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Wednesday, 8 July 2009

‘Michael who?’

I have a confession to make. It feels shameful to admit this, but here goes. If I were asked to name one of Michael Jackson’s songs I wouldn’t have a clue. There – it’s said. It’s out there – my distressing ignorance of an apparently worldwide cultural phenomenon. How sad is that. Not ‘sad’ as in ‘sad’ of course. ‘Sad’ as in its newer meaning of ‘contemptuously pitiable’ – you see, I’m not totally culturally autistic, in fact I have a pretty lively interest in a broad swathe of cultural phenomena, what the Zeitgeist throws up, what is newly emerging, what the wondrous complexity of the human spirit is able to create, produce, dream into being.

I know about Twitter and cloud-computing, the CERN particle accelerator and Jimmy Choo handbags, Madonna’s adoption travails, the leader of the Tour de France and the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (Simon Rattle – didn’t you know that? How sad. Where have you been all these years?). So I do know, and enjoy knowing, about a lot of stuff. It’s just that - to my family’s astonishment (and my embarrassment, which I am trying to unravel here) – I couldn’t name a single Michael Jackson song. So where have I been all these years?

The answer to that seems to involve a larger set of questions: how is it that at various stages of our lives we take an interest in some things and not in others? Why is it that I have an interest in east European poets and you have an interest in butterflies, shoes and jazz? Why do you feel passionately about politics and I feel passionately about sport? How do our affinities grow in us? What influences our choices of where we find our pleasures? How much is about being encouraged to nurture our individuality when young, how much is about parental interests (which we might follow, or rebel against), or peer interests growing up? Are we born with predispositions towards visual stimuli, or verbal stimuli, or aural stimuli, or physical stimuli? So we might find ourselves drawn to mountains rather than books, or music rather than conversation, or jogging rather than meditating?

Of course we might find ourselves drawn to multiple sources of stimulation. We might be fortunate in having a curiosity about the world that is benignly promiscuous: allowing ourselves to inhabit, to taste, to explore, as much of the wide world as we can get our hands on and our teeth into. Or we might find areas of life that leave us indifferent, or frightened, when something about the overwhelming superfluity and diversity of being will cause us to retreat into what is safe and ordered and (in imagination, anyway) controllable.

My own interests in, amongst other things, psychology and religion seem to allow me to be interested in almost anything. Psychology/psychotherapy allows one to be interested in what goes on inside us, moment by moment – thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, an endless array of material about ourselves, how we think and behave and what we believe, a dizzying panoply of emotional and mental life that is like a kaleidoscope in constant ever-changing motion. Nothing in the world within us can be lacking in interest – if we give it the time and space and have the courage to look. And reflect on what we see.

And religion, in the widest sense, is all that writ large: how we come to believe what we do, the cultural forms it takes, the rituals we create, the stories we tell, the meaning we try to wrest from the chaos of being. If one believes that there is something which animates existence, that keeps everything going, that creates life in me and in the farthest reaches of the universe moment by moment – so that there is something rather than nothing – if one believes this (and it is in a way a belief, not quite a ‘fact’), then this belief in the unfolding creative spirit of all being is a belief that can’t help then keeping us interested in everything that exists (except life is too short to be interested in it all, so I guess we end up being selective).

And this belief in the spirit of creation implanted in being – ‘being’ which is always ‘becoming’ because it is never static, it can never stop – this belief can be given a label if you want (or need) labels. ‘God’ is one of the labels the Western world has used. Though I personally prefer to leave my ‘ being-becoming’ unlabelled – because it gives my imagination room to breathe. But I’ll use the old labels from time to time, and will even be happy to do so – for I’m interested in what those labels have been, over the millennia and in various societies; and how humanity has used those labels, and also misused them (being judgmental for a moment). I’m interested in what those old labels can still do for us, and to us, for good and ill. But I never forget that ‘God’ and ‘God’-words are just labels – and not the thing itself.

I take my cue for this from one of those old stories - from what we call the Bible, the Torah, etc - the story of Moses asking the peripatetic divine presence he has encountered in the desert, in a vision of a burning bush, asking this presence, this voice: ‘What am I going to tell people You are called? Because they are going to ask me. And they’ll never believe me, or in me, unless I give them a name, a label. So what do I call You?’.

And with a divine insouciance, the storytellers – in a moment of creative genius (otherwise known as inspiration) – have this presence/voice say “Ehyeh asher ehyeh: ‘I will be what I will be’, ‘I am what I am’ - that is who/what I am. If you need to give them a name, a label, then tell the people : “’I am and will be’ - ehyeh - has sent me to you”.” (Exodus 3: 13-14)

Well, that seems a long way from Michael Jackson - and my ignorance. But I do have a picture in my head of a man dancing, dancing with an uncanny lightness, a preternatural litheness - a quality of being present in the music and in his body that seemed to have stirred the souls and the imaginations of millions (even if I missed what it was all about). And the man who danced into the minds of so many brings to mind Nietzsche’s quixotic words: ‘I would believe only in a god who could dance’ (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1883).

I’m sure Nietzsche would have known at least one of Michael Jackson’s songs. Surely the author of ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ and ‘The Will to Power’, immersed in his culture yet able to dissect it with a steely scalpel, would have heard of ‘Bad’. And possibly ‘Dangerous’. And maybe even, given his tragic last years of mental breakdown, he might well have been sadly familiar with ‘Off The Wall’.

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