July 2010


Well the people voted and no one single party won.  It’s a hung parliament and the conservatives and liberal democrats have combined to form a coalition government.  We have got the government we wanted or rather we have not got any of the governments we didn’t want.  Now politicians or at least little over half of them have a chance to work together to solve the economic crisis.  Perhaps we have seen the end of the boo – rah, rah adversarial politics of the past and will achieve some  concensus. 

This is democracy in action, but is it the best system to solve our problems?  Democracy is accountable, but to whom; to an electorate informed by media and over influenced by the personality of the leader?   Western democracy suffers from populism; it cannot make sacrifices, take the difficult decisions because it will be voted out of office. People expect to be more comfortable, better off; they will only support a government that has to make economic cuts as long as somebody else bears the sacrifice.  The media support the rights of the masses and will soon whip up a storm if they do not get a good deal.

When Tony Blair realised that the Iraqis were not producing weapons of mass destruction, he declared that they were fighting a war to restore democracy in Iraq.  But is that what they wanted?  We might argue that under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had the government it needed – at least for most of the time.  Saddam was seen as a strong leader in the Stalinistic mould.  He not only improved the prosperity of Iraq but he enhanced its stature among Arabic nations and throughout the world.  In the late nineteen eighties, my Iraqi students viewed him as a hero.  But like every dictator, he over-reached himself.  He declared war against the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs, Iran and finally Kuwait.  That was a step too far; Kuwait had oil.  Suddenly Saddam was a dangerous tyrant.  But having got rid of Saddam, is Iraq ready for democracy?  The problem is unless a country is ready, democracy can so easily lead to reactionary politics; the overthrow of one system for another – the tyranny of the majority, more conflict.  Democracy cannot be equated with individual liberty.

 But what is the alternative – a self imposed oligarchy of the great and the seemingly good?  Perhaps  but some system of checks and balances must be imposed to govern the government otherwise the system will be liable to corruption.  In the middle ages, it was the church who kept an eye on states, but this didn’t stop some monarchs setting themselves up as leader of the church as well and it didn’t stop priests abusing children. 

The other evening, I went to see a video documentary on the 2007 riots in Burma, filmed by under-cover  journalists, who smuggled their footage out of the country.  It demonstrated the panic- stricken defence by a government that had boxed itself into a corner by refusing to negotiate and had to react oppressively to restore order.  Once the monks and the people started marching, the outcome was predictable.   We might argue that what a new country needs as it learns to vote and rule itself is a system of monitoring or parenting, by another state.  But isn’t that just colonisation by another name.  And which state will parent Burma?  Not the west for sure, not Japan; memories run deep. So will it be China or India and won’t that just shift the risk of conflict to a larger arena?

They called him ‘The Fire of the North’. 

Once a soldier, man of action,

with connections to the King,  

A traveller, he healed the sick 

From Dumfries to Berwick,  

Made miracles

from Durham to Dunbar,

Received acclaim from Rome.  

.

Be our bishop, they cried.  

At first, he denied. 

Too much work,  he replied. 

I need peace, time and space

to converse with the grace 

of God, but don’t mention the ducks,   

We’ll throw in the island, they said,

Bring you breakfast by boat.  

.

You can wash our feet, they said

if that makes you feels good. 

But he waved them his blessings 

And cuddled his ducks instead. 

.

They must have thought Cuthbert was the man of the moment, a born leader, active, wise, understanding and willing to travel.   But he was also widely known for his piety, diligence, obedience and asceticism.   Northumbria extended as far north as the Forth and as far west as Galloway.  Cuthbert travelled the length and breadth of the country,  preaching,  performing miracles and talking to the people.  His generosity and gifts of insight and healing led many people to consult him. He set up oratories and churches throughout the Kingdom and established a reputation for himself and the church further afield.   When Alchfrith, King of Deira, founded a new monastery at Ripon, it was Cuthbert who became its praepositus hospitum or visitors host. He was a leading exponent of the customs of the Roman church at the synod convened at Twyford on the River Aln and also at the synod of Whitby.     

King Eagwith, about whom the great historian Macauley once said, ‘Who?,’  was impressed and prevailed on the Abbot of Montrose to release him to become Bishop of Lindisfarne,  but Cuthbert didn’t want that sort of responsibility.  He liked coming up with ideas, but he needed space to think and contemplate.  He agreed only if he could live for as much time as he needed in solitude on Inner Farne.  Cuthbert loved the sea and had frequently travelled from Melrose to the priories at Lindisfarne and St Abb’s.  It was said that he could communicate with the wild creatures.  The Eider Ducks were so tame they would nest in his hut.  To this day, the locals refer to them as Cuddy’s Ducks. 

But Cuthbert spent more and more time on his remote island.  If anybody, even the King, needed to see him, they would have to get a boat and a pilot and undertake the often perilous journey from the mainland.  At first he would welcome visitors and wash their feet, but later he waved his blessings from the window and returned to his contemplation. Cuthbert preferred the company of his wild creatures to man, but his inaccessibility only added to his reputation for piety.  

He died in his island hermitage and his body was brought back in state to be buried at Melrose.  Some years later, it was exhumed and his beatification was assured when it was found that no decomposition had set in.  It now rests in Durham Cathedral. 

So what kind of man was Cuthbert?   A reluctant leader?.  A man of great promise, who could not deliver; always out for a duck?  A selfish recluse?   This is open to conjecture, but I like to think of him as a scholar, a man of ideas and inspiration, who could be too affected by others’ agendas.  He needed to escape, to cease the chatter, the demands and be alone.  It wasn’t that he was selfish; quite the opposite.  But he was no politician.  He could see everybody’s view and could so easily be compromised.  And he was quite unsuited to administration. Luckily for him the King recognised Cuthbert’s symbolic importance and his retreat to the island just added to the mystique. He even passed a law protecting the ducks.   

I have just completed St Cuthbert’s Way across the Border Country from the abbey at Melrose to Lindisfarne Priory. It crosses the Eildon Hills (the Roman Trimontium), then follows the broad upland River Tweed as far as the crystal well at Maxton,turns south along Dere Street, goes up over the Cheviots to Wooler, gains the sea at Beal and follows the Pilgrim’s Route across the sands to The Holy Isle.

I rubbed up  a whole new crop of blisters and trudged the mud and sand of the Pilgrim’s Route barefoot and bloodshod.  Half way across, the sky darkened and a squall blew in from the North Sea.  It was then that the it started, an unearthly sound as if all the souls of the departed sailors shipwrecked on this coast has been disinterred and were howling in agony.  It came from what looked like a clump of rocks on a distant sandbank. I focused my binoculars and saw between two and three hundred seals, half of them pups.  This would have stirred Cuthbert’s heart and it stirred mine.                           

My feet have healed and I’ve donated my boots to the RSPCA.  Maybe a duck will find them useful.

In one video,  the artist stopped people in the street and asked them to look into the camera and say  ‘Je t’aime’ (I love you).   Her subjects found it so difficult.  Their body language was so defensive.   They laughed, looked away, crossed their arms, shuffled their feet, lit a cigarette.  Some just couldn’t do it at all.  Just three words, but these three words carried such heartfelt hope and desire that uttering them, even to somebody they had not met before and would not meet again, carried a dreadful risk of rejection and destruction.  As they composed themselves to do it, their faces  became softer, more child-like, more appealing, more vulnerable. Their gazes lingered on the camera as they tried to assess the risk. It was as if saying I love you stripped away a defensive mask and made them appear loveable.  The words meant so much.    

So much human expression is defensive posturing.  It feels so dangerous to reveal our needs and desires.  We need love so much, yet are terrified of its power to subsume all the meaning in our lives and potentially destroy us.’ If we ever doubted love’s affect on the human psyche, just look at these faces. Strangely, it is the men not the women who seemed more vulnerable and frightened.  Perhaps they have more to lose.      

‘Emportez moi’ (Sweep me off my feet), at the MecVal Centre in Paris, is a brave and powerful  evocation of the power of passion to bewitch and destroy, to throw us off balance into the white waters of emotion in ways both wonderful and painful, always at the risk of losing ourselves. 

The works include videos on the interplay of harmonised gazes and movements, the tenderness of a caress, the passion of a kiss, the ecstacy of multiple orgasm, the spontaneous lament of lonely men in a late night bar (crying over you), even the poignant tableau of the two parakeets, who died for their love.  As mediums for longing,  impulses, illusions and abandonments, they  express sorrow and solitude as much as they do hope, expectation and ecstacy.    

As the programme for the exhibition points out,  ‘perhaps the true subject here is the deeply human appetite for encounter; the search, the desire, transport and the vertiginous sensation of possibility.’

There is so much we do not know.  There is so much we take for granted.  There is so much that we think we know but we cannot prove.   How did stars form out of gases?  Where did the gases come from?  Was there really a big bang?   If so why?  Did life really start because of chemical coincidence,  a freak combination of nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon in a cooling world?  Did these chemicals arrange themselves to create molecules that could replicate themselves and encode for every other protein in the body?  How was the first unicellular organism created?  How did these develop into more complex organisms; plants, animals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and finally man? Why is man able to reflect on things and create meaning? How can such phenomena as thought transference, dreams, synchronicity and distance healing be explained?    

Cosmology and evolution seem so far- fetched; a series of lucky accidents.  Left to itself, matter tends to disintegrate by processes of inertia and decay. So why doesn’t it?  For most of the world’s population, the answer is simple. God created the world and everything in it.  And he created man in his own image. 

Yoga, while believing in a super-intelligent design, is not against evolution or science or psychology.  All are  part of the divine plan. Everything that we perceive to exist contains the essence of the divine, the vibration in stones, the way a plant bends towards the light, the way a beautiful lotus flower will blossom in the mire. Divinity, it asserts, pervades the whole universe from the stars to the smallest cell in our body.  God creates life out of Himself, like a divine spider weaving a world wide web.  Scientists may claim to have created life,  but they had to rely on the forces and raw materials that God provided in order to do it.     

Just as a tiny seed has the potential of a tree inside it, just as a grain of sand can be made into a silicon chip, so the potential for humanity was there from the beginning in the DNA of the smallest organism.  Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  The human embryo starts as a simple unicellular organism and from there develops through fish stages with gill arches, amphibians, mammals and man.  The philosophy of yoga acknowledges evolution as one aspect of a divine plan that conceived humanity from the start. ‘Karma’ embraces past and future lives and the ultimate purpose of our multiple lives is to merge with this divine being.   Thus yogis believe that man’s destiny is to evolve into a state of superbeings  at one with the divine.   

But hang on a minute, belief is one thing, but when faiths apply science to support their convictions, it doesn’t quite work.  Take the inertia argument. Things only disintegrate when you don’t apply energy to them.  If you apply the enormous energies generated by the birth of stars and locked up within the universe, then synthesis is not only possible but obligatory and there are an infinite number of chemical combinations to choose from, many of which may ‘work’.  But, we might ask, where does all that energy come from?   What caused the big bang?  Or is that just another act of faith?     

And is evolution evidence of divine plan or a wonderful genetic system through which life adapts to environmental change?   Did God really look at a chimpanzee, scratch his beard and say,  ‘Hmmm, there are capabilities there’.  Would an intelligent designer have built in so much junk DNA?  And why should a race of superbeings develop?  We might equally argue that we are in danger of generating a race of sickly degenerate beings only able to exist in our artificial environment. 

Karl Popper’s dictat that we can only accept hypotheses that are capable of being disproved  indicates that the creationist’s position is, by the rules we adopt to establish our universe, antiscientific.

The other argument for the divine is collectivism. All cultures on earth; Indian Yogis, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, the ancient Greeks as well as primitive peoples such as the aborigines, American Indians and African bushmen, have at one stage or another believed in an all powerful divine presence, who created the world, watches over it and requires appeasement.  Certain truths seem to exist in all religions;  so many people seem to have independently experienced a similar concept of divinity.  In his book, The Perennial Philosophy,  Aldous Huxley describes how leaders of religions throughout the world  claim remarkably similar expressions of the divine.  But that does not constitute evidence of the divine existence, just a collective culture of meaning.   Millions of people believed the earth was flat.  That didn’t mean it was!  We are all of us driven to find meaning in our existence and God is the simplest and mast lazy answer.  We have a template.  Weren’t our parents originally our Gods?   So is it surprising that our Gods exist in their idealised image.  Life can be so lonely without anybody powerful to look up to.         

Many would see intimations of the divine in thought transference, synchronicity, dreams, premonitions, faith healing, fate, love, but can we always be sure that there is not a more grounded explanation?   Very sensitive people can ‘read’ subliminal signals in much the same way as aboriginal trackers can read the landscape.  They are very suggestible.  People, who know each other well tune into those signals and each other and think the same thought, do the same thing.   Hope and faith alter the function of the immune system and are the essence of healing.  Dreams, as Freud commented are often wish fulfilment or the enactment of dread and we can all have an unerring tendency to bring about what we most want or fear or to re-enact the conditions of trauma.  This is not fate; it’s more about the way experience wires our nervous system.  .    

Some people even claim to have had encounters with the divine being, but there is a rational explanation for this too.   Just as traumatic events can make us ill, they can also make us cleave to the idea of redemption by divine grace, the perfect love by an all caring deity.  This desire can be so powerful, it can create delusions, even generate hallucinations.  And because there is a collective impression of God,  then these hallucinations will appear similar.

We cannot know everything, but  is that justification to invent a divinity?      

And then there’s fate.  A person’s life can tend to run according to a script.  People do tend to make the same choices, make the same mistakes.  It’s what is called character or personality.  But that  isn’t evidence for the divine, merely that our personality is forged by the influences on us early in life and given the same set of circumstances, we will make the same decisions.  Change often requires a crisis.   Yogis also do not believe that fate is ineluctable.  Man does have choice.  He can change fate, but the pull to the divine is inexorable and the path is rarely direct and may take many lifetimes. 

If there really is a God, why did he create such an imperfect world?   Yogis would say that the divine plan does not exist to give comfort to human beings.  Sometimes it is necessary to create tragedies, disasters because these manifestations of the divine will are opportunities for spiritual growth.  How many people have come to terms with the reversals in their lives by being more reflective, more spiritual?   Don’t we all need grief to appreciate joy?  Don’t we need darkness to appreciate the light.  This argument has always seemed to me somewhat contrived.

And what about emotions?  Are not love, fear, shame, remorse and guilt, manifestations of the divine?  Or can they be simply explained by neurochemistry?  I define emotion as ‘feeling put into context’.  Many feelings have a chemical signature.  Hormones, a class of chemicals named after the Greek word ‘eremonos’, literally, messengers from the Gods, are quite heavily implicated;  adrenalin – fear and anger, cortisol – depression,  thyroxine – agitation, oxytocin – love.   They help to define the subjective self and underline such phenomena as awareness, experience, memory, meaning, metaphor and attitudes.

The other area in which people perceive the existence of the divine is morals and ethics.  It is the influence of the divine grace, the religious argue, that encourages us to live a good and honourable life.  I cannot agree.  It’s not God that encourages us to be good but the mores of the community.  God, I believe, is a human projection; the embodiment of an inner authority.  If God didn’t exist, then we would have to invent him. Instead of God creating man in his own image, it seems more likely that we created God in our image? The social argument of a man made God seems very powerful to me.  Gods are necessary to provide a moral and ethical framework for communities, to provide structure and security and belief, hope and meaning.  Without the belief in God, the world could descent into chaos. To my mind, whether God exists does not exist in reality does not matter.  It’s the fact that most people believe in a divinity and that that divinity represents a moral code that is important.   

To my mind, concepts such as soul and spirit represent the meaning we ascribe to life’s deeper issues .  And  thoughts and  meanings the generated by the activation of neural networks, established by experience.   Believers state that faith is the starting point of knowledge.  No.  Imagination is.  Imagination is a predictive construct based on previous experiential associations.  Discovery favours the prepared mind.  As King Christian X of Denmark said many years ago, we console ourselves with our imaginings and delusions.  A meaningful life can be so beautiful; it doesn’t have to be divine. 

Proponents of any a belief system, whether this be a religion, a cult, psychoanalysis or aspects of neurochemistry and cosmology,  insist that we suspend and ultimately surrender disbelief for the security of faith.  It is true that for a full life, we must liberate our slavish dependence on evidence and let our imagination free in much the same way as the artist, the poet, and the composer, but that shouldn’t mean adhering  to a particular faith because we have been told to.  We are all seekers, but our quest should be generated by our own observations and meanings and not by obligations to science or God.

She is beautiful, her body stretches, bends and arches  with the tone and grace of an animal.  And when she discards her shift, she moves with that lack of self consciousness and engagement that obviates desire.  It is the artist who seems self conscious.  He is shown holding a zebra by a leash,  awkward, hardly daring to look at the dancer. 

Yet this is Lucian Freud,  an artist who reputedly establishes such intense intimacy with his models that he can strip away the vanities of their skin to the bare anatomical essentials.  But there is little hint of intimacy in his paintings, no semblance of engagement.  Nobody smiles. Many of his sitters are painted sleeping, as if he cannot bear to have a real human connection with them.  And those that are not sleeping, look out at us in a way that that seem cold and disinterested.  His skin tones are grey and a soiled beige, more livid around the genitals and nipples, the hair dull and untidy.  His subjects seem lifeless.  In the video, he tells of how he kept vigil by his dead sister for days as the body began to decompose.   

An exceptionally shy and private man, who rarely gives interviews, it is like Freud can only engage intimately with people if he can turn them into anatomical specimens.  He exposes their barest human essentials, strips away any personality, and declares,  not without aggression, ‘there is no pretence here; this is the way you are.’ 

His skill as a painter is in no doubt.  His botanical paintings and the paintings of his dog, have the same anatomical frankness as his human subjects.  But perhaps this meticulous attention to detail also distances him from his sitters   

The video shows clips of him strolling along the Regent’s Canal with a kestrel on his wrist.  The beak and dark eye of the bird mirror his own hooked nose and penetrating stare.  Does he have the same killers regard for his ‘prey’?      

 We wonder.  Like a dream, the work of the conceptual artist tells us so much about their personality, though of course we perceive this through the filter of our own experience.  So perhaps it is better to say that the work of an artist informs how they affect us, like an intimate conversation or like a session of psychotherapy.  The art is the material of the counter-transference.   We need to acknowledge this to get under the skin tones and creases of the artist.  Freud knows this.  His numerous naked self portraits reveal and conceal everything.  He is, although he may wish to distance himself from the connection,  the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst who got under the psychological skin of his subjects but remained unseen behind the head of the couch in his green chair.   

An exhibition of Lucian Freud, L’atelier (the studio), is currently showing at The Pompidou Centre in Paris.     

It is August 1939, the world is going to change forever but the bright young things still cling to the escapism of the previous decade.  Alcoholic hedonism helped them blot out the traumas of the First World War, and now they use it to blank out the looming prospect of the Second.  Rattigan’s ‘After the Dance’ evokes the emptiness of a lost generation. 

David and Joan married in the twenties, a frivolous, romantic excursion from the horrors of the Great War.  They were rich, well connected, they could afford not to take life too seriously.  So they partied, they drank, they made love; their whole purpose was to have fun. For fear of being thought too intense and to avoid the depression that could bring, they masked their true devotion in a relationship of mutual, just-good-pals flippancy.  But there is a serious side to David that Joan failed to nurture;  he is a writer, a would-be historian, a romantic, he plays Chopin badly and he is depressed.  He anaesthetises the sense of his own pointlessness in alcohol, poisoning himself with self disgust and slowly dying of cirrhosis.   And now, as the Nazis march into Poland, he  dictates his tedious dissertation on a previous German dictator of much less significance and drinks more whisky.   

Redemption materialises in the sylph-like Helen, a trim zealot who has fallen in love with the idea of saving him and is quite prepared to destroy his marriage in order to achieve her mission. When David falls in love with her, you can smell disaster. 

Joan, David’s wife, learns on the evening of her party that he is going to leave her.  Just for old time’s sake, she makes David play ‘Avalon’ one last time, slips through the curtains on to the balcony and kills herself.  A week later, Britain declares war on Germany. 

Rattigan sees the glimmering meaninglessness of these not so bright nor young things.  He feels their sadness, understands the need to evade reality, but is critical of their somnambulistic trudge to catastrophe. As the one dour party guest, a refugee from the Mayfair set and one-time fiancée of Joan, points out, ‘They ran away from reality after the last war. The awful thing is that they’re still running away’.

The cast are superb. Benedict Cumberbatch conveys not just the surface smoothness of the self-destructive David but also the intelligence of a man who realises he is a wastrel. Naomi Carroll as Joan is stoically jaunty. She carries on with courage, but you can see she is not waving but drowning.    Carroll captures the subtle poignancy of their doomed relationship; she knows she got it wrong.  Faye Castelow  as the trimly seductive Helen, conveys a combination of naivety and  determination and a hint of acid that makes her the angel of their destruction.     

John, (Adrian Scarborough) is the most likeable character.  He is like Shakespeare’s fool, a bibulous court-jester who creates an art form out of his subtle self deprecation, but he also has the wisdom and empathy to warn of the disaster that is about to come. 

Everything about Thea Shurrock’s production works, from the orgiastic glee of the ageing socialites, the ghastly over-the-top Moya and her wooden toy-boy,  even the glimpse of oral sex on the balcony, and especially the use of a haunting 1920s foxtrot, Avalon, which seems to express the sadness of make believe.   

 

Rattigan’s play opened in August 1939.  It was a sell out, but when the reality of the war started to come home to people, the audiences dropped off, the play closed and was not rediscovered until  60 years later.  

Rattigan’s early life was unhappy.  His parents were diplomats but his father lost his position after an argument with the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon.  Terence was sent to live with his grandmother who was cruel and controlling.  He was very unhappy, but then discovered the theatre and also that he was homosexual, which was of course criminal at that time.  Many wondered a gay man could have such deep understanding of women.  I’m inclined to say ‘how could he not?’.  Surely that is part of the essence of homosexuality; many gays form a much closer identification with women than men; so much so that some are caricatures of women in a man’s body.  It is Rattigan’s men who are stiff, like cardboard cut outs in their parted hair, their sculpted moustaches, sports jackets and flannels. This is the emotional repression in the English psyche that often turns heterosexuality into a love that dare not speak its name.

The family are on holiday in their house on an island in the Swedish archipelago.  The sky and sea are grey, the house basic, the paint stripped, the wood bleached by the salt air, the family exposed and vulnerable.  Karin has been ill in hospital with schizophrenia.  Her husband Martin, who is a doctor and older than her, has written to her father David, telling him that Karin is more seriously ill than was thought and there is a risk her illness will become chronic.  The family trauma is set on repeat; Karin’s mother grew mad and died when she and her brother Max were growing up.  Karin, 24 and recently married, struggles to keep it all together while Max, just 16, is touchy and insecure.  They both desperately need their father to be a solid figure they can forge their identity from, but David is distant; he hides behind the persona of the famous novelist he can never be.  He was too selfish, analytical and defended, to help his wife find meaning and reality.  Fate has given him a second chance at redemption, but he writes in his diary that Karin’s illness has created the opportunity to write his definitive novel about a personality in decline.      

So, Karin doesn’t stand a chance.  If madness and meaning are defined according to cultural norms, whatever they are, Karin holds on what is generally accepted as reality is tenuous.  She was never properly encultured by her parents; her mother was already in a different reality and her father had shut himself away in his own world.  Even her husband, Martin seems all too keen to turn her into a patient; he is so grounded in the autism of medicine that Karin cannot access him. Only Max seems to understand but Max is more part of the wreckage than would be rescuer.    

‘ What if you looked in a mirror and there was no one there?’ 

There is a nothing more frightening as not to have any meaning in your life.  Karin is confused, terrified, she cannot sleep and she doesn’t really know what is real any more.  She has the acute sensitivity of the neurotic; she can detect bullshit at 100 paces.  The words Martin uses seem to make sense but she doesn’t believe them.  He is more dangerous than the elusive father.  We can see only too clearly why she is mad, but at the same time can understand why the system does not want so much to cure her with understanding as to lock her up.  Unable to gain a foothold on meaning from those around her,  Karin has to get her reality from elsewhere; from the birds, from her voices, from God.  And because her reality is different, it is deemed dangerous; she is declared mad and has to be subdued and separated, lest she contaminate others.       

But there is hope. The maverick sixties psychiatrist, RD Laing, author of The Divided Self, once wrote  ‘Madness need not be a breakdown; it can be a breakthrough’.   It was Laing who stood out against the biological drift of psychiatry by explaining the process of going mad as the rational consequence of a person’s family and social environment.  He argued that there may be positive value in allowing a person’s psychosis to develop.  He could then engage with the patient’s psychotic world and lead them into a reality more attuned to their societal norms, give them something to hold on to. 

‘I would wish to emphasise that our normal adjusted state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities that many of us are only too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to our false realities.’  (Preface to The Divided Self by RD Laing)    

‘Through a Glass Darkly’ was written and directed as a film by Ingmar Bergman in 1961.  Now Jenny Worton has adapted it as a play, which was premiered at the Almeida this June to mixed reviews.   But this is not a play that entertains, it has a disturbingly powerful message that merits much deeper reflection.  The cast are superb.  Michael Attenborough’s direction is sensitive and entirely credible.  But it was the performance of Ruth Wilson  as Karin that blew me away.  How could such a young and seemingly fragile actress turn in such a major performance of such a difficult role.  I watched with mounting horror as Karin slowly descended into madness and felt despair.  Such is the power of great theatre.

For Henry Moore, art was the expression of the imagination rather than representation.   He was not just a craftsman, he was an explorer.  With typical Yorkshire bluntness,  he declared, ‘I express myself in shapes; that’s my language.’  The same recurrent shapes featured prominently in Moore’s  work, the reclining female figure, the holes, the mother and child.   

Moore was the youngest of seven children from Castleford.  His father was a miner.  They were not well off.  His early work was influenced by the primitive; Etruscan funerary monuments, pre Columbian Mexican figures, the statues on Easter Island, Sumerian art, African masks. These forms appealed directly to his emotions.  His reclining figures bear a striking resemblance to the Chac Mool, the Gods in the Yucatan temples.  Action during the First World War traumatised the young man and must have added its influence to his deformed bodily shapes with holes in them. 

Most of Moore’s sculptures were direct carvings, like Jacob Epstein’s. He wanted to keep faith with the medium.  He liked to use local stone; the veins and colour and blemishes in the stone became an integral part of his sculptures.  Like Michelangelo, who quarried his own stone at Carrera,   Moore had a feeling for the material, lived with it until something meaningful crystallised in it.  Craft then shaped it to the final realisation.  He placed his large reclining figures with the gaps and holes in the landscape, so they not only part of the landscape, but you could see the landscape through them. 

Moore didn’t achieve public recognition until the Second World War when Kenneth Clark appointed him a wartime artist.  His images of people asleep on the platforms of tube stations in London summed up the solid, indomitable spirit of Londoners during the blitz and expressed something of hilself.  He would go down into the underground stations, incongruous in his suit and tie  and just observe; he didn’t want to intrude.  He made notes on the way out and then drew what he saw later. 

Moore’s sculptures,  outside the art gallery in Leeds or spaced out in Bretton Park, seem as familiar as Yorkshire pudding, but a new exhibition of his work shows him as edgy and awkward as a Pennine outcrop.  He was influenced by the work of TS Eliot, DH Lawrence and Sigmund Freud.  For Moore, the body as object was erotic, vulnerable, violated, visceral, deformed, open and fragmented.  It allied sex and death; a literal, honest counterpoint to Stalinist ‘realism’; he showed it as it was, not how others wanted it to be.  Formed at the time of global conflict and political upheaval, but heavily influenced by his early life,   Moore’s art was troubling.  The forms an artist creates are an inescapable part of his make-up; Moore’s make-up was troubled.  He longed to know where he came from.  ‘What shape did my mother have before I knew she was my mother?’   One cannot go back further than he has – the moment before one became two. 

Henry Moore was a big man, a working man, craggy and direct,  but as emotional as the wind and rain. There is fear and evasion in his observant eyes.  His celebrity attracted psychoanalytical interpretation, but Moore never wanted to see any hidden or unconscious meaning in the shapes he created.  ‘I felt that if I understood too much about myself I would stop working.’

Eric Neumann in ‘The Archetypical World of Henry Moore’, noted that none of his mother and child compositions were gazing at each other.  And for him, the holes represented separation – the space between too much and too little meaning.   Sometimes the mother was represented as a breast with the head of the infant fused with it and sometimes the infant was a bird devouring the breast and the mother had it by the neck.  It was the psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, who talked about the significance of the good breast and the bad breast as polarised representations of the mother in the child’s mind.   Within selfhood turns the phantasy of childhood; truth, history and sensation twisted into a familiar form.   Moore acknowledged that he might have ‘a mother fixation’, but none- the-less reports a close relationship with his mother. 

Another psychoanalyst, Francis Tustin has written that Moore’s oeuvre suggests autistic relationships, not related to the gaze or the word but more to the touch.  Moore talked about a common fund of understandable shapes.  He had a tactile relationship with his objects and his medium.  His most expressive memory of his mother was of rubbing her rheumatic back with linament.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that his female forms are large, substantial maternal figures with broad backs.  Autism is also suggested in the gaps, the bits of the body that don’t connect.   Tustin concludes, by rather fanciful rhetoric, that Moore overcame his autistic childhood  by being able to enfold his experience into the living sensation of shape; thus avoiding the black hole at the very edge of meaning.  

One can almost hear the big man sigh.    

The new exhibition at Tate Britain, on until August 8th, has been heralded by The Guardian as the most important exhibition of Moore’s work for a generation.  I spent a day there and will go back.   

The Globe Theatre has been transformed into a mediaeval vision of hell, the ranks of the damned surround a pit that appears to contain just the heads of those already condemned poking out through a black void.  Bagpipes screech as the mutilated and bloodied bodies of the wartorn and tortured rise writhing and groaning out of the darkness. Three gurning, deformed and pockmarked witches, with long noses and no teeth,  two of them dwarves, run  amok among those consigned to everlasting damnation. A hugely obese and grotesque watchman pees in the corner and then makes to throw the contents of the bucket into the crowd.   Soldiers cut out the disgraced Cawdor’s tongue and throw the bloody morsel into the pit.  There are screams and squeals as those, who bought tickets to stand in the pit, cringe and duck. 

Ordure, ordure!   This is audience participation on a horrific scale; the way Shakespeare might have done it. 

Dark-age Scotland is a nightmarish, brutal world, a land of shocking barbarity and turbulence where Kings are  overthrown vioently every six or seven years.  Macbeth is a monster in hell.  His vanityand ambition are so great that he dares to kill the King, who was not only a guest under his roof but also an agent of God on Earth.  He risks all for power.  He sells his soul only to discover the horrifying banality of existence.   

Lucy Bailey, the director, has gone for realism.  Eliot Cowan as Macbeth is ruthless in his quest for power but disintegrates into paranoid, tormented tyrant.  The banal horror of his actions are reflected in the shock of  degradation on stage.  It is a Heironymous Bosche vision of hell; slaughter, mutilation, pissing, fucking, shitting, wanking, terror and madness. 

Laura Rogers’ Lady Macbeth is more manipulative than her husband.  She’s the sex bomb of Scotland; charming, seductive and deadly.  Together they are a golden couple, like the Kennedys.  They cannot fail; they have such remarkable sexual energy.  But she is possessed with a lust for power and celebrity that can only be realised through her husband.  She is playing with the fires of hell  and has no thought for the consequences. 

So she goads her husband to murder Duncan,  but recoils from him when she witnesses the deadly ruthlessness of the  ambition, she has released.  She slowly loses her mind and then takes her life, but Macbeth is drowning so far in blood, he does not notice.  The real horror of the play is not so much the destruction of  Duncan or Banquo or even MacDuff’s wife and children but the corruption that gnaws away the heart of this star-crossed marriage.  

 This play pivots, like souls in hell, around the personalities of the weird sisters; damaged, tormented, victimised women, whose only satisfaction is to torture and corrupt others.  Macbeth is at the top of fortune’s wheel, ripe to pluck down.  They recognise him as one of their own and must claim him. The rest is inevitable.

Flaubert’s heroine didn’t start bad.  She was a lively imaginative girl.  She might have benefited from a bit of maternal constraint, but her mother died when she was just 11 and she was sent to a convent.   There her religious fantasies took a romantic turn.  She began reading the romantic novels or the time, imagined herself as the lady in the castle wooed by handsome knights.  It consumed her.  

When Charles Bovary, recently widowed, asked her father if he could court her, she was excited.  How romantic!  Charles clearly adored her.  The reality was less exciting.  She was only a teenager and like another teenager who married another Charles, she found her husband stuffy and boring and her way of life dull.  She knew how attractive she was to men and felt she had wasted herself with Charles.  Still, she did her best, she tried to make her husband’s life as comfortable as possible, but inside she was becoming desperate.  The invitation to the Viscount’s Ball was a rare opportunity to blossom.  Her card was full; she danced every dance, but none with Charles.  But he was not a suspicious or devious man; he liked to see the admiring glances men gave to Emma.  He was pleased she was happy. 

But the ball just added to her frustration.  She found the Viscount’s embossed cigar case on the way home and treasured it.  She began to dream of exciting liaison’s with other men.  She began to flirt.  Soon she had attracted Leon, a handsome though impecunious clerk.  Emma would slip out for clandestine liaisons at the bottom of the garden after Charles had gone to sleep.  She would entice Leon to abscond from his work in the afternoon.  She was taking enormous risks but she didn’t care; there were in love and that the only thing worth living for.   When Leon took fright and left her to go to work in Rouen, Emma was devastated.  She hardly went out of her room and complained of her palpitations. 

Not long afterwards, she attracted the interest of Rodolphe, a wealthy landowner who had recently bought the chateau outside the village.  He was not a timid man and made his intentions known to Emma from the start.  Wasn’t this what she had always dreamed of?  Rodolphe was confident.  He knew how to romance a woman and soon they were lovers, seizing every opportunity during the day to meet.  Often Emma would hurry to the chateau to spend her afternoons with Rodolphe.  She couldn’t get enough of him.  But she was running up enormous bills at the haberdasher and store in the village to maintain an increasingly exotic life style.  She persuaded Rodolphe to run away with her.  She would leave Charles, their daughter Berthe, and escape to Paris and from there to Italy.  They would be so happy.  It was sad, but for Rodolphe, Emma was becoming an embarrassing liability.  She was wonderful and entrancing, but he had to get away.  So he chose the coward’s route and left her a note as he sped through the village in his coach. 

Emma collapsed when she read the note and was ill for months.  She became pale, lost weight, had frequent attacks of the vapours.  She had little interest in the house, her appearance or even Berthe, but then she met Leon again and their relationship flared into a dangerous passion that threatened his new occupation in Rouen.  Besides, she was getting into serious financial difficulties and was being sued for debt.  Eventually, she could hide their precarious situation from Charles any longer; a notice was posted in the village square to the effect that their furniture was to be seized and sold off. 

Emma implored Leon to help; she even tried to encourage him to steal the money she needed from his firm.  She then went to Rodolphe, but he rejected her too.  So she persuaded the pharmacist’s assistant to open the store  where she discovered the arsenic and took a generous amount.  Charles spared nothing on the funeral; he doted on little Berthe, who had her mothers looks and charms.  But a year after Emma’s death, he opened Emma’s bureau and found all of the love letters.   Poor Berthe found him that evening dead in his chair.  He had had a heart attack. 

So how are we to understand Emma?  She was certainly an incurable romantic and she had the looks and the style to go with it.  She was the kind of person, who could illuminate a room.  She had a dangerous sexual energy, that would respond to any romantic impulse, she did not stop to see the consequences of her actions,  she wanted something or someone and she had to have them, no matter the cost or the risk.  But if any spurned her, she would cast them off without a second thought.  Those she loved to distraction, she would hate to destruction.  In the end there was only one way out for her; the romantic death.

Flaubert’s is a classic description of the hysterical personality.  All the features are there, the impulsive behaviour, the splitting, the fantasy life, the failure to consider consequences, the decline to an inevitable conclusion.  He would have been well aware of contemporary psychiatric descriptions of hysteria.  Nevertheless his novel shocked bourgeois society.  So is Madame Bovary a novel of its time.  Not at all!  Although Hysteria has been replaced in psychiatric nomenclature by borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, it has not disappeared.  People like Emma are still around – in fact the our current celebrity and media culture encourage it.  And hysteria remains the best term for it and Flaubert’s the best description.