from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Catholicism, transmigration, goats and Le Quattro Volte

As an ex-Catholic, I can spot another across 100 paces. And the saying goes that one is never really an 'ex', but a lapsed Catholic.

My family converted when I was 11, after a year of huge family tragedies, one after the other. The parochial Roman Catholic Church of those days (the late sixties) was a very black and white institution: deeply patriarchal, of course, whilst still giving a place of honour to the feminine principle in the shape of the Virgin Mary (with emphasis on the 'virgin' bit). We learned a lot about mortal sin, and that we are all guilty without even knowing we are ('original sin'); we learned that if a man takes to the Church his wife and children had to too (I believe that has changed since);  we learned that since men weren't able to control their urges at the sight of our loose hair we as women were duty-bound to wear mantillas in church to protect them from themselves (mantillas are lace head coverings; also abolished, thank goodness). It has taken me nearly 40 years to recognise that my inculcated sense of guilt and over-responsibility is in part in thrall to that early heritage, and the Confessional.

The priest who 'converted' us was a larger-than-life, funny, compassionate and intelligent Irishman. We all loved him. Nonetheless, I remember still the sense of deep shock when he answered my 11-year-old's question about whether animals have souls with a negative. My life had been steeped in animals, was and is deeply intertwined with the animal kingdom. Even then people brought me wild animals that had been injured to tend, as they did my sister, later. I aspired to the life of St Francis of Assisi, and could not swallow that animals were 'lesser', somehow inferior. (I have a lot to say about our notions of our 'right' to use the natural world as we desire to; this view being as I see it directly related to our sense of anthropocentricism, and the assumed superiority that goes with that, and therefore our related view that the rest of the planet is ours as a 'resource', but I'll resist that for now.)

At 16 I left the Church. It was not for me; plus I'd discovered Zen Buddhism, and the nature-based spiritualities that I learned later came under the loose titling of 'pagan', 'druidic' and 'shamanic'. I read up a lot on Celtic christianity, with its roots in the natural world, and its sense of interconnectedness. Later I came across the ex-Dominican monk Matthew Fox, erudite and inspiring champion of the natural world, the feminine principle, green creativity and the notion of 'original blessing'.

And by then I had become very inspired by so-called heresies, amongst them the Cathar path (I've written several blogs about the Cathars, who underpin my first novel, earlier this year, maybe February or March – can't get out of this post to check).

Common to many of these paths, including the Cathar, is the notion of transmigration; which is another way of speaking of interconnectedness. Crudely put, this is connected with the Platonic idea that the soul migrates from mineral to plant to animal to human. Some teachings suggest that the migration continues through ever more subtle realms of being (some name these the 'angelic' realms).

Where this post is going is that my daughter and I went to Dartington to see a film last night. One of the great things about living here is the arts scene and the beautiful gardens at Dartington (and the White Hart, where we had a small and delicious supper afterwards).

(Blogger's not allowing me to upload photos. I'll try again later.)

The film was Le Quattro Volte. Without spoiling the content for you (if you haven't seen it), the film by Michelangelo Frammartino explores the idea of transmigration (or at least that's how it's billed). It explores with no sentimentality the utter simplicity of the fact of our living, the fact of our dying; and our place in the cycles of things.

Frammartino has taken some cinematic risks with this film. It's a concept film; there's no dialogue, no plot, no exploration of inter-human relationships; little characterisation. The film's an exquisite example of 'showing not telling' ('mimetic not diegetic', as my daughter-the-researcher-into-learning insists is the correct phrasing for that). It's a visual long meditation on synthesis, on conjunction, on the continuity of life and our place as one more living species in this cycle. Nothing 'happens' – and yet within it everything happens, as long as one is not looking purely through the usual lens of human expectations.

To my delight, a great deal of the film includes goats, a favourite animal of mine (when I was 19 I spent a blissful week or two in the Pyrenees taking goats with their bells to the top of the mountain in the morning, bringing them back down at night. My daughter and I both are also 'goat' people in the Chinese calendar.).

Set in a rural mountainous hamlet in Calabria – which might equally have been Pyrenean – it opens and closes with a charcoal-burning structure – a beautiful sculptural piece. The film cycles always between beginnings and endings, births and deaths. There are recurrent visual and sonic motifs to mark the four 'turnings' of the title. The elision of scenes mirrors the smokiness of the charcoal-burning which, we find, is the link. There are moments that are metaphysical, moments that are magical, moments that are gently very funny – including the village Easter procession dogged (literally) by the goatherd's mutt, with the charcoal-burners elaborate get-ups as Centurions, recurrent moments with the goats' antics.

And somehow the film is very moving: despite the emotional distancing risked by zero portrayal of human emotional interaction, the visual impact of the film without the distraction of dialogue means that we are immersed in the experience of being a sick old man at the end of his life, being a young goat kid from birth (which we see) to a solo acceptance of the possibility of death, even into being a fir tree in the wind and snow, and carried seamlessly through the ways in which those lives intertwine, and are ultimately inextricably interdependent.

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