Four meditations on lines by T.S. Eliot: part I

CHORUS:

…King rules or barons rule; we have suffered various oppression, but mostly we are left to our own devices, and we are content if we are left alone.

We try to keep our households in order; the merchant, sly and cautious, tries to compile a little fortune, and the labourer bends to his piece of earth, earth colour, his own colour, preferring to pass unobserved.

Now I fear disturbance of the quiet seasons: winter shall come bringing death from the sea, ruinous spring shall beat at our doors, root and shoot shall eat at our eyes and our ears, disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams and the poor shall wait for another decaying October.

Murder in the cathedral: part I.  T.S. Eliot

 

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something about sex

On the day we visited the Royal Academy, the Klimt / Schiele show coincided with the closing days of the Oceania exhibition of artefacts from Pacific cultures.

Destitute women, sex-workers, his lover and his wife modelled for Schiele in sexually explicit poses.  They stare out at me from the paper, disputing my male gaze.  Schiele was jailed for a time, initially arrested for harbouring a runaway teenage girl but actually condemned for allowing access to his erotic drawings.  He also drew arresting self images, naked and anguished. His drawings of women seem much more self-exploration than titillation for others.  Schiele’s attitudes and actions were steeped in patriarchy, but his erotic art was revolutionary, visibly challenging the restrictive norms of his time and still challenging today.  Sex and gender are powerful, at the heart of family, politics and use of resource, and are the bedrock of art.   Once North European invaders saw the very different lives of Pacific peoples as primitive, with mixed disgust, lust and romantic wonder.  The themes of sex and gender run through the Oceania exhibition but it is hard to guess at the intent and meaning of the original crafters, or the interpretation and feelings of those who first looked at and felt the objects.

Berlin

We had three days in Berlin, our first holiday as a couple in more than a decade (we were accompanied by teenage children even on our honeymoon).  We spent a lot of time walking and eating.  We passed on Mustapha’s, a renowned street stall with a half kilometre queue for kebabs, but gorged instead on pork knuckle and sauerkraut.  Here are brief sketches of the dome of the Reichstag seen through trees, segments of the Berlin wall abandoned outside a publishing house, the statue atop the memorial to Soviet soldiers slain in that last brutal battle for the capital and the view from the former American sector, looking up Friedrichstrasse into the what was the Soviet zone.  A double row of cobbles now marks the line of the wall, and otherwise it is hard to see a difference between the sectors.  The longest remaining section, on the East Side of the river Spree, is covered in murals. We also spent time on reflection and drawing at the Holocaust Memorial.

I realise I crossed Berlin first by steam train when I was eight.  We passed through the closed and barricaded stations without stopping on a 2-day journey from Ostende to Warsaw.  Outside the train windows, I saw transports carrying tanks and the ticket inspectors were armed.

Personal reflection, Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

At school we learned nothing about the Holocaust or Nazi Germany.  In the collective psyche, World War II was still current story, not yet history. At school, we used “Jewish” casually, like “Scottish”, to mean parsimonious or tightfisted.  My own first insight into anti-Semitism came watching the television series, The Ascent of Man.  Jacob Bronowski made a pointed aside “Men like me were not around at that time”, referring to some aspect of life in wartime Germany: I had to ask what he had meant.

Later, I learned of my paternal lineage: my great grandfather coming to Britain as a teenage refugee, leaving his Polish village, fleeing successive pogroms for a better life.  Across four generations, in East London and then industrial Glasgow, sons rebelled against and replicated patriarchial violence, disowned their fathers, married out.  My father was the last to grow up with some sense of Jewish heritage.  In the army, permanently estranged from his father, sharing the same, obviously Jewish, handle with the then Minister of War, sick of ribbing and worse, he abandoned his patrimony and took his mother’s name, which I have today.

Without inheriting a mythology, it was in Narnia that I first found a sense of belonging, of struggle, of sacrifice and redemption, of course in ignorance of the author’s propagandist intentions.  However, the core of my spirituality was shaped by the words of Jacob Bronowski.  I wrote his words out, over a drawing of his face, and stuck this on my bedroom wall at home and later at University.

Standing in the ruins of the extermination camp at Auschwitz, this is what he had to say about science:

“Science is a very human form of knowledge.  We are always at the brink of the known.  We feel forward for what is to be hoped.  Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal.  Science is a tribute to what we can know, although we are fallible.

Bronowski first opened up to me that our reality is beautiful and amazing, to be approached with boundless curiosity, with honesty and clear sight, without dogma, conscious of the influence of our prior beliefs and with our convictions open to challenge. This is the heart of science, and when incorporated into society and personal relationships, it is revolutionary.

Earlier in that same episode, the camera panned across barbed wire fences, lights  and towers.  Here is what Bronowski said of the Holocaust:

“It’s said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers.  That’s false, tragically false.  Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz.  This is where people were turned into numbers.  Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people.  That was not done by gas – it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance.

“When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave.  This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”

Taking a handful of mud from the water he said:

“we have to touch people”.