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Archive for January, 2015

My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry to see what else I’d written. This pair of posts from 2011 paves the way for my consideration of brick wall poetry next week.
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 tomorrow! In the end I might just give up the ghost and leave it at that.

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JK frontispieceInterestingly, on the Bahá’í Teachings website I found a post on Keats and the Truth and Beauty issue that I felt was worth  flagging up as I will be taking a look at exactly the same theme on Monday. Below is a short extract. For the full post see link.

From the exalted source, and out of the essence of His favor and bounty He hath entrusted every created thing with a sign of His knowledge, so that none of His creatures may be deprived of its share in expressing, each according to its capacity and rank, this knowledge. This sign is the mirror of His beauty in the world of creation.

Baha’u’llahGleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 262.

The British writer John Keats, known today as one of the greatest poets who ever lived, only wrote for six years.  He died at 25, a victim of tuberculosis, poverty and a heart broken by the lack of public acceptance of his work.  He had published, in four short years, only three volumes of poetry, and sold maybe 200 copies total.

Keats wrote odes, short poems filled with sensual detail, exquisite observation of the natural world and a powerful intensity of feeling.  Some of that intensity no doubt came from his chaste but passionately emotional love for Fanny Brawne.  The two met when Keats was a young man of 23 and Brawne was 18, and John wrote his famous poem “Bright Star” for Fanny.  (In 2009 the director Jane Campion made a tender, beautiful film about their relationship called Bright Star.)

In a letter to Fanny, John wrote:

I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you … I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.

The burning love that John Keats had for Fanny Brawne found its expression in hundreds of these notes and letters, written in an intense stream of consciousness style that would find its way into modern writing in the ensuing centuries.  It would also endear him to millions of admirers around the world, many of whom believe that John Keats’ poetry has never been surpassed in the English language.  Along with Rumi and Shakespeare, Keats is now thought of as one of the greatest poets who ever lived. . . . .

He bequeathed us at least one poem that every English speaker reads in school, called Ode On a Grecian Urn.  The last half of the final stanza has these immortal lines:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Keats compares the immortal art of the urn to the truth.  He says that art, which affects us through its lasting beauty, is one of the highest forms of truth. But he says something else, as well – that truth itself is beautiful.

In the Baha’i teachings, beauty and truth are one, just as they were for Keats.

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Given my recent posts on the value of listening to sad songs and the relationship between art and life, as well as the posts to come next week on poetry, republishing this poem on the power of song in general seemed quite appropriate.

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

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My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry, with a vague memory that I’d been somewhere like this before. And sure enough I had. This pair of posts from 2011 is covering related ground – the first came out yesterday. This is the second and last.

In the previous post on this topic we ended with DH Maitreyabandhu‘s attempt to create a test of the value of a poem (The Furthest Reach – page 61, footnote):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

He moves on in the remainder of his article in the Poetry Society magazine, Poetry Review, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

John Keats July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative-  beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

This, it could be said, is where I begin to lose my grip on his meaning but where I most want to grasp it fully. I want to grasp what he goes on to say because I believe – and not just because my religion says so – that religion and science are like the two wings of a bird. We need them both if we are to live wisely and well, but to use them properly we have to integrate our understanding of their different  approaches to the truth. Maybe there is a transcendent position, as Jung would say, that dissolves their apparent differences and from which we can see their essential unity. I’m not sure this is what Maitreyabandhu is getting at, but I hope so. Let’s see where he goes from here. I can already feel the rope of his meaning slipping through my fingers.

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

I still don’t feel I have completely understood all that he is trying to say but I do hope that I haven’t introduced too much distortion or dilution into my attempt to convey the tenor of his inspiring exploration of the nature of imagination and its role in poetry. I am looking forward to integrating his insights more deeply into both my practice of writing and my practice of compassion.

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DH Maitreyabandhu

Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.

(The Master & his Emissary: page 115)

My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry, with a vague memory that I’d been somewhere like this before. And sure enough I had. This pair of posts from 2011 is covering related ground – the second piece will be posted tomorrow.

Right now I am deeply grateful to someone whom I had never heard of two weeks ago.

As part of my recent plan to re-engage more with poetry, I rejoined the Poetry Society, and already I am glad I did. The last issue of their magazine contains a profound article by Maitreyabandhu.

Alison Flood wrote in the Guardian in 2009:

Maitreyabandhu, who has been ordained into the Western Buddhist Order for 19 years, says his love of poetry began when a friend read him the first five verses of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy. “It was one of those moments when one discovers a new ecstasy, even a new calling. After that I read and re-read Shelley and Keats obsessively and used their poetry to explore ancient Buddhist themes,” he said. “WH Auden says, ‘The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us’. The same could be said of Buddhism. I approach poetry, in one sense as a distillation of peak experience, in another as finding meaning in the everyday – as such, poetry has become another strand of my spiritual practice.”

In the two years since then he has moved to a place from which he can write about poetry and spirituality with a degree of wisdom I have rarely encountered before. He is grappling with a set of interrelated issues that have preoccupied me for many years: the value of imagination, the nature of creativity and its relationship with compassion, the purpose and nature of poetry and the light all of this might shed on mind/brain processes. I have achieved some clarity about some of that but the angle that he views these issues from will be invaluable in moving my thinking forwards, I suspect. (For more on some of my own struggles so far see the links at the bottom of the page.)

I have long been aware that imagination, rather like fire, is a good friend but a dangerous enemy. I remember vaguely, from my days as a student of English Literature, Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination. I have pondered on the dichotomy the Bahá’í scriptures point up. On the one hand we have imagination as a power of the human spirit as described by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

Man has . . . spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.

(Some Answered Questions: page 210)

On the other hand, we have ‘vain imaginings’ that are not to be trusted.

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.

(Tablets of  Bahá’u’lláh: page 58)

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges?

He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. 1 want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (for source of image see link)

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (for source of image see link)

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . .  Fancy, to use the words of Iggy Pop, is just “The same old thing in brand new drag” ‑ the usual contents of experiences but put together in unusual, arbitrary combinations. It has all the impact of novelty, and is typified by the kind of poetry that juxtaposes a zebra, a hypodermic syringe, an orange and a stick of underarm deodorant. With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. In other words, imagination selects and transforms the data of experience, giving it new depth and purchase. … to illuminate meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end reminded me of a passage, in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which has remained with me ever since I read it more than 30 years ago. He makes a distinction between two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. [Such stimuli invite you to become] actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’ . . . by becoming more awake and more alive.

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

The rest of the article, to which I shall return later, concerns itself with the light which aspects of Buddhist philosophy shed on this whole problem. I shall do my best to convey what he is saying even though I’m not sure I understand it yet myself.

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JK frontispieceWhy on earth am I writing about Keats and Zen? I’m afraid that’s a long story. And it’s not just because I was reading about Buddhism recently. That’d be too easy.

It all begins with me moaning into my journal that my poems have dried up. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that when I’m fishing for a poem and bait the hook with an idea or a promising phrase that has popped into my head, I drop it into my mind’s fast flowing currents but recently no poems at all have bitten on my line. Not even a sardine sonnet to be seen anywhere. My poems seem to be an endangered species, on the verge of extinction.

I should be regularly posting new poems these days, but almost none of my many specks of grit have made the magical transformation into a pearl of a poem – as of now anyway.

I thought I’d share this instead to explain the situation and buy myself a bit more time.

Hints from my Dreaming Mind

So, I go to bed one night recently and ask my dreaming mind to come up with something that might help. (This is the second time within a matter of weeks that I’ve done this on different issues. For the first equally intriguing occasion see link.)

I drift off to sleep. I find myself rushing late into a meeting in someone’s house. An elderly man in a robe is on the sofa. In response to my apology he says I need to share a poem after the prayers. I’m in a panic because I have no book of poems with me. What am I going to say when my turn comes? Then I remember. I still know at least one whole poem off by heart. I can say it and to my astonishment I do.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled Books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain –
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of Chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting Love; then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think,
Till Love and Fame to Nothingness do sink. –

(When I checked later I found I had only got one word wrong – I said ‘full garners.’) I woke in the middle of the night with the words of the poem ringing round my brain. I tried saying it again to see if I could. I missed ‘alone’ out that time, but apart from that was almost word perfect again.

Weird! I haven’t read any Keats for years. In fact, in my twenties I rather came to dismiss him as one of the immature Romantics (he died tragically young after all – the same age as me when I decided he wasn’t up to scratch) and exalted Wordsworth and Coleridge instead in my imagination. There may be reasons, as we will see, for not rating Wordsworth as highly –  spiritually at least.

I shared my astonishment with my journal as soon as I could find time.

I realized my request for a response from my dreaming mind had been answered, and answered pretty fully. I wrote three pages of notes to record my waking mind’s immediate responses to a slow re-reading of the sonnet. I won’t bore you with them all as they are not relevant to my theme today.

The reactions that are relevant read as follows:

His sense of mutability behind his attraction to mortal love carries the deeper implications of a different kind of love, even though he may not himself have been aware of the Buddhist implications of the final line and the sense, which I am seeking to cultivate, that my persona is not who I really am, and that the real world can be experienced when we step out of the prison of our lower self and risk the void we fear to find the Reality we crave.

Keats also wrote about the ‘negative capability’ which makes him an emblem, albeit indirectly, of my commitment to meditation-mindfulness.

It then occurred to me to check my annotated edition of Keats to see if I could find any evidence that he was aware at all of Buddhist teachings. There was only one reference I could find to Buddhism and it had nothing to do with its teachings.

The Fruits of a Long ShotJK mask & Cover

I thought, ‘Why not try the web?’

At first I drew a blank. And then I found Keats and Zen. This is a paper written in 1966 by Richard P. Benton in a philosophy journal – not my usual kind of grazing ground but irresistible this time (Philosophy East and West V. 16 No. 1/2 (1966) pp. 33-47 Copyright 1966 by University of Hawaii Press Hawaii, USA).

Apparently Keats knew nothing of Buddhism but his thought and experience maps closely onto that of Zen Buddhism in the view of Benton at least (see above for overall page references):

Keats did succeed in achieving a genuine loss of self-identity. He uncovered his universal Self or Buddha nature in a manner closely resembling Zen awakening, or satori. His conception of his experience closely parallels that of Zen Buddhism. Although I am aware that Keats’s notions of the loss of self-identity and of the empathetic quality of the imagination were derived from well-known Western sources, especially from Hazlitt, his position in these matters can best be appreciated by drawing a parallel between it and that of Zen.

I was amazed again. And not just by the improbability of this statement in itself, but also that I should have tracked it down by following hints that resulted from a prompting by my dreaming mind.

But there was more:

Keats’s metaphysical quest and his conception of it parallel Zen experience and thinking. His theory of knowledge, his idea of spiritual development by means of a “Pleasure Thermometer,” and his view that the writing of poetry ought to be spontaneous and its effect natural — all these views are consonant with Zen attitudes. His metaphysical quest was successful — he achieved a genuine loss of self-identity and reached the ideal Zen state of being — “transcendence of the dichotomy between the self and the not-self.” Evidence of his successful quest is to be found in his letters and his poetry.

Benton is not claiming that Keats was completely consistent in this correlation with Zen but that at times he achieved something indistinguishable from the Zen perspective in Benton’s view. I am simplifying a fairly complex argument here but the bottom line of his understanding of Keats is summarized when he writes:

Our task, then, according to Keats, is to refine our sensations and to cultivate our feelings to the point where we can rise imaginatively to the level of consciousness that is necessary for us to perceive that the many are actually one. Keats’s idea that the process leading to this illumination is a gradual one is expressed in his conception which he himself labels the ‘Pleasure Thermometer.’ He expresses this conception in his early poem Endymion (Canto I: lines 777-811 – I have edited out some lines describing intermediate steps):

Wherein lies happiness? In that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence; till we shine,
Full alchemiz’d, and free of space. Behold
The clear religion of heaven! Fold
A rose leaf round thy finger’s taperness,
And soothe thy lips: . . . . .
. . . . . that moment have we stept
Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit’s. But there are
Richer entanglements, enthralments far
More self-destroying, leading, by degrees,
To the chief intensity: the crown of these
Is made of love and friendship, and sits high
Upon the forehead of humanity.
All its more ponderous and bulky worth
Is friendship, whence there ever issues forth
A steady splendour; but at the tip-top,
There hangs by unseen film, an orbed drop
Of light, and that is love: its influence,
Thrown in our eyes, genders a novel sense,
At which we start and fret; till in the end,
Melting into its radiance, we blend,
Mingle, and so become a part of it, —

That I should be thrown as well into a Keatsian version of levels of consciousness after the pattern of Ken Wilber and Jenny Wade was frankly mind-boggling.

So what exactly is this ‘pleasure thermometer’ Benton claims to have found in Endymion.

Even till the very last and most brilliantly productive years of his short life, Keats continued  to consider this development, whatever it was exactly, as a process that unfolded in stages. This is attested by a letter, not quoted by Benton. It was written in May 1818 to his good friend the writer and critic John Hamilton Reynolds, as Keats struggled to come to terms with his younger brother, Tom’s imminent death from tuberculosis (John Keats: a critical edition of the major works, edited by Elizabeth Cook: page 397):

I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me – The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think – we remain there a long while . . . . . . but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle – within us – we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, then we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere . . . . . and think of delaying there for ever in delight . . . . This Chamber of Maiden-Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open . . .

But it is slightly more complicated than this, as we will see in next week’s post.

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As a bridge between last week’s posts on the subject of psychopathy and next week’s on the theme of poetry, it seemed a good idea to look again at a couple of posts I wrote on the relationship between creativity and psychopathology. The first was posted yesterday: this is the second and last. 

An earlier post focused on how great the gap can be between the achievement of an artist in his art and the depths to which he can sink in his life (historically it’s usually been a ‘he’). In His Writings, Bahá’u’lláh makes clear that for Bahá’ís there should be no such distance between what a person professes and how they are (Gleanings: page 305).

CXXXIX: Say: Beware, O people of Bahá, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds.

I ended up wondering what the possible explanations for such huge gaps might be. I am most intrigued by two ways of accounting for the vast gulfs that can separate an artist’s life from his or her art: the psychological and the spiritual.

Tomalin, in her fascinating biography of Dickens, plainly felt she’d found one of the first kind. She was delighted to have been able to quote Dostoevsky’s account of his conversation with Dickens whom he met, apparently, on his visit to London in 1862. It seems to shed so much light on the relationship between the man and his art (page 322):

The person he [the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand. or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine … in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather. what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. ‘From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.’ ‘Only two people?’ I asked.

Tomalin’s comments below show that this could be gold, though it’s clear she feels the insights Dickens has shared seem slightly improbable given the slender nature of the acquaintance (ibid):

This is an amazing report, and if Dostoevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was aware of drawing his evil characters from a part of himself that he disapproved of and yet could not control. Dostoevsky’s Dickens reminds us of Eleanor Picken‘s, now one sort of man, now another, the mood-swinging, the charm turning to aggression, the fun that gets out of hand.

In a Sunday Times article she revealed that there is now considerable doubt over the authenticity of this account and it will be relegated to a footnote in future editions. The trail back to the original documents breaks down, and Dickens was only in London for two days during the Russian novelist’s visit. They did have a common language in which to communicate though as both were proficient in French. I thought it worth including as a plausible account of how the black and white world of heroes and villains in some of Dickens’ novels could’ve been rooted in the flaws and virtues of his own character.

While Dostoevsky’s comments can be seen as describing what’s happening during the creative act, in this case of a novelist, it doesn’t really help us understand how a Dickens would have arrived at that place or why. They are compatible with those accounts which see human beings as having a dual potential: angelic and satanic. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá summarises this and we can see clearly how the spiritual, the  psychological and the creative can overlap in this domain:

What is inspiration? It is the influx of the human heart. But what are satanic promptings which afflict mankind? They are the influx of the heart also. How shall we differentiate between them? The question arises, How shall we know whether we are following inspiration from God or satanic promptings of the human soul?

(Foundations of World Unity: page 46-47)

These questions are crucial. The idea of ‘inspiration’ lies at the heart of our exploration of creative writing. The dual potential we find here needs some unpacking in this context. One way among many is to look at the matter of the heart which is really the heart of the matter.

Elsewhere I have dealt at some length with the concept of the heart as a mirror (see the first three links below). Various factors too complex to go into here can cause us to make two kinds of interacting mistake. We can turn the mirror to those areas of experience that degrade us as human beings: that’s the first mistake. Then we can also identify with what we experience reflected in our heart: that is the second and by far the greater mistake. To do so can make a mistake even out of reflecting higher things because we come to think that we are what we are turned towards and become proud of the glory we find there as though it were our own.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear. (For source of image see link)

Great art is capable of reflecting both these areas of experience without making the mistake of identifying with either of them. This results in the breath-taking balance of Shakespeare’s art where he depicts evil and the suffering its causes without, in his greatest work, losing perspective and descending into a theatre of cruelty that seems to enjoy the horror. He combines compassion and detachment to an astonishing degree.

It is hard to find the man behind the characters. Perhaps we are lucky that we know so little of his true biography that we cannot expose the discrepancy between the life and the art in his case as in that of Dickens, or perhaps his life was more of a piece with his art. I’d like to think so, though recent evidence that he hoarded grain at times when people were starving suggests otherwise.

We are no nearer understanding, though, why some people identify so closely with their own narrow interests that they ride roughshod over others, either in the name of their art or simply to gratify a whim, while others can rise above their own perspective and embrace the views and needs of others with life-enhancing compassion, not just in their art but in their lives as well.

Temporary states of mind induced by periods of threat or stress are not what we’re after here. We’re looking for traits of character rather than states of mind. In that case, early experience as well as inherited temperament are bound to play a part. But is there something about high levels of creative skill that forges an inescapable life-time link with self-centredness?

Does a selfless artist seem the exception because egotism is needed before great art can emerge? How else, we might ask, is a genius going to persist so obsessively with the thousands of hours of intensive practice that the fostering of such a gift requires (see link below to post about effort)? The high levels of drive that seem so essential to great success in any field in our society seem to correlate with a high degree of self-centredness. But is that just because we live in a culture that cultivates and rewards the ruthlessly competitive?

It is perhaps impossible to prove it either way at this point in human history. Maitreyabandhu, whom I have quoted at length in two previous posts (see last two in the list below), has a subtle take on this whole issue that suggests that this binding chain is not only breakable, it may even be undermining an artist’s ability to rise to the highest levels of achivement in his or her chosen field.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in this Autumn’s Poetry Review pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

The Kellys derive a similar idea from Myers when they speak of ‘subliminal uprush.’ If we are to move as a species from our present level of functioning, both as individuals and as societies, it is to be hoped that the vision unfolded in Maitreyabandhu’s Buddhist approach as well as those of other spiritual traditions, including that of the Bahá’í Faith, will prove within our reach. The day when great artistic skill and noble character consistently combine to produce works of uplifting genius, we will know our culture has achieved true integrity.

I believe that to be possible but I don’t for one moment  think it will be easy, so deeply are we convinced that great creativity in any field sadly but almost invariably flourishes best in the soil of extreme egotism.

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