Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

 … 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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Having done a helicopter view of my reading about what pushes us into evil action, now I must tackle Jordan Peterson’s approach to all this.

What exactly is my problem, given that so much that he says resonates with so much that I have read and come to believe? Maybe he doesn’t carry my understanding any deeper, but why do a step back from endorsing his viewpoint where it matches?

I have to say I am struggling to define this exactly. It’s more a gut feeling in some ways than a fully articulated critique.

I don’t like his rather over-confident and somewhat dogmatic style, it’s true. But it feels as though it’s something more than that. What I’m going to say is the closest I can get for now. I hope to put more effort into tackling it more carefully later, but at the moment my right-brain more poetic side is getting fed up with what it experiences as my left-brain yet again hijacking the plan to spend more time on spiritual poetry. So after this rough and ready attempt to pin down my problem with Peterson’s approach, I plan to pick up the threads of my exploration of Antonio Machado.

Concerning Peterson, I think it is largely because I have some difficulties with his fundamental premise. I’m concerned that his perspective might be like a tower of pennies standing on a bent coin at the bottom. It feels as though it could topple over at any moment. I cannot quite trust it even when he seems to be saying something I should agree with. I need to get a better grip of it.

Order and Chaos

The premise he seems to operate from at times is the dichotomy he detects between order and chaos, equating the former with masculinity and the latter with the feminine (pages 40-42):

Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the… yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchal structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals… Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly.

. . . Chaos – the unknown – is symbolically associated with feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers… As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of the cave and the accident at the side of the road.

… Elkhonon Goldberg … has proposed quite lucidly and directly that the very hemispheric structure of the cortex reflects the fundamental division between novelty (the unknown, or chaos) and routinisation (the known, order).

For a start I feel there may well be two misattributions or confusions here, even before we dig more deeply: yin-yang and masculine-feminine.

Richard Wilhelm, in his introduction to the I-Ching (lxvi), tackles the issue of linking yin/yang with feminine/masculine, he writes:

To the disappointment of such discoverers it must be said that there is nothing to indicate this in the original meaning of the words yin and yang. In its primary meaning yin is “the cloudy,” “the overcast,” and yang means actually “banners waving in the sun,” that is, something “shone upon,” or bright… Thence the two expressions were carried over into the Book of Changes and applied to the two alternating primal states of being. It should be pointed out, however, that the terms yin and yang do not occur in this derived sense either in the actual text of the book or in the oldest commentaries. In the Commentary on the Decision the terms used for the opposites are “the firm” and “the yielding,” not yang and yin.

Wilhelm goes on to say that ‘change is conceived of partly as the continuous transformation of the one force into the other and partly as a cycle of complexes of phenomenon, in themselves connected, such as day and night, summer and winter.’ It is all subject to the universal law of tao.

As long as we disconnect the link Peterson implies between the left-brain and masculinity and the right-brain and femininity, I’m happy to accept the idea that the former deals with the known and the latter with the unknown. Iain McGilchrist sees this as one of the characteristic distinctions between the two hemispheres (The Master & his Emissary – page 40): ‘… in almost every case what is new must first be present in the right hemisphere. … The left hemisphere deals with what it knows.’

I don’t propose to dwell at any length on the way Peterson ignores the evidence that there have been matriarchal societies. I will accept that we have currently inherited a long tradition, going back millennia, of pragmatically successful and enduring cultures that are male dominated. I also accept that over all he does see some positives in chaos, such as creativity, and a downside to order, in terms of resistance to necessary change and overcontrol.

On Ditching Dichotomies

What bothers me most of all is what appears sometimes to be his investment in the reality of this dichotomy and his understanding of its nature. I’m with McGilchrist when he writes in his introduction (page 11): ‘It has been said that the world is divided into two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I am with the second group.’

Peterson doesn’t seem to see it that way. Plausibly, but I think mistakenly, he writes (page 43 – my emphasis):

We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them.

I need to quote also from Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief to capture his full sense though:

Unprotected exposure to unexplored territory produces fear. The individual is protected from such fear as a consequence of “ritual imitation of the Great Father” – as a consequence of the adoption of group identity, which restricts the meaning of things, and confers predictability on social interactions. When identification with the group is made absolute, however – when everything has to be controlled, when the unknown is no longer allowed to exist – the creative exploratory process that updates the group can no longer manifest itself. This “restriction of adaptive capacity” dramatically increases the probability of social aggression and chaos.

In 12 Rules for Life he expands on this (page 38 – my emphasis):

Chaos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience – two of the most basic subdivisions Being itself. But they’re not things, or objects, and they’re not experienced as such. Things or objects are part of the objective world. They’re inanimate; spiritless. They’re dead. This is not true of chaos and order. Those are perceived, experienced and understood… as personalities . . .

Because 12 Rules for Life is written in a somewhat unsystematic way, with different chapters dealing with different rules rather than having a progressive and consistent analysis of his overall view in some logical fashion, it’s hard to be sure I’ve really grasped his core point correctly yet. Because my other half, as I have said, wants to get back to Machado, I’m reluctant to tackle his much longer book Maps of Meaning even so.

Why does his approach trouble me? It’s partly because he looks as though he has assumed that we only apply the word chaos in a deeply negative sense to what we don’t know. This makes two mistakes, it seems to me.

I’ll make my definition of his first mistake concretely.

Chaos is not inevitably the death at the side of the road, any more than Order is sweetness and light. Order was also the organized slaughter of the Holocaust, just as chaos can lead to new insights and new beginnings. While he seems to acknowledge this possibility in some places the dogmatic certainty of his language in other places seems to ignore it. Both the known (order/the firm) and the unknown (chaos/the yielding) can lead to the negation we call death, of which we are understandably terrified, but they are intrinsically neither negation nor death in themselves.

Now for my sense of a second mistake on his part, which I realise may be simply nitpicking but I can’t shake it off as it feels important to me.

Even more of a problem for me is that I am not convinced that we perceive order and chaos as two distinct categories. I think we can just as easily see them as at opposite ends of the same dimension, and many of us do.

Moreover, I am not convinced either that they are coterminous with the known and the unknown, something that I will be coming back to in more detail in the final post. What we know or do not know, as he realises, is to do with a subjective dimension, and the familiarity of what we know can lead some of us to feel comfortable and safe, whereas the unfamiliarity of what we do not know makes many of us afraid. There are many people for whom the converse is also true: order is suffocating and to be avoided at all costs, and chaos is exciting and to welcomed whenever possible. These subjective states will occur in ways that map onto chaos or order when we have correctly identified those objective conditions. However an order that we do not recognize as such because it is unfamiliar will frighten us, just as a chaos that we fail to see as such might leave us feeling safe. Things are possibly more complicated than his model seems to allow for.

Two examples of one aspect of that will help here, I think.

The incipient chaos that climate change is brewing went for a long time completely unrecognised. Similarly the native inhabitants of a volcanic region can sense the impending chaos of an eruption to which incomers are completely blind. Some people still refuse to accept the reality of climate change in the defensive manoeuvre we call denial: that is not quite the same thing as being completely oblivious to impending or actual chaos.

Again I think that later in the book he clearly acknowledges this aspect when he writes (page 266):

Imagine a loyal and honest wife suddenly confronted by evidence of her husband’s infidelity… One day she sees him in a downtown cafe with another woman, interacting with her in a manner difficult to rationalise and ignore. The limitations and inaccuracy of her former perceptions become immediately and painfully obvious.

Her theory of her husband collapses. However, the spread-out nature of his argument across so many different rules, discussed in so many different chapters, makes it hard to grasp his overall perspective coherently: you have to pick up on and blend complementary aspects of his argument divided across so many pages.

When I have visited China I have encountered a parallel but not identical problem in that culture – where we experience order as chaos: a simple example is the traffic in the big cities. Those who live there seem able to detect an order and predictability that allow them to know when and how to cross the road which is invisible to me when I am standing on the corner of the junction of two dual carriageways and am clearly expected to cross diagonally. I see chaos in-between me and the opposite corner of the junction: the locals calmly navigate across to the other side. I am sure that on a larger scale an immigrant struggles to make sense of a new culture as a whole, and it takes some considerable time before the pattern underlying what looks like chaotic nonsense begins to emerge. Order is experienced as chaos. This point he does not seem so aware of.

When we stare into the complex chaos of the economic and political system some of us believe we can read it accurately, even when this is impossible, as Kahneman has demonstrated. He investigated where the border falls between what we can and what we cannot predict (Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 4339-4347):

If subjective confidence is not to be trusted, how can we evaluate the probable validity of an intuitive judgment? When do judgments reflect true expertise? When do they display an illusion of validity? The answer comes from the two basic conditions for acquiring a skill:

1. an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

2. an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice. . . . .

Physicians, nurses, athletes, and firefighters . . . face complex but fundamentally orderly situations. The accurate intuitions . . .  described are due to highly valid cues that the expert . . .  has learned to use. . . In contrast, 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.

In this context it is interesting to note that many civilisations have chosen to found themselves in danger zones such as near volcanoes and close to shifting tectonic plates that trigger earthquakes. The reason for that, apparently, is the soil fertility near volcanoes and the useful or valuable metals and minerals more readily available in earthquake zones.

This illustrates that chaos can be productive, so productive in fact that it sometimes compensates for the risk of trading with it. I think it is a mistake though to completely conflate the disruption of chaos with either creativity or death. It has the potential for either, but is simply a profound disruption of an existing order or a complete absence of obvious order, making it feel unpredictable and potentially dangerous, though sometimes worth plunging into at the risk of death as the rewards could make it worthwhile.

A pause for breath now. In any case my left-brain is getting pretty fed up of finding words to express my right-brain’s perspective. More on this next time.

Read Full Post »

I left the analysis of the source of evil actions with Haidt’s idea of the ‘hive switch,’ which took Zimbardo’s understanding a step further in terms of group influences.

Being part of a whole has dangers when it comes to the out-group, even when the groups have been randomly created by experimenters, such as was the case with Zimbardo, and also with others who introduced no power differential.

Labelling, Denigration, Dehumanising and Genocide

When in-groups and out-groups exist in the real world the price paid by the out-group can be even higher. For instance, certain kinds of language are particularly toxic. One example of this is the denigrating labels one group of people can use against another. Referring to others as ‘rats,’ ‘cockroaches’ or ‘a swarm’ are typical examples of this abuse. This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

This point is succinctly made by Hauser in his book Moral Minds (page 199)[10]:

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group/out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: Declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation . . . .

This same process can be seen in a slightly difference form as John Fitzgerald Medina explains in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology. He unpacks how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and about how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. The Nazis, as well as highly esteemed figures in American history, justified their self-serving actions by invoking the notion that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior, an ideology of racism that persists in America and to some extent in Europe to this day, potential seeds of future denigration and genocide if we do not find effective means of transforming our collective consciousness. The diverse reactions, some of them very negative, towards the current influx of refugees suggests we might still have a long way to go before we are cleansed of racism and would never again be tempted towards ethnic cleansing of some kind at some point if we thought it served our purposes effectively enough.

Ricard in his book on altruism also deals in some detail with how certain social and psychological factors can distance us from the humanity of others and lead to extremes of cruelty and mass killings (cf especially Chapter 30 – Dehumanising the Other) even though there is a deep-seated natural revulsion against killing our own kind (Chapter 29). While it is hard to predict in any given situation what proportion of a population will actively participate in a pogrom, if we can convince ourselves the other is not human our reluctance to kill can be overcome with horrific consequences. This remains true to this day and we would be wise not to forget it. A recent BBC radio programme featured a scholar who had investigated in depth the thinking of groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda. He pointed out that the division, made in the minds of followers of these two terrorist organisations, between believers and unbelievers (kafirs) was absolute. They are two separate kinds of being, and therefore only the believer is fully human and deserving of compassion.

Mohsin Hamid makes a telling point on this issue in a recent Guardian article. His focus is on how the idea of the purity of the in-group is used to justify discrimination and even atrocities against the out-group. He started with a discussion of Pakistan, which translated means ‘The Land of the Pure,’ but rapidly expanded the scope of his analysis:

Pakistan is not unique. Rather, it is at the forefront of a global trend. All around the world, governments and would-be governments appear overwhelmed by complexity [Could he mean perceived chaos?] and are blindly unleashing the power of fission, championing quests for the pure. In India a politics of Hindu purity is wrenching open deep and bloody fissures in a diverse society. In Myanmar a politics of Buddhist purity is massacring and expelling the Rohingya. In the United States a politics of white purity is marching in white hoods and red baseball caps, demonising Muslims and Hispanic people, killing and brutalising black people, jeering at intellectuals, and spitting in the face of climate science.

The Toxic Effects of Inequality

However, there are other setting conditions for this kind of behavior, which relate to other Teachings of the Faith in a way that illustrates the beautiful coherence and interdependence of the various aspects of the whole of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. Take economic inequality. The Faith emphasises the importance of reducing such inequity, as well as eliminating prejudice of any kind, no matter what it’s origin. This would of course be important simply to alleviate the effects of the resulting extreme poverty on the disadvantaged such as greater health problems and a shorter life. However, inequality also has implications for the issue of denigrating language and persecution.

The matter is, in truth, quite complex. Chua pursues a possibility, which links a minority’s economic dominance with a savage backlash from the deprived majority. Of course Chua is not claiming that extremes of wealth justify the extermination of the wealthy by the impoverished, nor is she arguing that such extremes are the only motive for genocide. She is, though, saying that extreme inequality is an important but previously discounted factor that has to be added into the mix. Even the conferring of power to the previously disadvantaged does not dispel its toxic consequences.

The inequality obviously needs to be eliminated, while somehow ensuring that it is not by eliminating a group of people! This seems to be far easier said than done.

Wilkinson and Pickett (I came very close then to typing Wilson Picket – not a name that will mean much to the under fifties), in their analysis of inequality in The Spirit Level, cover a huge amount of ground in a thorough and well-balanced treatment of the topic.

To compact their case into the density of a singularity, they produce evidence to substantiate their claim that inequality underlies many of the problems in society that we insist on picking off one by one: these include violence and a widespread distrust that corrodes community life.

This is in their view largely because, the greater the degree of inequality, the more stressful life becomes for everyone, rich and poor alike. Increased stress brings numerous other problems in its wake, not least in terms of health. The tensions in the pecking order that inequality brings are at the heart of the social stresses involved, and social stresses, they argue, are the most damaging forms of stress both for individual health and social cohesion.

They look at a number of possible objections to their thesis and find good reasons, in their view, for dismissing them. For example, they find evidence to suggest that the direction of causation is from inequality to the problem, not from some other variable such as an English speaking culture. Portugal, a very different culture, is at the negative end of the problem spectrum along with the U.S. and the U.K. and shares inequality as the most plausible potential explanation. Scandinavian society along with Japan, also very different, is at the positive end of the problem spectrum and shares high levels of equality along with Norway, Sweden and the rest as the most plausible potential explanation.

Our Attitude to Death

There is another perspective to add into the mix here to give a more complete picture of my thinking so far. An extreme inability to come to terms with death – and its children, trauma, pain and suffering – creates what Solomon et al call ‘cracks in [our] shields’ (The Worm at the Core – page 185 passim). This in turn, as they unpack, brings all kinds of destruction in its wake.

They do seem to rubbish religion at times, which doesn’t appeal to me, but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – they accurately capture an essential problem. They may see faith as a false fix, as in a way everything is in their eyes, but they pin down exactly one thing that needs fixing, almost above all else perhaps, and demonstrate that how we choose to fix it can lead to dire or delightful consequences.

We have ‘clumsy modes of dealing with terror,’ they quote Yalom as stating (page 190). Unless we establish a firm enough foundation of meaning and a strong enough platform of self to stand upon, death, or rather our fear of death, will always unground us, pathologise our minds – narcissism, anxiety, depression, psychosis, OCD, anorexia (and maybe psychopathy; I’ll have to ponder more on that) are according to them at least partially rooted in a failure of meaning and selfhood in the face of death.

Solomon et al insist on saying ‘self-esteem’ albeit in a healthy rather than an unhealthy sense: I wish they didn’t.

I prefer selfhood. For now I’ll shorthand it by quoting a dictionary definition: ‘a complete sense of self.’ A complete sense of self, for me, has to go far beyond anything that makes me more important than anyone or anything else, as Robert Wright powerfully explains, and has to recognise how whatever I am is connected in some way to the universe as a whole and to all forms of life within it. When I damage you or them, I damage me.

They bring various kinds of evidence into the mix, usually studies showing, for example, that exposure to death stimuli results in higher levels of intolerance for those who are ‘different’ in some way, or in greater use of alcohol or tobacco.

In their summary of ‘psychological disorders as terror mismanagement’ (page 190) the kind of evidence Solomon et al adduce includes a significant link at times between death-anxiety and psychosis (page 191):

One study of 205 hospitalised schizophrenic man found that 80 patients were overtly preoccupied with death, and that death fears coincided with the onset of the schizophrenic symptoms or with times when the symptoms were magnified.

They argue that ‘[s]ubject to bouts of overwhelming terror, schizophrenics construct imaginary worlds – which are as real to them as this book is to you – to counteract the dread.’

In spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I have to admit they are making an important point.

They argue that all of us tend to create destructive solutions to the existential problem of death. This comes in two main forms: meaning systems/world views and self-esteem.

Let’s take world views as an example of their case (page 131):

It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterise them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are. Because cultural conceptions of reality keep a lid on mortal dread, acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs contrary to our own unleashes the very terror those beliefs serve to quell. So we must parry the threat by derogating and dehumanising those with alternative views of life

The same kind of process applies if our self-esteem, as they term it, is threatened.

Because their book is focused on proving the nature of the problem they don’t say much about the solutions. They make a strong case that death denial is ultimately destructive leading to problems ranging from mindless consumerism through mental health problems to outright fanaticism. They spend less time contending that a constructive acceptance of death and its integration into a viable pattern of life bears the fruits of a common sense of humanity and a desire for positive purpose. Destructive terror-reducing purposes can be avoided. They share my liking for the existential therapy model, but don’t go far enough beyond that for me.

I think that just about covers the main influences on my thinking, apart from Bahá’í sources, which I will come back to later. Now to return to a consideration of Peterson’s perspective in the next post.

Read Full Post »

Last time I described my quest to understand our penchant for evil acts, including what might help us get past this fatal flaw, and what drew me to buy and start reading Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life.

Before I begin to tackle his exact contribution to this quest, I need to summarise the key ideas I’ve gleaned from those who are his forerunners in my investigations. My right-brain has agreed to this because I can pull most of this in from previous posts so it won’t greatly delay its desperately needed return to poetry.

Our Moral Imagination

Robert Wright in his book The Evolution of God argues that in evolutionary terms we are being forced to expand our sense of common humanity ever wider if we are not to face destructive challenges.

He states (page 428):

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (page 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

He rescues this from cliché by pointing out that the idea of common humanity may be a self-evident point when we read or hear it, but it’s far from obvious if you look at the way we act. This is because we are under the illusion that we are special (page 429):

We all base our daily lives on this premise – that our welfare is more important than the welfare of pretty much anyone else, with the possible exception of close kin. . . . We see our own resentments as bona fide grievances and we see the grievances of others as mere resentments.

He links the progress of humanity with the application of the unifying insight in daily life (page 429):

. . . . the salvation of the global social system entails moral progress not just in the sense of human welfare; there has to be as a prerequisite for that growth, a closer encounter by individual human beings with moral truth.

At the end of this sequence I will be exploring more fully the implications of this with the help of the diagram on the left. For now all I will say is that it will take a long period of time before enough of us to make a real difference shift from the ‘me now’ position to expanding the compass of our compassionate understanding so that it embraces the whole of humanity.

Writght feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos (we’ll be coming back to that word again in much more detail later). He feels that (ibid):

. . . history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation . . .

by which he means salvation of the social structure. He feels (page 430) that religions that have ‘failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well.’

Jeremy Rifkin, in his thought-provoking book The Empathic Civilisation, articulates an important caveat to any assumption that an increasing global culture will inevitably move us onward and upward. He adduces evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start of the book (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

In terms of Wright’s position, entropy notwithstanding, what we need to understand is what is blocking the process he describes of expanding the scope and range of our ‘moral imagination,’ or in my terms the compass of our compassion.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Our Objects of Devotion

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm 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 (pages 260-61):

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.

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 book, Is 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.

In Wright’s terms, if the compass of our compassion is set too narrow, and we only identify with a subgroup of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole, we’re doomed.

Idealism, Ideology and Mistaking our Maps for Reality

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

McGilchrist’s contribution towards enriching my understanding of this issue is in his profound interrogation of the negative impact of the dominant left-hemisphere’s processing on our thinking. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on pages 228-229:

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

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

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

Group Dynamics

There are also social facilitation, group difference and status differential effects. Take, for instance, Zimbardo’s perspective, which is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behaviour of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations that steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things, not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

The power of such influences is reinforced by Haidt’s idea of the hive effect.

Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.):

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

Being ‘part of a whole’ can have an unacceptable price, though, as I will explore next time.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »