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Posts Tagged ‘A S Byatt’

Question: What do you say regarding the theory of the evolution of beings to which certain European philosophers subscribe?

Answer. . . . Briefly, this question comes down to the originality or non-originality of the species, that is, whether the essence of the human species was fixed from the very origin or whether it subsequently came from the animals.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Some Answered Questions – 2014 edition – page 220,  quoted from the earlier edition in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief edited by Keven Brown – page 45)

A friend recommended I read Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver.

‘If you only read one book in the next 12 months, let it be this one,’ he insisted.

To be honest, of late I’ve not taken much pleasure in novels. I’m a bit stuck in the past. Apart from Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much,in recent days I’ve usually drawn a blank with anything later than Virginia Woolf.

Not so this time though.

I recently battled to define the balance successful novels need to strike if they are to hold the reader’s attention. For me, they should ideally 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 the memory. If authors stray too far from some form of narrative it is possible they might diminish the long-term impact of their books on the reader. From the reviews I skimmed Unsheltered looked like it would manage to avoid that trap.

I checked that my local Waterstones had a copy and dashed down there to get it. I hadn’t much time before I was due to meet my wife in town. I scanned all the shelves and was frustrated not to be able to find it anywhere.

There was an irritating queue at the counter. I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes to go. I slotted in at the back of the queue.

‘Thank you for your help,’ the woman at the front enthused, as she struggled with her bags, purse and cards.

‘I’m really looking forward to reading this,’ she droned on as she was forcing the book into a spare corner of her M&S bag, dropping her points card on the floor as she did so.

With relief I saw her pick up her card, stuff it back into her wallet and stagger out of the shop with her bags.

The person in front handed over his paperback and was gone in seconds, thank God.

‘Can I help?’ the familiar face behind the till enquired, her hand poised over the keyboard as I approached with my notebook in hand. She knew me well enough to realise she might have an online search on her hands.

‘I hope so,’ I smiled. ‘I’m looking for Kingsolver’s Unsheltered,’ I explained. ‘It says on your website you’ve got it here but I couldn’t find it anywhere. It’s not on the new stack or the main novels section.’

I took a quick look behind me to see if anyone was waiting. Thankfully no one was. I’d’ve been as irritating as the bag lady if there had been, blethering as I was.

‘I’ll just check for you. I won’t be a moment.’

She headed straight for the new stack I’d just searched carefully through.

She found it within seconds.

‘So it wasn’t stored in alphabetical order,’ I said, feeling slightly embarrassed as it had obviously been in plain sight.

‘No, we stack them in order of priority. We put the best ones near the top.’

‘Ah! I’ll try and remember that next time.’

‘Do you want to buy it?’

Usually I would scan a £20 book before risking a purchase, but there was no time for that.

‘I do,’ I said at the same time as wondering whether this might be a big mistake.

‘Do you need a bag?’

‘No, I’ve got one here.’

I had my points card and my cash in hand, paid for the book, picked it up, shoving my receipt hastily inside, fumbled it into the Waterstones bag I always carried with me and hurried to the exit. Time was running out, and so should I.

. . . .

I couldn’t wait to get home. I didn’t contradict my wife when she supposed I had work to do. There was work, it was true, but I wanted to squeeze in an extra few moments to taste the opening pages.

At first I thought I might have made a mistake. The opening didn’t grip me as I’d hoped. Dialogues about the state of a building aren’t my cup of tea. I had to get on with my work at this point and found it hard to stop beating myself up for wasting my money again by buying in haste a book I didn’t like.

As soon as I could, I beat a retreat to an armchair with a coffee and the book. I needed to find out if I’d thrown my money away.

Within 13 pages I was hooked. A death is almost bound to get my attention. I could barely put it down. Every spare moment after that I stepped back into the double worlds of this enthralling novel. The stepping between the past and present reminded me of A S Byatt’s Possession, though the themes are different. Kingsolver is more concerned with how the two periods in history echo each other: bigotry, inequality, denialism and so on.

In terms of the nineteenth century story line, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the passionate resistance to it are a main thread. In terms of the twentieth century it’s our similar and far more potentially threatening commitment to unsustainable economic growth.

Either way it matches my current preoccupations since the cruise by emphasising from early on our connection with nature. Mary Treat tries to convey to Thatcher Greenwood what sustains her relationship with plants (page 83):

‘I become attached, you see. After so many months with these plants, observing them intimately, I begin to feel as if we are of the same world.’

‘But you are of the same world, of course.’

Within four days of buying it I had finished it. I was scribbling in my diary quotes from the closing chapters, so I wouldn’t forget them.

The moment, for example, when Thatcher, the main character from the nineteenth century, an invention of the author, refrains from telling Mary Treat, a real-life courageous female pioneering scientist of the time and respected correspondent of Darwin’s, that ‘he could see her soul. It was a giant redwood.’

This had not been the first such quote. Willa, the main contemporary character, ‘looked at the oak over their heads. Its trunk was a monument to resilience and its branches to tenderness.’ That resonates with the part of me that wrote the poem Oak in Winter.

Also in September I published on this blog a sequence about becoming an Ent. I wrote:

I came to feel a powerful affinity with trees. It was as though at some deep level I feel as though I am a tree, an image of myself I need to hold onto. It represents patiently and resiliently operating in a long time scale, rooted in the earth but reaching after the sun – in effect constituting a kind of bridge between earth and heaven, something we all have the potential to be.

What makes the book so marvellous for me is that it brings together both that aspect of my inner life and my reactions to the society we live in. For example, towards the end of the book, Tig, Willa’s daughter declares vehemently, ‘The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell.’

Now that I have finished the book, and am experiencing that strangely bereft feeling that comes when you can’t step back into the fascinating world of a superb fiction, I find myself taking stock.

I thought I had made it clear to myself that from now hearticulture is my calling. I thought that would make it easy to decide what I needed to do and what would be a waste of time.

‘Was reading novels like this a waste of time?’ I found myself thinking. ‘You told yourself you’d focus on poetry.’

‘Well, yes,’ I replied to myself. ‘But compared to this most of the poetry I’ve got on my shelves is boring. I only really like about half a dozen poets and the rest I rarely look at.’

‘And anyway,’ another part of my head chipped in, ‘Wading through too much poetry wouldn’t be much better than drowning yourself in novels.’

The words of Unsheltered came back to me again, ones I’d resonated to almost in tears as I read them the first time: ‘Mary had lived with her discipline. Both of them had, she and Thatcher, with an integrity that led them to give up, practically speaking, their lives. . . Willa ached for a devotion like that, something to move her beyond herself.’

I began to wonder whether all this might be a sign that I wasn’t completely on board with my hearticulture plan in the context of my Bahá’í convictions, as I’d fooled myself into believing I had. Was I now calling my calling into question? Perhaps I still haven’t found out what, given my current levels of energy, I should be focusing my time on for the rest of my life, over and above the obvious commitments I have.

Where was all this taking me?

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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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