Hopeful Things

Portrait of Duns Scotus by Justus van Gent – Public Domain

Abandoning religion wasn’t at all hard. I forgot the feasts, the priests, the dutiful drones, and the money-worshipping hordes of hypocrites that turned up and tuned out every Sunday, just as they had forgotten the Gospels and their communist implications – if ever they had read them. The decision to leave was political, not spiritual: any organised religion that supported capitalism – a system that by its fundamental principles thrives on inequality and exploitation, that reproduces itself through violence, that endlessly refines the means to render the human species extinct – must necessarily compromise its own fundamental principles.

Right or wrong, that was my point of departure, a long time ago now. But despite my efforts, I found it devilishly difficult to drop the monstrously complex habit of praying. It is at times utterly exhausting: searching for ways to forgive your enemies, dead or alive, to find love in your heart and to send some sprinklings of goodwill in otherwise spiteful situations, to hate a person’s vile behaviour, but not the person. And if none of this is remotely possible, to focus on the context that created them – a very socialist take on the whole affair.

Mad though it most probably is, I pray for the wellness of people I have come no closer to than the printed word, for people locked in cells, for anonymous consumers and checkout operators, for people somersaulting in orbit around the Earth in giant pretzels, for people stressed out struggling with their tiny packaged meals in fragile metal tubes above the clouds, for people lying flat back on their bunk encased in solid iron ugliness under deep dark oceans, for people packed like sardines in sinking refugee ships, for sardine packers and sardines, for those who feel loneliness in crowds and for those who can’t, for those forced to leave us and, in some cases, forced to join us. Strangers all. My world is crammed with strangers, and I too am a stranger – even to myself. I wish, if wishing is what prayer is, that I could more quickly untangle the great big twisted knot that prevents me from being a better human being, that the history of humankind looked better, and that the future held some better hopes for humanity – failing that, any life form, however small.

From a psychological perspective, I would not discount the cognitive benefits of prayer as a self-help technique, and I’m sure those benefits are cheerfully documented in wholly digestible and carefully chosen chunks across the vast spread of pop psychology books: focused mind, enhanced mood, and a certain serenity of sorts, along with ways to reduce stress and increase efficiency at work, to grab that career or achieve that job promotion, to secure that romantic relationship or to enjoy better sex. All that. But all that suggests a structured approach far from the force that compels my inward utterances. After all, I operate within the matrix of Marxism: a materialist conception of history that renders class struggle logically prior to prayer – if it admits it at all. Other than by Marxist methodology, how can we understand the long dark night of the capitalist soul? How else can we interpret the world? And how else can we change it? In other words, I can’t possibly believe in prayer, in wishes, in endless internal dialogue. So why don’t I stop?

Some time ago I left Scotland with my partner, Kathryn, to visit her grandfather in St. Valery. We had been together for twenty-five years, but this was our first excursion out there. We located him easily among the many white stones, and I found myself praying for him and others in the neighbourhood who died in those early days of June 1940, around Dunkirk (Dunkirk has such a Scottish ring to it). It was not long before my mind became quite cluttered and confused with thoughts about the first and last thoughts of their final day, the sudden end of their conversations, the pointless meaningless madness of it all – there were so many white stones. I told her nothing about this; prayer had always been a secret I only shared with the dead.

She had watched a documentary with her family on Scottish television about St. Valery. Towards the end the camera panned then settled on a close-up of the grave of her grandfather, and remained there until the credits rolled and faded out in silence: John Dickie, Gordon Highlander. It was as though the dead were speaking to us, but the family said only that it was an extraordinary coincidence. It was an extraordinary coincidence that prevented my dad from being shipped out to Dunkirk; who knows how that story might otherwise have unfolded – they may have met. And if they had…

After a long silence, broken by a tactical retreat back to this world via Freudian rationalisations about practical things like gathering leaves and gathering clouds, we left St. Valery and stumbled upon the German graves: the vaults at Mont-de-Huisnes. Common to those with an uncommon surname, I looked for others who shared the same Black Forest clan brand as me. There was only one, Conrad Tritschler: the same age, rank and military specialism as my dad – even the same initials. One couldn’t help wondering, if my dad hadn’t been wounded, whether they might have faced each other on the battlefield. I prayed for him too. Some might ask whether it is better not to pray at all than to pray for those who fought on the side of the fascists. What a muddle it all is.

Someone I never met sent me a group photograph taken during WW2 of my dad and his brothers in uniform, and I must have spent hours studying it. They looked cheerful, but I doubt if they were; they lost both sisters and their elder brother during that madness. Looking at my dad in the photograph – younger than me, and bearing a strong resemblance to how I looked when I was his age – was like looking at an impossible object. Seated to his right was his brother, Francis, who had set up a studio after graduating from Glasgow School of Art. They worked together for some years making statues and other artworks for whoever commissioned them. But my father returned from the war with respiratory problems – long fits caused by the carbon from the guns, made worse by the art studio dust and paint fumes – and he was eventually forced into a lighter occupation: a despatch clerk and porter; a role he held until he was seventy – until he died, in fact.

The last piece my father worked on with his brother, sometime in the early 1960s, was a statue of the medieval Scottish theologian and philosopher, John Duns Scotus. According to his hagiography, Duns Scotus was for many centuries better known in Germany than his birthplace, a fact uppermost in the minds of Cornelius and Francis – themselves of combined Scottish and Black Forest ancestry – when they took the commission to make this statue as a contribution to their country’s history, to the philosophical lineage of Duns Scotus, and as a post-war symbol of peace.

The influence of this Scottish medieval mystic was immense: the logical antecedents of existentialist philosophy can be traced to Scotist ontology; his theory of Univocity of Being influenced the groundbreaking philosophy of Heidegger, (a native of the Black Forest), and through him Sartre, Foucault and Deleuze. He died in Cologne in 1308, and it is believed he was entombed prematurely; he was found outside his coffin, and there was evidence of his futile attempt to open the doors of the vault. Strengthening the personal connection, I had some understanding – from bitter childhood experience – of what those final frenzied moments might have been like for Duns Scotus.

The statue is situated within the public gardens of the small town of Duns in the Scottish Borders, and I encountered it quite by accident one day on an unplanned journey – one might say it was an extraordinary coincidence. I had never before set foot in Duns, and had no idea the statue was placed there; I hadn’t seen it since I was a child – not since my uncle and my dad were working on it, in fact. I sat alone on a bench to read a book of essays by Raymond Williams that revolved around the theme of hope, but I was finding it difficult to concentrate. My mind was dwelling on the dark side, drawn by the lure of defeat with regard to collective action and all things socialist. It was 1986, a time when the glorious rich were drunk with success, and the Tories were at their psychotic edge.

I don’t know how long I was sitting there, perhaps an hour, before I happened to glance up from my book and notice Duns Scotus above me, brimming with dreams, and for some time I was overcome with that complex emotion the Germans call sehnsucht, one that Duns Scotus himself might well have understood: a sort of nostalgia – a sad, yearning, longing, heartbreaking loneliness. In a paint and plaster spattered studio in Glasgow, Francis and Cornelius had worked this shape quietly and thoughtfully with their hands, and it formed now a flourishing fragment of memory. A past I could feel.

Is prayer simply a self-help rescue strategy that belongs in the cognitive toolbox, or does it reside entirely within that other-worldly dimension broadly described as spiritual – a wavelength open for dialogue with the dead? I am convinced the only hope for the survival of the human race, economically and psychologically, lies along some variant of the Marxist path – but has prayer any place there? The statue that popped up in a park in Duns embodied a statement of hope – that was its purpose – but it was an extraordinary coincidence that I should both stumble upon this deeply personal object, and do so in a moment of deep despair. It rescued me.

Perhaps the neolithic standing stones dotted across the world, from Laos to Lewis, were intended to preserve that very same sentiment of hope – one that extends to the entire human race. The people that were gathered around those stones looked to the stars, but perhaps also to the future, to us. ‘Figure it out. More than all the treasures and trinkets you hold precious, these stones will last. Just like you, we are looking into space, thinking about time, calculating the movements of the universe. Remember us.’ I wondered. I wondered about those stone age people, and I wondered about my father and my uncle in the workshop. Once again it seemed the dead were speaking to me, and once again a stream of words rushed to the surface then swirled and pooled in a form that might loosely be called prayer.

There are no dead, echoing Maeterlinck. Whether or not we know their names, the past is filled with ordinary people who breathed and ate and argued and had experiences; who told stories of struggle, oppression, peace, resilience, liberation and hope; who dreamed of better things. If we look we find their traces in the social landscape. The inner dialogues I call prayer – though they would hardly qualify by any religious standard that I am aware of – somehow fit with all of that: they are part meditation, part critical self reflection, and part dialogue with the people of the past – the people that give some perspective to the present. They are those mad, insupportable thoughts that admit the idea of limitless human potential; they help renew optimism by cultivating awareness of the many small, and often personalised ways in which extraordinary coincidences emerge; they allow the passage into the world of hopeful things.

The struggle for socialism, expressed as solidarity with the poor, and the demand for common wealth, health, homes and happiness, begins with love for others; for what, other than love, could possibly be its driving force? Learning how to love involves learning how to hate, and specifically ourselves – those negative attributes that we harbour, such as avarice, violence, selfishness and exploitation. Meditative and contemplative self reflection helps us to fight our own flaws, and to negotiate ways to help rather than simply condemn others. The attempt to develop thoughtfulness is, I believe, key in keeping it all together.

In the words of Delmore Schwartz, ‘time is the fire in which we burn’, but I might add hope is the ground on which we thrive – ground that must always be tended and never taken for granted. My move away from organised religion was driven by the dissolution of hope; I failed to see how people could suit up, suit themselves, and call it love for humanity – it was more like placing a very small bet by way of a Pascalian wager at the bookies, before returning to the stampede of every man for himself. I might also say I lost hope in humanity when, in 1985, the miners were beaten. Their defeat was not for me the result of a kamikaze course on the part of their leader, but a betrayal on the part of the labour and trade union movement. And however bad it was for the hope business and our collective psychological state, it was unimaginably worse for those who sacrificed everything they had for this cause – in a moment of inner desolation, some ended their lives.

It was around that time that I encountered the little statue in Duns. I had been conducting research on the possibilities for workers’ control – interviewing senior managers, trade union officials, shop stewards and ordinary workers at various major industries around Scotland. Some, like the overwound Timex management group in Dundee, flatly refused to let me past their gates, but senior managers at Kestrel Marine in the east, and ICI in the west, among others, were not only willing but keen to discuss some of the worker participation proposals and worker motivation schemes (their reading of workers’ control) that were being tossed around by human resource gurus at that time: opportunities, as management saw it, to jointly achieve corporate objectives – i.e. maximise profit.

Unlike the ordinary workers – most were for workers’ control, and in almost every variant offered in order to get a foot in the door – many of the shop stewards and trade union officials I interviewed had been keen to resist: they suspected most of the industrial democracy proposals, or variations on a theme of participation, were simply strategies to co-opt unions and control labour rather than genuine efforts at involvement. They were probably right, but even the heavily diluted worker involvement schemes would have been preferable to what followed under full blown Thatcherism. Following the catastrophic defeat of the miners in 1985, the most token participation proposals were thrown out by management. Soon afterwards, the unions were forced to batten down the hatches – if the miners could be defeated, what chance did anyone have? Glasgow socialist, John Wheatley, summed it up at the time of the General Strike in 1926: ‘The miners are fighting alone, but they are fighting the battle of the whole nation. If they lose, we all lose.’

It was in fact a loss for all, and again in 1985. Their defeat brought mass layoffs, anti-union legislation, the erosion of liberties, call centres for coal centres, rising crime, heroin addiction, twenty-four-hour trash TV, and a celebration of the vile – a new breed of business and political role model promoted through the media and education system. Hardly a blossoming culture. This money-worshipping, resources-rich, gun-running, truculent military power called Great Britain enabled the obscenely rich to flourish, but could not adequately employ, house or feed its poor – the most rapidly rising social grouping.

In the absence of a serious rival, capital had wasted no time rolling back the frontier of control, continuing the public sector cuts and clawback campaign it had begun the decade before, but with a renewed intensity since the miners’ defeat. There was no major challenge to the implacable hostility of the dominant interests, and the majority of the population seemed willing to tolerate a cultural shift towards privatisation, personal interest and poverty. Industrial wastelands became a familiar feature of cities, and derelict factories – now dangerous playgrounds, and the potential torture hangouts of maladjusted youth – were in abundance.

In 1986, the year that followed the defeat, I was invited to host a seminar at a Socialist Society conference in the north of England. It listed left-wing luminaries, academics, and a panel of popular pundits and campaigners – among them Hilary Wainwright, Ken Livingstone and Arthur Scargill. It was a call for the Left both to consolidate and to consider the next step in socialist advance, though it might more appropriately have been billed, ‘Socialism: a post-mortem examination’. I found it difficult to sustain optimism and resolved to withdraw from the conference. In this short life, it seemed, I wouldn’t even see socialism – that basic condition for the flourishing of humanity. It was on a cold sunny Saturday around that time that I took a trip into the Scottish Borders.

From the pages lying open on my lap, Raymond Williams said that the trick is to find ways of ‘making hope practical, rather than despair convincing.’ In a remote corner of a park in Duns, I glanced up from my book and found just that.