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

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

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

The No Self Issue

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

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

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

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?

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

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

How come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I call it a trap?

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

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

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

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

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

Beckett clearly felt there was none.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bahiyyih-Nakhjavani-009

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

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

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

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

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

Interestingly, all three books are by women authors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Autumn Garden

After my relatively recent preoccupation with dreams it seems appropriate to republish this sequence which is a fictional attempt to project my inscape into words. Dreams and day dreams feature quite a lot!

In the last post, I describe how William Wordless, Frederick Mires and I had been arguing over how to combine breadth of interests with depth of exploration. Then we joined the main path back to the cafe, with the games and picnic area on our left and the redwood grove in the middle distance on our right.

It’s too cold a day for the picnic area. As we look ahead we see Indira Pindance, our vulnerable new friend, and Emma Pancake, activist and pamphleteer, huddled at a table using steaming cups to warm their hands. They appear to be waiting for us.

‘Where’s Chris?’ I ask when we’re in earshot.

‘Sitting on a bench under a tree somewhere, I expect, waiting for enlightenment to strike,’ Pancake sarks. ‘What have you been doing?’

‘Arguing as usual,’ Mires sours.

‘What about?’ Pindance asks anxiously. She’s always sensitive to any hint of animosity.

‘Books mainly. Well, not exactly. About whether reflection will help us get more out of what we do including reading books,’ I attempt to explain.

‘Reading is a waste of time,’ Pancake flatly declares. ‘There’s not enough time as it is if we are going to change things for the better before we die. Wasting it on books is a crime against humanity.’ She’s just trying to be annoying now, and may be succeeding.

‘Don’t talk such rubbish,’ Mires shouts, catching the bait as usual. ‘Without books you won’t understand the reality you are trying to improve.’ Pancake barely manages to conceal a triumphant grin behind her coffee.

‘I think we need to have Chris here as well if we’re going to be able to talk about this calmly and constructively,’ I suggest.

‘I’ll go and find him. I think I know where he is.’ Pindance has made a strong connection with Humfreeze from the very beginning. He was the one who made first contact and encouraged her to come out of the shadows and loneliness of her earlier existence. She runs off up the path towards the Autumn Garden.

‘Anyone else want a drink I ask?’

‘Coffee for me,’ says Wordless.

‘Tea for me,’ says Mires.

‘D’you need a hand?’ Pancake asks.

‘I can manage,’ I answer with an echo of Pindance’s original independence script. ‘Are we staying outside?’

‘I think it would be better,’ Pancake advises, ‘given the way the conversation might unfold when we’re all together.’

By the time I come back with the drinks Christopher Humfreeze, meditator extraordinaire, has joined us with Pindance sitting next to him.

‘Sorry, Chris, did you want a drink?’ I ask in a tone that indicates that a refusal would be welcome at this point.

‘No thanks.’ Humfreeze waves his bottle of water vaguely in the air. ‘This is healthier.’

‘Have the others brought you up to speed, Chris?’ I ask as I squeeze awkwardly into the gap between the attached bench seat and the wooden table, almost spilling my coffee over Mires as I do so. I must remember to always put my drink down before performing acrobatics.

‘They have.’

‘So, what do you think?’

‘Well, I daresay you can guess, and it’s not gone down well with Fred and Emmie. Not sure about Indie. She’s not said anything yet.’

‘Well, fill me in anyway, Chris.’

‘OK. I personally don’t think there’s any need to read obsessively or keep constantly busy. We should just meditate consistently – then we’ll do only what really needs to be done and read only what needs to be read, and no more.’ He paused, then added ‘Simples,’ in Meercat style with a defiant grin on his face.

‘But how do you know that the books you haven’t read are not for you right now? You can’t know till you start reading them surely,’ came Mires’s predictable response.

‘Surely you learn more from direct contact with reality, than you can ever get from a book, and meditation in a vacuum, cut off from the oxygen of the ordinary world, is a fast train to lala land,’ came Pancake’s attempt to refute them both.

‘Only if you refuse to believe you can access a wiser self through silence and solitude,’ Humfreeze snapped back. ‘Our wiser self has access to levels of consciousness deeper and broader than any book, but it’s hard to reach and hear it in the distracting hubbub of the social world.’

‘We’re in danger of creating another stand off if we carry on like this. That’s not what we agreed we would do from now on. We need to work together on a solution that works for us all, not just for one of us.’ Mires is remembering his psychology at last.

‘That’s going to be easier said than done,’ Pancake chips in. ‘It’s not easy to step back from the habits of a lifetime, especially ones we feel are vital to our survival as ourselves, at that.’

Wordless nods in agreement. ‘I’d like to hear from Pindance. I bet she has a different view of things again.’

She looks hesitant and uncertain but manages to speak at last.

‘Do you remember, Pete, a long time ago, over coffee in a basement kitchen, a good friend of yours who died recently, shared a great idea.’

‘I’m not sure what you mean, Indie.’

‘You were telling him how hard it was to focus on what you needed to do. He asked “Why don’t you try time-banding?” Do you remember now?’

‘I do,’ I said softly. ‘It was such an important idea, and yet so simple. Just put a fence round certain spans of time and do nothing but what you have planned to do in that time frame. It might even be only an hour, but protect it from distraction. How is that going to help us now though?’

‘Well,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘for a start time banding protects you from time bandits.’

‘I get that all right. Distractions steal time and we need to shut them out somehow. But our problem is we have competing priorities. Chris’s bandit is Fred’s best friend!’

‘You’ll have to make a deal,’ Pindance spoke more forcefully than usual. ‘I can’t stand to see you all at odds like this. Your arguments really upset me. I need you to be kind and calm together, or I get scared that one of you will betray us and what we should stand for, like I was betrayed before, and we might all have to go down into the shadows I was lost among before.’

She stared round anxiously at all of us, straining to read our faces, as though fearing we would not understand her.

‘I just want to create harmony and peace. I want to learn to get to the roots of mine and other people’s anger, fear and sadness and transform it into something more positive – I’m not sure what exactly. I just know that each of you, as well as me, have pain and trauma rooted in some experience. Your passion for reading, Fred, yours for poetry, Bill, and yours for action, Emmie, have their roots in something in our past. Understanding these roots can help our branches create more nutritious fruits.’

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh (possibly his last painting)

That definitely focuses our minds.

Pancake has clearly got part of her point at least. ‘If time banding works, and we can find enough time to divide between us, we can each take our share of protected time to use for what we value most. More than that, if we all help each other make use of this special time it could work better than before. If Fred doesn’t make me feel guilty for being out there in the world, and I don’t keep nagging Chris to get off his backside, we’ll all benefit. And that includes your poetry, Bill, and your reflective approach in all these things, Pete. We may even manage to create some spaces for covering a wide range of interests as reflectively as possible, and others for a more focused  and deeper exploration of specific topics. I’m not sure what you need time for, Indie. You need to let us know.’

‘How can you be so young and yet so wise, Indie?’ Wordless finally manages to get a word in edgewise. ‘You speak almost like a poet.’

‘Because I have been quiet all this time, and simply listened and watched, for fear of being harmed, I’ve learned a lot.’

‘You must share this with us sometime,’ Mires quietly requests.

‘I can only explain what I know how to put into words so far. Maybe, Emmie, I need quiet time to dive beneath the surfaces I only float across so far,’ she replies. ‘I’m not really sure yet.’

‘At the risk of raining on your parade, I have to say that there’s just one other slight snag with all this. Time banding is just one part of the solution.’ Humfreeze is speaking quietly but with an almost irresistible firmness of purpose. ‘An equally important consideration is mind-banding as a way of resisting mind-banditry. It’s true that if we all co-operate, mind-banding will be easier. But we can’t assume that we are all the entities active in Pete’s mind. There may well be others keen to sabotage our project for what seem to them good reasons. We have to take up Pete’s idea of trying to master the art of reflection as well as my pet discipline, mindfulness, if we are to be sure of fending off enough of the possible distractions to get the most out of whatever experience we are jointly having. Does that make sense?’

‘Complete sense, even to me,’ Pancake confirms. The rest of us are all nodding as she speaks, and, as she stops, the phone rings and I wake suddenly. Irritated, I listen for the message before I pick up.

A robot voice begins ‘We understand you recently have been involved in a serious accident . . .’ I press to answer and immediately hang up.

Still half asleep I pick up the pencil and the pad from the bedside table and begin to write. What I have just dreamt is far too important to forget – far more important than an accident that never happened.

South American silver

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

. . . . 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)

At the end of the previous post I indicated that the helicopter view of the lives and art of Proust and Beckett leaves us with a number of serious questions. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete. I’ll try and tackle this now.

Cronin BeckettIs it out of balance?

Some people certainly thought so (Page 450 – Cronin):

[Arnold] Toynbee alleged that what Beckett had done was to carry ‘his despair and disgust to the ultimate limits of expression – indeed beyond them.

. . .  by continuing to live, and still more by continuing to write, the author refuted his own message and it is no use saying, in such a case, that we must not confuse the creator with the creature and so on. This book [Molloy] is a serious statement or a personal attitude or it is nothing. I am inclined to think that it is nothing.’

Toynbee was on surer artistic ground perhaps when he called for a more inclusive vision, saying that Malloy expressed ‘an attitude to life which cries out for at least some opposing one.’

He’s singing from basically the same hymn sheet as François Mauriac here, speaking Night at the Majesticabout Proust (pages 200-01 – A Night at the Majestic):

One feels that Sodom and Gomorrah are confused with the entire universe. A single saintly figure would be enough to re-establish the balance. . . . ‘God is terribly absent from Marcel Proust’s work,’ he lamented in a major assessment that he published a fortnight after Proust’s death.

Mauriac later shared a similar caveat about Beckett (page 540 – A Night at the Majestic).

Richard Davenport-Hines quotes Claudel about Proust (page 200): ‘It’s the light of God that shows the best of human nature, and not, as in Proust, the phosphorescence of decomposition’ along similar lines as Anthony Cronin quotes Tynan about Beckett (page 466):

Tynan described the sort of pessimism displayed as ‘not only the projection of personal sickness but a conclusion reached on inadequate evidence.’ He was ready to believe, he said, ‘that the world is a stifling, constricted place,’ but not if his informant was “an Egyptian mummy.’

LehrerRooted in Reductionism?

If we accept Lehrer’s depictions of Virginia Woolf and Proust, as quoted in the first post of this sequence, then the bleakness of the visions we are encountering here might have its roots in the soil of a radical reductionism.

Our ‘ever-changing impressions’ (page 172) ‘are held together by the thin veneer of identity’ and (page 176):’ the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the “unified soul“ simply because we didn’t have one.’  He concludes that (page 182):

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

If so, is there any need to adversely judge these works on the grounds of a materialistic perspective, no matter how skillfully that is depicted?

Cronin thinks not (page 482)

[At a symposium in response to criticisms from Brien, Cronin] replied that where art was concerned, one truthfully expressed vision as good as another; that this truth is seldom anything but partial except in the case of one or two very great, very inclusive artists, such as Shakespeare; but that even such a partial vision had immense value if its truth had never been encompassed before. This argument still seems to me to be central to a defence of Beckett, if defence is needed.

To get even close to explaining why I think materialistically biased accounts of human experience, even if honestly corresponding to the felt experience of the writer, are not only dispiriting but false, I have to rehash some old material. In doing so I will share other reductionist views so as not to fudge the difficulty of the issue.

Buddha BrainA Spiritual Perspective

Hanson and Mendius in The Buddha’s Brain have a fair bit to say about the nature of the self. At one level it doesn’t particularly challenge my core beliefs, even though the writers themselves do not accept the existence of anything like a soul as a source of self (page 204):

. . . now we come to perhaps the single greatest source of suffering – and therefore to what is most important to be wise about: the apparent self. . . . When you’re immersed in the flow of life rather than standing apart from it, when ego and egotism fade to the background – then you feel more peaceful and fulfilled.

What’s the problem with that? Most ethically minded people, whether theists or not, regard the ego with great suspicion. But problems then begin to creep in whose full degree of dissonance needs unpacking (page 206):

Paradoxically, the less your “I” is here, the happier you are. Or, as both Buddhist monks and inmates on death row sometimes say: “No self, no problem.”

What exactly do they mean by ‘no self’? Is that no self at all, of any kind? Well, maybe. We need to look at various other expressions they use before looking at what an atheist practitioner of Buddhist meditation thinks it means.

First of all, they explain (page 213): ‘It’s not so much that we have a self, it’s that we do self-ing.’ More than that, they feel we should (page 214): . . . try to keep remembering that who you are as a person – dynamic, intertwined with the world – is more alive, interesting, capable, and remarkable than any self.’ And most dismissively of all they describe the self as (page 215) ‘simply an arising mental pattern that’s not categorically different from or better than any other mind-object.’ That sounds familiar.

Sam Harris meditation pic v2

For source of adapted image see link

While there is a sense that they are slightly hedging their bets here, Sam Harris is not so coy about the matter. In his fascinating article – An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality– he pushes the boundaries somewhat further:

Indeed, the conventional sense of self is an illusion—and spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.

To illustrate the moment when this can be experienced he refers to the ‘awakening’ of Ramana Maharshi(1879– 1950), ‘arguably the most widely revered Indian sage of the 20th century.’

While sitting alone in his uncle’s study, Ramana suddenly became paralyzed by a fear of death. He lay down on the floor, convinced that he would soon die, but rather than remaining terrified, he decided to locate the self that was about to disappear. He focused on the feeling of “I”—a process he later called “self inquiry”—and found it to be absent from the field of consciousness. Ramana the person didn’t die that day, but he claimed that the feeling of being a separate self never darkened his consciousness again.

Ramana described his conclusion from this by saying at one point:

The mind is a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is the thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.

Though Ramana’s disciple, Poonja-Ji, had a great impact on Sam Harris, there was a teacher who made an even greater impression: ‘Another teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, had a lasting effect on me.’

What he feels he learnt from Tulku Urgyen he describes with dramatic clarity:

The genius of Tulku Urgyen was that he could point out the nature of mind with the precision and matter-of-factness of teaching a person how to thread a needle and could get an ordinary meditator like me to recognize that consciousness is intrinsically free of self. There might be some initial struggle and uncertainty, depending on the student, but once the truth of nonduality had been glimpsed, it became obvious that it was always available— and there was never any doubt about how to see it again. I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.

He unpacks its implications in the light of subsequent practice:

This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering—fear, anger, shame—in an instant. At my level of practice, this freedom lasts only a few moments. But these moments can be repeated, and they can grow in duration. Punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference. In fact, when I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows. That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however, I’m as confused as anyone else.

For Harris as an atheist one of the greatest benefits of his assisted experience, he believed, was that he did not have to accept any of the ‘baggage’ of the religion in whose context these insights and practices had been generated – he could make sense of the experience in his own way. I’m not so sure it was really as simple as that.

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

More of that in the final post of this sequence.

Dream GameNow that I appear to have made some progress in developing a closer relationship with my Parliament of Selves, it seems a good time to try and talk to them in more detail about learning to reflect more effectively. The trouble is I can’t find them in dreamland anymore. Since they faded away after our encounter with Indira Pindance, they have been conspicuous by their absence, both in meditation and sleep. Part of the reason for this may be that my dreams in general are more elusive. On waking I seldom remember more than a rapidly evaporating fragment.

That’s why I have pulled my battered copy of The Dream EaswaranGame by Ann Faraday off my dream book shelf. If Eknath Easwaran’s book is my Tao Te Ching on meditation, then The Dream Game is the Analects of my dream world. I decide to follow her advice (page 43):

People frequently complain that dreams are not coming to them as much as they would like, and when I ask are they writing them down, they plead that other obligations have been too pressing – to which I answer that your dreaming mind knows very well how seriously you are taking it and reacts accordingly.

She’s nailed it. I’ve been far too busy to pay attention to my dreams, let alone go to all the trouble of writing them down. Part of the problem is unavoidable. I have commitments to keep. But part of it is self-inflicted. I have so many interests. I am constantly beset by the fear that if I don’t keep reading new stuff on a favourite topic I’ll not KUTD – sorry, keep up to date – so not only do I fail to go deeply enough into what I’m reading about, but I also distract myself constantly from things that are probably more important.

Ring and BookSo, straightaway, after reading Faraday’s words, I promise my dreaming mind I will really listen tonight, and write down what I see and hear. To help, as I settle in bed, I pick up my copy of The Ring & the Book, Robert Browning’s novel in verse, a breath-taking and brilliant exploration of a series of dramatic historical events in 17th century Rome.

The last time I was reading it some days ago, I had just finished Book VI of the twelve, which is Giuseppe Caponsacchi’s movingly sympathetic account of the events that led to the mortal wounding of Pompilia, and the stabbing to death of her adoptive parents. I have put off reading Book VII till now. It is the dying Pompilia’s version of events. I thought a bit of previously avoided heart-rending reading might stir me to pay more attention to my unconscious mind’s creativity.

I am just seventeen years and five months old,
And, if I live one day more, three full weeks.

As usual, right from the first words, Browning’s empathic magic has captured me in his narrative grip. Even so I eventually become too tired to read more. I switch off the light and remind my dreaming mind of my sincere intentions.

It doesn’t take long. Soon, I find I am walking with Frederick Mires, my psychology-mad alter ego, and William Wordless, my poet manqué persona. The others are nowhere in sight right now.

Redwood Grove

We’re on a path in Queen’s Wood, I think, near the stand of California Redwoods, except that their trunks are purple and the needles of their leaves orange. We’re heading for the cafe at the car park.

‘You’re looking a bit upset,’ I say to Mires who’s been walking silently with his face twisted into a two-year-old’s sulk.

‘You’re throwing books away again,’ he spits, facing me fiercely as he says it.

‘Why would that worry you,’ I ask. ‘You’re always rushing from one book to the next, never going back once you’ve squeezed all the juice you can find at the time into the blog.’

‘You never know when you might need to go back to a book again to check a point or fill out the argument.’

‘What are you going to do with your poetry books?’ Wordless asks with a worried expression on his face. ‘They’re the only ones worth keeping. You can read them over and over again and still find new meanings in them. Novels and text books – once read and completely digested, chuck ’em away.’

‘It’s hard going, but I am slowly working out which books are worth keeping because I really will need them again, and which books were a one-time only read. It’s often a question of whether there are any highlights or scribbled notes in the book at all. If not, and I’ve obviously read it, I’m not likely to read it again. I just don’t have the space to hold all my books accessibly. Some of them are double-stacked.’

I don’t mention my feelings of guilt at being a bookaholic hoarder.

‘You’ll live to regret it,’ Mires warns. ‘You’ve done this before remember, and wished you hadn’t when you needed a book you’d discarded.’

‘The point is,’ I insist, ‘that even if I live another 15 years or more, with over a thousand books, I’d have to read at the rate of over a book a week, just to savour all my old ones all over again. And many of them would take more than a week to read. And what about the new books I’ll find that I want to read?’

‘You’re not understanding my point.’ Mires has the bit between his teeth. ‘You won’t need to re-read the whole book if all you require is to check out a reference in it. But if you haven’t got it you’ll waste a lot of time chasing it up again.’

‘Why don’t you simplify things and just do what I suggest. Keep all your poetry books and throw away the rest.’ A massive grin spread over Wordless’s face. ‘My gift for rhyme is returning!’

Broad and Deep01‘Now you’re the one who is missing the point. Look, both of you. The issue is this. I have a broad range of interests – mind, nature, science, literature, art, history, religion, mysticism, near death experiences, politics, biography, music, to name only the most obvious. It’s almost too broad, as I want to explore most of these topics in depth. To really go deep I have to narrow my focus and specialise. To cover a broad area of interest, which is what I really want to do, I have to be relatively shallow. So, I keep rushing from book to book most of the time, never really taking the time to savour any of them properly. But I don’t like narrow or shallow. I want broad and deep. I want to have the best of both worlds. I want to have my cake and eat it too, I guess.’

‘The days when that was possible are long gone,’ Mires retorts. ‘Goethe was probably the last great poet who could also be a real scientist. Knowledge has expanded too much. There’ll be no more Renaissance minds from now on, I think. If you try, you just end up a Jack of all trades and master of none. And let’s face it Goethe was a genius, and you’re not. That’s one of the many reasons I keep focused on psychology and try to forget the rest.’

‘And why I concentrate only on poetry,’ Wordless can’t resist chipping in.

‘But you’re both a part of me and that’s the problem, don’t you see?’

They glumly have to agree and they don’t like it. To please them both, I have to spread myself too thin and do broad and shallow. Very frustrating!

‘And when we finally meet up with Emma and Chris it’ll only get worse. She’s into social action and politics, and Chris is fixated on mystical states. I’m not sure about Indira. I don’t know her too well as yet.’

I pause for breath, trying to let my mouth catch up with my mind. ‘This is why we need to find another way of experiencing things. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to learn how to reflect better, so I can extract every possible drop of meaning from every moment, whether it’s from a book, a conversation, a new place or whatever.’

‘Here we go again. Back on the reflection bandwagon,’ Mires mocks.

Just at that point we join the main path back to the cafe, with the games and picnic area on our left and the redwood grove in the middle distance on our right. It’s a cold day for the picnic area, which must be populated only by those with Scandinavian ancestry. As we look ahead we see Indira Pindance, our vulnerable new friend, and Emma Pancake, activist and pamphleteer, huddled at a table near the cafe wall, out of the wind, using steaming cups to warm their hands. They appear to be waiting for us.

(To be continued)

Depression

‘Drugs are having a positive effect for some people – but they clearly can’t be the main solution for the majority of us.’ Photograph: Alamy

For various reasons I needed recently to look into the current state of thinking about depression. As a result I stumbled upon this article by Johann Hari with which I strongly resonate. The closing paragraph hits a very important nail exactly on the head:

If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those human needs – for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life.

Below is another short extract: for the full post see link.

I started to research my book, Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, because I was puzzled by two mysteries. Why was I still depressed when I was doing everything I had been told to do? I had identified the low serotonin in my brain, and I was boosting my serotonin levels – yet I still felt awful. But there was a deeper mystery still. Why were so many other people across the western world feeling like me? Around one in five US adults are taking at least one drug for a psychiatric problem. In Britain, antidepressant prescriptions have doubled in a decade, to the point where now one in 11 of us drug ourselves to deal with these feelings. What has been causing depression and its twin, anxiety, to spiral in this way? I began to ask myself: could it really be that in our separate heads, all of us had brain chemistries that were spontaneously malfunctioning at the same time?

To find the answers, I ended up going on a 40,000-mile journey across the world and back. I talked to the leading social scientists investigating these questions, and to people who have been overcoming depression in unexpected ways – from an Amish village in Indiana, to a Brazilian city that banned advertising and a laboratory in Baltimore conducting a startling wave of experiments. From these people, I learned the best scientific evidence about what really causes depression and anxiety. They taught me that it is not what we have been told it is up to now. I found there is evidence that seven specific factors in the way we are living today are causing depression and anxiety to rise – alongside two real biological factors (such as your genes) that can combine with these forces to make it worse.

Once I learned this, I was able to see that a very different set of solutions to my depression – and to our depression – had been waiting for me all along.

Cronin Beckett

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

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

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

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

Beckett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beckett Novels

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

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

A few additional points may again be worth making.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night at the MajesticProust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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