John Moriarty: Going the Soul’s Way.

By Mary McGillicuddy

Who I am from conception to death isn’t the whole story

Who I am in the universe isn’t the whole story

The universe itself isn’t the whole story.

John Moriarty

    In Night Journey to Buddh Gaia John Moriarty wrote (p.255):

“A graffito on a gable in Spain reads, ‘How sad to be young and not want to change the world’. And he adapted it. “How sad to be any age, nine or ninety, and not want to change the world.” After the publication of that book, in answer to a question from his niece Amanda, he said “It probably sounds crazy, but I think that I’m trying to save the world.” And speaking to his friend, the poet Paul Durcan, after the publication of Nostos, the first volume of his autobiography, he said “It’s scandalous to say it, Paul, but I think I’m trying to heal western culture.”

    Those words, ‘to change’ ‘to heal’ and ‘to save’ are at the core of his extraordinary mission and to those verbs I would add another, ‘to understand’, …to understand, to heal and to save both himself and the world in which he found himself, and with which, for the best part of his life, he felt so much at odds.  This transformative and transforming journey began in a very ordinary Irish world. Born on February 2nd, 1938, he was the fourth child of Mary O’ Brien from Barragougeen on the Kerry/ Limerick border and Jimmy Moriarty from Baile an Lochaigh near Dingle, he grew up on a small farm of 27 acres in the townland of Leitrim Middle about half a mile from the village of Moyvane in North Kerry. His childhood was both rich and poor: rich in its stories and its people and its freedom to roam the countryside; rich in its work ethic of turf-cutting and hay-saving and bread-making, of tending to animals, of learning how to work with the land; rich in its sense of community. It was however financially poor; money was in short supply and to supplement the meagre income of the farm John’s father regularly migrated to England for work.

    Generally, children from such a background did not progress to a university education. John’s journey, from National School in Moyvane, where he was miserable – permanently confined to ‘the back of the class’, constantly referred to as ‘bostoon’ and regularly slapped for being stupid – to the achievement of a First Honours degree in Philosophy and Logic from UCD is a fascinating story in itself.  Even more fascinating is the journey that took him from there, through a number of years lecturing in the University of Manitoba in Canada, where  in 1971, at the age of thirty three, he decided to ‘jump ship’, to turn his back on the modern world, and return to Ireland, to Connemara with the intention of finding his ‘bush soul’, his soul outside society; that he spent the first few years there attempting to ‘baptise himself’ out of Western culture, and to remake his mind in wildness, among the mountains and lakes of Connemara, where he lived a richly sensuous life, a life that ultimately led him to conclude that, ‘We don’t need new heavens and a new earth, we only need new eyes and minds with which to see and know the earth and the heavens we already have.’ And the opening quote from his book Dreamtime comes from the Roman poet Horace. ‘You should change your state of mind, not the sky.’

    And that was the task he set himself, to cleanse perception, to free himself and subsequently, he hoped,  to free humanity, from all of the forces, societal, cultural, religious, that he saw as fencing us in; to free us from the hypnosis of the modern world, to break down all of the walls, inner and outer, that have kept humanity, as he says, ‘within a great prison we are unconscious of’, because ‘we don’t have eyes to see any other world, we don’t have any other way of looking.’ (Dreamtime, 3)

    The imagery of walls and fences became a became a recurring motif in his work. Hadrian’s Wall in particular, built by the Romans across the north of England to keep the wild Scoti at bay, becomes an image for all the barriers we have erected against what we most fear: against the enormities of our own nature, against the enormities of what we do not understand, against the enormities of the natural world that we are not able for. Against wildness, within and without. We have become creatures of exclusion and repression and in so doing we have done dreadful damage. The human eye, he says, has become the evil eye, the súil mildagac of early Irish mythology, …the eye that commodifies everything, that turns everything to stone, that looks at a cow and sees gallons of milk, that looks at a tree and sees cubic feet of timber, that sees the natural world as a resource to be used for the comfort and ease of one species, at the expense of all others. For centuries now, he says, this evil eye, has been turning the world into a waste land. A waste land that is fragmented, hypnotised, spiritually withered, in a word, destitute.

    Over forty years ago John Moriarty could see where this waste land was heading. “Now that we have seen the earth from space, seen that sunlit wonder that has been voyaging for four thousand, six hundred million years, what a sadness it would be if, for want of refounding ourselves psychically and culturally, we became the iceberg into which it crashed.” (Nostos, vi) “Forty years later, sadly, we are so much nearer that disaster, and probably as far away as ever from the ‘refounding’ that is needed to prevent it. The only way he could see of avoiding such a fate was for us to stand back and take a long hard look at all that we have excluded and repressed, to look at ourselves for what we phylogenetically are, to take on board the entirety of what is nature in us, and to come to some sort of accommodation with it. We must, he said, learn ‘to shake hands with the hawk.” (Curlew, 345)

    “We live,” he wrote, “this side of the voyage of the Beagle….and, certainly, an enlightenment that doesn’t take full account of who we are is but a kind of wishful thinking that leaves us surprised and at a loss what to do when, within sight of our spires, we once again end up mixed to anonymity with the mud of Flanders.” (Nostos, ix)

    Living this side of the voyage of the Beagle we know that we are human animals, that given the technological power we have accumulated for ourselves, we are the most dangerous animals the planet has ever seen, capable of atrocities never seen in the natural world. He realised that human beings, in their so-called civilizations, are guilty of ‘savagery more frightful because more poisoned than anything we are likely to encounter in the wild’, (Nostos, vii) and yet as individuals we believe that it is always the other who is the savage; we are civilised rational human beings and savagery belongs out there…we see ourselves as the people of the Spires.

    Moriarty strongly and forcefully gives the lie to this attitude, this is more of our wall-building; a refusal to acknowledge that “I have the eye teeth of an ape, of a carnivore, I eat the way carnivores eat; the sexual instinct, I share with animals. I breathe in the way animals breathe, I sleep the way animals sleep, most of me, most of who I am, I have in common with the animals. The animal, in other words, is alive and well in me.” (from an unpublished talk, 2001). In Dreamtime he put it succinctly, “I am all too aware that a carnivore’s dentition beat the Beatitudes to a place in my head.” (Dreamtime, 141)

    One of the great mistakes, as he saw it, is that the world of Beatitudes and Spires demands that we must turn our backs on that within us which is animal in nature. He describes his own struggles with the sexual taboos of Ireland in the 1950’s and concludes that it was almost as if sexual nature itself was taboo…To illustrate the prevailing attitude he would often quote Shakespeare’s King Lear ‘But to the girdle do the gods inherit, the rest is all devil’s’. And since it belonged to the devil, human nature, animal nature, must be repressed. An image he regularly used was of the well-known statue of the Virgin Mary, with her heel on the head of the serpent…the animal must be crushed! And then he would add his warning “a killed dragon is not a dead dragon.” (Dreamtime, 142)

    In our world, we seem to have spent the entirety of our history in killing dragons and in building walls while all the time failing to acknowledge that the dragon is within, always ready to erupt, and that walls are worse than useless, they are utterly destructive. “Modern humanity,” he said, “is destitute humanity,” (Dreamtime, 7) not simply because we are in denial of instinctive nature in us, not simply because we catastrophically exploit the planet, but because of a further loss that he believes we suffered once we came into the Age of Science and Reason. Towards the end of Dreamtime he wrote: “Nowadays in the West we are, quite literally, corrupted by a lust to explain things. Our lust to explain things veils things. Think only of the Buddha’s flower sermon. Water isn’t H2O. It might be composed of H2O, but it isn’t only what it is composed of. Once it has come into existence it is no longer composed. It isn’t a compound. In a sense it is a living thing.” (Dreamtime, 248)

    This ‘lust to explain things’, Moriarty believed has taken all sense of wonder and awe and miracle from the world, the outlook that the late and much-loved poet Brendan Kennelly recounts when, in speaking with a scientist friend in Trinity College, he mentioned the “mystery’ of life – the response he got was ‘Brendan, there is no such thing as mystery; all that mystery is, is as yet undiscovered facts.’ Everything is now knowable, reducible, rational, the universe began with a Big Bang and will end with a Big Crunch. In a marvellous image, Moriarty writes…’we are the species that has broken the seal.” (Dreamtime, 235). We have trespassed against much that was sacred in our past and trespassed even more catastrophically against all that is mysterious and wonderful in a world that we are forever trying to bring down to human size. We, he maintained, have suffered a great loss, and to illustrate this loss he would tell a story.

    A plunderer/explorer in mid nineteenth century Africa had hired a group of strong tribesmen to transport his plundered treasures to the coast. On one beautiful morning, after a number of weeks of compliant transportation, the tribesmen refused to move another step. No threats, no inducements, could budge them. Eventually, one of them provided an answer: “I will tell you. We have moved so far so fast during the last two and a half-moons that we must now sit down and wait for our souls to catch up.” (Seeking to Walk Beautifully on the Earth, Disc 1, track 4)

    Moriarty tells us that in the last four centuries of relentless progress western man has suffered the same fate. We have lost soul, we have lost our sense of wonder and mystery, we have repressed animal nature in us, we have trespassed against all that should remain sacred, and consequently, we are destroying the planet. We are busy, busy mice in a busy distracted world and we no longer hear the roaring of Medicine River.

    But maybe now, in the light of the wake-up call that is the looming environmental disaster, we might begin to listen. And in listening, we must be prepared to make an act of faith, we must accept what John Moriarty ultimately came to believe, “that there is soul, and by soul I mean that there is something in me that is older and prior to the elements, there is something in me and all of you that is older and prior to the sun and the galaxy and to the universe itself. There is something that isn’t even involved in the universe. It is transcendent.”

     He tells us that to recognise this transcendence, to see transcendence in the glories and wonders and terrors of the planet on which we are privileged to live, to recognise that we are all part of the same great spirit, a spirit that he says “wears many masks,” a spirit that is not homogenous…. that is what John called ‘silver branch perception’, cleansed perception, a new way of seeing that is ecumenical towards all species and all races and all ‘Otherworlds’, and this might just lead to a new way of being on what he called ‘the great and sacred earth.’

    And the only way to cultivate that perception is through his concept of integration and inclusion: He again has a story. While watching a handyman Bill Joyce cutting lino in Ballinahinch Castle, Moriarty became convinced that Bill was cutting it crooked, and he mentioned it to him as diplomatically as he could. Taking his time, and very reflectively, Bill answered him, “This is a grand old castle John, a grand old place, and in a grand old place like this the only way to cut anything straight is to cut it crooked.” (Six Stories, Disc 2, Track 7)

    This is the image John would set against the biblical concept of ‘making straight the way of the Lord’, of trying to force ‘straightness’ by denying difference or demonising imperfection. Go with the crookedness, he would say, realise that we are all ‘crooked’ beings, in a gloriously crooked world, recognise and acknowledge ‘with a kindly eye’ the crookedness that we know is in ourselves, and then look, with the same kindly eye on the crookedness, the difference, in all that is around us.

    And for understanding imperfection, he provides an image: A flower on a lily pad on the surface of a lake has its roots in the mud, therefore the potential for beauty exists within the mud. And the challenge to us that this idea presents, is to see in every muddy, dark or twisted thing, this potential for purity, this diamond dimension, what he called “the hosanna at the heart of the atom.” Listen to what he has to say:

“No matter how evil in no matter how many lifetimes I might have been, I continue at the core of my soul to be as pure as a drop of water on a lotus leaf…It is only behaviourally… that our world is in trouble, that we are in trouble. Behind everything there is purity… Adam and Eve are still walking in Paradise at the core of their being. At the core of his being the Devil is still an angel still singing the heavenly hymn of praise. True, at the core of his being, of Caligula. True, at the core of his being, of Stalin, of Hitler…True of the atoms of the cells of your seeing, true of the atoms of the cancer cells that are killing you. Not one of us but is still walking in Paradise at the core of our being.” (Curlew, 117)

    This, he says, is “silver branch perception,” this is “a way of seeing no matter what thing” and this is the vision that has to flourish in us before there can be any real change of behaviour in the world, before there can be any hope of Utopia. And if all we can do as individuals is to develop this “silver branch perception” within ourselves, if all we can do is to cultivate the care and compassion that this vision demands, care and compassion for those we now see as the very worst transgressors, those whom we exclude and demonise, the terrorist, the paedophile, the racist, the suicide bomber, the right-wing fundamentalist, and know that somewhere at the core of their being “they are still walking in Paradise,” then maybe we will move beyond the language of anger, accusation and exclusion to a more inclusive, sympathetic vision, and thereby open at least one pathway towards a compassionate way of living in a behaviourally flawed yet potentially glorious world.