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Archive for October, 2011

As a follow up to my post on Iain McGilchrist‘s The Master and His Emissary or even a substitute for it, this illustrated talk covers the ground of this all-important text vividly and compellingly. To say I liked the book would be an understatement as my review at the time I first read it indicates:

The Master and his Emissary is a deeply satisfying book. It is the first and only book written from a predominantly neuropsychological viewpoint about which I do not have major reservations: his position is not tainted by even the faintest trace of simplistic reductionism. It engages at a profound level with the problems of the modern age. It describes how the pressures of the modern world in the west tend to push all of us nearer to psychosis and delusion than we would otherwise be. It gives a perspective on the Bahá’í principle of unity and its relationship with diversity that I feel is immensely helpful. It also casts an important light on how difficult it is to work both systematically and with a sense of the organic, to be both efficient and loving – something of great concern to the Bahá’í enterprise.

I am grateful to a friend for alerting me to the video’s existence. Enjoy!

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A new film Anonymous is parading an old theory. The BBC reports:

Shakespeare’s name is being removed from signs in Warwickshire in a campaign against a new film which questions whether he wrote his plays.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is taping over nine road signs for the day to coincide with the premiere of Anonymous at the London Film Festival.

It criticised the film as an attempt to “rewrite English culture and history”.

A memorial in William Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon is being covered with a sheet. . . . .

The trust said it wanted to highlight the potential impact of the film’s “conspiracy theory” that William Shakespeare was the “barely literate frontman for the Earl of Oxford“.

Shapiro is clearly in no doubt about Shakespeare’s being the true author of his plays. Before swallowing the film’s thesis I suggest a careful read of his book (for my review see link). Despite this conviction, he manages to convey, in a thoroughly engaging fashion, a sympathetic view of why it seemed so plausible to some otherwise intelligent and well-informed people that he could not have written them.

His journey covers issues of identity, reality, scholarship and literature that are of concern to us all. It sheds much light on how any of us could come to entertain misguided ideas. That these ideas about Shakespeare do not directly entail patterns of action that threaten anybody’s life does not devalue this investigation of them. In fact, the Looney advocacy of Oxford’s authorship cannot be separated completely from his views about how society should be organised.

This is a very good read indeed for any one concerned about these things. It is not just for Shakespeare fans like me!

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Heiner Bielefeldt

Yesterday the Bahá’í World News Service published the views of a UN expert. Below is an extract from the post: for the full text see link.

UNITED NATIONS — Iran’s persecution of Baha’is is among the most “extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution” in the world today, according to a UN expert.

The remarks of Heiner Bielefeldt – Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief – came during a press conference here in response to a question about a new report that documents the Iranian government’s media campaign to demonize Baha’is.

“The Iranian government has a policy of systematic persecution…” said Dr. Bielefeldt, “with the view of even destroying that religion worldwide…It’s a very clear, clearly articulated policy of extreme hostility.”

Asked whether he had received any response from Iran to his statements on the issue, Dr. Bielefeldt replied, “The typical response is the following: Bahaism is not a religion, it’s a cult, it’s an evil cult.”

“They distinguish…between genuine religions – in their understanding the divinely revealed religions Judaism, Christianity and, of course, Islam – and the rest,” he said. “So this is a problem.

“I mean they really excommunicate, systematically, the Baha’is from the application of freedom of religion or belief by simply denying their faith to have the status of a religion. And this is something states cannot do.”

Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right, he said at the press conference on Thursday.

“The starting point must be the self-understanding of human beings. Their deep convictions…That is what counts,” he said.

Inciting Hatred

One aspect of the Iranian government’s campaign against Baha’is is documented in the report, Inciting Hatred: Iran’s media campaign to demonize Baha’is, which provides evidence of a state-sponsored strategy to vilify the Baha’i community.

The report, launched on 21 October, highlights false accusations of Baha’is being involved in a variety of subversive practices including being anti-Islamic, morally corrupt, and agents for foreign powers. . . .

Special Section – Inciting Hatred: Iran’s media campaign to demonize Bahá’ís

A Special Section of the Baha’i International Community United Nations Office website presents the full report, Inciting Hatred: Iran’s media campaign to demonize Bahá’ís in English and Persian, as well as an online only 197-page appendix that summarizes each of the 400-plus documents or articles that were collected during the period of this survey, from 17 December 2009 to 16 May 2011.

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As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

(King Lear: Act IV, Scene 1 lines 41-42)

Let’s take Don Paterson as an example of where my uncertainty about what the poet means (in this case relatively brief) serves his poetic purpose perfectly rather than becoming a barrier.

Paterson’s not an easy person for me to pick because his world view is completely different from mine – he sees the universe as bleak, and empty of anything resembling a god. He’ll probably enjoy a deeply satisfying conversation with Thomas Hardy when he meets him in the afterlife that neither of them believes in. It’s true he may not share Hardy’s idea of the President of the Immortals, the one who finished “his sport with Tess” of the Durbevilles, or of the gods in the Duke of Gloucester’s despairing words quoted above, uttered after he has been blinded for helping Lear, but it feels as though he is a close relative.

He’s also modern in technique as well as spirit hence the value of contrasting him with the inaccessibility for me of a Bunting or a Hill. None the less, in spite of his modern approach, I have found some poems in his collection Rain among the best of any I have ever read.

I’ll pick one where a critic saves me the bother of placing the poem I want to talk about in context. When Rain came out in 2009 Adam Newey in the Guardian wrote of the poems:

. . . reading his poems, you don’t know what’s real and what’s illusion . . . At their best, this gives them a curiously disorienting quality, like looking at a photographic negative, in which the world – or its representation – has been turned inside out. “The Swing” is seemingly a poem of loss. The tone is unmistakably one of absence and regret, though precisely what is lost is initially unclear. The poet describes putting up a swing for his children – “for the boys, / for the here-and-here-to-stay” – but, having finished the job, sees upon it only “the child that would not come”. The sense of aloneness is clear in the way the world of the poem coalesces tenderly around the shape of the missing child, reconfiguring her absence as a sharply felt presence: “I gave the empty seat a push/and nothing made a sound/and swung between two skies to brush/her feet upon the ground”.

I puzzled over this poem when I first read it because of the two lines Newey doesn’t quote from a key stanza that he does quote from. Paterson is writing about the swing.

[I] saw within the frail trapeze
the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home

(Rain: page 6)

The last two lines set up a moment of doubt as to what exactly he’s referring to. Is the ‘what’ a coffin? Is the child already dead? In fact, I was so taken over by the obvious pain of loss in the poem, a loss that I assumed was in the past, that it didn’t occur to me that the death might not have happened yet. But the sense of agency and of a future act began to filter through but still the penny obdurately would not drop. Maybe my Catholic upbringing created that unmoving block. The possible truth came as a shock to me that lent even greater poignancy to all that follows in the poem. Though my obtuseness is painful to admit, I am indebted for my eventual awareness of this other possibility to the reviewer in Contemporary Poetry Review:

In “The Swing” he tells of a swing set he picked up for his sons (“for the here-and-here-to -stay,” he says, and at first we wonder at that odd locution). As he sets it up, fixing its legs in the dirt with a shovel, “only she” (his wife, we infer) “knew why it was / I dug so solemnly.” Not until the fourth stanza that speaks of

“the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home”

do we begin to comprehend the situation: there will be an abortion. The “here-and-here-to-stay” will not be joined by the potential child in its mother’s womb.

The Blinding of Gloucester

Abortion also makes the idea of sending ‘it home’ brutally ironic, especially in the light of the writer’s view of reality from which he does not spare us in the immediately succeeding lines:

I know that there is nothing here
no venue and no host
but the honest fulcrum of the hour
that engineers our ghost

the bright sweep of its radar-arc
is all the human dream
handing us from dark to dark
like a rope over a stream

(The slight stumble in the rhythm of the last line there might have some interesting implications – tripping before a fall perhaps: Paterson is an accomplished jazz musician after all.)

The honesty of the poem is truly painful, because the loss that creates the grief described so tenderly will come from the poet’s own act, conveyed in deliberately thuggish terms and  rooted in his world view and the values derived from it, as well of course as in the force of circumstances unknown to us. (The extent of our ignorance there must temper our judgement and leave plenty of room for compassion: still, it is a brave poem to have written.)

Whether he is describing the specific situation in his own voice or assuming that of someone with whom he closely empathises I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. The former seems more likely. What counts is, for example, the skilful way he finds concrete terms with which to convey his own bleak sense of what will always lie beyond the limits of our physical senses and which take us into his world  without imposing it on us.

It feels for me as if it comes from an ability to discern what might lie beyond language for him and language it. It also highlights the point in the first post of this sequence, that language does not always make it easy for us to capture what we mean and what we understand may not be what is really out there. The greatest poetry is not afraid to balance on that uneasy ledge where what we think we know ends at the darkness of the unknown and possibly unknowable.

That I dissent from his view of the world is neither here nor there. The music of the poem and the power with which it conveys the feelings are more than enough to carry me over both this and the puzzlement about what exactly is happening here. In fact, the temporary puzzlement which I expect every reader feels to some degree and which in my case also revealed my own huge emotional blocks, is necessary if I am to feel the shock over what he seems to be contemplating.

You see, I’m not even completely sure about the abortion interpretation. I can see it’s probably, almost certainly correct in fact, but there’s just enough doubt to keep my mind playing with other possibilities.  And it’s that uncertainty about what the poem really means, even if it is partly the product here of my residual resistance, that mirrors my uncertainty about what so much of reality really means. This could be why I find full blown modernist obscurity so aversive: there’s just nowhere at all for my mind to settle, and if I feel this much uncertainty about a relatively clear poem, imagine what it’s like with a poetic crossword clue with no apparent solution! I want poems to engage me at a deeply human level but it doesn’t help me in that aim if they become too cryptic.

So, someday perhaps I am going to consider, if I can, one or two poets where, for me, the puzzles all too often destroy the poems. But don’t hold you breath.

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At the moment, while my conscious intentions are directed somewhere completely different, I find myself coming back again and again to the relationship between words and experience. I now feel the need to revisit the area of writing and experience from another angle.

I was brought up short the other day when I read the following in Hilary Mantel‘s Giving Up the Ghost (page 103):

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning. My own thoughts go at a different speed from that of human conversation, about two and a half times as fast, so I am always scrambling backwards through people’s speech, to work out which bit of which question I am supposed to be answering. I continue my habit of covert looking, out of the corner of my eye, and take up the art of sensing through the tips of my fingers.

The acuteness of her awareness of how she relates to other people’s speech and her ability to convey that awareness to us are truly remarkable gifts or skills. If you think it’s innate you’d say its a gift but if you think its learned you might say it’s a skill: right now I’m not too bothered which. And in fact it’s not that aspect of what I’ve quoted that really grabbed my attention but I just couldn’t resist commenting on it.

No, what really hooked me was the first sentence:

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning.

It seems so right as a description of her experience, and yet it’s so far away from my own way of experiencing the matter. Words seem so clear to me but my meaning is blurred. I have to somehow see past their brightness to something shadowy that lies behind it. And behind that shaded shape is reality itself – elusive, indefinable, inescapable.

When I read the kind of great creative prose or brilliant poetry to which I most strongly respond, I am experiencing someone as having been able to put their language on a dimmer switch for long enough to sense the reality behind what they might have thought they meant and then hold on to what they detected long enough again to find the right words to describe it.

And this is about the fusion of music and meaning, sometimes on the very edge of sense. If they are writing about something too far beyond my own experience at the time the music might be the only thing that keeps me entranced. I struggle with much modern poetry because it lacks the music that might attract me, hold my attention, reward it and give me some hope that the cryptic clues buried in the verbiage might eventually make sense.

It might help to use an example in the next post. And I’m not going to make it easy on myself by choosing a ‘classic’ from the past. I’ll pick a modern poem to try and make my point clearer. A good choice, I think, would be a relatively accessible poem by Don Paterson called The Swing from his collection Rain, whose fusion of music and sense keeps me engaged and moves me deeply.

If I can manage to bring myself to tackle it, I might also look in a later post at one of the two poets that I find particularly challenging – the Basil Bunting of Briggflatts or Geoffrey Hill

Edgar feigning madness to Lear

All too often, rather than holding up a mirror to nature, they seem to delight in smashing it and handing me a bundle of fragments  with a gesture that says, ‘Here you are. Stick this lot back together again and mind you don’t cut yourself.’ While poets are not agony aunts with the job of providing comforting insights into how to handle life, I’d rather they didn’t vex me with tormenting verbal puzzles that seem far more obscure to me than most of the testing ambiguities and uncertainties of life itself. I can accept the need to represent the chaotic uncertainty of reality in some of its most profound and important aspects by obscurity in the poem. Surely though that has to be offset by shafts of illumination that place it in a context that gives us enough help to discern some meaning in the apparent madness, rather as happens with Edgar’s babblings in King Lear.

Anyway more about Paterson on Thursday! In the end I might just give up the ghost and leave it at that.

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'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

Famous Brain Scan Joke (for original see link)

Everyman went to see the doctor to get the results of his brain scan.

The doctor said: “Mr. Everyman, I have some bad news for you. First, we have discovered that your brain has two sides: the left side and the right side.”

Everyman interrupted, “Well, that’s normal, isn’t it? I thought everybody had two sides to their brain?”

The doctor replied, “That’s true, Mr. Everyman. But your brain is very unusual because on the left side there isn’t anything right, while on the right side there isn’t anything left.”

Why have I changed the joke when the whole point is to poke fun at one man in particular? Well, for me the whole point is that the joke is on all of us. If Iain McGilchrist is right, and I believe he is, our society has placed almost all its faith in left brain functioning and denigrates what the right brain does as flakey and untrustworthy. And language has been almost totally commandeered by the left brain that constantly mistakes its descriptions – its maps – for reality itself, an error that is placing us all in danger. For a fuller discussion of this crucial issue see The Master and His Emissary link at the bottom of this post. To shorthand it somewhat, we increasingly tend to treat living beings as though they were machines.

Creative writing, and most especially poetry (currently perhaps the least popular art form in the West), represents one of the best ways, alongside spiritual practice, of re-establishing contact with the right side of the brain. This is the way out of the cul-de-sac we ended up in yesterday in the previous post.

To take Sir Phillip Sidney somewhat out of context:

So while pregnant with the desire to speak, helpless with the birth pangs,
Biting at my pen which disobeyed me, beating myself in anger,
My Muse said to me ‘Fool, look in your heart and write.’

So, maybe the best we can do is grope towards a better sense of reality, not just through language and not just through our senses, but also through our deepest intuitions as well.

Fay Weldon in her contrapuntal novel, Kehua, which is both a novel and a reflection on the experience of writing a novel, sheds some intriguing light on this issue:

 The sensation is that you don’t exactly write novels – you simply unfold them, or fish them up from a well, or hook them down from the sky.

In her interview on the Culture Show Hilary Mantel develops this in her different way:

It’s in invisible worlds that the writer spends her time.

In her engaging but unsettling memoir Giving up the Ghost another quote reveals in part what is unsettling but fascinating about her art (page 231):

What’s to be done with the lost, the dead, but write them into being.

All this makes writing seem more like a ghostly, or even ghastly form of gardening. Getting an idea is a bit like planting a seed. You tend it but it has a life of its own to some degree. You wait and watch for the shoots to appear on the surface of your mind from some deeper level. You can’t force it but you must tend them, work at it, create the right conditions as far as you can. But every piece has its own growing season though.

Hilary Mantel again:

Just because you have an idea for a story doesn’t mean you’re ready to write it. You may have to creep towards it, dwell with it, grow up with it: perhaps for half your lifetime.

(Op. cit.: page 69-70)

A friend of mine carries characters around in his head for years waiting for the right time to get them down on paper. Sometimes, I suspect, you might just wait too long. I wonder what happens to the dead who never get written into being?

In the end though, it seems to me, that this sensitivity, patience and humility in the face of the right-brain’s unseen and unpredictable processes of reality testing are far better for us as individuals and communities than the fast-fire gung-ho certainty characteristic of the left-brain’s arrogance which is so typical of both scientism and religious fundamentalism and which risks wrecking itself and many of the rest of us on the rocks of its own unrelentingly blind dogmatism.

 Related Posts

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William Golding at his home in Cornwall, late 1980s

Yesterday we looked at revelation.

In John Carey’s biography of William Golding we find a description of the writer’s task that might seem to put him or her at odds with any kind of religious revelation (page 210-211). It describes Golding’s view of the matter:

The task of a writer, he insists, is to free the mind from the shackles of habit and creed. Belief systems such as Christianity and Marxism impose ‘rigid patterns’ on reality which deaden the mind. ‘The difference between being alive and being an inorganic substance is just this proliferation of experience, this absence of pattern.’ Accordingly, a writer must have ‘an intransigence in the face of accepted beliefs – – political, religious, moral – any accepted belief.’ If he takes an accepted belief for granted then ‘he ceases to have any use in society at all.’ In effect his job is to ‘scrape the labels off things,’ exposing the reality beneath.

It is worth reminding ourselves here of the distinction Paul Lample makes in his book ‘Revelation & Social Reality.’ He explains (page 10) that for Bahá’ís ‘[r]evelation creates consensus around new truths so that we, the co-creators of reality, can begin to transform the existing social order.’ Language is a key component in this process in that it both shapes and is shaped by social reality. There is a crucial distinction, he feels (page 21), between Revelation as the undiluted Word of God and religion as the way the Word is applied.

This means that the descriptions we evolve of what the revelation means to us may not be the same as the revelation itself. In fact our descriptions of any kind are pretty treacherous as the last two posts in the list at the end explain.This leaves room for an artist of integrity to dissent from any of the orthodoxies he finds around him. However, no one ordinary person’s idea of the truth, no matter how great an artist (s)he may, is likely to capture the whole of reality undistorted, so we would be wise not to swallow what they write, paint or film uncritically.

Hilary Mantel deals with this in her typical drily humorous way in her excellent memoir (Giving up the Ghost – page 4):

Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a window-pane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one-third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can.

(Not that she follows her own advice, by the way, as she goes on to admit.)

What she says next provides the crucial undercutting of her argument (ibid):

Besides, window-pane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness. Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.

She is resolutely sceptical of any facile notion that the truth is easy to access. She was interviewed recently on the Culture Show (only a few clips are available still) and had this to say about history and fiction that is as good an example as any of her take on things:

As soon as we learn any history we should learn to be suspicious of the history. we should learn to question the historical record all the time.

“I think I know this, but why do I think I know it? Who’s telling me this and who wants me to believe it? Who starts the riots that lead to the fall of the Bastille? Why him? Why then? Why that particular moment? Could it have been someone else? And if it could’ve been why wasn’t it? These questions perplex me and intrigue me and I come back to them time and time again.”

In the end we have to accept that ‘reality’ is not easily accessible – not through language but not even through the senses either.

A recent book on the nature of the universe we inhabit demolishes any feeling that we might have that what we sense reliably conveys exactly what’s out there. Take hearing for example (Page 20):

Air that puffs 15 times a second is not intrinsically different from air that pulses 30 times, yet the former will never result in a human perception of sound because of the design of our neural architecture

What is true for hearing is true for all the senses. We’ll be returning in another post to further implications of their position.

And they conclude (ibid.):

In short, an observer, an ear, and a brain are every bit as necessary for the experience of sound as are the air pulses. The external world and consciousness are correlative. And a tree that falls in an empty forest creates only silent air pulses—tiny puffs of wind.

So we’ll look tomorrow at where that apparent impasse might leave us.

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