“It might be time, if we aren’t going to sicken further, to break out of our cultural grow-bag. It might be time to make contact with wild nature.” Dreamtime, p. 172
There is a radical agency in John Moriarty’s work that we don’t always acknowledge.
As we behold the mighty wallop of poetical contortions and mythic philosophizing, our erudition (or lack of) may feel exposed, vulnerable. And most of us don’t like that. Deep information usually arrives with dismay. So, we may opt out. Easier to put the book down and go find something milder.
Because there’s nothing domestic, nothing tame, nothing corralled about John Moriarty. The horses have broken from the stable.
The power of the message is that Moriarty has found a thousand ways to say something disturbing: We have to change our lives. And that’s always radical, usually uncomfortable.
A Moriartian consciousness is not dependent on you living in rural Ireland, it’s not dependent on you being a Christian or religious in any conventional sense. He asks of us only one thing: to move our gaze from seeing to beholding the world. He would call that Silver-Branch perception. And there the trouble begins. Because that beholding can instigate disintegration. The moneylenders flee the temple. We begin to understand the sacredness of defeat. There’s a world far bigger than our temporary ambitions.
Rilke tells us it’s what we secretly long for, that defeat, and Moriarty does too: that our hubris aches to kneel at immensity’s door. Sometimes we may feel exhausted by his work, not fit for the task, but it actually has a kind of arm round our shoulder, urging us on. As the Sufi’s say, there is an angel up ahead. Life is complex, and any response worthy of the name is equally so.
This beholding tenderizes us, be-dreams us, nourishes us, challenges us. Most of all, it creates relationship. A kind of relationship that makes the hallucination of empire impossible to maintain. Thinking alongside John, we are suddenly wrestling angels, eating honey from the body of a lion, feeling the five fathoms deep of Gethsemane. He tells us that our life is our prayer mat, and we better start paying attention. Beholding is the thing- not art grant, more applause, or being born into another family or circumstance. This is it; this is more than enough; we start right here in the grit of our lives. He’s far more pragmatic than you may expect. Many of his great stories take place within just a couple of hours in his life. That we commit to the luminosity of the ordinary.
This is how I would situate John: in many Indigenous cultures there would come a point where the young people start to get reckless, start to push against the confines of the tribe. They would go groping for their wingspan and weren’t afraid to get ugly to achieve it. This is the exact moment when they would be taken to the hut at the edge of the village. This is when they fasted in the dark wood or high mountain. In short, they needed to encounter something mightier than themselves. Something wilier, more complex, exacting, demanding. Something to call forth the best in them.
Moriarty’s books are a hut at the edge of the village.
Against all the possible odds, in his half-dead, burning time of ours, we have an elder worth his salt. A teacher who hasn’t franchised the living spirit of his thinking, combed out the knots and watered the beer.
When you go to John’s hut you will be presented with more than you can handle. That’s the point. And in that very disorientation, some soul may enter. Moriarty’s work is endlessly generous with its assumption of your own previous knowledge of myth, folklore, history. So generous it can leave us wheezing and sometimes baffled.
Stay with it. What may seem like an imposition is actually an invitation. I suggest we accept such a rare offer. This is a chance to attempt to become a proper human being. Save yourself a doctorate, and just follow his leads. You may well find yourself at Jerusalem’s wall. Temporary confusion can have a ritual underpinning. It’s checking out if you are serious or not. The rewards are substantial.
It is deeply oral what Moriarty is doing. His themes circle around each other again and again, certain stories are invoked repeatedly, book after book. This isn’t an imaginative failing: in a new age this is a very old age way of teaching. The only strategies in which John traffics are depth and massiveness. He’s [sic] isn’t trotting out punditry, the books were specific in theme: Divine Ground. Both in and around us. Plotinus said the soul adores the circle, and never have I read more circular canon. This is a magical effective technique. Almost like Sufi’s whirling. As I say, we have entered the hut. We are turned from the plough to the vision pit. I wonder if whole passages are not entirely for humans anyway. So, when you find a dream, story or incident being shared a second time, or a third time, there’s something in it for you. I once wrote this: Underneath a motorway there was once a road, underneath the road there was once a lane, underneath the lane there was a track and underneath the track there was once an animal path. Hoof prints under the concrete.
Culturally we are sickened but addicted to the zip of motorway. We often expect our writers to be equally pithy. What we rarely expect is a man gently tracking hoof prints when all we can see is concrete. The work frequently doubles back, bellows like a stag at bay, does its strange work of disturbance and renewal.
And I want to talk about chant. John’s chant.
I was fully grown by time I came to Moriarty, well into my second book. I knew what erudition felt like on a page, I had sat for thousands of hours in wild places, four years in a tent. Been broken up by the mysteries and left gasping. But what I had not encountered in a Western writer was chant. The sing-song of his philosophy. The patterning of a sweat-lodge prayer in the fundament of his words, the high keen of a griever in the lintel of his images. That alone is achievement, sustained achievement. That was the specific key John threw to me, and I thank him right here for that. That key unlocked something. Beauty and rigor are not enemies. As a boy he wanted to be known as the ‘singing lad’ and I think he achieved his ambition.
So you will sense that I am proposing that John Moriarty and his work has the quality of an elder woven within its thread, that you can actually trust it. He’s not interested in you mimicking his incant, rather in you finding your own. All the quests, all the night sea voyages, all the distant islands, lotus-eaters, Chapels Perilous, may be encountered within a mile of your house. Or maybe not. But a Moriartian consciousness is quite achievable in Detroit, London, Arnhem Land or Delhi.
I am presenting a small, thematic sample of John’s writings. The themes range from place, love, wildness, through to the ceremony and legitimacy of sorrow. His astounding production of works in a relatively short time will more than provide a feast leading from his glimmering collection of seeds.
We offer these writings not just of admiration, even love for the man, but out of urgency. These are not pastoral times we are living in, but prophetic. They are a moment when the world as we understand it is turned upside down. What we could think of as initiatory times. The challenge is there are fewer people that can interpret such happenings in a deep, soulful way. Interpreters that don’t simplify the issues, or soundbite them, starve them ragged with statistics, but ground our perception of their disclosure. I think John Moriarty can do that.
We may face a highly disturbing future. And many have forgotten that the future to the ancient world is not an idea but a goddess- The Romans name her Antevorta, her sister is called postvorta. She is the past. Both of them dwell within the bigger deity Carmenta. Carmenta comes from the Latin carmen– spell, song, prophesy. Carmen is the root of the word charm. So, to commune with the future, Antevorta, you have to charm it. Both the future and the past. And most important: you have to address both at once, because they flood into each other endlessly. That’s called the present. And it is a gift, really. If you can just bear it.
Moriarty’s work has sufficient charm to attract a goddess: it faces both ways, communes with both sisters, witnesses the endless back and forth between them in the present of our own lives and times. To some that is a reckless idea, to others maybe the only thing that could save us.
Towards the end of his life, riven with chemotherapy, John threw fistfuls of hair out his window, hoping they would comingle with the sheep wool floating about his neighbour Tim Conner’s field. A few months later that hair was the lining of a chaffinch’s nest where she laid her eggs and reared her young.
Let us have a nest with a lock of John’s hair in it. God knows what would grow from it.
Wherever he peered, things started to emerge, take shape, become more of themselves. The Earth was grateful to have his gaze on it. John Moriarty calls the same thing from us. It’s a weight, that bequeathment. Your legs should totter a little. As you will witness in his words, to live near soul is to live near aliveness, which is to live near longing and sometimes pain.
At least a third of this book I transcribed by hand for publication, feeling as John did its thing- like a Lindisfarne monk, working late. The River Dart rippled outside my cottage where Ted Hughes used to fish, and the owls heard evening readings of John’s by the waters. I felt lucky. The drawings here announced themselves all at once on the last day of work.
When culture is in woeful crisis, the insights rarely come from parliament, senate, or committee, they tend to come from a hut at the edge of the village.
Let’s go there.
There is tremendous, unexpected hope waiting.