The Three Women I wish to celebrate are: Aung San Suu Kyi who will, I hope, one day lead Myanmar (or Burma as many of us still call it) into a future of peace and prosperity; Jacquetta Hawkes, the archaeologist, poet, scholar, writer and mystic; and Alexandra David-Neel, the Buddhist adventurer (and some say anarchist) who, against all the odds, visited and explored Tibet when that country was still more or less closed to foreigners.
Among the qualities these women share are towering intelligence, great courage and fierce determination as well as what, for want of a better phrase, I must call a sublime and uncompronising femininity. Their vision of life is at all levels informed by their sense of being a woman.
So many of the power brokers in our world are men, and frequently aggressive men who speak of winning and defeating: but these three – each in her own different way, speak of nurturing and understanding and of looking outward, beyond the personal to wider patterns of significance. Their voices are unique, though two of them we can now only hear from the books they wrote.
One is still alive. Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi (1945 – …)
It is curious, is it not, the way that imprisonment, originally intended to stifle, silence, intimidate or destroy those who dared to speaks in opposition to whatever a guilty governement wanted to hide, should achieve the opposite effect and ennoble the prisoner and publicise their cause? One thinks of Wei Jing sheng in China, of Ghandi in India, of Vaclav Havel who wrote Letters to Olga from his prison cell and of course (most famously) Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Well Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest for many years but was never far from people’s minds or from the headlines.
Quoting Wikipedia’s superbly stark account, “In the 1990 General Election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won 59% of the national votes and 81% of the seats in Parliament. She had, however, already been detained under house arrest before the elections. She remained under house arrest in Burma for almost 15 of the 21 years from July 20, 1989 until her release on 13 November 2010.”
Of course Aung San Suu Kyi has not yet been tested in power, and power is, as we all know, the most corrosive force on the face of this earth. I have long maintained that if you want to know what someone is like, just give them some power over people, then stand back and watch what happens. With this caveat in mind, I hope the day is not far off when Aung San Suu Ky will lead Burma and, simultaneously, the Generals be stripped of their trappings.
There was a wonderful cartoon in the Independent Newspaper of England on the 15th November. It showed a General holding a cage from which the bird had flown, but a chain still linked the bird to the cage. How true. That cartoon, by the way, gave birth to this.
For Aung San Suu Kyi
And what do they want,
these hippopotami in uniform,
these pantomime dames
with their medals on show,
and who still hold the keys to her cage?
She is slim as a knife,
and beautiful too.
Bright as an arrow,
that catches the sun.
Strong as the north wind
which blows from the sea.
And calm as the pool
which mirrors your face,
when thirsty you bow down to drink.
They have much to fear,
For she is dangerous,
as the truth always is,
as the river that flows
under a statue
eroding the sand
on which it is based.
And now to Jacquetta Hawkes
Jacquetta Hawkes (5 August 1910 – 18 March 1996)
I must admit that this photo only shows one side of her personality. Here you can see the strength and determination of the woman, and perhaps something of her sensitivity and reflection. It is a posed photograph, I think, and little is revealed of the high passion that drove her, of the poet who swooned in the moonlight, of the scholar that felt in every fiber of her being the wonder of creation and horror at its potential destruction. If anyone has a better photograph I would be glad to see it and to display it, if that is possible.
I did meet Jacquetta Hawkes once, in 1973. She was visiting New Zealand in company with her husband, J.B. Priestly. It was not an auspicious meeting. Some of us who lectured in the arts at VUW were invited by the then Vice Chancellor, Danny Taylor to meet the great man of letters. Charming though he was, and entertaining – for he was a born story teller with a rich North of England voice and a merry manner – it became evident quite quickly that Priestly was more interested in talking to the ‘ladies’ than to the rest of us ‘blokes’. I asked him finally if his wife was with him, and he looked round and then said, “Yes. Jacquetta is somewhere about. Probably reading.” It was then that I noticed her, and indeed, she was studying the shelves of books that lined the study. I approached her. My first impression was of neatness and complete composure. She was not tall, but stood with that concentrated energy that one sometimes sees when people look at paintings in an art gallery
“Hello,” I said.
She turned to me. “Hello,” she replied and began to turn back to studying the books.
“Is this your first visit to New Zealand?”
“What have you seen so far?”
“We have just arrived.”
“Well….” a long pause, and I became aware that she was longing to get back to the books. “I hope you have a pleasant visit.”
And that was it.
Now, if I had known her works then; if I had had an inkling of the brilliance of her mind and the depth of her scholarship and the profound concern she felt for the future of the human race, and her love of the arts and literature as well as her delight in the diversity of culture, her mystical feel for life and love and…. and… (I could go on), I would not have been rebuffed so easily. I could at least have offered to show her and her husband the city and perhaps take them on some of the walks through the bush; and my delight would have been to listen, for she and he, had many tales to tell, and I would have loved to see this land through her eyes. But the chance went a-begging.
To share with you my admiration for this woman, I shall concentrate simply on one of the many books she wrote, Man on Earth. I think from this you can gather the essence of her thinking: and for those of you who are a bit jaded (not to say bored) by the on-going and grim battle between the scientific rationalists who advocate Evolution by Natural Selection and those other fundamentalists who see Divine Intervention as a shaping cause in the affairs of men, then you have treat in store. Jacquetta Hawkes speaks with the knowledge and confidence of an accomplished archaeologist and anthropologist, but her vision is based on her intuition, on her deep sense of causes beyond the obvious, and her ideas are expressed with the verbal sensitivity of a poet.
At one point she says . ” I simply can not explain our beautiful, surpassingly various and supremely imaginative world by the orthodox tenets of evolution. …..” However, let me emphasize, this book is neither a polemic or a diatribe. She explains. “It is not my purpose to make my heterodoxy an important issue in this book. My purpose is to attempt to give an impression of what in fact has happened to our kind on earth, and here I am not in any way in disagreement with the findings of science and history. When the story lies exposed, it is for every reader to judge for himself what forces lie behind the narrative.”
I suspect it is the presence of these ‘forces’ which ‘lie behind the narrative’ that give the book its special energy and insight.
The book is both a celebration and a warning. It celebrates our kinship with all other forms of life on earth, as well as those things which we human beings have achieved since the dawning of our consciousness: it warns us of all that we might lose; for we stand at a very real cross-road and choosing the wrong path, given our present state of knowledge, will (not ‘may’) lead to catastrophe. The book was first published in 1954, and its message, ugent then, is ever more starkly before us now. However, dangers apart, (and these are reserved for the final chapter) the book is a journey of delight in which we learn to follow the heart in the search for truth.
It begins as follows. “When I was a girl I took part in the excavation of a cave dwelling on the lowest slopes of Mount Carmel in Palestine.”
Just as later we shall follow the stages whereby man himself became self-aware, so in these opening pages we observe young Jacquetta becoming entuned to the world about her.
“One night,” she says, “when the land was still fresh from the rain, I was wandering near the camp enjoying the moonlight when an intense exaltation took possession of me. It was as though the White Goddess of the moon had thrown some bewitching power into her rays. It seemed to me that our arid satellite was itself a living presence bounding in the sky – I do not myself understand this use of the word bounding , but it comes insistently and I cannot but use it to express some deeply felt vitality. Indeed, the whole night was dancing about me.
It appeared that the moonlight had ceased to be a physical thing and now represented a state of illumination in my own mind. As here in the night landscape the steady white light threw every olive leaf and pebble into sharp relief, so it seemed that my thoughts and feelings had been given a extraordinary clarity and truth.
So powerfully was I moved by this sense of possession that I climbed up onto a high outcrop of rock against the mouth of the waddi and knelt down there. The moonlight swam round, and in my head, as I knelt looking across the plain to the shining silver bar of the Mediterranean…”
A caravan passes in the night, with camels and bells and singing.
“For those minutes and I have no notion of how many there were I had the heightened sensibility if one passionately in love and with it the power to transmute all that the senses perceived into a symbol of burning significance. This surely is one of the best rewards of humanity. To be filled with the comprehension of the beauty and the marvellous complexity of the physical world, and for this happy excitement of the senses to lead directly into an awareness of spiritual significance. The fact that such experience comes most surely with love, with possession by the creative eros suggests it belongs near the root of our mystery. Certainly it grants man a state of mind in which I believe he must come more and more to live: a mood of intensely conscious individuality which serves only to strengthen an intense consciousness of unity with all being. His mind is one infinitesimal node in the mind present throughout all being, just as his body shared in the unity of matter…. “
“That was all I knew, but as the moon leaped and bounded in the sky I took full possession of a love and confidence that have not yet forsaken me.”
(This long quotation is a condensation of pages 15 – 17 of the Cresset Press 2nd edition.)
Later, after a visit to the Natural History Museum, she adds, “I was not only intellectually but also intuitively and emotionally convinced that the accepted doctrine of evolution misses the main power behind it. This power is so huge and so obvious that it can not be discovered by the little knives of analysis and for this reason the scientists fail to recognize it. One can not see landscape through a microscope.”
We are close to Wordsworth are we not, and to many other poets I suspect, who lacked the gift of verse?
The background to the book is geological change. Against this we follow the the emergence of life. Certain key moments are pointed such as the creation of the backbone which protects the spinal cord, the beginning of warm-blooded bodies which can regulate their own temperature and finally the growth of the brain with its complex folds and pons, its cerebellum and cerebrum etc. From this we move to a discussion of the origins of consciousness and culture which finds its first and greatest expression in the dazzling paintings of animals in caves such as at Lascaux. There is true mystery here. How did it happen that after thousands of years of slow evolution we suddenly encounter this outpouring of creative energy, this artistic statement of being and of separation?
From this point in the book we follow the development of civilization and explore the vastly different civilizations of Egypt and those that sprang up and survived for a long time in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. The discussion now hinges on the different kinds of art and literature these civilizations produced. Suffice to say that one hungers to know more… but the book drives on, for its aim is now to reach the present.
But we linger briefly on the year 525BC. Jacquetta says “It is profoundly stirring to think of these great men, many of them on eart at the same time, the same sun greeting them as it advanced fromt Orient to Occident. Say perhaps a day in 525 when the sun first woke old Lao Tse and young Confucius, and sent the old man to his work among the archives at the Court of Chow or to meditation on the Tao, while somewhere in Shantung Confucious, already in his middle twenties far advanced in his search for wisdom, put on the mourning clothes he was wearing for his beloved mother and went out to teach his disciples. Then as the earth turned and Benares came into the sun’s light, dawn would find Siddhatta Gautama, the Buddha,with his days of pleasure as a Rajah’ son, set sternly behind him, rising from some comfortless bed and setting out with his begging bowl, to spread the enlightenment which had come to him seven years before under the Bo tree. Some hours later the sun would rise on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor lighting up the comfortable homes of the Greek natural philosophers of the school of Thales, public and professional men who rather than turn their eyes inward towards their own psyche, looked out towards a world they believed to be an intelligible whole, and used the senses and intellect in an effort to apprehend and order it. Men who, rather than seek understanding under a Bo tree, would seek to understand the tree its self. Of this school, Anaximander had already by his study of animals and fishes gained at least a hazy idea of evolution, while that very morning, Xenophanes might be going out to collect fossils whose meaning as marks of former life he understood – probably the first man on earth to recall something of the events with which this book begins. Heraclitus,the proud aristocrat, would stay indoors in his study, for his intellect, leading him to think of existence as perpetual change and process rather than as various being, was turning him towards metaphysics and away from the abservation of nature. Westernmost, and therefore last of all, Pythagoras would wake up at Crotona, the Greek colony in southern Italy where he had recently fled from his home in Samos, breaking fast with the members of the mystical brotherhood he had gathered round him, he may perhaps have spent the morning in a severe exercise of pure intellect, wrestling with some part of the theory of numbers which he believed could explain the nature of the world.”
And so we move from the Greeks and the Romans and the strange division which sprang up between the introspective East and the analytic West….. we are getting close to the present….
… and here I will stop. I have said enough. Perhaps too much, for enthusiasm can carry me away. The rest I leave for you to find. But it is the final chapter which puts all things in perspective. It is called A Myth for the Future.
Shortly our statesmen will meet to discuss Global Warming, conservation and how to feed the six and a half thousand million people who currently inhabit the world. Hopes are not high for a binding agreement. Now if ever, more than ever, we need a world vision informed by the wisdom, will, and humility so bountifully manifest in this book.
Suffice to say that in an earlier blog I wrote about the Future of the Ancient World: well Jacquetta Hawkes’ book is the perfect companion though it traverses different territory.
Both books teach us to see more than just with the eyes. And both make the world more luminous.
Delayed as I am still doing the research.
But look at the luminous eyes of this figure – which is in its self almost like a doll made of porcelain – and know that you are looking at the face of one of the most daring of women, and one of the cleverest and brave, and one of the most determined and learned. She lived to be 101.
Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969)
(I am indebted to Wikipedia for this magnificent photo. I do not know its origin. )
However, while I am putting the new piece together, here is something I came across recently and which has, more or less, a bearing on this Post’s theme.
It concerns the poet Mirabai (sometimes written as Meera Bai) who lived from 1498 to 1547 in NW India. To put matters very simply, Mirabai fell profoundly in love with Lord Krishna: so much so that she abandoned her husband and her former life to devote herself, her love, and all her art to Krishna.
The following is taken from an introduction to her works by Suguna Ramanathan who explains why Mirabai’s work is so disturbing and challenging, then as now. I have added two of her many poems for your pleasure.
It seems to me that in these translations, the spaces in the lines speak as eloquently as they words, forcing us to slow down and make connections.
Faith Vs Discourse
Mirabai’s poems are an outpouring of FAITH. By Faith is meant here not an intellectual assent to, or an unquestioning acceptance of a prescribed code of doctrines and rituals but a joyful openness to an un-paraphrasable reality, an openness characterized by vulnerability, dissolution, freedom and abandonment.
Discourse on the other hand is the practice of power that keeps a society stable by delimiting a field, marking off its boundaries, legitimizing norms and perspectives. It generates its own concepts and texts to sustain a given established order. Discourse has to do with the material world of production and exchange; it goes usually unchallenged and its basis is hidden from itself.
But there comes a time when such a world is felt by some to be radically insufficient. The ensuing reponse unsettles priorities; the heart disturbed by love, moves to a point outside the given boundaries. Thus St Francis goes to the forest, St Bernard to his Cell, Julian of Norwich becomes and anchoress. So with Mirabai. She gives up the security of the married woman, she takes to singing and dancing, she loses all interest in her role as a wife. Clearly, Mirabai is challenging discourses.
In the Dark of the Heart
in a swing
– and all
into a sleep
and lost him.
begin when they wake.
for Mira means
waiting till he
enters her dwelling and
makes all things well.
stretched wide, see only
I hear tell
there used to be
a lonely royal girl like me
upon a time.
was all her life unti
her eyes lit on
like beads that make
each other shine.
yet one. Her tears
stitch gleaming pearls
I count the stars, I wait
for one pin
I have added some pictures of the reunion to the Drama Studies page. This is a selection: more are available from Robert Cross.
I have added the long Science Fiction ballad John Death Elliot and his ship The Fare Thee Well, to the Poetry from the books page. This long ballad was part of The Fall of the Families.
New also is a commentary in Whispers from the Wings on the 1966 production of Comedy, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning by C. D. Grabbe, for the National Union of Students Drama Festival in Bradford.
I have also extended the introduction to Wulfsyarn: A Mosaic giving more details of its strange origin.