Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Wounded and Hopeful

There's something rather wonderful about discovering that John Berger, whose books more or less changed my life, also happens to share my taste in music!

I mean, as man born the same year as my grandmother, it would be understandable if he had paid little attention to the popular song of recent decades. But in his new book, 'Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance', there is an essay on erotic desire which quotes Nick Cave.

Then I came across this radio broadcast from the BBC World Service. (Be quick, it's only available till Saturday - the interview is about two thirds of the way through the programme.) Here he elaborates on his appreciation of Cave. "It's to do with the way that desperation and... not exactly pleasure, but fulfillment, are two profiles of the same face. Black beside gold, if you want to put it into colours."

He goes on to enthuse about Johnny Cash's final album, tracks from which have been haunting my playlist for months.

I've felt for a long time that there is a common theme, an attitude, which links the work of those artists and writers I admire - setting it apart from much else that you read or hear. It is touched on by the title of Berger's collected poems, 'Pages of the Wound'. What I am talking about is an attitude to brokenness which is quite at odds with the assumptions of our society - a recognition that the place of brokenness, the wound, is also the place of hope. In fact, the only place at which hope - which is quite different to optimism, or faith in Progress - can begin.

By contrast, most of our culture proclaims the desirability of unbroken perfection, fulfillment, satisfaction - so the wounds which we all carry become a source of shame, something to be evaded, or fixed with quack cures.

As I see it - and I suspect Berger and Cave might agree on this - the connection between brokenness and hope is the great, though often mislaid, insight of Christian theology.

In another key, the denial of brokenness characteristic of our culture may be connected to the categorisation of reality which Berger has always challenged. Years ago, he wrote about the last day in the life of his friend, the Austrian philosopher Ernst Fischer. A quote from Fischer has stuck with me:

The categories we make between different aspects of experience - so that, for instance, some people say I should not have spoken about love and about the Comintern in the same book - these categories are mostly there for the convenience of liars.

These categories are broken things presented as wholes. By challenging that presentation, by acknowledging the (damaged) connections between them, we may do something to limit the damage they continue to do.

In the World Service interview, Berger returns to this theme, when asked about the way he writes about Palestine, Iraq and the War on Terror alongside poetry, art and desire:

One of the reasons why we all can, at times, have a feeling of really being lost... is the way that - and this often begins at school, but now it goes on an enormous amount in the media - the way that subjects are divided up into special categories. [My understanding of this] may have something to do with the fact that I never went to a university - and universities are where all those categories and the walls between them... they are strongholds of those kinds of divisions. I never went to university, I left school when I was sixteen and that's all the formal education I ever had. After that I went to art school, but what did I do, I looked at films and drew naked models. Maybe it was something to do with that - maybe there was an advantage of feeling free to go from category to category...

I discovered Berger's books as I was beginning to recover from the disorienting experience of three years as an Oxford undergraduate. I learned from them a new way of learning, which was really an old way - led playfully, by curiosity, through conversations and encounters, across categories, wounded and hopeful. I don't know that any of my colleagues would realise this, but for me the vision of the School of Everything owes a great deal to John Berger.


Dan said...

There's quite a lot in the (mostly waffly but sometimes lovely) Iron John about wounds: the author picks it out of a Grimm Brothers story, shows how important it is to the character's development. His conclusion: wherever your wound is, that's where your gift to society will come from. Kinda simple, but has a grain of truth.

Tricky though, coz pain is usually something to run away from, same as a house on fire.

Dougald Hine said...

I think there's a difference between the wound and the source of the damage. Best (if possible) to reach a safe distance from the house before attending to your burns or trying to work out how the fire started.

An attachment to something which damages you doesn't make for a good way of living - but an acknowledgement of that attachment and of the choices you can make about it may do.

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Dougald,
This reminded me of Jean Vanier's reflections on living in community with people with learning disabilities. He has a lot of very profound insights, but the gist of it is that we are all wounded and vulnerable, only most of us are able to hide it most of the time. Sharing your life closely with people who are unable to hide their vulnerability, such as those with severe learning disabilities, can make us face up to our own wounds and help to free us from the compulsion to deny and evade them.
I've found this true of being alongside asylum-seekers as well. When you are face to face with suffering and brokenness you need to acknowledge your own dependence. As Jim Wallis says, 'If you don't need to pray, you're not close enough to the front line.'

SimplyTim said...


Very interesting post and equally valuable comments x 3. There is much to be plumbed in the wound and the injury and the healing.

In one of the first Parabola journals (vol 1. issue 1 or 2) there was an article on shamanism.

As I recall the description, the author said that (very rough translation) the Shaman is willing to go into the place of hell - and remain conscious (mindful might be the current word) and goes there with a mission in mind - to retreive something. Something that was lost there, or perhaps, in the context of this discussion, the gift and THEN to get the hell out of Dodge.

Has relevance for all of us for sure.


arcolaura said...

Much to ponder here. I have been accused of "wrecking our family" with my concern for environment - for wounded ecology, if you will. (The accuser took that back, but I am still wounded...) But the wounds to the biosphere will not heal by our looking away. And I don't believe that I have been wounded by looking. By examining the wounds, I learn what choices I can make to heal them. To me, that's much more hopeful than closing my eyes and lunging forward chanting "it must be done" or "God will provide," trying to believe that I will find some technological elixir to bring back and heal what I have trampled on my way.

Dougald Hine said...

Craig, Tim & Laura - thanks all three for your thoughtful comments. I've hesitated to respond, because there are so many directions in which a response could go.

Craig - thanks for reminding me of Jean Vanier, about whom I know too little. The need to 'acknowledge your own dependence' leads me back to Illich's critique of professionalism - the refusal to acknowledge dependence is an important element of the corruption of good intentions which he sees in our caring professions. There's another line of thought here about Augustine and the Pelagians, to which I'll try and return.

Tim - very interested that you make the connection with the shamanic. It's certainly a connection I see, with the appropriate caveats about 'Shamanism' as substantially a projection of the western imagination. Again, there are whole future posts that follow from this...

Laura - both your comment and Tim's made me think of Alastair McIntosh, whose book 'Soil and Soul' made a huge impact on me a few years ago. Among much else, he talks about 'cultural psychotherapy' (as opposed to the individual sort). To me, that suggests the importance of looking at our ways of living and where they have come from, what unacknowledged 'needs' they may be fulfilling - what untended wounds they conceal. (That just set me thinking about the connection between 'tenderness' and 'attention', which leads to a whole etymological whirlpool...)

I fear that a lot of the new awareness of climate change is still characterised by the kind of 'lunging forward' you describe, with its mantra of inevitability and its faith in technology. As my friend Anthony is good at reminding people, 'inevitability' tends to be a perception arising from a way of talking about a situation, rather than a quality of the situation itself - the language of inevitability masks the true range of choices available to us.

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