Popular Posts

Monday, June 27, 2011

"'Only connect', was the whole of his sermon" --E.M. Forster

It's not often I use video in this blog other than for purposes of ornament. This video is the entire subject of this entry. I present it here without comment, and look forward to reader reactions.

I'll give it a week, then write my responses below.



Okay, so it's been more than a week. What do you want at these prices?

Most responses so far (from Facebook) have tended to focus on an assumption of the tragic loss of an innocent, Edenic state of being. I do not know for certain that that happened in this instance, but the history of such encounters would suggest you can bet the rent that this tribe did not remain isolated.

The myth of a golden age, where indigenous cultures flourished untouched by any outside (thus necessarily corrupting) influence, is one of those common-sense human presumptions that crumbles under examination. There never was such a time or such a culture. Movement, contact, and assimilation have been the constants in all human history, unless you assume that indigenous tribes grew up out of the ground like indigenous plant life.

The DNA record clearly shows common ancestry in sub-saharan Africa, movement up the fertile valleys into Europe and Asia, and then branching and splitting separating, until the tribal journey began to fold back on itself and certain human relatives, separated since time out of mind, encountered one another for the first time in their experience. At which point they either cooperated, negotiated or fought for dominance.

There is hardly one square kilometer or habitable or arable or grazable land on the planet that has not been acquired, conquered, inherited, or brokered as a result of such encounters. The isolation tribes like the one in the film find themselves in, is as a result of following herds or food-gathering or fight and flight. They are far and away the exception.

However, just because history has always been thus is no excuse for not trying to come up with better ways of managing such encounters. Because, for me, the real issue in the film is power. The Europeans have it (in the form of knowledge, technology, and resources), and the tribe does not (apart from perhaps a better knowledge of the immediate area). It is thus the Europeans who have the greater leverage in mystifying and controlling the tribe, and thus in a far better position to determine the outcome of the exchange.

What helps this seem normal, natural, and right is that we buy into the infantilization of the tribe by ascribing the romantic 'noble savage' status to them. By assuming they want to be and should be left alone, that this is what is best for them. So, I imagine, is typhus, which is natural in that part of the world. Which is NOT to say that we have a right to 'civilize them' for their own good. However, given the massive power imbalance at work, it is the Europeans who are in better position to consider carefully what the best course of action might be, given the inevitability of human contact, the utter impossibility of utter isolation forever. Noblesse oblige...emphasis on the latter term.

Witness how white Europeans managed the encounter with the indigenous Australians and you get a good idea of how NOT to exercise power. In a landmark announcement today, the City of Sydney finally called a spade a shovel, and finally called for the phrase 'white settlement' to be replaced by the more accurate term 'invasion'.

That this has taken over two hundred years to be uttered (and not without the predictable apoplexy among of those privileged by the invasion), is as deeply dispiriting as anything I can think of, but at least it's a step in the right direction. The past cannot be undone of course, but the scenario played out in the film will continue to be played out in the developing world, perhaps in far less picturesquely romantic circumstances, among those without power or agency in negotiations that will determine their futures and the futures of their offspring for centuries.

Compassionately ascribing full dignity and agency to the socially marginalised, the dispossessed, and the powerless, was the ministry of one Yeshuah bin-Yoseph, otherwise called Jesus. That was 2000 years ago, and how's that working out for ya?

Let's hope that if we are contacted by an alien race, they will have evolved beyond our practices. Otherwise, we're screwed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Domesticity: Appeasing the Household Gods

The ancients were said to observe two kinds of gods: those worshipped in the temple and those worshipped in the home.

These latter were thought to protect the home and its members, and were represented by small icons or objects in shrines. But just as often, the household gods were located in actual domestic objects--the hearth, the doorway, the window, the roof timbers, a cooking pot. (Sounds like the title of a Magritte painting.) These homely gods were propitiated by small offerings of food and drink, or were invited to share the family meal.

The domovoi, the brownie, the teraphim--all could be kickin' it in Vegas, or living large in Rio,
but for them, there's no place like home...
In a long chorus down the ages, from pre-history, through animism and totemism, through the elaborate pantheons of Greece and Rome, right down into present-day Shinto practice, the domestic gods sing a homing song to all who would be pater (or indeed mater) familias, to attend not only to the heavens but to the earth, to the needful work of home-making, with all the attendant maintenance of external boundaries, internal systems, and its emblematic role as ornament, the visible incarnation of a 'good' life.

I've spent the past nine months more or less at the temple, in the role of votary. Now it's time to propitiate the long-neglected gods of the household, and assume the role of--what other word is there?--husbandry.

There's an old saying that a clean-n-tidy home is the sign of a wasted life. And how often have I guffawed in agreement--citing the silly neurosis of the bourgeois obsession with having everything just so. And how I have thought ruefully about the years that have slipped into the void on the back of DIY projects in homes others now live in. Or the eons of vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning, when things just get dirty all over again. Years that could (and maybe should) have been spent learning any one of a million useful, self-improving skills, or engaging in charitable actions. If the middle classes channelled all that domestic energy and time into the temples of wisdom and/or justice, I used to say, think how much better the world might be.

DIY? Or D.I.E?
 In fact, I often catch myself dreaming of a life, post-parenthood, in a decent flat with regular maid service, the better to free the hands and attention for 'higher things'.

But the older I get, the less certain of anything I become. And as I potter about the place, doing odd, needful jobs--mending the fence, moving furniture, cleaning the pool, cooking one of my signature dishes---I remember that doing the needful things with mindfulness and love can fill ones days in a way that doesn't feel wasted. Granted it's not a trip to Disneyland, but then, neither does a trip to a holy-of-holies ever live up to the expectation. Most things are more gorgeous in the promise than in the reality.

And reality also has sacredness, even its mundane and domestic face. The household gods don't really ask all that much, just acknowledgement. When you forget about them, things start to fall apart, reminding you that you need the gods of the hearth to get on with living a life rather than dreaming of a different one.

Uh-oh. Someone's been away at the fair too long...
How do I know there's real joy in this sort of worship too? As I was getting some tools out of the shed yesterday to do a little, needful job, I found I was singing quietly to myself a catch of an Irish ballad my father used to sing as he noodled about the house, doing the thousand-and-one jobs he seemed always to be doing, as happily as a puppy tumbling over itself with a favorite ball.

And I remembered, as I sang his song, that the animistic tradition of the household gods was said to originate in ancestor worship. I think I read in JG Frazier's The Golden Bough that the 'house spirits' are always friendly, attached as they were to particular families, with whom they has been known to reside for centuries, threshing the corn, cleaning the house, and performing similar household tasks. Their favorite gratification was milk and honey. Then I remembered my father's insatiable sweet-tooth for anything sweet and creamy, and I burst into tears.

I can still hear him telling me to be careful around such things, every single time.
For here I was and am, replaying his husbandry long after he has departed, doing the needful things that keep a household--and the family within it--going, and he is still with me, consubstantial in my domesticity. It was his strong (and I see now, everlasting) arms I can thank for the life I have, and all the joy in it, and for those who now depend upon me. I honour him, propitiate this household ancestor/god if you will, by attending to the needful things. Knowing this is a rare joy.

The temple will still be there when I return to it.

"Leaning on the everlasting arms" sung by the remarkably affecting voice of Iris deMent to take us out...forget the picture, just listen.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Minding the Gap

It's a curious existential moment when you see a beloved old friend after a gap of many years.

There's a kind of time lapse effect that happens in my brain, at least, when the vision of my old friend before me is overlaid on the loved memory-image I've carried around in the intervening years. Your mind, well mine at least, spends some time simultaneously entertaining two hypotheses of what must be there  beyond the image in my retina. And during that time, your mind (mine again) does what it does between frames of an animated cartoon--fills in the action. I see them age, in time-lapse, before me. It creates a sharp, tender shock.

Where a person ends and where his friend begins is never entirely clear. Relationship is alchemy.

It is at such moment when you realize that this life is made precious chiefly by those with whom we are privileged to share it. This privilege is only partly earned; it is mostly, I think, a gift.

Yesterday was the occasion of the retirement of one who has been my oldest, continuing, deep friendship in the UK. Those assembled were an old crowd of friends who started working together, when we were a generation younger. We built careers together, created and raised children, travelled together, and shared the myriad tiny triumphs and the inevitable personal failures that make up the rich pattern of any normal life. The pub rang all evening with the rich laughter of remembering. Wine flowed, and we broke bread. And that communion was not the end of the sacramental dimension of the evening.

Every meal shared in joy and generosity is a communion.

Many were with partners different from those we began with, and many who would have been there, had moved on to other climes and lives, as I have done. And so I thought it fitting, when toasting-time was ripe, to lift one "To absent friends."

"Absent friends". How that phrase stuck with me as I rode the train home to Manchester, which is soon to my home no longer, in a few days. Travelling, moving, and self-imposed exiles are often called "the curse of the Celt", and I've got it in spades. There as a lot of love in the room last night, but the truth is I have been a absent friend to these, and to more than these, and last night's reunion brought that home. Absence made a lot of hearts grow fonder, and the occasion and the wine helped too.

An awareness of what is missing

As every psychologist knows, memory has a in-built prestige-enhancing function, a mechanism by which the terrors fade, the joys remain and are morphed into a personal hagiography. We remember our kids talking earlier, the travels more joyous and not at all dull or difficult, and perhaps even the role we played in people's lives more central or essential. But we can remember things in no other way, at least not without professional help and careful reconstruction. What I remember feels real, so that's how I take it.

The memories I've hoarded from our shared past, along with a steamer trunk of hard-copy photographs, are  no substitute for being there, and the wide gaps of time since we were dissevered, I from them, serve to remind that NOW is ever the only time we really actually live in. The rest is a story.

Don't misunderstand--last night was a rare joy. But I also got the sense during the prolonged hugs goodbye that more of us than just me wanted to have a good hard sob about where the years had gone, and how now as retirement, and the only possible end of retirement, begins to loom for us all, that we want another crack at doing over and doing BETTER the friendships that had so sustained us during a time in our lives when we were young and had the whole future--that which we now grow old in--ahead of us.

Listen to this is you can: