Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Golden Age

The Golden Age by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

According to Hesiod, the Golden Age was a time when:

[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.
 Throughout European history there has been a feeling of nostalgia for this Age and it has manifested itself in many different ways.  Abrahamic religion has of course its own version - the Garden of Eden and other cultures throughout the world have similar references to a simpler, more natural way of being.   Ovid wrote of this time, echoing Hesiod that:
The Golden Age was first; when Man, yet new, No rule but uncorrupted Reason knew: And, with a native bent, did good pursue. Unforc'd by punishment, un-aw'd by fear.
His words were simple, and his soul sincere; Needless was written law, where none opprest: The law of Man was written in his breast.
 When Columbus first encountered native people in the Americas he wrote back to his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella:
So tractable, so peaceable, are these people that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.

It would seem, from this description, that Columbus had discovered a place which still lived in the Golden Age.  But the gold he and his successors sought was far from metaphorical.  I do not intend here to describe what happened to these "decorous and praiseworthy" people - but it is enough to say that in North America today, power has a white European face.

The discovery of the Americas sparked the imagination of Europe.  While some saw it as an opportunity for wealth others saw  a land of souls awaiting salvation through knowledge of Jesus.  There was a third current which idealised the inhabitants, following such accounts as Columbus'.  Perhaps, they said, the natives of the new World were living as humanity lived before the Fall - perhaps America was the new Eden.  This strand of thought can be seen in Shakespeare's The Tempest where Gonzalo proclaims that were he king on the island.
I' the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;--
...All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.

In 1622, some 11 years after the first performance of the Tempest, however, John Donne preached to the Virginia company on their bounden duty to spread Christianity and European values:

 ...bless it so in this calm that when the tempest comes it may ride it
out.  Safely bless it so with friends now that it may stand against
enemies hereafter. Prepare thy self a glorious harvest there and
give us leave to be thy labourers that, so the number of thy saints
being fulfilled, we may with better assurance join in that prayer
"come lord Jesus come quickly" and so meet all in that kingdom
which the son of GOD hath purchased for us with the inestimable
price of his incorruptible blood    

(spelling and punctuation modernised)

Donne himself, however, also saw in the Americas a source of wealth other than souls:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,   
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!          
(From Elegy XIX, To His Mistress Going to Bed)

The Americas, therefore, had  a triple appeal to the imaginations of the Early Modern Europeans.  They were, simultaneously, a source of great wealth, a land to be claimed for God and, lastly, an Edenic paradise.  Donne seemed to have had no difficulty in reconciling the first two and in so doing seems to have gone some way towards the establishment of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

The third, however, retains an appeal to this day.  Everyday on Facebook it seems to me that someone posts a picture of a Native American above a quote extolling the value of closeness to the earth.  Laurens Van Der Posts writings of the Kalahari had a great impact on many, not least the heir to the British crown.  The Golden Age cherished by royalty and the aristocracy however has been that of a pastoral Arcadia. The Tudor and Stuart courts  encouraged pastoral drama and poetry, including As You Like It, works by poets like Marvell and Herrick, and some delightfully scabrous satires by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, such as Fair Chloris in a Pigsty Lay. (Warning maybe NSFW!)

A century or so later,  Marie Antoinette dressed as a shepherdess and milked thoroughly washed cows into fine porcelain churns in the gardens of Versailles 

And our present monarchy delights in appearing to be close to nature, reserving vast tracts of countryside in order to do so.  Although I must say that Elizabeth's costume is more appropriate than Marie Antoinette's:

and Charles does not pretend to be doing any real work:

The Golden Age that seems to appeal to many, including Royalty, is an age of rustic charm.  A Merrie England where Herrick's maidens dance around the Maypole or where old ladies cycle back from Evensong.  It is the land of squires and swains living in charming villages with duckponds and roses. It is the land that Danny Boyle seems to wish to evoke in his design for the Olympic ceremony.  It is a land where, as MacNeice put it, "all the milk is cream and all the girls are willing".   It is also, in another context, the land evoked by Nazi propaganda:

It is, in reality, Tess Darbyfield dancing with her friends before she aspires to become a D'Urberville.  For this is, and here is the serpent in this particular garden,  above all a land where hierarchy is honoured and unchallenged.  Even Gonzalo, in his evocation of an ideal state puts himself - as his companions point out - in the position of king.  It is in the acceptance of the hierarchical paradigm that the pastoral version of the Golden Age differs from that described by Hesiod and Ovid.

In his famous sermon at Blackheath during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the Lollard priest John Ball said:

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?  From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

Ball speaks of the rise of hierarchy as having occurred sometime, but not immediately, after the fall from Eden.  He invokes the equality of all human beings as ordained by his god.  Hierarchy, he says, is the work of "naughty men" who have enslaved the free people of god.  What is notable about his image is that it all clearly takes place after the discovery of agriculture.  In Eden food was freely available and, as Adam and Eve were both naked, there was no need of spinning.

Eden and the Classical Golden Age clearly preceded agriculture. The ideas are clearly  memories of the time when our species survived as hunter-gatherers, as we did for most of out history on the planet.  Bands of hunter-gatherers that survive today tend towards social equality with leadership, when necessary, dependent on skill, experience and the respect of peers.  The optimum number that such bands can contain appears to be around 150 - when numbers exceed that, there tends to be a split into two bands.  Such small numbers mean that each member knows each other member very intimately - they are fully aware of the strengths, weaknesses and personal foibles of each.  They are dependent on each other and tend to rely on co-operation rather than coercion.  They eat what is available, and when food sources dry up they move on.

According to Hobbes, their lives were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".  Hobbes was writing in defence of absolute monarchy at the time of the English Civil War and he saw strong centralised rule as the only alternative to the chaos of "the war of all against all".  For all its apparent ills, he maintained, strong government was a prerequisite for any functioning human society. The opinions he articulates still inform much of today's discourse.  They can be seen as one of the strongest motivations behind the missionary endeavours of the Christian churches and can be seen as already present in Donne's sermon.

It was with such views that the earliest Europeans landed in Australia.  What they saw there appalled them.  The native people were clearly starving and impoverished since they ate grubs and rats and were nearly naked.  Furthermore, they were lazy and spent most of their time sitting or lying around.  Clearly, it was the duty of good Christian men to do something about this and bring them up to the standards of civilisation.  It was, after all, for their own material and spiritual good that this should happen.  If any should resist such a mission it was then necessary, regrettably, to punish them.  This mission continued well into the 20th Century.

However, what the early settlers also noticed, but conveniently ignored,  was that many of the "starving" people were fat and healthy.   Far fatter and healthier, in fact, than those who arrived from British cities and villages.  For the world they lived in was, to them, a world of abundant food ready to be plucked or hunted with relatively little real effort.  Modern foraging inhabitants of the Kalahari, which to outsiders seems bleak and desolate, can consume over 2000 calories and over 90 grams of protein daily.  It is, moreover, a varied diet and far more balanced than that of most inhabitants of modern cities.  Hobbes was, in short, wrong.

The Golden Age was, then, the long period of time when human beings lived as hunter-gatherers, moving around as the season dictated.  It was the time before the invention of agriculture, before the Fall when all around was Eden.  It was also, according to archaeology, a time when divinity was seen as female.  We cannot know how she was honoured then nor how people viewed her interactions with humanity.  We cannot replicate such things in a world of cities, rapid transport and the internet.  We cannot become hunter-gatherers roving a sparsely-inhabited, mostly abundant, world.  We may, to use Joni Mitchell's words, be starlight and golden but we cannot return to the Garden.

Not as it was, that is.  There is, however, another Garden that we can strive for.  We can choose which of two different sets of human characteristics we value. For most of our time on the planet, we survived through co-operation and human society reflected this.  Since the advent of agriculture the dominant value has been competition and rivalry.  Both sets characteristics are "natural" - they are maybe part of our evolutionary development. The  "naughty men", however, have had things too  long their own way..  It is time to reinforce the peacemaker.  It is time to bring back the Goddess into public consciousness.  And She is returning. 

It will not, however, be a Golden Age.  It will be, and is now being, actively opposed. For those deluded enough to think that the purpose of life is to accrue wealth and power, co-operation between free individuals presents the ultimate threat.  The world today, with 7bn inhabitants, is vast and complex.  For those who serve Goddess there are many challenges, both from without and from within the patriarchally conditioned minds we inhabit.  It needs far more than healing ceremonies, valuable though they may be,  and wishful thinking.  It needs both vision and work.  It needs reaching out to others of similar vision, however they define themselves.  We are attempting something entirely new, grounded though it may be in our imaginations of the distant past. However accurate those imaginings may be and however supported  by empirical evidence, we can never claim them as undisputed fact - at best they can only be probable.

Just as John Lennon said "There ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky", Goddess will not descend trailing clouds of glory and, while wiping away each tear, create the world anew.  That is down to us, fallible though we be.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Elephant Trunk

I know that I am on a bit of a MacNeice trip at the moment but feel that the following short poem sums up nicely much of  my spiritual experience:

Elephant Trunk

Descending out of the grey
Clouds elephant trunk
Twitches away
Was not what I expected,
Joke it seemed to me;
'What about a levitation?' I had said,
Preening head for halo,
All alert, combed, sanctified,
I thank Thee, Lord, I am not like other men
Descending out of the grey
Clouds elephant trunk....

(and so ad nauseum)

Flight of the Heart

 After writing my last post, I remembered this poem, which I have known for at least 45 years.  Reading it again today, I can see how, in a very few words, it has summed up my life to date.  I offer it without further comment beyond observing that MacNeice is possibly one of the greatest but most under-appreciated poets in English of the 20th Century

Heart, my heart, what will you do?
There are five lame dogs and one deaf-mute
All of them with demands on you.

   I will build myself a copper tower
   With four ways our and no way in
   But mine the glory, mine the power.

And what if the tower should shake and fall
With three sharp taps and one big bang?
What would you do with yourself at all?

   I would go in the cellar and drink the dark
   With two quick sips and one long pull,
   Drunk as a lord and gay as a lark.

But what when the cellar roof caves in
With one blue flash and nine old bones?
How, my heart, will you save your skin?

   I will go back where I belong
  With one foot first and both eyes blind
   I will go back where I belong
   In the fore-being of mankind.

Louis MacNeice  (1907-63)

Spirituality and action

Although I may have profound disagreements with Fr Berrigan with regard to doctrine, I cannot help but agree with the sentiments expressed in this article.  I certainly admire his lifetime and principled opposition to capitalism and war and his focus on the social message of Jesus' ministry - to which I can find no objection.

What particularly struck me was this paragraph:

Some people today argue that equanimity achieved through inner spiritual work is a necessary condition for sustaining one’s ethical and political commitments. But to the prophets of the Bible, this would have been an absolutely foreign language and a foreign view of the human. The notion that one has to achieve peace of mind before stretching out one’s hand to one’s neighbor is a distortion of our human experience, and ultimately a dodge of our responsibility. Life is a rollercoaster, and one had better buckle one’s belt and take the trip. This focus on equanimity is actually a narrow-minded, selfish approach to reality dressed up within the language of spirituality.
I have on many occasions found myself prone to the belief that I need to set my own spiritual house in order before committing to political action.  There is some justification for this.  I was fairly active in my youth but found that within the radical left there was a tendency to reproduce the old power dynamics of the the system we were ostensibly trying to change.  It was difficult at times to determine whether the principal motive was to improve conditions or to simply become the "man at the top".  It seemed that ideological purity was often more important than actually helping people.  This scene in "The Life of Brian" is painfully accurate on this count:

The left became, or appeared to become, so fractured that it ceased to have any real credibility and was totally unable to present any coherent narrative to counteract that of Thatcher and Reagan when they launched the disastrous experiment whose inevitable result we are seeing today.

The rise of feminism, however, has led to the emergence of a new way of seeing things.  As the political became personal and the personal became political it became clear that hierarchical/patriarchal thinking was ingrained within each individual and that this had to be addressed.  Consciousness had to be raised so that the old scripts could be recognised  when they threatened to dictate actions.  The scripts, however, live within our deep memory and act in very subtle ways so that it becomes very difficult at times to see that they are present.

This does not mean, however, that we can defer action until we are clear of them.  This is something of which I now realise that I have been guilty.  I am now 65 and am no nearer enlightenment than I was when I was 20.  In fact, in many ways I am further off.  I am, however, a little more self-aware.  I know that my emotions are rooted in my own narrative and that of the society from which I sprung and in which I live.  I cannot escape this no matter how much I may try to do so.

In the meantime, things have gone from bad to worse politically and economically.  The very fact that I can spend time writing, reading and thinking is due solely to my dumb luck to have been born into a very small portion of the human race.  Although I may be considerably poorer than most of my compatriots I am vastly richer than many if not most who live outside the Western bubble economy.  I am among the privileged and tend often to forget that inconvenient fact.  The time that I have spent seeking self-awareness is a luxury unavailable to many whose daily task is to survive.

This is the reality that Berrigan's words have brought home to me today.  I now feel an urgency to get involved in something that I have not felt for some time. I am an anarcho- socialist by conviction and have ever been so.  I am also a follower of Goddess and see no conflict between the two.  Each feeds and feeds on the other.  What I now need to do is put my beliefs into action and do so with both aspects of my belief acting together in concert. It is vital that self-awareness and social action must in some way become partners.

The question that remains is how.  But to find out, I must go out of my door.  And that is scarey.


Monday, 11 June 2012

Trans women in female space

On and off, for a few weeks now I have been reading about the dispute between different sets of people, both identifying as feminist, abut the exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces.  It seems, from my reading at least, to have polarised with both sides levelling accusations of misogyny at each other.  No-one appears to be looking at a way forward but each seems to have retreated to the trenches and dug themselves in for a long war of attrition.

I am at a loss to work out exactly which side I agree with.  The best I can come to, at the moment, is both and neither. As a man born male, I am on the outside, of course. But this does not exclude me from thinking about it.  The furore a few weeks back concerning the exclusion of trans women from the Goddess Temple of Orange County was particularly disturbing. On the one hand, I can appreciate that for some women, the presence of people they perceive as male can make them feel unsafe. That is an important issue and cannot be dismissed easily.  On the other hand, the issue of sexual identity is nowhere near as binary as it appears at first glance. There are people with ambiguous genitalia and those who, although outwardly female, have no internal female organs.  There are women whose chromosomes are XY and men who are XX. One estimate of the frequency of intersex conditions is as high as 1.7%. (To put this into perspective, a recent survey by the UK Office of National Statistics revealed that 1.5% of the respondents identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Few, if any, in the Goddess movement would suggest restricting attendance to those who were heterosexual.)

Thus, it is statistically likely that any large random group of women will contain at least one person who is intersex.  That woman may not meet the criteria for inclusion as set out by the Orange County Temple. She could, in effect "fail the medical". The population of Orange County is such that there would be around 51,000 intersex people living there.  This number is not insignificant.

There is, of course, a vast difference between intersex people and trans people. The former could be accommodated by restricting membership to those who were assigned by the attending physician to be female - although in the case of genital ambiguity that would often be as a result of surgery - and socialised as female.  Trans women, however, although unambiguously physical males at birth and treated as such by both family and society, report that they have always felt themselves to be female and vice-versa for trans men.  The lengths to which they have gone to remedy their conflict are, surely, worthy of some respect.  No-one, I feel, would undergo such necessarily extreme disruption in their lives and risk their relationships with families and friends without courage and commitment.  The figures are, according to one estimate, around 1 in 10,000  for assigned males and 1 in 30,000 for assigned females.  Far more uncommon, then, than intersex conditions but still making for around 300 trans women and 100 trans men in Orange County. Estimates about the proportion of trans women who may be attracted to a female-centred spirituality are hard to make but I would imagine that they may be significant, but if only 1% of them would like to attend the Temple that makes for 3.  What also would the reaction be to a trans man who wished to attend?  Further, many trans people appear, without very close examination, to be the gender they they have always felt themselves to be and, conversely, many women born women may appear somewhat masculine.  How is any ban to be maintained without some form of medical certification or physical examination?

In conclusion, although I can see merits in both sides of the argument, I feel that the answer is to strive for spaces as inclusive as possible with segregation only being imposed for specific purposes. These would include, but not be limited to, blood ceremonies and the healing of sexual wounds.   This I see to be a goal - and we are a long way from it at present.  Many nowadays find it difficult to express themselves in mixed gender settings and there is a need to honour this.  I would hope, however, that this need will cease over time to be as strong.  If it does not do so, then perhaps the movement is failing.  There are many unresolved issues yet to be addressed, including the definite complication of sexual attraction.  However, I do not imagine the single sex environments are free from all possibility of power trips and sexual misconduct.

We are all children of Goddess and we all have our faults and our virtues, our wounds and our joys and these are seldom gender-specific. I respect the wishes of those who today feel it necessary to exclude men from ceremony, in order for them to feel secure and safe. I cannot see, however, how this can remain as absolute as many would wish it to be.   The link in the second paragraph above leads to an article in which a woman born woman felt very strongly that the insistence on excluding trans women in effect excluded her.  According to the comments others agreed with her.  Thus, the exclusion of one, very small, section of potential worshippers resulted in the exclusion of a much larger figure.  This cannot be a good thing.  the movement is very young and already we see signs of schism.  For this reason alone we need to find a space for a more reasoned and nuanced debate. Insults do not help. There is also the very practical question, as outlined in the previous paragraph, that a ban on transsexuals is ultimately unenforceable without gross invasion of personal privacy.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Goddess is alive...

... and always has been.


Words by Leonard Cohen.  Music and sung by Buffy Ste Marie

I first heard this song sometime in the late 60s and have never forgotten it.  Nowadays, I would, of course, change the gender of the deity but that is somehow irrelevant to what the song is saying.  Cohen is talking about a force which is intrinsic to nature and to human beings and cannot be ordered or contained within a structure.  It defies classification and definition.  It simply is and always has been.  We know it and we feel it.  It moves within and without us.  It is what makes us alive and alert to all that is and all that could be. 

We call it, among other things, imagination. In Exodus, Yahweh declared war on it when he decreed "Thou shalt not create graven images" .  You must not allow your imagination to take form - to emerge into the world.  The word is written and cannot ever be changed.  Imagination must be subservient to the predetermined order of things.

Imagination, however, does not work like that.  It is far bigger and more powerful than any structured system of thought.  It emerges in dreams and in nightmares.  It knows no morality and is both destructive and constructive.  It is the dance of Shiva and of Kali. The destroyer and creator of worlds.  It is Chartres Cathedral and it is Auschwitz.  It is the Big Bang and the nuclear bomb.  The Universe and the quantum field.  It is paradox and illusion; life and death.  All these exist in imagination.  In imagination we  conceive the inconceivable.  With it we balance the tension between all contraries.

We pin butterflies to a board and categorise them.  We describe the mechanics of their metamorphoses but cannot describe their experience of life.  Only in imagination can we approach the meaning of all things for things themselves have no meaning beyond what we ascribe to them.  I tap a sequence of keys and electrical impulse translates them into shapes on a screen.  To me these shapes have meaning but such meaning only exists in my imagination.  I try to be precise and lucid but have no control over any meaning that you might perceive therein. I trust that your imagination approximates enough to mine that some communication is possible.  But there is, and can be, no guarantee of that.  My imagination is shaped and moulded by heredity and experience.  So is yours.
I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience. We are both invisible men. All men are invisible to one another. (R D Laing. Politics of Experience)
 It is within imagination that we try to see what is invisible - bring it into the light of our meaning.  This is the magic of which Leonard wrote and Buffy sings.

It is within imagination, as Blake said, that all deities exist.  And those deities we imagine are those that shape our lives and give them meaning.  I imagine Goddess where once I imagined Yahweh.  I imagine Inanna where once I imagined Jesus.

Now  imagination is no longer constrained by thoughts of straying into error or sin.  Gone are the binaries to be replaced by a cycle of becoming.  Growth and decay, life and death, are no longer irreconcilable but are simply parts of the same process.  All is change; one becomes the other. With Goddess all things that can be imagined are possible for there is no already-written book in which possibility is limited by divine decree.

Of more immediate concern is the fact that, having rejected the dictates of the Fathers, it becomes possible to look more clearly at the world around us.  It is not Fallen and neither are we.  The old script is so powerful that even those who claim no adherence to any god accept the assumptions inherent within it.  We are told of a nature red in tooth and claw and that we are a violent and mistrustful species. There is certainly ample evidence for this belief, as a brief glance at history will reveal.  But there is other evidence, largely overlooked, which points another way.  It points to us a species which evolved to be co-operative, not competitive.  We were not always as we are now, but organised ourselves differently.  Poets and visionaries have always known this.  A Golden Age may never have existed but it is imagined and has been since the beginning of written history.

Louis MacNeice wrote, in the last month of 1938 as war became clearly inevitable:

...pray for a possible land
 Not of sleep-walkers, not of angry puppets
But where both heart and brain can understand
 The movements of our fellows;
Where life is a choice of instruments and none
 Is debarred his natural music,
Where the waters of life are free of the ice-blockade of hunger
 And thought is as free as the sun,
Where the altars of sheer power and mere profit
 Have fallen to disuse,
Where nobody sees the use
 Of buying money and blood at the cost of blood and money,
Where the individual, no longer squandered
 In self-assertion, works with the rest, endowed
With the split vision of juggler and quick lock of a taxi,
 Where the people are more than a crowd.
 (From Autumn Journal, xxiv)

It is to the poets and not the theologians that we must look for the work of the Goddess.  It was not without reason that Plato desired a Republic with no room for poets.  Poetry goes beyond the chains of Reason, always founded as it is on a pre-existing assumption, and points towards Truth whilst never presuming to limit it in words.  For words cannot encompass Truth, at best they are the finger which points towards.  The soaring in the heart that comes when listening to music or looking at a sunset is the butterfly that has not been pinned down in our desperation to explain and categorise.

In the beginning was not the word but a single soaring note of jubilation.  From this we were born and to this we will return, whether we be conscious or no.  Good, bad and indifferent we may be but our end is the same.

In the time between our beginning and our end, we can imagine many things.  I imagine MacNeice's possible land.  To me, it is the land where Goddess is honoured fully and completely and the spark of imagination within each person is free to develop. It is a land without the latent consciousness of Original Sin which still haunts even the most secular.  Magic has always been afoot.  Imagination can seize power.  Just Imagine...