Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Book Review: Passages Of The Soul

Passages Of The Soul: James Roose-Evans, Element Books, 1994

The title of this book refers to the transitions, or passages, that occur between the various phases of ones life, and the fact - as stated in the cover notes - that "in our modern world... our own celebration of these fundamental events often amounts to no more than brief, superficial ceremonies", if they happen at all, which in most cases they don't. The author holds that "ritual is an essential part of a balanced, meaningful life".

Roose-Evans, now 86, was a theatre director of some renown with a number of impressive productions, initiatives, books and collaborations to his credit. In this book he writes about his experiences working mainly with young actors and dancers coming through their education in the USA of the 50s and 60s. 

In the opening chapter he sets the stage, drawing on the ideas of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Meister Eckhart. The inner world is just as real as the outside world. "If we are in Tao - that place where all opposites are united - we have an inexplicable effect on our surroundings." This is all good stuff, which fills the reader with excitement and anticipation as he turns to chapter 2.

This is where it all falls down. The whole of the rest of the book is concerned in one way or other with exercises in self-expression for those in the performing arts. Roose-Evans, an inveterate man of the theatre, has fallen into the trap of mistaking theatre-land for the real world. The groups participating in his sessions are required to make meaningful gestures in a rope circle, to spontaneously express their feelings using only their hands or by carrying a bundle of bamboo canes and dropping them. We are told in ecstatic terms of how a singing group established a rapport with a remote African tribe by singing "ah" very loudly. For actual or aspiring performers this must surely be gripping stuff; for the rest of us, the most we can hope for is a fascinating insight into the thespian mentality.

If this had been intended as a primer in expressive dance it would have been a success. Since it set out to be about rite-of-passage rituals it has entirely missed its purpose. We read that you can't just make up a new ritual, that it has to arise from the collective unconscious to be truly meaningful. There follows a list of made-up rituals, some improvised. Roose-Evans seems oblivious to his own pomposity. He tells of how a woman once told him she was going to use his ritual in her workshops: "I was struck speechless because it is an exercise that requires handling with skill and sensitivity".

In fact there are sections and paragraphs here and there that on their own make the book worth looking at for anyone trying to make sense of life. If my criticism is harsh it is only through disappointment; it could have been so much better.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Time Out

Quite recently I attended a funeral for a civic dignitary. The service was exactly what you would expect from the Church of England at its best: a big congregation, organ, hymns, priests, prayers, fulsome praise from family and colleagues. The one whose loss they mourned was a true individual, the kind they don't make any more.

The last few weeks I have been reading, writing thinking and talking about funerals as part of my study to become an independent funeral celebrant. Of late I noticed that on social occasions I would have nothing to say, and end up staring blankly into the distance, as if the whole scene was one I had watched so many times already that I had got bored with it.

By yesterday afternoon I had had enough. Death is like an insidious grey fog that creeps silently over the landscape of your mind, gradually thickening and cutting you off from other people, leaving you alone with your grey thoughts.

It's true that in confronting death you find life, and know it for the first time. But my advice would be this: having found life, hold fast to it.

I do not for one moment regret my decision to embark on this course. Being a funeral celebrant is a huge privilege. To bring comfort to the bereaved, to honour the life that has now gone out, to be the one to commend that soul to God, to eternity, to our memory, is to be human at a level of reality that is beyond the reach of most mortals. I will walk over fire and water. I will go up to the mountain.

But I will also celebrate life, in all its hope and fear, all its richness and trouble, all its beauty.
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Living might mean taking chances
But they're worth taking
Loving might be a mistake
But it's worth making...
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance
I Hope You Dance lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

In his book "Passages of the Soul", James Roose-Evans says:
We have no rituals for pregnancy, for a miscarriage or still-born child, for a broken marriage, relationship or home; none for a girl's first menstruation, or a boy's coming to puberty; none for the elders of our society. We have let ritual - its power and vitality, its deeper value and significance - almost disappear from our lives.
My task, as I see it, is to put it back again.