Archive for the ‘Art & Writing’ Category

Artex Explorer

Read Full Post »

The Mind’s Web

Read Full Post »

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.


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.


[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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

. . . 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…


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.


[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.

Read Full Post »

Read Full Post »

Part of one of the four Traherne Windows in Audley Chapel, Hereford Cathedral, created by stained-glass artist Tom Denny. (For source of image see link)

. . . . reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

“Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?”

(Bahá’u’lláh Seven Valleys & Four Valleys 1978 US Edition – page 34)

When I was replacing the books of Chinese and Japanese poetry back on my shelves, after my earlier post, I found a pamphlet, The Eye of Innocence, dating back to 2003. I had no memory at all of the Traherne Festival it refers to.

I’ve always had a place in my heart for the poems of Herbert and Marvell, who were writing during the same period as Traherne. In fact, I took the liberty of imitating, but not copying, Herbert’s style and verse form in a poem that attempted to capture my feelings on discovering the Bahá’í Faith after about 20 years of atheism/agnosticism.

The Herbert Poem was Love (III).Mine was Thief in the Night, written in the early 80s but not published in any form until after 2006.

Though mine sounds strained in comparison to Herbert’s, the intensity reflects the strength of my feeling about the unexpected conversion experience at the time. An earlier blog post explores other influences operating unconsciously at the time to shape its imagery. Often, it seems, even the writer does not fully understand their own poem.

I thought Traherne’s only interesting poem was the one beginning ‘I saw Eternity the other night,’ only to discover fairly soon, in my recent investigations, that Traherne hadn’t written it at all: it was Henry Vaughan’s.

Not a good place to start from really.

Anyway I read my way through the pamphlet, fascinated by the poems quoted, but equally intrigued by the passages of prose. Even more startling was the story of how the poems were discovered after his death.

How long do you think it took to find them? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty maybe? Well, he was born in Hereford about 1637 and died in Middlesex in 1674: the main body of his poetry and prose did not begin to surface till 1896-97, a mere 222 years afterwards:[1]

It is the winter of 1896-7. Mr William Brooke is rooting around on the street bookstalls of London looking for interesting literature. In Whitechapel, and Farringdon Road, for a few pence he buys two handwritten manuscripts, one poetry and one prose, in the same hand, but with no author.

After some research Brooke concludes that they are the work of Thomas Traherne and publishes the poems in 1903. Though an agnostic himself, he saw their value which he described in his introduction:[2]

Men of all faiths, even of no faith, may study them with profit, and derive from them a new impulse towards that ‘plain living and high thinking’ by which alone happiness can be reached and peace of mind assured.

Even though his poetry clearly anticipates three of my other much-read poets – Blake of the Songs of Innocence & Experience,Wordsworth of Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, and Gerard Manley Hopkins – I had not bothered to read the small selection of his poems at the end of my Norton Critical Edition of the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets. What a mistake!

Infinity and Eternity

Blake touches powerfully on themes of relevance to Traherne.

For example his Auguries of Innocence famously begins:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Traherne is similarly preoccupied with infinity:[3]

The Heaven of Infancy

It’s Wordsworth’s powerful, and to modern materialistic ears counterintuitive, portrayal of childhood that Traherne seems to anticipate so uncannily. A key stanza from Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, published in 1807 reads:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Traherne got there before him, and threw eternity in for good measure:[4]And many of his other poems, The Salutation for example, dealt with the same theme [ibid]:If we take this second quote literally it sounds quite narcissistic. However, in the context of what we know of his life and what we read in his poems and prose as a whole, I am more inclined to see him as writing about the human predicament as a whole. What he writes is therefore meant to apply to everyone. Sadly the vast majority of us, especially now in the West where capitalist materialism holds sway, are never likely to remember such experiences even if we ever had them, as studies of what are termed reincarnation experiences confirm. Too many children who report such experiences in the so-called ‘developed’ world, are talked out of them so that they fade away until they become irretrievable for most of those who experienced them.[5]

Traherne’s experience was in some ways not dissimilar to this, as he describes in the compilation of his prose:[6]

The first Light which shined in my infancy in its Primitive and Innocent Clarity was totally ecclypsed; insomuch that I was fain to learn all again. If you ask me how it was ecclypsed? Truly by the Customs and maners of Men, which like Contrary Winds blew it out: by an innumerable company of other Objects, rude vulgar and Worthless Things that like so many loads of Earth and Dung did over whelm and Bury it: by the Impetuous Torrent of Wrong Desires in all others whom I saw or knew that carried me away and alienated me from it… And at last all the Celestial Great and Stable Treasures to which I was born, as wholy forgotten, as if they had never been.

He was fortunate, though, to rediscover what could so easily have been permanently lost, a recovery that his poetry is focused on celebrating.


Last of all we come to nature. In this respect Traherne does not so much anticipate John Clare, a highly regarded self-taught poet of nature, writing at the time of the Enclosures – his connection with Gerard Manley Hopkins is much closer, given the shared spirituality of their priesthood.

Here’s Hopkins, in God’s Grandeur written in 1877, positive about nature but as disenchanted with worldly contaminants as Traherne, even though he could never have read him:Or again in Pied Beauty:Traherne is less concretely specific in his imagery but nonetheless his ardent love of nature displays the same intensity:[7]Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Elizabeth Jennings, a poet I’ve also explored on this blog, was also a fan.

It should be no surprise, then, to hear that I plan to acquaint myself more deeply with Traherne’s prose as well as his poetry – better late than never. It may be somewhat delayed as a trip to Hay-on-Wye to scour its rich mines of second-hand books could be indefinitely postponed by Covid-19 containment measures. Still, ‘such light griefs are not a thing to die on.’[8]

Is God laughing now, I wonder? I’ve lost count of the plans I’ve made that got lost somewhere on the road.

[1]. The Eye of Innocence – page 4.
[2]. The Eye of Innocence – page 7.
[3]. My Spirit from George Herbert & the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets – page 191.
[4].  Wonder from George Herbert & the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets – page 182.
[5]. For more detail see James G. Matlock’s book, Signs of Reincarnation
[6]. Centuries 3.7 quoted in The Eye of Innocence pamphlet – page 27.
[7]. Wonder from George Herbert & the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets – page 182.
[8] Byron’s Don Juan: Canto II – stanza xvi.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »