Sunday, March 30, 2014

A faint bleep

Greetings. I sat down to write a little something, but I don’t think I have it in me to string two sentences together, and feel a desire to go to bed that cannot be ignored. Life is a little rampant (the colleague who gives me a lift to Sydney has infected me with the word “rampant”, which she uses liberally, and for which she blames a former colleague of her own) at the moment. Last week I went up to Sydney for work from early Monday morning to late Wednesday night, worked from home in Canberra for two days, went back to Sydney on Friday afternoon to go to a conference with Kathy Keller on Saturday (met my former flatmate for dinner in IKEA on Friday night (first time I’ve ever eaten in IKEA, and the set-up felt rather like I was either in a communist soviet country or on a church camp, but we certainly had a hearty dinner) to squeeze in a spot of shopping also), then got in the car straight after the conference and drove back to Canberra last night, so I could, you know, wash some clothes, and because I need to be in Canberra for something tomorrow (Monday), and then I will go back to Sydney on Tuesday morning to work for three days. So, after Thursday everything should be less rampant, and I might save any blog ramblings for then.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Paul Simon and Sting in concert

I was just looking for something to listen to on youtube yesterday while I checked a few things, and came upon videos of a Paul Simon and Sting concert, in which they sing songs of both artists, that I have been playing since. I think this is a concert I would have to go and see. I do think Sting is a great musician (you only need to watch him play Bach's Cello Concerto on the guitar!) but I don't know that he matches Art Garfunkel's vocals (I pity anyone who has to step in for Art Garfunkel actually). Anyway, the sound is not great on some, and there are other videos out there, but here is a selection:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Secret Scripture - a book

So have now finished The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry. This is a beautiful book. Yet it is not one that is easy to read. Terrible things once happened in Ireland, and terrible things once happened to individuals in Ireland, among communities that could be terribly unforgiving.

The book tells the tale of a ninety-nine-year-old woman whom we meet in a mental hospital, which is about to be demolished, and so the hospital psychiatrist is required to assess each patient to determine why they are there and what is the best thing for them in the future. In the process he begins to look into the past history of this particular patient, and her story unfolds. It's terribly sad, but beautifully rendered, and for all that sounds grim, it's full of grace and hope. Here are a few snippets (I wish I'd underlined more, as there a lovely things said about memory, and the telling of our histories, that I can't find now).
Well, all speaking is difficult, whether peril attends it or not. Sometimes peril to the body, sometimes a more intimate, miniature, invisible peril to the soul. When to speak at all is a betrayal of something, perhaps a something not even identified, hiding inside the chambers of the body like a scared refugee in a site of war.
There has never been a person in an old people’s home that hasn’t looked around dubiously at the other inhabitants. They are the old ones, they are the club that no one wants to join. But we are never old to ourselves. That is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.
What can I tell you further? I once lived among humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the name of three or four that were like angels.

I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

If our suffering is great on account of that, yet at close of day the gift of life is something immense. Something larger than old Sligo mountains, something difficult but oddly bright, that makes equal in their fall the hammers and the feathers.

And like the impulse that drives an old maid to make a garden, with a meagre rose and a straggling daffodil, gives a hint of some coming paradise.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Flowers in the sun

With some historic Sydney sandstone behind them.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

One of the powers of jealousy

One more little snippet from Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. I am actually now into another novel I pulled off the shelf that is a relic from a book club which I never read called The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry, but more on that in another post. This is perhaps some lousy excuse, but I have taken lately to reading novels on the bus trips back from Sydney, for the simple reason that other books, such as the Christian living ones I was working through, are not so well designed for continuous reading for three and a half hours, in order to gain the most benefit, so I’d find I’d read a bit, then pause and ponder and look out the window, or my phone, then read a bit more etc, but because I can keep the pages of a novel flicking, I feel like I am actually reading more in the given time, and there are perhaps better times and ways to read the other books.

I thought this an insightful little snippet, on how much easier it is to at least think we understand happenings, when those happenings are less close to our heart or have less important consequences for our lives. But when things mean a great deal, or we have more invested in the outcome, it is suddenly so much harder to interpret them. I was interested to discover that one of the major influences on Proust was George Eliot (and also Dostoevsky), because the portions I’ve read of his musings on the human psyche have something similar about them (the first part is de Botton, then a quote from Proust).
Though we sometimes suspect that people are hiding things from us, it is not until we are in love that we feel an urgency to push our enquiries, and in seeking answers we are apt to discover the extent to which people disguise and conceal their real lives.
It is one of the powers of jealousy to reveal to us the extent to which the reality of external facts and the emotions of the heart are an unknown element which lends itself to endless suppositions. We imagine that we know exactly what things are and people think, for the simple reason that we do not care about them. But as soon as we have a desire to know, as the jealous man has, then it becomes a kaleidoscope in which we can no longer distinguish anything. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

How to be a good friend

I finished How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton on last week’s bus trip. I read his writings discriminately, because he’s not a Christian and all (though I think he badly wants to be really), but I do enjoy them. I love a good British sense of humour and he opens the way into other less penetrable works. This one has almost tempted me to have a shot at the massive tome that is In Search of Lost Time. There are many snippets from Proust in the book how to write well and how to express yourself and how to open your eyes to the ordinary world around you, that lead me to conclude I’d actually enjoy his enormous novel.

For now I thought I’d quote a few bits from the chapter on How to be a Good Friend, which has some goodly things to say. Moving towns always prompts one to consider the how and what of friendship. Proust himself had a very generous approach to friendship, being a people pleaser in the extreme, which certainly gained him many friends, though there are hints that it was, in the end, rather unsatisfactory for him. Still, it gave me cause to ponder, though I don't know that I'd want to settle completely on his approach. Here are a few snippets from the chapter:
... it is often assumed, usually by people who don’t have many friends, that friendship is a hallowed sphere where what we wish to talk about effortlessly coincides with others’ interests. Proust, less optimistic than this, recognized the likelihood of discrepancy, and concluded that he should always be the one to ask questions, and to address himself to what was on your mind rather than risk boring you with what was on his. To do anything else would have been bad conversational manners: ‘There is a lack of tact in people who in their conversation look not to please others, but to elucidate, egoistically, points that they are interested in.’ Conversation required an abdication of oneself in the name of pleasing companions. ‘When we chat, it is no longer we who speak ... we are fashioning ourselves then in the likeness of other people, and not of a self that differs from them.
It was not for elucidating, egoistically, things one was interested in, it was primarily for warmth and affection, which is why, for a cerebral man, Proust had remarkably little interest in overtly intellectual friendships ...
I do my intellectual work within myself, and once with other people, it’s more or less irrelevant to me that they’re intelligent, as long as they are kind, sincere, etc.
Of course, he wasn’t always so benevolent and had his bad days, where he came out with such things as “‘Friendship doesn’t exist,’ and ‘Love is a trap and only reveals itself to us by making us suffer.’” He also wrote:
In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.
Ultimately, it would seem his approach to friendship was a little impoverished (when he actually observed things acutely and felt things deeply), though are certainly things one could learn from it, and it might shed a clue as to why he wrote a novel seven volumes long. De Botton writes:
How are we to respond to the level of insincerity apparently required in every friendship? How are we to respond to the two habitually conflicting projects carried on under the single umbrella of friendship, a project to secure affection, and a project to express ourselves honestly? It was because Proust was both unusually honest and unusually affectionate that he drove the joint project to breaking point and came up with his distinctive approach to friendship, which was to judge that the pursuit of affection and the pursuit of truth were fundamentally rather than occasionally incompatible.

... Though the dominant view of grievances is that they should invariably be discussed with their progenitors, the typically unsatisfactory results of doing so should perhaps urge us to reconsider ...

Instead, these awkward thoughts were better entertained elsewhere, in a private space for analyses too wounding to be shared with those who had inspired them. A letter which never gets sent is such a place. A novel is another.
So, who is going to write a novel then?

Ideas of friendship and what it should be are a many and varied thing. CS Lewis, it would seem, had a rather different criteria when he wrote "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one". I think I might view the whole enterprise of friendship as having concentric circles. If I ever create a diagram, I shall post it here first.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday - the nephew

It's been a while, and so I thought some of you might like to see a little update on my nephew. He's coming along well, and is just super cute. He has a little catching up to do in weight gain, but other than that is doing fine. You can see his scar in some of these pictures, which looks remarkably good given it's two months since his whole chest was cut open.

A couple of weeks ago one of his big sisters chose his Sunday outfit. I love it (I reckon he's got a few more years in that shirt)!

And another smiley one. He's got dimples.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

On books and the Proustian incentive

So, I did finish The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, which was good, but not brilliant. This is my problem with modern fiction; sometimes it’s OK, but rarely is it extraordinary, and life is a little too short. At least if you read something from the canon of English literature, even if it’s a slog, generally you have learnt what the story was aiming to teach, which was something worth learning. With modern novels though, this is questionable. The final “point” of this one seemed to be that the heroine had “more important things to do with her life” (quote from the last page) than to get married. Whoop de doo. I didn’t really need to read a (long) novel to learn this view on the whole phenomenon. Such is everywhere.

To be fair though, it is an interesting book, and turns out to be quite a fascinating observation of one character’s struggle with manic depression, and of another’s with “religion”. It is worth reading on those points.

I am now reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton. I'm making a point of reading through some of the unread books on my shelf (despite buying the one above on hoildays), and this is one of them. It's not likely I'll find the time to read all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, so I am enjoying this synopsis.

Back to this point that perhaps people are perhaps more remarkable for not always getting what they want, de Botton and Proust have some interesting things to say:
... it is worth pointing out that feeling things [which usually means feeling them painfully] is at some level linked to the acquisition of knowledge.

In fact, in Proust’s view, we don’t really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped ...

Though we can of course use our minds without being in pain, Proust’s suggestion is that we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer, therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context, it helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions and reconcile ourselves to its presence.

It follows that ideas which have arisen without pain lack an important source of motivation. For Proust, mental activity seems divided into two categories: there are what might be called painless thoughts, sparked by no particular discomfort, inspired by nothing other than a disinterested wish to find out how sleep works or why human beings forget; and painful thoughts, arising out of a distressing inability to sleep or recall a name — and it is this latter category which Proust significantly privileges.

He tells us, for instance, that there are two methods by which a person can acquire wisdom, painlessly via a teacher or painfully via life, and he proposes that the painful variety is the far superior; a point he places into the mouth of his fictional painter Elstir, who treats the narrator to an argument in favour of making some mistakes:
There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or even lived in a way which was so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. But he shouldn’t regret this entirely, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man — so far as any of us can be wise — unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be reached. I know there are young people ... whose teachers have instilled in them a nobility of mind and moral refinement from the very beginning of their schooldays. They perhaps have nothing to retract when they look back upon their lives; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.
Why can’t they? Why is this painful journey so indispensable to the acquisition of true wisdom? Elstir does not specify, though it may be enough that he has defined a relation between the degree of pain a person experiences and the profundity of thought they may have as a result. It is as if the mind were a squeamish organ which refused to entertain difficult truths unless encouraged to do so by difficult events. ‘Happiness is a good for the body,’ Proust tells us, ‘but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.’ These griefs put us through a form of mental gymnastics which we would have avoided in happier times. Indeed, if a genuine priority is development of our mental capacities, the implication is that we would be better off being unhappy than content, better off pursuing tormented love affairs than reading Plato or Spinoza.
A woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than does a man of genius who interests us.
It is perhaps only normal if we remain ignorant when things are blissful. While a car is working well, what incentive is there to learn of its complex internal functioning? When a beloved pledges loyalty, why should we start to dwell on the dynamics of human treachery? What could encourage us to investigate the humiliations of social life when all we encounter is respect? Only when plunged into grief do we have the Proustian incentive to confront difficult truths, as we wail under the bedclothes, like branches in the autumn wind.
I am not going to endorse Elstir’s idea of passing through all the fatuous and unwholesome incarnations of a thing. It is perhaps sufficient to face a genuine temptation and resist, a la Jesus (Hebrews 2:18), though it would seem Jesus himself did have to experience human suffering in order to learn something (Hebrews 5:18) and truly sympathise with us in it (Hebrews 4:15). And obviously I do believe their is value in teaching wisdom, but I suspect this is all too true with regards the effectiveness of the learning.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Apostle's Creed again

Sorry folks, I have had a little something else to write of late, and am also trying to put more energy into finding another new job. But a few weeks ago I posted a music video of the Apostles Creed by Third Day and Brandon Heath. I have been thrashing it somewhat ever since and have now found the original by the late Rich Mullins (who suffered the tragic fate of many a good musician). I actually quite like this version too when it gets going, with a bit more 90s rock and drama, even though it sounds like he is going to break into Love is in the Air towards the end. He is playing a hammered dulcimer, which is what I now know is that strange instrument is in the acoustic version. I don’t know whether a church congregation could sing this (it’s a bit tricky round “he was conceived by the Holy Spirit” I think), but it would be super if they could.I could go a little "charo" on this one.

Sunday, March 02, 2014


Alone Lord God, in Whom our trust and peace,
   Our love and our desire, glow bright with hope;
   Lift us above this transitory scope
Of earth, these pleasures that begin and cease,
This moon which wanes, these seasons which decrease:
   We turn to Thee; as on an eastern slope
   Wheat feels the dawn beneath night's lingering cope,
Bending and stretching sunward ere it sees.
Alone Lord God, we see not yet we know;
    By love we dwell with patience and desire,
      And loving so and so desiring pray;
      Thy will be done in earth as heaven today;
As yesterday it was, tomorrow so;
   Love offering love on love's self-feeding fire.

Christina Rossetti