.  Sartre's philosophy is for the courageous.  The gift that is life is no sugary or saccharine one.  Gifts have to be developed and improved most often through struggle and pain.  As the old phrase, or cliché, has it: "No pain, no gain!"  Here I think of the deaf Ludwig van Beethoven and then the thousands of other famous people who have suffered from depression in its unipolar and bipolar varieties:  They are listed here: List.  It seems that both physical and mental pain, that is suffering, hones our human gifts.  This is often hard to realise but it is all too true.  I can witness to this statement in my own life.  I have honed my gifts of imagination, teaching and writing from my own mental suffering of endogenous depression. Likewise, I have read many biographies and autobiographies as well as general self-help and more popular psychological works which attest to the truth of these foregoing contentions.

Anyway, let me state, here and now, that giving and receiving gifts is essentially therapeutic and we need both.  To give is essentially a way of saying "you are important to me,"you count in this world," "you are not alone," or "we are in this project called life together."  To receive is to say "thank you," to feel that I am loved and cared for, that I count, that my project in life is worth undertaking.  In all of this there is no sugar or saccharine.  Far from it.  Oftentimes, there is struggle involved.  We may be bringing gifts for the weak, the sick, the vulnerable and even the dying.  We ourselves may be receiving our gifts in our sick bed or after receiving some awful news about our own health or that of others close to us.  Giving and receiving are essentially human interactions which are essentially healing and therapeutic.  They both help us to grow in selfhood.  They help us in the process of self-integration or individuation.  They help us to become who we truly are.

And so, over the pat few weeks I have been involved in running our school Christmas Party for the older citizens around our school and this involved working with teachers, adults, parents and students in collecting money and in general organisation.  It also involved buying gifts for hampers and delivering them.  Obviously I have also bought gifts for my family and for others close to me as well as receiving them from others.  Literally, I was bowled over in receiving a few from some of my autistic charges in the resource room at school.  I was humbled because I was not expecting anything nor would I ever.  I teach because I love it and I love the people with whom I work and whom I teach.  However, the feeling I get on receiving their gifts is self-enhancing and fundamentally ennobling.

And so indeed Christmas is a time of gifts aplenty with absolutely no sugar or saccharine intended. 

Pupils wrapping gifts for the annual Christmas Party to which I alluded in the above paragraphs. This photograph was taken in December 2003.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Tsunami of Greed

I listen with considered and continued interest to the Marion Finucane Show every Saturday and Sunday and it never fails to grab my interest and hold my attention. It is rich with in-depth interviews, human interest stories, consumer and lifestyle news as well as a lively panel discussion on issues of the week, not to mention that old stalwart staple of any weekly show, the newspaper reviews. However, what makes it so good for me is the easy, chatty, intelligent, astute and sympathetic questioning style of our good woman.

My title for today's post comes from Pat Cox, that wonderfully bright and intelligent former politician, journalist and lecturer who has in recent years retired from the position of President of the European Parliament.  He is a wonderful speaker and I envy him his articulation and indeed his profound insight.  Since then he has become President of the International European Movement and Managing Partner of European Integration Solutions, a Washington DC/ Brussels-based, transatlantic consulting firm, and a Board member of Michelin.  This morning, and I quote the following as best as I can while listening to the podcast of this show from the RTE web site. 

Pat Cox lamented, with regard to the current economic climate, the mismanagement and dubious practices in the banking industry, with great insight and articulation, "the tsunami of toxicity and greed" that has spread from "Wall Street in all of the collapses and from the city of London - and that Ireland is not kingpin in this." He then went on to refer to the banking scandals in Wall street and especially to a "Mr Madoff - one of the gurus of Wall Street - whose corrupt Ponzi scheme or scheme of pyramid selling as we know it has cost the USA some 50 billion US dollars."

With regard to Mr. Bernard Madoff we read at The Independent on Sunday web site the following.  (Obviously Cox had read this article.):

Madoff: was Wall Street's regulator asleep at the wheel?

The scale of Bernard Madoff's alleged fraud has shocked investors, who are already demanding to know how US regulators could have let it happen. Stephen Foley reports

Thursday, 18 December 2008

"Madoff Securities is the world's largest Ponzi Scheme." This was the conclusion of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Wall Street's regulator, when it charged Bernard Madoff with a fraud of $50bn (£32.2bn) proportions last Thursday, a day after the veteran trader's sons called the police and turned him in.

But hang on, the quote is not from the SEC. It is from Harry Markopolos, a fast-talking Boston accountant, from a letter he wrote to the SEC in 1999 after he began snooping around Mr Madoff's firm. Mr Markopolos wrote again and again – but for nine years, the SEC failed to investigate and failed to uncover what now looks like the biggest scam in Wall Street's history.

To say the failure is an embarrassment would be to understate it. For an organisation already fighting for its survival, and assailed for facilitating the Wall Street free-for-all that has now trashed the credit markets, this is a new crisis it could do without.  (See the following for the full article: Asleep at the Wheel )

I deliberately quoted the above almost in full to underline Cox's assertions, namely that the so-called watchdogs or regulatory agencies seem to be asleep at the wheel and let the bankers do as they please.  Is the same the case in Ireland?  Unfortunately, it would seem to be damningly so.  However, I was not just gripped by Cox's views on our sorry economic state and how that came about but by his contention, which is almost patently obvious when one thinks about it, that the whole sorry state has been brought about by a failure of leadership.

The Failure of Leadership:

Great leaders normally come to the fore in times of crisis, e.g., Winston Churchill in England during World War 2 and then our own Seán Lemass during the late fifties and early sixties of the last century in Ireland.  However, we can but agree with Pat Cox that there is a lamentable failure of leadership, of good authority and of governance.  These are Cox's words and they are wonderful.  Not alone are they wonderful, but they are damningly true.  On the one hand the panel, including Cox, referred to the presenting scandal from Anglo Irish Bank, namely, with regard to the actions of its recent Chairman Seán Fitzpatrick.  We read at The Irish Independent web site the following lamentable facts:

Yesterday the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority issued a statement saying it had called for an urgent review of directors' loans in Anglo Irish Bank. The Authority also said it had begun investigating the treatment of directors' loans in all of the institutions covered by the Government's guarantee scheme. And the committee is due to report back to the Authority on its findings in three weeks time. It followed the resignation of three senior officials at the bank following the revelation that the Banks' Chairman, Seán Fitzpatrick concealed 87 million euros in loans made to him by the bank. It had been claimed that the Financial Regulator was aware of the transactions early this year but the Board says it only became aware of the situation on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Government is understood to be preparing to make an announcement on the recapitalisation of Anglo Irish bank shortly. (See this link: 87 Million Loan

One can but re-echo Pat Cox's words that this sorry state of affairs at Anglo Irish Bank shows a shocking failure of leadership, of good authority, of good judgement, of governance, of any moral standards and of transparency.  The panel pointed out that Seán Fitzpatrick had not broken any laws, but notwithstanding that he had shown himself to be deceptive and purposely so as he had hidden his (legal) loans which had been authorised by the financial committees of both banking institutions over a period of eight years - meaning that there were sixteen transfer transactions.  While nothing unlawful was done, surely there was a grave lack of forthrightness and authenticity and a patent abuse of transparency.  Fitzpatrick was covering up and concealing his transactions from his own shareholders.

Other questions asked by the panelists this morning deserve answers, questions like:  "Is our own Banking Regulator asleep at the wheel?"  "Who is held accountable for such ineptitude?" "Why have no heads rolled throughout all of this?" "Why do the big bankers continue to get such huge dividends when they have presided over a sheer monetary catastrophe?

Then the perennial issue of child abuse came up and the panel admitted that there had been a sequence of excellent reports on this topic.  However, they lamented the fact that there was a slowness to move with the times in certain quarters.  Again we read on the web page of The Irish Independent with the respect of handling child abuse scandals in the Diocese of Cloyne:

The report by the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC) was ordered earlier this year into how two cases of alleged clerical sex abuse were dealt with by the Diocese of Cloyne.  There were two clerics involved -- Priest A, who was alleged to have sexually abused a young boy working as an altar server, and Father B, who was alleged to have abused two girls and two boys. One of the girls claimed she was abused during Confession on a youth retreat.  In the case of Priest A, gardai were only informed by the diocese of the alleged abuser's identity six months after the initial complaint.

In the case of Father B, the report found that the policy of the diocese in its subsequent contacts with the gardai was to give "minimal" information" and that "no information was to be volunteered in respect of any previous complaints involving this priest". Diocesan officials are now awaiting a decision by Children's Minister Barry Andrews on the publication of a separate but related report by the Health Service Executive.

"Bishop Magee now has to seriously consider his position and decide whether or not he can retain the confidence of the people of Cloyne in the light of these disclosures," said Cork Labour TD Sean Sherlock. He said the report on childcare procedures in Cloyne was damning and warned that diocesan policy appeared to be to offer minimal information to the gardai about one of the clerics involved while the bishop himself didn't seem to appreciate that the ultimate responsibility for protection rested with him.

- Ralph Riegel (See this link here: Sex Abuse Cloyne)

This again is a shocking failure of leadership, of good authority, of good judgement, of governance, of any moral standards and of transparency this time on the part of a Church leader. The said Bishop is very much doing a solo run here, in contrast with his fellow bishops like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin who has laid bare all the Archdiocese's files and has given them over to all the relevant authorities and commissions.  Canon Law is, and must always be seen to be, secondary to Civil Law.  Another marvellously sincere and open bishop is Bishop Willy Walshe of Killaloe Diocese who has stated this fact on many occasions in the media.   Oftentimes, false accusations are indeed made against priests, to be sure, but the length of time Bishop Magee sat on his files and the way he handled these sad allegations were lamentable.  It wasn't the question of determining the guilt of anyone.  The panel praised Dr Diarmuid Martin of Dublin for his approach to the child sex abuse scandals among the clergy over the past years - that is, "get it all out in the open and let it go where it will.  In the end it will be cleansing to give it full exposure and full openness."   

When leadership is sadly lacking, there then ensues a consequent confidence and trust in anything anyone in authority may say or do.  If we are to restore confidence and trust in our institutions, both Civil and Religious, we must cultivate good leadership.  We must look to inculcating high moral standards in our young and in our not-so-young.  We must also reward high moral standards and have definite sanctions for those who fail to meet them.  It is all too apparent to most of us that those in authority (whether in government, financial institutions, government agencies, in private business or in the church) who subsequently are shown to abuse or misuse it for personal gain or otherwise have not been severely enough, if at all, dealt with.  We need no less.  All institution need a rewards system, but they must, surely, need a system sanctions. Surely this stands to reason on rational, psychological and social grounds.  Good practice must always be based on a strong ethical base.

Above I have uploaded a picture of the great Nelson Mandela who, to my mind at least, comes closest to the ideal leader. How sorely we need such people in our world today! How sad that politics only throws them up when a nation is in great crisis. Maybe our present series of crises all over the world will throw forth good and exceptional leaders. Let us hope so!