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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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Psychologists Emily and Laurence Alison from the University of Liverpool. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

On two previous occasions I have published a short blog sequence on the inefficacy of torture. It is there not surprising that I should have welcomed this long read on yesterday’s Guardian website.  Ian Leslie explains in some detail the nature of the research by Emily and Laurence Alison that comes to the following conclusion, one that challenged the previous prevailing orthodoxy:

Watching and coding all the interviews [of more than 181 terrorist suspects] took eight months. When the process was complete, Laurence passed on the data to Paul Christiansen, a colleague at Liverpool University, who performed a statistical analysis of the results. The most important relationship he measured was between “yield” – information elicited from the suspect – and “rapport” – the quality of the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. For the first time, a secure, empirical basis was established for what had, until then, been something between a hypothesis and an insider secret: rapport is the closest thing interrogators have to a truth serum.

It is a fascinating exploration of this area which extends beyond the best way to interview a terrorist, looking for example at research into the treatment of people in the grip of an addiction.  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

In 2013, a British man was arrested for planning to kidnap and brutally murder a soldier. The suspect, who had a criminal history, had posted messages on social media in support of violent jihad. In a search of his residence, the police had found a bag containing a hammer, a kitchen knife and a map with the location of a nearby army barracks.

Shortly after his arrest, the suspect was interviewed by a counter-terrorist police officer. The interviewer wanted him to provide an account of his plan, and to reveal with whom, if anyone, he has been conspiring. But the detainee – we will call him Diola – refused to divulge any information. Instead, he expounded grandiloquently on the evils of the British state for 42 minutes, with little interruption. When the interviewer attempted questions, Diola responded with scornful, finger-jabbing accusations of ignorance, naivety and moral weakness: “You don’t know how corrupt your own government is – and if you don’t care, then a curse upon you.”

Even distanced by years from the events in question, it is impossible to watch the encounter without feeling tense. Periodically, Diola turns away from the interviewer and goes silent, or gets up and leaves the room, having taken offence at something said or not said. Each time he returns, Diola’s solicitor advises him not to speak. Diola ignores him, though in a sense he takes the advice: despite the verbiage, he tells his interviewer nothing.

Diola: “Tell me why I should tell you. What is the reason behind you asking me this question?”

Interviewer: “I am asking you these questions because I need to investigate what has happened and know what your role was in these events.”

Diola: “No, that’s your job – not your reason. I’m asking you why it matters to you.”

The interviewer, who has remained heroically calm in the face of Diola’s verbal barrage, is not able to move the encounter out of stalemate, and eventually his bosses replace him. When the new interviewer takes a seat, Diola repeats his promise to talk “openly and honestly” to the right person, and resumes his inquisitorial stance. “Why are you asking me these questions?” he says. “Think carefully about your reasons.”

The new interviewer does not answer directly, but something about his opening speech triggers a change in Diola’s demeanour. “On the day we arrested you,” he began, “I believe that you had the intention of killing a British soldier or police officer. I don’t know the details of what happened, why you may have felt it needed to happen, or what you wanted to achieve by doing this. Only you know these things Diola. If you are willing, you’ll tell me, and if you’re not, you won’t. I can’t force you to tell me – I don’t want to force you. I’d like you to help me understand. Would you tell me about what happened?” The interviewer opens up his notebook, and shows Diola the empty pages. “You see? I don’t even have a list of questions.”

“That is beautiful,” Diola says. “Because you have treated me with consideration and respect, yes I will tell you now. But only to help you understand what is really happening in this country.”

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A friend of mine posted some thoughtful reflections on recent events in Las Vegas. He draws our attention to the care we should take when we choose an object of devotion, whether it be our own ego, with its proneness to acting out its reptilian reactions, or some temptingly charismatic charlatan, with his (it’s usually a man) basketful of empty promises in return for mindless obedience.  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

On October 1st, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a concert 32 floors below his Las Vegas hotel window. He had with him a large number of weapons, and he had rigged up cameras in the corridor so that he could see when any police officers were approaching him. He killed 58 people, and injured 520 more. He had no known political affiliation, was not known to have any mental problems, and unlike so many killers, he was not known to the police. It is, however, interesting to note that the police once regarded his father as being psychopathic.

So what were his motives? Was it sheer jealousy, that other people seemed to gain happiness from life, while he could not? Was it resentment of others, or desire for revenge for some real or imagined slight or injustice? Was it some kind of desire for recognition, as a skilled man who thought he had accomplished much, but to society was a complete unknown? As a hardened gambler, he would have belief either in luck, getting him something for nothing, or in his unrecognised skills in playing with the odds. As this man did with his final act, a gambler risks a lot, but with no guarantee of success. Was it pure nihilism: his life was going nowhere, so why should other people’s lives go anywhere?

What is missing in the lives of mass killers and serial killers? Whether they act alone, or under some spurious banner, surely they must have deficiencies in their lives or in their make-up. Perhaps what is missing is compassion, or empathy, or love for their fellow human beings. Perhaps they are lacking in self-control, or in a sense of proportion. Most people accept that at one level they are just one person among millions, and many realise that our planet is itself just one among billions. Most people, therefore, do not exalt their own importance. Perhaps the mass killer has an exaggerated sense of his/her importance.

Perhaps what is missing is a personal link to God.

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There’s a powerful piece on the Bahá’í Teachings website this month by the novelist, Sidney Morrison. Advocating, as it eloquently does, the power of art – and literature in particular – to connect us, it shed light into one of the places I most love to examine. It includes a moving story, not quoted below, of how Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina helped a prisoner find some hope and understanding in his darkness. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

As a recently published novelist, I wondered before publication if a photograph of my black face should be reproduced on the book’s inside cover.

Why? Well, I wrote a historical novel called City of Desire about a young white woman who, because of the severely limited options before her, chose to become a prostitute in 1830’s New York. Based on a true story, her rise and fall fascinated me, and I wanted to understand her character, her choices, and the culture that molded her. As a man, too, I wanted to understand the struggle of women to be free.

But I feared a possible challenge coming from self-appointed members of the identity police, the people who think they have the right to determine group membership and excoriate those who dare to penetrate barriers imposed for outsiders, “those people” who don’t belong, “the other” who can’t possibly understand what it is to be black, white, female, male, Muslim, or Christian, or any other difference. Take your pick; the list is endless.

I heard those “identity police” voices in my head: “How dare you? Who do think you are? How can you possibly know what it is to be a white woman? Stay in your place. Write about what you know, and only what you know. If you do otherwise, you are appropriating our space and taking from us what is legitimately and exclusively ours.”

Writers are usually told one tired nostrum in classes and workshops: Write about What You Know. The familiar makes your work easier and more authentic, advisors and teachers say. If you write what you know, you’re less open to criticism. After all, this is your experience.

But think about it. If all writers followed this admonition, then we would write only memoirs or autobiographies. Painters would paint only self-portraits. Actors would only play themselves. Instead, artists do much more, and have done so since the beginning of storytelling and artistry itself. Artists extend themselves into uncharted territory so they can imagine and empathize with others—so they can make a human connection unmitigated by the artificial barriers we erect to keep us apart.

Ultimately, I decided against removing my photograph. I refused to capitulate to a rising culture of tribalism, where people live in their own bubbles, hearing only what comforts them, reaffirming their assumptions and prejudices, reinforcing the righteousness of their cause and the status of their group.

These separatist impulses have exponentially intensified as we all have become more aware of a diverse and complex world. The world is uniting, as Baha’u’llah promised it would in the middle of the 19th century:

The purging of such deeply-rooted and overwhelming corruptions cannot be effected unless the peoples of the world unite in pursuit of one common aim and embrace one universal faith. – Baha’u’llahTablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 68.

Some people fear this fact of increasing unity, globalization and human connection, hating those who are different from themselves and trying to wall themselves off from others.

But literature, since the beginning of art itself, has demonstrated the exact opposite, focusing on our common humanity despite our differences. Literature tears down walls, and shows us we are all human and all one. We all feel love, anger, resentment, and hope; we all strive; we all want connection:

… the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind …. True learning is that which is conducive to the well-being of the world, not to pride and self-conceit, or to tyranny, violence and pillage. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet to an individual Baha’i.

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‘Is it reasonable to hope for a better world?’ Illustration: Michael Kirkham

There was an excellent piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian last Saturday. I meant to share it sooner but got side-tracked by events. What he offers is a secular solution to our dangerous predicament but even so it’s very much along the lines of the Bahá’í spiritual one. Well worth a read. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Donald Trump. North Korea. Hurricanes. Neoliberalism. Is there any hope of a better world? Yes, but we have to come together to tell a new, kinder story explaining who we are, and how we should live.

Is it reasonable to hope for a better world? Study the cruelty and indifference of governments, the disarray of opposition parties, the apparently inexorable slide towards climate breakdown, the renewed threat of nuclear war, and the answer appears to be no. Our problems look intractable, our leaders dangerous, while voters are cowed and baffled. Despair looks like the only rational response. But over the past two years, I have been struck by four observations. What they reveal is that political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination. They suggest to me that it is despair, not hope, that is irrational. I believe they light a path towards a better world.

The first observation is the least original. It is the realisation that it is not strong leaders or parties that dominate politics as much as powerful political narratives. The political history of the second half of the 20th century could be summarised as the conflict between its two great narratives: the stories told by Keynesian social democracy and by neoliberalism. First one and then the other captured the minds of people across the political spectrum. When the social democracy story dominated, even the Conservatives and Republicans adopted key elements of the programme. When neoliberalism took its place, political parties everywhere, regardless of their colour, fell under its spell. These stories overrode everything: personality, identity and party history.

This should not surprise us. Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand.

When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something “makes sense”, the “sense” we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?

A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative “truth” established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains a brief explanation of Rifkin’s model.

I’m sorry about the rhyming title. I just couldn’t resist it. There’s no more poetry in the rest of this post, I promise, not even in a book title. Now back to the theme.

The distinctive virtue or plus of the animal is sense perception; it sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels but is incapable, in turn, of conscious ideation or reflection which characterizes and differentiates the human kingdom. The animal neither exercises nor apprehends this distinctive human power and gift. From the visible it cannot draw conclusions regarding the invisible, whereas the human mind from visible and known premises attains knowledge of the unknown and invisible.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace)

We’ll come back to the issue of reflection in a moment.  As I said at the end of the previous post, I find I believe Rifkin when he writes:

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell.

This could be easier said than done. As Bahá’u’lláh observes (Tablets: page 164):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

So, given that I have explored this problem repeatedly from the Bahá’í point of view in this blog and don’t want to rehearse it all again here, from within the same realms of discourse as they inhabit, how do we put the experiences Parks is describing together with the ideas that Rifkin develops?

MindsightWell, I’ve found someone who seems to have found one way of doing that: Daniel Siegel in his book Mindsight. This is not to be confused with Ken Ring‘s concept which he developed to explain how blind people see in near death experiences.

Siegel’s idea is less exotic and of considerable use in daily life. It also corresponds to the experience many people, including Bahá’ís, might have as they struggle to enact the values and practices of their religion.

What he does is root such experiences in the body – well, in the brain to be more exact – and show how the changes that we can bring about by mindfulness, a powerful form of meditation, impact on our relationships with others, even those well beyond the small circle of family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.

 

Siegel locates in the frontal area of the brain a number of crucial mental powers, which he feels are key to the development of what he calls mindsight. In his view there are nine such powers and they include, most importantly from the point of view of the current discussion, emotional balance, empathy, insight, moral awareness and intuition (pages 26-29).

They underpin our capacity to reflect (something I have explored often on this blog – see link for an example) which (page 31) ‘is at the heart of mindsight.’ Reflection entails three things: openness, meaning being receptive to whatever comes to awareness without judging it in terms of what we think it should be; observation, meaning the capacity to perceive ourselves and our inner processes at the same time as we are experiencing the events unfolding around us; and objectivity, meaning the ability to experience feelings and thoughts without be carried away by them (page 32). Reflection enables us to reconnect with earlier problem experiences which we want to understand better without falling (page 33) ‘back into the meltdown experience all over again.’

We soon begin to see how this change in our mental scenery can change our external scenery. He goes on to explain (page 37):

With mindsight our standard is honesty and humility, not some false ideal of perfection and invulnerability. We are all human, and seeing our minds clearly helps us embrace that humanity within one another and ourselves.

Just as Schwartz does in his book The Mind & the Brain (see earlier post), Siegel emphasises (page 39) that ‘[m]ental activity stimulates brain firing as much as brain firing creates mental activity’ and lasting changes in brain structure can and do result.

He looks at the work on mirror neurons (page 61) before concluding that (page 62) the better we know our own state of mind the better we know that of another person. We feel the feelings of others by feeling our own. This explains why ‘people who are more aware of their bodies have been found to be more empathic.’ And we seem to have some support here for the value in terms of empathy that Rifkin places on being embodied (see previous post).

This is not the same as navel-gazing. The result of reflection in this sense, and based on the processes he Master and Emissaryillustrates with fascinating examples from his clinical work and personal life, is something he calls integration (page 64). He defines it as ‘the linkage of differentiated elements.’ He sees it operating across eight domains including horizontally between the left brain and the right, the territory McGilchrist explores.

Particularly intriguing and illuminating is his discussion of the domain of memory (pages 73 and pages 149-151 as well as elsewhere). I have rarely read as clear an exposition of the crucial role implicit memory plays in our daily lives and almost always outside our awareness.  Implicit memory, he explains (page 150), has three unique features: first of all, you don’t need to pay attention or have any awareness to create an implicit memory; moreover, when such a memory emerges from storage you don’t feel as though it is being recalled from the past, and, lastly, it doesn’t necessarily engage the part of the brain that works on storing and organising episodic memories. These implicit memories influence almost everything we do but we are unaware of that influence unless we make special efforts to surface it.

When these memories are appropriate and helpful they are not a problem and it doesn’t really matter whether we notice them or not. Sometimes though they get in the way of responding constructively to current reality. He argues (page 153) that we can use mindsight to ‘begin to free ourselves from the powerful and insidious ways’ they shape our perception of what’s going on around us. We can integrate them into a conscious and coherent account of ourselves.

Robert WrightTo cut a long and fascinating story short (I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explores these ideas in more depth) this leads to a strong link with Rifkin’s case (page 260):

Seeing the mind clearly not only catalyses the various dimensions of integration as it promotes physical, psychological, and interpersonal well-being, it also helps to dissolve the optical delusion of our separateness. We develop more compassion for ourselves and our loved ones, but we also widen our circle of compassion to include other aspects of the world beyond our immediate concerns.  . . . [W] see that our actions have an impact on the interconnected network of living creatures within which we are just a part.

His view here seems to map closely onto Robert Wright‘s contention that, if we are to meet the needs of the age, we have to expand our moral imagination. As Siegel expresses it on the previous page to this quote: ‘We are built to be a we.’  I couldn’t agree more. And what’s even better, he explains, in straightforward ways that I can relate to both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í, how we can start to bring that state of being into our daily reality.

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