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In March, before lockdown, I was invited to give a talk at St Mary’s church, Tyberton, a village in the Golden Valley near to Hereford. This is the text of the talk more or less as delivered. I ad libbed a few extra bits of explanation on the day but have not included them here. I also cut the talk short just before the final two paragraphs quoted here. I’d gone past my allocated ten minutes so I thought it better to quit while I was ahead! Those paragraphs didn’t add much anyway. I had no idea, when I gave this talk, how important the connection between interconnectedness and resilience would become in such a very short period of time.

As you probably already know, the Bahá’í Faith is being persecuted in Iran, its birthplace. Our world governing body, the Universal House of Justice, has exhorted the Bahá’í community in Iran to response with “constructive resilience”[1].

Where might the roots of this resilience be found?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote that ‘No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united,’ and saw this as the source of the ‘discord and malice . . . apparent everywhere.’ He reminded us that instead we should not regard ‘one another as strangers.’ We ‘are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.’ [2] We are all, Bahá’u’lláh says, ‘created . . . from the same dust’ and must learn ‘to be even as one soul,’ so that from our ‘inmost being, by [our] deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’[3]

This is why I, as a Bahá’í, feel that the roots of resilience are to be found in a recognition of our interconnectedness. To quote the Universal House of Justice again, this time from a message addressed in 2001 to those gathered for the official opening of the Terraces on Mount Carmel, ‘Humanity’s crying need . . . calls  . . . for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

No get out clause there!

Unfortunately all too often the divisions within us and between us, which the Universal House of Justice describes in the same message as the ‘struggle among competing ambitions,’ blinds us to this truth. we are prisoners of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes as ‘the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire.’[4]

How are we to remedy this?

This is a problem that all the great world religions have grappled with, and the Bahá’í Faith recognizes that, which is what unites us across all faiths when they are properly understood. I am though going to focus here only on what the Bahá’í Faith can contribute to this desperately needed healing process, if our divisions are not going to bring about our complete destruction.

First of all Bahá’ís believe that we need to cultivate reflection in order to achieve a degree of detachment from not just the material side of existence, but also from the distorted perspectives within our own minds. If we cannot do that at least to some degree, we cannot then use the process of consultation, where we sit down with people of different views to compare notes and enhance our understanding of reality. Only in this way can we find better solutions to the problems that bedevil us.

A saying of Islam quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states that ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.[5]‘Reflection’ is also variously translated as meditation, remembrance or contemplation.

What does it mean exactly in practice?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá helps us here, when he states, ‘‘This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror.’[6]

What exactly are the implications of this? What are the possible similarities between our mind and a mirror?

The most important similarity is that a mirror is NOT what is reflected in it. Our mind, our consciousness, is not its contents. We are not what we think, feel, sense, plan, intend, remember, or imagine. We are the capacity to do all of these things. However, none of these products of our mind is necessarily real or true. They are mostly transient products of our brains.

We need to learn to step back from them all and look at them from the position of consciousness in all its purity, the closest we can get to God, to the Ground of Being, if you prefer that expression. At the very least we can connect more closely with what Bahá’u’lláh refers to many times in His Writings as our ‘understanding heart,’ a phrase that captures the critical need for us to balance our verbal analytical left-brain thinking, which has spawned our technical advances which are both a blessing and a curse, with our holistic and intuitive right-brain processes, which cannot be easily captured in words and are therefore often lying half-hidden on the edge of consciousness.

In that state of stepping back, we still know what we think and feel, and who we think we are, but we are no longer so identified with those ideas that we cannot listen open-mindedly to what other people have to say that might enrich our understanding. Only when we do this, and it takes constant practice, can we truly consult with others about the nature of reality, the truth about our problems, and develop better ways of dealing with them.

We can consult at last.

Paul Lample explained it like this: ‘[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.’[7]

Then, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, this will show us ‘that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’[8] He also emphasises that detachment, of the kind I have attempted to describe, is one of the essential prerequisites to the effective use of consultation. Which is why, as Lample explains, ‘‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’[9]

Reflection helps us become more inwardly united and more closely connected with the divine or spiritual realms, and so we can become more united with others in our efforts to deal with problems within our family, our community, our nation and even our world as whole.

As a clinical psychologist, working in the local NHS, I found these insights of great value.

How so?

Well, I was working with a group of patients who are still regarded by many people as ‘not like us.’ They were people who carried the label schizophrenic or psychotic. They’re not like the rest of us, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong.

The basic principle of the Faith that we are all in essence one helped me see their common humanity. But more than that even. It helped me learn how their strange beliefs and hallucinations were rooted in their life experiences, how they made sense in that context once I had had the patience and humility to explore that with them and with their loved ones.

And even more than that through the disciplines of reflection and consultation, a kind of Bahá’í interpersonal yoga, I could earn their trust because I did not mock their beliefs or belittle their experiences of voices and visions, which allowed them to share their inmost thoughts, from which I learned to make sense of what they were experiencing. From there we could compare notes as equals and they could begin to find other explanations for what was happening to them.

For example, to stop thinking you are being tormented by powerful demons, who have the power to hurt you, helps you get back control of your own mind and life. I didn’t have to challenge the experience in itself, only the destructive explanations they had understandably developed for it, such as the power of the voices to harm them. Then they could move on.

After all, we all go psychotic at night in our dreams. We could many of us have ended up psychotic if life had treated us badly enough early on. The brain is good at creating illusions and delusions. In fact, a book I read recently by Tom Oliver, an agnostic scientist, explains, on the basis of strong evidence, that the prevalent idea in the West that we are a separate disconnected and individual self is a delusion, so we’re all a bit psychotic already really.

All we have is simulation of reality, a kind of trance induced in us by our culture – a materialistic, competitive and divided one in our case. And the only way we can ever correct our false perceptions and mistaken beliefs is to work together with others who do not think the same to transcend them. (And I would now add that if ever there was a time to internalise that lesson for the rest of our days on this earth, this is it.]

The mnemonic I use to remind me of all this is to say to myself ‘I must take CARE:’ the ‘C’ stands for consultation, and the ‘R’ for reflection, but embedded in a context of action and experience. It doesn’t work just at the level of theory.

As I final joke against myself I must admit that the ‘R’ also represents what are for me the three ‘Rs’ of reading, writing and reflection. Without books to breath in with and pens to breath out with my mind would suffocate, and I would never be able to consolidate my reflections into memorable and useful form. So I must thank you all for providing me with an excuse to read, reflect and write even more. Thank you for your patience in listening.

Footnotes

[1]. This phrase was first used in September 2007 in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’í students deprived of access to higher education in Iran.
[2]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163.
[3]. The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 68.
[4]. Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5]. Hadith quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (page 152 UK Edition and page 237 US edition).
[6]. Paris Talks – pages 174-176.
[7]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 215.
[8]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá cited in a letter written by Shoghi Effendi, to the National Spiritual Assembly of Persia, 15 February 1922).
[9]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 212.

Artex Explorer

Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

Perhaps it is not surprising that, during lockdown, I should be revisiting books that I have already read as well as reading new ones.

What I didn’t expect was to find that a book by John Hatcher, published in 1994, would contain passages that resonate so strongly with me 26 years later.

I’m going to focus primarily on a handful of quotations from the last third of his book. I am not going to insult any reader’s intelligence by labouring the point and attempting to spell out in detail why I find these ideas so powerfully relevant right now.

In Chapter 7 of The Arc of Ascent, after exploring in depth how the concept of unity in the Bahá’í Revelation, combined with an understanding of the need for a sense of connection with God to be translated into personal action ideally in the context of an effective organisational structure within the religion, he begins to spell out some of the obstacles in the way if humanity as a whole is to benefit from comparable insights.

Near the start of the chapter he explains:[1]

. . . while the generality of humankind may readily acknowledge their desire to abolish warfare, to protect the environment and create a sane and just administration of human affairs, the power to bring about a reformation in human governance resides largely in the hands of a small cadre of thoroughly entrenched political leaders, most of whom seem perfectly willing to sacrifice the public good to secure their own self-interest. And while some of these leaders may die off or be replaced, the ones who take their place seem little different.

Self-interest, as he acknowledges, can extend beyond the merely personal to, for example, an economic niche, a racial identity or a nation state. Even when extended in this way it is divisive and will not help heal our world of its problems.

As he spells out:[2]

. . . we can conclude that the first requisite for the initiation of a world system of social management is the increasing awareness on the part of constituent governments that when the world is contracted into one integral organism, it is impossible to pursue the narrow interests or well-being of member states apart from the health and well-being of the global community as a whole.

The prescience of the comments Hatcher quotes from Shoghi Effendi’s Citadel of Faith, written between 1947 and 1957, is spine-tingling:[3]

The woes and tribulations which threaten… are partly avoidable but mostly inevitable and God-sent, for by reason of them a government and people clinging tenaciously to the obsolescent doctrine of absolute sovereignty and upholding a political system, manifestly at variance with the needs of the world already contracted into a neighbourhood and crying out for unity, will find itself purged of its anachronistic conceptions . . .

In 1941 Shoghi Effendi was writing an equally important statement – The Promised Day Is Come. There he spelt out clearly the reasons for concluding that the world is now essentially one country while also clarifying that he is not denigrating ‘a sane and intelligent patriotism.’ In his view, this ‘declaration’ proclaims ‘the insufficiency of patriotism, in view of the fundamental changes effected in the economic life of society and the interdependence of the nations, and as a consequence of the contraction of the world . . .’,[4]

Hatcher shares the Guardian’s view that ‘fiery tribulations,’[5] such as the Second World War, need to occur to motivate humanity and raise our consciousness to the necessary higher level. War is only one example of many possible tribulations. Hatcher, perhaps hinting at an awareness of a threat that Shoghi Effendi probably could not have specifically anticipated so early in the century, states:[6]

. . .some event or series of events must suddenly make all self-interest synonymous with planetary survival.

However, Shoghi Effendi’s criteria from Citadel of Faith could embrace that possibility as they include ‘[a]dversity, prolonged, worldwide, afflictive, allied to universal destruction’ whose impact will ‘stir the conscience of the world . . .’ and ‘precipitate a radical change in the concept of society.’  In summary, in the words of a letter the Guardian wrote:[7]

[Calamities] are to teach the nations, that they have to view things internationally, they are to make the individual attribute more importance to his moral, than his material welfare.

Hatcher quotes a letter from Shoghi Effendi[8] stating that ‘it seems only intense suffering is capable of rousing men to the spiritual efforts required’ to achieve political unity.

The very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat of climate change and the totality of its potentially destructive power may just be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning, The Uninhabitable Earth :[9]

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.

However, in the light of more recent experience, Covid-19 may be a better candidate for this awakening than climate change, because its impact is more immediate.

Despite its tragic consequences and the immense suffering it has caused, if this is the wake-up call enough of us will pay attention to, it could mark a significant turning point, enabling us to reconfigure our priorities and avoid even more horrendous calamities further down the road. If we are to give some positive meaning to all the pain this pandemic is causing, surely we must from now on exert ourselves and make sure society does not slump back into its previous comfortably destructive trance. We owe that at least to those whose lives have been cut short in this pandemic.

I will be developing some of these ideas next month at greater length.

Footnotes:

[1]. The Arc of Ascent page 236. Unless otherwise stated all references are to Hatcher’s book.
[2]. Page 237.
[3]. Page 238: Citadel of Faith is a collection of messages from Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, to the Bahá’ís of the United States.
[4]. Page 238.
[5]. Page 244.
[6]. Page 246.
[7]. Page 247.
[8]. Page 251.
[9]. The Uninhabitable Earth – page 25.

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly – . . . . I see something . . . . quite different from the masterly reproduction of the materials, something quite different from light and brown, something quite different from the colour – yet that something quite different is achieved by the precise rendering of the light effect, the material, the colour.

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 272)

When we return to Davis’ book, The Transferred Life of George Eliot, the idea of humans as divided beings, and the need for the novel to capture that, soon follow:[1]

 . . . she who was not a character at unity with herself could become a writer who, even so, could do right by both sides.

Given my parliament of selves, I think he should have said ‘all’ sides, unless the comment is restricting itself to the hemisphere spilt discussed in the previous post. Anyway, I get his basic point.

The Ego

The battle to escape from such limitations was tough:[2]

. . . . even the desire to get out of the ego – that point of view from which she must experience everything that affected her – was still expressed within it.

The idea of the ego constraining our understanding just as a lens can limit or distort our vision echoes the limitations analytic verbal understanding imposes upon what we can grasp intuitively in the holistic right hemisphere.

A critical insight for George Eliot involved moving outwards from a sense that pleasing oneself was ‘the central necessity of the universe.’[3] Transitioning to adulthood involved for her a recognition of her ‘own self-centredness’ alongside imagining ‘the equivalent centre within others simultaneously.’  She found in her fiction what[4]  ‘could best depict the achievement of a sudden, unlikely human connection.’ Critical to her being able to transcend her ego in this way ‘was her power of identification’[5], ie with others not just with herself.

She used the term ‘transhumanation’ to capture the way ‘great value in a person or a work or an idea could expand the powers of those who received it beyond what they could normally command.’[6]

Much later in his exploration, Davis makes a point that is relevant to bring in here:[7]

A ‘not-herself’ took dramatic possession of her best writing and she felt her own personality to be no more than an instrument through which this spirit was acting.

This suggests that another factor is at work, possibly one related to the hemispheric issue touched on in the previous post, or perhaps something that goes deeper.

Transliminality

Davis quotes Myers[8]:

The genius among human kind . . . is one who possesses a readier communication between supraliminal and subliminal forces than most ordinary people can achieve.

We’ve been here before with Virginia Woolf. Her diaries confirm what at least two of her novels suggest: that there was a degree of transliminality about her consciousness. Things kept bubbling up from below its threshold. These could occur at any time:[9]

But how entirely I live in my imagination; how completely depend upon spurts of thought, coming as I walk, as I sit; things shining up in my mind and so making a perpetual pageant, which is to be my happiness.

The work itself drew her ever deeper. Concerning the writing of Mrs Dalloway she wrote:[10]

. . . it seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world. . .

One thing, in considering my state of mind now, seems to be beyond dispute; that I have, at last, bored down into my oil well, and can’t scribble fast enough to bring it all to the surface.

Fishing is the metaphor she settled on at one point to describe it:[11]

She talked about the creative process, describing it as one of apparent inertia, of “mooning”, in which the artist as fisherwoman lets herself “down into the depths of her consciousness”, surrendering herself to “the mysterious nosing about, feelings around, darts and dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and elusive fish the imagination.’

What this meant in practice, for George Eliot, was that the novelist becomes like the universal consciousness of Kastrup’s theory. Through the benefits of subliminal inspiration, they come to know more about their own character and can seek to capture what the characters don’t about the inner states of other characters than themselves, and what they often don’t even know about themselves. They can become an omniscient novelist.

As Davis puts it:[12]

‘George Eliot’ may begin as a commenting persona or an anonymous narrator but her existence in the novels was increasingly that of a language-presence which came out of her abstracting from the characters all that they could not say or could not think or could not be, holding that for them when there was no other vehicle or home.

This is not necessarily an arrogant didactic know-it-all position[13]  ‘under her pen . . . the secular realist novel’ did not ‘have in advance a clear final aim – precisely because of its inner search for such a thing, through its character struggles.’

However, with the onset of Modernism this approach was much disparaged. What came to be valued was the capturing of the inner consciousness of the characters with no sense of a know-it-all author nudging us to understand the larger reality.

I’ve explored this ambition at some length on this blog already, so I’ll just summarise the main points here.

The picture Julia Briggs paints in Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life is a helpful starting point. She feels that[14] ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.”’ She feels that:[15]

Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…

This does not do justice to the 19th Century novel. For example, what Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate their novels fairly consistently through the eyes of one of the characters, rather than in their own voice.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922) – containing the much admired example of stream of consciousness writing.

In Mrs Dalloway[16] Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room[17] ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse[18] ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

As a result of this perspective, it became irresistibly tempting for me to assume that this was the benchmark by which to judge a modern novel and possibly dismiss most 19th century versions as deeply flawed, though I was never able to be completely comfortable with this conclusion.

The question I find myself raising now is whether, given that the consciousness of most characters in a novel is narrow and flawed, and even the sum total of all their consciousnesses does not embrace the whole of accessible reality, can any novel confining itself to the inscape of its characters, even if it includes some of their many interactions with the world, convey to us anything remotely approaching the whole truth about the nature of our social, natural and spiritual reality. Would that mean I was grossly underestimating the value of the omniscient narrator?

I will continue to reflect on that question, giving myself time, I hope to revisit more of George Eliot’s novels, and take another look at Virginia Woolf.

It’s only fair to add here at the very end that George Eliot would almost certainly not have appreciated her work as a novelist being even remotely compared to Kastrup’s Universal Consciousness, dissociated alters notwithstanding, as Davis makes clear when he describes her reaction to the work that Myers was doing in the field of parapsychology:[19]

‘Do you understand,’ George Eliot said to him plainly one day, ‘that the triumph of what you believe would mean the worthlessness of all that my life has been spent in teaching?’… Virtue for her had no otherworldly rewards.

Footnotes

[1]. Page 30 (unless otherwise stated all quotations are from The Transferred Life of George Eliot .
[2]. Page 53.
[3]. Page 53.
[4]. Page 56.
[5]. Page 57.
[6]. Page 58.
[7]. Pages 228-29.
[8]. Page 168.
[9]. A Writer’s Diary – page 67.
[10]. A Writer’s Diary – pages 69-74.
[11]. A Writer’s Diary  – page 271.
[12]. Page 271.
[13]. Page 264.
[14]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 77.
[15]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 93.
[16]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 132.
[17]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 133.
[18]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 164.
[19]. Page 265.

Given my reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses in the next post, it seemed a good idea to post this poem now.

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

(The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272)

Too tired to do anything else, while watching a stupid celebrity murder mystery, it came to me that so many of the problem situations I have had to deal with most of my life, either professionally or personally, contain such different self-serving presentations of and self-protecting perspectives on the same events, it’s astonishing. If it wasn’t happening so often in real life, I’m not sure I would believe it.

I have recently been reading two books which, while operating from completely different traditions, are dealing with the issue of this kind of conflicted consciousness and related issues, at least to some degree. One book is looking at the problem from the point of view of a literary critic and biographer, the other as a philosopher of consciousness.

Writers need to find a way of processing and presenting such divergent views, whether coldly calculated to deflect responsibility, distorted by trauma or flawed by unconsciously damaged memories. Novelists in particular need to find ways to get closer to multifaceted and partially hidden truths, the full extent of which are unavailable to their characters.

This all has echoes of Browning’s The Ring & the Book, written as he coped with his grief after the death of his wife. He looks at the same homicide from the distorted perspectives of all the key participants, including the victim’s. Loucks and Stauffer write:[1]

To embody his theme of the relation of truth to human perspective and belief, Browning daringly chose to tell his “Roman murder story” ten times over from as many distinct points of view. The risk of boredom through repetition was minimised by having each character emphasise, suppress, and distort various elements of the case according to his own interests and motives. . . . .

I really must finish that poem some time. I copped out just over half-way through in 2016. The next will be my third attempt, never having got anywhere really with the first copy I bought at the second-hand bookshop opposite the library in Stockport 59 years ago, with my whole life ahead of me. What chance have I got now, with only a fragment remaining?

Now is not the time to go down that road. Back to my original focus! Given my avowed aim to deepen my understanding of consciousness in context I need to dig a bit deeper here.

Alters, Altars and Egos

Is my brain tricking me or is there really common ground between the work of Kastrup and Eliot – George, that is, though maybe Thomas Stearns also for all I know. I’d have to read him all again to be sure and I don’t have time for that right now.

This pattern of warped perspectives hiding a wider truth seems to connect with the thinking I’m doing on the back of the ideas in Bernardo Kastrup’s The Idea of the World and in Philip Davis’ The Transferred Life of George Eliot.

I am taken with Kastrup’s notion of top-down rather than bottom-up consciousness, with dissociated alters living out their delusional fragmented lives, and its parallels with the picture that Davis presents of George Eliot as the over-riding all-seeing consciousness penetrating the minds and hearts of her blinkered characters.

The novel in that sense becomes a metaphor or representation of that kind of reality.

The title of this piece is adapted from page 42 of Philip Davis’ unusual approach to the life of a writer. The full context reads, after referring to the aspirations of The Mill on the Floss:

This is what a realist novel might do eventually: investigate that desperately needed integration between within and without, while testing also its own relation to the world it sought to represent; seeking therefore within the vital multifariousness of things the possibility of some nonetheless holistic order.

The other book is one that is more recently purchased. Kastrup’s basic position is summarised rather brutally on page 92:

There is only universal consciousness. We, as well as all other living organisms, are but dissociated alters of universal consciousness, surrounded like islands by the ocean of its thoughts. The inanimate universe we see around us is the extrinsic appearance of these thoughts. The living organisms we share the world with are the extensive appearances of other dissociated alters of universal consciousness. . . The currently prevailing concept of a physical world independent of consciousness is an unnecessary and problematic intellectual abstraction.

I was amused, as I dictated that quote into my computer, to see the dictation tool make an inadvertent pun on the word alters by typing altars. Given what we are about to explore briefly later about the ego, it seemed fitting that an alter should see itself as an altar, if not perhaps as a god itself.

A key question for our present purposes is whether, even though the alters contained within it are dissociated, Universal Consciousness is similarly blocked in terms of an overall awareness of all subordinate realities and inscapes. A quote from earlier in Kastrup’s book suggests not:[2]

Dissociation allows us to (a) grant that TWE [That Which Experiences] is fundamentally unitary at a universal level and then still (b) coherently explain the private character of our personal experiences…

Dissociation

So, what on earth has this to do with novels?

Reading Davis, it didn’t take long for the ‘d’ word to crop up:[3]

Edmundson concludes, ‘current humanities education does not teach subversive scepticism’: instead, what it really teaches is ‘the dissociation of intellect from feeling’. George Eliot stands for precisely the opposite.

He returns to this issue later[4]:

In George Eliot it is as though much of what is simplified in the pre-verbal right hemisphere, in all its intuitions and feelings and even savage impulses, was being translated into the left, that hemisphere which Hughlings Jackson said was the one which alone was conscious in words.

Though I’m not sure I would locate ‘savage impulses’ in the right hemisphere, basically this describes what remains a modern problem with serious consequences, as McGilchrist explains as he examines left-brain and right-brain functioning, with a sense that when we privilege the left brain’s processing we are inevitably dissociating ourselves from that of the right brain. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society from this point of view is this:[5]

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

I will be exploring where this leads us in terms of the novel in the next post.

Footnotes

[1]. Robert Browning’s Poetry, Norton Critical Edition – 2007 – pages 314-315.
[2]. The Idea of the World – page  67.
[3]. The Transferred Life of George Eliot – pages 2-3.
[4]. The Transferred Life of George Eliot – page 268.
[5]. The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.