At The Edge of The World (My Journal III)

Notes on a Tangent

Language has limits, which I was reminded of yesterday when I said something along the lines of, "I hate when you do that". When I used the form "you", I meant "one", or more accurately "I/me", as in, "I hate when you stub your toe", meaning, "I hate when I stub my toe", and as I realised I'd caused insult, I suddenly realised I had accidentally been criticising everyone around me when I was trying to show empathy.

I don't know why I find it so hard to say "I hate when I..." rather than "I hate when you..." Etymologically it probably comes from "Do you know the way you..." or "Do you know when you...", maybe it's a colloquially Irish thing, rooted in our deep fear of self-reference, which of course we know is on the slippery slope to self-reverence, the most cardinal of sins in Ireland.

Nonetheless, it means I'm failing to communicate, and so I'm going to simultaneously change how I express those feelings of a frustration I imagine to be mutual, and overcome my reluctance to 'own' my own feelings', somehow I'll search for a way to explore whether a feeling is actually a shared one at all, and if so how to find something other than words to show
that I share and care for it.

The Art of Remembrance

In history, I've been exploring how we remember our loved lost ones. For war memorials we have these cenotaphs, plastic poppies and the phrases "our glorious dead" and "lest we forget", but we do in fact forget, intentionally, and rob a person of all their own history, instead ennobling them with meaning and honour in death, when in fact there really isn't any.  Last weeks journal takes a turn towards other forms of remembrance, from tattoos to the raw expression of graffiti art.

So where then is the nobility in sacrifice? Surely there are very few who can approach a certain death with a callous confidence and a stoic stare. Death is terrifying, no matter what God you believe in, and there is probably no moment more terrifying than the few seconds when all you know is that you have no control over when you live and die, and the balance has been tipped towards the latter.

Death with meaning

There are calm, clinical deaths, from firing squads, electric chairs and lethal needles, and there are brave faces men and women wear to show their families and their victims that they understand and are ready for what's about to happen.

But even God himself, in the form of Jesus on the cross, acknowledged and wept for he knew what death truly was, and yet didn't shy away from it.

As a Christian, I hold in common with other believers a belief in 'sacrificial atonement', that is to say that in his death, Christ (Jesus) took upon himself the punishment due to us for our individual and collective sin, allowing for the first time, direct access to God [the father] through Jesus [the son] by the power of the Holy Spirit. At the moment he died, the Temple curtain* was torn in two, from top to bottom, a sign that from God to Man, relationship was once again possible and that the very presence of God ['the holy of holys' which lay behind the curtain in the inner temple] was now open to all. I believe Jesus to have fulfilled all the roles in the relationship between God and Man, being collectively the high priest [mediator between man and God] / king [Supreme Leader of men] / lamb [blemish-free sacrifice] / God [heavenly creator and judge of all men].

*The Temple veil separated the innermost room from the rest of the tabernacle in the desert, and later the temple in Jerusalem. During the second temple, this room, a perfect square, 10 metres cubed, contained a wooden box gilded inside and out, in which were the stone tablets of the covenant [the ten commandments], and after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple, there was a pedestel to indicate where the tabernacle had been.

On just one day a year, Yom Kippur, the feast of atonement, the High Priest was allowed go in, where he would offer prayers lying prostrate on the floor, a rope attached to his ankle lest he should fall dead, as no other person could enter the room through the curtain.

Today, the Dome of The Rock stands on the site of the Second Temple, and the entire area is forbidden to Jews for fear they should accidentally stand on the forbidden ground. This is the holiest site for all major world religions based on Judaism, Christianity & Islam.

A meaning beyond the reach of words

Christians differ in their beliefs as to whether God granted salvation to all men, or to a predetermined group of men, and ultimately it doesn't matter which side is 'right', because the instructions given apply regardless. Nobody other than God knows who the elect / predestined / predetermined are. Instead, what we do know is that we are to go out into all the world, to preach and teach, to serve and love ALL men, and that all are equal. Not all choose God, and so in one way that demonstrates that not all are chosen, but to focus on this is to forget that what is spoken or written is only a fraction of what's said [communicated]. Even well-meaning words of a specific spoken scriptural truth can misrepresent, blur or deny the greater truth, and can mean something entirely different to the person hearing or reading them than they do to the author.

What is heard, or received, when we focus on predestination, not realising that our audience aren't aware of the wider context of sacrificial substitutional atonement, is the message of nihilism. The most incredible thing about Scripture [the books within the Bible that are accepted as either divinely inspired by God or useful for preaching and teaching] is that to believe one can understand it entirely, is to entirely fail to understand it, which is expressed most effectively in Ecclesiastes, a whirlwind of questions, "Does anything at all matter at all?" the answer to which lies not in the word, but in the Spirit of God.

We want life to have meaning, and it does, but senseless death does not, and yet that's when we search for meaning more than ever, and I think this is because that's when it's so hard to find. This is when we finally allow the priests and the pastors to give their bit, and this is when we allow ourselves to believe that God exists and has taken home those we've lost.

But remembrance is often at the cost of 'remembrance', and we sacrifice one truth for another, because for everything to mean nothing, is something that we can't accept.

From Heroes to Villains - Taking back their Halo.

But there are those who die that say and do amazing things. The greatest minds the world has known belong to imperfect and broken people. While we share their quotes, we would have found it hard to share their beds, their cells, their offices and boardrooms. 

When men who have made the world a better place do something to make it worse, rather than a critical analysis of the good and the bad, we are drawn to the polar, either whitewashing the bad as being for the greater good, or denouncing the good as a moment of coincidence. Pedestals and halos are for heroes and saints, but when even posthumously, their deeds are declared evil, statues are torn down and paintings unhung.

In the early days of the Irish free state, we saw the dismantling and bombing of statues of kings and queens, most of which were erected by their loving Irish subjects at great cost and with great pride.

How can history, the facts of which cannot change, somehow transform heroes into villains? Why must we categorize all men into 'good' and 'bad', or 'righteous' and 'evil', when all have moments on the borders of both? That's not to say that there is no heaven or hell, it's to say that we don't really understand the complexity of how we can simultaneously want to do things that are cruel, cold or unloving, and things that are earnest, kind, and compassionate, let alone how we can discern the reasons and motivations of others. Taking down a statue or taking back a medal does not undo the great things a man has done, and yet it allows us to recategorize them into the pile marked 'evil'. Simultaneously, a posthumous pardon of a convicted criminal allows us to remember them as a man wronged by history, which is far from how they would have been seen at the time of their action. Morals change, and the concept of a flawed but brilliant hero drifts in and out of fashion, although it must be said, never since the time of King David has a flawed hero been so celebrated.

The murky borders of good science and bad dogma

The thought and question I have today is somewhat linked to a news story from last week, which Adam Rutherford writes about in The Guardian. One of the scientists who discovered the Double Helix structure of DNA, one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th Century, has affirmed beliefs in systems of ideology that are unscientific, and are in fact racist. He is becoming the first living person to sell their Nobel prize medal. The question that this once great scientist, James Watson, is asking, is "Why am I shunned, why does nobody want to hear me speak?" but the more interesting question is the one not asked in words, but rather in the nuanced and well thought out commentary of the author of this article, which is one that it's harder to find words for.

How do we remember the brilliant minds who can see what others can't, and change the world for the better, but who are utterly flawed and who are unrepentant of their mistakes, particularly their faith in unscientific rhetoric.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/01/dna-james-watson-scientist-selling-nobel-prize-medal?

Ironically, Alfred Nobel's establishment of a positive legacy was part of a bizarre second act that began when he read his mistakingly published obituary over breakfast "The Merchant of Death is Dead". He was already an old man, made very wealthy from his invention and mass production of dynamite and other nitroglycerin based explosives, as well as arms production. He changed his will and bequeathed most of his fortune to a new foundation, establishing the Nobel Peace Prize and Nobel prizes for literature, economics, medicine, and the sciences.

In the Christian world, we can look to people like Steve Chawke and Rob Bell, who have said things that have inspired the most amazing change, and said other things that have imploded the foundations of people's faith in God. Sometimes great things are done in the first act, and obliterated by the second, and sometimes one can mask past mistakes by being actively aware of how history will see them.

Ultimately the question I'm asking is still one of remembrance, and whether it can be defined as the ascription of meaning to something we don't understand.

And here's some pretty pages from my journal:

In last week's journal you may have noticed that most of the pages were composites where I'd drawn and written over previous works and ideas. These two pages from this week are layered, in that I've worked incrementally, so you might like to see the stages in which the layers take shape. If you would like to see this, just comment below and I'll add it, otherwise I'll just show the finished pages (both of which you can see the very first layers of in last week's journal).

To be Irish before the fall, a pride in king & culture

Conceptually, this week's journal looks at the Ireland of the early 20th century, the United Kingdom at the brink of secession and the birthing pains of a new embryonic nation, transitioning from something that existed in the beautiful poems and paintings into the cold light of day... via a crude watershed of rebellion, war and chaos.

The Ireland that had been imagined by the poets and luminaries was one of an independent nation with a cultural pride, but it never came to be, and yet was declared to be [in 1916], and those who had imagined it and worked to make real their imagination found themselves locked out of the situation room in an independent state with an entirely new, negative and reactionary definition of what it meant to be Irish that has taken decades to shake off. 

In our remembrance of the first quarter of the 20th century, we look back on the declarations of that new nation's birth and imagine it to have been as the artists, poets and playwrights said it would be, as the proclamations of independence said it would be. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Irish men were fighting in a war, leaving as heroes, returning as mutes. Their real history redacted from the super-ego of the new nation that actually came to be.

Catholic Nuns meet the King & Queen at Maynooth College in 1911.

Catholic Nuns meet the King & Queen at Maynooth College in 1911.

To be Irish suddenly meant to be rural, agrarian and conservatively Catholic, even though catholicism had not been previously particularly anti-British. Thus began eighty years of a national agenda driven and plagued by collusion, corruption, and fifty years of economic stagnation and separatism.

As those who didn't fit the bill, often the very people who instigated the cultural revival that led to all those poems, looked around, they found that they were suddenly enemies of the people in a foreign land that had for generations been their proud home, and as their homes were burnt down by mobs, they shuttered their doors and left, stripped of the right to call themselves Irish.

The truth at the same time was that the way of life they'd enjoyed for centuries was gone, the land acts of the 1870s right up to the 1920s gave estate tenants the right to buy land, and gave the landowners much needed cash. With no estates left, they lost their main income and so it was also for financial reasons (as in the UK) that so many abandoned their mansions, as well as the social and political ostracisation. With a longstanding culture of deference and respect to the nobility replaced by resentment, as well as increasing urbanisation and a growing middle class, it became impossible to run the huge homes that relied so much on cheap and easily available labour. The buildings were razed and forests were planted on the ruins so that no trace would remain. This was the national policy. Some of those people did stay and managed to contribute, and some genuine efforts were made to include the Anglo-Irish minority, particularly the establishment of Seanad Éireann, but the general mood was that their time was over, they had gone from being the leaders of change to the enemies of a [stagnant] state. One of the few anglo-irish people who did make a huge contribution to every day life after Independence was John Lavery, who based the new currency on the personification of Ireland, Cathleen Ní Houlihan, for which his wife Hazel sat.

Above are some of the Royal Triumphal Arches from 1821 - 1911.

1. Baggot Street Bridge, 2,3,4,5. Leeson Street Bridge, 6. Junction of Parnell Street & O'Connell Street. Images: Archiseek & Irish Memory Blog

PS. I'm sorry that I've been confined to my phone this week, and the quality of the images is quite poor, so again, I'm happy to repost them in higher quality once I've my camera back.

Brendan Joseph is a young Irish designer weaving scarves by hand from precious natural fibres of silk, cashmere, linen and mink. He was the winner of a Merit Prize at the prestigious 2011 Golden Fleece Award, and is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design and has exhibited twice at the RDS National Craft Competition. Brendan's handwoven 'heirloom' scarves have been featured in the Irish Times, Irish Examiner, Galway Now Magazine, Sunday Business Post and Sunday Independent, and are available for sale at Dublin's exclusive five-star Dylan hotel and Ireland's leading showcase for up-and-coming and established Irish and International designers, The Design Centre, in the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre.