Saturday, August 23, 2003

truth and reconciliation

I was brought up a christian, but realised fairly early on that turning the other cheek is nine times out of ten guaranteed to get you twice the beating you'd otherwise have received. obviously, to have been raised a muslim or a sikh wouldn't have protected me from these early lessons in applying God's mediated advice about forgiveness, either, and yet the secular notion of the nobility of restraint, the moral superiority of forgiveness over revenge is strangely pernicious. certainly, a continuing attachment to the ethics of restraint is an essential counterbalance, at the domestic level of parenting and schooling, to the pragmatics of the current realpolitik which seems now to have reverted completely to a level of tribal simplicities that dispenses at a stroke with a thousand years of hard-earned liberalising (not to say civilising) checks and balances.

as long as the great nations persist in behaving like badly-behaved children (and profiting by it) it becomes most important that we parents continue to explain to our own children how and why they should not follow their example.

self-evidently, a violent response to a violent provocation always escalates. there are some cultures (the Irish for one - the SerboCroat for another) whose endless mutual recriminations refer back to an initiating outrage that predates living memory - by centuries, sometimes. clearly, it is possible for the vendetta to become so woven into the tribal consciousness that it becomes almost a self-replicating entity - a sort of non-biological gene - imprinting itself so firmly through patterns of ritual repetition that it becomes a totem of identity. (the northern irish orangemen's annual 'marching season' is a familiar example - it's very difficult for anyone other than an orangeman to identify with his - no women on the marches - 'right' to march along his catholic neighbours' roads banging drums, piping triumphalist anthems, and flourishing the banners and provocative accoutrements that 'celebrate' the protestant 'victory' of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. hatred and revenge are, after all's said and done, nationalism's nectar and ambrosia.)

equally self-evident is the truth that the only right way forward from a perceived wrong is to forgive and forget - the south african truth and reconciliation model as the polar opposite of the jew/arab kill-for-a-kill.

at such times as these, forgiveness becomes a moral imperative, even if forgetting seems, at first, impossible. but it (forgiving) is not something that just emerges, together with table-manners, as part of the domestic didactic package. it may be necessary to experience what it is to be forgiven before forgiveness has any real meaning, and in order to understand how to forgive great transgressions, it may be necessary to have transgressed greatly, and to have been forgiven. there is still much to forgive in the league of nations - no great nation is innocent of collusion in the worst crimes imaginable, of having sealed up a shameful cellar whose walls still ring with the screams of the uncountable innocent.

arguably, it may be possible to transgress so greatly against someone that they become effectively deprived of the capacity to forgive - if the damage done them has compromised their capacity to dissolve the corrosive links that chain the transgressor to the transgressed - in which case they're likely to become enmeshed in that murky, crypto-neurotic state of semi-resolution that's probably far nearer to the truth of most 'reconciliations' - both personal and political - than the sacharine and media-friendly felicities of 'closure' - that despicable hollywood placebo. hatred, after all, is only the twisted and bitter fruit of unwatered love - the hate-object as much a source of (malign, bilious, forever inadequate) nourishment to the hater as the lover to his ravenous love.

assuming the possibility of forgiveness, however, what does it actually mean?

does 'I forgive you' mean simply 'I release you from the threat of revenge' for example? or does it mean 'I absolve you henceforth of your burden of blame and guilt'? the former is the version the child understands - the latter is the evolved, grownup version - the hard one. to forgive someone is to assess the genuineness of their contrition, to accept it, and to release them of their share of the burden - for them, of remorse, for you, of pain. it is to accept that the one seeking forgiveness has come to understand and partially share the pain their actions have caused, and to allow him or her to divest themselves of that encumbrance - to proceed, enlightened, forgiven.

remorse, however, can be simply (cynically) an expedience - the effectiveness of a courtroom apology is often a reflection of the quality of the performance - and it is here, when the apology is perceived to be transparently insincere, or, tougher still, when there is no apparent contrition at all, that the notion of forgiveness becomes most personally challenging.

again and again, it is with astonishment and profound respect that one listens to or reads the always quietly spoken victim of some atrocity - terrorist or simply criminal - pronouncing their forgiveness on the often unidentified perpetrator of the violent act that has broken their heart. it is as if, in these moments of personal apocalypse, a door of perception is opened to some people, randomly selected by tragic happenstance, to reveal the absolute truth behind the moral relativism of the notion of forgiveness.

god willing, it will not have to come to this for more than a tiny fraction of us, but it is for us to listen and learn from them the necessity - the absolute necessity, if there is to be any progress in our efforts to secure a peaceful future for our descendants - of drawing that line in the sand that says, this is where history ends - beyond this all is forgiven.

Monday, August 11, 2003

music for healing

cathy b's offer was timely: she's been studying spiritual healing and wanted a practice body to work on. I remembered the last time (the only time) I'd experienced this, so didn't hesitate.

she worked on me for about forty minutes, a week last Sunday - eight days ago. knowing that she'd probably like to have some specific 'targets', I'd selected from my various pains the most intrusive - right shoulder, right knee, left ankle, and that pesky point between the shoulder blades that's been my achilles heel (strange but true) for a long, long time.

well, gentle reader, I don't know how to break this - but, since you're asking - nop, no more pain. now, of course I know that, except in chronic conditions, minor injuries that incur pains like that are self-limiting, and that there have been other contributory factors - I've not been taking my daily climb up the Tor for the last week, for instance, and mel and the boys have been away since last Wednesday, so it's been very relaxed here. but still (quick real-time self-diagnostic - right shoulder - aches, but not badly; right knee - painless; left ankle - painless; back - painless) a recovery's a recovery, and I have no doubt the cathy effect played a significant part.

I shall beg for more - and this time maybe I'll direct her towards the deeper psychic anguish (on second thoughts, I don't want to be responsible for the effects of the corrosive feedback from all that).

one tiny problem: how, discreetly, and without offence, to persuade her that that CD of appalling pastiche Chopin (edited and 'improved' by The Tranquil Hippy™) has to go!?

its teeth-grinding inanity acted like a tethered deranged madman throughout, so that one part of my consciousness was constantly engaged in trying to filter it out. I saw her (too late!) take it out of a jewel case entitled 'Music for Healing' and began to scream.


wrong! how can they get it so wrong?

am I utterly mistaken in supposing that people who are attuned to the chakras and the delicate equilibrium of the cosmos and who can sense others' imbalances through their fingertips and assist them towards health and at-oneness with the universe with a discreet psychic nudge here, a gentle thought there, ought to be able to distinguish between, on the one hand, music, and on the other, excruciating bilge!? I mean, silence would have been fine, sigur rós good, labradford acceptable. but the endless, endlessly tacky drivellings of that moron-on-a-stick with his tacky piano and tackier synth - just what is this? it's some patronising fuckwit capitalising on a culture infested with patronising fuckwits who have no more sense of aesthetic discrimination than the parasites on an axolotl's turd, that's what it is.

healers of the world unite!

you don't have to buy in to the package - the kit they flog at those psychic trade fairs where wafty hippies drift around in a haze of patchouli and the dominant colours are all Steiner-approved. your gift is your own - it doesn't have to be supported by anything other than your own confidence, and the trust you engender in your patients. there are some, doubtless, for whom 'Music for Healing' works - it will insulate them from the buzz of their lives and memories for a while, whilst your sensitive hands hover over their bruised auras. but these are injured people - their antennae have been damaged in the maelstrom of life - to them, anything you provide is good. you, therefore, have an obligation to provide good, nourishing music - if you feel that 'background music' is necessary at all - rather than this pulped cardboard.

music, after all, is a healer of itself - a very effective one.

'Music for Healing' is neither.

Sunday, August 10, 2003


Watching Soderbergh's and Tarkovsky's Solaris back to back last night was a sharp indicator of just how far and how long 30 years has come to be.
I'm fairly shocked to find that I much prefer Soderbergh's remake - and not for the obvious technical reasons (it's a fairly faithful, if compressed - from 3 hrs to less than 2 - version of the 1972 original, replacing clunky old Russian fx with state-of-the-art digital) - but because Soderbergh has extracted from the still-tortuous narrative precisely the spiritual/psychological core that drives it (and indeed drives all of Tarkovsky's work). In reality, this secularisation (or perhaps agnosticisation would be more precise) of Tarkovsky's take on Lem's novella about the disturbing first contact between a sentient planet and the inhabitants of an orbital research station should drain it of meaning, but, curiously, it achieves the opposite. Soderbergh's Solaris is undeniably, and unusually, about something - it addresses fundamental questions about the nature of love, about its power for both redemption and (Lazarus-literally) resurrection. but this (Solaris II's) 'love' is, crucially, erotic - unburdened, that is, by the shame and the guilt and the sense of sin and sufferance and atonement incumbent on Christians in general and the congregation of the Russian Orthodox Catholic Church in particular.
Poor Andzrej never got past that - it's why he's a genius, after all, because he had to struggle with his personal demons in that historically fertile shitscape of cultural oppression characterised in the Brezhnev era of the CCCP by religious intolerance on the one hand, and international cultural brinkmanship on the other. The Mosfilm minders were perpetually engaged in censoring Tarkovsky's wilder flights of cinematographic fancy for fear that his multi-layered metaphors might transgress the humanist/rationalist party line (such as it was - it was forever being argued, never agreed - perhaps the only actual manifestation of the principle of permanent revolution that ever worked).Oddly, though, they let pass one of the best wet-T-shirt scenes in cinema history - Hari's revival after killing herself by drinking liquid oxygen. There are three thoughts on why they might have done this: a) it's alright because it falls into the high art s&m box - a secular version of that perennial gay icon - St Sebastian of the Hedgehogs - and as long as it looks painful, and there's blood coming out of her mouth and nose, then that's OK; b) they thought it might be medically instructive; and c) after two interminable hours of slow pans across ponds and still-lives and paintings, and ponderous philosophical conversations of the like of "perhaps we are here to perceive, for the first time, humans as a purpose for love" (hmm - it's got to sound better in Russian) - they'd all either dozed off or snuck out to the bar.
At its first Western release, Tarkovsky's film was hugely applauded - a more 'intelligent' 2001 - but, somehow, those plaudits seem to ring now more than a little of cultural élitism - a jaded and threatened intelligentsia (where are they now?) 'discovering' the exoticism of the paradoxical - a faraway culture in which the poetics of cinema still obtained - behind the iron curtain! The truth is that much of Tarkovsy's version seems, now, almost absurdly over-extended and self-indulgent - a historical quarry for the fine art student, but ass-numbingly tedious for all but the buffiest film buff.
In the end, both Tarkovsky's and Soderbergh's versions subscribe to the same myth - one of the most tenacious and therefore the most enduringly consolatory. Soderbergh's, ultimately, is no more credible, but strikes me as the more honest. (Plus you get a three-second flash of George's nekkid bum - not my thing, but hey.)

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Requiem for a Dream

I'm in two minds about it - it's an undeniably brilliant movie, and I think it deserves cult status, but I think it's bad art - Hubert Selby Jr's writing's never taken me anywhere useful - to me it's just a druggy cocktail of surreal misanthropy and mishmashed Freud - and Aronofsky's take really doesn't lift any higher than the fairly banal level of pharmaceutical critique once you've filtered out the surface effects (hey kids, look what drugs and the absence of effective parenting has done to our generation!) - but thank god for a total absence of any hollywood gloss at all. relentless high-gloss dystopianism good / featherweight moral redemption bad. but in the end I think I'm really a very old-fashioned kinda arts-consumer - I need my art to replace the bad it excoriates with something healing, not just expose and cauterise.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

The Flag

The only country in which I feel comfortable with the national flag is Denmark. There, the sight of that long, festive red and white banner floating ubiquitously from every other garden pole invokes nary a hint of chauvinism. On the contrary, it indicates the same sort of confident pride as the family crest - a polite, emblematic nod at history - no more, no less. No Danish civilian would ever dream of saluting the flag. Absurd idea! It’s just an atavistic totem, with no more contemporary significance than the star on top of a Christmas tree.
All isms lead to conflict, none more so than nationalism, but there's still clearly a lot of concern - especially in the US - amongst those people who vigorously opposed the recent illegal invasion of Iraq not to appear 'unpatriotic.' Obviously, it's very easy for the apes to point and jeer at the parades of protestors and call them 'traitors', but there's really no point in proudly holding up the flag and claiming that you can be a patriot and still oppose your government. Evidently – George has spoken to Donald and Donald has run it past Amoco - you can't. You’re either with them or you're a traitor in their eyes.
The important thing is to recognise the distinction between your government and your culture. I, for example, love my country, but despise the stubborn residue of hereditary influence (the aristocracy) and the fatally-ingrown class-system that enabled such socially catastrophic events as the twelve-year hegemony of Margaret Thatcher: she and her kind (amongst whom I now, shockingly, include Poodle Blair) represent, to me, the unacceptable underbelly of the society that produced the abolitionists, the trade unionists, the Quakers, the Beatles, Monty Python, Radiohead, tea-bags, and fish and chips.
Nationalistic pride - and patriotism - is what governments prefer a passive electorate to feel in lieu of thinking - and of challenging their authority from a position of informed debate. Patriotism is obedience. And, since nationalism has to be kept simplistic in order to retain the lowest common denominator of social attention, the flag becomes fetishised as a venerated icon of - what, exactly?
The assembly hall of my old school was decorated with a dozen or so moth-eaten old flags - nothing compared with the shrapnel-shredded festoons of faded regimental banners that proudly lined the choir of the Cathedral, where the Founders Day service was traditionally preceded by the annual ritual of parading the cadet corps flag and having it re-blessed by the incumbent bishop. The connection couldn't have been more clearly reinforced: church>flag : god>country.
In such a war-loving culture as the US, to be perceived as unpatriotic becomes a sort of secular blasphemy. Burning the flag is an affront as heinous as (more heinous than?) spitting on the cross.
In the UK, the union flag - the union jack - was appropriated long ago by the far right: it is now a symbol of racism, xenophobic insularity, anti-semitism, homophobia, and gut-fascism. There are some in the US who are still trying hard to believe that their flag 'represents' something noble and right - something to do with 'freedom'. Fine - as long as you believe that 'freedom' means having bartered the right to choose between fifty labels on the same box containing the same product for the right to voice your opposition to a barely legal authority that serves only the wealthy.
The barbers pole and the three flags of the US, the UK and Denmark share the same basic colours for the same reason - they both refer back to a time when blood-letting was considered a normal way to solve internal problems in the body and the body-politic.
Denmark has moved on.
Time for us to do the same.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Boris took the
rhino to North Devon for an outing