Jan van Eyck- Arnolfini portrait 1There’s no reassuring ceiling over you, Moneo. Only an open sky full of changes. Welcome it. Every sense you possess is an instrument for reacting to change.

For Martin Heidegger, the feeling of profound boredom which he felt waiting for a train at a provincial station brought one closest to the kind of active attention that separates human beings from animals.

At the end of the middle ages, human beings became individuals. Mediaeval people defined themselves as members of groups. We see this in the Divine Right of Kings: James VI demanded absolute allegiance to himself. And in Hamlet’s soliloquies: who is he, and what should he do, suddenly ripped from the old order? The portraits change, says Jakob Mikanowski: round about 1500, when these people look at you, they hold something back. They live inside their heads. And now, we are changing again, plugged into our electronic devices all the time, with different parts of the brain developing more, or less, in teenagers, forsooth, and letting it all hang out: I am not even anonymous, any more.

Certainly, there are ways of being which feel more or less comfortable. Under the sky, I am in the moment, appreciating my surroundings, enjoying the park and the birds and butterflies, and that is certainly pleasant. Though it is as civilised as any enclosed space: freshwater swans will flee rather than try Jan van Eyck- Arnolfini portrait (2)to drive me away, and the people I meet are enjoying themselves or bickering, like the child making a show of getting grit out of his sandal, finding things wrong with the experience of the park rather than compensations.

I was present in the Quaker meeting, too, enjoying being beside Julia, in the space, attentive and aware. After, we discussed our favourite psalms. It is tempting to see this enjoyable state as more Spiritual, or Mature, but it is comfortable, and in our discomfort we may grow. I rarely if ever got into this state, but seeing cross-examination in the court done well, the examiner is entirely in the moment, in the heat of combat. So, grading experiences, claiming that staring at a screen is less Spiritual or Human or Ennobling than contemplating a daffodil, misses the point.

M reported that Ackworth School did not have enough Quaker staff or trustees. How will they keep up Quaker values? He thinks them Universal values, now: William Penn proposed a European parliament in the 17th century, but we have one now; and at one time the alternative to the Retreat was Bedlam, where sight-seers paid money to be entertained by the lunatics, while the NHS was so recently much better than that.

Actually, Quaker values are profoundly Communitarian, and in conflict with neo-Conservative, or Free Market, values: who is to say which is superior?

2 thoughts on “Sky

    • Mmm. Possibly. Or, possibly, he felt boredom before he felt that active attention: boredom as a way into seeing in a different way. Anne of Geierstein is not Scott’s best novel, but I remember its opening of the two late-Mediaeval men walking through the Swiss Alps, who would not see it as “beautiful” or “sublime” because that was not a way people had come to see mountains: they would simply be a thing in the way, which had to be got round.


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