Here is another piece about climate catastrophe and species extinction. Before you read it just a short introduction about the context. I am presently writing about climate change and species extinction. Like Covid, it is never out of the news and many of us get a bit weary listening to the arguments.
Nevertheless let’s take the bull by the horns. Many commentators think that run-away capitalism is a historical cause of the present crisis. Think of the destructive effects of the Industrial Revolution! Decades ago people like EF Schumacher argued that something more ‘humane’ had to replace mere economic growth and global competition. That he included spiritual and ethical components in his vision is evidenced throughout his seminal book, Small is Beautiful. Here is one short quote:
But what is wisdom? Where can it be found? It can be read about in numerous publications but it can be found only inside oneself. To be able to find it, one has first to liberate oneself from such masters as greed and envy. The stillness following liberation – even if only momentary – produces the insights of wisdom which are obtainable in no other way. [p30/31 in the paperback edition]
There is tentative cause for optimism today. Many of us agree with Schumacher, who wrote his book in 1973. David Almond, the internationally renowned fiction writer for young people talks about ‘re-wilding the self.’ Others debate how we can rewild the natural environment and restore denuded habitats. Hopefully, the younger generation will reject the allure of material riches in favour of a more equitable, ecologically aware society.
It is perhaps too easy to point the finger of blame at The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but I have taken up the baton for the purposes of my own piece here.
If anyone is interested further, I can recommend a few books which in different ways address these topics. [Recently The Wildlife Trust (in the UK) had an online discussion with five eco-writers which I tuned into.]
The Case For The Defence
Okay, I admit it; I killed you but so what?
In the grand scheme of things
you really didn’t amount to much.
It’s not as if you had claws, roared
or became an emblem of a multi-national
fossil fuel business.
It’s time to clear up a few false impressions;
to set the record straight. My aim is to enlighten.
I adored the guys who shored up my Enlightened
edifice with philosophical musings. They lent kudos
when it mattered; they were cool, unlike your Romantics
with their subjective rants. For example, their talk
about a rose still being a rose by another name. Yet
they prefer Mother Earth instead of a medium sized planet
orbiting an average star.
They’re very fond of their Red Lists aren’t they but
remember I helped to split a rainbow into wavelengths.
I weighed and measured my words in a chemical balance.
The conquest of nature was my invention so they shouldn’t
make false claims of ownership. I was proud
of how I assembled the earth’s bountiful produce;
I knew the time was right to export my Light
worldwide. I shrugged off their Lucifer insult.
I resented their finger-pointing from the start;
how they tried to make me feel guilt and shame.
My rigid grids were not prisons as they allege.
My ecological abuse was for their benefit; my compulsive
divisions were a set of oppressive rules devised to help
you grow and develop at your own pace. Your organic gardeners
should welcome warmer winters even if you don’t. They shouldn’t
appropriate my language as in ‘dysfunctional mechanisms,’
‘greenhouse effect’ or ‘run away feedback loops.’
So, I hold my hands up. I ask, ‘weren’t you just a snack for a bat?’
Weren’t you somewhat insignificant in spite of your name?
You can’t complain; having four stages of a life-cycle’s
asking for trouble. I guess no garden tiger will be ‘burning bright’
in years to come. No, you won’t be missed. Perhaps no will even notice.
A Virtual Tour of a Mixed Habitat including Limestone Pavement and Flower Grassland.
Welcome to you all on this sunny day.
This habitat packs a huge emotional punch. We have around 100 acres of countryside: I hope we’ll feel physically caught up in the drama during our tour. Everything appears fresh and vibrant as if on the first day of creation. Listen. Did you hear the song thrush? It sings in triplets. Look: here below you can see the silvery track of a snail. Smell: that’s honeysuckle of course. We can truly appreciate the web of life here today.
The blue tit chicks are only a day old. They’ll need a hundred thousand caterpillars each day; the caterpillars need the bedstraw and clover to munch and the bedstraw and clover need the sun and nutrients in the soil. All is connected, including us. Where would we be without the bee? Oh! Here’s a sparrow-hawk: that’s goodbye to one of the blue tit parents. Isn’t it a privilege to see birth and death in front of our very eyes.
Lets zoom in for a close up of that piece of turf (yes, it’s rather like Durer’s drawing isn’t it!). Some of you children should be able to see the tiny ants scurrying up and down stalks of grass. Hear that? It’s not a bee; it’s a master of disguise called a Bee Fly, or Bombylius Major strictly speaking. That’s a name to conjure with and a headline to end all headlines isn’t it.
Now if we fast forward a good few decades, what do we notice? No, I don’t want you to be alarmed; I’m not like Greta! Just observe. Note the temperature. Yes, just a three degree increase. Where are the birds? Mostly gone. No caterpillars. But there are some daisies and dandelions growing in the hardened chalk soil, so not all is lost. Listen. No songs or calls. It’s just distant traffic.
Let’s do a casualty count: the warmer wetter winters have killed off the caterpillars of the Garden Tiger moth. So, we can declare that species extinct. The September Thorn is a thorn in the flesh and the Figure of Eight has us tied up in knots. The Narrow-leavedEverlasting Pea, so profuse here before, is no where to be seen. The AutumnalMoth has fallen victim too but let’s hope it’s clinging on out there in someone’s organic garden. That’s not counting the birds of course.
That’s the end of our virtual tour for today. Please bear with us during the next few weeks; we are experiencing problems with air conditioning which may effect future tours. Please check the website for latest developments. Tours may not be as advertised.
I first started observational astronomy in my thirties. That was when I constructed an 8 inch reflector using a car axle for the alt-azimuth motion and housing that in a solid wood tripod. I followed instructions from a ‘how to’ book and was amazed that, after some fine tuning, I saw pin-point sharp images of stars and could see distant galaxies. I used the scope for a number of years but finally sold it and that was the end of my telescopic observations (I occasionally used binoculars, which by the way is the best way of getting to know the constellations).
Fast forward forty four years. Last December I bought a used 5 inch reflector – the model often advertised as a ‘beginner’s scope.’ I started using it in my bedroom looking through window glass. All the advice suggest this is a bad idea for obvious reasons. However, I found it was a good way of getting to know the scope and how to use the equatorial mount. There seemed very little distortion that you would expect looking through glass and hardly any you could notice when observing the moon.
The next stage I attempted was astro-photography. I’d seen stunning images taken with smartphones on Facebook. You hold the phone camera up to the eyepiece and, hey presto, you have your photo! Well, it’s not quite that simple in practice. For a first attempt I struggled for over half an hour lining up the camera lens with the eyepiece. Eventually I got my first image of a daytime moon that I was pleased with.
The next stage was to buy an adaptor so you could attach the phone to the eyepiece. This was an improvement on the hand-held method but it was still fiddly aligning the camera lens to get all of the image centred. However, I persevered and took the scope outside to photograph the moon.
So, four months have been a steep learning curve – and it continues. This last week I downloaded a free image-editing programme which enables you to enhance your photos. In the days when digital cameras first came on the scene ‘improving’ images in this way was seen as cheating! Nowadays, it’s an accepted part of the whole digital process. So far, I’ve used it judiciously; mainly to sharpen an image as in these two photos. I added the star for artistic effect, but I’d have to look again at the programme to see how I did that.
If you can alter the shutter speed of your camera you can take longer exposures of stars, planets, nebulae and galaxies. Maybe that’s my next step but my phone is an old one so may not be up to it.
How to begin to describe the fascination of astronomy? As I said to a friend today, I’ve always had one foot in the Arts and one in the Sciences. I had a brass microscope when I was 12 and before that spent hours and hours constructing Meccano models and balsa wood planes. Amateur Astronomy is a hands-on hobby. Moreover, it combines aesthetics, science, poetry and art. (I’ve painted a few pictures inspired by astronomy and written a few poems.) You could throw in ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ into the mix too. Blaise Pascal found the immensity of space frightening. Most people find it awe-inspiring but also impossible to grasp what 100,000 light years, for example, actually is. The ‘God by Design’ argument in philosophy is best exemplified by viewing the night sky on a clear night. For me it’s enough to feel a sense of the numinous as I manoeuvre my scope onto a galaxy 2,000 light-years distant. It’s no wonder ancient cultures populated the night sky with gods and legends.
[Perhaps I could write a Part Two about the symbolism of the moon and how different cultures have viewed our nearest galactic neighbour.]
This first blog of the New Year may come out as a bit crazy as I’m writing off the top of my head without any plan. Even for those of you who don’t listen to a lot of symphonies I urge you, just this once, to listen to the first 15 minutes of this! (Eschenbach and his orchestra are superlative by the way. I can’t imagine a better performance.) You can start the video and listen as you read: the music then will run parallel to some of my thoughts.
Last year I wrote a long poem inspired by Mahler’s 3rd symphony, his longest. Early on in that symphony there is a trombone solo and he plays a haunting melody throughout the movement. I find something inexplicably moving about such musical devices; the solo instrument seems to stand for the individual struggling against fate, society, conditioning karma or what you will. Here in the 5th I find the trumpet solo almost unbearably moving in the same way.
Probably because of early-life trauma I have been looking for a kind of ‘perfection’ most of my life. After reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider when I was 21 I decided that ‘ordinary life’ was banal and boring and there had to be something else! (I have too many reservations about Wilson now and see his many flaws.) This has led me on a long search which has included overdosing on classical music, investigating religion and spirituality (too much to itemise here), literature, poetry, wring poetry and short stories, art, practising as an artist, various hobbies and of course, relationships. On the psychological level I might term all of this seeking, ‘compensation activity.’ I can accept that I have been trying to ‘fill’ a sort of emotional ‘lack’ but does that negate the seeking after perfection? I am asking these questions as a 74 year old.
A spanner was well and truly thrown in the works when I started following the Zen Buddhist path in 1985. There is a saying in the tradition I follow, ‘to live by Zen is the same as to live an ordinary daily life.’ (Actually it is part of Dogen’s advice for meditation) Yikes; did that mean I’d spent decades wasting time and floundering about? Well, yes and no. It did mean in practical terms that I questioned my assumptions more and more and could no longer take refuge in seeing myself as an outsider or elavating art as the main purpose in life. (Schopenhauer famously believed the Arts were literally the only compensation for being born a human, such was his pessimistic view.)
As a Buddhist I try not to divide things as being inferior or superior. Walking into a shopping centre or supermarket use to throw up all sorts of judgemental thoughts such as, ‘this is mindless, what a consumer society we live in.’ Nowadays because of being more mindful I just do the shopping. ( The thoughts will still arise but I don’t dwell on them.) It may not be as enjoyable an experience as listening to Mahler but that is the Buddhist view. We don’t see reality as it is because of all our personal preferences and opinions. I’m a slow learner when it comes to Buddhist practice.
This slight change in my ‘outlook’ has been very gradual since 1985 I’d say and it actually makes the best of both outlooks. The music, works of art etc. seem more amazing and the little steps of life such as walking in a park or doing the dishes are also amazing. Don’t get me wrong. Depression is ongoing and most days I tread water to keep my chin above the surface. However, even the depression (not a good term as it is not a noun, not a ‘thing’) takes on a slighly different context. A Buddhist monk recently came out with the wonderful throwaway statement that ‘there is more to life than life.’ This gives me hope and confidence that there is a bigger picture than what my own petty preferences show me. I suppose it is similar to the line in Shakespeare that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ It is a lot more nuanced than Shakespeare though; it points to the soap opera quality of ordinary life. (Oh dear, we are back to ordinary life being banal and boring! I told you this could turn out to be crazy.) It is said that there are the circumstances we each find ourselves in and at the same time an underlying ‘life-force’ for lack of a better word. (‘Buddha nature’ to be exact but I am not writing this for confirmed Buddhists.) I cannot describe here what it precisely means but can throw out a few pointers. How about the Christian ‘to be IN the world but not OF the world? And one for the Buddhists among you; Samsara and Nirvana are not seperate.
What has all of this rambling to do with Mahler? Here is another thought. One of the aspects I like about Mahler is the length of his symphonies; most are over an hour long. In this time of the sound bite and low attention span I revel in something which both demands prolonged attention and is compex. Why? Umm, maybe because it’s just the joy of music. Maybe because life is difficult and complex and therefore the music runs in parallel to life. I suspect one of the reasons why Mahler is popular today is exactly because his music reflects the complexity of life we all recognise. That multi-layered complexity is what I was getting at in my poem.
So, finally what of perfection? There is another saying that all people have an intuitive sense of an ultimate goodness or an ultimate ‘reality’ above and beyond their own personal lives. It is not something that can be logically argued about. I believe that is behind my own seeking after perfection – dare I say it: that we have to believe we are okay (perfect?) as we are! (Wabi sabi in our own lives.) That means for me I can still enjoy Mahler but also can accept when I feel grumpy, depressed and irritable. I can still gaze at a Van Gogh in awe but still appreciate the hot water running out of my tap.
My imaginary interlocutor may ask why is washing the dishes ‘amazing.’? Imagine being on your deathbed. Will you be able to wash the dishes then? Will you be at peace then? Now that you can wash the dishes, can you reflect on the incredible compexity of the action. The complex co-ordination! Above all, can you ‘just wash the dishes’ without following a train of thoughts about the past or the future?
The only sounds that Adam could hear were the cries of the red kites and buzzards as they searched for carrion. That and the sloshing of water everywhere. As he stepped onto an iron girder he squeezed the water from his dirty trouser legs.
He wasn’t sure whether there were any other living humans as he clambered over what had once been an ocean-going cruise liner. The aquatic monstrosity was now lying virtually upside down in the middle of the river Tyne. Adam thought he might be able to find something edible if he could find an entry point.
It seemed odd to Adam that he had only seen a few rotting bodies during his hand to mouth existence. Maybe the profusion of kites and buzzards had cleared the high ground of many of the corpses. On second thoughts Adam knew that this was not an adequate explanation; if it had been he would have seen plenty of skeletal remains on higher ground. A much more likely explanation was that the majority of the population had been washed out to sea, or had simply sunk beneath the water which was now enveloping what had once been the Newcastle and Gateshead city centres.
He was now standing on firm ‘ground’ – or rather, on the ship’s belly which lay diagonally a good three or four metres above the polluted water. He had to use his hands to maintain balance as he edged towards a broken window. Once inside the hulk he pulled on his mask and began to explore the drowned leviathan. Even with the mask on he could smell the familiar bouquet of death. Bloated bodies, looking like shoals of puffer fish, floated just inches below the surface of the water.
Greta Thunberg tells us to be scared: T.S.Eliot said ‘mankind cannot bear too much reality: Gurdjieff said we are automata; we live like sleepwalkers and that planet Earth is a far outpost in the galaxy, populated by psychotic beings (so did Douglas Adams); Eckhart Tolle says many of us are living ‘unconscious lives.’ David Attenborough appears on countless television programmes warning us about species extinction and climate catastrophe; Gandhi said there was enough produce on the planet for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed; William Blake said we are blind, that the fool sees not the same tree as the wise person and that heaven is in a wild flower; Extinction Rebellion disrupts city life; Friday School Protests become global, and in 2008 a project called Dark Mountain launches its Manifesto. Here are some quotes from it:
The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free. Each is intimately bound up with the other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this, our unique glory is contained.
The authors point out that thinkers have always been aware of the fragility of life and that ‘civilisation’ is skin deep. They quote Joseph Conrad and then this apt simile from Bertrand Russell:
Bertrand Russell caught this vein in Conrad’s worldview, suggesting that the novelist ‘thought of civilised and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.’ What both Russell and Conrad were getting at was a simple fact which any historian could confirm: human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future.
It is tempting to quote more and more but I’ll leave it to readers to read the whole Manifesto online (it’s on the Dark Mountain website: https://dark-mountain.net/) I’ll just quote one more part:
We are the first generations born into a new and unprecedented age – the age of ecocide. To name it thus is not to presume the outcome, but simply to describe a process which is underway. The ground, the sea, the air, the elemental backdrops to our existence – all these our economics has taken for granted, to be used as a bottomless tip, endlessly able to dilute and disperse the tailings of our extraction, production, consumption. The sheer scale of the sky or the weight of a swollen river makes it hard to imagine that creatures as flimsy as you and I could do that much damage.
For those of us who can bear as much reality as is necessary, reading the Manifesto will confirm what we have been aware of all along. Other people may regard it as alarmist but this position is being shown to be based on wishful thinking and ignorance as the evidence of the human-caused destruction mounts each day.
First, we have to diagnose the problem. I would suggest the Manifesto does this clearly, radically and evidentially. Then we have to seek remedies. This seems straightforward doesn’t it?
(Actually, Dark Mountain’s approach is quite modest: it is primarily about the arts; that is, the project is about providing a platform for writers and artists as we head into the unknown.)
In this article, I simple want to address the predicament we find ourselves in now, more generally. It takes a pandemic to wake us up it seems. It has forced many of us to differentiate between the inessential and the essential. Do we really intend to carry on having two or three holidays abroad? How many businesses are benefiting humankind as opposed to destroying the environment or alienating human beings with their soul-destroying products? [Not to mention arms production and other life-destroying technology!]
The response to Covid has been global (is global) and has radically changed our lifestyles. This shows that governments, organisations and individuals can use the wonderful gift we have as humans – that is, we can get together to collectively use our brains to affect change and solve problems. (Obviously some countries have dealt with the pandemic much better than we in the UK have.) Notwithstanding the note of absolutism sounded by Dark Mountain, that of ecocide being an unprecedented challenge, it should be possible to turn the tide even at this late stage. Unfortunately, species extinction and climate catastrophe don’t seem to be as immediate challenges compared to Covid 19. They are more amorphous, less graspable than the pandemic. Which is ironic as climate change and habitat destruction could end up with the extinction of homo sapiens (I always think it ironic; this classification of us as ‘wise’).
I am not an economist but recently I saw a book with the title, The End of Capitalism. This idea that our political systems are becoming outmoded seems to be in the air. In my opinion, and that of the Manifesto authors, Capitalism as we have know it is the ultimate cause of our present predicament. With its crude credo of economic growth at all costs, it has raped the earth, caused ongoing species extinction, displaced whole populations, alienated us from each other (Marx was not alone in thinking this; there were also Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to name two other contemporary figures); caused climate change and even caused the various pandemics we have witnessed. (Would viruses jump from animal to human if we didn’t have hundreds of thousands -millions?- of human beings working in appalling sanitary conditions killing and handling animals, many of them wild animals?)
William Blake’s little drawing, I want, represents the ‘engine’ of the capitalist project and shows how consumerism feeds on itself. There is no end to ‘wanting more’ and we need to learn how to be content with less. This was the message of a lot of writers in the sixties such as E. F. Schumacher with his Small is Beautiful.
If capitalism is not replaced with something more equitable, more humane and more ecological it could be responsible for the ultimate extinction.
We can’t say we haven’t seen this coming; to the names of Conrad and Bertrand Russell could be added the following random selection:
William Wordsworth, H. G. Wells, Theodore Rosak, Krishnamurti, Eric Fromm, Henry David Thoreau, William Blake, Rachel Carson, Marjory Stoneman, Jane Goodall, Walt Whitman and Wendell Berry.
I am not so idealistic as to imagine capitalism will be dismantled tomorrow. I am thinking long term; fifty or a hundred years from now. If we survive that long I imagine capitalism will be viewed as a primitive system on a par with feudalism.
Societies cannot be transformed to become more humane and equitable without a concomitant transformation of consciousness. This may well be a subject of my future posts.
First of all I sat for the blind girl. It was dreadful suffering, the sun poured in through the window. I had a brown cloth over my forehead which was some relief but several times I was as sick as possible and nearly argued. Another day I sat outside in a hay field, and when the face was done Everett scratched it out; he wasn’t pleased with it and complained about the showers.
Smoke from Everett’s pipe got in my eyes so I had to shut them. He told me to keep them shut. He told me not to see the beggar boy on the toll road; he told me not to see the three crows feeding on a dead rabbit or the adder by his own left boot. I laughed and said I could still see with my eyes shut. I could smell the acrid smoke rising from a factory chimney; I could hear the donkeys coughing in the field; I could hear the boy weeping. He told me to be blind.
The concertina was lent by Mr Pringle who had a daughter who had died. It was hers. He said we could keep it as it would never be played again. I smoothed my orange skirt and rested the concertina on my lap doing my best to be blind. It was difficult to keep my eyes shut on such a beautiful day. Everett said there was a double rainbow so I had to look. Everett wasn’t pleased as he was doing the face again. I stretched out my right hand and touched a wild flower growing in the grass. I knew it was a harebell as my little finger fitted inside just as if it was a thimble.
The next day the weather seeped into our drawing room and the double rainbow arched over the carpet. I had my eyes open and could see a painted lady fluttering at the window pane. I could hear concertina music softly playing.
Red Kites were alive and well in the 1800s in the Lake District. I have found three separate references to kites in the poems of William Wordsworth and one mention by his sister, Dorothy. There may be more references than these but they alone prove that the iconic birds were a common sight in the Lake District just over two hundred years ago.
The first two instances are from Wordsworth’s narrative poem, Michael and from Dorothy’s Journal, dated 11 Oct 1800.
Greenhead Gill, mentioned at the beginning of Michael is a mountain stream/ravine behind the Swan Hotel, which is north of Grasmere.
If from the public way you turn your steps
Up the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Ghyll,
You will suppose that with an upright path
Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent
The pastoral mountains front you, face to face.
But, courage! for around that boisterous brook
The mountains have all opened out themselves,
And made a hidden valley of their own.
No habitation can be seen; but they
Who journey thither find themselves alone
With a few sheep, with rocks and stones, and kites
That overhead are sailing in the sky.
As was usual with Wordsworth, some of his lines were prompted by his sister Dorothy. It seems Wordsworth was writing the early drafts of Michael in Oct 1800. She writes in her journal:
After dinner we walked up Greenhead Gill in search of a sheepfold. . . The colours of the mountains soft, and rich with orange fern; the cattle pasturing upon the hill-tops; kites sailing in the sky above our heads. Sheep bleating and in lines and chains and patterns scattered over the mountains.
The third reference is from the autobiographical The Prelude, Book First:
The heart is almost mine with which I felt,
From some hill-top on sunny afternoons,
The kite high among the fleecy clouds
Pull at her rein like an impetuous courser,
The fourth from his long poem, The Excursion:
With care and sorrow; shoals of artisans
From ill-requited labour turned adrift
Sought daily bread from public charity,
They and their wives and children – happier far
Could they have lived as do the little birds
That peck along the hedgerows, or the kite
That makes her dwelling on the mountain rocks!
In many of Wordsworth’s poems place-names are mentioned so it is possible to walk in his footsteps. When my parents were alive they lived at Troutbeck Bridge and I would often set off from there to walk behind Rydal Mount (one of Wordsworth’s residences) in the White Moss area. Easedale Tarn, accessible from Grasmere village, was another favourite, and nearby Helm Crag with its famous ‘Lion and the Lamb’ rock.
A mere decade or two after Wordsworth’s sightings, Red Kites began to be persecuted by Gamekeepers and by the closing decades of the nineteenth century they were extinct in England and Scotland. In the 1990s reintroduction programmes were established in England and Scotland. Our North East birds came as chicks from the Chilterns. They were released in the Derwent Valley in Gateshead in a four year project. There is a link in my blogroll to Friends of Red Kites.
I have been in touch with a curator-trainee at Dove Cottage (Wordsworth’s residence at Grasmere) and she tells me kites have been seen recently soaring overhead, so that is good news!
To put Ruskin into context regarding the purpose of art, it has to be recognised that art has had a didactic purpose for thousands of years since the very origins of art. Prehistoric cave paintings almost certainly had a ceremonial or spiritual purpose. Some are in such dark inaccessible tunnels that they must have had a ritual meaning. [They were not ‘on show’ as in a public space.]
Religious art has always been made to communicate and promote the doctrines of the religion. On a more sinister note, totalitarian states have used art as propaganda.
The earliest Christian art is to be seen in the catacombs of Rome, dating from the third century. These are underground tombs where families buried their dead. There are over one hundred images of the ‘good shepherd’ in these catacombs; probably influenced by earlier Roman and Greek images. In the Christian tradition it is a symbol of protection in the afterlife.
Later on Christian art was made for cathedrals, churches, palaces, public spaces and private homes. And we mustn’t forget the rich tradition of Illuminated manuscripts. Not so well know is the fact that Illuminated manuscripts were also made to illustrate secular subjects, such as fables or medicinal cures; and there is even one illustrating a game of chess.
In the Mediaeval Period books were hand-made to prepare people for death. They were actually called The Art of Dying manuals! In them, the dying person had to look at pictures representing temptations and, each day, determine to overcome them in order for their souls to ascend to Heaven.
It is often said that Christian imagery in churches are ‘books for the illiterate.’ The origin of the idea, when the majority of the population was illiterate, goes back to Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604). He wrote a letter to Bishop Serenus in which he says, ‘ What writing does for the literate, a picture does for the illiterate looking at it.’ and ‘Painted likenesses are made for the instruction of the ignorant so they may understand the stories and so learn what occurred.’
As Christianity developed elaborate altarpieces were constructed and painted for churches. They usually had side panels and predellas (a panel beneath the main picture-panel) so that the whole Christian narrative could be told by opening and closing certain panels on different occasions. Private homes would have smaller versions for private contemplation.
Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, is rich in iconography. Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism has a large cast of Bodhisattvas, each representing a particular spiritual virtue such as compassion, wisdom or determination. Again, many Buddhists have altars in their homes with a Buddha statue as a central focus to aid meditation.
Let us return to the Ruskin quote. He does say that art is there to ‘please.’ so he isn’t saying all art should be didactic. However, he does say it should ‘exalt and refine.’ Now a quick look in my Oxford dictionary has this entry for ‘exalt.’ 1, praise or regard highly. 2. raise to a higher rank orposition. 3. make noble in character; dignify. Now, one phrase which has characterised modernity is ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ [I forget who coined it] The idea is that with the ‘death of God’, and the moral vacuum left, the world has fragmented and art inevitably depicts the subsequent anxiety and alienation. All well and good; we can all respond to Munch’s Scream. However, the danger is that the status of the human being is diminished, we become cogs in an impersonal machine. To go back to that little word, ‘exalt’. One thing most of us will agree about is that we don’t dignify what it is to be human; we hardly ‘raise to a higher rank’ or ‘make noble’ our humanity. If we think of Tracy Emin’s Bed, for example, we can see that we ‘make ignoble’. Many artists glorify, or seem to celebrate our depravity; our various hatreds, greeds and delusions. Ruskin would despair if he returned to our times.
So, what am I suggesting? Is there a place in the twenty first century for a didactic art with a moral purpose? I definitely suggest that there might be. The challenge could hardly be greater. Annihilation of vast numbers of the global population through climate change. Can artists address this problem? Why not? There could even be a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ if such a movement went hand in hand with practical/political change.
Christianity managed to convey a unifying message with its millions of art works created throughout two millennia. Imagine if artists now united under a banner of ‘artists against climate catastrophe’ – how energising and positive such a project would be.
This third painting shows the ‘dark winds’ of karmic consequences in later life; the fire symbolises the anger and perhaps the redemptive power of self-awareness. Mortality is also an obvious theme, with the skull-like mask.
The school I attended was burnt down many years after I left; perhaps a fitting end to the building. The seven years I spent at the school were not unmitigated hell though: I found some enjoyment in activities such as sport, art and walking in the Lake District. (Hence the mountains in the first two paintings.) However, I believe the seeds of my adult difficulties were planted and cultivated during these years. Along with other psychological wounds, I became institutionalised: of course, without knowing it at the time.
Ironically the school motto was, We Seek the Truth; this would become an unconscious mantra for the rest of my life. As an adult, I became quietly obsessed with finding a spiritual refuge, first joining a Gurdjieff Group in Bradford in the 1970s, attending Krishnamurti’s talks in the 1980s and many years later embracing Buddhism.
The last picture shows the beginnings of release from suffering – among many interpretations here, even depression could be seen as a mask. ‘Buddha-nature’ is the intrinsic ‘goodness/perfection’ at the heart of all of us and that which Buddhism says cannot be harmed by circumstances. The burning school could be seen as ‘burning up the painful memories’ – once I acknowledge these painful feelings, in a spirit of deep acceptance – very difficult, as anyone who has experienced abuse will know – I can, hopefully, live without anger or resentment. It’s an ongoing process. (Meditation and living an ethical life are the two main supports of Buddhist practice. (Ethics here includes how we treat ourselves and others. Buddhist practice involves the transformation of hatred, greed and delusion into compassion, generosity and wisdom.)
Perhaps you could say that I wouldn’t have been so determined to find a spiritual path if I hadn’t been subject to the school heartache and trauma. I have had to ‘dig deep’ to find any sense in life and I believe I’ve put Carl Jung’s assertion into practice. His life’s work and psychology is based on recognising the shadow self; integrating and transforming it within the whole psyche. He wrote:
No tree grows towards heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.
Buddhism has a similar image; the lotus blossom whose roots reach down to the mud (symbolic of hatred, greed and delusion). After sufficient time, the flower opens in immaculacy above the water.
We are cautioned in Buddhist practice not to get stuck with ‘our story.’ We have to move on from the hurt and not see ourselves as victims. This is not always easy and I have found paradoxically that going over and over my past circumstances has enabled me to get it into perspective. Today, I can live in the present moment more often without the past intruding, and, as you may read in my other blogs, appreciate the simple things in life such as bird-song or walking in the countryside with friends.
Mental Health has become more prominent on the socio-political agenda in recent years so it feels the right time to write this more personal blog.
Boarding School Survival Syndrome is a recognised psychological condition rarely talked about. It is similar in some ways to Post Traumatic Stress Diagnosis. Here is one comment about it:
[Children] who were sent away to boarding school from their family homes often learnt to endure unacceptably brutal interpersonal practices … When these kinds of trauma emerge in adulthood in the form of stress related disease, inability to sustain meaningful intimate sexual relationships, and mental and emotional breakdowns, adults often don’t even know how to begin to acknowledge their long-hidden pain to themselves, let alone talk to someone else (such as their medical practitioner) about their suffering. This, as we know from the psychological research evidence, often leads to further psychosomatic difficulties in terms of overworking to the point of burnout, multiple serious health problems, and drug and alcohol misuse.”
Just as not all war combat personnel will experience PTSD not all ex-boarders will experience these symptoms to the extent that their lives are seriously impacted. However, even some of those who don’t have explicit symptoms may well have buried the hurt so deep within themselves that neurosis will possibly surface eventually.
It was not until my late thirties that I recognised, or acknowledged, I had depression and not until much later that I really made the link between my going to a boarding school and my mental ill-health. You are lucky in the UK(and probably financially well-off) if you manage to get psychotherapy; I had to deal with the trauma by myself.
There was no pastoral care, or what today we call safeguarding, at the school I attended from age 12-19yrs. Some of the teachers were sadistic and psychological abuse was common.
I did these paintings when I was 72 and they ‘process’ the emotional damage in a sequence. The first one shows a boy alone – this is the crucial point; on no account did you let on that you were homesick, or sad, to others. It is even the case that you didn’t let on to yourself that you were sad or stressed!
The second shows the anguish and feelings of abandonment: again completely private and suppressed. I was influenced by Munch’s Scream when creating the main figure in the composition and in painting the background.
The next blog will show the final two paintings and conclude the description.