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Mirror of the DivineHow is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

To explore further this issue of whether or not there is a self beneath the flux of consciousness with some hope of clarity, I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

The No Self Issue

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, and that reductionist explanations are missing the point, where does this leave us?

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

I am reminded here of the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander. I have dealt elsewhere on this blog with books that explore near death experiences (NDEs) in a more scientific way (see above links). I have chosen to quote here from one person’s experience partly because it is more appropriate to this examination of literature and also because it counterbalances Harris’s one-person account. If sceptics are happy to accept Harris’s conclusions from his experience, I can see no reason for me not to accept Alexander’s.

I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

Proof-of-HeavenHe, as a sceptical scientist, on the basis of his very different experience, made a different decision from that of Harris.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, as Harris is, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?

Well, I think they bridge the gap between what Harris describes and what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us (Tablets: page 730):

Know thou for a certainty that in the divine worlds the spiritual beloved ones will recognize one another, and will seek union with each other, but a spiritual union. Likewise a love that one may have entertained for anyone will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom, nor wilt thou forget there the life that thou hadst in the material world.

How come?

For a start, it shows someone conscious but without any memory for who he is – awareness stripped of self, in the terms we are using here. This leaves me feeling it maps onto, even if it goes beyond, the state of mind Harris describes.

So, with at least some resemblance to an extreme meditative state, it takes us one step further. It demonstrates consciousness without a brain. The coma has helpfully disconnected his brain, without any need for him to learn how to do it himself via meditation, and yet he is still aware.

Even more amazing is that, with his brain shut down, he has been able to retain detailed memories of a rich week-long experience and begin the process of reintegrating it into his brain-bound identity.

Equally surprisingly, a consciousness he didn’t know but which clearly knew him, a survivor of the body’s death, connects with him. Even though, in this NDE Alexander has forgotten who he is, and therefore does not confirm that aspect of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, the consciousness of his dead sister had obviously retained a sense of who she had been and what her relationships were, even when there had been no interaction physically with Alexander during her mortal life. It seems legitimate to assume that, if Alexander’s experience is a precursor to an eternal afterlife, there would be time for him to reconnect with memories of who he was.

What has all this got to do with los Solitarios and Lehrer’s ideas about the novel?

Just to clarify, I am not simplistically concluding that all the Solitarios are equally reductionist. Pessoa, Machado and Rilke each have their own more spiritual take on reality at times. What I am suggesting here is that Proust and Beckett, along with other modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, have fallen into the modernist trap to some degree.

Why do I call it a trap?

Once we deny any form of spiritual or transcendent reality it is only a short step to concluding that life has no meaning beyond what we arbitrarily give to it. Beckett’s existential despair becomes a predictable symptom, as does what Richard Davenport-Hines summarized as the degenerative, secularised squalor of the world Proust saw around him and depicted in his work.

A further consequence of this world picture is a powerful sense of alienation. This adds to the dispiriting bleakness of life as experienced through this lens. Both Beckett and Proust lived lives that were profoundly disconnected from the social world around them. I am on dangerous ground here if I simplistically attribute this disconnection only to their materialistic approach to the world. My other Solitarios are equally alienated from the social world but, with the possible exception of Rilke, do not inhabit as bleak a subjective reality. My contention is that the combination of a tendency to extreme introversion combined with a reductionist worldview is a toxic prescription for despair. As such the literature it engenders will render a seriously distorted view of existence.

If their versions of reality are unbalanced, what to do?

Is the novel, part of Beckett’s and all of Proust’s greatest work, an inherently materialist form? Is the same true of drama as well, so no get-out for Beckett there? Is only poetry suitable for and tending towards spiritual matters, hence the difference that exists between these two novelists and the work of Rilke, Machado and Pessoa?

The quality of Beckett’s and Proust’s writing is indisputable: the deficiencies of their moral and spiritual perspective create significant flaws in their overall achievement. What, if any, might be the remedy?

Beckett clearly felt there was none.

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

Reading Proust is less of a journey into an existential Arctic. However, although he has a strong sense of what he feels is right, the world his work explores has lost its moral compass a long time ago.

Three novels immediately spring to mind as having combined darkness with light in  a more balanced way.

tenant-of-wildfell-hallI recently drew attention to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The journal of the heroine is a disturbing description of an abusive marriage. Helen mistakenly marries the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington, and laments (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Her novel integrates her faith with her art in way that adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

Bahiyyih-Nakhjavani-009

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: another book that comes close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Mucha brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih(“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

I must also include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

It clearly can be done, and, if those three books are anything to go by, a strong focus on the consciousness of the characters depicted does not require a reductionist approach. These novels are very much in the tradition of Joyce, Beckett and Proust in this respect. But they do not lack a sense of the spiritual or transcendent also.

In addition, for me at least, they combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in my memory. If an author strays too far from some form of narrative it is possible he might diminish the long-term impact of his book on the reader.

Interestingly, all three books are by women authors.

Art, in my view, should create an experience that deepens our understanding of reality without unduly distorting it. Paradoxically, feminine writers are more effective in that respect than masculine ones, it seems. (It may be that ultimately I mean writers of a female cast of mind regardless of ostensible gender.)

Anyhow, when I now ponder on my current pantheon of novelists, women outnumber men. Jane Austen, the Brontês, Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot), Elizabeth Gaskell, Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantell, A S Byatt, Margaret Attwood, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and Marilynne Robinson, to name but the most important to me, leave Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Doestoyevsky trailing forlornly in the rear.

This realisation has come as a bit of a shock to me. I hadn’t expected it to turn out quite such a one-sided contest. It was not always thus – it’s only since I recently realised that Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray amongst others, have fallen from grace in my mind’s eye over the years.

I need to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of some of the authors I’ve just mentioned before I leap to a firm conclusion that those with a feminine cast of mind seem to hold the balance between spirit and matter, plot and consciousness, better on the whole than those whose orientation is more macho.

Whatever the truth of the gender idea may be, that at least some writers can achieve this balance confirms it is not impossible, and, if we believe as I do, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, for the reasons I have given throughout this blog, then art has a duty to incorporate it into its representations of experience. It does not need to do so explicitly, any more than The Handmaid’s Tale has to spell out in detail the moral code that condemns the abuses it depicts but the moral code has to at least be implicit and not completely absent.

Well, that new slant on things has made my rather demoralising exploration of Proust and Beckett well worthwhile.

There will soon be more on the value of the feminine perspective.

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South American silver

Rich deposits of silver were discovered in South America in 1545 and exploited by the Spanish conquistadors. Photograph: Images Group/Rex/Shutterstock

I’ve just bought the book that is reviewed in this recent Guardian article by Mark O’Connell. It is proving even more compelling, than I thought it would be from the review.  Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.

Raj Patel and Jason W Moore illustrate a ruinous economic system that benefits a minority class.

In the early pages of their book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason W Moore ask us to consider the McNugget as the reigning symbol of the modern era. One of their central contentions is that we are no longer living in the Holocene, but in a new geological era they refer to as the Capitalocene – the currently fashionable term “Anthropocene”, they argue, suggests that our current state of ecological emergency is merely the result of humans doing what humans do, whereas the reality is that it flows out of the specific historical phenomenon of capitalism. As a term, then, Capitalocene is designed to nudge us away from evolutionary determinism, and from a sense of collective culpability for climate change, towards an understanding of the way in which the destruction of nature has largely been the result of an economic system organised around a minority class and its pursuit of profit. “We may all be in the same boat when it comes to climate change,” as they put it, “but most of us are in steerage.”

Patel and Moore’s essential argument is that the history of capitalism, and therefore of our current mess, can be usefully viewed through the lens of cheapness. (An earlier, more knottily theoretical work of eco-Marxism by Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, argues that “cheap nature” is as central an imperative of capitalism as cheap labour.)

. . .

One of the most persuasive aspects of Patel and Moore’s argument, in this sense, is their demonstration of the extent to which capitalism’s reliance on cheap labour is itself reliant on what they call cheap care – the domestic work mostly performed for nothing, and mostly by women, that is rarely factored into the cost of labour. Capitalism has created a binary opposition between this care work and the “real work” it makes possible. “Writing a history of work without care work,” they write, “would be like writing an ecology of fish without mentioning the water. It’d be possible, in a limited fashion, but, once you’d realised the omission, hard to continue.”

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Cronin Beckett

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

At the end of the last post there was a pointer to suggest that it would not be wise to adopt a simplistic approach to Beckett, the man. Cronin, his biographer, had met met Beckett and what he found surprised him (pages 478-79) because ‘the powerful impact of his work’ conveyed ‘an impression of rejection of the world’s affairs and even of its comforts, a sardonic asceticism if not quite a saintly resignation.’ In addition, ‘there was a growing legend of an enigma, a solitary who despised or was indifferent to the joys, such as they were, of ordinary human association.’ And what happened? Cronin states ‘I met instead an agreeable, courteous, indeed almost affable man.’

There does seem a consensus, though, that his later writings at least are unremittingly bleak.

Beckett

The dark side of Beckett’s life was very much reflected in his work.

At the very beginning, when Beckett was transitioning from religion to writing, there was a soon to be eradicated tinge of transcendence (page 147):

[Of his book on Proust Cronin writes that] Although this opportunity to attribute a transcendental belief to Proust is passed up there is certainly a general impression of an attitude to art which partakes of a sort of religious fervour, or rather an attempt to make a sort of surrogate religion art. This attempt is not uncommon among hitherto religious young people who discover art at the same time as they are in the process of abandoning religion.

It didn’t take long before his inherent pessimism kicked this into touch (page 307):

In his vision at its starkest, nothing really changes. As one cause succeeds another, calling for meaningless loyalties and betrayals, we get deeper into the mire. ‘We belong to suffering,’ [says one of his characters].

This was made even more painful in what he saw (page 398) ‘as the artist’s special burden and torment, the categorical imperative to create when combined with the impossibility of creation.’ The effect of this take on creativity was not all bad though (page 374) in the sense that ‘in the work of no other author does hatred for the necessity of creating a fiction shine through so clearly or is the detestation of that necessity expressed with so mordant a wit.’

Kenneth Tynan expressed the opinion (page 448) that ‘for the author of Godot’ passing the time in the dark ‘is not only what drama is about but also what life is about.’

Perhaps the most important factor in shaping Beckett’s art was his insight, after his unpublished early work, that (page 359) ‘instead of writing about that exterior world he should have written about the inner world, with its darkness, its ignorance, its uncertainty.’

Beckett playsOthers, such as Proust, Joyce and Woolf, made the same choice, without ending up in the same place as Beckett did. His decision carried other complicating factors that impacted upon the pattern of his writing:

From this point on there would be an entire abandonment of pretence of any kind, including the ordinary fictive pretences of plot, a total renunciation of all certainties, including philosophic certainties of any kind; and there would instead be a reiteration of ignorance, a restitution to their rightful place in his work of the uncertainties and confusion of which life was made up.

This almost inevitably meant that ‘the mode for such a reiteration and restitution would be the only possible one: first person monologue.’

The bleak legacy of his vision of life did not stop there (page 364): ‘something else would now be banished besides plot and description – something that might be called the hope of salvation.’ And this banishment was unqualified (page 365 – my emphasis) for ‘in the novels and plays Beckett was to write there would be neither the hope nor the fear of any outcome.… Nobody would be found wanting because all Beckett’s characters have already been found wanting. There is no hope for them.’

Cronin has no problem with where this takes us (pages 378-79:

. . . reduced as his characters are to the extreme simplicities of need and satisfaction, indeed by virtue of the fact that they are so reduced, Beckett does succeed in laying bare much of the reality of human situation as well as the grossness of its perhaps necessary illusions.

He seems to accept that life is as meaningless as Beckett felt it was. We’re in the realm of extreme existentialism here: life is meaningless even though we cannot help creating meanings to help us live.

He endorses Beckett’s vision as more authentic than most of the work that preceded him (page 383): ‘. . . one could argue that the Beckett man, in all his abysmal aspects, is ‘truer’ to humanity’s real lineaments than most of what has gone before.’ His conclusion is that (page 384):

For 3000 years the bias of literature had been tilted one way, towards the heroic and the lyrical-poetic. Now it has been tilted the other, a process which began with the appearance of the first modern anti-heroes and culminated in Beckett.

Even at this point, such a position runs into serious problems. For example, Cronin lauds Beckett for his honourable uncertainty. Such a degree of uncertainty would be incompatible with a belief that all is meaningless. We may not be able to reach a firm conclusion that there is a meaning and decide definitely what that meaning is, but we would similarly not be able to conclude there is no meaning at all. A secondary problem is that someone’s position of stoic nihilism dismisses the rest of us as deluded and contains more than a hint of arrogance. I am all in favour of Keats’ doctrine of ‘negative capability’ and the need to resist ‘irritably reaching after fact,’ but that is not the same thing as nihilism at all. I will be returning to an examination of this later in the sequence.

Beckett Novels

It is interesting that Rilke, one of my solitarios, confronted his inner emptiness and, according to Robert Hass in his introduction to the Stephen Mitchell translations of the poems (page xvi), sought ‘to find, in art, a way to transform the emptiness, the radical deficiency, of human longing into something else.’

Probably the simplest summing up comes towards the end of the book (page 451) When Cronin writes that, in a review, René Lalou lists those critics ‘who had been among the first to hail Waiting for Godot’and ‘proclaim the value of this tragedy of despair not even lit by a glimmer of consciousness.’ Lalou referred to Beckett’s ‘constant use of monologue as an artistic technique, his implacably pessimistic vision and his insistence on the degrading functions of the human body.’

A few additional points may again be worth making.

The first of these paves the way towards Proust (page 182)

. . . few things are more striking about Beckett than his willingness to abandon himself to the life of memory, both in young manhood and later on. Most of the events of life may have been ‘occasions of fiasco’ as they occurred; but the subsequent remembrance of them was nevertheless more tolerable than present existence could ever be.

The second simply amplifies on the dilemma residing in his persistent creativity in the face of his sceptical pessimism (page 375): ‘ The object of the fiction must be truth of some sort; but by definition it is necessarily a lie.’

The last idea points to where he is absolutely different from Proust (page 376):

He yearned for silence, the blank white page, the most perfect thing of all. . . [He felt] more intensely than others that the object of true, achieved and necessary utterance is silence…

The consequence of this being that (pages 376-77) ‘his works would after a certain point get shorter and shorter.’

Night at the MajesticProust

Proust’s relationship with his writing was perceived by his contemporaries as damaging (page 284) in that Dr Maurice Bize felt that ‘Proust was killing himself by overwork,’ and he is reported to have said to his servant, Céleste, (page 303) ‘only when I have finished my work, will I start looking after myself.’ This attitude extended to the minor aspects of self-care as well. Jaloux (page 304) spoke of Proust’s ‘miserable little under-furnished room that testified to his indifference to comfort.’ François Mauriac expressed it rather dramatically in saying (page 305) ‘We must reflect on the extraordinary fate of a creator who was devoured by his own creation…’

His aim was to focus almost exclusively on his writing after his mother’s death (page 83) when he:

sought (during the seventeen years of life that remained to him) to confine himself in a Noah’s Ark of his own devising. . . His life in the Ark helped to preserve the immediacy of his vision of people, objects and sensations.

He (page 91) ‘believed it was the only way he could discover the meaning beneath appearances: that is, to create great art.’

His most celebrated contribution to the novel are his madeleine moments, when a sensation such as taste can trigger a flood of memories (page 98):

These sudden intuitions of a moment are presented with pictorial vividness, and were intended to be as beautiful and suggestive as Old Master paintings… [They] were tantamount to a series of religious revelations, as Middleton Murray wrote in a tribute after Proust’s death, ‘this modern of the moderns . . . had a mystical strain in his composition.

In that sense he is inspiring the work of Joyce, Beckett and Woolf, fellow explorers of the recesses of consciousness.

LehrerJonah Lehrer, in his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, focuses his discussion of Proust particularly on this part of his legacy. He explains that Proust (page 77) believed that ‘only the artist was able to describe reality as it was actually experienced’ and that (page 78) ‘the nineteenth century novel, with its privileging of things over thoughts, had everything exactly backward.’ Proust had concluded that (page 81) ‘only by meticulously retracing the loom of our neural connections… can we understand ourselves, for we are our loom, adding that ‘Proust gleaned all of this wisdom from an afternoon tea.’

Proust was ahead of his time, Lehrer argues, in other ways as well. He believed that (page 82) ‘our recollections were phoney. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications. Take the madeleine. Proust realised that the moment we finished eating the cookie,… we begin working the memory of the cookie to fit our own personal narrative.’ Lehrer contends that (page 85) ‘Proust presciently anticipated the discovery of memory reconsolidation. For him, memories were like sentences: they were things you never stopped changing.’ Lehrer quotes the incontrovertible evidence that our memories are subject to constant editing and reediting.

Richard Davenport-Hines essentially concurs (page 128), quoting Proust when he wrote ‘the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths…’

There are other characteristics of Proust’s art that need adding into this mix. Davenport-Hines feels (page 103) that:

Temps Perdu is the work of an implacable and often anguished moralist who scorned the ways that people‘s conversation and behaviour were usually directed, regardless of their class, by neither the desire to be good nor to be truthful, but by the wish to affirm by their words the sort of people they wanted to be taken for.

He clinically dissects his contemporary world (page 104) ‘in scenes of social comedy and of moral tragedy.’ Proust exposed ‘the babbling, hypocritical, corrupt, decadent tendencies – the negative mass psychology – of his secularised age.’

Davenport-Hines sees Proust’s treatment of homosexuality as a trope (page 139) in that ‘Temps Perdu. . . placed homosexuality more centrally in human experience than any previous novel or treatise, and used it to demonstrate the degenerative squalor of human emotions,’ and used it as (page 183) ‘a secularised representation of humankind‘s fall from grace.’ It was a brave move to make at that point in history, and Proust was anxious about its impact on the acceptance of his novel and his own reputation after the publication of the fourth volume of his sequence. His choice would be viewed rather differently were he writing now.

His jaundiced view of humanity was not confined to sexuality though, it seems (page 216) given that, as Davenport-Hines argues ‘his interests focused on degenerative processes. His fiction is a prolonged study of class degeneration, of moral degeneration and of physical degeneration.’

This helicopter view of their lives and art leaves us with a number of serious questions. These will have to wait till next time. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete.

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 … the artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity attained at a given point in his life, along with the characteristics he may have assimilated from his national culture, his local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.

(Ludwig Tulman in Mirror of the Divine page 118)

Cronin BeckettAt the end of the last post, after exploring my plan to spend time reading the works of los Solitarios Pessoa, Machado and Rilke once more, I indicated that the distraction of Samuel Beckett in Cronin’s biography and Marcel Proust in a chapter of Lehrer’s book turned out to be too hard to resist, after my attempt at decluttering brought them to light again. I was checking to see if my not having read them for years meant that I could take them to the charity shop. As soon as I opened them I was doomed to read them from cover to cover.

What follows tries to pin down the power of their attraction in the context I found them, while also explaining why I don’t feel tempted to immerse myself further in their work. An obvious point to make before I even start is that they both have a characteristic they share with los Solitarios. I’ll leave you to work out what that is as my exploration unfolds. It partly explains why the shift was so easy.

I read Cronin on Beckett first, though I was still dipping into Pessoa’s Book of Disquietude at the same time. In the end the experience of both was profoundly dispiriting.

So what was my initial derailing attraction to Beckett?

With him it was Fred Mires, the psychologist in me, that got hooked. His take on life was so dark I was keen to understand where it came from. And when I came to look at Proust the feeling was not quite the same but along the same lines.

Lehrer led me onto Richard Davenport-Hines’s A Night at the Majestic, where I found a wealth of information. Unless otherwise specified all the Beckett quotes are from Anthony Cronin, and the Proust quotes from Richard Davenport-Hines.

The Darkness

In what way was it dark?

According to Cronin, in his biography (page 463):

. . . he declared his belief that it was difficult to be anything other than unhappy for more than a few minutes at a time ‘with the help of dope, or work, or music, or the other’ – the other being, presumably, sex.

He believed that (page 143):

The common state of humanity is suffering and if our sensibility were not dulled by habit we would feel it to an almost unbearable extent.

BeckettThis bleakness has to be counterbalanced by other considerations including Barbara Bray’s perception of the man (page 518). She thought he had ‘a great capacity for enjoyment – a capacity inseparable from his fineness and keenness of perception.’ However, this very ‘fineness of perception’ amounted, in her view, to ‘hyperaesthesia, or specially heightened consciousness’ and this ‘made him suffer more than most people did in company or circumstances which were antipathetic to him.’ His humour and his insight helped him counterbalance this, so that ‘unlike other hypersensitive people he would not allow himself to go to pieces or to be blown off course because of it.’

The hyperaesthesia point could easily be applied to Proust as well (page 215): ‘ his senses were not like those other people,’ wrote Sydney Schiff. ‘ lying in the shuttered and curtained room, the walls of which were lined with cork to prevent noises reaching him, he seemed to know everything that went on outside.’ This must have helped his thirst for information about others. Proust (page 263) apparently had ‘an intrusive, apparently, undiscriminating inquisitiveness about other peoples personal details.’

Proust’s darkness though was of a rather different and perhaps less likable kind than Beckett’s (page 264): ‘Testy self-pity was another trait’ of his.

For Beckett, in addition, there is the influence of his long-term partner and eventual wife, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil (page 326):

All Beckett’s later statements about the changes produced in him by co-habitation with Suzanne were on the lines of ‘she made a man out of me,’ or ‘she rescued me.’ He spoke of his neurotic state, his utter in inactivity, his habit of staying in bed half the day and – – – of Suzanne as having changed all that.

This darkness ran deep even so (page 388):

. . . His own basic problem in regards to existence was an inclination to doubt its very nature. . . . A phrase he used to describe it was ‘existence by proxy,’ the inability to take a step without feeling that someone else was taking it. In most situations one went through the motions while having a feeling of ‘being absent’…

Combined with his possible hyperaesthesia, this seems the likeliest cause of his social withdrawal, his other most prominent character trait (page 140):

[For Beckett] Yeats’s figures were sad, solitary beings who inherited a landscape which cared nothing for them and reflected back none of their feelings. He expressed Beckett’s own sense of human alienation…

This though is also related to his writer’s craft (page 364):

The sensation of being apart while in company is not confined to literary artist, . . . but it is commoner among such artists than among others; and Beckett, who sometimes had doubts about his own literal existence except perhaps as a consciousness, had it more strongly than most.

Marcel_Proust_1900-2This certainly applied to Proust (page 93): ‘Each of us, Proust insisted, is irretrievably trapped in inviolable solitude.’ It took its toll on him and those who cared about him (page 295) in that ‘his fatalism, his refusal of care, anguished those who loved him.’

Cronin also refers to (page 106): ‘[Beckett’s] general narcissism and quietism, his preference for what took place in his own mind rather than the outer, real world, with its contingencies, its disturbances of inner tranquillity, its futile exercises of will and ambition.’

I’ll come back to this in more detail soon, not least because this is close to the core of Proust’s approach to his writing.

One last point needs to be made about Proust, something which links him most strongly with another of the solitaries, Rilke, but also to Beckett to some extent.

Despite a surface sociability, Proust despised social interaction (page 127): he insisted that ‘chatter is spiritually depleting, and that the social impulse achieves only mediocrity.’ Even more significantly (page 128) he depicted friendship as trivial, ugly and dependent on those polite lies that are socially indispensable yet spiritually catastrophic.

It is Beckett himself who clarifies this further in his own terms (pages 128-29 – A Night at the Majestic🙂

‘Friendship, according to Proust,’ Beckett explained in his perceptive Proust monograph of 1931, ‘is the negation of that irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned. Friendship implies an almost piteous acceptance of face values.’

Rilke Selected PoemsJust in case it again might seem that I am cherry picking from a couple of lives to reach conclusions that don’t extend beyond them, I’ll just take a brief detour into Rilke, for an even more disquieting dislocation from sociability. I am quoting here from Robert Hass’s introduction to Stephen Mitchell’s translations of the poetry.

A woman artist, Paula Becker, for whom he cared deeply, died of an embolism after being consigned to her bed for 18 days after giving birth to her daughter, Mathilde. Hass writes (page xxxi) that ‘when the social claims seemed to kill Paula Becker’ Rilke was confirmed in ‘his belief that life was the enemy of art.’

There is something deeply perverse about this statement, though it may reflect Hass’s interpretation of Rilke rather than Rilke himself. A complete dislocation from life would obviously wreck the art. Hass has probably overstated the case here. However, it is true that an asocial perspective was a deeply embedded trait (page xxxii):

He did not trust relationships, but the truth was that he did not have much capacity for them either.

Hass seeks to defend Rilke from the charge of narcissism (pages xxxii-xxxiii):

It would be wrong to conclude from this… that Rilke was simply narcissistic, if we mean by that a person who looks lovingly into the shallow pool of himself. He was, if anything, androgynous.

By this Hass means:

the pull inwards, the erotic pull of the other we sense buried in the self. … Rilke … was always drawn, first of all and finally, to the mysterious fact of his own existence. His own being was otherness to him.

It is hard though to accept this defence when Hass concludes (page xxxiv):

This is the answer to the question of Rilke’s attitude towards human relationships. It is not that he was not involved, intensely and intimately, with other people. He was, all his life. But he always drew back from those relationships because, for him, the final confrontation was always with himself. And it is partly because he was such a peculiarly solitary being that his poems have so much to teach us.

The question remains, though, ‘How far does the charge of narcissism, or at least of excessive self-preoccupation, apply to Beckett and Proust, and maybe the other solitarios as well? I’ll come back to that much later. For now it’s perhaps enough to add, on a related theme, that making art your god and seeing yourself as its priest, with all the self-glorification that involves, would be a dangerous decision to make.

From where did this darkness come?

Beckett's mother

Beckett’s mother

What more obvious place to start with than the mothers. Cronin places much of the blame for Beckett’s gloom on her (page 23):

[Mary Manning felt that] Sam was emotionally ‘under-nourished. He suffered from emotional malnutrition.’ . . . There is no doubt that May Beckett loved her son fiercely. Later on he would speak of her ‘savage loving,’ but somehow it did not come through to him as a child in the right way.

Even though Cronin’s book quotes many examples of where a destructive symbiosis may have been at work between them, I think it is also important to include the possibility of inherited temperament as a factor here. Though I am resisting the temptation to speculate as to what such a contribution might have been, I certainly do not think we should rule it out.

Proust’s background, as with Beckett, particularly in terms of his mother, clearly played a part in shaping his isolation (page 79):

The mutually intense and possessive relationship between Proust and his mother had reduced the likelihood that he would seek emotional fulfilment in conventional ways, and by the mid-1890s he was already an expert in the pains, longings and dreaminess of unreciprocated love. . .

His mother’s death effectively changed nothing:

Once Proust had accepted his vocation (after his mothers death in 1905) to write his great novel, he seems to have ensured more than ever that he remained unfulfilled and even twisted in his emotions.

Then he found (page 113) that ‘insignificant routines’ held ‘immense inherent importance in [his] universe: they provide the context that makes sense of mortality, memory and time.’

Was it all dark?

Before going on to look at what Cronin says about the effect of the man on the art, some general points are worth making.

Beckett had to persist almost beyond endurance in the struggle to get published. Cronin attributes this in part at least to (page 385) an ‘incomprehensible imperative to create,’ and points out that ‘it was beginning to look as if he would never have any other reason for writing than a dumb obedience to it.’ Beckett himself felt that his works ‘went out into a void and he heard no more about them.’ I think Cronin’s description of the trait that Beckett displayed during this period as ‘literary heroism of the highest order’ is not too much of an exaggeration.

When I come to look at the career of Proust something similar is to be seen.

Other traits are important to remember here (page 64): Cronin detects a ‘distrust of ideologies and isms and collective emotions, a belief in the individual’s truth as the only truth’ and feels that these ‘were the attitudes which Beckett was discovering in himself,’ as he battled on.

Interestingly Cronin met Beckett and what he found surprised him (pages 478-79) because ‘the powerful impact of his work’ conveyed ‘an impression of rejection of the world’s affairs and even of its comforts, a sardonic asceticism if not quite a saintly resignation.’ In addition, ‘there was a growing legend of an enigma, a solitary who despised or was indifferent to the joys, such as they were, of ordinary human association.’ And what happened? Cronin states ‘I met instead an agreeable, courteous, indeed almost affable man.’

For me a telling point, and the last one I will share for now, was his way of relating to Suzanne at the time of his long-term affair with Barbara Bray (page 505). He refused to leave Suzanne and even made her his beneficiary in his will, not least because of an awareness of the debt his art owed her. Cronin reports Pinter’s comments concerning Beckett’s loyalty to Suzanne:

Throughout the conversation Pinter felt that what he was saying was that it would be very difficult to leave Suzanne and that he would if he could but he simply could not be responsible for hurting anybody to that extent.

Night at the MajesticProust may not have shared that positive quality, at least in terms of his response to individuals (page 122):

Prince Antoine Bibesco depicted Proust as a heartless, inconstant friend who nevertheless showed compassion for collective human pain…

Even so, there were mitigating factors bequeathed him by his background (page 67):

A certain Jewish family piety, intensity of idealism and implacable moral severity, which never left Proust’s habits of self-indulgence and his worldly morality in peace, were among the fundamental elements of his nature,’ Edmund Wilson declared in his great study of Modernism, Axel’s Castle(1931).

Something else that lightened the darkness of his solitary path somewhat was his feeling (page 172) that ‘one does not need to journey to look at new landscapes so much as to look with new eyes.’

In the next post I’ll take a look at the relationship between their work and their lives as a whole.

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VirginiaWoolf

[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

In a previous sequence of posts I came to the tentative conclusion that Virginia Woolf was attempting, in her later fiction, to capture our consciousness as effectively as she could in words.

I didn’t follow this up immediately or systematically, as I had thought I might. Nothing new there then.

Instead, for reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post, I accidentally stumbled across another book that added weight to my conclusions.

Jonah Lehrer is very clearly in accord with my hesitant but hard-won conclusion (page 168):

In 1920,… Virginia Woolf announced in her diary: ‘I have finally arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel.’ Her new form would follow the flow of our consciousness, tracing the ‘flight of the mind’ as it unfolded in time.

What he goes on to say resonates so closely with my own experience as expanded on in my parliament of selves sequence, that it felt a bit weird to read it (page 177):

. . .the head holds a raucous parliament of cells that endlessly debate what sensations and feelings should become conscious… What we call reality is merely the final draft.

He adds that, in To the Lighthouse, the character Lily notes that every brain is crowded Lehrerwith at least two different minds. We’ll catch up with that idea again in a minute when I come to discuss Pessoa.

Just in case you feel I’m cherry-picking, I have another source that points in basically the same direction This is the introduction by Elaine Showalter to Mrs Dallawoy (Penguin Classics Edition).

She explains the process in terms of a philosopher’s perspective (page xx):

Bergson had … given guidance to writers seeking to capture the effects of emotional relativity, for he had suggested that a thought or feeling could be measured in terms of the number of perceptions, memories, and associations attached to it. For Woolf the external event is significant primarily for the way it triggers and releases the inner life. … Like other modernist writers experimenting with the representation of consciousness, Woolf was interested in capturing the flux of random associations…

DallowayThis resonates with developments in modern art at the time (Page xxi):

… it can be said that in trying to show us her characters from a variety of embedded viewpoints rather than from the fixed perspective of the omniscient narrator, Woolf ‘breaks up the narrative plane… as the Cubists broke up the visual plane.

This approach has clear advantages, in her view, over more traditional methods (page xix):

[Her narrative technique] can deepen our understanding and compassion for Woolf’s characters in the way an Edwardian omniscient narration might not achieve.

I think this may act as an unintended discount of the power of free indirect speech, an approach originally pioneered by Jane Austen in English, but also used brilliantly by Ford Madox Ford in his novels The Good Soldier (1915), and the Parade’s End tetralogy (1924–28). Still her point is none the less a valid one as the Edwardian era technically ended in 1910.

I don’t follow Lehrer in his next step though (page 172):

Woolf’s writing exposes the fact that we are actually composed of ever-changing impressions that are held together by the thin veneer of identity.

Although I accept that it can sometimes feel that way, Lehrer treats it as a fact. He quotes a modernist in support (page 176):

[T.S.Eliot] believed that the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the ‘unified soul’ simply because we didn’t have one.

And concludes (page 182):

The self is simply a work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity.

I’ll come back to my doubts about that later in the sequence.

MachadoI felt after my posts on her later novels that I would be exploring Virginia Woolf more. However, I found myself drawn instead to the inscapes of three poets who have always intrigued me: Machado, Pessoa and Rilke. This was triggered by the book I acquired on my India trip: The Forty Rules of Love. My earlier blog post explained how reading that book impelled me to feel that I should revisit spiritual poetry.

I really thought I was onto a theme that I would stick with. Why wouldn’t I? For a start there is a lot about death.

For example, Machado’s young wife’s death cast a long shadow over his life and led to some of his most powerful poetry. One short example will have to suffice.

Una noche de verano
—estaba abierto el balcón
y la puerta de mi casa—
la muerte en mi casa entró.
Se fue acercando a su lecho
—ni siquiera me miró—,
con unos dedos muy finos,
algo muy tenue rompió.
Silenciosa y sin mirarme,
la muerte otra vez pasó
delante de mí. ¿Qué has hecho?
La muerte no respondió.
Mi niña quedó tranquila,
dolido mi corazón,
¡Ay, lo que la muerte ha roto
era un hilo entre los dos!

I have made a fairly literal translation of it here.

One summer evening –
the balcony and the doors open –
death came into my house.
Approaching her bed
– not even seeing me –
with slender fingers
it tore something most delicate.
Silent and blind to me
death passed by again.
‘What have you done?’
Death made no reply.
As precious as my sight,
my child stayed silent
as my heart splintered.
What death had cut was
the thread between those two.

It is simple but, in my view, profound. The same is true for much of his poetry. There are other examples of my attempts to render him in English elsewhere on my blog which seem to suggest that he was grappling constantly with the need to find meaning in his pain, another bonding influence for me.

Hence my attraction to Pessoa, in his various heteronyms or subpersonalities. In late 2016 I had been triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):

Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.

PessoaBut that was not the magnet this time. I was interested to have a closer look at his Book of Disquietude. This was partly because the strongest quality these three poets seemed to share was their isolation, hence the title I have given this sequence. Pessoa was notoriously asocial, although he could fake sociability. The Book of Disquietude records his almost unrelenting focus on his inscape (page 58):

My only real concern has been my inner life.

This was perhaps what spawned his crowded cast of sub-personalities (page 59):

I have a world of friends inside me, with their own real, individual, imperfect lives.

But it came at a price (page 54):

I bore the weariness of having had a past, the disquietude of living the present and the tedium of having to have a future.

And this price was sometimes unbearable (page 62):

. . . today I woke up very early… suffocating from an inexplicable tedium.… It was a complete and absolute tedium, but founded on something. In the obscure depths of my soul, unknown forces invisibly waged a battle in which my being was the battleground, and I shook all over from the hidden clashing.

The last of this trio, Rilke, was similarly a loner, as Richard Zenith writes in his Rilkeintroduction to the Carcanet edition of Neue Gedichte (New Poems – page 15):

All poets can do harm to their fellow men and women in their own way; although Berryman subscribed … conscientiously… to the doctrine of our needs and duties… he created social and mental havoc on a scale which makes Rilke’s withdrawal from the usual demands of love and marriage seem – as indeed it was – a scrupulous necessity for his survival as a poet, a way of exercising his own sort of moral humanity. Rilke remained deeply attached to his wife and daughter, in spite of the fact that he could not and did not live with them, and was always anxious for their welfare.

Just as this fascinating exploration was getting off the ground, decluttering led me to discover two long neglected books in what turned out to be a fatal derailing of my plan. Did I hear someone echo Lady Macbeth, whispering ‘infirm of purpose’?

Next time I’ll try and explain why the distraction of Samuel Beckett, in Cronin’s biography, and Marcel Proust, in a chapter of Lehrer’s book, turned out to be so hard to resist, after my attempt at decluttering brought them to light again. I was checking to see if my not having read them for years meant that I could take them to the charity shop. As soon as I opened them I was doomed to read them from cover to cover. But further exploration of that will have to wait a while.

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Since vowing, in the wake of reading The 40 Rules of Love, to focus more on spiritual poetry, I have conspicuously failed to follow through. Yes, I’ve finished my volume of selected poems by Machado, dipped into a few of Eliot’s later poems, been diverted by very brief excursions into Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, and a far longer exploration of Samuel Beckett’s life (more of that in a minute), only to end by picking up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the intention of finishing it at last, after starting it more than 12 months ago. That was after the eye-opening experience of reading Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage. I baulked at reading on at the time because I wasn’t sure that I could handle the nightmare of Helen’s marriage as Emily has her depict it.

Maybe Auden was right when he said in his Letter to Lord Byron (Stanzas 13 and 14 of the first part), after mentioning Jane Austen:

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties.
Perhaps that’s why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.

The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.

I don’t really agree with that, and nor did he I think: I sense his tongue is firmly in his cheek. His other praise of novelists is similarly faint and less ambiguous when he writes ‘he must become the whole of boredom’ and ‘if he can,/Dully put up with all the wrongs of man.’

So, perhaps not surprisingly the novel still insists on commanding my attention.

While Anne Brontë’s dialogue seems sometimes improbable and slightly stilted, her insights into character and her deep understanding of the dynamics both between and within men and women at that time (and I would argue still) is masterly (sorry, but mistressly doesn’t seem to work – and consummate has the wrong connotations. Any other suggestions would be warmly welcomed.)

This is one of the novel’s great strengths.

I am gripped once again at the point where Helen begins to understand her mistake in marrying the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Faith is unfashionable these days. I completely understand why. On the one hand, the abuse of religious teachings by unscrupulous zealots is vilifying the whole idea of God. And on the other hand, worshipping the material world can bring immediate rewards. ‘Why waste time on religion? It’s an outdated and destructive delusion,’ we might say. ‘And damaging to the art of the writer.’

I disagree. Her novel integrates her faith with her art and that only adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: the only other book I can think of off-hand that comes anywhere close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Much, a brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih (“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

On further reflection I must include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. Even so, I do remember enjoying being involved in a production of Waiting for Godot many years ago when working at Kilburn Polytechnic. As I recall we emphasised the comic music hall aspects rather than the existential angst. That play is perhaps the most accessible and amusing and least unpalatable expression of his bleak view of reality, and it appealed to my scepticism at the time about religion and God.

I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

There is nonetheless something about his perspective I do appreciate.

At the very end of his book Cronin concludes (page 592):

It is doubtful if he believed in any sort of survival of consciousness, or disbelieved in it either, since belief – or disbelief – was not something he permitted himself. He thought that all the guides were poor ones and that it was better to live, and to admit to living, in complete uncertainty . . .

In The Eclipse of Certainty I quoted Lamberth about William James. Lamberth reports William James’s point of view as follows (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

The sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in James’s worldview. So, my position is not as absolute as Beckett’s.

Literature, which at its best serves to express a writer’s enriching take on reality and cannot really do otherwise if it is to work, needs to tread a fairly narrow path between dogmatically preaching any form of doctrine, whether that be religious or nihilistic, and simply pandering to the reader’s desire to escape into an unreal but more comfortable or more exciting world.

And now I have another decision to make.

There are two wolves waiting in the wings – Wolf Solent (again half finished) and Wolf Hall (barely started yet). Neither of them preach or pander, as far as I can tell up to now. Which one will most reward my continuing immersion in its world, I wonder? Or will I end up somewhere else altogether? Time will tell.

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After all this whinging about what Peterson has written it’s about time I tried to explain what it all looks like to me.

What do I think?

I’m not sure yet whether all I have said undermines his basic argument.

I am still struggling to articulate exactly how I would develop a model to bring it closer to what I experience as reality. In a way, I am grateful to him for having pushed me to think more deeply about this issue, even though I am uneasy about a basic aspect of his model.

Anyhow this is how my thinking goes so far. And in case any of you need to know I’m handing over the writing of this to my right-brain, which, when I have the patience to listen to it on such matters, is almost always right.

First things first. I firmly believe that labels, dichotomies and categories, when employed in the social or cultural field are almost always not only false, but potentially fatal. I am not saying this as a reward to my right-brain for having had the patience to let my left-brain bang on about everything it’s read on the subject for the last ten years. My left-brain believes it too, but can’t always act on it in the heat of the moment. It’s so much easier to slap a sticky label over the complexity of social experience: it makes deciding what to do so much quicker and easier.

So, you can see why I’m so uncomfortable when I feel that Peterson, in spite of all the good things he says, seems to be happily dwelling in the land of opposites. If he was distancing himself from the categorising tendency he ascribes to our interpretation of the world, instead of seeming to be contentedly identifying with it, I’d be more inclined to agree with him. Yes, he sees its limitations, but seems to feel that it is an inescapable feature of our perception of the world, one which we have to be aware of, and adapt to, even if we need to soften its hard edges, if we are to function wisely in the world.

He seems to have decided, perhaps not consciously, to live in the left-brain world of, to use McGilchrist’s words I quoted earlier, ‘language, logic and linearity.’ He doesn’t seem to entertain, at least in the first half of the book, the possibility that we could give more space in our perspective to the paradoxical and ambiguous take on the world of the right-hemisphere as McGilchrist describes it. This suggests to me that the part of his analysis, which contrasts chaos and order so definitively, is buying into the left-brain’s perceptual bias in favour of categories.

He does eventually produce an admission of the dangerous weakness of the left-brain approach (page 217):

The capacity of the rational mind to deceive, manipulate, scheme, trick, falsify, minimise, mislead, betray, prevaricate, deny, omit, rationalise, bias, exaggerate and obscure is so endless, so remarkable, centuries of prescientific thought, concentrating on clarifying the nature of moral endeavour, regarded it as positively demonic. This is not because of rationality itself, as a process. That process can produce clarity and progress. It is because rationality is subject to the single worst temptation – to raise what it knows now to the status of an absolute.

However, he reverts, in my view, to overstating the value of words again later (page 281):

The past can be redeemed, when reduced by precise language to its essence. The present can flow by without robbing the future if its realities are spoken out clearly. With careful thought and language, the singular, stellar destiny that justifies existence can be extracted from the multitude of murky and unpleasant futures that are far more likely to manifest themselves of their own accord.

An ‘essence’ or ‘stellar destiny’ of any kind is more elusive than that. Peterson’s lack of coherence in the presentation of his ideas sometimes allows him to believe that he can have his cake and eat it too. Believing language can accurately capture the essence of experience is one of the things that can lead to our succumbing to the temptation of believing that what we know is the absolute truth.

Again I need to acknowledge that an earlier discussion on genuine conversation (pages 253-56) illustrates how we can enhance our understanding by the use of words, rather in the same manner as I would argue can be done by consultation, in the Bahá’í sense of that word.

In addition, I must add that what the right-brain would see as beautiful, if we let it, comes to seem scary rather than promising when the left-brain dominates with too little restraint. As McGilchrist puts it: ‘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.’

Only when we refuse to categorise, and can rise to the challenge of absorbing the blending of parts that is reality, can we have any hope of accessing the truth. Not a possibility Peterson seems to recognise. Without linguistic analysis, he claims (page 282): ‘Everything will bleed into everything else. This makes the world too complex to be managed.’

I feel the right-brain can make a better fist of grasping the blended complexity of reality than he allows for. Einstein, after all, describes how he sensed the truths that he was groping for, at first as almost kinaesthetic shapes in his mind or as a kind of music: ‘If… I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music.’

In consequence, I even think that not just our social world, but developments in modern post-Newtonian science are forcing us to accept this as a fundamental characteristic of reality. Flux, unpredictability and ambiguity confront us the more deeply we seek to penetrate below the surface of our world. Machado captures this brilliantly when he says: ‘cambian la mar y el monte y el ojo que los mira’ (sea and mountain change, as does the eye that sees them’ – quoted in Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado, page 5). If we refuse to let the way we see change, we will never see the world as it is, only as we think it should be. Seeing the world more as it is may be scary, but it’s not chaos, and it need not be dangerous.

One thinker quotes convincing evidence to confirm that this fluidity and chaos underpins not just quantum matter but our biology as well. Jonah Lehrer writes in Proust was a Neuroscientist (page 47):

Molecular biology, confronted with the unruliness of life, is also forced to accept chaos. Just as physics discovered the indeterminate quantum world – a discovery that erased classical notions about the fixed reality of time and space – so biology is uncovering the unknowable mess at its core. Life is built on an edifice randomness.

It seems we can’t escape it.

What needs to change is our attitude to what our analytical mind, with its fixation on the maps it already has, finds disturbing. If we can trust our flexible right-brain intuitions more, what is new to us will feel less scary, and we will also tune in earlier to subtle shifts in the familiar, which are telegraphing imminent change, in a way that will help us deal with it more effectively. What I am striving for a lot of the time is to let my right-brain lead when I have to process complexity. After that, I need to integrate what it shows me into my left-brain maps without distorting or discounting anything essential.

Much of our way of seeing, when we use the categorising tendency that Peterson both critiques and yet accepts as somehow inevitable, creates avoidable problems, even becomes toxic, lethal. More of that in a moment.

I am not convinced that replacing categories with dimensions will in the end be a completely satisfactory way of interpreting the world. For a start it’s hard to use the difference between the known and the unknown as ends of a dimension anymore than to see it as indicating two categories.

I have concluded, as I explained earlier, that knowing/unknowing are not identical, as Peterson seems to think, with chaos and order, which I am also saying may not be so easily distinguished either. This is because knowing and not knowing are characteristics of consciousness. The diagram on the left attempts to express that relationship.

The dotted line around the edge of the known indicates my sense that the boundary, if there is one, is at best fluid. How do we deal with the forgotten – what was once known, is now not consciously remembered and yet almost certainly subliminally influences how we see the world and how we react to it?

The dark area around the outer circle is meant to represent where physical consciousness of any kind ends – death if you like. Even this needs a dotted line, I think, given my belief that physical consciousness is not all there is. As I have explored that at length elsewhere, I’ve decided not to go there in this sequence which is already long enough, and I have to keep my left-brain quiet long enough to finish even this much.

If we accept for now that thinking in terms of dimensions is legitimate, there are at least two categories of dimension active here, within the zones, if that is the right word, of knowing and unknowing. One concerns perceived reality, which stretches along a dimension relating to order and disorder between the extremes of order on the one hand, which can become tyranny, and on the other of chaos, which can be creative. The other dimension concerns the preference pattern of the mind that interacts with those perceived possibilities: among many other possibilities, in addition to the holistic and analytical I’ve already touched on, there will be risk-takers and risk avoiders, as Peterson makes clear he is aware towards the end of his book. Please hold in mind my fundamental scepticism about the need to accept that we have to split reality up, either in terms of order/disorder or degrees of risk taking, whether as dimensions or categories. Let’s accept for now that they hold good up to a point.

A risk-taker will delight in what they experience as the excitement of what the risk-avoider will see as the dangers of chaos, and conversely will feel stifled by the perceived order a risk-avoider thrives in.

It is important to note that perception is indeed an unavoidable mediator of all these interactions between reality and consciousness. I don’t think Peterson attaches sufficient importance to the flexibility of perception, and even fails to consider the possibility of its using dimensions rather than discrete categories. Nowhere that I’ve read so far does he deal with the possibility that we could potentially transcend even dimensional thinking when it is necessary to do so, either because it ceases to be useful or becomes potentially dangerous. Left-brain perception is his default mode, just as much as it is that of our culture. The rich potential of right-brain perception, in spite of the value he clearly sets on myths (reduced though to his left-brain interpretations of his selection from them), doesn’t really feature.

Why should we exert ourselves to go against our left-brain tendencies? They’ve lifted us out of the middle ages. Why can’t they lift us further?

That’s a complex issue, parts of which I’ve addressed at length elsewhere on this blog in terms of altruism, compassion and civilisation building.

In the light of the various references I quoted in the earlier two posts in the context of why human beings can perpetrate such evil, I’m going to focus briefly on why labelling, a left-brain temptation with emotional consequences, is so toxic.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

I have worked for more than thirty years in mental health. I have seen at close quarters the costs and benefits of diagnostic labels. Yes, getting the label of schizophrenia will open the door to the benefits system and give you access at least to some form of drug treatment. But drugs are a double-edged sword as I have discussed before. One edge can, if the patient is lucky, cut through the tormenting ropes woven around the mind by derogatory voices, but the other edge all too often clouds any clarity of thought and stupefies the mind. The diagnosis also carries, as so many labels do, a heavy weight of social stigma, which all too often more than outweighs any benefits. It’s far better, in my view, to look at the person as a whole, and tackle the more complex question of what these so-called psychotic experiences mean, and where their roots are in the felt life of the person.

Other labels are often at least as bad if not worse: abnormal, disabled, backward, black, unclean, alien, outsider, mad, cockroach, sewer rat, immigrant – the list is potentially endless.

If we see ourselves as in the normal, able, white, clean, insider, sane, human, legitimate citizen category, we can smugly comfort ourselves that we deserve all the good things we have whereas these people don’t and perhaps even couldn’t. It’s very cosy. It gives us no motivation to change anything. It even justifies to us in our own minds taking steps to protect what we are and what we have from ‘contamination’ or destruction, even if that means harming other people perceived as coming from any of those completely false categories. It wouldn’t take long, given the right circumstances, to tipple over into enthusiastic eugenics or even forms of genocide. We can see these toxic options unfolding around us even now.

Using only our left-brain analytic mind it is hard for us to experience the world except in such categorising ways. Yet, experiencing the world holistically is exactly what we have to do, especially in terms of our perceptions of our fellow human beings, and also the life-world around us. Labels won’t work if we’re going to survive. We are interconnected. In fact we are in essence one family, even one huge multi-minded entity. Only by operationalising this insight can we transcend this problem. And I think, from the evidence I’ve quoted earlier in this sequence, it’s not just Bahá’ís that see it this way.

View of the Terraces above the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel, Haifa

We believe that this will not be an easy vision to bring into reality. The Universal House of Justice, our central body, wrote in a letter to Bahá’ís of Iran (2 March 2013 – my emphasis):

The rejection of deeply ingrained prejudices and a growing sense of world citizenship are among the signs of [a] heightened awareness. Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

The bar is raised very high, as the Universal House of Justice explained to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the Shrine and Terraces project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, 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. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

Not for nothing do they describe it as the work of centuries, and Paul Lample, clarifying this is not just the work of the Bahá’í community, writes (Revelation and Social Reality – page 48):

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality… It is not a project in which Baha’is engage apart from the rest of humanity.

The diagram at the bottom of this post seeks to represent the magnitude of the task we face, moving as we must from the self-centred and short-term processing our bodies are programmed for, to the transcendent vision of our ultimate goal, far in the future though it may be, of a united humanity working together in harmony.

We acknowledge that religion has been and sometimes still is an obstacle in the path. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, anticipating by at least six decades Robert Wright’s caveat quoted in the first post, made it quite clear that ‘religion must be conducive to love and unity among mankind; for if it be the cause of enmity and strife, the absence of religion is preferable.’ (Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 128).

Treading this long and difficult road will involve resolving conflicts within us as well as between us. Most of us are still divided selves, as Bahá’u’lláh indicated (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

And the way forward, we believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained over centuries. For us that is God (From Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

For others, such as Rifkin, it is awareness of the supreme importance of preserving our planetary homeland.

Whatever the source of our inspiration, it has to bring the warring selves within us into harmony before we can create a truly peaceful world. Whatever the value is that we find, it has to be a very powerfully motivating one, but essentially benign nonetheless. It must not replicate the self-righteous crusading we can still see around us, which believes that if you are not for us we can kill you.

A commonly used phrase captures an important aspect of this vision: unity in diversity. It allows for perceived differences within an essential unity, but does not fossilise them or make them an excuse for discrimination.

I am fairly sure that Peterson would not disagree, at least, with this sense of our common humanity, and the imperative need confronting us to recognise and act upon it. Because he comes from a Christian perspective, I’m sure he would recognise the importance of God as well.

I hope I have not been attacking a straw man in all this. Even if I have, I hope I managed to avoid placing him in a separate category of human being from my more enlightened self. In many ways he seems to have thought more deeply than I have about whole aspects of this problem, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for forcing me to think more deeply about my own model of the world.

Oh, and in case you hadn’t realised, his book, 12 Rules for Life, though its over-assertive and somewhat divisive in tone, confusingly organised, very left-brain in most of its language and at times testingly macho in style, has flashes of insight that might make it worth reading despite all I’ve said, even though I abandoned it before finishing the last chapter. Before going out and buying a copy it might be worth reading someone who has had the patience to wade through far more of Peterson’s prose than I did and probed more deeply into the problems and challenges his perspective creates. Nathan J. Robinson concludes at the end of a long critique:

. . . since Jordan Peterson does indeed have a good claim to being the most influential intellectual in the Western world, we need to think seriously about what has gone wrong. What have we done to end up with this man? His success is our failure, and while it’s easy to scoff at him, it’s more important to inquire into how we got to this point. He is a symptom. He shows a culture bereft of ideas, a politics without inspiration or principle. Jordan Peterson may not be the intellectual we want. But he is probably the intellectual we deserve.

‘You finished now?’ I hear my right-brain snap. ‘Can we get back to the poetry again please?’

‘I guess so,’ my left-brain sighs wearily. ‘This last lot was all your idea though!’ it growls, trying to fight back, but in the end can’t be bothered. ‘I’m too tired to argue after scribbling your stuff down for so long. I’m not doing this again though. Take my word for it.’

My right-brain smiles quietly, thinks ‘Fat chance!’ but says nothing.

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