Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Tao of Things 4

One can be very lucky with one teachers.  Alternatively one can be singularly unlucky.  Then again, a good student will make the best of what he/she finds - using his/her creativity and intelligence to overcome whatever shortcomings he/she finds in themselves or in others.  Be that as it may, I was particularly lucky in my teachers - both at primary, secondary and tertiary levels.  At Third Level the teacher/lecturer/professor who stands out the most for his erudition, insight and wisdom still remains after all these years first and foremost in the estimation, is Professor Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J., whom it was my privilege to have as a wonderful English lecturer - more properly teacher - back in the late seventies at Mater Dei Institute of Education. Michael Paul is simply brilliant, humble , wise and erudite - I learned so much from him from English literature to Meditation techniques (on which I have since written and published a book), a light way of being in the world, not to mention a sincerity and honesty and integrity of living that I am still attempting to emulate.  I have placed a link to his personal web page at the right-hand side of this blog under his name.  At present Michael Paul is Dean of Theology at The Gregorian University Rome where he teaches fundamental theology.  He is also a distinguished author and has written many books about religion and culture; how Christianity might dialogue with other religions and even non-believers.  In short his major scholarly preoccupation  is with the dialogue of religion with culture in all its various dimensions.

Anyway, one of the great novels that Michael Paul introduced me to was Saul Bellow's Henderson The Rain King (1959) which we read and studied in 1978.  This is a brilliant novel, and my reference to it here is because it fits in nicely with the theme of my last four or five posts, namely the search for meaning which I'm reflecting upon in a more Buddhist and Taoist way over these last few posts.  I was enthralled by Henderson and his quest.  In the novel Henderson is a middle-aged, 55 year old to be precise, menopausal male looking for some meaning in his "meaningless" and boring life.  Indeed the hero, or anti-hero, of this novel is a send-up or burlesque of the more seriously depicted heroes of the modernist novel - the likes of Stephen Dedalus in our own James Joyce's marvellous wee book : The Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man (1914/1944) comes readily to mind. 

Through parody and satire, Bellow renders laughable many of the banalities of modernism with its self-conscious importance. Eugene Henderson, our anti-hero, is one of Bellow's few WASP protagonists, is a  violinist and pig farmer and a menopausal social outcast. He is a direct parody of the Hemingway stoic or narcissist - he is metaphysically earnest, introspective, solipsistic, bumbling, and egocentric. He believes with his Eliotic fisher king forbears that there is a curse on the land. This Eugene Henderson, after he has alienated his wives, children, and friends, and shouted his housekeeper to death, uses part of his inherited wealth to finance a spiritual pilgrimage to Africa.  Obviously Bellow is here sending up the self-important pose of the modern explorer or the modern searcher for meaning.  Our protagonist goes on a journey to Africa - again a sort of burlesque or send up of the obviously all-too-serious quest of Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) - in search of himself, in pursuit of some inkling of some meaning to his life.  Again and again, Bellow has his anti-hero utter the refrain or chant (or mantra even): "I want, I want, I want..."  What he wants is not too clear to Henderson at all.  He is just a restless seeker - shades of the great St Augustine's phrase, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee!"  For a modernist or post-modernist one might re-write this phrase exactly but leave out the last 3 words and finish with "until they..."  I'll leave it to the reader to put in the omitted word or words.  What we may want may not be all too clear to us readers either.  However, I suppose we all want some form of happiness, though in a previous post I referred to Professor Ivor Browne's contention that happiness was/is the wrong goal.  Meaning I suppose is a better goal insofar as it brings with it an ease with self, an ease of being alive and at least an ability to live relatively comfortably in one's own skin.  Through Henderson's journey, or more particularly pilgrimage, as it is at once a physical and spiritual journey, Bellow succeeds in demythologising much of lofty ideals of romanticism and the high seriousness of modernism.  Henderson has many long philosophical conversations with the kings of the various tribes whom he encounters deep in the jungles of darkest and wildest Africa.

He is at last seen rejoicing in his recently acquired spiritual equilibrium, embracing a woolly-haired orphan child on the polar ice cap of Newfoundland. Finally, the "I Want" voice in his heart is still. However, we are left wondering whether he can maintain this equilibrium found in the monastic solitude of a polar ice cap within the social context of his family.  In the end Henderson finally offers his soul in prayer to an unknown God: "Oh Something because of whom there is not nothing. Help me to do thy will.... O Thou who takes me from pigs, let me not be killed over lions. And forgive my crimes and nonsense and let me return to Lily and the kids."  This again is a send-up or burlesque of a religious conversion.  What Henderson has found is probably that the search itself was the only interesting thing in the whole escapade.  His restlessness is over.  The demons have been exorcised in the pilgrimage to Africa and the polar ice cap of Newfoundland.

I'll finish these reflections with a little reading from the Tao Te Ching.  Stanza 16 was written for the Henderson within us all.  Every line speaks to the restlessness within us.  It offers some consolations too, but we must be willing to contemplate them and synthesize them into our own lived experience:


Empty your mind of all thoughts.

Let your heart be at peace.

Watch the turmoil of beings,

but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe

returns to the common source.

Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don't realise the source,

you stumble in confusion and sorrow.

When you realise where you come from,

you naturally become tolerant,

disinterested, amused,

kind-hearted as a grandmother,

dignified as a king.

immersed in the wonder of the Tao,

you can deal with whatever life brings you,

and when death comes, you are ready.

Above I have uploaded a picture of a piece of drift wood I photographed with my mobile phone on the last Day of 2007, 31st December.

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