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Hints from life come in all shapes and sizes and are sometimes difficult to interpret correctly.

The first pointer I got seemed simple enough. It was a TV programme on George Eliot, one of my favourite novelists. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to re-read Middlemarch. I had promised myself I would do this once a year after I retired, but this would be only the second time I had kept this promise.

Perhaps I was subconsciously put off by its possible deficiencies.

Rebecca Mead, who also loves the book, is not naïve about Middlemarch. In The Road to Middlemarch she unpacks what Virginia Woolf might have meant in her praise of the novel. She picks particularly on Woolf’s expression “with all its imperfections.” She writes[1]:

What are these imperfections? Woolf gives few specifics, though she cites Eliot’s unwillingness to let one sentence stand for many and contrasts it with the delicacy shown by Jane Austen’s Emma. . . . . . She says that Eliot – the grand daughter of a carpenter, as she reminds us – is out of her depth when it comes to the depiction of higher social strata, and resorts to stock images of claret and velvet carpets. Eliot’s hold on dialogue is often slack. Occasionally, she lacks taste. She suffers from ‘an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration.’

Not only that, but another admirer, Tim Dolin, in his book on George Eliot in the Authors in Context Series, picks up on other possible defects in the opposite class direction[2]:

Elliot had little interest in the musical culture of the rural lower classes. . . There is no folk singing or dancing, and no local bands or church choirs that were the cultural heart of small communities. . . Nor does Eliot pay any attention to urban working-class music or commercial music hall, both central aspects of Victorian culture.

Still I persisted.

My old paperback edition fell apart years ago. The edition I have now is the Folio Society’s, which I bought second hand in Hay-on-Wye. It is lovely to handle but not easy to carry with me when I go out, so getting through the novel was slow but well worth it. There was much to savour in it that maps onto some of my favourite preoccupations.

Her shrewd and empathic eye picks up pointers, which her pen translates into penetrating observations, sometimes going deep into a character’s consciousness.

Inequality

This can involve social issues such as the inequality of sexes as when Casaubon complacently congratulates himself on Dorothea, the wife ‘Providence’ has ‘supplied him with,’ while Eliot wonders[3]‘Whether Providence had taken equal care of Miss Brooke in presenting her with Mr Casaubon’ and speculates that this ‘was an idea which could hardly occur to him.’

And the reason for that?

Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.

Ego

Ego is also something she keeps re-examining, possibly because she realises that[4] there is ‘no speck so troublesome as self.’ No one can escape the trap completely: ‘We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: . . .’

The character that most expresses the blinding nature of egotism is Rosamond, though Bulstrode, the corrupted but sanctimonious banker, probably illustrates the darker places which that blindness can lead us into. Rosamond betrays her husband’s trust for reasons which spring[5] ‘from no deeper passion than the vague exactingness of egoism’ which is nonetheless is ‘capable of compelling action as well as speech.’ At least she doesn’t contribute to causing anyone’s death, as Bulstrode does to protect his reputation.

The Inner Life

Most of all though I probably resonate most strongly to Eliot’s exploration of the inner life of her characters[6], an ‘inward life’ which in Dorothea’s case, once she had made the mistake of marrying Causaubon, ‘filled the air as with a cloud of good or bad angels, the invisible yet active forms of our spiritual triumphs or our spiritual falls.’

Casaubon looking at Dorothea (scanned from the Folio Edition)

Dorothea is not the only character whose depths are plumbed. Lydgate is the doctor who has made a similar mistake to hers, and married the wrong person.

The inner chasm between Lydgate, who aspired to do important research as well as practice as a doctor, and the egotistical Rosamond, is captured vividly[7]:

Lydgate, . . . relapsed into what [Rosamond] inwardly called his moodiness – a name which to her covered his thoughtful preoccupation with other subjects than herself, as well as that uneasy look of the brow and distaste for ordinary things as if they were mixed with bitter herbs, which really made a sort of weather-glass to his fixation and foreboding. . . . Between him and her indeed there was that total missing of each other’s mental track, which is too evidently possible even between persons who are continually thinking about each other.

We watch him begin to realise that his exertions to make a major contribution to medicine are doomed by the shackles of his marriage[8]:

Lydgate was aware that his concessions to Rosamond were often little more than the lapse of slackening resolution, the creeping paralysis apt to seize an enthusiasm which is out of adjustment to a constant portion of our lives.

His meeting with Dorothea, who has a project which would benefit from his help, is described in a way that captures the inner impact of a more positive meeting of minds[9]:

Lydgate turned, remembering where he was, and saw Dorothea’s face looking up at him with a sweet trustful gravity. The presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see things again in their larger quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character. That influence was beginning to act on Lydgate, who had for many days been seeing all life as one who is dragged and struggling amid the throng. He sat down again, and felt that he was recovering his old self in the consciousness that he was with one who believed in it.

His wife Rosamond’s encounter with Will Ladislaw brings no comparable benefits, when Will is stung by realising Dorothea, whose good opinion he desperately needs to retain, has adversely misinterpreted his conversation with Rosamond. He reacted harshly to Rosamond, and we clearly see inside her mind and learn his reaction is something she completely failed to understand[10]:

Shallow natures dream of an easy sway over the emotions of others, trusting implicitly in their own petty magic to turn the deepest streams, and confident, by pretty gestures and remarks, of making the thing that is not as though it were. She knew that Will had received a severe blow, but she had been little used to imagining other people’s states of mind except as a material to cut into shape by her own wishes; and she believed in her own power to soothe or subdue.

Bulstrode’s predicament is even bleaker. After he has made a much-needed loan to Lydgate to buy his loyalty and protect his reputation, given that the doctor might guess that the death of a man in the banker’s care might have been caused by deliberate negligence, he is left to reflect on what he had done[11]:

The banker felt that he had done something to nullify one cause of uneasiness, and yet he was scarcely the easier. He did not measure the quantity of diseased motive which had made him wish for Lydgate’s goodwill, but the quantity was nonetheless actively there, like an irritating agent in the blood. A man vows, and yet he will not cast away the means of breaking his vow. Is it that he distinctly means to break it? None at all; but the desires which tend to break it are at work in him dimly, and make their way into his imagination, and relax his muscles in the very moment when he is telling himself over again the reasons for his vow.

I’ll save the most powerful impact of the book till next time.

Footnotes:

[1]. The Road to Middlemarch  – page 46.
[2]. Tim Dolin – page 77.
[3]. Middlemarch – page 284.
[4]. Middlemarch – page 420.
[5]. Middlemarch – page 601.
[6]. Middlemarch – page 372.
[7]. Middlemarch – page 585.
[8]. Middlemarch – page 586.
[9]. Middlemarch – page 762.
[10]. Middlemarch – page 778.
[11]. Middlemarch – page 706.

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In this sequence, triggered by Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality, I have looked at how Neoliberals ‘offer – no, demand – a religious faith in the infallibility of the unregulated market.’[1] I have examined the claim that this is assisted by the commandeering of a deracinated spirituality to act as a kind of tranquilliser to damp down any feelings of discontent with the capitalist system. I also took into account how our individualised society relies on psychological approaches, in contrast to more socially oriented cultures, and accepts a perspective on our situation that suggests we have no effective alternative, as capitalism is the best option.

This all combines to reduce the potential for forms of collective resistance.

We need now to look at how a combination of two reciprocally reinforcing factors makes resistance even less likely than even Carrette and King’s model would predict. We need to do this before we look at possible alternatives. I’ll start with complexity, and a related factor, before going on to look at coherence in the next post.

Complexity

Putting the problem at its simplest ‘Economists model people as knowing exactly how the economy works, whereas we would argue that they themselves do not have the full picture.‘[2]

There is fascinating evidence in support of the idea that even the economic experts don’t have much of a clue.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent analysis of our flawed decision-making abilities in general, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, turns his attention to what goes on in the process of financial speculation.

Tracking individuals, he finds, does not confirm their sense that they know what they are doing:

Many individual investors lose consistently by trading, an achievement that a dart-throwing chimp could not match.[3]

In Chapter 24, after reviewing the evidence he concludes:

. . . . . financial officers of large corporations had no clue about the short-term future of the stock market; the correlation between their estimates and the true value was slightly less than zero! When they said the market would go down, it was slightly more likely than not that it would go up. These findings are not surprising. The truly bad news is that the CFOs did not appear to know that their forecasts were worthless.[4]

There were exceptions to this general trend in that ‘the most active traders had the poorest results, while the investors who traded the least earned the highest’[5]  and  ‘men acted on their useless ideas significantly more often than women, and that as a result women achieved better investment results than men.’[6]

This is not a very flattering state of affairs for the economic pundits:

There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not—and few of them do—are playing a game of chance. The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are no more accurate than blind guesses.[7]

Kahneman’s own research confirms this view. He was invited to investigate the figures of a firm to whom he had been invited to speak. He was given access to a ‘spreadsheet summarizing the investment outcomes of some twenty-five anonymous wealth advisers, for each of eight consecutive years.’[8]

He took the first basic step in this assessment of skill:

It was a simple matter to rank the advisers by their performance in each year and to determine whether there were persistent differences in skill among them.[9]

The rank ordering allowed for the calculation of how well each person’s rank held up over the whole time period studied. The more consistent people were the stronger the correlations would be between each year’s figures.  He created 28 correlation coefficients, one for each pair of years.

Then came the surprise:

I knew the theory and was prepared to find weak evidence of persistence of skill. Still, I was surprised to find that the average of the 28 correlations was 0.01. In other words, zero.[10]

Which meant, in effect, that ‘[t]he results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.’ ‘The illusion of skill’[11] is a deeply embedded one in this area, but it is also deeply misplaced. What we learn from carefully analyzed data is that:

. . . . people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.[12]

I will return in a later section to another aspect of this problem from Kahneman’s point of view. At this point I need to focus on what others have to say on his main point about the global economic complexity in which this unpredictability has its roots.

In The Econocracy the authors make their position plain: ‘many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . .’[13] and that ‘the economic knowledge that forms the basis of [the economists’] claim to expertise is often inadequate.’[14]

Wilhelm Streeck points out what makes this complexity even more difficult to fathom:

[There remained] little if any space for collective action, . . .  because it was hard for most people in financial markets to understand their own interests and identify their exploiter. . . . The prosperity, relative and absolute, of millions of citizens depends on decisions of central bank executives, international organisations, and councils of ministers of all sorts, acting in an arcane space removed from every day experience and impenetrable to outsiders, dealing with issues so complex that even insiders often cannot be sure what they have to do and are in fact doing.[15]

There are, however, ways we could enhance our chances of decoding some of the mystery if the will was there. The next section explores some of the removable obstacles impeding our progress in this respect.

Tunnel Vision

Let’s pick up the threads of this with Kahneman’s analysis of decision-making in complex social, political and economic situations again. He uses a key expression that needs more examination (my emphasis):

In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.[16]

He feels that two important lessons need to be learned from all this:

The first lesson is that errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable. The second is that high subjective confidence is not to be trusted as an indicator of accuracy (low confidence could be more informative).[17]

He concludes that ‘stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.’[18]

This sounds like confirmation of John Donne’s dictum: ‘Doubt wisely.’

How can what other writers say help us unpack the dangers of hyperspecialisation and suggest potential partial remedies?

The Econocracy is a good place to start. They explain that ‘economics students only learn one particular type of economics and . . . they are taught to accept this type of economics in an uncritical manner.’[19] Moreover, they teach ‘this perspective as if it is economics’ which ‘allows economists to see their discipline as a complete system.’[20] They conclude that ‘this amounts to nothing less than indoctrination into the neoclassical way of thinking about the economy.’[21]

So, hyperspecialisation paves the way to patterns of teaching which amount to indoctrination, in their view. They go on to clarify that economists differ in one critical respect from other academic disciplines:

. . . a considerable majority from all the social sciences, from history to psychology, agreed with the statement [that ‘in general, interdisciplinary knowledge is better than knowledge obtained by single discipline’], illustrating that economists are unique in their belief that their discipline has all the answers.[22]

They lack what the authors term ‘pluralism.’ They suffer from a kind of tunnel vision

It seems a no-brainer, then, to realise that, if a system is highly complex, it’s going to take more than one perspective to grasp its patterns with any hope of predicting developments and controlling consequences.

The remedy The Econocracy proposes rings bells for me from a Bahá’í perspective at least. They write:

. . . many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . . Our vision is of a world in which economic experts recognize that their knowledge of a complex economy is limited and that economic issues are the proper subject of collective democratic debate. The role of experts is to inform citizens of their choices rather than to make those choices for them.[23]

They unpack some implications of this much later in their book:

The kinds of skills and qualities needed by citizens in a broad democracy to function effectively are learned, not innate, and must be practiced to be mastered. They include listening, compromise, the ability to critically evaluate verbal and numerical argument, and developing independent judgement. They can only come through practical experience of being involved in participatory democratic institutions. In this sense, moving towards a system of broad democracy is a process of learning by doing.

. . . . . We have spent considerable time and energy thinking about the pedagogy we use for public education activities because we are aware that embedding critical reflection and pluralism at their core is not easy.[24]

Why do Bahá’í bells ring?

In terms of The Econocracy’s point about ‘participatory democratic institutions’, bells ring because a core discipline of the Bahá’í Faith is consultation. The Prosperity of Humankind contains a succinct statement of its purpose which also conveys a great deal about its methods and assumptions: `the adversarial method, . . [is]. . fundamentally harmful to [the] purpose [of consultation]: [which] is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.’ It is basically a process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that: (a) no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth, (b) groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and (c) today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Secondly, because Selling Spirituality emphasizes the importance of having a moral compass based in true spirituality to counterbalance purely material considerations, the Bahá’í case for much the same kind of balance immediately springs to mind. A Bahá’í statement on social action addresses this issue:

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided. . . . Together, these two sources of knowledge tap roots of motivation in individuals and communities, so essential in breaking free from the shelter of passivity, and enable them to uncover the traps of consumerism.

At present too many of us in so-called ‘developed’ societies, by which I mean ‘industrialised,’ are caught in the ‘traps of consumerism,’ the trancelike mind-set of the markets, convinced they’ll find riches and fulfilment there. We are convinced there is no way out.

Streeck describes this and to a degree subscribes to it:

The problem is, while we see [capitalism] disintegrating before our eyes, we see no successor approaching. . . . There is also the absence of a vision of a practically possible progressive future, of a renewed industrial or new post-industrial society developing further and at the same time replacing the capitalist society today. Not just capital and its running dogs but also their various oppositions lack a capacity to act collectively.[25]

Which brings us back to the other problem, hinted at by the Bahá’í quote above. There is another key capacity that is lacking: coherence. We have to have some sense of how this can be remedied if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Footnotes

[1] McChesney (1999) quoted in Selling Spirituality – Page 169
[2] The Econocracy – Page 98.
[3] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3843.
[4] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4738.
[5] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3856.
[6] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3857.
[7] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3877.
[8] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3882.
[9] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3884.
[10] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3887.
[11] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3899.
[12] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3958.
[13] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[14] The Econocracy  – page 27.
[15] Streeck – page 20.
[16] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3963.
[17] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3982.
[18] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4347.
[19] The Econocracy  – page 37.
[20] The Econocracy  – page 40.
[21] The Econocracy  – page 54.
[22] The Econocracy  – page 115.
[23] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[24] The Econocracy  – pages 152-56.
[25] Streeck – page 35-36.

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It’s time to explore in more detail what makes it possible to see capitalism as a religion, but also to see how important it is to factor in other influences than disconnected spirituality to explain our paralysis in the face of capitalism’s deficiencies.

A key point was made in the Century of Light, a statement published by the Bahá’í World Centre in 2001. They wrote:

In an age of scientific advancement and widespread popular education, the cumulative effects of . . . . disillusionment were to make religious faith appear irrelevant.[1]

Adding, later on the same page, the important caveat that:

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

My very battered copy of this classic.

I’ve explored this before on this blog. In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm, on a similar track, writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length:

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.[2]

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The thirst for belief may partly explain why we have ended up putting our faith where it currently lies, lies being the operative word. Carrette and King use a quote from Tony Benn to make the main comparison point:

‘The most powerful religion of all… is the people who worship money.… The banks are bigger than the cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinational companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues.’[3]

They feel that business becomes ‘the religion of the market.’[4]

They specify some of the details about how it works:

A religion of feel-good affluence reassures the consuming public that religion can indeed be just another feature of the capitalist world with little or no social challenge to offer to the world of business deals and corporate takeovers. Spirituality is appropriated for the market instead of offering a countervailing social force to the ethos and values of the business world.[5]

These are not the only forces at work, alongside the trance-inducing pacifying factors listed previously. Wilhelm Streeck, in his book How Will Capitalism End?, refers, for example, to the way the system founds ‘. . . social integration on collective resignation as the last remaining pillar of the capitalist social order, or disorder.’[6]

We probably need to unpack the possible causes of such disabling resignation.

For one thing, as Carrette and King point out, ‘The market is being presented to us as natural and inevitable.’[7], a quality captured in the term capitalist realism’, used by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher to describe the sense that ‘not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system… it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it’.

To catch essentially the same point Streeck uses a German term:

Sachzwang: A factual constraint residing in the nature of things it leaves you no choice. Soon even the left began to internalise the idea of globalization [of capital] as a natural evolutionary process unstoppable by political means . . .[8]

He spells out this suppressive force most clearly when he writes:

. . . over two decades, globalisation as a discourse gave birth to a new pensée unique, a TINA (There Is No Alternative) logic of political economy for which adaptation to the ‘demands’ of ‘international markets’ is both good for everybody and the only possible policy anyway.[9]

The net effect of this is to create a social climate of powerless dissatisfaction, in which deracinated spirituality acting as a tranquilliser is not the only paralysing influence, as Streeck explains:

A pervasive cynicism has become deeply ingrained in the collective common sense. . .  elite calls for trust and appeals to shared values can no longer be expected to resonate with the populace nursed on materialistic-utilitarian self-descriptions of a society in which everything is and ought to be for sale.[10]

This combination of seeing no alternative, cynical acceptance and bogus spirituality have brought us to the point where, to quote Carrette and King this time:

Neoliberal ideology seeps into the very fabric of how we think, indeed into the very possibilities of our thinking to such an extent that people now live as if the corporate capitalist structures of our world are the truth of our existence.[11]

This is very much in harmony with the Bahá’í perspective:

The overthrow of the twentieth century’s totalitarian systems has not meant the end of ideology. On the contrary. There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multi-form it may have been, that did not derive its thrust from some foundational interpretation of reality. Such a system of thought reigns today virtually unchallenged across the planet, under the nominal designation “Western civilization”. Philosophically and politically, it presents itself as a kind of liberal relativism; economically and socially, as capitalism—two value systems that have now so adjusted to each other and become so mutually reinforcing as to constitute virtually a single, comprehensive world-view. [12]

Others also refuse to accept this tunnel vision. Ziya Tong, in her book The Reality Bubble, describes us as a ‘human population’ of ‘eight billion strong, marching to a capitalist drumbeat of eat, work, shop, and sleep. . . . Why do we do it? The big myth, I would argue, is that we are brought up believing there is no other way. We are simply told that this is how the system works.’[13] She asserts that we  can find a new way of looking, ‘new eyes’ in the words of Proust.

As a Bahá’í I am very clear in my own mind that there are alternatives to this dispiriting way of disorganising things, but any more detailed consideration of these will have to wait until the last post in this sequence. The gloom will have to continue for a bit longer so we can explore it more deeply.

Perhaps one of the central and most insidious sleights of mind perpetrated by this ideology is defined by Streeck as ‘the exaltation of a life in uncertainty as a life in liberty.’[14]

Streeck goes on to explain that, if there is active, or at least perceptible discontent, it is to be labelled as a problem within the person:

The entropic society of disintegrated, de-structured and under-governed post-capitalism depends on its ability to hitch itself onto the natural desire of people not to feel desperate, while defining pessimism as a socially harmful personal deficiency.[15]

And of course, deracinated spirituality, ‘the new cultural Prozac,’[16] comes in as the weapon of choice to defuse any incipient feelings of desperation.

This raises the issue, which there is no time to explore more deeply just now, of how much the current unequal, disempowering and disconnecting system in which we live is responsible for many of the health problems, and, more relevantly here, mental health problems from which we suffer. One quote from James Davies’ book Cracked, which I reviewed in the past, will have to suffice. Davies interviewed Dr Peter Breggin, a US psychiatrist who is critical of the medical model. Breggin explained his viewpoint:

Most problems are created by the contexts in which people live and therefore require contextual not chemical solutions. ‘People who are breaking down are often like canaries in a mineshafts,’ explained Breggin. ‘They are a signal of a severe family issue.’ .  . . . For Breggin, because the medical model fails to take context seriously – whether the family or the wider social context – it overlooks the importance of understanding and managing context to help the person in distress.[17]

As a qualifying point, it’s true that, in the UK at least, psychology has shifted away from an unqualified endorsement of the medical model. The British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology recently published a report emphasizing the utility of psychotherapeutic approaches to psychosis. The executive summary opens with the observation that ‘Hearing voices or feeling paranoid are common experiences which can often be a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation. Calling them symptoms of . . . psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.’[18]

Also, the practice of individual psychologists, including me before I retired, has always been careful to avoid doing anything that might induce someone to adapt to the unacceptable, whether that was within an abusive relationship or an oppressive work environment.

I’ll pause at this point. There are certain ingredients that we need to add into this explanatory salad, such as baffling complexity, if it is to create a more satisfactory account of our lack of concerted opposition to the system’s defects. Once done, I can then move on to possible ways of transcending the problems. I am grateful though to Selling Spirituality for triggering me, with its energising critique, to revisit this whole area, and both for emphasising the complicity of so-called spirituality and for confronting me with the barely credible possibility that many people actually invest what amounts to a religious strength of faith in capitalism.

Footnotes

[1] Century of Light – Page 59.
[2] The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – pages 260-61.
[3] Page 23. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Selling Spirituality.
[4] Page 157.
[5] Page 126.
[6] Streeck – Page 15.
[7] Page 174.
[8] Streeck – Page 22
[9] Streeck – Page 23.
[10] Streeck – Page 34.
[11] Page 170.
[12] Century of Light – Page 135.
[13] The Reality Bubble – (page 7).
[14] Streeck -Page 46.
[15] Page 33.
[16] Page 77.
[17] Page 279
[18] BPS, 2014, p. 6.

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Charles Tart

At the end of the last post I was emphasising that capitalism has begin to look like a religion and it depends upon a form of thought-control for its continuing hold on our minds. Is uprooted spirituality the only factor at work in that?

This is not, of course, the first time I’ve been here on this blog.

In his book Waking Up, which featured in an earlier sequence, Charles Tart uses the term ‘consensus consciousness’ to describe how our culture and life experiences shape our perceptions of the world. This effect is so strong that he goes onto describe it as a state of mind that is definitely not an enviable one:

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.[1]

Carrette and King in many ways are singing from the same hymn sheet. They quote David Loy – 2002:[2]:

. . . according to the U.N. development report from 1999, the world spent at least $435 billion the previous year for advertising… this constitutes the greatest effort in mental manipulation that humanity has ever experienced.

But it is not just advertising that hypnotises us into compliance.

Carrette and King argue that we increasingly see:

a concern with making the individual employee/consumer function as effectively as possible for the benefit of corporate organisations and the ‘global economy’. . . . Such a move allows advocates of capitalist spirituality to use the traditional language of ‘belonging’ but this time orient it towards the need for employees to align themselves with the corporate mission statements of their employers. [3]

The next shift in their argument should make me as a psychologist more uncomfortable than it does:

We argue that the discourse and institutions of psychology have played a major part in maintaining control in late capitalist societies in the West by creating a privatised and individualised conception of reality. Modern government requires a social mechanism to control populations, and psychology functions in part as the underlying philosophy of what it is to be a human for a capitalist system of social organisation.[4]

The reason why it comes as no unsettling surprise is that I have been here twice before from slightly different perspectives each time.

First of all, when I read Richard Shweder’s Thinking Through Cultures, I learnt how biased in a potentially destructive way our implicit individualism is, and how much that has influenced our preference for the ‘science’ of psychology.

The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre in views expressed in a paper on Social Action (November 2012) is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is more highly developed than that found anywhere else.

Richard Shweder’s compelling account of his re-examination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Shweder describes his findings in his bookHis very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext.

Why is this relevant here?

Mainly because the problem was rooted in the individualistic lens of the Western researchers who were unable properly to decode the implicit communal context which lay behind the responses of the Hindu subjects of their study. They were also unable to see the limitations imposed upon them by their Western perspective, which they simply assumed must be correct. Earlier in his book Shweder spells out a correlate of this bias:

Not surprisingly, in most sociocentric role-based societies… it is sociology, not psychology, that thrives as an academic discipline. In other, more individualistic cultures (for example, the United States) it is psychology that flourishes at universities and popular bookstores, while sociology has an uneasy relationship to a public that find sociological discourse to be unreal and laden with ‘jargon.’[5]

The idea of an individualistic Western lens is not just Shweder’s view. In her book Transcendence Gaia Vince expresses much the same conclusion:

Westerners, with an individualistic suite of social norms, tend to process objects and organise information into categories. In contrast, East Asians, with more collectivist norms, view themselves as part of a larger whole…[6]

Psychology would therefore seem, on the basis of evidence of this kind, to be assisting in the creation of the ‘privatised and individualised conception of reality’ Carrette and King refer to.

This is by no means the worst of it, as I discovered somewhat later.

In the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind, Kelly and Kelly capture the way that psychology came increasingly to adopt a materialistic and reductionist approach to the mind that fitted snugly into the materialistic capitalistic mind-set:

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the ‘hard’ sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, ‘a purely objective experimental branch of natural science’. It should ‘never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.’ [7]:

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.[8]

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.

So, it is no surprise then that an individualist, materialistic psychology should suit the needs of capitalism, in the way Carrette and King suggest it does. They make basically the same point quite explicitly later in their book: ‘ . . . in the demand for a science of the self, psychology distanced itself from the trappings of a religious self and sought to offer ideas of being human on a reductionist and measurable basis.’[9]

Psychology is not itself a form of spirituality though, so how would this strengthen Carrette and King’s case for the key role of spirituality in keeping us quiet?

When spirituality is psychologised, as it has been, for example, with mindfulness training, it can act as a powerful tool for stifling protest and ensuring conformity. The analogy they keep referring to in their book captures this potential exactly. They describe it, at one point, as ‘the new cultural Prozac,’ which brings ‘transitory feelings of ecstatic happiness and thoughts of self-affirmation’ without ‘addressing sufficiently the underlying problem of social isolation and injustice.’[10]At another, they write, ‘Capitalist spirituality is the psychological sedative for a culture that is in the process of rejecting the values of community and social justice.’[11]

They believe that, in addition to this, the misleading redefinitions of reality entailed in this process are the equivalent of what George Orwell, in his classic novel 1984, terms ‘thought-control.’ They claim ‘privatised spiritualities operate as a form of thought-control that supports the ideology of late capitalism.’[12]

This explains away any unpleasant feelings as resulting from deficiencies in the individual, so that:

What is never raised is the possibility that the ‘difficult life’ is itself a result of the modern psychological understanding of the self in Western consumer societies. . . . [Popular classics of spirituality] are palliative for the ills of a consumer society, rather than addressing the underlying social problems that create the need for such works in the first place.[13]

As a result:

. . . employees can be made to feel a sense of corporate community and allegiance to the company.… ‘spirituality’ provides the all-important ‘feel-good’ factor that is so important for improving worker efficiency and loyalty. . . Thus, while claiming to be ‘alternative’…, the goal is to align the employee’s ‘personal mission’ with that of the organisation for which they work.[14]

In the end, expressing the idea very strongly indeed, the authors feel that ‘Mass control and collectivism are not just features of fascist and communist societies. Rather they are reconfigured and hidden behind the capitalist doctrines of free choice.’[15]The result is that we are all locked into a toxic materio-competitive worldview:

With the emergence of capitalist spirituality the freedom of the individual to express their inner nature through ‘spirituality’ becomes subordinated to the demands of corporate business culture… [16]

Next time I will be looking in more detail at what makes it possible to see capitalism as a religion, and also later exploring how important it is to factor in other influences than disconnected spirituality to explain our paralysis in the face of capitalism’s deficiencies. It will be some time yet before I consider other more positive alternatives such as the Bahá’í perspective, the Doughnut model and Ehrenfeld’s ideas of flourishing.

Footnotes

[1] Tart – page 95.
[2] Page 160. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Selling Spirituality.
[3] Page 20.
[4] Page 26.
[5] Shweder – page 169.
[6] Gaia – page 146.
[7] Kelly and Kelly – pages xvii-xviii.
[8] Kelly and Kelly – page xx.
[9] Page 66.
[10] Page 77.
[11] Page 83.
[12] Page 68.
[13] Page 56.
[14] Pages 134-35.
[15] Page 57.
[16] Page 45.

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I am sitting in a café reading a book.

‘Why are you bothering to tell us that?’ you may well ask, as you all know I read whenever I’m alone and there’s nothing else I’ve got to do.

Well, this book is a bit special.

As it happens, I’m in a café in a shopping centre, and through the glass shine the temptations of consumer heaven. Within less than 200 yards I could bejewel and reclothe myself, refurnish our house and replace all our electrical goods and gadgets, if I wished to and could afford it.

And that’s just for starters.

Instead, I am reading a short book, highlighting passage after passage as I do so, undistracted by the jangling music in the background. It’s a book that goes a considerable way towards explaining why the minarets of capitalism[1] have replaced cathedrals, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples as the must-go-to places for massive throngs of people in the Western world and beyond.

Many of us are already aware that organised religion is out of favour. As the book says it’s ‘an outdated conflict-causing and ritualistic, bad thing’[2] in many people’s eyes. The process of downgrading religion, which began with the so-called Enlightenment (almost everything has a dark side, including this), was given a boost at the end of First World War, because, as the Bahá’í World Centre explains, ‘fossilised religious dogmas that had lent moral endorsement to the forces of conflict and alienation were everywhere in question.’[3]

What we may not have been willing to realise so clearly is that there is a new religion on the block. It’s been hidden from us in plain sight. As the authors put it: ‘God is dead, but has been resurrected as capital. Shopping malls have become the new altars for worshipping the God of money.’[4] And the new religion is not all it’s cracked up to be, as well as not lacking its own serious disadvantages. It is costing lives as well as controlling them.

The book I am reading, Selling Spirituality by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, argues a strong case for the value of seeing the modern world through this lens. If you have the patience to follow me through my explanation, I think your journey will be well worthwhile. At the very least it will hopefully convey why the loss of the positive side of religion has not been compensated for by the prevalence of what has been misleadingly termed spirituality.

The writers’ main focus is to account for how a deracinated spirituality has been commandeered to help consolidate capitalism’s hold on our minds. In their view this has been made possible in the first place because the word is capable of so many possible meanings it can be harnessed to support an incalculable number of purposes. They argue that, ‘There is no essence or definitive meaning to terms like spirituality or religion’[5] and, as a result, ‘The very ambiguity of the term means that it can operate across different social and interest groups and in capitalist terms, function to establish a market niche.’[6]

It is worth noting at this point that the so-called benefits, which this synthetic brand of spirituality brings to the table, are not universally accessible. The authors describe how ‘[t]he wisdom of spiritual classics like the Tao Te Ching become reduced to a philosophy of worldly accommodationism, tailored to reduce the stress and strain of modern urban life for relatively affluent westerners.’[7] In fact, as they put it more bluntly later, ‘it is feel-good spirituality for the urban and the affluent and it has nothing to say to the poor and the marginalised in society, other than offering them a regime of compliance, a new “opiate for the masses.”’[8]

Before I move on to consider in more detail how exactly that might be said to work, it’s important to spell out the way that capitalism has become not simply a way of doing business, but an ideology that justifies it. Carrette and King describe that as follows, drawing a clear and important distinction between economic liberalism and its political progenitor[9]:

The new economic and political orthodoxy in this emerging world order is known as neoliberalism and it puts profits before people, promotes privatisation of public utilities, services and resources, and is in the process of eroding many of the individual civil liberties that were established under its forerunner– political liberalism.

This shift required being legitimised widely in a credible way. Spirituality has played a significant role in this, they feel:[10]

In contemporary society the discourse of ‘spirituality’ often promotes the ideology of neoliberalism… it does this by providing an aura of authenticity, morality and humanity that mediates the increasingly pernicious social effects of neoliberal policies.

The lack of effective opposition, even from the religions whose convenient concepts were borrowed, enabled its anodyne effect to spread:

. . . traditions are becoming subject to a takeover precisely because members of these traditions have failed to see the increasingly religious quality of capitalism in the modern world.

And this was what, in their view, enabled neoliberal capitalism to morph into what is effectively a religion: [11]

. . . the economic theology of neoliberalism.… corporate capitalism – the new religion of the Market. Its God is ‘Capital’ and its ethics highly questionable.

They feel we are speaking here of a powerful form of thought-control. I will be examining the way that works in more detail next time, but for now I will simply flag up that one of the reasons this pervasive and persuasive influence continues to operate so effectively is our lack of awareness that it exists:[12]

The institutions increasingly exerting their influence upon us are multinational corporations, big business and the mass media. . . . As human beings we are able to challenge regimes of thought control, but only if we become aware of them, and of the possibility of alternatives.

Because this is a book written for the general reader, it would be all too easy to dismiss their argument here as a facile simplification introduced simply to support their main line of argument. While it will not be possible to explore in depth comparable perceptions shared by professionals in the field of economics rather than religion, I will nonetheless share quotes from two different economists who are clearly on a parallel track.

First there is Wolfgang Streeck, in his book How Will Capitalism End? In his introduction he writes:[13]

The problem with [the] neoliberal narrative is, of course, that it neglects the very unequal distribution of risks, opportunities, gains and losses that comes with de-socialised capitalism . . . This raises the question why the neoliberal life associated with the post-capitalist interregnum is not more powerfully opposed, indeed how it can enjoy as much apparent support as it does . . .

By ‘post-capitalist interregnum’ he means the ‘long and indecisive transition’ we are currently experiencing.

He answers his question in a way that overlaps with what I will be describing later:

It is here that ‘culture’ comes in . . . The behavioural programme of the post-social society during the post-capitalist interregnum is governed by a neoliberal ethos of competitive self-improvement, of untiring cultivation of one’s marketable human capital, enthusiastic dedication to work, and cheerfully optimistic, playful acceptance of the risks in a world that has outgrown government.

That he does not include the mortar of pulverised spirituality that Carrette and King argue holds together the bricks Streeck lists in his inventory, does not disguise the fact that he detects the same kind of counterintuitive compliance they go onto describe.

Secondly, there’s Kate Raworth in her mind expanding Doughnut Economics. She uses the metaphor of a theatre production to capture the way that neoliberalism has orchestrated ‘the economic debate of the past thirty years’ in a script promising that ‘the market . . .is the road to freedom, and who could be against that? But putting blind faith in markets – while ignoring the living world, society, and the power of banks – has taken us to the brink of ecological, social and financial collapse.’[14]

In terms of where I’m heading with this, faith is the key word.

Next time I will begin to examine in more detail whether a distorted spirituality is all there is that helps keep most of us quiescent and compliant most of the time, before addressing in a subsequent post some of the ways in which capitalism can fairly be described as the new religion on the block. Much later I will be examining whether a better balance is possible, where a pure and undiluted spirituality combined with greater coherence could help us provide a more effective resistance to an increasingly unbridled market.

Footnotes:

[1] I have adapted this from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description as his ship approached New York harbour in 1912: on seeing the Wall Street skyscrapers ‘He had laughed and said, “Those are the minarets of the West.”’ (Diary of Juliet Thompson – page 233).
[2] Page 179. All page references in the footnotes, unless otherwise specified, refer to Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality.
[3] Century of Light – page 43.
[4] Page 23.
[5] Page 3.
[6] Page 31.
[7] Page 90.
[8] Page 107.
[9] Page 7.
[10] Page 134.
[11] Page 178.
[12] Page 12.
[13] Streeck – pages 37-38.
[14] Raworth – pages 67-70.

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As happens every year at this time, the footfall on this blog drops very low. Therefore, I’m taking a break till early January. When I come back on line I’ll be looking at an intriguing book which argues that there is a new religion on the block. As the authors put it (page 23): ‘God is dead, but has been resurrected as Capital. Shopping malls have become the new altars for worshipping the God of money.’

And the new religion is not all it’s cracked up to be, as well as not lacking its own serious disadvantages. It is costing lives as well as controlling them.

More of that in January, when my Parliament of Selves also comes back into session.

Until then, Season’s Greetings! Hope all goes well over Christmas and the New Year.

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The Purpose of Poetry

At the end of the last post I asked, ‘What, for Jennings, was the purpose of poetry and to what extent did she achieve it?’

Dana Green’s biography contains a wealth of pointers in this direction. For a start, she argues that (page 250):

Writing verse helped her find unity in herself as she confronted the tumultuous world within and around her.

This is even more compelling an issue now than it was then. Divisions within us resonate with conflicts outside us in escalating spirals of destructiveness. My recent sequence of posts on the Bahá’í concept of unity deals with some of the possible remedies for this in more detail. It’s intriguing that I should perhaps be adding poetry to that list, something perhaps will need to explore in more details at some point.

What exactly this meant to her in practice was less easy to define. She expressed a concern (page 38):

that English poets had ‘lost their grip’ and ‘got too far away from life.’ What she felt was needed were thoughtful poems with big subjects . . .

What were the ‘big subjects’ she was referring to here?

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I resonated in particular to her desire (page 41) ‘to examine the relationship between appearance and the real meaning of things … Her hope was to discover the truths that underlie ordinary experience.’ She hoped to fill a gap in the oeuvre (page 42): ‘ She lamented that there were so many states of mind not yet dignified by poetry.’

Excavated by Greene from her notebooks, her vision is expressed in the following slightly different terms (page 141):

Like all art, poetry is not a means of escape from one’s own life or from a violent world; rather it is an escape into a greater reality. It civilizes and enobles and gives a sense of justice. Poetry is an onward drive forward towards truth and the mystery.

Also important for me is her idea of poetry helping to restore a much needed balance. She wrote in ‘Poetry To-Day’ in 1961 (page 45):

What the poem discovers – and this is its chief function – is order amid chaos, meaning in the middle of confusion, and affirmation at the heart of despair.

Her emphasis on effectively creating ‘unity in herself’ is mirrored in the Bahá’í Revelation. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 78):

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. 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.

Bahá’u’lláh before him has made it abundantly clear how high the level of unity is that we must achieve both within us and between us. It’s a key spiritual task.

It is not surprising then that Jennings sees poetry as essentially religious. In her introduction Greene quotes Jennings (page xvi): ‘Poetry is an art/That’s close to all/Religion.’ Also as Greene comments (page 52): ‘For her, poetry and religion were inseparable.’

Greene explains Jennings’ most precise description of what this means in practice (page 68):

She defines poetry as the language of embodiment and enactment by which through rhythm, word order, and diction a spiritual dimension is conveyed.

She was under no illusion that it would be an easy task to create and subsequently sell such poems. She believed that (page 94) ‘in the materialistic and technological twentieth century, Christian poets confronted great difficulties, and the greater poet, the greater the conflict.’

In Considerations (Collected Poems  – page 101) she asserts:

But poetry must change and make
The world seem new in each design.
It asks much labour, much heartbreak,
Yet it can conquer in a line.

The Issue of Quality versus Quantity

Before we look at some examples of her poetry trying to determine how successful she was in this respect I need to mention in more detail the caveats expressed by many critics about what they felt was the dubious quality of her poetry at the same time as her popularity remained unquestioned.

As Greene puts it (page 50): ‘Her poetic output was prolific and her subject matter frequently repetitive, both of which were to become major criticisms of her work,’ and again (page 100) ‘a common criticism of Jennings . . . . was that she wrote too much and thereby muffled her good poems.’

This does not suggest, of course, that all her poems were bad. Some critics, though, had more wide-ranging doubts. For example (page 52) Larkin, also a popular poet, acknowledged that Jennings ‘is still an explainer rather than a describer.’

Her publisher, Michael Schmidt at Carcanet, was probably the best placed to testify to her popularity. Growing Points, which marked the beginning of their long publishing relationship (page 119) sold well, had sixteen editions, and was translated into three languages.’

He later explained her continuing popularity (page 186) asserting:

that Jennings was ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement, [and] attributing her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, which was generally written in strict form.’

What is completely uncontested is the depth of her commitment to poetry. Greene shares a typical exchange towards the end of her life (page 177):

She was insulted when people would ask ‘Are you writing still?’ and responded to this ‘hated question’ with the retort, ‘Are you breathing still?’

Now for the difficult bit – how to assess whether the quality of her poetry survived its quantity.

This is inevitably going to be a rather subjective exercise, and I’m aware that many professionals in the field of poetry will probably disagree with my assessment, plausibly explaining my enthusiasm away by flagging up how her themes and personality map onto some of my favourite preoccupations. I will try to root my comments into the firmest possible ground, but in the end de gustibus nil disputandum – there’s no arguing about taste.

I had decided to choose an early poem, one that in my view powerfully conveys the fear which underlay many of her frustrating patterns of behaviour, and a later one, focused more on memories and the challenges of creativity, to examine this in more detail. Bearing in mind the key sentence from Greene, I planned to look for how effectively ‘a spiritual dimension is conveyed’ through the vehicle of her poetry.

I had chosen those poems because the first one deals head on with darkness, through which it would be a challenge for anyone to catch a glimpse of a spiritual dimension’s light. The second one, though melancholy, has more light.

I did not chose any of her poems later than 1985, because the New Collected Poems of 2002 had not arrived in the local Waterstones in time for the end of this sequence.

I have now had time, however, to read the introduction, and it contains a sentence by Michael Schmidt that indicates why I was finding it so difficult to make a start using Song for a Birth or a Death (Collected Poems – page 48), first published 1961 as first poem in a collection of that name, or Precursors, the last poem in her collection of 1985.

He wrote (page xxiii):

Though she wrote discrete lyrics, she is a poet who, like another Catholic writer, David Jones, makes most sense in extenso: the predictable and pedestrian exist beside the epiphanic.

I feel there is unevenness within a single lyric at times, maybe quite often. So, I decided I needed to try and convey her impact by taking a sequence of poems, after only a few brief words about the poems I was intending to expand upon.

Contrary to my original plan, this will have to spill over into another post.

 

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