Wednesday, 7 November 2007

note to antonio - oct 07

Back home again I am doing a little more reading, not enough and probably not the right books. Firstly Affluenza, a book with which I grow impatient and I think impatience an unattractive quality in any person, and probably writing letters is as good a therapy for this as one is likely to find. The central thesis of this book is provocative and entertaining – that of the causal link between contemporary rampant material excess and the contemporary epidemic of emotional distress, anxiety, depression etc - but Oliver James has made his relatively few points in a blunt and melodramatic way and then repeated them in different ways and I’m only half way through, so although there is some pleasure in some of his recounts of the chronically affluent I think an abridged version would have sufficed.

I have just finished Richard Rogers book "Cities for a small planet." It reads as a manifesto, perhaps not strictly in the sense that Jencks would define an architectural manifesto by structure tone and presentation, but it has the emotional appeals, optimistic hyperbole and so on, but in amongst the visionary piffle there are positives that I should like to build on. His argument has a certain weight in my mind given my regular experiences of London as a city of bursting-at-the-seems cultural vitality and boundless energy and given the part that his practice, person and publications have played in bringing this to be. However, London, I think, is lucky in so far as it has a glorious heritage of place making in its parks and squares and so on and as such is able to maintain a certain vitality without dramatic alterations to the fabric. I wonder if in our generation this will be sustained in the wake of post-modernism, in the face of apathy, and if whether cosmetic changes to lifestyle will be sufficient to stem the forecast local and global environmental crisis which stems from systemic abuse of the planet, often and largely a biproduct of our rich, glorious, diverse but ecologically unjustifiable culture
. RR - "making cities sustainable demands fundamental changes in human behaviour…" How? I think both these books brush over the change in human behaviour needed, perhaps to deny by omission the disastrous historical precedents of failures of civilisations to make those ‘fundamental changes’ We can be the change we want to see as much as we or Gandhi like, but we are dealing with a culture whose prevailing assumptions include, the absence of truth, suspicion of meta-narratives and utopias, a generation that is aggressively defensive of its right to its individualistic and escapist whims. Ellen Posner is quoted in CfaSP: "as members of a profession currently without an ethic [architects have] become complicit in structuring the urban language of separation." So here we stand in the void between this and his triumphant sound-bite conclusion – "Cities that are beautiful, safe and equitable are within our grasp" Oh Antonio help me believe.

I am reading gradually more frantically as the term approaches, concerned to find some hook, some theory, some weight, some thing to hang a thesis on, before the Phil show begins in studio, in church, in the house. In the midst of so much that is shallow and even false, I would hope that somewhere hiding in a book a clue or ledge to rest a manifesto on, but it slips so easily and I come back to the point that I already knew, that really those honest bricks are the only weight this can be hung on.

I was recommended to read Architecture of Happiness by Joe, and having finished it now I presume the recommendation was made on the grounds of its Ruskin infused moralising, thoughts on ornament and curiously ambiguous delves into theology and relativism. Among the passages that troubled me were his rebuking Corbusier’s division of cars and pedestrians in his urban design, a notion I too would question, but that it was made on the grounds that there is a glorious co-dependence, a fruitful alliance to be forged between the two, "[Corbusier] forgot that without pedestrians to slow them down, cars are apt to go too fast and kill their drivers, and that without the eyes of cars on them, pedestrians can feel vulnerable and isolated" …!

"Faith exists, whether we want to use it of not is another issue." .. I will try inelegantly to sidestep slipping entirely into the obvious distraction of the semantics of faith and ‘faith’ and I’ll try to draw out what I understand you to be implying by this. ‘Faith’ as it is used in the bible really isn’t a noun, it is the action of leaning one’s whole weight on something, making faith something one consciously, actively does rather than abstractly has. But we do all lean our weight on something, be they tvs or ipods, wives or careers, we draw our value and identity from these external things, and we derive security, financially, materially and emotionally from these things, and as such I think that is the action of faith. It may seem less bold to have faith in your career or family to provide, and certainly not metaphysical or mystical, but I think to frame the word in this way is a less confusing way to talk of dealings with God, otherwise we confuse what it is to practice as a Christian as something inherited or arbitrarily ‘had’. The ‘faith’ as you have used it, is that sense of the spiritual, that which is other and intangible and so might better be served by ‘spirituality’ – "…we all have it, sometimes we reject it for the sake of rules of society.. etc" So if there is a God, and he is to be discerned, met with, prayed to, it is going to happen within the realm of spirituality and it is on the basis of this encounter that we might have faith, that is, to lean our weight on, for practical things in a very real world. Without encounter, I would venture, faith is really placed in religion rather than God. On obtuse par with one hand clapping, I might return, are we human beings have spiritual experiences or spiritual beings having human experiences? I’d love to know what your conversations with your mother on these matters explore, as my conversations with my parents now always seem to have a theological edge, I don’t know if its from me or from them, and they tend to be gentle intellectual duals.

You ask: One hand clapping, meh, I think a question of Buddhist origin, which I think deserves a Buddhist answer, can I help you? No, I cannot help, only you can help yourself on this question old bean.

You ask: Are we born forgetting? By virtue that there are things I do not now know but may yet know, and things that I had not known but do now know, and simply by the volume of facts, experiences and concepts that I am presently able to recall and that is greater than a previous volume regardless of those which I may have forgotten, and by my ability to manipulate language in newer and more sophisticated ways gives scope for more complex knowledge and more complex communication of that knowledge, I would venture that we are not born forgetting in that sense. But this is simplistic, and even more simplistic might be the facile question of proportion, that the more that I know, the more things I know I don’t know, so in relative terms I know less.

I presume your question is one of knowing and its relation to a sense being, a certain irretrievable innocence that slips away. Is there a knowledge, that surpasses knowing (~Eph3:19?), was there an original one-ness, an innocence of childhood, a confidence that is known without being understood, that over time is worn slowly away by the strain of life and stress of adulthood. How much of our experience of life and its joy is derived from knowledge added compared to the innocence taken away. I think this universal loss of innocence is captured most aptly in the myth of the fall from the Garden of Eden. I don’t think that this amounts to all knowledge of value being lost in this process, or perhaps it does, perhaps we do start with the only bit of ‘knowledge’ that is of any use at all, the knowledge that we are loved, the knowledge that everyday is a special new adventure, the knowledge of infinite possibilities, knowledge of how to live in the moment without introspection.

However, I hold to the belief that there is a sublime richness in culture and nature and experience that is savoured and accumulated through a lifetime, and to suggest that we are born knowing [everything] and then start forgetting is to devalue this richness. I wonder and perhaps you could entertain an extension on these pondering: Do we as a culture celebrate youth and innocence and condemn the wisdom of the old to remote retirement homes, because we do not appreciate the richness of life’s journey, nor have anyone to thank for its time*chance*matter genesis, because we are overwhelmed by the meaningless emotional pains of life, and because we despair in the absence of a redeeming saviour. Is this at the heart of the anti-aging cream, nubile models, Greer’s babe, quest for unspoilt youth? Are these the contemporary flesh sacrifices, of unblemished lambs at the alter of our God, the god of self in this acutely narcissistic age?

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