BOOK REVIEW: The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, by Richard Holloway

Richard Holloway writes in The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death that all of us are guaranteed citizenship in ‘the great democracy of the dead.’ A typically witty and concise way of summarising human fate.

Holloway’s book is written with his characteristic gentleness of tone, but the themes are demanding and theological. In fact, the great strength of The Last Bus is that its author is able to masterfully distill terrifying and complex philosophical ideas into accessible, enjoyable prose.

A former Episcopalian bishop, and now something of a wistful agnostic, Holloway does not offer any priestly reassurances. His manner is more that of the Scottish headmaster you never had. A friendly but admonishing voice, urging us to face and accept the unknown. This may be a negative to readers hoping for self-help-style consolation. Holloway is artful and humane, but whatever hope there is in this book is to be found in strategies of acceptance, rather than of transcendence.

Early in the book, Holloway recalls visiting Kelham Hall in England, where he trained for the Episcopal ministry when he was still a boy. He finds this former haven of Christian contemplation converted into a luxury hotel, and the domed chapel hosting a colourful, Asian wedding. The austere beauty of his beloved church is now the home of a modern, multicultural union. Holloway is melancholy about the loss of his teenage memories in such a dramatic change, but insists that it also allows him to let go of it. Change can be wrenching, but without change, we would be left clinging to memories, stuck in moments that are now abstractions.

This introduces a theme which runs through all of Holloway’s meditations in the book. It is our clinging to experience that causes us pain. Time brings death and loss, but it also brings renewal, freedom and relief. If we cannot let go of what came before, we condemn ourselves to imprisonment in the past. The sense of nostalgia brings with it the heartbreak of disappointment. We are confronted with the dreams and hopes that never came to pass. But for Holloway, stark shifts such as that of a seminary becoming a luxury hotel can force us to release those disappointments, and to move on unburdened.

Holloway identifies himself with St. Peter, the apostle who began as a blustering and boastful defender of Christ but ended up betraying Jesus three times over when he was arrested. Holloway’s discussion of this biblical story centres around Peter The Penitent by Guercico (1639), which hangs in the Scottish National Gallery. Our image of ourselves is very rarely what manifests itself when we face the moment of truth, when our values are tested and our character is stripped of its masks. Like St. Peter, we are likely to burst into tears when we confront the horrible facts of our weaknesses, and the lies we have told ourselves about ourselves.

In the moment of betrayal, Christ looked upon Peter as the bible teaches he looks upon everyone, with compassion and pity. Jesus being human as well God, knows the self-deceits of the human heart. When Peter sees Jesus look at him with warmth and understanding, the apostle is thrown into shame and depression. Only when Jesus reappears after his resurrection and offers Peter a chance to atone, is he able to release himself from suffering.

Holloway seems to see the story of St. Peter as a way of viewing his own folly. It helps him confront the self-aggrandisement of his religious years, and to forgive himself for not living up to the self-image of the wise philosopher-scholar. The story also sheds light on the nature of forgiveness itself. We cannot undo the past. Peter cannot return to the image of himself as the fierce warrior of Christ. But Jesus’s pity gives him an opening to release the shame, and to move onwards in life with a renewed, more mature spiritual mission.

Quoting St. Paul in Romans, this leads Holloway to meditate upon the concept of ‘predestination’. We are sinners. We are weak in the heart and mind. We chose the very things we don’t want. But as Paul says, God is in charge and law is good. So in some sense even our sinfulness is part of God’s plan. We are who we are, warts and all, because God wills it that way. Our lives then, are predetermined. Though the passage from Romans has no definitive interpretation, its mystery would be the very faultline that fractured the church during the Reformation. Anyone interested in the minutiae of this theological controversy, will be impressed with how Holloway handles it here. He not only explains it in swift, approachable prose, but he manages to apply it to the everyday challenges of the human condition.

In acceptance of our sinful nature, we find the compassion necessary to forgive ourselves. We see that though we are responsible for our failures, they are also the product of our environments, the pressures of circumstance and countless forces acting upon our conscience. We may never be able to undo the damage done by our shortcomings, but we can learn from them if we are prepared to face the truth about who we are, without the posturing of narcissistic masks. Once we accept that we are not perfect, our imperfections cease to haunt us.

Holloway’s discussion of predestination marries well with his reflections on free will, earlier in the book. Again, a complex and persistent philosophical puzzle is tackled with a lightness of touch. To Holloway, free will is defined as the sense that we could have chosen differently, that we were somehow in charge. And it is a foundational notion to our sense of justice and free society.

But Holloway insists that our sense of control over our lives is at least partially a convenient illusion. Instead of being the supreme auteurs of lives, the truth is we are more like craftsmen. He cites a friend’s preferred metaphor, that our lives like woven cloth. The thread is inherited, the loom is time, and the pattern is often surprisingly complex. It manifests itself as we merely sit and work the mechanical process of our lives. We play a part, but there are many other forces that we can’t control, which will affect the outcome.

More examples can be found of Holloway’s ability to hit the sweet spot when distilling difficult problems into accessible prose. ‘Being dead is beyond or past experience. But dying isn’t.’ ‘The mind is its own place and does its own thing.’ Or, with a subtle wryness: fear of death is ‘an entirely ecumenical emotion.’

Holloway describes himself as having a ‘romantic temperament’, but he’s critical of this fact. As a child he dreamed of being a cowboy, escaping the central Scotland village he grew up in and discovering his great mission. This desire for new experiences, he says, stopped him from truly relishing the beauty of the world around him. Death, says Holloway, forces us out of this kind of romantic preoccupation. And if we cling to our ideals, we can do ourselves a disservice in failing to prepare for our end.

This somewhat jars with an earlier section of the book, where Holloway seems to affirm the power of beauty, the romance of ritual and creative sacrament in religion, in helping us to face death with defiance. In this discussion, Holloway says it’s through our songs and our imagination that we can find the only conquest of death available to us. Life after death, the notion of salvation, the promise of a messiah – all of these are ways of the soul remaining heroic in the face of our common fate. Through them we create meaning and beauty in our lives. ‘Death gets us all in the end, but it can never kill our songs. And that is they only victory they give us.’

So it seems odd that Holloway is so damning about the romantic instinct in a later chapter. Using John Wayne as an example, he seems to relish the difference between the projected image of cultural heroes and the ‘quotidian’ reality of their lives. Wayne appeared to be the paragon of courage and masculine resolve on screen, but he ‘finessed’ his way out of service during the Second World War. Only when the Duke was on his deathbed did he actually become heroic in real life. Certainly we must be cautious when revering images rather than genuine human character, but none of this condemns romance and the idealistic longing intrinsic in the human soul. Surely it possible to be both romantic and idealistic, while also accepting the facts of existence? The odes of Keats would stand in testament to that possibility.

That said, there is wisdom in the idea that if we spend our lives trying to escape who we really are, we risk losing the chance to see grace and beauty in death. The very shortness of life means we cannot afford to kid ourselves. Only by making friends with ‘the stranger’ that is our true self, can we hope to meet our end with strength, acceptance and poise.

Acceptance of our fragility does not imply capitulation to death. Rather it is a chance to show virtue in the face of that which we can’t control. As Holloway deftly puts it, ‘We didn’t get to deal our hand in life. We only got to play the cards we were given. And how we play the last card can win the game.’

The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death is published by Canongate and can be purchased here

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BOOK REVIEW: Peter Brook on meaning and language

‘What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence,’ Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in the conclusion to his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. That line would spark off logical positivism, a kind of scientific fundamentalism about language, claiming that if the phrase has no real-world correspondence, and that correspondence cannot be demonstrated, the phrase is meaningless.

Wittgenstein himself would go on to show the folly of this thinking and repudiate any of his own philosophy that contributed to this narrow, and rather stifled view of language. Peter Brook’s Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning, makes no great philosophical or academic claims for itself, but it does drive home the futility of reducing language and communication to a fixed system.

In some of his earliest ‘reflections’ in the book, Brook examines the granular nature of each word in English. Like atoms, they may deceive us into thinking they are the smallest unit of meaning, but words themselves have multivalent resonances. Each word contains its own universe, potential pent tight and which can only be released in active use.

The concepts of ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are intrinsic to human life, says Brook, and they are also intrinsic to human language. Language emerged out of a need to communicate what actions were ‘good’ and what were ‘bad’ and eventually the gradients in between. Levels, the idea of being better or worse, exist within words too. There are better words and worse words for communicating a given thing, and there are levels of meaning. As Brook puts it: ‘… an endless scale of finer or coarser vibration, of finer or coarser meanings.’

Brook’s book reads like a conversational diary entry, or perhaps extended programme notes to a theatre production. There is no real thesis. These are ‘reflections’ after all, they are not meant to constitute a literary or academic theory. Some readers may find this baffling, a kind of directionless meandering thoughtfulness.

However, there’s some advantage in Brook’s relaxed, meditative tone. We are not being led towards some promise of resolution, as there is no question being asked, no demand being made upon the reader. We are simply allowed to join Brook in relishing the bewildering beauty of language, the subtlety of the very idea of meaning itself.

Brook’s work in both French and English informs this book throughout. He describes a flash of enlightenment when teaching actors performing in French how to ‘do’ Shakespeare the English way. The French actors appeared to be rushing the lines, and Brook instructed them to slow down the delivery, to relish each utterance the way Gielgud might have done. But this didn’t work, because – Eureka! – as a language French works completely different from English.  ‘I had failed to recognise that, if in English we speak in words, the french speak in thoughts.’ That is, French sentences contain a complete and ‘rapier sharp’ rendition of a lightning fast thought, and thoughts are essentially complete and too quick to capture in words. The ordinary Frenchman, speaks his words the way we might recite proverbs. The idea is formed perfectly in the mind, complete, before it is uttered. In English, contrastingly, and most notably in Shakespeare, we feel our way to the end of the sentence, we improvise as we go.

An actor’s task is obviously not to improvise his words as he goes, but the effect of the language is to convey the impression that that is what is happening. Shakespeare’s characters are so real to us because they speak in the same intuitive process as we do. Brook says the sense of the unexpected must exist in the actor’s mind, a sense of the meaning being open and alive.

Carrying on his meditations on the difference between French and English, Brook points to a common occurrence between speakers in each language – the speaker comes against a block and says ‘how do you say?’ What’s amusing about this, says Brook, is that the words are very often the same. However, certain words and phrases may share the same meaning, but as spoken in practice they carry very different undertones. The sense is the same, but the practical nuance of meaning is not exactly the same as their correspondence in each language.

The English phrase ‘I’m out of sorts’ corresponds to the French saying ‘I’m not on my plate’. They both have a similar meaning, but they carry with them different cultural resonances. He also uses the example of ‘Why’ vs ‘Pourquoi’. They are both the same in a practical sense but the French subtext is one of interrogation, an answer is expected. In the English usage, the dominant ‘y’ is left hanging, as if the question is by nature open.

To Brook’s delight, English is brilliantly anarchic, and can subsume Americanism and street slang and we are used to the idea that it is constantly changing. Brook says that the language of Villon and Rabelais shared this ramshackle nature with English, but during the Age of Reason, the Academie Francaise developed a rigorous system of curation, whereby new words are accepted or rejected, effectively by committee. In French, a word, any word, is the mot juste – self-contained and needing nothing other than itself to coney meaning. In English things are never so simple.

 

Another theme of the book is what theatre can teach us about human nature. For Brook, the ideal theatrical moment is one of a subtle, heart-stopping revelation, where the audience and actors are brought into one common experience. However, there are more instructive lessons that Brook garners from his lifetime in theatre.

Brook tells the story of a ‘68 theatre group, who, desperate to maintain the energy of change and renewal of that year’s dramatic social revolutions, moved to Geneva en masse and started their own company, one that would break away from the traditions of theatrical space, one which would create a moveable home.

The group designs a dome, a collapsable and flexible theatre, which can travel with them and which can give them the freedom to create their own boundaries of performance space. Brook recounts meeting these young revolutionaries, helping them put the finishing touches to their craftsmanship. After two years of fledgling work, the group had become close and creatively single-minded, having faced the challenges of their own limitations and the pressures of the new and unknown, together.

This group was the idealist, socialist collective, the same that was dreamed of by George Orwell, William Morris or Oscar Wilde. However, Brook asked them, now that they had built their flexible space, what do they plan to perform? The group were silenced by his inquiry. They had no clue. When Brook bumped into the leader of the group shortly after, he spoke of sad news. The initial challenge being overcome, the theatre group had splintered, and the dream was over.

The theatre troupe had put form before content, says Brook. They had become so engrossed in the practicalities of form, that they had neglected the very meaning of theatre itself, the art of storytelling. The story is a cautionary one, for revolutionaries, or for anyone wishing to create change and affect the culture. It’s not enough to innovate new forms or vernacular, or to solve practical challenges. You have to have a sense of meaning, a kind of spiritual purpose, to drive your action and to make it lasting and worthwhile.

This touches on something very prescient. Today we live with the innovations and political fall out from the 1960s. For decades now, children have grown up being taught to worship the glorious revolution, to aspire to be revolutionaries and to themselves make a stand for something. The problem is that ‘taking a stand’ has become an end in itself. Being a ‘changemaker’ is a sort of identity, rather than means to an end. No one thinks to ask what you are rebelling against and what you propose as an alternative. Style has usurped content. Today, all that matters is that you are ‘counter’; culture, in its highest and most humanist sense, doesn’t seem to matter.

 

The theatrical innovation for which Brook is known is now a kind of orthodoxy. Regarding the concept of the ‘empty space’, he says:

‘Emptiness is a starting point, not for its own sake, but to help discover each time what was really essential to support the richness of the actor’s words and presence.’

He acknowledges that today, the ‘battle has largely been won’, but he seems to be saying that preserving this empty space is getting harder and harder, regardless of how cluttered the stage is, or is not. Beckett, Chekhov and Shakespeare, says Brook, all built silence into their scripts; what was in between the lines was always more important than the words, which were merely stage directions for the accomplished actor. ‘Theatre exists,’ says Brook, ‘so that the unsaid can breathe and a quality of life can be sensed which gives a motive to the endless struggle.’ In other words, what makes it all fall together is what is not obvious, it can’t be found on the page, but it is found through the actor’s connection with the poetry.

Emptiness and silence are theatre’s greatest weapon, according to Brook, when a peculiar hush comes over the actor and the audience at once, something special and truly human occurs. Brook is somewhat mysterious here, but he seems to be suggesting that this capacity for creating space, emptiness and silence, is what can make theatre a genuinely unifying art.

Brook also addresses something very important for the modern artist in any arena – the challenge of being both relevant and truly rebellious at the same time. Artists do battle with their times, but in the same breath they must also embody their times and the traditions which have formed it.

Today we live in a paradoxical age where rebellion has become the orthodox. To ‘swim against the tide’ is in some sense to actually give in to the overwhelming currents of the age. Shock tactics, conceptual befuddlement and angry protest are simply what is expected. Craft is not what will get you recognised, but adopting an arch attitude will, and it will do so because it is now the familiar, it is what the audience knows. The challenge then, says Brook, is for the artist to truly understand the nature of his times, before he can begin to go against them and confront them.

Ours is an era of consumerism, technological bombardment and perpetual innovation. And yet, many artists seem to think that the prevailing status quo is characterised the bowler-hatted, pin-striped establishment bureaucrat. Much of the art that is considered rebellious, is really rebelling against an ancien regime that is long gone. For an artist to be truly challenging, they would have to confront not the old empire or the stuffy, grey-haired bourgeoisie of the 1950s cliche; they would have to take on the glossy, trendy technocrat, who has a large hip hop record collection and owns shares in multiple tech companies.

Protest has become naive, outrage has become glib, according to Brook. What was shocking and groundbreaking in 1967 is now banal and unsurprising. To be truly swimming against the tide, would be to offer solutions, to offer a world-view, to give people something positive and life-affirming when they leave the darkness of the theatre and enter the glare of the modern world. To do so, however, is to have oneself regarded with suspicion. The trend for deconstruction and anger is still in mid-stream, even as the traditions and customs that caused that trend have long been swept away.

‘A shock that awakens our indignation is cosy, and is quickly forgotten. A shock that opens us to the unknown is something else and makes us feeling stronger as we leave.’

For Brook, the mainstream must not be despised, even as the artist seeks to challenge it. As artists we emerge from a tradition, we don’t come out of nothing, no matter how unique we think we are. The challenge then, is to ‘find the vital currents’ even as we live in gratitude for all that has come before us. Only then can we avoid a merely adolescent rejection of the past and a unthinking worship of the new.

 

Brook says that Shakespeare’s genius was in combining the ‘esoteric’ with the ‘profane’. That is, for every moment of poetic grace and breathless insight into the human condition, there is an all too accurate expression of the every-day which brings us back to earth. For every moment of noble rhetoric, there is a crude joke. To emphasise one over the other is to lose the intrinsic significance and genius of the Bard. To play Shakespeare with only a perfect Queen’s English is overly-reverent; but to play him with only a modern swagger and vernacular is a ‘journalistic vulgarity.’

Brook says that contemporary audiences are right to pull back from anything that sounds too high-minded, too spiritual. However, to get caught up in only the earthly, materialistic struggles of human lives means one’s art will lack any of Shakespeare’s moments of lasting power.

Brook’s book is deceptively accessible. It is short, and it is not weighed down with citations, footnotes and references. It’s not an academic masterwork. It is however, deeply philosophical, in the sense of imparting wisdom, and rich with insight. You can dip into this book, and let the ideas and questions seep into your mind as you go for a long walk.

Someone who measures truth according to the level of new and surprising facts they are presented with, may well be disappointed by this book. However, for the jobbing artist, and in particular, anyone who is a performer, Brook’s writing here will be of invaluable, practical use.

Truth in the sense of literary and poetic truth, cannot be hit on the nose with specific words and precise descriptions. For the artist, truth is whatever falls through the cracks, whatever is implied, rather than what is said or pointed to directly. It cannot be any other way, because the great truths of the human condition transcend any one person or group’s experience, they are beyond the faculty of language in its evolutionary sense. If the reader is willing to abandon the idea that language should be a science, they may find themselves sharing in the same delight and wonder that Peter Brook has for the mystery of meaning.

Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning is available on Amazon. You can order a copy here