Saturday, April 29, 2006

spirited reflections

Sanguesa's Romanesque church, with figured portal

Been meaning to write on this for a while now. I’ve often written against religion, or in wonderment about its mysterious hold. Many rejoinders to the non-believer from believers come in sentences which contain the words ‘lack’ and ‘spirituality’, rejoinders which naturally associate ‘spirituality’ with something morally uplifting and good, though such associations are generally implicit and ‘spirituality’ is never clearly defined.

I’m sure many of us know of people who use spiritual language regularly while behaving in their daily lives in the most crassly materialist way. We judge people, rightly, by their actions not their language. On the other hand, there are those who, in my view, have an outlook that I might call spiritual if I were inclined to use that too-loaded term, if only because their concerns are far from material; though they, too, are non-believers.

I’ll use two writers, or rather, two books, to illustrate what I’m getting at. The writers are Jonathon Raban and Cees Nooteboom, and their books are A Passage to Juneau and Roads to Santiago, respectively.

Here’s a quote from Roads to Santiago:

What I myself do or do not believe is immaterial: to the sculptor who transformed the dead stone into a living, rippling stream, the scene he depicted was as clear as it is to me today, across centuries of battles, plague and change. This is still a world that I belong to, by virtue of understanding. The carved figures, the proportions, are almost absurdly naïve, the whole scene is borne by a number of hieratic figures, of Gothic appearance already, elongated by comparison with the other figures: Mary Magdalene, Peter, the mother of Jacob, a gruesome hanged Judas. The damned souls way up on God’s left are thrust backwards into hell, Ensor-like masks and an outsized sheep appear on the scene, tucked away in the stone picture a tiny manikin lies asleep, knights with shields like overturned beetles, Moorish geometric shapes – twenty years have gone by in a split second and here I am again, just as before, gawping like the village idiot for hours on end, like someone who longs to be taken by the hand, petrified, changed into a dwarf, lifted up and placed among the others, to have perched there for the past eight centuries like the rest of them, a carving on a church portal in a forgotten Spanish village visited by no-one.

This passage was picked pretty much at random, and it’s typically untypical. Nooteboom is revisiting an eleventh-century Romanesque church, Santa María la Real, in Sangűesa, Spain, and marveling once more before its portico. Nooteboom is Dutch, and yet has had a lifetime fascination with Spain, its landscape, architecture, history and people. His observations are mordant, idiosyncratic, quizzical. The book tells of his crossing and re-crossing of the arid, untouristed interior of that country, a solitary and speculative journey. Much of his wondering addresses his own wondering, and yet he’s introduced me to many historical figures – Philip II and his great friend and court painter Velasquez; their contemporary Francisco de Zurbarán, an artist of very different temperament; the pioneering, obsessive historian of architecture, Walter Muir Whitehill; the semi-mythical Asturian king Pelayo, victor over the Moors at Covadonga in 718.

I suppose the point is that there’s no real point to this book. It moves from the historical shadows dogging contemporary Spanish politics to the horrors of the civil war to the Caliphate of Cordoba to the hollow mystique of the conquistadores as unpredictably as it moves from Navarre to Aragon to Castilla la Nueva to Galicia, bringing brief life to renaissance artists and medieval battles while contemplating a modest, unchanging corner of the modern world. The effect of such a book is much like that of pilgrimages of yore, a quest for something indefinably enlightening. To some, this wandering and wondering may have nothing to do with spirituality, and I’d be happy to agree, but for those who aren’t so sure, I’d have to say that this is, for what it’s worth, the only kind of spirituality I recognize, the only kind I respect.

And here’s something, also at random, from Passage to Juneau:

Once upon a time, people made their way across the sea by reading the surface, shapes, and colours of the water. On clear nights, they took their directions from the stars; by day, they sailed by the wind and waves. In the Homeric world there were four reigning winds: Boreas blew from the north, Notus from the south, Eurus from the east, Zephyrus from the west.

Wind made itself most useful for navigational purposes by generating swells. Whatever the fickle gusts of the moment, the prevailing seasonal wind was registered in the stubborn movement of the sea. Swell continues for many days, and sometimes thousands of miles, after the wind that first raised it has blown itself out. Islands, because they deflect the direction of swell, can be ‘felt’ from a great distance by a sensitive pilot. As the depth of the sea decreases, the swell steepens, warning of imminent landfall.

Sailing by swell entailed an intense concentration on the character of the sea itself. Wave shape was everything. A single wave is likely to be moulded by several forces: the local wind; a dominant, underlying swell; and, often, a weaker swell coming from a third direction. Early navigators had to be in communion with every lift of the bow as the sea swept under the hull in order to sense each component in the wave and deduce from them the existence of unseen masses of land.

Generally speaking, Raban’s writing is more concentrated, less discursive, but this is just a matter of degree, and a small degree at that. The commonalities are clear; Raban, too is engaged in a solitary, speculative journey, through time as well as across space. In his case it’s the sea, or at least the stormy coastline from Seattle up to Alaska, and, while battling with the weather and his equipment and temperament, he reflects on the sociological differences between Canadians and Americans, the curious transformations and adaptations of the natives of the area, the similar journey made two centuries before by the impossible Captain Vancouver and his disgruntled crew, the early Romantic passion for wild landscapes, the art of Turner, the death of his father, the mundane, compelling mystique of the ocean. Like Nooteboom, Raban is both escaping from and exploring self. A quest for enlightenment and transformation, full of stumbling.

Neither of these texts deal directly with religion, though there are strong echoes. Raban’s father, who died during the trip, was a minister of religion, and clearly a major force for him. Nooteboom’s travels among Spanish monasteries and their denizens remind him of his unhappy education at the hands of the holy brethren. Both are non-believers, but this isn’t dwelt on, their searching takes them elsewhere. In their company, though, I feel a kind of reverence, a worldly reverence.

So this is spirituality to me. Almost the opposite of a church sign saying ‘Jesus is the answer’. It couldn’t have been much of a question. And this is indeed one of the purposes of religion and its chief danger, the channeling of what I would prefer not to call spirituality, its controlling and taming and ultimate destruction, all for the sake of an answer and an end. It’s a personal response, I know, but what really gets my goat about religion, all religion, is how ultimately soul-destroying it is.


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