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One hour’s reflection is preferable to 70 years’ pious worship.’

(Hadith quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán)

Central to the task of reconceptualizing the system of human relationships is the process that Bahá’u’lláh refers to as consultation. “In all things it is necessary to consult,” is His advice. “The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.”

(The Prosperity of Humankind, Section III)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212)

I explained last week that the talk I planned to give at the interfaith meeting in Holland House never happened. I gave a rather different one instead. These are the bare bones of what I said.

Introduction:

I began with a brief explanation of the core belief of the Bahá’í Faith: unity or oneness. This is rooted in our sense that there is only one God, the great world religions share the same spiritual core and the whole of humanity is basically one family.

In terms of the individual, unity extends from within each of us to what exists between us. Bahá’u’lláh explains this in these terms: ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

My understanding of this includes the idea that we need to heal the divisions within us if we are to heal the divisions between us and vice versa. To contribute to the best of my ability to the creation of a supportive and united community I have to resolve the conflicts within me by bringing the ‘multiple identities that were born of passion and desire,’ as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá puts it, together in obedience to a higher and worthier power. Only in this way may ‘all souls become as one soul.’

Terraces on Mount Carmel

What does this mean in practice

We must all come to recognize the truth of what the Universal House of Justice conveyed to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the 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.

They explain that a ‘commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower’ us and enable us to awaken each other ‘to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.’

When we look at our local communities, which is where an active concern for the wellbeing of others starts, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith reinforces the message that we ‘must do [our] utmost to extend at all times the helping hand to the poor, the sick, the disabled, the orphan, the widow, irrespective of colour, caste and creed.’[1]

Within the Faith at local level the Bahá’í community and beyond often benefits, when the community is of sufficient size, from the guidance of a local Spiritual Assembly: at national level the National Assembly does the same. Even where a local community is too small to have an Assembly, all of its members, as far as humanly possible, should be actively safeguarding the wellbeing of everyone within that community, and beyond if within its capacity.

Two key components

There are two other key components about which I spoke briefly on the day. Without these two components community life would be that much the poorer.

I will deal as briefly with them here as I did on the day because I hope to return to them more deeply when I report on a recent talk I gave about the Bahá’í contribution to understanding mental illness. I’ve also explored them on this blog at some length in the past.

Reflection is the first, concerned as it is with the individual. Reflection is not just thinking more deeply about something outside ourselves: it also involves separating consciousness from its own contents. We come to realise our minds are like a mirror, and just as a mirror is not what is reflected in it, our minds are not what is reflected in them. We are not what we feel, think, imagine, sense, remember or plan. These change from moment to moment. We are the capacity to do all of those things. We are not even who we think or feel we are. We are the emotional and sensing thinker who lies beneath all thought.

The words reflection, contemplation and meditation are used in the Bahá’í Writings in closely related ways, and this is true of the talk ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave at a Society of Friends’ meeting house in London in 1913. Amongst other things He is recorded as having said (Paris Talks – pages 174-176):

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . . The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .’

Even if you find it hard to accept the existence of God, it still perhaps makes sense to see this process of reflection as putting us in touch with far deeper and wiser aspects of our being and as releasing us from the hold of shallower and more treacherous perceptions. His use of the image of the mirror is also significant in this context, and not just because of the possible pun in English on the word reflect.

For me, realising the power of reflection enables us to break out of our often divisive patterns of thought and become more in harmony with our deepest self, more united within. In that state of mind we can take better care of ourselves and others.

We become more able to compare notes with others in order to gain a clearer picture of reality and to formulate more effective plans for dealing with our problems. Reflection enables us to consult more effectively.

Paul Lample explains the exact benefits of consultation as follows (Revelation and Social Reality pages 199 & 215):

Consultation is the method of Bahá’í discourse that allows decisions to be made from the bottom up and enacted, to the extent possible, through rational, dispassionate, and just means, while minimising personal machinations, argumentation, or self-interested manipulation. . .

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context.

It’s not difficult to see that in a community of any kind, whether Bahá’í or not, the exercise of these two skills will improve the wellbeing of all its members and enhance the quality of its community life.

The reciprocally potentiating combination of these two processes in this precise way is, as far as I know, unique to the Bahá’í Faith.

I hope to explain more about exactly how this might work in a therapeutic context at a later date.

Footnote:

[1] Shoghi Effendi Principles of Bahá’í Administration BPT UK 1976 Page 39.

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I ended the previous post with a quote concerning the influence of diet.

What has become abundantly clear is that what we eat affects many aspects of our health. A recent book[1] on psychobiotics explores one previously underestimated area to demonstrate the truth of this. A Guardian review pulls out the main points in detail including such statements as ‘Over the past decade, research has suggested the gut microbiome might potentially be as complex and influential as our genes when it comes to our health and happiness. As well as being implicated in mental health issues, it’s also thought the gut microbiome may influence our athleticism, weight, immune function, inflammation, allergies, metabolism and appetite.’

The inescapable conclusion, as all the researchers are keen to point out, is ‘that no matter how repetitive the advice, and difficult to achieve in the west, a varied diet rich in fresh vegetables and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, along with exercise and stress management, is the route to sustained gut (and general) health.’

Self-help

For reasons which modern medicine has made increasingly clear, Bahá’ís are prohibited from using alcohol and other mind altering substances: ‘Experience hath shown how greatly the renouncing of smoking, of intoxicating drink, and of opium, conduceth to health and vigour, to the expansion and keenness of the mind and to bodily strength.’[2]

We are also enjoined to take good care of our health ourselves in other simple ways, beyond just diet. ‘You should certainly safeguard your nerves,’ Shoghi Effendi says, ‘and force yourself to take time, and not only for prayer and meditation, but for real rest and relaxation….’ [3]

With great prescience he also emphasises the critical importance of sleep: ‘Regarding your question: there are very few people who can get along without eight hours sleep. If you are not one of those, you should protect your health by sleeping enough. The Guardian himself finds that it impairs his working capacity if he does not try and get a minimum of seven or eight hours.’[4]

It wasn’t until I recently read Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep that I came to realise just how vitally important sleep is to our health. It pulls together evidence for the importance of sleep at every stage of life, and spells out in detail the damage lack of sleep causes not just to memory and concentration, but also to the health of body and brain in a multitude of ways: to name but a few, by raising the risk of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and cancer as well as by reducing the efficacy of the immune system. More of that in my next post.

Lucretia by Rembrandt

More Challenging Aspects

Other important points to bear in mind when helping those who are ill or whenever we are ill ourselves include the spiritual dimension of our being specifically, and not just prayer and meditation. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that ‘The connection of the spirit with the body is like that of the sun with the mirror.’ The spirit or soul cannot be damaged by what damages the body nor helped by what cures it: ‘Briefly, the human spirit is in one condition. It neither becomes ill from the diseases of the body nor [is] cured by its health.’[5]

There are many reasons why factoring this in might enhance the way we treat others and the way we look at our own illness. Staff and relatives, if they believed in the soul, would find it even harder than they do to treat a comatose patient like an object rather than a human being. I also would find it easier, to some degree at least, to cope with a life impairing illness if I believed that I had a soul. These benefits do not, I know, amount to proof of the existence of a soul. I’ve dealt with that evidence at length elsewhere. What I believe this evidence strongly indicates is that, just as I cannot prove I have a soul, science cannot prove I don’t. To believe in a soul is as rational as not to believe in one: given the demonstrable benefits of belief to quality of life I know what side of this argument my money should be on, even if I didn’t already accept the reality of the soul.

An even more complex issue, which I have also dealt with at length elsewhere on this blog concerns pain and suffering. Shoghi Effendi gave this response to a question: ‘As to your question concerning the meaning of physical suffering and its relation to mental and spiritual healing: Physical pain is a necessary accompaniment of all human existence, and as such is unavoidable. As long as there will be life on earth, there will be also suffering, in various forms and degrees. But suffering, although an inescapable reality, can nevertheless be utilized as a means for the attainment of happiness. . . . Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us to better adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self-improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom. It is sometimes only when all our suffering has passed that we become aware of its usefulness.’[6]

The final tricky point concerns my previous professional vocation.

As I have explained elsewhere and will be republishing later, I am acutely aware that psychiatry has its limitations, which psychiatrists do not always recognise. Davies marshals a wealth of evidence in support of this contention.  If a mental health team acts as though all they really need to know is the diagnostic label, and what they suppose is the completely effective medication that goes with it, and all they have to do is make sure the patient swallows enough tablets, the outcome will be poor at best and potentially life-damaging at worst. If on the other hand, they take into account, not just the label and the tablets, but also the whole person and their context, working in consultation with the service user to create a recovery plan within the framework of a genuinely multi-disciplinary team, then the evidence suggests the outcome will be good and the recovery more stable.

This means that Shoghi Effendi’s cautious advocacy of psychiatry is music to my not necessarily objective ears: ‘Psychiatric treatment in general,’ he says, ‘is no doubt an important contribution to medicine, but we must believe it is still a growing rather than a perfected science. As Bahá’u’lláh has urged us to avail ourselves of the help of good physicians Bahá’ís are certainly not only free to turn to psychiatry for assistance but should, when advisable, do so. This does not mean psychiatrists are always wise or always right, it means we are free to avail ourselves of the best medicine has to offer us.’[7]

I’ll leave you to read my subsequent posts if you need to know more about my personal views on that one.

Hopefully this has been a reasonably clear helicopter view of the Bahá’í position on health and wellbeing. I think I’ve gone on long enough in any case. I’ll stop hear and catch my breath. I don’t want to precipitate a heart attack.

Footnotes:

[1] The Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food and the New Science of the Gut-Brain Connection by Cryan, Dinan and Anderson.
[2] (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Sec. 129, page 150)
[3] 
(In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 23 November 1947 to an individual believer)
[4] 
(In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 15 September 1951 to two believers)
[5] (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “Some Answered Questions”, pp. 228-29)
[6] 
(In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 29 May 1935 to an individual believer)
[7](In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 15 June 1950 to the National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles)

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Holland House

Last Monday I was scheduled to give a short talk at Holland House, Cropthorne, to an interfaith group on the Bahá’í approach to health and well-being. It was an opportunity both to share the Bahá’í perspective on these matters and learn from other religions what their take on the matter is. I hope to deal with these other points of view in a separate post. This one is going to be long enough without them! It was another occasion when I had more to say than the time allowed and readers of this blog are paying the price!

More than that though, this time the talk I eventually gave was rather different from the one I planned, though it included some of the original points.

I was derailed by various things. No pun intended, but the train journey there was a nightmare. The four carriage train before mine had been cancelled when its brakes failed. The two carriage train I was on had to find space not just for us but for all the passengers from the first train who were still waiting. Sardine time! At every stop the wait got longer and longer as it became ever more difficult to squeeze more sardines into the tin. My chance of getting my connection faded gradually into Never Never Land.

I’d already begun to revise my talk when I got the final copy of the programme a few days before. It spelt out the topic of the day more clearly than the earlier version: ‘How does my faith community understand and support wholeness, wellbeing and health in individuals and communities?’ I’d started to rework it in the time available but needed to do more on the train.

That proved easier said than done. When I boarded the train I headed for a table with only one man sitting there. As soon as I started to sit down I realised I’d miscalculated. It was one man and his guide dog. No problem, I thought. I’ve done this before. These dogs are well-trained, quiet and docile. He readjusted his dog, and I did the same with my expectations as more passengers climbed on board and a lady joined us at the table. Still not a major problem as Milo, the brown-eyed labrador, still had room to lie down quietly. Until that is a second lady asked if she could sit at the window seat beside me.

From that point on, my revision of the talk was punctuated by unpredictable interactions with Milo who was clearly excited to be surrounded by so many people at close quarters. His harness was on the table. His owner explained that when Milo had his harness on he was in work mode. Without the harness it was playtime!

I arrived at the station for my connection with the train I planned to be on long gone. The next train was more than an hour away. Time for some lateral thinking. In the end, I bit the bullet and took a taxi to the venue. No way I could carry on revising my plan as we bounced along. I had to do that while the other speakers were doing their bit and before my turn came.

Anyway, I felt it might still be worth sharing in this sequence what I originally planned to say, before trying to type up what I actually said into a later post.

So, here it is.

The Basics

It’s probably best at the start to make two very basic points.

We need to use doctors when we are ill and Bahá’ís have no reservations about accepting medical best practice. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is unequivocal: ‘the sick must refer to the doctor.’[1]

Also we have no Bahá’í healers as such, even if a Bahá’í feels they have healing powers. The Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, Shoghi Effendi makes this crystal clear: ‘although there is no objection to your helping others to regain their health, he does not feel you should associate the name Bahá’í with your work, as it gives a wrong impression; we have no “Bahá’í healers” . . . You are a Bahá’í and a healer, and that is quite different.’[2]

We are free to use the material means at our disposal to help others in need: ‘There is nothing in the teachings which would forbid a Bahá’í to bequeath his eyes to another person or for a Hospital; on the contrary it seems a noble thing to do.’[3] and ‘There is nothing in the Teachings to prevent a Bahá’í from willing his body for medical research after death. However, it should be made clear that the remains must be buried eventually and not cremated, as this is according to Bahá’í law.’[4]

Complicating Factors

Now I’m going to complicate things a little.

Medicine is not the only option. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains: ‘There are two ways of healing sickness, material means and spiritual means. The first is by the treatment of physicians; the second consisteth in prayers offered by the spiritual ones to God and in turning to Him. Both means should be used and practised.’

He also adds an interesting rider to this: ‘Illnesses which occur by reason of physical causes should be treated by doctors with medical remedies; those which are due to spiritual causes disappear through spiritual means. Thus an illness caused by affliction, fear, nervous impressions, will be healed more effectively by spiritual rather than by physical treatment. Hence, both kinds of treatment should be followed; they are not contradictory.’[5]

This is not to say that spiritual means in some way trump material means. Shoghi Effendi wrote: ‘Healing through purely spiritual forces is undoubtedly as inadequate as that which materialist physicians and thinkers vainly seek to obtain by resorting entirely to mechanical devices and methods. The best result can be obtained by combining the two processes: spiritual and physical.’[6]

This sense of the complementary nature of the relationship between spiritual and material means is increasingly being endorsed by evidence such as that adduced in Goleman and Davidson’s excellent book on meditation where they explain that what matters most is our relationship to the pain we suffer from. Our experience, as the authors put it (page 148), is not based on the direct ‘apperception of what is happening, but to a great extent upon our expectations and projections.’ They add, ‘consciousness operates as an integrator, gluing together a vast amount of elementary mental processes, most of which we are oblivious to.’

In follow up studies they state (page 167) ‘no research so far has found that meditation produces clinical improvement in chronic pain by removing the biological cause of the pain – the relief comes in how people relate to that pain.’ And at the neurological level, the more you meditate, the lower are the levels of activation in the reactive areas of the brain. So, they are clear we don’t cure the pain by meditation: we maximize the efficacy of the way we deal with it and thus enhance our quality of life.

The value of human contact and support is endorsed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: ‘We should all visit the sick. When they are in sorrow and suffering, it is a real help and benefit to have a friend come. Happiness is a great healer to those who are ill. . . .You must always have this thought of love and affection when you visit the ailing and afflicted.[7]

It may even be legitimate at times to exploit the placebo effect: ‘…if a doctor consoles a sick man by saying, “Thank God you are better, and there is hope of your recovery,” though these words are contrary to the truth, yet they may become the consolation of the patient and the turning point of the illness. This is not blameworthy.’[8]

These points also strongly suggest that what we believe has an important role in recovery from illness, and, just as negative thoughts and feelings can impair our health, positive ones can enhance it.

The wealth of modern evidence pointing towards the power of the placebo reinforces this even when physical problems are involved. The nocebo effect, where our negativity undermines the benefits of interventions, points in the same direction in terms of the impact of our minds upon our bodies. It is also becoming increasingly recognised that the value of the medical approach can be augmented by adding psychological approaches into the mix, in terms, for example, of recovery from surgery.

Caveats

There are in addition some interesting and important caveats against blindly following medical advice.

First of all, Shoghi Effendi advises: ‘Before having any serious operation, you should consult more than one qualified physician.’[9]

Secondly, we should not become unnecessarily dependent upon medication: ‘Do not neglect medical treatment when it is necessary, but leave it off when health has been restored…. Treat disease through diet, by preference, refraining from the use of drugs; and if you find what is required in a single herb, do not resort to a compounded medicament. Abstain from drugs when the health is good, but administer them when necessary.[10]

This warning seems to apply to such situations as the abuse of antibiotics and the habituation and addiction to painkillers that escalates the dosage to dangerous levels over time.

Relevant aspects of diet include sugar, which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá consistently warns us is not good in excess, and possibly meat. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá goes as far as questioning its long-term value: ‘What will be the food of the future?’ he asks. ‘Fruit and grains,’ is his answer. ‘The time will come when meat will no longer be eaten. Medical science is only in its infancy, yet it has shown that our natural diet is that which grows out of the ground. The people will gradually develop up to the condition of this natural food.[11]

I must confess to a bias here. I am a vegetarian and have been for just over forty years. I must not though give the impression that the Faith prohibits the eating of meat. It does not. However, Shoghi Effendi states: ‘It is certain, however, that if man can live on a purely vegetarian diet and thus avoid killing animals, it would be much preferable. This is, however, a very controversial question and the Bahá’ís are free to express their views on it.’[12]

Next time I’ll be picking up on the importance of diet and exploring what else is said in the Bahá’í Writings about what we can do to improve our health.

Footnotes:

[1] From a Tablet – translated from the Persian.
[2] From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 13 December 1945 to an individual believer.
[3] From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 6 September 1946 to an individual believer.
[4] 
In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 26 June 1956 to the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada.
[5] Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec 133, pages 151-52.
[6] (In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 12 March 1934 to an individual believer)
[7] 
(The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912 2nd. ed. – Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982 – page 204).
[8] 
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “Some Answered Questions”, 1st pocket-sized ed. Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1984), pp. 215-16)
[9] 
(In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 8 April 1954 to an individual believer)
[10] 
(Bahá’u’lláh, cited in J. E. Esslemont, “Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era”, 5th rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987), p. 106)
[11] (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in Julia M. Grundy. Ten Days in the Light of ‘Akka, rev. ed. – Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust – 1979, pages 8-9)
[12] 
(In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 9 July 1931 to an individual believer)

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

A Test

As I explained earlier in this sequence, I’m not contending that mapping consciousness is the sole criterion for judging a work of art but it is a key one for my purposes as a student of consciousness, as the mind map above illustrates. I’ll unpack what the mind map is about later.

My ability to apply to ongoing experience what I have learned in theory was about to be tested. How clearly could I catch hold of and write down an experience under pressure?

The day I sat planning at some point to work on this post proved interesting. Two letters plopped through our letterbox. They looked like the ones I had been expecting, telling me when my next hospital appointments were.

I didn’t pick them up straightaway as I was keeping an eye on the pressure cooker as it built up a head of steam, ready to turn it down when the whistle hissed. No, I don’t mean my brain as it coped with all my deadlines. We were beginning to get the food ready for the celebration of the Bicentenary of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh in two days time. The lentils apparently needed cooking well ahead of time.

Once pressure cooker duty was over, I dashed upstairs to tweak the slide presentation for the following day. I’d been enlisted to do the presentation at a friend’s celebration event. While the slide show notes were printing, I thought I’d better check the hospital letters out, not my favourite activity. The first one I opened was as I expected, an appointment for the ophthalmology department. I moved on to the second one. When I opened it I saw it was identical, same date, same time.

‘They’ve messed up,’ I groaned inwardly. ‘I was supposed to go for an MRI scan as well. I’d better give them a ring.’

I stapled the slide show notes together, picked up my iPhone and rang the number they had given me on the letter. A robot answered.

‘Thank you for calling the orthoptic department. We are currently dealing with a new electronic patient record system [I didn’t relish being seen as an electronic patient] and may be delayed in returning your call, [change of voice undermining the impression of caring that was to follow] but your call is important to us. Please leave your hospital number, the name of the patient, and a brief message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Thank you.’

I responded after the beep, fortunately also remembering to give them my number as I wasn’t convinced they’d pick that up automatically. Most robots check whether they have absorbed your number correctly.

Rather than waste time waiting, I got my laptop and brought it downstairs to rehearse my presentation. I set up AppleTV and was just about to set my timer and start, when my phone rang.

‘Orthoptic Department. How can I help?’ She sounded pleasant and surprisingly unstressed.

‘The new system must be taking some of the pressure off,’ I thought.

I explained that not only had I got double vision but I was also now getting my letters twice as well. Well, no not really. I told her I’d got two identical letters when I’d expected one to be for an MRI scan.

She checked out what I meant and then explained that the letter I’d got was for my routine appointment. The other was an error on their part. I should also be getting a letter for the MRI scan, I clarifed, but they did not know anything about that. I added that after that I should get an appointment from a consultant about the scan. She couldn’t help with that either, even though he was in her department.

She agreed to put me through to discuss the MRI.

‘Radiology here. How can I help?’

‘Is that where you do MRI scans?’ I asked, not being sure whether they counted as radiology or something else.

‘Yes, it is.’

I began my explanation.

‘I’m sorry. I need your name and date of birth.’

‘Will my hospital number do?’

‘Yes. That’s fine.’

Once she knew who I was, I told her my problem and asked when I could expect my scan to be as were we hoping to be away some time in December.

‘It’ll take 6-8 weeks from the time they sent the request.’

‘So when might that be?’

‘It’ll probably be the week beginning 27 November.’

‘And when will the consultant see me to discuss it after that.’

‘I can’t say because he wouldn’t send out appointments normally until he receives the scan.’

‘So how long is the gap likely to be then?’

‘We don’t deal with that. You’d have to speak to his secretary.’

She couldn’t put me through so I rang Ophthalmology again and got the robot. I hung up and rang the hospital switchboard and they put me through straightaway. Must remember that next time.

I spoke to the same person as before. She explained that she didn’t really know. She was just the receptionist. His secretary was off till next week. She’d leave a note for her and if I could ring back then she might help.

I hung up and made a note in my diary to ring next week.

Before this all happened, I’d jotted down in the notebook I always carry: ‘It doesn’t matter whether I’m enjoying myself or not, as long as I’m squeezing every drop of meaning out of the lemon of the present moment.’ The phone calls to the hospital where a particularly sour experience, so my note was intriguingly prophetic. I had managed to stay calm, and even found the whole experience slightly amusing with its many examples of ‘I don’t know. That’s not my department. You need to talk to…’

At last I was able to settle down and rehearse the presentation before finally returning to my plan to draft this post.

The whole episode highlighted for me the need not only to slow down and keep calm, but also to sharpen my focus. Not that I will ever be able to write as well as Virginia Woolf, but without that combination of skills I doubt that anyone would ever be able to capture consciousness in words on paper, or even in speech.

A Valid Criterion?

So now we come back to the critical question. Is its skill in conveying consciousness a valid criterion by which to judge a work of art? As I indicated earlier, I’m not arguing it is the only one, nor even necessarily the best. What I have come to realise is that it is a key one for me.

I also need to clarify that capturing consciousness is not the same as conveying a world view or meaning system. So, you might argue that when Alice Neel is painting people that the art world usually ignores, just as I gather Cézanne also did, while the act of painting itself is sending a clear ideological message that these people matter, unless the portrait is more than a realistic rendering of the subject’s appearance we have not been capturing the artist’s consciousness. If any distortions of sensory experience merely serve to strengthen the message, these would be more like propaganda than maps of consciousness. Also the culture in which we are immersed, as well as our upbringing and individual life experiences, influence the meaning systems we adopt, or perhaps more accurately are induced into evolving.

Capturing consciousness is also a tad more demanding than simply conveying a state of mind or feeling, whether that be the artist’s own or their subject’s, something which music can also do perfectly well. That is something I value very much, but it’s not my focus right now.

Taking that into account, what am I expecting?

Woolf gives us a clue in her diaries ((page 259):

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – … (18.11.35):

I have quoted this already in an earlier post of this sequence. I also added the date on which she wrote it to emphasise that it was after the completion of both To the Lighthouse and The Waves, as if she sensed that her approach up to that point had been too inward looking. Her question mark after ‘four’ suggests she was entertaining the possibility of more dimensions.

The diagram maps what Woolf said very crudely. Most of To the Lighthouse and The Waves takes place in the top right hand quadrant. They are brave experiments. In places they work beautifully but are uneven and at times disappointing. She sensed that I suspect.

However, other novels she wrote take more account of the other quadrants except possibly the one on the bottom right, although there are places where she seems almost to be attempting to tune into the inscape of natural objects.

Clearly then it might be appropriate to judge a novel by how well it balances the three main quadrants, ie excepting the bottom right.

There is a catch here though. It all depends upon on what the prevailing culture defines as ‘outer.’ Is this to be confined only to the material realm? Mysticism is present in all cultures to some degree, though its legitimacy has been downgraded in the West. The critically endorsed novel has, with some rare exceptions such as John Cowper Powys and perhaps what is termed ‘magical realism,’ been seen as needing to focus on the world of the senses, the stream of consciousness and social interaction.

Is that enough?

Woolf expresses this whole dilemma with wry humour in To the Lighthouse (page 152):

The mystic, the visionary, walking the beach on a fine night, stirring a puddle, looking at a stone, asking themselves “What am I,” “What is this?” had suddenly an answer vouchsafed them: (they could not say what it was) so that they were warm in the frost and had comfort in the desert. But Mrs McNab continued to drink and gossip as before.

Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, for example? Should mysticism be normalised and not be either excluded or presented as eccentric?

Given that I think expanding our consciousness is the key to enabling us to mend our world I am sceptical of any school of thought that would devalue and marginalise novels that attempt to treat outlying ways of thought and experience as of equal interest and legitimacy. It has already been demonstrated that the novel, in its present form, enhances empathy. It helps connect us in a more understanding way with the experiences of others very different from ourselves. Art in general is one of the most powerful means we have for lifting or debasing consciousness. It reaches more people in the West probably than religion does, especially if we include television, cinema, computer games etc.

I must add a word of warning here. Consciousness can be seen as expanding in all sorts of different ways.

Sometimes, though, I feel that just by pandering to our desire for exciting new experiences we might not be expanding our consciousness at all, but narrowing it rather.

Alex Danchev, in his biography of Cézanne, quotes an intriguing passage from Hyppolyte Taine (page 104):

In open country I would rather meet a sheep than a lion; behind the bars of a cage I would rather see a lion than a sheep. Art is exactly that sort of cage: by removing the terror, it preserves the interest. Hence, safely and painlessly, we may contemplate the glorious passions, the heartbreaks, the titanic struggles, all the sound and fury of human nature elevated by remorseless battles and unrestrained desires. . . . It takes us out of ourselves; we leave the commonplace in which we are mired by the weakness of our faculties and the timidity of their instincts.

I draw back instinctively from the elevation of the titanic, the fury, the remorseless and the unrestrained in human life. Exploring those aspects of our nature unbalanced by other more compassionate and humane considerations is potentially dangerous for reasons I have explored elsewhere. To express it as briefly as I can, it’s probably enough to say that I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. Suzy Klein’s recent brilliant BBC series on Tunes for Tyrants: Music and Power explores what can happen when the arts are harnessed to violent ends in the name of some dictator’s idea of progress.

And where does this leave me?

I am at a point where I have decided that I need to explore consciousness more consistently, perhaps more consistently than I have ever explored anything else in my life. It blends psychology, literature, faith as well as personal experience, and therefore makes use of most of my lifetime interests. This object of interest would give them a coherence they have so far lacked. Instead of flitting between them as though they had little real or deep connection, I could use them all as lenses of different kinds to focus on the one thing that fascinates me most.

I have ended up with the completely revised diagram of my priorities at the head of this post, repeated just to the left above in smaller size. The blurring at the edges represents its unfinished nature. It seems to express an interesting challenge. It shows that I am on a quest, still, to understand consciousness. Does the diagram suggest the idea that consciousness is both the driving force and destination of this quest? It looks as though consciousness is seeking to understand itself, in my case at least: that makes it both the archer and the target. Mmmmm! Not sure where that leads!

What is clear is that my mnemonic of the 3Rs needs expanding. It has to include a fourth R: relating. In the diagram I have spelt out what the key components are of each important R.

Relating

This involves consultation (something I have dwelt on at length elsewhere). It also entails opening up to a sense of the real interconnectedness of all forms of life, not just humanity as a whole. It has to entail some form of action as well, which I have labelled service, by which I mean seeking to take care of others.

Reflecting

How well a group can consult, as I have explained elsewhere, depends upon how well the individuals within it can reflect. My recent delving into Goleman and Davidson’s excellent book The Science of Meditation suggests that there is more than one form of meditation that would help me develop my reflective processes more efficiently (page 264): mindfulness I have tried to practice (see links for some examples), focusing I do everyday, using Alláh-u-Abhá as my mantra, and loving kindness or compassionate meditation is something I need to tackle, as it relates very much to becoming more motivated to act. I have baulked at it so far because it relies, as far as I can tell, upon being able to visualise, something I am not good at.

They also describe another pattern, which I’ve not been aware of before (ibid.): ‘Deconstructive. As with insight practice, these methods use self-observation to pierce the nature of experience. They include “non-dual” approaches that shift into a mode where ordinary cognition no longer dominates.’

Reading & Writing

Readers of this blog, or even just this sequence of posts, will be aware of how I use writing and reading in my quest for understanding so I don’t think I need to bang on about that here.

The Science of Meditation deals with the idea that long-term meditation turns transient states of mind into more permanent traits of character. I have placed altruism in the central space as for me, having read Matthieu Ricard’s book on the subject, altruism is compassion turned to trait: it is a disposition not a passing feeling. I am hopeful that insight may similarly turn to wisdom, but as I am not sure of that as yet, I just called it insight.

I am already aware that the diagram inadequately accounts for such things as the exact relationship between the 4Rs, understanding and effective and useful action. It does not emphasise enough that my desire to understand consciousness better is not purely academic. It is also fuelled by a strong desire to put what I have come to understand to good use.

I am also aware that I failed to register in my discussion as a whole that there are distinctions to be made between capturing consciousness in art and other closely related scenarios, such as describing experience in terms of its remembered emotional impact (conveying a state of mind) or giving an account of what happened through the lens of one’s meaning system (evaluating an event). It is perhaps also possible to attempt to convey only the basic details of what happened with all subjective elements removed (a ‘factual’ account).

I can’t take this exploration any further than this right now but hope to come back to the topic again soon. I also said in an earlier post that I might delve more deeply into the soul, mind, imagination issue. However, this post has gone on long enough, I think, so that will have to wait for another time.

Rita and Hubert 1954 (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

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Despite your illness you have never before done such well-balanced work, without sacrificing any feeling or any of the inner warmth demanded by a work of art, . . . .

Gauguin to van Gogh in 1890, quoted in the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 494

Having inched my way to this point through art to illustrate what I was talking about, Woolf’s depression and possible transliminality, and whether she intended to convey our inscape or not, I can finally come to the crunch question.

Did Woolf succeed in capturing consciousness?

At this stage I can only base a carefully considered answer to that question on a complete reading of To the Lighthouse. I’m only halfway through The Waves.

This is where my own diary entries might come in useful, at least to explain the initial impact of To the Lighthouse.

Within the first 30 pages I was writing ‘there are already intriguing hints about Virginia Woolf‘s experience of consciousness, eg (page 28) ‘to follow her thought was like following your voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil… all of this danced up and down like a company of gnats… in Lilly’s mind.’

When I was halfway through, though I felt it was uneven, there were ‘many places where she achieves the almost impossible. She transitions from inscape to inscape.’ I think I need a fairly long example to illustrate this. Pages 97-98 provide a good one.

We begin in Mrs Ramsay‘s head, pitying Mr William Bankes:

. . . she concluded, addressing herself by bending silently in his direction to William Bankes—poor man! who had no wife, and no children and dined alone in lodgings except for tonight; and in pity for him, life being now strong enough to bear her on again, she began all this business, as a sailor not without weariness sees the wind fill his sail and yet hardly wants to be off again and thinks how, had the ship sunk, he would have whirled round and round and found rest on the floor of the sea.

“Did you find your letters? I told them to put them in the hall for you,” she said to William Bankes.

And suddenly we are in Lilly Briscoe’s mind which has a very different take on things:

Lily Briscoe watched her drifting into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible and yet their going inflicts such a chill on those who watch them that they always try at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon.

How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought, and how remote. Then when she turned to William Bankes, smiling, it was as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again, and Lily thought with some amusement because she was relieved, Why does she pity him? For that was the impression she gave, when she told him that his letters were in the hall. Poor William Bankes, she seemed to be saying, as if her own weariness had been partly pitying people, and the life in her, her resolve to live again, had been stirred by pity. And it was not true, Lily thought; it was one of those misjudgments of hers that seemed to be instinctive and to arise from some need of her own rather than of other people’s. He is not in the least pitiable. He has his work, Lily said to herself.

This leads Lily to recall her own true focus: painting.

She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the tablecloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree.

I found that last moment an astute observation on Woolf’s part.

It seems to me that Woolf picks up skilfully on how one character sees another in a different way from that in which the person sees themselves. Where the truth lies is for the reader to decide.

I was getting completely carried away by this stage and wrote: ‘She is so astonishingly good at creating a convincing simulation of consciousness in To the Lighthouse. It’s as though I can experience some of her characters more clearly and completely then I experience aspects of myself.’

Conveying Consciousness

Reading Woolf was making me realise that having my primary focus on the nature of consciousness and the means to enhance it does not entail my turning my back, as I have over the last few years, on the novel. It simply provides me with the criterion by which to judge whether a novel really interests me. If it sheds no light on consciousness and is only concerned with plot and personality, then it is of no interest to me. Character and consciousness are key for me.

It raised a wider question. Is what I am after in a novel, poem or any written art form, the conveying of a state of mind? My reaction to Woolf suggests it is. At first I had thought that I shifted from studying literature to studying psychology because I was more interested in people in general than I was in the words that describe them. And that was true up to a point. Now I realise that I am not just interested in understanding people in ‘objective’ terms: I am also interested as much, if not more than anything else, in inner experience – something that psychological science and brain imaging cannot directly access, even if they can shed some light on how brain activity relates to inner experience and external action.

This goes beyond simply capturing routine streams of consciousness. I also believe there are aspects of reality that lie along a spectrum beyond our usual sensory settings. These can break through from the brain and its workings below ordinary consciousness, or break through from beyond the brain, from what I term a transcendent reality, whose exact nature tends to be defined in primarily metaphorical terms.

This raises a further question. Should the novel, drama and poetry be concerned with those, and to what extent? It even includes the question ‘Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, a sense of our global interconnectedness at some level beyond the purely material?

How far does Woolf take it?

For now I will examine just how far Woolf goes with this in To the Lighthouse and to a lesser extent in The Waves.

At various points in the novel Woolf offers glimpses into how a character experiences their mind. I think it’s worth sharing some of these to indicate how broad her understanding is of these patterns.

Even the same character at different points has different experiences. Take Lilly, for example. At one time (page 168) ‘… a question like Nancy’s— opened doors in one’s mind that went banging and swinging to and fro and made one keep asking, in a stupefied gape, What does one send? What does one do?’

At another (page 184):

Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.

And shortly after is something about as close as she comes to the mystical most of the time (page 186):

And, resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularise itself at such moments as these, when she released faculties that had been on the strain, stood over her, paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come.

And there is one moment captured that must reflect Woolf’s own struggles as a writer (page 206):

Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind.

James, Mr Ramsay’s son, has another kind of experience (page 195):

He began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain…

And his combing of memory continues (page 214):

Turning back among the many leaves which the past had folded in him, peering into the heart of that forest where light and shade so chequer each other that all shape is distorted, and one blunders, now with the sun in one’s eyes, now with a dark shadow, he sought an image to cool and detach and round off his feeling in a concrete shape.

Whether one of Lilly’s later thoughts is meant to capture a more final view is hard to say (page 224):

It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.

Maybe, maybe not, but there is something heroic about Woolf’s battle with herself and her material.

In any case, the clear balance in To the Lighthouse is tilted heavily in favour of the inner life as against external events, of which latter there are very few.

Even though I have still some way to go with The Waves, I can share one impression that is beginning to take shape in my mind.

This novel seems to be exploring in part at least the nature of the self. Whether there even is a self perhaps: Rhoda clearly doesn’t think so (page 47). ‘Identity failed me. We are nothing,’ she declares. Bernard is at something of an opposite extreme (pages 49-50): ‘I do not believe in separation. We are not single. . . . . we are one.’ He even sees his own self as multiple (page 56): ‘I am not one and simple, but complex and many.’ Neville feels connected but doesn’t like it (page 61): ‘How useful an office one’s friends perform when they recall us. Yet how painful to be recalled, to be mitigated, to have one’s self adulterated, mixed up, become part of another.’

Bernard, of course, sees it differently (page 66): ‘For I am more selves than Neville thinks, We are not simple as our friends would have us to meet their needs. Yet love is simple.’

Louis is more of an outsider but people still bug him (page 69): ‘ People go on passing; they go on passing against the spires of the church and the plates of ham sandwiches. The streamers of my consciousness waver out and are perpetually torn and distressed by their disorder.’ Susan on the other hand can feel more connected with nature (page 73): ‘I think sometimes . . . I am not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground. I am the seasons, I think sometimes, January, May, November; the mud, the mist, the dawn.’ Jinny, which incidentally was Woolf’s pet name, has a different take again. After dancing at a party her fancy takes off (pages 78): ‘I fill my glass again. I drink. The veils drop between us. I am admitted to the warmth and privacy of another soul. We are together on some high Alpine pass . . . There! That is my moment of ecstasy. Now it is over.’

I’m not sure yet where all this is going to lead in The Waves. What I see so far is an exploration of the poles of interconnectedness, an almost mystical concept, and isolation. This is a key aspect of consciousness for me and I am intrigued to see where she will take this theme. What I am still delighted by is her fusion of the poetic with the person, how she lifts language to a level where it almost becomes capable of doing justice to inner experience in a stable and consistent way. She can’t quite sustain it though and not all passages are equally convincing. Even so it is a rare and fine achievement.[1]

Where now?

There is another set of questions that I plan to explore next time: is success in the capturing of consciousness a valid standard by which to evaluate a work of art? Would it even be possible in such a diverse and global village as we live in now for a novelist to bring all shades and styles of consciousness together between the pages of one book? And when they failed how could that be seen as a defect? We are clearly only able to capture a small part of the spectrum. How much would we have to capture to be seen as a success?

I think there are ways of resolving the possibly specious problem raised by those questions.

More of that next time.

Footnote:

[1] I have now almost finished The Waves. Sadly I have to say that I do not find it as satisfying as To the Lighthouse. The forward to the Penguin Modern Classics edition expresses the problem with it clearly (page xxxiii): ‘Of all Woolf’s novels, The Waves is the one which most readily lays itself open to the charge of esoteric remoteness from the ordinary world.’ Even so it is a brave attempt to dramatise (page xi) ‘how identities themselves do not stand, ultimately, clear and distinct, but flow and merge into each other.’ Though her theme of ‘interconnectedness’ (page xii) strongly appeals to me I have to admit she does not satisfactorily achieve her aim in conveying it here for reasons which I hope to address in more detail in the last post of this sequence.

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (the link for source of image no longer works)

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. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

The next two posts are going to be more challenging to write than the previous ones. The issues are a bit of a stretch. Firstly, it’s going to be quite difficult to convey what Woolf manages to achieve, and secondly it’s going to be almost equally tricky to tease out all the variables that can impact on any objective assessment of the quality of her achievement.

For example, my subjective response is so strong it clouds other issues to some extent, such as the need to examine the probable nature of consciousness from more than just this somewhat poetic perspective. Even if I do that, we come to possibly important distinctions between normal consciousness, in the sense of consciousness as most of us experience it, and other kinds of consciousness, some of which have been labeled ‘abnormal’ in a critical sense, and others which are seen as enhanced, as a result, for instance, of prolonged meditation under expert instruction.

Should an artist’s achievement be judged only in terms of how well she captures normal consciousness? In which case what is normal? Or should we be setting our sights somewhat higher and expecting an artist to tackle other states of consciousness in any work attempting, as the novel does, to represent a reality beyond the average scope? Perhaps we can fairly expect ‘madness’ to be delineated in places, and mystical states.

This is not even beginning to tackle aspects such as literary skill and the zeitgeist, or pervading collective cultural consciousness of the period.

You can see my problem.

I’m going to blast on anyway! Please stick with me if you still wish to do so.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention?

A fair question to ask at this point is whether she intended consciously to replicate consciousness in the novels under consideration here, ie To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

As is becoming my habit here, I’m going to start with the picture Julia Briggs paints. She feels that (page 77): ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.” She feels that (page 93): ‘Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…’

To be fair to earlier novelists I feel obliged to subject you all to another detour.

The Cultural Context

Before attempting to convey the impact upon me of Woolf’s mapping of consciousness, it’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the literary context out of which her work sprang.

Thought she mentioned him only rarely in her work, journals and letters, Briggs was in no doubt that Shakespeare was a key influence upon her. Amongst other things he was the master of the soliloquy. This is not the same exactly as Woolf was attempting, but it may have been the soil in which her plan had its roots.

The main difference is that Shakespeare’s words were to be performed on stage and, while soliloquies were designed to give the audience an insight into a character’s mind that could not otherwise be conveyed, they were not attempting to reproduce exactly the contents of the character’s consciousness – not even in Hamlet, where the protagonist is famous for his introspection. Most of his soliloquies serve to open for the audience an illuminating window on his vacillation and his feelings about that. We see the tugging to and fro within his mind. It’s definitely a step towards Woolf’s destination and would almost certainly have influenced her, whether consciously or not. But she planned to divorce her maps of introspection from the switchbacks of a plot.

To leap forward to the 19th Century, and before we consider Jane Austen’s innovation – free indirect speech – we can give a passing glance to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and his complex masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, written after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Again, even though he is hoping to convey, in the latter work, the differing perspectives of the various characters on the key events of the plot, they are all addressing an audience of some kind as they speak. They are in persona, rather than introspecting alone.

What Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate her novel always through the eyes of one of her characters, rather than in her own voice.

A short quote from Austen’s Emma will illustrate her skill and give an example of her typical tone. Emma’s disastrous plan to link the low-born Harriet to the aspiring clergyman on the rise is being incubated precipitously and with no sense of its limitations in Emma’s mind:

Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what every body else must think of and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hartfield. The longer she considered it, the greater was her sense of its expediency. Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.

We are not in Emma’s mind in the same way Woolf will enter the minds of her characters, but Austen is definitely not being the omniscient narrator, and we are experiencing Emma’s thought processes with all their limitations. She handles the clash of perspectives between characters mostly through skillful dialogue.

Ford Madox Ford followed faithfully in Austen’s footsteps. One example from the opening of Chapter III of Some Do Not (1924) will illustrate this clearly:

At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret room. It had a sloping roof outlined by black beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. . . . .Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in the surroundings, appeared unreasonable. . . . To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper.

He then skillfully develops their contrasting perspectives without dialogue, which brings him even closer to the experiments Woolf then attempted.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922), an author about whom she was somewhat ambivalent: James Joyce. She found him ‘sordid’ but ‘brilliant’ (Briggs – page 133). She felt he got ‘thinking into literature’ but recoiled from what she experienced as his ‘egotism’ and ‘desire to shock’ (Lee – page 403). I’m ignoring Proust, whom she acknowledges in an article of 1926, and had been reading since 1922. His use of memory though is often echoed in her work.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention continued?

Back to Briggs again.

In Mrs Dalloway (page 132) Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room (page 133) ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse (page 164) ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

Woolf was all too aware of how words can fail to catch the mind’s pearls (page 238): in a letter to Ethel Smyth, she wrote: ‘one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.’

It is at this same point in her text that Briggs possibly overextends her argument in a way that I want to accept but don’t think I can. She writes, ‘despite an energetic and enjoyable social round, she always felt that the life of the mind was the only “real life”…’

In my copy of her widowed husband’s extracts from Woolf’s diaries I have the exact entry Briggs refers to here (Diaries – page 144).

The problem for me is that Woolf doesn’t use the word ‘mind’: she describes her work on the novel that became The Waves. The other diary entry Briggs refers to in her notes implicates a more appropriate word: Woolf writes (Diaries – page 126), ‘the only exciting life is the imaginary one.’ Imagination seems to be what Woolf is extolling. This distinction matters to me. Imagination is a power of the mind, but mind is not reducible to imagination, and therefore the life of the mind is beyond imagination alone. I may come back to that in more detail in a later post.

Do we have any other leads in her diary entries – the ones available to me at least?

A key quote for me comes on page 85:

I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life; … I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; and that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.

At the end of this sequence I may try to tackle more deeply the possible implication in this context of such words as mind, imagination, soul etc. For now all I will say is that the word soul could be taken to be subsuming into one concept thought, feeling, reason, imagination, mind etc. She is not engaged in refined philosophical discriminations here: she is using words that she knows are mere approximations to what she is trying to say. In which case is I’d better stop my nit-picking for now.

She does describe her experience of the mind as (page 123) ‘the most capricious of insects, fluttering.’ She is well aware it is elusive (page 131): ‘But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.’ At times she feels she is getting the hang of it (page 81): ‘My summer’s wanderings with the pen have I think shown me one or two new dodges for catching my flies.’ But even such slight confidence clearly comes and goes. We have already heard her say (page 212), ‘I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip. . .’

Once she begins to really connect it gets easier but she has to proceed with due caution (Pages 218-20:

I make this note by way of warning. What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.

… the well is full, ideas are rising and if I can keep at it widely, freely, powerfully, I shall have two months of complete immersion. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. I can see the day whole, proportioned – even after a long flutter of the brain such as I’ve had this morning it must be a physical, moral, mental necessity, like setting the engine off.

She is also very conscious of the many different levels of experience that she needs to attend to. She describes them jokingly at one point (page 75):

But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.

On a more serious note, but well after To the Lighthouse and The Waves were written, she hesitantly acknowledges (page 259:

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

I will close with what I find to be a very revealing thought (page 97):

Have no screens, the screens are made out of our own integument; and get at the thing itself, which has nothing whatsoever in common with the screen. The screen-making habit, though, is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might probably dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible. But the screens are in the excess; not the sympathy.

It is this permeability which so strongly characterises her writing. Here she speaks of a permeability to others, but she also displays the same porous quality to her own unconscious. What she then experiences is hard to capture. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to poetry so much (page 326), ‘is the best poetry that which is most suggestive – is it made of the fusion of many different ideas, so that it says more than is explicable?’

I think I may be ready now to tackle the texts themselves.

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Rita and Hubert 1954 by Alice Neel (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly – . . . . I see something . . . . quite different from the masterly reproduction of the materials, something quite different from light and brown, something quite different from the colour – yet that something quite different is achieved by the precise rendering of the light effect, the material, the colour.

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 272)

Just to set the record straight, in the last post I may have left readers with the impression that Neel just dealt in sour portraits of people she was miffed with. That is very far from the truth. I thought I’d include here one of her portraits of the disadvantaged people who do not normally find likenesses of their face hanging in galleries or selling for huge sums. Her dedication to portraying the oppressed delayed her due recognition till very late in life. Her motive was not gain but compassion. The portraits are still in part maps of her awareness of and responses to the subject as a person, a fellow human being, not just plain reproductions of their outer appearance. The courageous portrait above, at a time when the current of racism ran stronger than now in American society, testifies to that, I think.

Virginia Woolf at last!

Virginia Woolf takes her art as an exploration of her mind to another level.

When I read of how much ground she covered while at the same time reflecting really deeply on so much of her experience, I am lost in admiration, I’m green with envy.

I struggle to resolve the conflict between roaming widely and digging deeply. All too often I get the balance wrong. When I roam I become shallow, and am all too often haunted by FOMO (the fear of missing out, for the uninitiated). When I dig deep it feels too narrow. Somehow Woolf seems to have a breadth of understanding not compromised by shallowness. Few people manage to go deeper or wider at the same time.

However, I need to remind myself that this is not going to be my main focus right now before I get completely derailed again. I want to look at her ability to capture consciousness in words.

Before we look in detail at the core issue I need to deal briefly with the problem of Woolf’s mental state and the impact of that on her creativity, both detrimental in terms of undermining her capacity to write, or even to continue living normally, at times of acute distress, and potentially positive in terms of her openness to inner experience because of a more permeable filter between her conscious and her unconscious mental process.

Woolf’s mental state – psychosis, transliminality or mysticism?

My first port of call in seeking to understand Woolf’s state of mind is Julia Briggs. She flags up what typically happened when a novel was finished (page 41):

Virginia frequently experienced depression and sometimes despair on completing a major novel, whether because she feared hostile criticism, or because she couldn’t bear to let it go, or because the sheer effort of finishing it to her satisfaction had exhausted her – or perhaps a combination of all three.

To my relief, Briggs does not descend into simplistic diagnostics, but looks at Woolf as a person first and foremost. She comments that a diagnosis like that of neurasthenia (page 46):

implies an innate disorder, rather than explaining her attacks in terms of the shocks she had undergone, although the series of sudden deaths in her family, sexual abuse and, later, her difficulties within their marriage and the seven-year task of completing The Voyage Out might be considered sufficiently traumatic in themselves to account for her suicide attempt and the long collapse that followed.

It was a major and serious breakdown in March 1915.

Later in her book Briggs explains an aspect of the sexual abuse she refers to. The person involved was her half-brother (page 352):

A darker aspect of sexuality threatened when Gerald Duckworth lifted the small Virginia onto a marble slab in the hall and ‘began to explore my body. I can remember the feeling of his hand going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower… His hands explored my private parts.’

Hermione Lee devotes a whole chapter of her biography to ‘Abuses.’ Partly these related to Virginia’s father’s domineering and attention-seeking patterns after the death of his wife, but even more importantly to the sexually abusive and bullying behavior of Duckworth. Her conclusion was (pages 158-59):

Virginia Woolf thought that what had been done to her was very damaging. . . . She used George as an explanation for her terrifyingly volatile and vulnerable mental state, for her inability to feel properly, for her sexual inhibition. And yet she also violently resisted simplistic Freudian explanations of a life through childhood traumas, and would have been horrified by interpretations of her work which reduced it to a coded expression of neurotic symptoms.

Briggs is certainly not tempted to explain her work in terms of the trauma she experienced (page 47):

. . . in exploring “all the horrors of the dark cupboard of illness”, in dismantling the tidy filing cabinets of the comfortable and familiar to confront chaos, Woolf suffered from madness, as conventionally defined, yet there was also something of poetic frenzy in it, and her art drew on what she found there.

Her episodes of physical illness also had a positive side (page 220): ‘illness, she recognised, could function as a form of “lying in”, a process that brought the work to birth…’

What else can we glean of Woolf’s own angle on this from her diaries?

Her never having had children seems in the end to be at least as much a product of her own desires as it is a result of her husband Leonard’s possibly protective preferences (page 119):

… oddly enough I scarcely want children of my own now. This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness and feverishness of life, make me cling, like a man in a rock, to my one anchor. I don’t like the physicalness of having children of one’s own.

All of which makes her metaphor of ‘lying in’ during illness doubly intriguing.

She clearly explains To the Lighthouse as at least in part a way of exorcising the ghosts of her parents (page 138):

I used to think of him and mother daily; writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, but differently. (I believe this to be true – but I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.)

She also acknowledges the slump into depression when a piece of work is finished (page 144):

Directly I stopped working I feel that I am sinking down, down. And as usual I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth.

Its consequences could have been potentially serious (page 229):

That’s the end of the book. I looked up past diaries – a reason for keeping them, and found the same misery after Waves – after Lighthouse I was, I remember, nearer suicide, seriously, than since 1913.

If ending a piece of work plunged her into the depths, working on one could lift her (page 143):

I pitched into my great lake of melancholy. Lord how deep it is! What a born melancholic I am! The only way I keep afloat is by working.

She even makes links between the creative act and her experiences of ‘madness’ such as after the completion of The Waves (page 169):

I wrote the words O death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad) I was almost afraid, remembering the voices that used to fly ahead.

And the creative experience was not without its tensions (page 209): ‘I think the effort to live in two spheres: the novel; and life; is a strain.’

There is the irritating tendency for the distraction of company to cause her to let slip valuable insights and inspirations (page 212):

I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip – why? Because of feeding the goldfish, of looking at the new pond, of playing bowls. Nothing remains now. I forget what it was about.

Or to simply gobble up time and energy she could have used for writing (page 258):

I am again held up in the years by my accursed love of talk. That is to say, if I talk to Rose Macaulay from 4–6.30: to Elizabeth Bowen from 8–12 I have a dull heavy hot mop inside my brain next day and an prey to every flea, ant, gnat. So I have shut the book…

She was neither a recluse nor a socialite but found the balance between them hard to strike while being fully aware of the evils at either extreme (page 342): ‘Incessant company is as bad as solitary confinement.’

Her diaries confirm what at least two of her novels suggest: that there was a degree of transliminality about her consciousness. Things kept bubbling up from below its threshold. These could occur at any time (page 67):

But how entirely I live in my imagination; how completely depend upon spurts of thought, coming as I walk, as I sit; things shining up in my mind and so making a perpetual pageant, which is to be my happiness.

The work itself drew her ever deeper. Concerning the writing of Mrs Dalloway she wrote (page 69-74):

. . . it seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world. . . .

One thing, in considering my state of mind now, seems to be beyond dispute; that I have, at last, bored down into my oil well, and can’t scribble fast enough to bring it all to the surface.

Fishing is the metaphor she settled on at one point to describe it (page 271):

She talked about the creative process, describing it as one of apparent inertia, of “mooning”, in which the artist as fisherwoman lets herself “down into the depths of her consciousness”, surrendering herself to “the mysterious nosing about, feelings around, darts and dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and elusive fish the imagination.’

The Waves raises another possibility (page 247):

The originating experience had been one of ‘the mystical side of this solitude.’ Writing it out required her to ‘come to terms with mystical feelings’, to acknowledge, if not a universal consciousness, then at least a wider design and meaning to which art aspired. Though Woolf shared her father’s impatience with conventional religion, her novel (The Waves) took up the challenge thrown down in the concluding sentences of Fry’s Vision and Design, where the attempt to explain aesthetic emotion threatened to land its author ‘in the depths of mysticism.’

When I came to look closely at The Waves the issue of interconnectedness kept rearing its head. More of that later, I hope.

Her take on religion is intriguing, and maps onto that of other writers such as Yeats (page 398):

Though Woolf did not believe in a personal God, “A Sketch of the Past” shows that she did believe in some kind of “world soul” embodied in beauty, form and meaning, and transmitted by great artists: ‘all human beings – are connected with this;… the whole world is a work of art;… we are parts of the work of art…

All in all it would be unwise to explain her creativity simply in terms of her vulnerable state of mind and her traumatic early experiences. However, it is possible that her intensity, her access to aspects of consciousness that elude most of us, and her moments of almost mystical experience helped shape the unprecedented focus of some of her later work, work that has drawn me in because of its almost unique ability to convey the experience of consciousness in words.

With luck, I should begin to address that more directly next time!

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