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Posts Tagged ‘Antonio Machado’

. . . . . 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)

Given my latest sequence on Alice Neel, it seemed a good time to republish this one on Edvard Munch.

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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After my republishing the posts about my problems with puzzle poetry, the poetry of Antonio Machado seems to me to provide a good example of the kind of poetry to which I resonate most strongly. This second one is not so a much literal translation of his original as a response to it which incorporates his imagery seen through the prism of my perspective. 

A Crazy Song For the original Spanish that triggered this see link.

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After my republishing the posts about my problems with puzzle poetry, the poetry of Antonio Machado seems to me to provide a good example of the kind of poetry to which I resonate most strongly. This is not so a much literal translation of his original as a response to it which incorporates his imagery seen through the prism of my perspective. 

For source of image see link: for the original Spanish click here.

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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)

Both because I have recently republished a sequence on Virginia Woolf and also because I am looking again at introversion, it seemed doubly appropriate for obvious reasons to republish this sequence.

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)

Both because I have recently republished a sequence on Virginia Woolf and also because I am looking again at introversion, it seemed doubly appropriate for obvious reasons to republish this sequence.

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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The Wheel of Being (My idea of ‘how’ to approach experience)

I thought that the poetic element was not the word in its phonic value, nor colour, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep pulsing of spirit: what the soul supplies, if it does supply anything; or what it says, if it says anything, when aroused to response by contact with the world.

(Antonio Machado, quoted in Alan S. Trueblood’s Selected Poems – page 7)

Given my recent triggering to go back yet again to David Gascoyne’s poetry I couldn’t resist republishing this short sequence.

As a result of the trigger described in the last post, yet again I come to the same kind of realization, of an insight into the importance of the heart, so recently diluted yet again by my habitual over-emphasis on left-brain pragmatics and planning.

Pattern-Breaking 

As  I have indicated in the previous post in more detail, I’ve been here before. This poem explored similar material to that which I am about to explore but from a more tentative angle.

On 6th January I scribbled in my portable black notebook:

Having worked out ‘how’ I want to do whatever I am doing, it looks as though I have been catapulted into being reminded of ‘what’ I need to bring more into focus. The book sent to me in the aftermath of an energizing conversation in Panchagani, with its themes of Rumi, poetry and The 40 Rules of Love, has forced me to recognize that spiritual poetry is something I need to read and if humanly (or do I mean Hulmanly?) possible write to keep my life in balance: at least that’s what it looks like right now.

Later I followed this up by writing:

The 40 Rules of Love parallels almost exactly my encounter all those years ago with the dancing flames dream itself and more recently with the rediscovery of my dream notes and the consequent epiphany, which I kept consistently discounting in the aftermath. In some way, because of the prolonged discounting, its impact this time has been even more powerful.

How am I going to break this pattern by which my left brain pragmatism and obsession with being useful keeps stifling my poetic heart until it almost dies. I must never let this happen again. I must keep poetry and song much closer. . .   I can get carried away with practicalities and fail to keep the two kinds of operation in balance as I am convinced the Faith would have me do.

And I am following this up by drafting this blog post to the strains of Beethoven in spite of the pressure to draft the minutes of a conference call yesterday.

I have now had three powerful reminders – the dancing flames dream, the hearth dream and now The Forty Rules of Love – to emphasise how important poetry is to my spirituality, to nurturing my heart. Maybe my recent enthusiastic and rather protracted exploration of the poetic style of Virginia Woolf’s late novels was nudging me in this direction but I failed to realise it by convincing myself that my focus was on consciousness – not that I have lost my interest in consciousness, I hasten to add.

Let’s hope it’s third time lucky!

Revisiting Gascoyne

But I badly need a plan. And it’s a plan that is going to need my left-brain on side. Usually, whenever I’m immersed in music, art or poetry, especially of the kind that is not immediately comprehensible, I can feel the fingers of my left-brain tapping impatiently on my skull. If that side of my mind doesn’t buy into the plan, its impatience will sink it, not just because it will be a distracting presence at the back of my mind, but also because I sense that I am too identified with my pragmatic and prosaic side. A tough bit of disidentification work and heartfelt persuasion is going to be needed to get that part of me on board. (Incidentally, this may go some way towards explaining my distaste for modernist poetry. It has little emotional appeal, so my right-brain’s not interested, and it usually doesn’t make any immediate sense, so both sides of my brain switch off.)

For now though, I am at least sticking to the spiritual poetry plan of reading and re-reading the books of that kind on my shelves as time permits, not at the expense of other priorities but persistently and mindfully.

Revisiting David Gascoyne is proving very rewarding. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to keep focused and remain fully aware that spiritual poetry is something that really matters. It will be easy to forget that this may be a key to help me bring all parts of my being to bear on experience and my responses to it, and that it may be telegraphing one of the most important things I am meant to be doing with my time from now on, not to the obsessional exclusion of everything else, but not to be sacrificed for anything else either, if I am to bring out the best in myself and become more integrated, unified, standing on the ground of my being rather than floating on the surface of my mind.

So, how is reading Gascoyne helping?

The introduction to my edition of his Collected Poems (edited by Robin Skelton) may help explain that. The comment I quote follows on from the editor’s outline of Gascoyne’s concept of the role of the poet as both ‘seer’ and ‘victim.’ He writes (page xiii):

This is a simplified interpretation, but it makes it easier to see how Gascoyne’s romanticism, left-wing sympathies, surrealist tendencies, and concern to explore deep into the world of dream, obsession, and suffering, could lead him towards a fundamentally religious poetry.

This is not done with arrogance or fanaticism. Skelton quotes from a poem I still remembered from my first reading of Gascoyne in 1982, just before I began to tread the Bahá’í path.

Before I fall
Down silent finally, I want to make
One last attempt at utterance, and tell
How my absurd desire was to compose
A single poem with my mental eyes
Wide open, and without even one lapse
From that most scrupulous Truth which I pursue
When not pursuing Poetry, – Perhaps
Only the poem I can never write is true.

As I began to read my way through the later pages of this collection I began to wonder whether I had seriously underestimated the influence of his poems on my eventual decision to tread the Bahá’í path. If poetry can do something so fundamentally important, it has clearly been a mistake to sideline it as severely as I have done at times.

I have always been aware of Peter Koestenbaum’s influence and have drawn attention to it many times in these posts. I feel I have done Gascoyne an injustice that I now want to correct.

Graham Sutherland – sketch for the Crucifixion

What really set me thinking in this way was re-reading a poem from which I have always remembered key lines but whose whole context had slipped into partial oblivion. I say ‘partial’ because re-reading it strongly suggested that it had continued to influence me in its entirety, not just by the few lines I remembered consciously.

The poem is ‘Ecce Homo.’ Only once on this blog before today have I mentioned this poet, and that was to quote, without comment, from this poem.

Not from a monstrance silver-wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man’s long journey through the night
May not be in vain.

And yet there is so much else I could have quoted from just that one poem, let alone the rest of his work. He speaks of us as ‘Callous contemporaries of the slow/Torture of God.’ He obviously has in mind the toxic ideologies of his time when he speaks of ‘Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,’ who ‘Greet one another with raised-arm salutes,’ but what he wrote resonates still, I feel. A key stanza reads:

He who wept for Jerusalem
Now sees His prophecy extend
Across the greatest cities of the world,
A guilty panic reason cannot stem
Rising to raze them all as he foretold . . .

Why do I think he might have influenced my attraction to the Bahá’í Faith?

Well, in this same poem he asserts that ‘The turning point in history/Must come.’ And, writing still under the shadow of war he speaks (The Post-war Night) of how far we are from realizing ‘the innate sense/Of human destiny that we are born with.’ He defines this as ‘truly our aim on earth: one God-ruled globe,/Finally unified, at peace, free to create!’

Does that thought ring any bells among my readers?

The status quo will continue, he felt, as long as we remain ‘Comfortably compromised collusionists.’

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

He speaks to the artist in particular (The Artist) as having a crucial role in reversing this process, ‘by offering your flesh/As sacrifice to the Void’s mouth in your own breast!’ There is some hope in terms of the wider society (A Vagrant) in that many of us are ‘gnawed by’ our ‘knowledge of [society’s] lack of raison d’être.’ He wryly admits that ‘The city’s lack and mine are much the same.’

Perhaps it goes without saying that he does not have a conventional or simplistic view of religion (Fragments towards a Religio Poetae – Stanza 7):

Really religious people are rarely looked upon as such
By those to whom religion is secretly something unreal;
And those the world regards as extremely religious people
Are generally people to whom the living God will seem at first
an appalling scandal;
Just as Jesus seemed a dangerously subversive Sabbath-breaker
Whom only uneducated fisherman, tavern talkers and a few
blue-stockings of dubious morals
Were likely after all to take very seriously,
To the most devoutly religious people in Jerusalem in Jesus’s day.

There is much more to his poetry than this, including his subtle and unnerving way of describing how minds work and how adept we are at avoiding uncomfortable truths, but this is probably enough for now.

It is certainly enough to spur me on not only to finishing my re-reading of this collection, but also to embarking on revisiting many more of the long-ignored volumes of spiritual poetry on my shelves. To my surprise this has taken the shape of carefully re-reading the poems of Antonio Machado. Progress is slow as I’m not just relying on Trueblood’s excellent translations: I’m reanimating the corpse of my long neglected Spanish to soak up the sounds and the sense of the originals. More of that in due course, I hope.

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