Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Yule - a happy solitude. On televisual mind-rotting and books.

I had just a couple of days off for Yule, so visited my mother to make the most of it. She lives on Anglesey now, which meant that I was able to spend my time there exactly how I like it: peaceful tranquility, "far from the maddening crowd".  The above picture was taken on Aberffraw beach on Thor's day (i.e. Xmas day). The sky was incredibly beautiful, shades of crimson and topaz setting behind the Snowdonia mountains in the background.

Most television programs broadcast today, generally speaking, represent an abomination of mediocrity and turgid mindlessness, but never before can I remember there being such a dearth of anything remotely worth watching as over this festive period. When I say that there was nothing - I mean it completely literally. A morass of reality television and populist "light entertainment" (sarcasm fully intended). Apart from watching a DVD (The Pursuit Of Happiness, with Will Smith, which was, quite surprisingly (given my initial scepticism about Mr. Smith's capabilities of acting a "serious" role), fairly good), the television never actually went on. Music all the way - Brahm's piano works and Bruckner symphonies.

Where were all the films? Are all the television channels cost-cutting in the present economic climate and showing infinitely cheaper (in all senses of the word) reality TV shows?

Bah humbug, and all that. Give me a decent book any day. My disdain of modern television broadcasting has reached the point where I almost view it as actually mentally toxic. I am one of these people that will quite specifically make sure to always mute the television when adverts come on; I find nothing more grating that being subjected to a barrage of manipulative images and sounds - particularly since some of them are known to deploy almost subliminal images to product place something into your unconscious. We all have enough mental garbage to automatically filter out in modern life without adding more.

Unfortunately, I can't be in such an exquisitely beautiful place all the time. And so I disappear into my inner world. Which in large part, for me, is through books. My overcrowded bookshelf - modest as it is; I dream of my own house, with my own "library" - a room filled with bookshelves packed with hundreds, if not thousands of books - is my portal somewhere else, somewhere higher. When your immediate surroundings represent a poverty of beauty; I don't even have my own home, not even an incredibly modest dwelling, simply a cramped room I rent in a shared, messy and ugly house, in an unremarkable set of streets; then you have to either compensate with your inner world, or fall prey to mental illness (which comes in many disguised forms in the modern era). Or at least, in my case, anyway. Opportunities to truly escape are rare, so cherished when they occur.

It's the usual conundrum: the places where you'd like to live don't generally have much in the way of available jobs. And cities are infinitely more pleasant if you're rich (which I'm not, obviously).

So, one can but struggle on.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

From dental pain to Messiaen

It has been an extremely busy week so far.

Little time to be. Apart from longer hours at work during this busy Yuletide, I have had to subject myself to the personal horror of the dentist - be cursed the modern diet and my poor dental genetics. I feel like I'm fighting a losing war when trying to keep all my teeth healthy, despite endless brushing, mouthwashes, etc, etc.

Such is the mundane sphere of life.

Still, last night was an experience to remember. For I had the inestimable enlightenment served by seeing a performance of a truly rarefied order of mastery. I saw Steven Osborne perform Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus here at the Sage in Gateshead.

Ostensibly this is a deeply religious, Christian work. One could easily form pre-conceptions about its content from the subtitle, which is on the theme of the Nativity.

But lest anyone assume that what we have here is some syrupy, meek, parochial and insipid devotional to the Christian faith, they couldn't be more wrong. And most importantly, we have an example of devout religiosity ultimately serving Art as the highest exemplar; for what we have here is music of utterly exceptional quality. Through Osborne, this music is served by an interpretor of such ability that he possesses the necessary capacity to render this music - for this is very difficult, very obtuse and highly inaccessible music.

If anything, this music should come with a warning. For, it may only apparently be a work for a solo piano, but it is surely some of the most violent, extreme and demanding music ever created. I can state this with confidence from the perspective of someone whose musical tastes could be described as extremely eclectic, unconventional, and in many cases highly extreme in comparison to cultural norms.

When I say demanding, I should clarify that it is in equal measure for the listener as well as the performer. First off, we have a continuous piece of music (in twenty sections) for solo instrument that lasts in excess of two hours - and the concert, quite appropriately given the musical content, was performed without an interval or break. Next, we have the extraordinarily chromatic and polytonal musical tonality - no adherence to happy major keys or simple chord structures here. Into the mix we have an astonishing dynamic range, from the gentlest notes barely disturbing the substrate of silence... to a colossal cacophony, a veritable battery; a grand piano assault. Finally, we have the immensely complex structure to the piece; tied together throughout with the original theme introduced in the very first part.

It is often said that the silence, the space between notes, is absolutely as important as the notes themselves; nowhere is this more true than here. This work positively dances around silence; before exploding out as if in some Old Testament Divine judgement from the Almighty, to rip into the backdrop of silence and populate it with multifaceted, ambiguous forms. In that respect it reflects life.

It is a work that is sublime and fantastic in the most absolutely literal sense of those two words. For me, the real essence of the work distils down to the following conflict: the tension between the transcendent and the immanent.

I am currently reading de Benoist's On Being A Pagan, which is a book written by an author of great learning and insight. Interestingly, the process of reading this book deepened my experience of the concert last night.

For, in dialectically contrasting the traditional Pagan/polytheist teleology with its usurpation by the [currently] prevailing Judeo-Christian/monotheist world view, I was drawn into recognising features in the music that correspond to the philosophical and theological precepts discussed in this book. Specifically, the Otherness, the great, unapproachable Other that characterises the relationship man has towards God in the Judeo-Christian world view. Judaism's Yahweh is distinctly not of this world; he is the creator, or more impotantly, the ultimate authority, the Law and the Word of this world. For all the ancient Pagan religions, the gods are distinctly a part of this world; they interact through this world; they are idealised Man; they are not some impossible Other: permanently [virtually] unreachable, intractable, and entirely transcendent not-being.

Anyway, the reason I draw inferences to this point is that Messaien's music, and especially this piece, seems to struggle with the reconciliation of this primordial alienation with the equally primordial being as a being in this world. These are themes that Nietzsche, and more recently, Heidegger elaborate on. For, in the final analysis, as a human being, one must partake of what is humanising.

The work occupies a realm of tremendous spiritual depth but also one that is almost cold, existentially terrifying, and somewhat detached from this world. Chilling sections are contrasted by violent episodes that almost suggest a Divine authority from above crushing you from without; or, conversely, with the inner struggle of man to acheive supremacy over himself, to reintegrate into a whole what for most of the time feels like a mysterious and discontiguous assemblage of unknowables. This is definitely an innately human quality that anyone who reflects on the human conundrum must experience at least some of the time.

The work gradually metamorphises and the grand reconciliation begins to seem possible; through intensity the two elements - id and ego; unconciousness and conciousness; intuition and intellect; transcendent and immanent; spirit and form - seem to achieve the necessary higher synthesis and coalesce into a recognisable whole.

Messaien's approaches the line from the side of the Other and gradually reaches down to the ground of common experience by always, musically looking up, to the beyond. His is the calculus of finding the particular from the universal.

It only takes a listener willing to open themselves up to the experience to recognise the great uncommunicable, spiritual unity visible in this work - regardless of their personal religious and spiritual views. This is music that truly does transcend.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Gender stereotypes, being a miserable bastard (purportedly), and love (lack thereof)

I suppose it isn't surprising - since it makes perfect biological sense - but it is nevertheless a source of continual amazement to me how, when it comes to the world of human attraction, that even in the supposedly enlightened 21st century, we are still stuck in an apparent pattern of very rigid gender typing.

And at the risk of igniting a cultural veritable hot potato, it does seem to be accentuated in the North vs. South thing, here in England.

As soon as you start talking about Northerners or Southerners one is immediately on shaky ground. But irrespective, it is rather a hobby of pretty much every English person, so why not ;-)

The generalisation I have personally observed - insert disclaimer here - is that people in the North tend to be more overtly gender typed than in the South. On average.

So, basically, what I'm saying is that the men up here tend to be very bloke-ish - so lots of bravado, braggadocio,  machismo, and the portrayal, in general, of a thick skin and a habit to simply laugh things up and, wherever possible, to take the piss [out of each other].

The more "feminine" qualities of empathy, support, and well, refinement, for want of a better word, are less cherished.

Now, this obviously occurs in the South too. But in my circle of acquaintances "down there" (e.g. Woking, Surrey), in comparison with up here (e.g. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne), it was noticeably less, well, overtly gender stereotyped.

There does seem to be more of a hard-drinking background up here too. I suppose it is perhaps a case of the historical working class background "dying hard".

So, to put all of the above into an example, if I'm feeling low then my circle of (male, and yes, also straight) friends down South were more inclined to try to cheer me up and offer sympathy, engage me in conversation; up here they are more likely to make jokes about my misfortunes and perhaps try to cheer me up by getting me to laugh it off.

But anyway, pointless comparisons between North and South aside, and still generally applicable to both equally, and probably the UK as a whole, this gender stereotyping reveals itself more starkly than anywhere else on a night out.

Boys have to be boys, girls have to be girls, so to speak.

What I find ironic, is that the qualities that women seem to want in terms of their behaviour - at least when they're out on a night - from their men are not what they actually seem to want when they describe what they want during (sober) conversation.

I suppose a man who espouses "alpha" qualities is perceived as having more sexual prowess and power, and of possessing more of the masculine principle; therefore they are more attractive, in general. At least initially. In terms of actually having a relationship with someone, if they are orientated towards the extreme pole of their particular gender, then this will make them more difficult in terms of compatibility for a successful stable partnership; they would probably need to be counterbalanced by someone equally as extremely orientated towards the other pole.


I'm not personally into heavy drinking, bragging, showmanship, and overt "laddishness". (And I'm not claiming that I've never done any of this in my life either, since that would be a lie).

But it is a shame that it seems to be assumed that if you don't have these characteristics, then you are less masculine (and viz., less attractive). That seems to be the common cultural gender archetype over here [in the UK].

To give an example: my idea of a good night out is a nice meal with friends and good conversation. I'd much rather have a intimate meal over a bottle of wine with a lovely woman than go on a binge drinking pub crawl getting plastered with her. Etc.

I suppose I would like to identify myself with a more "continental" archetype; slightly quiet, relatively serious, somewhat intense, philosophical, and passionate. Perhaps I am overbearing - what can I say. My favourite writers include such luminaries as Arthur Schopanhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant...

Pah. I'm probably doomed. Just because I'm a serious type doesn't mean I'm not fun. Or at least, I hope that is the case. Besides, I don't see fun and seriousness as two diametrically opposing concepts. One can have fun... seriously, surely ;-)

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Odin's soil

My time of need
Where the aimless and unidentifiable moment
a frozen river, still; then gone
so my memory passes, seeking purchase
on some outcrop of truth
a small victory, against a tide of escaping time
swept into a blank sea
finally resurfacing, clambering aboard
a small boat, a vessel of hope
finding bedrock on awareness
ashore, upon Odin's soil;
finally, earthed

Monday, 8 December 2008

Poverty in the true sense of the word

Perhaps it is a function of an ever expanding memory (in terms of the library of life experiences), but life increasingly seems like a dream world. Increasingly, I find myself projecting myself somewhere else; either recollecting images from the past, or imagining new, possible futures. Yeah, daydreaming as it were. Increasingly so. But isn't daydreaming the norm, interrupted by brief excursions into so called "normality"?

Australian Aboriginals were no doubt correct to view the dream world as being ever bit as real (if not more so) than "real life". For how much of the time can one say that one is fully present in the moment? Or perhaps one should ask, how often would one want to be fully present in the moment? For, unless you are fortunate (or, speaking satirically, Buddhist), a moment by moment analysis would reveal a cruel fate of tedium, boredom, endless repetitive tasks, an impossible struggle with entropy.

But this question is probably negatively coloured by my own personal experience [of being presently "stuck"]. For, one would have great joy in being fully present, fully attentive, fully aware of the moment if one is doing what one truly believes your life purpose is. In other words, if you are fortunate in that your life's work is spiritually or perhaps intellectually fulfilling - for properly [inwardly] directed, any intellectual pursuit can become a spiritual exercise.

I am guilty of insularity sometimes, probably more through a tendency to withdraw into myself due to a lack of [apparent] availability of what I truly need from what is externally present in my day to day life, rather than through some type of misanthropic or innately anti-social prejudice.  

Life's work; life's joy. It really can be a bitch to find; or perhaps, rather, pursue. In the Western world the ultimate chain is debt; credit, far from being a freedom, is ultimately always a denial of freedom. For to accrue debt is to give away ownership of your own life to a concomitant degree. If you're not able to financially unlock the chain through earnings, your only way to break the chain is to allow it sink to the bottom of the material sea, and take with it every single possession, every single external thing about your life; everything thing except what is most important; yourself. So in that sense, you can be truly free again. But that is both artificial and too idealistic.

So you sell a little piece of your soul every time you need to borrow a penny - certainly when the person lending the penny is a faceless organisation, an abstract corporate entity.   

Life has never been a panacea for anyone, but the defining quest of freedom is the search for oneself. The search to make the life one leads authentic towards yourself - the search to make the inner and the outer worlds reflections of each other, different only by degree.

On that set of parameters, I have an awful long way to go...

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The architecture of sexual desire

There seems to be an increasingly stark contrast between my mundane life and the my intelligible life.

Work is about wearing a mask to some degree. Interaction with anyone but the closest and deepest of friends involves wearing a mask. The working week, the normal week, is a constant occupation of the mundane sphere, where everything is structured according to time. Morning, wake up, breakfast, leave house; various tasks at work, lunch; lunch break - enter the intelligible world - over; afternoon, various tasks; finish work, walk home; prepare stuff, go to gym; return home, cook and eat; various tasks; internet, books, music a brief period of time to return to awareness.

Being non-stop from seven in the morning to nine in the evening doesn't leave a great deal of time for much else. And this sort of schedule is pretty normal for a lot of people who live in the West. So many things; in the Western world we have so many forms, that is, material objects. Clutter. Clutter in mind.

Perhaps one of the particular joys of climbing a mountain is the sense of space, free from clutter, free from endless material junk. Free, if only for a while, from time.

It is easy to see why certain major religions, particularly Christianity, effectively regard sex as a "sin". Sin, properly understood in this context, should be taken to be obsession with form, with the material object as its goal, to the exclusion of higher spiritual precepts. As a man in his twenties, one can certainly easily identify with the originating basis of this prescription; a person in harmony with oneself, can conquer the sense of loneliness and detachment one can often feel, and transform it into a comfortable solitude; a peaceful existence free from the endless and constant superficial intrusions of Western noise. The sense of sexual desire, never. Not authentically I believe. People may conquer it through a sense of denial, and a prescription of "sin" to cast it into a negative light might allow them to intellectually justify a denial of what ultimately is a fundamental basis of being human; but it will always remain.

In this sense, it is both the biggest enemy - as an inclination that will never be fully satisfied; as a feeling so powerful it can drive someone to complete self-destruction or violence (in whatever form) - and the biggest strength - as a chance to existentially connect with the limitless spiritual basis of authentic being; a chance to fully harmonise with oneself completely.

Those of us who identify more intimately with a Pagan theogony, who see ourselves as spiritually connected in the world as a part of nature rather than above it, who feel no need to separate the animal nature as being automatically inferior, rather than to merely recognise its characteristic as integrated into our sense of being; we see sex as an overwhelming positive force. Positive, but still cruel, where it is unavailable. 

If love is the Ideal, as the intelligible spiritual synthesis for the hamonising principle between two people, sex is frequently the catalyst, and always a chance to bring a little of the intelligible world into the mundane, even if it does so completely outside the realm of love; for providing it is done willingly, consensually, and with genuine desire, it is always therefore authentic, and to this degree the persons involved always share an existential, and necessarily to some degree, spiritual experience.

So, to be denied this key, an incredibly powerful and overwhelmingly immediate one at that, is just one more frustrating closure of from the authentic sense of self that you seek. The denial carries with it the additional penalty of being a constant laborious distraction; for it feels like the golden apple that is always just out of reach, yet always visible.