Issue 37 — 15 April 2020

Nine Essays

Nine Essays / John Robert Colombo

From time to time I find myself to be so interested in the subject of the moment that I spend some time drafting a short essay to force myself to give it some organized thought. Not too much organized thought, of course, but enough to require, for my own self-respect, that I weigh the matter until I understand it.
In French literature there is the tradition of the feuilleton, the personal essay, which tries to find new meaning and relevance in old forms and expressions. What follow are nine such essays or feuilletons. Fair warning: There are many more where they come from!

Marion Woodman and Robert Bly

It is my regret that I never met Marion Woodman, especially as her office or clinic, where she met with her clients and conducted her notable sessions of Jungian analysis, was for many years located in the city of Toronto in which I live. But I identified her with London, Ontario, where she was born, and to which city she commuted back and forth on weekends. Although we never met, I did read her books as they appeared, foundational works that were published by Daryl Sharp’s Inner City Books.
I have to check myself because I find I yearn to spell her first name as “Marian” or “Marianne,” perhaps to elicit the child-crone journey of life or the dichotomy or division in the human personality, the “a” being more suggestive of this than the “o.” She herself was ever youthful, like a youngster, yet ever resourceful, like a old woman, a wise woman, a witch, a sibyl, a crone, or an enchantress. So much for her first name.
Woodman, her last name, her married name, suggests a crafty creature, a wild man who roams the Black Forest or the Dark Woods of the psyche. Perhaps it refers in part to her husband, a literature professor, Ross Woodman, or to her partner in the “Iron John” / “The Maiden King” seminars co-led with the poet Robert Bly.
I doubt that Robert Bly will remember it but we met once in Toronto in the early 1960s. In fact, I picked him up at the Toronto International Airport to chauffeur him for a poetry reading that he was to deliver at St. Michael’s College on the campus of the University of Toronto. I drove him there safely, but the weather had been inclement, his flight had been delayed, and the St. Mike’s students who had invited him had decided not to wait for him. En masse they deserted the site of the reading. So when we arrived, he faced a half dozen faculty members who wanted to avoid reimbursing him because the organized reading had not (as least yet) taken place. I had nothing to do with any of this but stayed for the hasty. impromptu reading, enjoyed it, and I watched him battle (successfully) for his fee, before driving him to his hotel for the night. I commiserated with him, suggesting that there were bad audiences and good audiences and that it was my experience that the bad audiences were the Catholic students of St. Michael’s College.
Early the next morning he phoned me at home and asked if he took a taxi to my home would I then drive him to the airport. I immediately agreed and en route we chatted about his poetry and his publishing imprint, Odin House. I was a long-time subscriber to his chapbook collections of translations from European writers’ works and found its publisher to be a mild-mannered gentleman. In this regard he reminded me of George Woodcock, the writer and biographer of George Orwell. I drove him to the airport and except for now having a copy of one of his books, inscribed to me, on my bookshelf, as a souvenir of the event or non-event, the incident passed with barely a ripple on the waters of the past.

So much for the future “Iron John.” Marion I never met but she was a close friend of Patty de Lhosa so I learned a bit about her from Patty. Her maiden name was as interesting as her married name and also instructive: Boa. A reference to a boa immediately brings to mind the deadly boa-constrictor that slithers through the jungles of this world and through the psyches of its inhabitants. Yet all symbols are Janus-faced. There is also the feathered boa, a scarf or stole, generally with feathers, that is carelessly worn by the self-confident women of this world, notably those in high society, or in the performing arts. Interestingly, the feathered boa is also identified with vulgar, campy, or more accurately with an over-the-top display by any woman who is avid for attention.

So it is Marion for sure and both Boa and Woodman for sure. She was a woman who had to come to terms with herself and her sex and gender, and in the process she was of great help to many other people, especially women, who also had to come to terms with themselves.
29 July 2018

Impromptu Considerations

On Reading the Passage 45: “‘To Know Myself’” on the “Reality of Being” Webinar, Oct. 14, 2018
Reading this passage I sense that I am looking backward in time and forward in attention. By that I mean backward to Ouspensky’s descriptions of attention which are laden with technical terminology – magnetic centre, crystalization, etc. – and forward with Madame de Salzmann’s presentations which are practically innocent of technical vocabulary.
Indeed, it comes as a surprise when she slips into her account of the acquisition of self-knowledge a reference to “First Shock” and then to “Second Shock,” almost unawares. Instead of “Magnetic Centre” (a great phrase by the way, one I equate with the pedestrian and folkloristic term “Green Thumb”) she uses “Centre of Gravity,” which is about as technical as she gets in public print.
Even before I encountered Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous and the Work itself, when I was seventeen or eighteen years old, I formulated what I was dealing with even then – what we are dealing with here and now – and I did it with the phrase “the tension of the two worlds.” A year later this was favourably received by Mrs. Welch, the leader of the Toronto Group. So impressed was she with the expression or formulation that she suggested that I had picked up the phrase from a popular commentator. She had in mind Alan Watts.
I hastily told her, “No, I have read Watts and Paul Brunton and Madame Blavatsky, but I had encountered it nowhere. It came to me naturally, I recall, as I stared at one of the few oil paintings that I had ever attempted.” Even then it seemed “man was an incompleted being and nature a suggestion of infinity” and that the need was to be aware or present to the tension of trying to reconcile these worlds.
Today I would sidestep the plural noun “worlds,” as graphic as it is, perhaps suggestive of a novel by H.G. Wells, preferring perhaps “centres” or “zones” or “areas” or even “attitudes,” but I would retain the word “tension” in the singular. It is, with me, a constant. To favour the work is to create a tension in life, as well as an increase in attention.
14 Oct. 2018

The Demands of the Work

When I consider the contrary demands that are made on a person during periods devoted to self-observation and self-remembering, I always recall the story told about the youngster who sees a three-ring circus for the first time. What impresses him the most is that the action takes place under the Big Top, an object of considerable action and excitement. The young man marvels at the performances of the acrobats, the aerialists, and the gaily attired elephants. He is also appreciative of the fearlessness of the lion-tamers. He watches with amazement at the cowboys ride galloping horses as in Hollywood’s Westerns.
So impressed is  the youngster with the three-ring circus under the Big Top that when the performances are concluded, he sticks around and finally introduces himself to one of the performers. He blurts out: “I want to join the circus!”
“Why?” asks the performer.
“It is so exciting,” he replies. “Do you think I could learn to do the things that you do?”
The performer answers, “You have to train and rehearse. My advice to you is to seek out an animal trainer and study under him.”
“Will I  then be hired?”
“Only if you learn how to ride two horses at the same time.”
The response of the animal trainer reminds me of what is needed for “the work.”
Naturally the trainer represents the teacher and the horses represent man’s centres.
14 Oct. 2018

Einstein’s Final Words

“He worked as long as he could, and when the pain got too great he went to sleep. Shortly after 1:00 a.m. on Monday, April 18, 1955, the nurse heard him blurt out a few words in German that she could not understand. The aneurysm, like a big blister, had burst, and Einstein died at age 76.”
This passage describes the last moments in the life of Albert Einstein at Princeton Hospital, Princeton, N.J., and the words are those of biographer Walter Isaacson in Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2007). During his last stay in the hospital he was drafting a speech to mark the seventh anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel as well as writing a series of mathematical equations connected with his on-going research into “unified field theory.” There is no certainty as to the nature of those last “few words.”
It is always stated that the nurse, who did not understand German, assumed that Einstein was muttering words in that language. But he might well have been mumbling words in another language that she did not understand: Hebrew.
The words might have been those of the Shema, the opening lines of the prayer that is considered to be the essence of Judaism. They are “Sh’ma yisro-ayl, adonoy elo-haynu, adonoy echod.” They appear in Deuteronomy 6:4 and translate “The Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.”
“Following the example of the scholar-martyr Rabbi Akiba (2nd century a.d.), the Shema has been uttered by Jewish martyrs throughout the ages as their final profession of faith in the one God of humankind and their love for him. Pious Jews hope to die with the words of the Shema on their lips.”
For what it is worth, I submit that those words were the final ones of Albert Einstein.
Source: “Shema,” Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wikipedia, accessed 14 Jan. 2019.
14 Jan. 2019

Zen Garden

Centuries ago an interesting effect was realized by the designers of the Zen Garden of the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan.
The garden’s freshly raked bed of sand supports fifteen standing stones which are so arranged for the viewer that only fourteen of them may be seen at any one time from any one position. The viewer must move along the viewing deck to be in a position to see the previously hidden standing stones. It is always fourteen that are visible, never more.
I can attest to the ethereal nature of this man-made wonder. There are various views of the garden with its ingeniously arranged standing stones to be seen on Google and descriptions of them on Wikipedia, as well as in innumerable accounts of travel and tourism in Japan. The Zen Garden (with the exception of the scriptural Garden of Eden) is the most famous garden in the world.
What the picturesque views do not reveal to the viewer is the fact that if you walk through the doorway at the far end of the garden and turn right, as I did, randomly, on impulse, you will find the unmarked “anti-garden.” This is an area about the same size as the Zen Garden that is overgrown with bushes, shrubs, weeds, and flowers. It displays no apparent design, yet it was obviously planned to represent the polar opposite, the wilderness condition around the corner from the cultivated Zen Garden. Think Yin and Yang. All tourists are drawn to the Zen Garden; hardly any curious travellers to the “anti-garden.”
“Demonstration Woodlot” is a phrase that was used in semi-rural Ontario in the 1950s to describe what is at stake here. What is at stake is nature in the raw. I assume that what I call the “anti-garden” was planned to act as a foil or a seeming counterpoint to the Zen Garden.
Nowhere have I seen this intended effect and this accomplishment mentioned in print, though assuredly it is, somewhere.
18 Sept. 2016

Reading a Book

Reading a book is a subject that has been widely discussed, and much light has been shed on the subject, notably the subjective experience of being immersed in words on the page, by writers like the Argentine-Canadian essayist and anthologist Alberto Manguel, who must be one of the best-read people in the world, and perhaps the most widely read writer of sensitive and serious books about bookish topics – literary and cultural subjects. Yet seldom discussed is where the act of reading is taking place. The location, despite its importance, is seldom mentioned. Ditto for the posture of the reader.
A book may be read standing or sitting in a subway car, reclining in a bathtub, squatting on a toilet seat, hunched over the text in a library carrel, reclining in bed (alone or with company), leaning against the shelves of a bookstore. As well, the text of the book might be scanned on the screen of a computer or an iPad. The reader may be scanning or skimming or making notes with a pencil (in a reference library) or a ballpoint pen (in the comfort of one’s own carrel or study).
Concentration may be required, depending on the reading matter – whether it matters or not – and note-taking may be de rigeur or simply a mess of doodles. Reading for enjoyment only – passing the time not in Venezuela but in one’s mind and imagination – is a time-waster, but there are worse ways to waste time that are well known to mankind. The variations on the reading experience are endless. Oddly, I usually remember where I read a given book, often where I bought it or borrowed it, and I am likely to recall where on the printed pages – the double-page spread – appears a remark that took me by surprise.
19 Aug. 2016

Japan’s Surrender

The mentality of militaristic leaders is revealed in the manner that the Japanese generals dealt with the Potsdam Declaration that required the country’s immediate and total surrender following the two atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Emperor Hirohito was advised by six of his military leaders who were equally divided. One group of three generals recommended compliance, the other group of three generals defiance. The Emperor was hamstrung. There were two arguments for the continuance of the war and these were and are very revealing of human nature and of the nature of societies. The first argument was based on the people of the past who had never surrendered. The second argument was based on the effect of surrender on the Japanese people of the future.
There was no third argument, but there should have been, for it would have to be based on the population of Japan in 1945 who would be decimated in the upcoming battle. It is interesting that past glory and future gallantry outweigh present gore, suffering, and death. The generals were more concerned about the past and the future than about present-day military and civilian deaths – and presumably their own lives and reputations.
There were no good arguments in favour of continuing the hostilities, except that the Japanese military would put up a brave front. Hirohito saw through that because he knew the country would never be able to mount a successful defence. So he announced that he would deliver a speech of surrender.
What did the militarists do, those who honoured the Emperor unto death? They staged an amateurish putsch that failed. It was an attempt to thwart his public announcement scheduled for the following day. They were willing to be disloyal to their oaths of office and their kinship with the Emperor to continue to losing battle. The result was that Hirohito read his speech into a recorder and the disk was played the following day on radio to the Japanese people.
Problems therein: The public did not recognize his voice, as he had never once addressed them in public. He used classical Japanese that was hardly familiar to the populace. He talked in vague generalities that avoided terms like “defeat” and “surrender.” For days the public was uncertain whether Japan was a belligerent nation or not.
Reading the so-called speech of surrender is to realize that it avoided any suggestion that the Japanese people were surrendering. It was an act of acquiescence in the light of changing circumstances beyond the control of the Empire and the Emperor.
28 Dec. 2017

Words of Wisdom

“Calling on UC Alumni to Submit Words of Wisdom for Incoming Students” was the title of the email request I received from University College, University of Toronto. I graduated from the founding college of the University of Toronto in 1959. The graduation seems so far away, especially as the request arrived on July 5, 2018! I let it sit in my computer’s mail box for some hours before writing what I regard as advice that is practical in nature rather and not psychological. Here it is.
I wish I did have words of wisdom to share with students who are beginning to take their courses of study seriously. But I have no all-purpose advice; instead I have some practical advice to share. Take a speed-reading course, or at least learn what it is all about on the Web because you will be doing a lot of reading over the next three or more years, and you might as well do it in an organized, time-efficient way. Study (again on the Web) some of the techniques of rapid writing because you will also be writing for a variety of purposes. Save time by doing it with a purpose. (If you are able to speed-read, you are able to speed-write, and vice-versa.)
Let me add that note-taking is very instructive if it is done consciously and if the pages are filed away in order to be consulted as required. Again, the Web will helpful here. Finally, whenever you attend a lecture or a presentation, be prepared to ask the first question. Write it out in advance and then wave your hand to be recognized. Years later you will remember what you asked and what the answer was. A great mnemonic aid. While these may not be words of wisdom, they may be words that will make you wise.
I have to record the sad fact that these instances of “practical advice” were ever published.
24 July 2018

Frye’s Concept of Religion

An erudite associate asked me if I would be prepared to address an academic gathering on the subject of Northrop Frye’s concept of religion. He added that he himself was familiar with two of Frye’s books, The Great Code and Words with Power, so what he wanted was a view that went belong those two texts, one that embraced Frye’s understanding of belief and faith and his philosophy of life and destiny.
I explained that I was quite familiar with Frye’s views, having read the relevant material over the last ten years, while researching and editing and otherwise preparing for publication a newly published dictionary of Frye’s quotations on all manner of subjects and topics. Yet I was ill prepared to spend a month working on an academic article to cover ground that was familiar to Frye-influenced scholars and unfamiliar to most other scholars. After all, I was a self-employed, independent scholar and had no automatic access to grants or publishing outlets.
I did offer, as a point of consolation, to summarize Frye’s outlook on religion and related matters, but not in one talk or presentation but in one single phrase, a phrase that Frye himself did not formulate or utter, one that is not to be found in any of the tomes that comprise his thirty volumes of his Collected Writings. My erudite associate showed less interest in my offer than I felt was appropriate so I deliberately refused to divulge that “one single phrase.” Nevertheless, I will share it here, not for his benefit, but for yours and mine.
I did not tell him that it seemed apparent to me that Frye was heuristic to a greater degree than is commonly recognized, especially when it came to matters of faith and belief. In fact, searching for the ideal words to use to convey his view of religion and his philosophy of life and destiny, I decided to adopt the familiar three-word phrase introduced into contemporary discourse by Robert K. Merton with his influential essay titled “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy” (1948) which appears as a chapter in his widely read text Social Theory and Social Structure (1968).
Readers of the work of the sociologist will know that he coined the famous phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Those words describe what I believe to be the basis of Frye’s concept of faith and belief.
Here is how Merton described the concept, not without a sense of irony: “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come true. The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning …. Such are the perversities of social logic.”
Frye wrote often about the nature of faith. “Faith is the hypostasis of what is hoped for, the elenchus of the unseen,” he noted in Notebook 3 (1946-48). He also wrote, “We have to live from one moment to the next by a combination of faith and self-hypnotism, like the people in the Far East who walk over hot coals, to the great bewilderment of tourists, most of whom are capable of self-hypnotism but not of faith.” That comes from his “Address upon Receiving the Royal Bank Award” in 1978.
I am not aware that Frye wrote about Merton, neither Robert K. nor Thomas, but it is close to certain that he was familiar with this formulation, which sets one of the parameters of faith that leads to belief.
16 Nov. 2012

The Tai Chi Experience

At the Daoist Tai Chi Toronto Temple there is a practitioner who seems be a permanent guest of the place because it seems he is always and everywhere to be seen loitering on the premises. With a lack of sympathy he views the efforts of beginners to master the foundation exercises as well as the efforts of the senior participants to master the entire set of 108 movements.
So it is only natural that he regards me with some suspicion. Yet the sole question that he has ever asked me is whether or not I had made “my plans” to attend the forthcoming, weekend-long intensive to be devoted to the donu. This is a reference to one particular foundation exercise that many older practitioners find difficult to perform. One donu is easy to do badly, but fifty or one hundred in a stretch in my eyes do not make them any better. The donu takes the form of a crouch or squat but with a difference.
I said, “No, I am not planning to attend the weekend sessions.” (I bit my tongue, otherwise I would have explained that a weekend spent performing this exercise would be the equivalent of a residency of at least a month in one of the Rings of Dante’s Purgatory.)
Here is his response. “If you attend I guarantee that you will be a different person by the end of the weekend.”
I agreed with him, but not without adding, mischievously, “By the end of the weekend, whether I attend or not, I will be a different person.” He was not pleased with that response and looked away with some displeasure.
There is wisdom in Tai Chi, especially of the Daoist variety, just as there is intelligence about the Gurdjieff Movements. What follow are some instances of the wit of Tai Chi.
There is an amusing joke about the donu. It goes like this. Should you every find yourself lost in the Sahara Desert or the Gobi Desert, do not despair. All you have to do to be rescued is to begin to perform a set of donus. Before long, someone will appear, as if out of nowhere, to inform you that you are performing them wrong.
There are 108 movements, but practitioners claim there is the l09th. That is the movement scratching one’s head and asking, “What did I do wrong?”
Performing “the set” is difficult enough, but mastering all the movements is even more challenging. It is said, “It takes two lifetimes to master Tai Chi.”
One instructor was known to warn, “Don’t try this one on a subway platform.”
Instructors are always saying, “Just one more time.”  Pupils are always saying, “I thought I was doing that.”
“Tai Chi is meditation in motion. It is yoga designed for non-Chinese bodies.”
“The body moves, not the arms.”
“Feel your feet on the ground at all times.”
Instructor watching a beginner: “Very good. For now.”
“Remember Rule 67.4: The arm movements precede the other movements.”
“May I offer a correction? May I touch your arm.”
“Tai Chi improves balance, especially our version – Daoist.”
“Remember your feet at all times.”
“Tai Chi is fast movements. Slow down!”
“Take two steps to the right and begin the set.”
“Some part of the body is always to be in motion.”
“Don’t frown. Try to enjoy yourself.”
One advanced student complained to Master Moi, the founder of Daoist Tai Chi in Toronto. “Over the last five days you showed five different ways in which the donu is to be performed. Which one is the right one?” The Master replied, “All of them.”

8 Dec. 2012