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Posts Tagged ‘Antonio Machado’

‘El poeta es un pescador …. de peces que puedan vivir después de pescados.’

[Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape  – page 185)

‘ The poet is a fisherman… of fish capable of staying alive after being hauled out.’

(Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems – Page 7)

The water is deep. Sometimes from far
down invisible messages arrive.
Often it seems it is far more than fish
that we seek; we wait for the
withheld answer to an insoluble
problem

(R. S. Thomas Collected Poems – page 327)

Scanned from Xon de Ros – The Poetry of Antonio Machado

In February last year I declared ‘I am currently going back and re-reading the poetry of Antonio Machado after being triggered by my encounter with The Forty Rules of Love.’ It has clearly taken me some time to get to the point where I feel able to put on record the result of my revisiting his poetry and related books.

Initially I wanted to write about Machado because aspects of his life and the themes he repeatedly returned to resonated for me. As I explored further, reading the views of others such as Xon de Ros, Alan S Trueblood and Don Paterson, I realized his poetry also related to issues of concern to me, but of a different kind. Perversely, it is those I will begin with in detail, after a helicopter biography, before then exploring the themes that attract me in the context of his life.

It might be worth mentioning now, before it gets forgotten, that, to my way of thinking, the UK poet closest to Machado in spirit if not in technique is the Welsh priest-poet R S Thomas, another of my favourites. For instance, they share a similar relationship with God. R S Thomas typically states (Collected Poems – page 361):

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply.

Only to have been anticipated by Machado, who wrote (Trueblood – page 227) of ‘The God of distance and of absence.’

There are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotation is clear.

His Life

My sister’s dying four years before I was born triggered my parents’ consequent grief and clouded my childhood. Machado’s life was overshadowed by death in a similar way to mine, which accounts for part of my sense of affinity with him.

He married in 1909. His young wife died of consumption in August 1911. The moment she died is captured in a poem I quoted at the start of my sequence on Los Solitarios, where you’ll also find the original Spanish (the English is my literal translation):

One summer evening –
the balcony and the doors open –
death came into my house.
Approaching her bed
– not even seeing me –
with slender fingers
it tore something most delicate.
Silent and blind to me
death passed by again.
‘What have you done?’
Death made no reply.
As precious as my sight,
my child stayed silent
as my heart splintered.
What death had cut was
the thread between those two.

He later wrote (Trueblood – page 3):

‘Five years in the Sofia country, now sacred to me – I married there and there I lost my wife, whom I adored – oriented my eyes and heart towards the quintessentially Castilian.’

Xon de Ros places this in context – Leonor was 15 when Machado married her (page 240):

The union, even by the standards of the time, was scandalous – he was heckled outside the church in what the poet would painfully recall years later as one of the worst days of his life.

She describes him as (page 242) ‘. . . one of the most haunted poets of modern Spain.’

Gerald Brennan conveys a vivid picture of the man in the eyes of his contemporaries (page 434):

. . .shabbily dressed, sunk in his own thoughts, almost always alone, the picture of a provincial school master run to seed till one looked at him attentively, both timid and proud at the same time – that is how it appeared to Rafael Alberti in the 1920s. His friends, other elderly provincials: his occupations, walking and reading: his severity, that of the inward-looking man who has had to suffer all the boredom of the classroom.…

Writing his biography, according to Xon de Ros, was an intimidating challenge (pages 240-41):

Gibson [his biographer] is at pains to record a life that looks formidably boring. . . So uneventful is it that the biographer finds himself grasping at [straws] . . . Machado’s life was the life of the mind, that of a contemplative poet.

Xon de Ros clarifies what this might mean in terms of his poetry (page 208): ‘[Wallace Stevens’s] meditative and philosophical poetry has much in common with Machado’s.’

Maybe, as she says (page 200), in his renderings of Machado called The Eyes, Paterson also got the point in his translation of La Noria (literally The Treadmill, in this case working a waterwheel):

In Paterson’s poem the poor old mule is transformed into ‘my wretched old pal’ in the second stanza, suggesting a kind of intimacy which is almost a self-recognition as the poet beholds himself in the mule.

The photograph at the top of the post, taken towards the end of his life, captures this sense of weariness.

His life ended tragically. His more famous much younger contemporary, Federico García Lorca, had been murdered by Fascists in Granada in August 1936: he was 38. In poor health already, Machado fled Franco’s Spain in 1938 trying to save himself, but died in France a few months later on 22 February 1939 at the age of 63.

Issues of Concern raised by his Art

Politics:

A problem that seems to vex a number of critics and literary historians is whether poetry should be political. While I would agree in terms of party politics, many themes that poets draw upon have political implications that are not sectarian and need not be experienced as divisive. As far as I can tell, though, as a result of his education, (Xon de Ros – page 3) ‘liberal principles became part and parcel of Machado’s lifelong ideological makeup, but his was (Trueblood – page 4) ‘. . . a profound conviction that poetry should remain apolitical and that the artist’s integrity required that he keep his distance from centres of power…’

Xon de Ros (page 210) claims that the words quoted from Gray’s Constructive Destruction describe qualities inherent in Machado’s approach: the ‘valorization of the unsystematic over the systematic and a concomitant suspicion of all systems.’ This echoes Sue Prideaux’s perception of Munch, whose true genius I only recently discovered, (her biography – page 326) as ‘an implacable opponent of all –isms . . .’

Early in his life, Machado’s views were mistakenly seen as allied to Franco’s. However, Xon de Ros clarifies that (page 182):

. . . the identification of his work with the Francoist ideology was soon questioned by critics whose vindication of the formalist qualities of his poetry implies his realignment with the poetics of political dissent. . Whereas Lorca’s status as a Republican martyr is based on his political sympathies, Machado’s exile, a trauma which contributed to his death, was the direct result of his political action in favour of the Republic. . .

Clarity

Accessibility is something that matters to me, as my sequence on what I call brick-wall poetry illustrates. Trueblood argues that he is reaching out to a wider audience than a poetic elite (page 5):

He seeks forms of reintegration through dialogue in communion with his fellow-man, his society, his age, and, more broadly, in speculations on a scheme of things from which God has withdrawn.

However, the degree of his accessibility may not be consistent. Xon de Ros flags up an interesting system for categorizing poems which I had not met before, probably because my ambivalence towards Ezra Pound kept me at a distance from his ideas (page 14):

The main strands of Machado’s poetics,… broadly correspond to the three ‘kinds of poetry’ . . . described by Ezra Pound in the late 1920s. . . While the first, ‘in which words are charged with some musical property’ can be associated with the symbolist emphasis of Soledades, Galerías, Otras Poemas, the second, involving ‘a casting of images upon the visual imagination,’ is more prevalent in Campos de Castilla. The third, characterised by Pound as ‘a dance of intellect among words,’ finds more extensive treatment in Nuevas Canciones.

My brick-wall problem may emerge when I’m dealing with Machado’s ‘dance of intellect among words’ – the label does not suggest an appetizing experience for me.

It is clear that obscurity creeps into some of Machado’s poetry. Trueblood pins down the source of the problem (page 32):

The enigmas and obscurities of all this poetry are neither obscurantist nor wilful. They result from the effort to confront fundamental and, often anguishing, perplexities, dilemmas of existence and of mortality.

I’ll be looking at further influences in this direction later. In the meantime this poem conveys both Machado’s sense of loss and his search for God. First is the original Spanish, and next Trueblood’s translation, both from his book. Last comes my rather melodramatic attempt to capture my sense of it in English.

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. . . . . 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)

Even as he felt most estranged from the world and most conscious that the black bird of insanity was making its dangerous escape from the cage of his soul, the white bird of outward appearance was stretching its wings to fly into an annus mirabilis.

(Prideaux – page 237)

More about the Man

In the previous post I referred to key early losses that impacted heavily on Munch throughout his life, and left their mark on his art as well. There is more needs to be said about his personality, scarred as it was by these tragedies, and the ways he tried to manage his post-traumatic reactions.

His relationships with others were fraught, especially perhaps with women, as Prideaux explains in her biography (page 191): ‘. . . he fled if [women] got too close . . . but if they did not, then he felt alone.’

He felt that his art had benefited from his troubled state of mind (page 229):

‘I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.’

He makes the link quite explicit (page 251):

‘My art is grounded in reflections over being different to others. My sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.’

A key and traumatic early relationship coloured his attitude to women for the rest of his life and culminated in a shooting which damaged the finger of his left hand (page 227):

For the rest of his life he hid his finger. . . . The feeling that his life had been marked by a heavy doom from birth had been greatly increased by this visible sign.

This was not the end of the impact of a gun on his life. Drink contributed to poor impulse control so that, after a drunken spat with an artist he was painting, he later fired at him with a shotgun from the window of his house. He missed (page 237): ’Trembling, he withdrew [the gun], realising how close he had come to murder.’

Alcohol, as well as frequenting prostitutes and heavy smoking, were taking their toll. In the end he broke down completely (page 248): ‘[Jacobsen, his psychiatrist,] correctly diagnosed Munch as suffering from dementia paralytica as a result of alcohol poisoning.’

As a result of his, for that time, enlightened treatment (page 251):

He accepted the idea that from now on he would have to confine himself to ‘tobacco-free cigars alcohol-free drinks and poison-free women.’

He was afraid that his sanity had been bought at the price of his art: more of that later. He used novel ways of activating his creativity (page 294):

The dissection of [a] cadaver was not the only time Munch had felt the need to shock himself during the later part of his life… Aware of the danger of lapsing into the emotional bluntness of middle age… he requested a butcher if he might be present while a bull was slaughtered.

When his end approached, his characteristic stubborn curiosity determined his behaviour (page 323):

He was very adamant that he did not want to die in his sleep; he wanted consciously to experience the last struggle.

Hopefully that has conveyed some sense of how powerfully Prideaux confronts us with Munch, the man.

Now for the treatment of how Munch felt this all related to his art, before we focus in the final post on his art and the explicit ideas behind it.

Anxiety from The Frieze of Life (scanned from Prideaux’s biography)

His Life in his Art

Prideaux’s introduction flags up where this is likely to take us now (page vii):

Munch was twenty-eight when he embarked on the lifelong effort to paint his soul’s diary . . [something which] Munch described [as] ‘the terrible struggle inside the cage of the soul.’

She also highlights his high regard for a Russian writer in this respect (page 49):

‘No one in art,’ he told a friend, ‘has yet penetrated as far as Dostoevsky into the mystical realms of the soul…’ [T]hroughout Edvard’s life, Dostoevsky was the writer of greatest importance to him. . . [He] succeeded in conveying in parallel the outer and the inner life. This was exactly what Edvard wanted to achieve with paint. ‘Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied human anatomy and dissected corpses, so I was trying to dissect souls.’

The Frieze of Life, a key body of work (page 64) is ‘a sequence of paintings showing the progress of a soul through life,’ fulfilling his ambition (page 81) ‘to paint soul art.’

She goes into more detail than is possible here into two key experiences in about 1890 (pages 118-120):

Two intensely private and ecstatic visions came to him in two separate moments of mystical transport . .

He first came as he ascended the sun-warmed hill of Saint-Cloud. . . . He perceived [a cock’s crow, smoked dissolving into nothing and green shoots appearing] ‘as metamorphoses. How foolish to deny the existence of the soul.’

The second vision came in altogether darker circumstances [involving a Spanish dancer. He concluded as a result] he would paint themes that were timeless, personal, and in some manner sacred; pictures in which could be read the psychological reality of man’s connection to the world-soul that he had glimpsed from the sunlit hillside and in this fusion of music and colour.

It helped shape what turned out to be a long-term project, perhaps lasting the whole of his life in some respects (page 132):

He had been thinking for a long time about the concept of a series of paintings depicting the secret life of the soul.

Self=portrait with wine bottle (scanned from the Taschen edition)

Discussions of the self-portrait he painted with a bottle of wine nearby have interpreted the two waiters springing out of his shoulders as symbolising his state of mind. He was deeply divided as a human being (page 228): ‘My soul is like two wild birds, each flying in its own direction.’ I’m no stranger to a divided mind as my sequence about my Parliament of Selves testifies, which obviously served to increase my interest in Munch.

It is not surprising, given this inner split, that conflict should be a key element in his work when it was so rooted in his deepest experience of self (page 254):

‘I am making a study of the soul, as I can observe myself closely and use myself as an anatomical testing ground for this soul study. The main thing is to make an art work and a soul study…

Munch’s later reading perhaps gives some sense of that this might have been like for him (page 292):

Ludvig Ravensberg noted that Munch was reading Plato’s Phaedrus at the time. A central image of the text is that of the soul as two horses harnessed together. One is light and seeks to rise upward, while the other is a dark and pulls downwards. [The driver] seeks to control the balance between two conflicting impulses in the soul.

A sense of divisions within is not rare and not restricted to creative artists, as my own experience testifies. However, it is perhaps worth flagging up two other examples of this phenomenon in highly creative people. I’ve explored Pessoa’s experience of this at some length elsewhere on this blog. Briefly for present purposes, in a post of 2016, I wrote:

For the first time since I read him in the late 90s, this September I was triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):

Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.

Pessoa himself clarifies exactly what he meant by heteronym (A Centenary Pessoa – page 133):

A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; the heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be.

What I had not remembered until yesterday, when I re-read the introduction Xon de Ros placed at the start of her book on Antonio Machado, that he also experienced a similar thing (pages 1-2):

 . . . His most memorable dramatis personae were not written for the theatre but for the press. These were his apocryphal creations, mainly Juan de Mairena and Abel Martín. . . . one of Mairena’s fragments [reads] ‘¿pensáis . . . que un hombre no puede llevar dentro de sí más de un poeta? Lo difícil sería lo contrario, que no llevase más que uno.’ [do you think . . . that a man cannot carry more than one poet inside? The opposite would be what is difficult, that he doesn’t carry more than one.]

Machado specifically refers to the ‘essential heterogeneity of being.’ From a spiritual point of view this raises interesting questions which I have explored elsewhere and need not be investigated here. What is intriguing is why this heterogeneity has only relatively recently been reflected so explicitly by creative artists and writers.

Perhaps we are now ready to look more closely at the art, rather than the life. This could be shaping up to be the most time I’ve spent blogging about a painter since the Van Gogh sequence.

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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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VirginiaWoolf

[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.

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

In a previous sequence of posts I came to the tentative conclusion that Virginia Woolf was attempting, in her later fiction, to capture our consciousness as effectively as she could in words.

I didn’t follow this up immediately or systematically, as I had thought I might. Nothing new there then.

Instead, for reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post, I accidentally stumbled across another book that added weight to my conclusions.

Jonah Lehrer is very clearly in accord with my hesitant but hard-won conclusion (page 168):

In 1920,… Virginia Woolf announced in her diary: ‘I have finally arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel.’ Her new form would follow the flow of our consciousness, tracing the ‘flight of the mind’ as it unfolded in time.

What he goes on to say resonates so closely with my own experience as expanded on in my parliament of selves sequence, that it felt a bit weird to read it (page 177):

. . .the head holds a raucous parliament of cells that endlessly debate what sensations and feelings should become conscious… What we call reality is merely the final draft.

He adds that, in To the Lighthouse, the character Lily notes that every brain is crowded Lehrerwith at least two different minds. We’ll catch up with that idea again in a minute when I come to discuss Pessoa.

Just in case you feel I’m cherry-picking, I have another source that points in basically the same direction This is the introduction by Elaine Showalter to Mrs Dallawoy (Penguin Classics Edition).

She explains the process in terms of a philosopher’s perspective (page xx):

Bergson had … given guidance to writers seeking to capture the effects of emotional relativity, for he had suggested that a thought or feeling could be measured in terms of the number of perceptions, memories, and associations attached to it. For Woolf the external event is significant primarily for the way it triggers and releases the inner life. … Like other modernist writers experimenting with the representation of consciousness, Woolf was interested in capturing the flux of random associations…

DallowayThis resonates with developments in modern art at the time (Page xxi):

… it can be said that in trying to show us her characters from a variety of embedded viewpoints rather than from the fixed perspective of the omniscient narrator, Woolf ‘breaks up the narrative plane… as the Cubists broke up the visual plane.

This approach has clear advantages, in her view, over more traditional methods (page xix):

[Her narrative technique] can deepen our understanding and compassion for Woolf’s characters in the way an Edwardian omniscient narration might not achieve.

I think this may act as an unintended discount of the power of free indirect speech, an approach originally pioneered by Jane Austen in English, but also used brilliantly by Ford Madox Ford in his novels The Good Soldier (1915), and the Parade’s End tetralogy (1924–28). Still her point is none the less a valid one as the Edwardian era technically ended in 1910.

I don’t follow Lehrer in his next step though (page 172):

Woolf’s writing exposes the fact that we are actually composed of ever-changing impressions that are held together by the thin veneer of identity.

Although I accept that it can sometimes feel that way, Lehrer treats it as a fact. He quotes a modernist in support (page 176):

[T.S.Eliot] believed that the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the ‘unified soul’ simply because we didn’t have one.

And concludes (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.

I’ll come back to my doubts about that later in the sequence.

MachadoI felt after my posts on her later novels that I would be exploring Virginia Woolf more. However, I found myself drawn instead to the inscapes of three poets who have always intrigued me: Machado, Pessoa and Rilke. This was triggered by the book I acquired on my India trip: The Forty Rules of Love. My earlier blog post explained how reading that book impelled me to feel that I should revisit spiritual poetry.

I really thought I was onto a theme that I would stick with. Why wouldn’t I? For a start there is a lot about death.

For example, Machado’s young wife’s death cast a long shadow over his life and led to some of his most powerful poetry. One short example will have to suffice.

Una noche de verano
—estaba abierto el balcón
y la puerta de mi casa—
la muerte en mi casa entró.
Se fue acercando a su lecho
—ni siquiera me miró—,
con unos dedos muy finos,
algo muy tenue rompió.
Silenciosa y sin mirarme,
la muerte otra vez pasó
delante de mí. ¿Qué has hecho?
La muerte no respondió.
Mi niña quedó tranquila,
dolido mi corazón,
¡Ay, lo que la muerte ha roto
era un hilo entre los dos!

I have made a fairly literal translation of it here.

One summer evening –
the balcony and the doors open –
death came into my house.
Approaching her bed
– not even seeing me –
with slender fingers
it tore something most delicate.
Silent and blind to me
death passed by again.
‘What have you done?’
Death made no reply.
As precious as my sight,
my child stayed silent
as my heart splintered.
What death had cut was
the thread between those two.

It is simple but, in my view, profound. The same is true for much of his poetry. There are other examples of my attempts to render him in English elsewhere on my blog which seem to suggest that he was grappling constantly with the need to find meaning in his pain, another bonding influence for me.

Hence my attraction to Pessoa, in his various heteronyms or subpersonalities. In late 2016 I had been triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):

Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.

PessoaBut that was not the magnet this time. I was interested to have a closer look at his Book of Disquietude. This was partly because the strongest quality these three poets seemed to share was their isolation, hence the title I have given this sequence. Pessoa was notoriously asocial, although he could fake sociability. The Book of Disquietude records his almost unrelenting focus on his inscape (page 58):

My only real concern has been my inner life.

This was perhaps what spawned his crowded cast of sub-personalities (page 59):

I have a world of friends inside me, with their own real, individual, imperfect lives.

But it came at a price (page 54):

I bore the weariness of having had a past, the disquietude of living the present and the tedium of having to have a future.

And this price was sometimes unbearable (page 62):

. . . today I woke up very early… suffocating from an inexplicable tedium.… It was a complete and absolute tedium, but founded on something. In the obscure depths of my soul, unknown forces invisibly waged a battle in which my being was the battleground, and I shook all over from the hidden clashing.

The last of this trio, Rilke, was similarly a loner, as Richard Zenith writes in his Rilkeintroduction to the Carcanet edition of Neue Gedichte (New Poems – page 15):

All poets can do harm to their fellow men and women in their own way; although Berryman subscribed … conscientiously… to the doctrine of our needs and duties… he created social and mental havoc on a scale which makes Rilke’s withdrawal from the usual demands of love and marriage seem – as indeed it was – a scrupulous necessity for his survival as a poet, a way of exercising his own sort of moral humanity. Rilke remained deeply attached to his wife and daughter, in spite of the fact that he could not and did not live with them, and was always anxious for their welfare.

Just as this fascinating exploration was getting off the ground, decluttering led me to discover two long neglected books in what turned out to be a fatal derailing of my plan. Did I hear someone echo Lady Macbeth, whispering ‘infirm of purpose’?

Next time I’ll try and explain why the distraction of Samuel Beckett, in Cronin’s biography, and Marcel Proust, in a chapter of Lehrer’s book, turned out to be so hard to resist, after my attempt at decluttering brought them to light again. I was checking to see if my not having read them for years meant that I could take them to the charity shop. As soon as I opened them I was doomed to read them from cover to cover. But further exploration of that will have to wait a while.

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After all this whinging about what Peterson has written it’s about time I tried to explain what it all looks like to me.

What do I think?

I’m not sure yet whether all I have said undermines his basic argument.

I am still struggling to articulate exactly how I would develop a model to bring it closer to what I experience as reality. In a way, I am grateful to him for having pushed me to think more deeply about this issue, even though I am uneasy about a basic aspect of his model.

Anyhow this is how my thinking goes so far. And in case any of you need to know I’m handing over the writing of this to my right-brain, which, when I have the patience to listen to it on such matters, is almost always right.

First things first. I firmly believe that labels, dichotomies and categories, when employed in the social or cultural field are almost always not only false, but potentially fatal. I am not saying this as a reward to my right-brain for having had the patience to let my left-brain bang on about everything it’s read on the subject for the last ten years. My left-brain believes it too, but can’t always act on it in the heat of the moment. It’s so much easier to slap a sticky label over the complexity of social experience: it makes deciding what to do so much quicker and easier.

So, you can see why I’m so uncomfortable when I feel that Peterson, in spite of all the good things he says, seems to be happily dwelling in the land of opposites. If he was distancing himself from the categorising tendency he ascribes to our interpretation of the world, instead of seeming to be contentedly identifying with it, I’d be more inclined to agree with him. Yes, he sees its limitations, but seems to feel that it is an inescapable feature of our perception of the world, one which we have to be aware of, and adapt to, even if we need to soften its hard edges, if we are to function wisely in the world.

He seems to have decided, perhaps not consciously, to live in the left-brain world of, to use McGilchrist’s words I quoted earlier, ‘language, logic and linearity.’ He doesn’t seem to entertain, at least in the first half of the book, the possibility that we could give more space in our perspective to the paradoxical and ambiguous take on the world of the right-hemisphere as McGilchrist describes it. This suggests to me that the part of his analysis, which contrasts chaos and order so definitively, is buying into the left-brain’s perceptual bias in favour of categories.

He does eventually produce an admission of the dangerous weakness of the left-brain approach (page 217):

The capacity of the rational mind to deceive, manipulate, scheme, trick, falsify, minimise, mislead, betray, prevaricate, deny, omit, rationalise, bias, exaggerate and obscure is so endless, so remarkable, centuries of prescientific thought, concentrating on clarifying the nature of moral endeavour, regarded it as positively demonic. This is not because of rationality itself, as a process. That process can produce clarity and progress. It is because rationality is subject to the single worst temptation – to raise what it knows now to the status of an absolute.

However, he reverts, in my view, to overstating the value of words again later (page 281):

The past can be redeemed, when reduced by precise language to its essence. The present can flow by without robbing the future if its realities are spoken out clearly. With careful thought and language, the singular, stellar destiny that justifies existence can be extracted from the multitude of murky and unpleasant futures that are far more likely to manifest themselves of their own accord.

An ‘essence’ or ‘stellar destiny’ of any kind is more elusive than that. Peterson’s lack of coherence in the presentation of his ideas sometimes allows him to believe that he can have his cake and eat it too. Believing language can accurately capture the essence of experience is one of the things that can lead to our succumbing to the temptation of believing that what we know is the absolute truth.

Again I need to acknowledge that an earlier discussion on genuine conversation (pages 253-56) illustrates how we can enhance our understanding by the use of words, rather in the same manner as I would argue can be done by consultation, in the Bahá’í sense of that word.

In addition, I must add that what the right-brain would see as beautiful, if we let it, comes to seem scary rather than promising when the left-brain dominates with too little restraint. As McGilchrist puts it: ‘This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth.’

Only when we refuse to categorise, and can rise to the challenge of absorbing the blending of parts that is reality, can we have any hope of accessing the truth. Not a possibility Peterson seems to recognise. Without linguistic analysis, he claims (page 282): ‘Everything will bleed into everything else. This makes the world too complex to be managed.’

I feel the right-brain can make a better fist of grasping the blended complexity of reality than he allows for. Einstein, after all, describes how he sensed the truths that he was groping for, at first as almost kinaesthetic shapes in his mind or as a kind of music: ‘If… I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music.’

In consequence, I even think that not just our social world, but developments in modern post-Newtonian science are forcing us to accept this as a fundamental characteristic of reality. Flux, unpredictability and ambiguity confront us the more deeply we seek to penetrate below the surface of our world. Machado captures this brilliantly when he says: ‘cambian la mar y el monte y el ojo que los mira’ (sea and mountain change, as does the eye that sees them’ – quoted in Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado, page 5). If we refuse to let the way we see change, we will never see the world as it is, only as we think it should be. Seeing the world more as it is may be scary, but it’s not chaos, and it need not be dangerous.

One thinker quotes convincing evidence to confirm that this fluidity and chaos underpins not just quantum matter but our biology as well. Jonah Lehrer writes in Proust was a Neuroscientist (page 47):

Molecular biology, confronted with the unruliness of life, is also forced to accept chaos. Just as physics discovered the indeterminate quantum world – a discovery that erased classical notions about the fixed reality of time and space – so biology is uncovering the unknowable mess at its core. Life is built on an edifice randomness.

It seems we can’t escape it.

What needs to change is our attitude to what our analytical mind, with its fixation on the maps it already has, finds disturbing. If we can trust our flexible right-brain intuitions more, what is new to us will feel less scary, and we will also tune in earlier to subtle shifts in the familiar, which are telegraphing imminent change, in a way that will help us deal with it more effectively. What I am striving for a lot of the time is to let my right-brain lead when I have to process complexity. After that, I need to integrate what it shows me into my left-brain maps without distorting or discounting anything essential.

Much of our way of seeing, when we use the categorising tendency that Peterson both critiques and yet accepts as somehow inevitable, creates avoidable problems, even becomes toxic, lethal. More of that in a moment.

I am not convinced that replacing categories with dimensions will in the end be a completely satisfactory way of interpreting the world. For a start it’s hard to use the difference between the known and the unknown as ends of a dimension anymore than to see it as indicating two categories.

I have concluded, as I explained earlier, that knowing/unknowing are not identical, as Peterson seems to think, with chaos and order, which I am also saying may not be so easily distinguished either. This is because knowing and not knowing are characteristics of consciousness. The diagram on the left attempts to express that relationship.

The dotted line around the edge of the known indicates my sense that the boundary, if there is one, is at best fluid. How do we deal with the forgotten – what was once known, is now not consciously remembered and yet almost certainly subliminally influences how we see the world and how we react to it?

The dark area around the outer circle is meant to represent where physical consciousness of any kind ends – death if you like. Even this needs a dotted line, I think, given my belief that physical consciousness is not all there is. As I have explored that at length elsewhere, I’ve decided not to go there in this sequence which is already long enough, and I have to keep my left-brain quiet long enough to finish even this much.

If we accept for now that thinking in terms of dimensions is legitimate, there are at least two categories of dimension active here, within the zones, if that is the right word, of knowing and unknowing. One concerns perceived reality, which stretches along a dimension relating to order and disorder between the extremes of order on the one hand, which can become tyranny, and on the other of chaos, which can be creative. The other dimension concerns the preference pattern of the mind that interacts with those perceived possibilities: among many other possibilities, in addition to the holistic and analytical I’ve already touched on, there will be risk-takers and risk avoiders, as Peterson makes clear he is aware towards the end of his book. Please hold in mind my fundamental scepticism about the need to accept that we have to split reality up, either in terms of order/disorder or degrees of risk taking, whether as dimensions or categories. Let’s accept for now that they hold good up to a point.

A risk-taker will delight in what they experience as the excitement of what the risk-avoider will see as the dangers of chaos, and conversely will feel stifled by the perceived order a risk-avoider thrives in.

It is important to note that perception is indeed an unavoidable mediator of all these interactions between reality and consciousness. I don’t think Peterson attaches sufficient importance to the flexibility of perception, and even fails to consider the possibility of its using dimensions rather than discrete categories. Nowhere that I’ve read so far does he deal with the possibility that we could potentially transcend even dimensional thinking when it is necessary to do so, either because it ceases to be useful or becomes potentially dangerous. Left-brain perception is his default mode, just as much as it is that of our culture. The rich potential of right-brain perception, in spite of the value he clearly sets on myths (reduced though to his left-brain interpretations of his selection from them), doesn’t really feature.

Why should we exert ourselves to go against our left-brain tendencies? They’ve lifted us out of the middle ages. Why can’t they lift us further?

That’s a complex issue, parts of which I’ve addressed at length elsewhere on this blog in terms of altruism, compassion and civilisation building.

In the light of the various references I quoted in the earlier two posts in the context of why human beings can perpetrate such evil, I’m going to focus briefly on why labelling, a left-brain temptation with emotional consequences, is so toxic.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

I have worked for more than thirty years in mental health. I have seen at close quarters the costs and benefits of diagnostic labels. Yes, getting the label of schizophrenia will open the door to the benefits system and give you access at least to some form of drug treatment. But drugs are a double-edged sword as I have discussed before. One edge can, if the patient is lucky, cut through the tormenting ropes woven around the mind by derogatory voices, but the other edge all too often clouds any clarity of thought and stupefies the mind. The diagnosis also carries, as so many labels do, a heavy weight of social stigma, which all too often more than outweighs any benefits. It’s far better, in my view, to look at the person as a whole, and tackle the more complex question of what these so-called psychotic experiences mean, and where their roots are in the felt life of the person.

Other labels are often at least as bad if not worse: abnormal, disabled, backward, black, unclean, alien, outsider, mad, cockroach, sewer rat, immigrant – the list is potentially endless.

If we see ourselves as in the normal, able, white, clean, insider, sane, human, legitimate citizen category, we can smugly comfort ourselves that we deserve all the good things we have whereas these people don’t and perhaps even couldn’t. It’s very cosy. It gives us no motivation to change anything. It even justifies to us in our own minds taking steps to protect what we are and what we have from ‘contamination’ or destruction, even if that means harming other people perceived as coming from any of those completely false categories. It wouldn’t take long, given the right circumstances, to tipple over into enthusiastic eugenics or even forms of genocide. We can see these toxic options unfolding around us even now.

Using only our left-brain analytic mind it is hard for us to experience the world except in such categorising ways. Yet, experiencing the world holistically is exactly what we have to do, especially in terms of our perceptions of our fellow human beings, and also the life-world around us. Labels won’t work if we’re going to survive. We are interconnected. In fact we are in essence one family, even one huge multi-minded entity. Only by operationalising this insight can we transcend this problem. And I think, from the evidence I’ve quoted earlier in this sequence, it’s not just Bahá’ís that see it this way.

View of the Terraces above the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel, Haifa

We believe that this will not be an easy vision to bring into reality. The Universal House of Justice, our central body, wrote in a letter to Bahá’ís of Iran (2 March 2013 – my emphasis):

The rejection of deeply ingrained prejudices and a growing sense of world citizenship are among the signs of [a] heightened awareness. Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

The bar is raised very high, as the Universal House of Justice explained to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the Shrine and Terraces project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

Not for nothing do they describe it as the work of centuries, and Paul Lample, clarifying this is not just the work of the Bahá’í community, writes (Revelation and Social Reality – page 48):

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality… It is not a project in which Baha’is engage apart from the rest of humanity.

The diagram at the bottom of this post seeks to represent the magnitude of the task we face, moving as we must from the self-centred and short-term processing our bodies are programmed for, to the transcendent vision of our ultimate goal, far in the future though it may be, of a united humanity working together in harmony.

We acknowledge that religion has been and sometimes still is an obstacle in the path. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, anticipating by at least six decades Robert Wright’s caveat quoted in the first post, made it quite clear that ‘religion must be conducive to love and unity among mankind; for if it be the cause of enmity and strife, the absence of religion is preferable.’ (Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 128).

Treading this long and difficult road will involve resolving conflicts within us as well as between us. Most of us are still divided selves, as Bahá’u’lláh indicated (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

And the way forward, we believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained over centuries. For us that is God (From Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

For others, such as Rifkin, it is awareness of the supreme importance of preserving our planetary homeland.

Whatever the source of our inspiration, it has to bring the warring selves within us into harmony before we can create a truly peaceful world. Whatever the value is that we find, it has to be a very powerfully motivating one, but essentially benign nonetheless. It must not replicate the self-righteous crusading we can still see around us, which believes that if you are not for us we can kill you.

A commonly used phrase captures an important aspect of this vision: unity in diversity. It allows for perceived differences within an essential unity, but does not fossilise them or make them an excuse for discrimination.

I am fairly sure that Peterson would not disagree, at least, with this sense of our common humanity, and the imperative need confronting us to recognise and act upon it. Because he comes from a Christian perspective, I’m sure he would recognise the importance of God as well.

I hope I have not been attacking a straw man in all this. Even if I have, I hope I managed to avoid placing him in a separate category of human being from my more enlightened self. In many ways he seems to have thought more deeply than I have about whole aspects of this problem, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for forcing me to think more deeply about my own model of the world.

Oh, and in case you hadn’t realised, his book, 12 Rules for Life, though its over-assertive and somewhat divisive in tone, confusingly organised, very left-brain in most of its language and at times testingly macho in style, has flashes of insight that might make it worth reading despite all I’ve said, even though I abandoned it before finishing the last chapter. Before going out and buying a copy it might be worth reading someone who has had the patience to wade through far more of Peterson’s prose than I did and probed more deeply into the problems and challenges his perspective creates. Nathan J. Robinson concludes at the end of a long critique:

. . . since Jordan Peterson does indeed have a good claim to being the most influential intellectual in the Western world, we need to think seriously about what has gone wrong. What have we done to end up with this man? His success is our failure, and while it’s easy to scoff at him, it’s more important to inquire into how we got to this point. He is a symptom. He shows a culture bereft of ideas, a politics without inspiration or principle. Jordan Peterson may not be the intellectual we want. But he is probably the intellectual we deserve.

‘You finished now?’ I hear my right-brain snap. ‘Can we get back to the poetry again please?’

‘I guess so,’ my left-brain sighs wearily. ‘This last lot was all your idea though!’ it growls, trying to fight back, but in the end can’t be bothered. ‘I’m too tired to argue after scribbling your stuff down for so long. I’m not doing this again though. Take my word for it.’

My right-brain smiles quietly, thinks ‘Fat chance!’ but says nothing.

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Having done a helicopter view of my reading about what pushes us into evil action, now I must tackle Jordan Peterson’s approach to all this.

What exactly is my problem, given that so much that he says resonates with so much that I have read and come to believe? Maybe he doesn’t carry my understanding any deeper, but why do a step back from endorsing his viewpoint where it matches?

I have to say I am struggling to define this exactly. It’s more a gut feeling in some ways than a fully articulated critique.

I don’t like his rather over-confident and somewhat dogmatic style, it’s true. But it feels as though it’s something more than that. What I’m going to say is the closest I can get for now. I hope to put more effort into tackling it more carefully later, but at the moment my right-brain more poetic side is getting fed up with what it experiences as my left-brain yet again hijacking the plan to spend more time on spiritual poetry. So after this rough and ready attempt to pin down my problem with Peterson’s approach, I plan to pick up the threads of my exploration of Antonio Machado.

Concerning Peterson, I think it is largely because I have some difficulties with his fundamental premise. I’m concerned that his perspective might be like a tower of pennies standing on a bent coin at the bottom. It feels as though it could topple over at any moment. I cannot quite trust it even when he seems to be saying something I should agree with. I need to get a better grip of it.

Order and Chaos

The premise he seems to operate from at times is the dichotomy he detects between order and chaos, equating the former with masculinity and the latter with the feminine (pages 40-42):

Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the… yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchal structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals… Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly.

. . . Chaos – the unknown – is symbolically associated with feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers… As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of the cave and the accident at the side of the road.

… Elkhonon Goldberg … has proposed quite lucidly and directly that the very hemispheric structure of the cortex reflects the fundamental division between novelty (the unknown, or chaos) and routinisation (the known, order).

For a start I feel there may well be two misattributions or confusions here, even before we dig more deeply: yin-yang and masculine-feminine.

Richard Wilhelm, in his introduction to the I-Ching (lxvi), tackles the issue of linking yin/yang with feminine/masculine, he writes:

To the disappointment of such discoverers it must be said that there is nothing to indicate this in the original meaning of the words yin and yang. In its primary meaning yin is “the cloudy,” “the overcast,” and yang means actually “banners waving in the sun,” that is, something “shone upon,” or bright… Thence the two expressions were carried over into the Book of Changes and applied to the two alternating primal states of being. It should be pointed out, however, that the terms yin and yang do not occur in this derived sense either in the actual text of the book or in the oldest commentaries. In the Commentary on the Decision the terms used for the opposites are “the firm” and “the yielding,” not yang and yin.

Wilhelm goes on to say that ‘change is conceived of partly as the continuous transformation of the one force into the other and partly as a cycle of complexes of phenomenon, in themselves connected, such as day and night, summer and winter.’ It is all subject to the universal law of tao.

As long as we disconnect the link Peterson implies between the left-brain and masculinity and the right-brain and femininity, I’m happy to accept the idea that the former deals with the known and the latter with the unknown. Iain McGilchrist sees this as one of the characteristic distinctions between the two hemispheres (The Master & his Emissary – page 40): ‘… in almost every case what is new must first be present in the right hemisphere. … The left hemisphere deals with what it knows.’

I don’t propose to dwell at any length on the way Peterson ignores the evidence that there have been matriarchal societies. I will accept that we have currently inherited a long tradition, going back millennia, of pragmatically successful and enduring cultures that are male dominated. I also accept that over all he does see some positives in chaos, such as creativity, and a downside to order, in terms of resistance to necessary change and overcontrol.

On Ditching Dichotomies

What bothers me most of all is what appears sometimes to be his investment in the reality of this dichotomy and his understanding of its nature. I’m with McGilchrist when he writes in his introduction (page 11): ‘It has been said that the world is divided into two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I am with the second group.’

Peterson doesn’t seem to see it that way. Plausibly, but I think mistakenly, he writes (page 43 – my emphasis):

We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them.

I need to quote also from Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief to capture his full sense though:

Unprotected exposure to unexplored territory produces fear. The individual is protected from such fear as a consequence of “ritual imitation of the Great Father” – as a consequence of the adoption of group identity, which restricts the meaning of things, and confers predictability on social interactions. When identification with the group is made absolute, however – when everything has to be controlled, when the unknown is no longer allowed to exist – the creative exploratory process that updates the group can no longer manifest itself. This “restriction of adaptive capacity” dramatically increases the probability of social aggression and chaos.

In 12 Rules for Life he expands on this (page 38 – my emphasis):

Chaos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience – two of the most basic subdivisions Being itself. But they’re not things, or objects, and they’re not experienced as such. Things or objects are part of the objective world. They’re inanimate; spiritless. They’re dead. This is not true of chaos and order. Those are perceived, experienced and understood… as personalities . . .

Because 12 Rules for Life is written in a somewhat unsystematic way, with different chapters dealing with different rules rather than having a progressive and consistent analysis of his overall view in some logical fashion, it’s hard to be sure I’ve really grasped his core point correctly yet. Because my other half, as I have said, wants to get back to Machado, I’m reluctant to tackle his much longer book Maps of Meaning even so.

Why does his approach trouble me? It’s partly because he looks as though he has assumed that we only apply the word chaos in a deeply negative sense to what we don’t know. This makes two mistakes, it seems to me.

I’ll make my definition of his first mistake concretely.

Chaos is not inevitably the death at the side of the road, any more than Order is sweetness and light. Order was also the organized slaughter of the Holocaust, just as chaos can lead to new insights and new beginnings. While he seems to acknowledge this possibility in some places the dogmatic certainty of his language in other places seems to ignore it. Both the known (order/the firm) and the unknown (chaos/the yielding) can lead to the negation we call death, of which we are understandably terrified, but they are intrinsically neither negation nor death in themselves.

Now for my sense of a second mistake on his part, which I realise may be simply nitpicking but I can’t shake it off as it feels important to me.

Even more of a problem for me is that I am not convinced that we perceive order and chaos as two distinct categories. I think we can just as easily see them as at opposite ends of the same dimension, and many of us do.

Moreover, I am not convinced either that they are coterminous with the known and the unknown, something that I will be coming back to in more detail in the final post. What we know or do not know, as he realises, is to do with a subjective dimension, and the familiarity of what we know can lead some of us to feel comfortable and safe, whereas the unfamiliarity of what we do not know makes many of us afraid. There are many people for whom the converse is also true: order is suffocating and to be avoided at all costs, and chaos is exciting and to welcomed whenever possible. These subjective states will occur in ways that map onto chaos or order when we have correctly identified those objective conditions. However an order that we do not recognize as such because it is unfamiliar will frighten us, just as a chaos that we fail to see as such might leave us feeling safe. Things are possibly more complicated than his model seems to allow for.

Two examples of one aspect of that will help here, I think.

The incipient chaos that climate change is brewing went for a long time completely unrecognised. Similarly the native inhabitants of a volcanic region can sense the impending chaos of an eruption to which incomers are completely blind. Some people still refuse to accept the reality of climate change in the defensive manoeuvre we call denial: that is not quite the same thing as being completely oblivious to impending or actual chaos.

Again I think that later in the book he clearly acknowledges this aspect when he writes (page 266):

Imagine a loyal and honest wife suddenly confronted by evidence of her husband’s infidelity… One day she sees him in a downtown cafe with another woman, interacting with her in a manner difficult to rationalise and ignore. The limitations and inaccuracy of her former perceptions become immediately and painfully obvious.

Her theory of her husband collapses. However, the spread-out nature of his argument across so many different rules, discussed in so many different chapters, makes it hard to grasp his overall perspective coherently: you have to pick up on and blend complementary aspects of his argument divided across so many pages.

When I have visited China I have encountered a parallel but not identical problem in that culture – where we experience order as chaos: a simple example is the traffic in the big cities. Those who live there seem able to detect an order and predictability that allow them to know when and how to cross the road which is invisible to me when I am standing on the corner of the junction of two dual carriageways and am clearly expected to cross diagonally. I see chaos in-between me and the opposite corner of the junction: the locals calmly navigate across to the other side. I am sure that on a larger scale an immigrant struggles to make sense of a new culture as a whole, and it takes some considerable time before the pattern underlying what looks like chaotic nonsense begins to emerge. Order is experienced as chaos. This point he does not seem so aware of.

When we stare into the complex chaos of the economic and political system some of us believe we can read it accurately, even when this is impossible, as Kahneman has demonstrated. He investigated where the border falls between what we can and what we cannot predict (Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 4339-4347):

If subjective confidence is not to be trusted, how can we evaluate the probable validity of an intuitive judgment? When do judgments reflect true expertise? When do they display an illusion of validity? The answer comes from the two basic conditions for acquiring a skill:

1. an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

2. an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice. . . . .

Physicians, nurses, athletes, and firefighters . . . face complex but fundamentally orderly situations. The accurate intuitions . . .  described are due to highly valid cues that the expert . . .  has learned to use. . . In contrast, stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.

In this context it is interesting to note that many civilisations have chosen to found themselves in danger zones such as near volcanoes and close to shifting tectonic plates that trigger earthquakes. The reason for that, apparently, is the soil fertility near volcanoes and the useful or valuable metals and minerals more readily available in earthquake zones.

This illustrates that chaos can be productive, so productive in fact that it sometimes compensates for the risk of trading with it. I think it is a mistake though to completely conflate the disruption of chaos with either creativity or death. It has the potential for either, but is simply a profound disruption of an existing order or a complete absence of obvious order, making it feel unpredictable and potentially dangerous, though sometimes worth plunging into at the risk of death as the rewards could make it worthwhile.

A pause for breath now. In any case my left-brain is getting pretty fed up of finding words to express my right-brain’s perspective. More on this next time.

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Dali – ‘The Persistence of Memory’ – for source of picture see link

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que una colmena tenía
dentro de mi corazón;
y los doradas abejas
iban fabricando en él,
con las armaguras viejas,
blanca cera y dulce miel.

(Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.)

(From Antonio Machado Selected Poems translated by Alan Trueblood: page 90-91)

The Implications of Integration

So far this sequence has been a rather extensive treatment of the basic aspects of dreamwork as one example of how we can gain access to another system of thinking than the two Kahneman seems to feel are all that is available to us.

The point reached – the integration of and balance between extremes – hopefully has signalled how useful even this one approach could be to helping us, for example, get past a pendulum dilemma, where we swing between two apparently incompatible courses of action in response to a challenge, where we are deeply conflicted in some way. There is a theme that Jung deals with, but which is already present in Myers’s thought, that is relevant here. To quote Ellen Kelly in the Kellys’ monumental book Irreducible Mind  (page 64):

In keeping with his “tertium quid” approach, [Myers] believes that the challenge to science does not end but begins precisely when one comes up against two contradictory findings, positions, or theories, and that breakthroughs occur when one continues to work with conflicting data and ideas until a new picture emerges that can put conflicts and paradoxes in a new light or a larger perspective.

Jung believed that when we are caught in the vice-like grip of this kind of conflict, we have to find the ‘transcendent’ position that lifts us above the paralysis induced by two apparently irreconcilable opposites to which we feel compelled to respond in some way. Stephen Flynn makes an important point in his discussion of Jung’s concept:

Jung mentions one vital aspect of Transcendent Function, as ‘active imagination’ whereby the apparent haphazard frightening images from the unconscious are integral to the healing process.

This obviously relates to my figure from the freezer and anything else of the same nature. He then quotes Jung himself about any related conflict (The structure and Dynamics of the Psyche 1960 – page 88):

The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing – not a logical stillbirth in accordance with the principle tertium non datur but a movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation ….  the shifting to and fro of argument and affects represent the transcendent function of opposites.

There are other paths towards this kind of transcendence and discussion of them inevitably includes a consideration of the undoubtedly spiritual. I have deliberately avoided confronting that aspect of the matter so far, as even the more mundane powers of the dream seem magical to me, and draw on the right brain or what we often short-hand as the heart, something not reducible to either System 1 or System 2, in my view.

I can now explore some of these implications partly in the light of an important dream I once experienced. As a preparation for the way the first of these will edge closer to a sense of the way that dreams can be seen as a borderland between ordinary and transcendent consciousness, and even at the risk of making this long post unbearably longer, I think it’s worth sharing the experience of a Visiting Professor of Transpersonal Psychology which he quotes in relation to his investigations of paranormal phenomena. David Fontana describes it towards the end of his book, Is There an Afterlife? (page 425):

[Psycho-spiritual traditions teach that] astral and energy bodies hover just above the sleeping physical body each night . . . . I once had an interesting experience that could be connected with this belief in some way. For many nights I have been waking briefly in the middle of the night with a clear awareness of a presence standing on the left side of my bed. I had no idea of the identity of this presence, and it seemed to vanish each time just as I became fully conscious. Every time this happened, I fell asleep again almost at once. There was nothing frightening about the seeming presence, but I was interested to find an explanation for it. One night when I awoke with a strong sense of it, I received simultaneously the clear impression that to find the answer I must think back to what had been happening just before I awoke, rather as one rewinds a film. I did so – many things seem possible in the moment of waking from sleep – and immediately became aware, to my utter astonishment, that the “presence” was in fact myself, in the moment of reuniting with the physical body. . . . Whether or not [the experience] supports the notion that consciousness leaves the body each night during sleep I cannot say. But I know that the experience happened, I know it was not a dream, and I know that, having had the curious insight into what might have caused the presence, the experience never happened again . . .

I mentioned earlier Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 models of decision-making before looking at some length at dreamwork as one possible way of going deeper.

How deep can dreamwork take us?

I want to draw on my own experience for this again. Mainly this is because I know what I dreamt and I know what I learnt from it. The evidence in that respect is as solid as it gets for me. It therefore interposes fewer filters between anyone who reads this and the raw experience it relates to. The drawback is that I have never had a dream that was stunningly prophetic or profoundly mystical, so the example I am going to give might seem a bit run of the mill. However, because I found an apparently simple dream profoundly enlightening, I thought it was worth sharing.

A rag rug

My Dream

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

I worked on this dream using the methods described in the previous two posts. Various elements were profoundly meaningful, such as the rug made by my aunt, not least because of what she represented to me. For a sense of that those of you who are interested could read the poem The Maiden Aunt (see below). I want, for present purposes, to focus on what for me has become the core of the dream’s meaning, a meaning which is still evolving even though this dream is now more than 15 years old – still in adolescence really so there’s probably more to come.

There were two kinds of clue to this core meaning: one derived from word play and the other from role play.

Word Play

I’ll take the word play first as it’s easier to explain. The ‘chewing gum’ element of the dream can be dealt with quickly. It related to various ways I was stuck and perhaps still am!

More richly significant was the image of the hearth. The fact that it was in a chimney ‘breast’ helps convey the power of the realisation that came to me. The word ‘hearth’ is comprised of several other key words: ‘ear,’ ‘hear,’ ‘earth,’ ‘art’ and most powerful of all ‘heart.’ All of these words were separately of huge significance for me though I had some sense of how they might all fit together.

For example, I had latched early onto the words of Walter Savage Landor, long before I had the dream:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved; and next to Nature, Art.
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

The art of listening had separately been extremely important to me in my work as a clinical psychologist which made finding the ‘ear’ so closely tied into this central image not entirely surprising. Also having an ear to hear the intimations of the spirit is emphasised in Bahá’í literature as being of critical importance to moral progress.

This only got me so far though. I needed some other way of decoding the full import of the dream.

Peat Digging

Role Play

If you remember, when I was explaining dreamwork, I spoke of how each dream element is part of the dreamer and we can unlock the meaning of the symbolism not only by tracking our associations with it, but also by pretending to be the element in the dream and speaking as though we were it.

The result in the case of the fuel burning in the hearth was dramatic. I had been really struggling to make sense of this part of the dream. What had a coal fire got to do with my situation, except as a memory of childhood with relatively little relevance? I decided I needed to sit right in front of the hearth of the house I was living in at the time and speak as the fuel itself.

The Fuel: I am peat. You dig me from the earth and I burn. You feed me to the flowers and they grow.

Need I go any further really with what I said? That first moment contains the key to unlocking a whole treasure chest of meanings.

On the 26th April 2003, at least five years after beginning to work on the dream, I wrote in my journal, trying to summarise some of my insights:

I’m part poet/writer, part psychologist, part educator, (both subsumed by the term mind-wright) – the words wright and writer catch one part of my essence – my tools are words by and large – mind does not quite catch the other part – soul is too grand and beyond my competence – the nearest I can get is being a wordsmith and a heartwright. The word heart helps because it includes in itself the words art and (h)ear, an essential combination of skills or qualities entailed in heartwork. It leads back to my concept of heart-to-heart resuscitation. Hearts have to connect. That it also links with my archetypal dream of the hearth, where the fire of spirit burns to give warmth to the mansion of being, makes it all the more powerful a word to use in this context. The essence of my being – peat – is to fuel this process. An additional thought: 28.04.03 – if you place Heart and Earth overlapping you get Hearth. Each is also an anagram of the other. In the Bahá’í Writings the heart is often spoken of as a garden and of having soil. Also I have prayed for God to ignite within my breast the fire of His love and Bahá’u’lláh refers to the ‘candle” of our heart. Hearth eloquently combines these notions of the heart as a garden and as a container of fire. What does this mean in practice?

I’m still trying to answer that question.

Digging Deeper

The progression up to this understanding and beyond is also intriguing.

When I first had the revelation that the fuel was a pun on my name in its shortened form, I took a narrow view of what it meant. The name my parents gave me was ‘Peter’ with all the associations of rock. When I first began to work on the idea of ‘peat,’ I felt that the dream was saying that I should draw on the essence of who I was, not the persona my upbringing had fabricated in me after the image of my silent and stoical father, hiding his undoubted love behind a wall of reserve.

Then, pushing it somewhat further, the idea of burning Pete came to mind, which suggested the idea of self-sacrifice. But increasingly, as time went on, an even deeper meaning, complementary not contradictory, began to come through: perhaps ‘peat’ was not ‘me’ but came from something outside me and far richer and much more substantial. The earth became a symbol for the realm of spirit and peat came to represent the power that could flow from that realm into my being to give me the strength, energy and wisdom to do far more, far more effectively than I could ever do by any other means.

Of course, none of this exhausts the implications of the dream. The quotation at the head of this post was one of the associations that came to mind when I was working on the dream very early on. It gives yet another level of meaning to the dream to interpret it in the light of that quotation.

I don’t expect to get to the bottom of this dream’s meanings in this life. I just think I have to keep referring back to it to see what else it can teach me. I think it is a dream about the heart that came from my heart. I feel the heart in this sense is ‘the experience of soul or spirit in consciousness,’ as a friend of mine once put it in a workshop. Heart is used in other ways, I know, in our culture, and many of these ways connect it primarily with our emotions – anger, envy, desire, what passes for love, sadness and so on. That is only one way of looking at what the heart might be. The heart is also a source of inspiration, and, while our emotions shout, the heart whispers its wisdom and we do not hear it unless our minds are quiet.

An intriguing question arose after I had re-read Machado recently.  Did I read him before I had this dream? Was there some subliminal influence from that encounter? The date I bought the book permits that possibility, but I can’t be absolutely sure. What I do know is that the following quote from Bahá’u’lláh became far more meaningful for me (Gleanings No. CLII):

O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge. Be ablaze as the fire, that ye may burn away the veils of heedlessness and set aglow, through the quickening energies of the love of God, the chilled and wayward heart. Be light and untrammeled as the breeze, that ye may obtain admittance into the precincts of My court, My inviolable Sanctuary.

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