Amazing Spiderman

For source of image see link.

After my praise yesterday of some fiction as socially constructive, this post by David Brin points towards one potential trap in both fiction and film (Oatley‘s book about fiction acknowledges others as well). Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

It can be hard to notice things you take for granted — assumptions that are never questioned, because everyone shares them. One of these nearly ubiquitous themes is a tendency for most authors and/or film-makers to disdain the intelligence and wisdom of society as a whole, portraying a majority of their fellow citizens as sheep or fools.

Should this be surprising? The Euro-American fable has always featured an individualistic style. When the public pays for a fantasy experience, riding the shoulder of some bold hero or heroine, each customer wants to identify with a protagonist who is special, unique, or at least interesting in some way that departs from run-of-the-mill, batch-processed humanity. Even when the character seems unremarkable, he or she is marked as singular and fascinating by virtue of being the one whose thoughts and experiences we share.

That’s the magic of “point of view.”

While individuals get our empathy and sympathy, institutions seldom do. The “we’re in this together” spirit of films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s later gave way to a reflex shared by left and right, that villainy is associated with organization. Even when they aren’t portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted. Only the clever bravado of a solitary hero (or at most a small team) will make a difference in resolving the grand crisis at hand.

This rule of contemporary storytelling is so nearly universal that it has escaped much comment — because you never notice propaganda that you already agree with. In other words, the reflex is self-reinforcing. A left-leaning director may portray villainous oligarchs or corporations while another film-maker rails against government cabals. But while screaming at each other over which direction Big Brother may be coming from, they never seem to notice their common heritage and instinct — Suspicion of Authority (SOA) — much in the way fish seldom comment on the existence of water.

Cleric calligraphy

Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani

There is a very moving piece by in the Guardian today, which is most appropriate as it is the first day of Ridvan, the most important Bahá’í Festival. I think the post deserves spreading widely not only because it speaks in support of my own faith, but also because it speaks for the true spirit of Islam which so often gets overlaid by the conduct of those who speak and act in its name but in violation of its spirit. Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

News from Iran has given me tremendous hope and optimism for peace between Iranians, regardless of faith and ethnicity. Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, a prominent imam and scholar, has taken a stand for coexistence with the country’s Baha’i minority. He has reminded us that Islam is a religion of peace that recognises diversity of every kind as part of God’s design for his creation. And it all came in the form of a gift – one which I am proud to endorse.

For many, Iran is synonymous with persecution and oppression. Iran’s authorities routinely target ethnic and religious minorities, human rights activists, journalists and intellectuals. And the case of the Baha’is is emblematic of these broader violations.

The Baha’is are Iran’s largest religious minority with 300,000 followers. For decades they have been arbitrarily detained, denied education and livelihood, harassed, vilified in the media, and executed. Hundreds were killed after the 1979 revolution. More than 130 Baha’is are currently in prison on false charges. Seven former leaders are serving 20-year jail terms, just for tending to the basic needs of their community. Baha’is have no legal protection as a minority because their faith is not recognised under the constitution.


I recently finished The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead.

George Eliot has long been one of my favourite novelists. I tasted her first in my schooldays, even though my leisure choices were usually Byron and the Brontes. At this point, it was only her earlier work such as Silas Marner, mixed with Dickens’ more popular productions such as A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s best seller Pride and Prejudice – a bland and fairly easily digestible salad for my still developing palate.

Later at university I moved onto more demanding dishes altogether – Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend and Emma. I can’t quite remember when I started to savour the cuisine of other cultures such as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Conrad and even Joyce’s Ulysses, but I think it was a lot later even than that. My digestive system failed completely and irreversibly, I’m afraid, at Finnegan’s Wake.

Anyway, enough boasting.

In spite of everything, Middlemarch stubbornly remained a favourite especially after teaching it at ‘A’ level. I had resolved to read it once a year once I retired but have only managed to finish it once in those five years! Rebecca Mead’s performance puts me to shame. By my calculations, from her account on page 8, she has read it at least five times and probably more. Even so, under such light pressure, my paperback copy has collapsed – I have only the cover left to remind me of how fond I was of it! This is now kept inside my copy of Frederick Karl’s biography.

GE pic

Ahead of her Time

In Mead’s treatment I was struck by how much Eliot anticipates important contemporary themes from the very specific to the broader brush. This will become the focus of much of the second part of this review. While I found her sharing of the ways that Eliot illumined her path through life, and her descriptions of the places she visited to retrace Eliot’s steps, held my interest sufficiently well, they weren’t hugely informative.

I was more gripped by the overlap of ideas that broke through the surface narrative at regular intervals.

For example, in her discussion of The Mill on the Floss Rebecca Mead touches on an interesting point when she quotes Eliot on page 38:

 . . . surely if we could recall that early bitterness, and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the grief of our children.

That phrase ‘strangely perspectiveless conception of life’ rang important bells for me. I was back with Margaret Donaldson’s brilliant book, Human Minds, and her concept of point mode (op.cit. page 30):

The first mode, which is called the point mode, [is] a way of functioning in which the locus of concern is that directly experienced chunk of space time that one currently inhabits: the here and now.

This mode of experiencing reality is not confined to infancy and early childhood though (page 43):

. . . .  although direct concern with what is here and now is accompanied in early infancy by narrow temporal awareness, this does not have to be so. . . . . When an adult concentrates on a skilled task, such as uppholstering a chair, there is the absorption in the moment that is typical of the point mode, yet there is a great reliance on past experience and a well formulated goal that is some way ahead: the finished chair.

That Eliot was able to pinpoint this kind of experience so accurately in words in such an early novel is what gives me confidence to trust the validity of her later conclusions about other things less easily corroborated.

Possible Limitations

Mead is not naïve about Middlemarch though. She unpacks what Virginia Woolf might have meant in her praise of the novel.


Virginia Woolf (For source of image see link)

She picks particularly on Woolf’s expression “with all its imperfections.” She writes (page 46):

What are these imperfections? Woolf gives few specifics, though she cites Eliot’s unwillingness to let one sentence stand for many and contrasts it with the delicacy shown by Jane Austen’s Emma. . . . . . She says that Eliot – the grand daughter of a carpenter, as she reminds us – is out of her depth when it comes to the depiction of higher social strata, and resorts to stock images of claret and velvet carpets. Eliot’s hold on dialogue is often slack. Occasionally, she lacks taste. She suffers from ‘an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration.’

She quotes (page 47) Woolf’s further comment that there is however a melancholy acknowledgement of human limitation which makes the book distinctly appropriate for ‘grown-up people.’

Mead also defends Eliot’s use of the now unpopular authorial voice (page 54) and quotes examples to prove its value:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lives on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.’

This contrasts strongly with the experience of reading Jane Austen, for example, where her device of free indirect speech means that the story unfolds through the consciousness of her characters rather than through any kind of explicit statements of her views. As Wikipedia explains: ‘What distinguishes free indirect speech from normal indirect speech is the lack of an introductory expression such as “He said” or “he thought”.’

What surprised me was that, as a student of English literature in the 60s in Cambridge, I had failed completely to take on board that this is how Jane Austen wrote. So much so, that when I recently read Mansfield Park (I am ashamed to say, for the first time), I was astonished to find that the whole narrative was carried along almost completely from within the consciousness of her characters. The caustic nature of her irony makes her presence felt even when she is nominally in the head of a character, especially that egomaniac, Mrs Norris. When the plan to bring Fanny, the daughter of her impoverished sister, to Mansfield Park, is being discussed, we get a typically caustic glimpse into her mind with only the faintest of obvious authorial touches at the start (Chapter 1):

The division of gratifying sensations ought not, in strict justice, to have been equal; for Sir Thomas was fully resolved to be the real and consistent patron of the selected child, and Mrs. Norris had not the least intention of being at any expense whatever in her maintenance. As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.

Ford Maddox Ford does the same thing even more consistently in his greatest works such as Parade’s End.

The value of this approach is unquestioned. You are drawn deeply into the experience of the characters and, as in life, you can never be completely sure you have understood exactly what happened in an objective sense – all you have is a composite of subjective points of view.

I believe it is crucial that we all come to realise our interconnectedness. I therefore welcome the way the reading of novels has been shown to relate to increased empathy and social skills. Keith Oatley‘s book, Such Stuff as Dreams, tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value. He feels that one of fiction’s most important benefits is the fostering of empathy. He defines empathy as follows (page 113):

In modern times, and on the basis of recent research on brain imaging, empathy has been described as involving: (a) having an emotion, that (b) is in some way similar to that of another person, that (c) is elicited by observation or imagination of the other’s emotion, and that involves (d) knowing that the other is the source of one’s own emotion.

He asks a general question (page 95):

If we engage in the simulations of fiction, do the skills we learn there transfer to the everyday social world?

In this book he sees fiction as (page 99)

. . . . . a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world. This is what Shakespeare and others called a dream.

And finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects) – page 159:

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

Clearly, if that is what we are after, free indirect speech would be a strong candidate for one of the best ways of enhancing empathy.

However, there are also advantages in a similar direction, as Mead points out in this engaging tour of Eliot’s thought, to the use of the author’s own voice which we will come on to next time.


The film of Mansfield Park lacks the depth and subtlety of the book but it was the impact of this film that helped me overcome the resistance engendered by the negative critics, go back and read it for myself.


Sharon Rawlette

Sharon Rawlette

I have just been reading an elegantly written exposition by Sharon Rawlette of what seems to me to be the most important issue confronting human consciousness in the so-called ‘developed’ Western world. Viewed with an open mind, experience suggests that the supernatural is natural. (But, to paraphrase John Hick, not of course so strongly as to compel belief in those who prefer not to accept that conclusion.) Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

Those who know of my intense interest in near-death experiences and past-life memories might be surprised to discover that, not so long ago, I was an atheist. Four years ago, I didn’t believe in a higher power and I didn’t believe in life after death. I had given up all those “spiritual” beliefs around age twenty, when I abandoned the Christian faith I was brought up in. Instead, I embraced the world as it appeared to be: random. I took my own experience as my guide, not scripture.

Today, I still take experience as my guide, but in the last few years, experience has led me to some places I never anticipated. Places that have caused me to rethink the totality of my worldview.

Those changes in my worldview are the subject of two book-length memoirs of mine: both the one I’ve completed and am seeking a publisher for (When to Say Adieu) and the one I am still writing (I Am Not That God). I’m not going to be able to retell those very complex stories in this post, so instead, what I want to focus on is what I see as the content of that core shift that took place in my worldview.

I have always been a very systematic thinker. My Ph.D. in philosophy is a symptom of this. I like finding patterns and developing theories. I like figuring out how the world works, and I have always preferred reading nonfiction (whether science, philosophy, or memoir) to fiction. That’s my analytical personality.

Maybe partly because of that desire to systematize, I have never understood the dichotomy set up by so many philosophers between naturalism and non-naturalism. They define a non-naturalistic worldview as one that accepts the existence of “supernatural” elements. But what, I always wondered, made something supernatural as opposed to natural? Some philosophers would say that the supernatural is anything that defies the laws of nature. But it seemed to me that, if the laws of nature can be broken, then those aren’t the real laws at all. There is some deeper law that governs the supposedly “supernatural” interventions in the world. Isn’t “nature” simply all that exists? The supernatural–if it exists–is actually natural. That seemed to me true by definition.

The bionic son

Pete Hulme:

This is a truly inspirational post – one of many on this blog. It is well worth taking the time to read it. With love, focus and perseverance the mind can indeed reshape the brain and its relationship with the body.

Originally posted on Daily Echo:

Yesterday I drove my son to Cambridge. It is a two hour drive from here, a long way, you might think, to go for a physio appointment. But this was something a bit different.

Nick was stabbed through the brain in a random attack in 2009, leaving him for dead in an alley. Weeks of coma led to an awakening to a changed world. His brain had reacted as if to a high velocity wound, such was the ferocity of the attack; his brain swelled and bled… damage continued long after the initial blow, in spite of heroic efforts from the staff at the Wessex. He was expected to die, but he chose not to.

Waking, however, it soon became apparent that in spite of all the physical mountains he would have to tackle, mountains that would make an ascent of Everest look puny in comparison, he remained himself…stubborn, determined…

View original 993 more words

Déjà Vu

Recently, when the cedar close to us was felled, I was caused to reflect on my past again and was reminded why I came to trust trees more than people as a child. The post on memory and this poem both deal in different ways with the same root experience. It seemed useful to post them both in close proximity to help make the best sense of each of them.

Déjà Vu

For source of image see link


For source of image see link

After posting the piece on tree felling last week, I thought it would be useful to follow up with this from several years ago, but recently reposted. My reactions to the felling of the cedar caused me to revisit in my mind what had dented my trust in adults at an early age – nothing out of the ordinary for the time but hard to handle at four years old none the less. This piece explains exactly what I believe happened and how it affected me. It is the second of two pieces on memory.

Blind to my own Meanings

The shortcomings of my memory described in the first post were bad enough, but what is even more disconcerting about it is that, even when I am exerting myself to the utmost, the full truth of my own potentially retrievable past can evade me and remain completely hidden for decades, and in some cases for life.

Recently, I was forcibly reminded of that fact.

Soon after I became a Bahá’í, almost 30 years ago, I wrote a poem fairly obviously ‘after the manner’ of George Herbert with a less obvious reference, in its abstractions, to Andrew Marvell‘s enigmatic minor masterpiece, The Definition of Love. I didn’t consciously presume to do that – it just came out that way. The first draft I have tracked back to January 1983 – so that’s a fact at least, which is a relief after the will-o’-the-wisp realities of the previous post.

Thief in the Night

Down the dark spinning stairway of my years
Under exalted space,
Abandoned, yet galled by compassion’s spears,
I walked with a blank face
Beneath my searching soul’s long scrutiny,
Wild in despair and helpless mutiny.

At last, locked in denial’s icy vault,
Belying the Sun’s power,
I outfroze each noon – congealed in my fault,
Blinded deafened by dour
Distrust, unmoving – proud perversity
Defrauding me of all tranquillity.

You, with a robber’s skill, intruded there,
Behind my barricades,
Contemptuous of lock and heavy bar.
God speed the Thief who raids
From Magnanimity! Dear Lord, You left
Me rich in peace, only of pain bereft.

At the time of writing I was a bit uncomfortable about the poem. I was pleased it had come out onto the page needing relatively little editing. I was embarrassed about how overblown the language seemed to be as a description of a shift from atheism to faith: ‘I’ve only moved house from my old mild atheism to this tolerant faith,’ I said to myself, ‘Though the foundations are different, much of the furniture looks the same. It’s true that I’m much happier, but it’s not as though I’ve escaped from Topcliffe‘s dungeon.’

The truth was I did not understand my own poem fully. I only came to a true understanding much later – about three weeks ago in fact. The seed of that insight was in my last experience of therapy as a client about twenty six years ago.

Breaking through

Why did I go back there now? Well, a close friend asked me recently what my experience of Rebirthing had been like. In telling her I came to see a link that I had been blind to before, because I had never previously put the poem and the experience I am about to describe in the same frame of reference. This is true but barely credible given that the therapy took place less than three years after I wrote the poem. What stunned me most however is conveyed by that simple word – ‘after.’ I had written the poem before I knew what it meant.

Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition. These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning. Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

I found a therapist in Much Wenlock near where Housman had found the woods in trouble. I didn’t know how much trouble of a different kind I was going find. I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness. It was on 11 July 1985, two and a half years after the poem was written: I have a journal entry to prove it. Another fact, thank goodness. The session lasted over three hours, and three hours was meant to be the maximum time I was paying for. I think the experience accounts for the brinkmanship.

So, there I was in the back room of a small cottage, lying on a mattress along the wall, a stone fireplace nearby, with the therapist on a cushion by my side. I can’t remember her name, which is rather sad. It’s fortunate that she ignored the clock for this session – a generous piece of good judgement for which I am extremely grateful.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.

And at that moment I let go.

Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.

Integrating the Past

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital at a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

At that young age I began to grow the carapace that would lead me eventually to feel safe only in trusting no one but myself. The shell continued to hide its origins even from me as its creator until that moment. It was the root of my atheism, the root that I had concealed from myself and everyone else for so many years. That was the true source of the poem, which I had completely failed to recognise even though I wrote it.

Sorry to bang on so emphatically about the degree of concealment, but I was, and perhaps still am, reeling from the shock of discovering something that, once discovered, looked as though it should have been obvious – what the poem really meant.

Some Leftover Issues

I had to revisit my faith in Bahá’u’lláh, before I could rediscover the root, and it was only that faith which enabled me to trust the therapist, to trust the therapy, and to let go. Otherwise I’d have been frozen in my fault forever. And when I used that phrase to describe the situation to my friend was when I remembered the poem again. So, it was not until three decades later, when I described that self-work to my friend about three weeks ago, that I fully understood the poem I had written so soon after becoming a Bahá’í. This probably makes the poem a failure for anyone who doesn’t know the background (perhaps even if they do). It seems, maybe, to be straining for an effect beyond the reach of its apparent subject.

(I am aware that this account so far begs a rather important question: how could I have embraced the Bahá’í Faith, or any form of religion, in the first place when, at the core of my being, I harboured such a distrustful script? There is a post that goes some way towards answering that, but the issue needs to be addressed more fully at another time, I think. For anyone who’s curious, at the time of this reposting I’m no clearer now than I was then.)

I had cloaked myself from a conscious realisation of what I really meant in the poem, presumably to protect myself from the pain of it. Blind as I was to its true meaning, the imagery of cold for instance seemed over the top to me, until I understood the chloroform connection. When you breath in chloroform it feels as though your lungs are filling with ice and unconsciousness invades your mind like a freezing gale blowing upwards from your chest. Then there is a dizzy plunge into oblivion – which makes more sense of the ‘dark spinning stairway of my years.’ The chloroform makes sense also of why a breathing therapy should be the one to help me re-integrate this trauma into consciousness.

I think it’s best to leave those who are curious, to pick up on any other parallels for themselves, if anyone has an appetite for the task. If it wasn’t my trauma, or someone’s I cared about, I’m not sure I would want to do that kind of work on it.

There is another question that I can’t ignore, much as I wish I could. Why should I trust this memory anymore than the one I deconstructed to such deflating effect in the previous post?

There is, of course, no completely convincing answer to that.

All I can say is that I do trust the amber of the core experience, not least because it is qualitatively different from the episodic memories that provide its setting and which are so susceptible to confabulation. My recollection of the details that surround the crucial moment are extremely vague. I can’t even be sure at this distance in time what the therapist looked like. The core memory has little or no such potentially counterfeit detail to undermine its credibility. Its glowing resin, of pure thought and emotion fused together, held such immediacy and power it was completely compelling. That’s why I believe I can trust it and I do.

I expect you’re hoping that I won’t be going back to memory lane any time soon. I’m glad I returned there this time though. I’m not planning a third part called Memory (3/3): the perfect reproduction of events. I’m not going to write about elves either.


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