Posts Tagged ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá’

[A] fact of equal importance in bringing about international peace is woman’s suffrage. That is to say, when perfect equality shall be established between men and women, peace may be realized for the simple reason that womankind in general will never favor warfare. Women will not be willing to allow those whom they have so tenderly cared for to go to the battlefield. When they shall have a vote, they will oppose any cause of warfare.

(From The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912, p. 167)

tenant-of-wildfell-hallGiven my current sequence of posts on Robert and Elizabeth Browning it seems a good time to resurrect this sequence on the feminine perspective. There’s an additional trigger as well. I’ve just discovered the existence of a neglected woman poet, Charlotte Mew — someone I had never heard of before. She was inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning as was Emily Dickinson. In Two-Way Mirror Fiona Sampson writes:Among the many women readers Aurora Leigh will influence around the world and who subsequently become poets, from ‘Michael Field’ to Charolotte Mew, is Emily Dickinson, who will write a number of memorial praise poems.’ I’m half-way through Julia Copus’ biography of Charlotte and suspect another sequence will be triggered. 

Los Solitarios in the end led me to the idea that the feminine perspective may create a more balanced result in the novel.

Three novels immediately sprang to mind at the time as having combined darkness with light in a more balanced way.

First of all was 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 interested me particularly was 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 many 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. This gels with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s analysis (more of them in a moment – page 80):

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) is generally considered conservative in its espousal of Christian values, but it tells what is in fact a story of woman’s liberation.

So, 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.

I concluded that 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 felt it necessary to 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).’

I concluded that the blending of art and spirituality 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.

In addition, for me at least, they combined 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, I noted, all three books were by women authors.

The key point was that 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.)

I felt that I needed to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of several authors before I leapt 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.

The Mad Woman in the AtticThe Mad Woman in the Attic 

It may be synchronicity, or simply coincidence, depending on your outlook, but it wasn’t long before the world pressed that button again. I couldn’t resist watching yet another adaptation, on the BBC this time, of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Because I soon realised they had made some tweaks to the text with which I was not comfortable (for example knocking at least 20 years off Count Fosco’s age), I dug out my copy and set to reading it again. I was even more enthralled with the book than with the adaptation. This was no more than I expected. There were at least two reasons for this. First, there was the sensitive portrayal of a strong female character, which broke the 19thCentury stereotype, and secondly the narrative was captured only through the eyes of the various characters – there was no omniscient narrator. In addition, there was at least one strong statement reinforcing the oppressed woman’s point of view. Marion Halcombe bursts out in frustration at one point:

Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace — they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship — they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return? Let me go, Laura — I’m mad when I think of it!”

It perhaps not surprising then that reading this led me to revisit Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic. At first I simply checked what they had to say about The Woman in White (pages 619-20):

Anne Catherick’s white dress, which gives Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White its title, suggests the pathos of the Victorian child-woman who clings to infancy because adulthood has never become a viable possibility. Even more than her half-sister and double, Laura Fairlie, Anne is completely dependent and naïve, so much so that she falls victim to the machinations of that impostor-patriarch Sir Percival Glide, who imprisons her . . . in a madhouse.

They contend, in their review of the literature of the period, that ‘Anne’s white dress tells a realistic story of female powerlessness.’ They ask whether Emily Dickinson’s anxiety about madness – expressed in poems like I felt a Funeral in my Brain – [could] owe anything to the madness of fictional characters like Anne Catherick, Miss Havisham, and the Lady of Shalott. They ask, ‘Was her white dress in any sense modelled on the white costumes nineteenth century novelists and poets assigned to such women?’ Their final touch is to say, that ‘white is the colour of the dead.’

This proved to be an irresistible cocktail of elements. I had to read the book again from the beginning, wondering as I did so why I had never finished it at the first attempt.

I won’t be attempting to convey even a distillation of all that they say in their 650 pages. I planned originally to cherry-pick quotes from what they write about two of my favourite novelists: Jane Austen and George Eliot. There was though a surprise in store, as you will see, that derailed that plan. However, for now I will simply capture one of their basic theses in a handful of quotes.

In their introduction, as an example of the constricting disservice paid to women writers in the 19thcentury, they pick up on the sanitised image of Emily Dickinson purveyed by John Crowe Ransom (page xxi) who described her as a ‘prim little home-keeping person.’ Their view is very different:

On the contrary, hers was ‘a Soul at the white heat,’ her ‘Tomes of solid Witchcraft’ produced by an imagination that had, as she herself admitted, the Vesuvian ferocity of a loaded gun.

The skewed tradition of authorship was noted even as early as Chaucer, in the words of the Wife of Bath (page 11):

By God, if women hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hir oratories,
They wolde han writen of men more wikednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.

They punningly point out the extent of female incarceration in literary stereotypes (page 13):

As a creation ‘penned’ by man, moreover, woman has been ‘penned up’ or ‘penned in.’ As a sort of ‘sentence’ man has spoken, she was herself being sentenced . . .

This disempowered version of femininity had not just been internalised, to the detriment of woman’s thought and writing: it had been destructively acted out in many ways in the social sphere, not least in terms of the self-harming image women felt compelled to express (page 25):

The aesthetic cult of ladylike fragility and delicate beauty –- no doubt associated with the moral cult of the angel-woman —  obliged ‘genteel’ women to ‘kill’ themselves… into art objects: slim, pale, passive beings whose ‘charms’ eerily recalled the snowy, porcelain immobility of the dead. Tight-lacing, fasting, vinegar-drinking, and similar cosmetic or dietary excesses were all parts of a physical regimen that helped women either to feign morbid weakness or actually to ‘decline’ into real illness.

Hopefully, that is enough to get the main point across.

This posed a double challenge to women writers. First, how were they to shake off their internalised distortions of their true nature to find a voice of their own, and, secondly, how were they then to use that voice to convey something beyond the prevailing caricatures of femininity that (quoted on page 25) Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh summarised as the ‘ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch and sprite.’

I’m not going to attempt to convey the full complexity of their approach overall. I’ll use a very abbreviated summary of their take on two books to illustrate why that would be impossible in a short sequence of blog posts. They examine what they see as the roots of two nineteenth century classics, Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, along with a detailed explanation of how Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë each used their novel to assert their own take on the matter.

Frank & Wuther provenance v3

They borrow Gertrude Stein’s expression ‘patriarchal poetry’ to capture the zeitgeist of the 19th Century and earlier. In this early literary tradition women are portrayed as either angelic or satanic, the authors suggest. They feel the latter derives from the role of Eve in the fall of man and the former is the role on offer to women to ensure that no one can mistake them for the latter. In the perpetuation of this simplistic and constricting take on femininity, Milton played a key role, in their view, principally through the influence of Paradise Lost. Shakespeare does not escape unscathed. King Lear portrays both aspects with nothing in-between: on the one hand Goneril and Reagan are on the Satanic side of the equation, whereas Cordelia represents the angelic possibility. This tree of descending influences represents the genealogy of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights.

It would distract from my main purpose here to go into more detail. I simply wanted to convey something of the full range and complexity of their scholarly and feminist perspective on the literature of the 19thcentury before homing in, in the next post, on at least two writers that concern me more at this point.

As an interesting post script, I came across a recent reminder that the symbolism of white is by no means dead. A friend gave me the heads up that she was exhibiting at the Hereford College of Art Graduation celebration. My head was ringing with many bells in the light of my recent reading when I saw her piece. It’s called The Shape of Absence (see below for a picture of part of it) and, I think, attempts to capture that elusive sense of a hidden presence behind ordinary objects.

The Shape of Absence (for source of image see link)

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Connections 4 Oct 2013

Given the current sequence on Greyson’s book, it seemed a good time to republish this sequence of four posts over the next three weeks.

At the end of the last post I rashly promised to pick up the threads of Hatcher’s overall position on the brain-mind-soul-spirit issue in his valiant effort to explain their interrelationships in Close Connections. So, here goes.

In spite of all that we are not sure about, what is clear, from Hatcher’s and my point of view, is there are four aspects to experience important to any consideration of consciousness:

  1. the body/brain which can up to a point receive messages from
  2. the mind which is related in some way to
  3. the rational soul/human spirit which in turn has some kind of access to
  4. the Spirit with a capital ‘S.’

I am certainly not competent to take the matter any further other than by unpacking what I have just said slightly more clearly.  It is this physical aspect of awareness – the brain – through which we consciously experience what we call our mind, which there is much evidence to suggest has access to a dimension of reality that seems best described as spiritual. I tend to see the ‘human spirit,’ as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá terms it in one place at least, as the ‘soul.’ The mind, whose signals are decoded albeit imperfectly by the brain, emanates from this ‘human spirit’ or ‘soul’ which in turn has access to a spiritual realm of infinite proportions, whose complexities it seeks to transmit to the brain via the mind.

This may be the weakest point of Hatcher’s treatment and/or my understanding of this subject, but I am none the less grateful to him for triggering me to probe somewhat more deeply into the matter than I had done so far, and also to provide me with other avenues to explore for evidence and understanding.

This process by which this kind of communication between spirit and body brings ‘about patterns of action that enable the daily life of the individual to demonstrate an ever more refined spiritual or inner life’ is by no means automatic. Willpower plays a critical role (page 223):

Within this context ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirms that our own advancement, however much it may be assisted from forces outside ourselves, must be instigated and sustained by our own will.

And there is no wriggle room here, no get-out clauses (page 224):

… while we may have little or no control over the path our life will take or what tests and calamities will befall us, we do have control over how we respond to all circumstances.


Jeffrey Schwartz

This blog has explored two schools of empirically based thought which validate the importance of the exercise of willpower in personal change. Schwartz, in his thorough description of his understanding and its basis in the experimental literature – The Mind and the Brain – sees it this way (his model involves four stages – page 94).

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

The other approach, which is complementary not contradictory, is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, explored by Hayes at al in the book of the same name (page 247):

Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.

Hatcher is not blind to the heated debate which continues to rage around this whole issue between materialists who wish to see everything, including consciousness, explained entirely in physical terms and others who argue for the reality of a metaphysical dimension. His response is clear (page 227):

… The simplest response to [materialistic] arguments is that if these hypotheses are fashioned by the author’s own illusory faculties, then the hypotheses themselves maybe illusory or baseless. In effect, any hypothesis to the contrary has quite as much weight if all suppositions about reality are purely subjective and self-constructed.


We’ve been here before with Alvin Plantinga‘s brilliant and cogently argued hoisting of naturalism’s arguments, rooted in evolutionary theory, with its own petard in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies (page 315):

The principal function or purpose, then, . . . . . of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place.  . . . hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. . . . . What Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution—that theory—gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs.

Hatcher goes on to examine evidence that the will can affect not just the brain, as Schwartz has demonstrated, but also physical reality outside the body of the consciousness deploying its intentions. He looks at the work of Jahn and Dunne, for example. They were critically reviewing, amongst other things, what they concluded was the rigorous evidence for tele/psychokinesis (pages 228-29):  ‘Amazingly, the documented results revealed an interplay between the conscious will of the participants and the distribution of the [ping-pong] balls.’ This kind of evidence, as we know, is dismissed a priori by practitioners of scientism on the grounds that they know this is impossible and the experiments must by definition be flawed and therefore not worth looking at let alone seeking to replicate.

While I am not familiar with the experiments Hatcher is referring to I have read two books which look carefully at the research evidence as a whole in the field of parapsychology. Both books come down cautiously in favour of the idea that something genuine is happening in terms of psychokinesis, though the most compelling evidence is derived from studies which involved influencing a random number generator rather than dice, because methodological rigour is easier to achieve. Deborah Delanoy in Jane Henry’s book Parapsychology: research on exceptional experiences quotes Radin and Nelson (page 54) who:

. . . . concluded that “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that under certain circumstances, consciousness interacts with random physical systems.”

Harvey Irwin in his book An Introduction of Parasychology makes a very sophisticated point about these same data (page 134):

That this phenomena [sic] necessarily entails a “mind over matter” effect as implied by the PK [psychokinesis] hypothesis is another issue. . . . . Statistically significant performances may stem not from a psychokinetic process but from precognitive identification of an appropriate time to commence the experimental series or to make a response in the experimental task. . . . . .  Recent analyses … suggest that this explanation does not fit the data as effectively as the assumption of direct (PK) influence, but the simple fact that the intuitive data sorting hypothesis can be proposed is sufficient to indicate that the PK research is not conclusive for the issue of ontological reality. . . . It cannot be said that a “mind over matter” effect has been authenticated.

Even so, if PK cannot be definitively ruled in because some form of clairvoyance might be at work, this hardly boosts the materialists’ cause.

You may be relieved or disappointed to know that we are now close to the end of Hatcher’s brave and for the most part lucid account of this complex area. He next gets to grips with issues such as memory, the definition of whose exact nature still eludes the experts. More of that in the next post.

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John Hatcher

Given the current sequence on Greyson’s book, it seemed a good time to republish this sequence of four posts over the next three weeks.

At the close of the previous post, we saw that Hatcher’s explanation of his position in Close Connections so far had paved the way for a number of quotations from the Bahá’í literature.  I have been familiar with these quotes ever since I wrestled with the discrepancy between what I had been taught as an agnostic clinical psychologist in training and what my newly found spiritual path was telling me. They are central to the issues under discussion and were extremely useful to me in my search for a deeper understanding.

First of all he quotes the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 196):

Man has also spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.

Hatcher then goes on to allude to a problem that is still challenging to grapple with – what are we talking about when we say ‘soul’ and what does it mean when we say ‘spirit’? He quotes the helpful words of Shoghi Effendi (page 206):

What the Bahá’ís do believe though is that we have three aspects of our humanness, so to speak, a body, a mind and and an immortal identity – soul or spirit. We believe the mind forms a link between the soul and the body, and the two interact with each other.

A translation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seems to clarify this in a further quotation (page 208): ‘. . . . the soul is the intermediary between the body and spirit.’ This carries an implication that there is a strong link between mind and soul, even if they are not identical. There is another useful quotation from a book which pulls together His responses to questions that people put to Him (page 209):

. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

This indicates the closeness of the correspondence.

Light & Lamp

Hatcher spells out the importance for him of the distinction between soul and spirit (page 209):

For our purposes, this distinction will assume more importance as we elaborate the two methodologies by which the spirit operates as the conduit for information channelled to the conscious soul. Hence the distinction between soul and spirit is relevant to our study.

I have to confess I got a bit lost at this point and still am. I am not completely sure whether Hatcher is using ‘conscious soul’ as meaning the same as ‘mind’ in the quote immediately above his words. I am assuming at this point that he is, but that assumption will shortly be severely tested.

Before he deals with the two methodologies there is a bit more ground to cover in the translation of the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 213):

For the mind to manifest itself, the human body must be whole; and a sound mind cannot be but in a sound body, whereas the soul dependeth not upon the body. It is through the power of the soul that the mind comprehendeth, imagineth and exerteth its influence, while the soul is a power that is free.

As Hatcher points out later, this is why the Baha’i Writings place such emphasis on the avoidance of drugs and alcohol, both of which cause a degree of damage to the brain, the organ which even at its best will struggle to decode the complex information reaching it from the spiritual realm.

And now for the two methodologies (page 215):

The mind infers or induces the general from the particular and the unknown from the known. This is what we commonly allude to as the scientific method. However, the soul also has as its disposal methods for acquiring information about reality directly from the spiritual realm – through prayer and reflection, meditation, dreams, intuition, inspiration, and so forth.

It’s important to note, though, that (page 216)  ‘. . . regardless from what source information derives, it ends up in the same “place” . . . . . – it ends up in our conscious mind.’

At this point Hatcher summarises what he feels we have learnt so far before moving onto even deeper levels (page 218):

Between the human soul and the human temple is the intermediary of the human spirit, which employs the medium (perfect mirror or transceiver) of the rational faculty or the mind to bring about patterns of action that enable the daily life of the individual to demonstrate an ever more refined spiritual or ‘inner’ life.

Brain-Mind-Spirit Diagram

I have refrained from bringing in other references that Hatcher makes to such terms as ‘rational soul’ and ‘common faculty’ as they would have complicated things further in ways that would have extended this discussion unduly without adding much to its essence. For instance, he explains at the end of the paragraph discussing the ‘rational soul’ (pages 207-208) that: ”Abdu’l-Bahá sometimes employs the term spirit to allude to the human soul, while at other times he may use the same term to refer to the power that animates the soul and emanates from it.’ Later he writes, of the  ‘common faculty,’ (page 238):

The ‘common faculty’ thus translates metaphysical ideas into a form that the physical brain can comprehend and subsequently translate into forms of action.

This is not a concept that I have met anywhere else and addresses a problem that I do not think is widely recognised. We  know next to nothing about how this ‘common faculty’ might perform its role. There has to be a bridge, though, between the immaterial and the material. It is not clear yet by what methods we might come to a better understanding of how it works.

Setting those aside for the purpose of  keeping this review within manageable bounds, if I can summarise my problem at this point it is that we have met, in the last few paragraphs, the following models:

  1. Body (the physical) – Mind (the intermediary) – Soul (the metaphysical): Shoghi Effendi’s explanation.
  2. Body (the physical) – Soul (the intermediary) – Spirit (the metaphysical): ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explanation.
  3. Mind (an emanation) – Spirit (the immaterial source of the mind): ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s response to a question,
  4. Body (the physical) – Conscious Soul (the intermediary) – Spirit (the metaphysical): Hatcher’s first formulation.
  5. Body (the physical) – Mind (means of inference from specifics) – Soul (direct access to the spiritual): Hatcher’s second formulation.
  6. Human temple (the physical) – Human Spirit using the Mind (the intermediary) – Human Soul: Hatcher’s final formulation.

So my provisional assumption that Hatcher is using ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ as roughly equivalent is not entirely consistent with his usage overall. It may well be that I need to re-read these sections of the book yet again, for the third time, in the hope that I will discover that the confusion is entirely mine. However, I do not have the time (or do I mean the motivation?) to do that at present and I suspect that the fault lies at least in part with the shifting sands of the terminology used here. I find the reasons the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, gave for his clarification quoted earlier most helpful in this situation. (To be fair, Hatcher also quotes it but I feel loses hold of its core warning on this issue as his discussion progresses.)

When studying at present, in English, the available Bahá’í writings on the subject of body, soul and spirit, one is handicapped by a certain lack of clarity because not all were translated by the same person, and also there are, as you know, still many Bahá’í writings untranslated. But there is no doubt that spirit and soul seem to have been interchanged in meaning sometimes; soul and mind have, likewise, been interchanged in meaning, no doubt due to difficulties arising from different translations.

I think we basically have to leave it there for now, at least as far as the Bahá’í explanation is concerned.  I will pick up the threads of this theme, as far as that is possible, in the next post. The picture below will be the link.

Connections 4 Oct 2013

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In the light of my recent sequence on pointers towards a spiritual psychology, this seems a good point to republish this sequence from 2017. The second and last post will come out on Saturday.

Is consciousness spirit, mind or brain?

Or none of the above perhaps?

‘Doubt Wisely’

David Lamberth in William James and the Metaphysics of Experience reports James’s point of view on the investigation of such matters, and I feel this is a good place to begin (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

When it comes to these issues, fundamentalist certainty is completely out of place. I may have chosen to believe certain things about the mind and its independence of the brain but I cannot know what I believe is true in the same way as I can know my own address. Similarly, though, those like Dennett and Churchland who believe that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain cannot be absolutely sure of their position either.

We are both performing an act of faith.

is-god-a-delusionIt is in this spirit that I want to explain my point of view and with the same intent as Reitan in his book Is God a Delusion? He explains that he wishes to demonstrate that it is just as rational to believe in God as it is not to believe in God. I am not trying to persuade anyone to believe as I do, I simply want people to accept that I am as rational as any sceptic out there, and more so than the so-called sceptics who have absolute faith in their disbelief. The only tenable position using reason alone is agnosticism. Absolute conviction of any kind is faith, which goes beyond where reason can take us.

John Hick adduces an argument to explain why we cannot be absolutely sure about spiritual issues, an argument which appeals to a mind like mine. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe in a spiritual perspective whether it involves the concept of God or the idea I’m discussing here, that the mind is independent of the brain. Conversely, materialists should be aware that there is no evidence that could compel us not to believe it either. There is only enough evidence either way to convince the predisposed to that belief.

As an atheist/agnostic of almost 25 years standing and a mature student at the time I finished my clinical psychology training after six years of exposure to a basically materialist and sceptical approach to the mind, I was pretty clear where I’d confidently placed my bets.

There were three prevailing ideas within the psychological community at the time about the nature of the mind: the eliminative materialism advocated by such thinkers as Paul Churchland; the epiphenomenological approach which says consciousness is simply an accidental by-product of brain complexity; and the emergent property idea that posits that, just as the cells in our body as a whole combine to create something greater than themselves, so do our brain cells. I’d chosen the last option as the most sensible. Consciousness is not entirely reducible to a simple aggregate of cells: the mind is something extra. But I didn’t believe for one moment that it was not ultimately a material phenomenon.

mind v3The Emanation Shock

Well, not that is until I took the leap of faith I call declaring my intention to work at becoming a Bahá’í.

The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.’

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart.

My memory of the process by which I set out to investigate suggests that my initial research involved looking into near death experiences (NDEs) and Psi.

I decided that, as I was not absolutely certain of this, I’d better make sure I was even aware of that body of data at this time. I checked my bookshelves. To my surprise, it showed that I was reading about NDEs and Psi even before I declared as a Bahá’í. My copies of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and John Randall’s Parapsychology and the Nature of Life both date from 1981, a whole year earlier at the very least. There is no reference to either book in my journals of 1981/82 so I don’t know whether I read them before finding the Bahá’í Faith.

Not that in the end, after years of checking this out as more research became known, NDEs have provided completely conclusive proof that there is a soul and that the mind derives from it. Even my Black Swan example of Pam Reynolds, which I discovered much later, could not clinch it absolutely. This was the beginning of my realisation that we are inevitably dealing with acts of faith here and that both beliefs are equally rational when not asserted dogmatically. Even if you couldn’t explain them away entirely in material terms, the existence of Psi complicated the picture somewhat.

For example, Braude’s work in Immortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

I’ll explore this in more detail in the next post on Saturday.

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Language is the medium of the poet. One has only to turn to the words of  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to discover its purpose: “. . . the function of language is to portray the mysteries and secrets of human hearts. The heart is like a box, and language is the key.”

(Roger White on Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald, page 8)

Pressure of other things has meant that I have not had the time recently to do more than work on a couple of poems. However, something I did manage to read triggered me into thinking that I need to revisit my ideas about brick wall and puzzle poetry. I really value the idea of poetry as ‘solving for the unknown’ so I could not lightly dismiss what I found myself reading.

It was an article by John Hatcher in Where Art & Faith Converge (edited by Michael Fitzgerald.) Hatcher argues strongly for the value of what he calls (page 48) ‘algebraic’ poetry, ‘a process that requires the reader to participate in deciphering the equation, in solving for the unknown, the x factor.’ When we encounter a poem of this kind (page 49) ‘we as readers are required to participate more actively in the process of acquiring understanding of the poet’s intent.’ He goes on to explain that ‘[t]his process requires work, sometimes a great deal of work, sometimes reading footnotes to recover allusions,… sometimes this algebraic process of discovering meaning makes the ordinary reader and the less adept critic content to dwell on the surface of meaning.’

His last comment was what struck me the hardest, as I generally invest considerable effort in slowing down my engagement with what appear to me to be potentially rewarding aspects of experience in order not to simply skate across the surface, strongly desiring instead to penetrate into their depths. The poems that I have categorized in these posts as puzzle or brick wall poetry have not so far rewarded my efforts to engage with them more deeply.

So far, I have not had the time to revisit them and others of their kind in the light of Hatcher’s strictures but I plan to do so whenever the tide of my current commitments ebbs. In the meantime I am republishing the relevant posts both as a reminder to myself and a prompt to any reader who wants to contribute to this debate. I have begun to dip more deeply into the poetry of Marianne Moore as a start and found some words of comfort in one version of her poem Poetry (published in 1925 and reprinted on page 408 of Grace Schulman’s edition of her poems (2003):

It may be said of all of us
that we do not admire what we cannot understand;
enigmas are not poetry.

She could’ve had her tongue in her cheek of course!

Incredible as it may seem, there is a link that Fuller is able to make between the skeletal ‘Ties,’ discussed in the previous post, and a full-blooded poem by Thomas Hardy, During Wind and Rain. The link is the reference to ‘white storm birds.’ John Fuller, in his book Who is Ozymandias?, describes Hardy’s poem as (page 213) a ‘celebrated account of sacred family moments, seasonal change and death.’ Clearly the fact that we don’t know who precisely ‘He, she, all of them’ are does not diminish the human impact of the poem in the slightest. There is enough of the living tissue of human experience there to make what it describes come alive in the reader’s mind.

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no ; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

This is not one of Hardy’ best poems but it clearly illustrates that anonymous pronouns need not confuse and putting some flesh on the bones, far from weakening its effects, adds to a poem’s power to convey an experience.

I’d like to end though on one of Hardy’s best and most popular lyrics to illustrate another important point for me which is that accessibility is not incompatible with depth.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited ;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

In the end I have chickened out of tackling the two poets who challenge me the most – Bunting and Hill. I felt that it would be better to use poems where every reader of this post can easily find a brave attempt to bring them to life and judge for him or herself whether I have been unfair. In the end, Fuller, in spite of my liking for him as a poet and my respect for his having attempted what I regard as the impossible, fails to convince me I am wrong. I will continue to look with great suspicion at poets who, to huge adulation in some cases, parade before us as though it were a living poem what I see as a bag of bones. The Emperor in this case not only has no clothes: he does not even have any flesh.

If I am right this is a confidence trick which is seriously damaging the potential poetry has for stirring the hearts of the generality of readers to higher understandings of the human predicament, as I believe Hardy’s does in spite of his own bleak view of what to him is our pointless universe. Every failure to fulfil the potential of a poem is such a waste, such a betrayal, and I regret such failures deeply when I come across them and find reading them immensely frustrating, in case you hadn’t noticed.

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Even with such a lesson before him, how heedless is man! Still do we see his world at war from pole to pole. There is war among the religions; war among the nations; war among the peoples; war among the rulers. What a welcome change would it be, if only these black clouds would lift from off the skies of the world, so that the light of reality could be shed abroad! If only the darksome dust of this continual fighting and killing could settle forever, and the sweet winds of God’s loving-kindness could blow from out the well-spring of peace. Then would this world become another world, and the earth would shine with the light of her Lord.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Page 276: Addressed to the readers of The Christian Commonwealth, 1 January 1913)

Pressure of other things has meant that I have not had the time recently to do more than work on a couple of poems. However, something I did manage to read triggered me into thinking that I need to revisit my ideas about brick wall and puzzle poetry. I really value the idea of poetry as ‘solving for the unknown’ so I could not lightly dismiss what I found myself reading.

It was an article by John Hatcher in Where Art & Faith Converge (edited by Michael Fitzgerald.) Hatcher argues strongly for the value of what he calls (page 48) ‘algebraic’ poetry, ‘a process that requires the reader to participate in deciphering the equation, in solving for the unknown, the x factor.’ When we encounter a poem of this kind (page 49) ‘we as readers are required to participate more actively in the process of acquiring understanding of the poet’s intent.’ He goes on to explain that ‘[t]his process requires work, sometimes a great deal of work, sometimes reading footnotes to recover allusions,… sometimes this algebraic process of discovering meaning makes the ordinary reader and the less adept critic content to dwell on the surface of meaning.’

His last comment was what struck me the hardest, as I generally invest considerable effort in slowing down my engagement with what appear to me to be potentially rewarding aspects of experience in order not to simply skate across the surface, strongly desiring instead to penetrate into their depths. The poems that I have categorized in these posts as puzzle or brick wall poetry have not so far rewarded my efforts to engage with them more deeply.

So far, I have not had the time to revisit them and others of their kind in the light of Hatcher’s strictures but I plan to do so whenever the tide of my current commitments ebbs. In the meantime I am republishing the relevant posts both as a reminder to myself and a prompt to any reader who wants to contribute to this debate. I have begun to dip more deeply into the poetry of Marianne Moore as a start and found some words of comfort in one version of her poem Poetry (published in 1925 and reprinted on page 408 of Grace Schulman’s edition of her poems (2003):

It may be said of all of us
that we do not admire what we cannot understand;
enigmas are not poetry.

She could’ve had her tongue in her cheek of course!

The first poem I want to consider, of the ones Fuller discusses in his book Who is Ozymandias?, is a war poem. It illustrates one of my difficulties with what I feel are the left brain tendencies of modernism to strip away organic tissue and reduce it to lifeless abstraction (see the first two links in the list at the bottom of this post for more on this issue).

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Randall Jarrell

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

It was, it seems, a popular poem. Presumably the extreme theme helped.

Why don’t I find it satisfactory as a poem? I find myself asking, ‘Is it too abstract for all its apparent “telling detail”? Is it too stripped down?’

Basil Bunting put his advice to young poets on a post card:

Basil Bunting was asked so many times for advice by young poets that he had a postcard printed with his key points:

1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjectives; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape

Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

What exactly is the shape kept here in Jarrell’s poem (and I feel in Briggflatts, or perhaps is should be Brick Flats, Bunting’s supposed masterpiece) when all the jettisoning and cutting have been done? There’s certainly no spare flesh on The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.

The trouble for me is that this process squeezes the life out of a poem leaving only a skeleton. And, perhaps appropriately, perhaps not, that’s all I think we’ve got here in Jarrell’s poem. And how many of us can honestly say that we’d prefer to spend an evening with the skeleton of a friend rather than with the friend in person?

In the end, with a skeleton poem, rather than enjoying the shared creative enterprise offered by an achieved poem, the reader has to perform instead the miracle of raising the dead. We have to exert tremendous effort to put life back into a collection of words that I sometimes suspect might have been more stones than bones to start with. The poet’s desire to pare it all back, even at the risk of creating a brick-wall puzzle, has killed any hope of our finding a poem: even in this case, where the puzzle is not too great, we have a fossil poem at best – bone turned to stone and quite dead – where it would take too much specialist expertise to recreate a sense of the living original.

Maybe that’s what the poet wanted to achieve as an expression of his take on the mechanistic modern world, but it’s not the kind of poem I want to read: it seems to me to capitulate to, rather than effectively protest against the left-brain desiccation of the life world that poetry should, in my view, resist at all costs. The distillation process here has not enhanced the potency of the poem, as the poet perhaps expected, but made it a quisling instead.

So, even when I know what the theme is and can sense the acute tension created by the ball-turret as womb-of-death imagery, it can’t rival the full human impact of such poems as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘ by Wilfred Owen or the deeply unsettling Keith Douglas lyric, where compassion and creativity are deeply fused (see link to Practising Compassion at the end of this post for more exploration of this issue):

How To Kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

(There are two brilliant chapters on the war poets, including Keith Douglas, in my recently explored Death of the Poets – pages 155-203.) 

The skeleton problem is not the only barrier between me and much of modern poetry, though it is perhaps the most important. Fuller lists many others including borrowed characters and troublesome titles. Next time I’m going to consider a particularly irritating habit which seems to me to make even less sense than reducing the words of a living poem to a pile of bones.

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