Posts Tagged ‘Bahá’í Faith’

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Abdu’l-Bahá said…: ‘All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.’

(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), p. 167)

The Art, Life and the Artist

On the run-in to Christmas during this difficult time in terms of the current context of political uncertainty and division, it seemed a good idea to republish one of my longest sequence of posts ever, which focuses on the power of art.

One reason I persisted in reading on against the current of my initial antipathy was that Shelley’s life, as the last earlier posts and what follows later will clarify, illustrates an aspect of the complex relationship between creativity and personality – something I very much want to understand more fully and more directly for myself.

There are many theories and ideas about this whole multi-faceted area.

A Psychological Take

I’ve posted earlier my sense of Baumeister and Tierney’s position on the tendency of great creativity to be paired with chaotic or even destructive tendencies (cf also my posts on Dickens). They raise the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (Kindle Reference 428):

Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.

They are aware that there are exceptions to this correlation, quoting Anthony Trollope as one example, and that there are ways of reducing the strain on self-control by automating the grunt work of creativity by regular habit. However, I am uncomfortable in accepting that this is the only or even the best explanation of this pattern.

There are many who continue to argue that creativity goes with some form of ‘mental illness,’ such as bipolar disorder. Again, not a complete or adequate explanation, as we will see in a later post.

A Spiritual Perspective

Maitreyabandhu has a subtle take on this whole issue. He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2012, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

I will be returning in far more detail to his perspective in the final sequence of posts.

With Shelley we can immediately see how hard it was for him to express his compassionate ideals in his personal life. There was a strong element of narcissism that kept dragging him down, so that his indifference to the suffering he caused to those closest to him was bordering on brutal at times, even though he wept at the idea of the poor dying in the streets. I will be looking more closely at how life gradually helped him lift himself above this trap more often as he got older. Sadly, we will never know how high he might have been able to climb had he lived longer.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Morality and Art

Defining the relationship between the artist’s work and the artist’s life can raise serious issues that are not easy to resolve even if we can have access to all the necessary information.

For example, on 17 October, The Guardian published an interesting examination of this problem triggered by the court’s having ordered the destruction of original photographs, some historic and some by Ovenden himself, in the possession of Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Emine Saner wrote:

Can you ever divorce an artist’s life from their work? “Knowing Van Gogh shot himself, does that change the way you look at his paintings? Caravaggio was a murderer – does that make you look at him differently?” . . . . .

The attitude, says art writer Jonathan Jones, “where people [think] the art exists in its own sphere – I think that’s not true at all. Ovenden’s art probably does reflect aspects of his life we now find deeply troubling.” The question of how harshly we should judge the art by its artist remains. Can you read Alice in Wonderland in the same way when you’ve seen Lewis Carroll’s photographs of naked girls? Or listen to Benjamin Britten’s work, knowing he wrote great music for children, with such attention, because he had an obsession with pubescent boys (as detailed in John Bridcut’s 2006 biography)?

There are even questions, often raised by the surviving family, of what it is permissible to publish about an artist’s life, which makes this area even more difficult to grapple with because we are then deprived for sure of all we need to know. The most recent such furore has been about Jonathan Bates’s unauthorized biography of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Bates’s freedom to quote was seriously curtailed, as a Guardian review explains:

As has been widely reported, he began his work on a “literary life” with the support of the Ted Hughes estate, controlled by the poet’s widow Carol. Late in the day this support was withdrawn: evidently, his researches were not purely “literary” enough. Permission for any substantial quotation from Hughes’s writing was also withdrawn, and Bate’s Unauthorised Life has to grapple with this ban.

The debate is heated. Adam Begley perhaps the defined the crucial issue best when he wrote recently:

Perhaps the answer is to divide the biographical mission into halves. A biographer engaged in research should be shameless, free of compunction and squeamishness. Every fact, no matter how sordid, whether plucked from the archives or the trash can, should be grist for the mill. Snobbish convictions about propriety and highbrow notions about the elevated status of art should be banished – but only until it comes time to tell the life story, at which point the biographer’s shamelessness must be put to good use. Any dirt dug up must tell us something essential about the person under scrutiny, about the work accomplished, about the achievement that makes the life worth examining.

Easier said than done, I suspect, as did Henry James also, when he penned his pointed dissection of the mind of a digger of bio-dirt – The Aspern Papers. Very appropriately for present purposes the short story was based on an attempt by Edward Silsbee to elicit documents about Shelley from Claire Clairmont shortly before she died (cf Richard Holmes – Shelley: the pursuit (page 733). The acid tone of the book can be sampled in the narrator’s reflection on his approach as he speaks to the niece of the lady who has the papers he longs to get his hands on: ‘I felt particularly like the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.’

Clearly, at such a remove in time and after so many relevant papers have been suppressed and destroyed, we will never be completely sure where the truth lies (can the truth lie?) in Shelley’s case. I’ll continue to have a stab at it none the less. I’ve come too far now to turn back!


Source of Inspiration

In addition, there is the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Are the person and the poet not quite the same? May they be almost completely distinct as Shelley felt?

Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FHW Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ Their book explores in depth the full complexity of our relationship with our unconscious processes. They give many examples of how people are simply not aware of complex and coherent processes at work beneath the surface of awareness. This makes taking a simplistic line which links the person we see with the source of the poetry tempting but deceptive. It is probable that, at the very least, the source of poetry is not completely reducible to the visible influences of a poet’s life. It may even, with the best poetry, be largely the product of invisible unconscious creative processes.

Even so, ‘subliminal uprush’ could be a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live.

At a more prosaic level and looking at external influences, Ludwig Tuman makes a telling point in his excellent survey of creativity and spirituality (page 19) when he draws the distinction between those who work within a global framework and those who work within a more circumscribed tradition:

The approach taken by an artist whose creative work draws its inspiration or its substance more from outlying cultures than from that of his native land, will in this book be called the global approach.

Since the Nineteenth Century this approach has become increasingly practicable for more and more artists.  Nonetheless he feels we should not disparage ‘work’ which ‘draws more on [the artist’s] traditional culture.’  This he terms ‘the traditional approach.’

A third element is perhaps worth mentioning here. Last month, there was a programme on the BBC called Wider Horizons, which focused on the music of David Gilmour, best known as a member of the band Pink Floyd. It became very clear that his creativity was in part fostered by a network of close contemporary collaborators including Phil Manzanera, a record producer and Roxy Music guitarist, and Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, who writes many of his lyrics.

What is also true of Gilmour, and all other creative artists as far as I can tell, – the same mysterious element Myers strove to define – also comes across from the programme. Interviewed by Alan Yentob he attempts to describe the experience of realising a song is emerging:

Every once in a while an idea will force its way to the surface of my mind. When I’m trying to write a lyric, a song about . . . . but I’ve got no way of predicting where that’s going to go in the future. I keep thinking that there is a little door, a little key that I can open and I’ll suddenly find a way that would make it slightly simpler for me to move those things forwards and define them, ‘cos there’s plenty to write about, but I haven’t yet really pinned that down.

A Historical Angle

Also there are those who locate the problem of a problematic life and the kind of art it permits as deriving principally from the 19th Century onwards. For example, Ludwig Tuman in his exploration of the role of art – Mirror of the Divine – (page 102) argues that:

[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

This would suggest that this model of explanation – great art tends to emanate from disreputable artists –  would be only of limited use. I intend to keep an open mind on that one. One of the most obvious contaminating factors to any examination of the evidence on this issue would be the fact that evidence is less readily available the further back in history you look. This might not simply be a question of more time means more accidental loss: in other earlier periods contemporaries might have been even more motivated than the Victorians to exalt the reputation of their great artists, as well as less concerned than we are to preserve every scrap of information.

Problems of Definition

Tuman also makes a compelling case that defining precisely any of the variables, such as the quality of the art or the moral rectitude of the artist, is almost impossible and concludes (page 99):

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

He does contend, even so, that there will be a correlation between the quality of the art and the character of the artist because, as a Bahá’í, he is convinced that you cannot completely separate external action from inner state, even if no one outside the artist can define the relationship exactly in any given case. He takes the reach of this belief beyond the realm of art to include everything we do and makes a very telling point towards the end of his chapter on this issue (page 108):

One of the reasons that the world is in such a chaotic state is that professionals are trained for their calling technically, but are often not prepared spiritually

Where does this leave me?

Perhaps because of all this confusion of views, I feel I need to look at this whole issue more deeply for myself. Admittedly I’m not going to be doing thorough systematic studies across large populations of people. For example, if we are to test out the ‘ego depletion’ hypothesis we need to do a prospective study of creative artists which compares their level of work intensity with, say, lawyers, accountants, psychologists, and, if we are to take Maitreyabandhu’s point seriously, a group of meditators who also work hard at some vocation. I’m not up for that level of exploration.

I am choosing instead to embark, as time permits, on a reading of diverse biographies, particularly of more or less equally famous and hard working people from diverse backgrounds, many but not all of them creative artists of some kind, to see what patterns if any emerge.

In terms of the present, possibly over-ambitious exercise, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of what we learnt about Shelley from a whirlwind tour of his life before seeing what, if anything, that might imply about his poetry. In doing so I need to bear in mind all the strictures and caveats I’ve just been quoting. I’m not sure I can do this well so early in my learning process, but I’m going to have a go.

What we’ve learnt about Shelley so far

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source of image see link

In the first post, for those who may not have read it, I described Shelley’s dark situation and character contradictions in fairly stark terms.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of them committing suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

I quoted his sonnet about Ozymandias to illustrate how powerfully he understood the emptiness and vanity of power and wealth. His sonnet about the condition of England in 1819 as George III was dying, which I also quoted, showed his compassion for the poorest in his society when he wrote of ‘[a] people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,’ and looked forward in hope to the possible redemption of his society.

After looking at his early life of privilege and, while at home, his domination of his younger sisters, tempered by his later experiences of being cruelly bullied at both his schools, I quoted the conclusion Holmes came to as his biographer (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Later years saw his continuing love of the macabre and episodes of hysterical intensity. His close relationships continued to reveal a lack of empathy and this could be exacerbated by his intense idealism. So much so, that it was tempting to conclude that he had invested a huge amount of ego in the ideals he chose to espouse. It took much suffering, his own and other people’s, to shift the tight grip of Narcissus on his thinking.

That he could be generous is shown by his consistent support for Claire Clairmont after her affair with Byron and the birth of their daughter, Allegra. His protracted negotiations with Byron on Claire’s behalf also show that he could be perceptive and diplomatic when he saw the compelling need, as he did in this case.

Holmes’s conclusion about Shelley at this time was that he was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

A key event that helped Shelley mature was the suicide of his first wife. Claire Clairmont wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

For insights shed on this from the trauma literature see my earlier see the three immediately preceding posts accessible from the links at the start of this post..

The really difficult bit starts with the next post tomorrow – trying to map some of this at least onto the development of Shelley’s poetry! I’ll begin with a review of key moments in that trajectory followed, in a later group of posts in this sequence, by reflections on where that leaves me as I try to articulate my own sense of the issue in a wider perspective.

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[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 102)

On the run-in to Christmas during this difficult time in terms of the current context of political uncertainty and division, it seemed a good idea to republish one of my longest sequence of posts ever, which focuses on the power of art.

As I explained in the previous post, at this point in human history parts of Africa and much of the Middle East are in turmoil. The fallout is affecting most of Europe, both in terms of the refugee crisis and the threat of terror. The recent murders in Beirut, Paris and Bamako are only the latest examples. Partly because of all this, one of my main preoccupations relates to understanding better what factors foster or suppress empathy and compassion. In terms of those factors I am aware that all the arts can have a part to play on both sides of the process, and not just in terms of the protest songs I discussed in the last post.

For reasons that may become slightly clearer as this sequence of posts unfolds, I have just now been unexpectedly drawn to the life of one poet in particular as a possible source of insight into many of these factors. Before we close in on the man himself, I felt I needed to say a bit more about my journey towards this particular choice. There were after all other poets I knew better and liked far more.

Tintern Abbey (for source of image see link)

“Tintern Abbey with Elegant Figures” by Samuel Colman (for source of image see link)

The Limitations of Protest Alone

Admittedly even my infatuation, in the poems I quoted last time, with Byron’s pointed cynicism or Shelley’s dark condemnation did not entirely replace the powerful tug of what I have always felt are Wordsworth’s greatest lyrics, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey and Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. They touched on a sense of the transcendent, which is of course not incompatible with protest against injustice, but takes things to an altogether different level. Again my mind was ringing to the melody of many remembered lines (From the Ode:lines 59-67).

The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Or (From Lines written a few Miles above Tintern Abbey: lines 96-103):

                                      And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Something of the same current can be detected at times in the poet I have chosen to explore, but it feels more strained and less convincing, which may account for the extreme darkness of some of his poetry.

More consistently I resonated also to Keats’s greatest poems as an earlier post on this blog testifies, as does another post register my current debt to Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner, something that also goes back many years – through May 1982 as a diary entry of mine testifies – to my years at secondary school.

The diary entry in part reads:

At 17 I stopped up the wellsprings of my deepest feelings when I turned my back on all religions. I am now parching with a spiritual thirst – my main priority is to find out what I need to slake it.

I then quoted the same passage of spiritual insight from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as I have used in the blog post I linked to above.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

I then continue:

Tonight after I have prepared my meal I shall return to this journal to reflect upon what I need to do now. I have wasted half my life on vanities. I do not want to throw away the rest. . . . . Buddhism and meditation, in this last year mainly, have done so much to free my mind from its old debilitating patterns. I would be very foolish not to continue with my meditation and at least a minimum of Buddhist reading. Do I need to do more?

Seven months later I declared as a Bahá’í, but that is another story.

Not surprising, then, that I find Coleridge far more appealing, in spite of his evident frailties. He seems more rounded as a person than all the other Romantics, more complexly spiritual than Wordsworth (though undoubtedly a touch too abstractly philosophical at times) and far less egocentric than Byron. Keats I loved but his tragically short life left him somehow incomplete.

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

A Charismatic Teacher

Two post-romantics, Tennyson & Browning, were also important to me, the one mainly for his brilliant collection of lyrical meditations on loss known as In Memoriam, and the latter mostly for his brilliant handling of the dramatic monologue – but more of them another time perhaps.

My strong connection with those two poets I owe to a charismatic English Teacher at my secondary school. He was an unlikely inspiration at first sight. He was short and round, steel-rimmed spectacles with round pebble-thick lenses perched on the end of his nose. But his enthusiasm for the poetry was infectious. He paced and bounced back and forth at the front of the classroom, the sunlight glinting back at us from his glasses, as he probed our hearts for responses to the challenges of verse.

He somehow managed to convey to us, at the age of 15 in our Fourth Year, the rich layers of meaning in even a poem as complex as Browning’s Abt Vogler, which captures the experience of the organist:

All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—

It may be no coincidence, in the light of my present concerns, that this poem explores the relationship between music and spirituality. Most of that aspect passed right over my adolescent head, though it may have registered subconsciously. Mind you, now that music can be recorded Browning might have had to steer Abt Vogler along a slightly different track.

I can remember though the impact of his enthusiasm to this day. I doubt that such a poem would find its way into any classroom nowadays, such is the pressure to equip our children to be effective cogs in the competitive economic machine we have come to believe is the peak of civilisation.

In the sixth form he taught us how to approach Tennyson’s outpourings of grief before most of us had the faintest idea of the agony loss can cause.

Without exposure to such art our sensibility is incalculably impoverished and our ability to contribute to bettering our world will be seriously impaired. Maybe that was partly what Pink Floyd were protesting about in their bleak song Another Brick in the Wall, as the powerful video below brings to life.

Coming onto Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

So, why am I not starting with one or other of those poets?

I’d better start by admitting that my head doesn’t really understand my choice of Shelley at this point. I’m simply following my intuition here. Let’s hope my head catches up completely before the end of this sequence of posts, as I’ll need its help to make some sense of it all. What follows is my best attempt to understand the direction I have chosen to take.

Well, it was my interest in Coleridge that triggered me to read Richard Holmes’s excellent twovolume biography. That in turn meant that when I saw his biography of Shelley on the shelves of a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye last year I immediately snapped it up, even though Shelley has always been my least favourite poet of the Romantic period.

I’m still not quite sure why I decided to pull it off the shelf and begin to read it at last. After all, it was what I experienced as Shelley’s combination of ethereal intensity and chaotic sensibility that repelled me from his longer poems in the first instance, and nothing had happened since to change my mind. The decision to learn about his life possibly came from another level.

Initially, my recent reading of this biography did little to dispel my negative perception.

However, as my reading of this 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced by examples of his capacity for kindness, even generosity at times, by the increasing breadth of his understanding, and by the increasing depth and accessibility of even some of his longer poetry. I became intrigued and wanted to try and understand the dynamics of that better, while also wondering whether this might all shed some more light on the factors that influence our levels of altruism, as well as on our responses to and understanding of violence and terror.

Suddenly his life began to seem exactly what I needed to reflect on now. It looked like Shelley might be a fruitful biographical test case to get me started on my quest to understand what puzzles me so intensely.

I need to mention at this point that I am also reading a book by Ann Wroe called Being Shelley: the poet’s search for himself. As she describes it, the book (page ix) ‘is an attempt to write the life of the poet from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the creative spirit struggling to discover its true nature. It is a book about Shelley the poet, rather than Shelley the man.’ She quotes Shelley as stating in a letter written in 1821 (ibid.): ‘The poet & the man . . . . are two different natures; though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other . . .’

Intriguingly Alan Bennet exploits this idea in his script for The Lady in the Van, though in his case the writer and the man communicate incessantly over what is happening. The film is worth watching, therefore, not only for Maggie Smith’s performance, but for the insights it gives into the creative process, though the trailer gives you no clue about that, sadly.

Wroe’s book clearly contains information relevant to my current task.

However, I have decided to focus most on Holmes’s more prosaic biography and other similar sources, only pulling in comments from Wroe’s book when I feel they add something of significance or illustrate a point more powerfully.

In this sequence of posts I will share a helicopter review of his life first. After that will come a discussion of some general ideas before I attempt to deal with his poetic development in detail, including some clues I have found in his biography about the source and nature of his creativity.

Only after that will I come to some tentative general conclusions intended to guide my subsequent investigations into the lives of other creative artists of various kinds, contrasted I hope with the Florence Nightingales and Indira Ghandis, to test whether there is a distinction to be made concerning the relationship between intense activity and personal life in the field of the arts as against in other domains, in the light of the conditions prevailing at the time.

I also eventually want to examine, further than I will be able to do here, the nature of poetry’s power. This of course requires making a distinction, that to some extent might be arbitrary, between poetry and verse.  Even my own limited experience of writing poetry suggests that there is such a distinction to be made. There are times when what I write is merely workmanlike. It is fundamentally pedestrian. It’s just verse. It has no spark. I have tried not to fall into the temptation of posting any of that on my blog.

Other poems seem to be alive in a way that I find it hard to describe. They often appear with whole lines or even passages more or less complete. They also have unexpected ideas, sometimes I even do not fully understand what I am writing (see link for one example). Whenever I have read a poet’s complete works I have found the same unevenness: one poem is sublime, the next one dull. Bob Dylan, in response to his being awarded the Nobel prize for literature, has admitted that he has to write 100 worthless songs for every good one. Also:

Gottfried Benn said: ‘No one, not even the greatest poets of our time, has left more than eight or ten perfect poems . . For six poems, thirty or fifty years’ asceticism, suffering, battle!’

(A Centenary Pessoa edited by Eugénio Lisboa & L. C. Taylor – page 18)

Dullness can even predominate in the published work. In the dedication to Don Juan, Byron made his famous comment on a poem of Wordsworth’s, that suggests that even the greatest can produce copious quantities of sub-standard work:

And Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”
       (I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
       Of his new system to perplex the sages;
‘Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
       And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.

I also have to admit that this, in the end, comes down to a matter of taste when we discuss any particular poem, and taste is something learnt rather than innate. I found this out very early. Almost at the same time as one teacher was helping us gain access to Abt Vogler, another teacher was testing us in a different way. He came into the classroom with two poems and handed them round. He asked us to read them both and then decide which was the better of the two. Almost the whole class picked the same one. Only then did he explain that we had preferred a poem he’d written in his teens over one of Shakespeare’s sonnets!

That complicates it all even more.

Anyhow, this whole enterprise may be hopelessly ambitious. It is very much a pilot study. It may be that the anarchic chaos of Shelley’s life will spread to my treatment of his art. This may not be a bad thing if I manage to rescue some reliable data from the maelstrom. They may be worth a great deal when I come to look at more orderly examples later, if I ever do. We’ll see how far I get before I run out of steam or ideas.

An irony I can’t resist mentioning at this point is that his personal life displayed the anarchy in a less violent form that he so detested in the political arena.

There will be more on Shelley tomorrow.

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Beech hedge

Yet another rather longer poem from the early 1980s, to complement the ones referred to in the previous post.

Letter to a dear Friend in Winter

I wanted to see now
Without then between. How
Impossible! Yet hope haunts me.
The colours of regret stain you
And everything. O for the white
Light of outdoors,
Not church colours!
At times, pain forced me into flight
Towards desolate pleasures, through
Bars, packs of shuffling days: each lie
Weakened my hold on any vow.

Now I scribble a lot
Searching for what is not.
The sunrise of autumn hedgerows
Warned me about this mud and stone
Sky. Beech leaves cling like memories –
Dry, brittle, dust-
Coloured. I must
Make sense of what all sense denies.
Cells, nerves, too feeble on their own
To decipher what the snail shows,
Or the corpse whose wheels of mind rot.

Once I held a fledgeling
At point of death – I’d sing
Of death who’d never watched the last
Act’s surrender or victory –
A sigh was all betrayed the change –
No, not sigh – death –
But flight of breath –
Quiet sundering to unhinge
The gate of thought! When our mind’s eye
No longer detects in the vast
Dark the flame to which we cling

What has become of us?
Here is the syllabus.
Where is the teacher and the school?
At this question all our endeavour
Ends. Perhaps it’s better to ask:
‘What if the mind
Fails to find,
On the bleak shore where the dead bask,
The shelter it always yearns for,
Are we to suppose it a fool
As it scours the dark for warm places?’

I’ve no affinity
With God as Trinity
For sure, since my need for answers
Finds finespun theology wide
Of the mark. So, here I stand.
My evidence
Preserved silence
In the question of my still hand,
A small ball whose still feathers hid
Still warm flesh. Nothing reassures.
I felt the infinity

Between fledgling and meat
Silence my every thought . . . .
Until the habit of thinking
Resumed its race to run the truth
To ground. If this opportunity
Beneath the skies,
Though shared with flies
And blind with relativity,
Is not to be wasted like my youth,
From my heart’s earth love must spring
– God knows how I’ll choose to act.

Pete Hulme Text © 1982[1]

[1] This is a poem written in the year I eventually became a Bahá’í and reflects the struggles I was having then which are explored from a different angle in Irreducible Mind (2/3).

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Adib Taherzadeh: for source of image see link

My recently published sequence of two posts on the power of metaphor suggested strongly that I should publish this sequence again. It is a perfect illustration, in my view, of Lakoff and Johnson’s contention in Metaphors We Live By that (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’  Until I read their words I don’t think I had fully appreciated exactly what I was doing when I grappled with the challenges of understanding what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

We ended the previous post reflecting that Erich Fromm does not deal with a crucial basic question in his explanation of why we are so prone to espousing destructive beliefs: do we fall so easily into the quicksand of debased frames of reference and divided attachments because we think that matter is all that matters, is all there is in fact? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá clearly thinks so. If that is so, then this belief is perhaps one of the key delusions that Bahá’u’lláh is referring to when He says: ‘the [people’s] superstitions [have] become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God.’ We need to find out, if possible, what might make such a ‘delusion’ so prevalent if it is false? Also what does He mean by the ‘heart’ that we are ‘veiled’ from?

To even begin to answer those questions in words on a page, I am going to have to draw on wiser writers than me to get me started.

Why Hidden?

First, there will be the question of whether the world is set up in such a way that the spiritual dimension is hidden. Bahá’u’lláh is clear that it is hidden, and there appear to be good reasons for that. Knowing what the next life is like can create a desire to move there straight away. J E Esslemont quotes the words of Bahá’u’lláh in his book (page 189):

Blessed is the soul which, at the hour of its separation from the body, is sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world. Such a soul liveth and moveth in accordance with the Will of its Creator, and entereth the all-highest Paradise. . . .  If any man be told that which hath been ordained for such a soul in the worlds of God, the Lord of the throne on high and of earth below, his whole being will instantly blaze out in his great longing to attain that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station.

That these are not idle words is illustrated by the story of the man who became able to see the spiritual realm and as a result wanted to die. Adib Taherzadeh refers to the event twice in his four volume account of Bahá’u’lláh’s life, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. I have pulled the references together from Vol 1 Ch 8 page 103 and Vol 2 Ch5 page 112:

The story of Dhabíh is that of a passionate lover. The object of his adoration was Bahá’u’lláh, Who had ignited within his breast the fire of the love of God, a fire so intense that it began to consume his whole being. Eventually he reached a state where he would neither eat nor drink. For forty days he abstained from food. Unable, at last, to check the crushing force of love which pressed upon his soul, he came one day, at the hour of dawn, to the house of Bahá’u’lláh and for the last time swept its approaches with his turban. After performing this task, he paid a visit to the home of Áqá Muhammad-Ridá where he met some of the friends for the last time. Later he obtained a razor, went to the bank of the Tigris and there turning his face towards the house of Bahá’u’lláh, took his life by cutting his throat. . . . . Dhabíh took his own life because he was intoxicated by the wine of the presence of Bahá’u’lláh, Who had enabled him to witness the glory of the spiritual worlds of God. This cannot be compared with ordinary suicide, nor can this episode be taken to mean that Bahá’í belief condones the taking of one’s own life. On the contrary, suicide is strongly condemned in the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh and is clearly against His Teachings.

. . . . . One day [a witness wrote], they brought the news of the death of Siyyid Ismá’íl of Zavárih. Bahá’u’lláh said: ‘No one has killed him. Behind many myriad veils of light, We showed him a glimmer of Our glory; he could not endure it and so he sacrificed himself.’ Some of us then went to the bank of the river and found the body of Siyyid Ismá’íl lying there. He had cut his own throat with a razor which was still held in his hand. We removed the body and buried it.

It would be unwise to see this story as unique or as a parable meant to illustrate something else. Pim van Lommel in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 206) quotes a modern example of basically the same experience:

After a few days in an extremely critical condition, during which the doctors informed her family that she was unlikely to pull through, [a patient] suffered a cardiac arrest. At that moment she had an NDE, which she describes fully below. She was successfully resuscitated but remained in a critical condition and somehow became aware of her “hopeless” situation. She was desperate to return to the loving environment that she had just visited. In her desperation she managed to bite her breathing tube in half, thus precipitating an apnea.

She was again resuscitated and was able to describe the whole sequence of events.

John Hick also adduces a very compelling reason that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what that man or woman saw or Eben Alexander, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to  believe or not (pages 37-38):

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

He talks also (page 114) of the materialism of our current ‘consensus reality.’ Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it.


Charles Tart (for source of image see link)

Consensus Trance

Given the hidden nature of spiritual reality and our freedom to choose what we believe or seek to teach others to believe, there is also therefore the immense power of social influence at work on what we experience and how we experience it. This is where we come to the fascinating work of Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ I will be quoting from him at some length.

He begins by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

This is obviously closely related to Hick’s idea of  ‘consensus reality.’

There is a consequence of this, if it is true, which relates to the idea I am seeking to explore here: I want to get a better sense of what the veil is that Bahá’u’lláh refers to. Tart obliges with a step in the right direction (page 25): ‘By mistakenly thinking he is really conscious, [a person] blocks the possibility of real consciousness.’

This capacity for what Tart regards as our automated consciousness is not all bad, rather in the same way as Kahneman has explained in his idea of System 1 thinking, but its downside is potentially highly destructive. Tart writes (page 31-33):

The ability to set up some limited part of our sensitivity and intelligence so it automatically performs some fixed task with little or no awareness on our part is one of humanity’s greatest skills – and one of his greatest curses. . . . . . . . Mechanical intelligence can often be useful for utilitarian purposes, but it is dangerous in a changing and complex world. The mechanical, automated stereotypings we know of as racism, sexism, and nationalism, to use just three examples, are enormously costly. Automatised perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to one situation frequently get associated with the automatized perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to other situations, so we can be lost for long periods – a lifetime in the most extreme cases – in continuously automated living.

In a way that parallels Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘veils’ of delusion and superstition, Tart sees consensus consciousness as on a disturbing continuum (page 102): ‘We can view illusions and hallucinations as extreme points on the continuum of simulation of the world.’

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

He begins then to unpack the full implications of his metaphor (page 85): ‘normal consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.’

He doesn’t give us much room to wriggle off the hook here. The state of mind he goes onto to describe is not an enviable one (page 95):

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.

He goes onto to describe the full picture but I think this quote conveys enough for us to move onto the next stage of his argument.

3rd 'I' v6

Trance Breaking

First though it is important to pull into the frame a model he is drawing on for his idea of more appropriate functioning. He is influenced heavily in this by the work of Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

This was exciting to re-read after all these years not just because it is reminiscent of the Three ‘I’s I have been recently exploring. This is more importantly for now where I begin to find my two main lines of questioning coming together. I am trying to understand both the nature of the veils and the nature of the heart, and in particular what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the ‘understanding heart.’

Tart quotes a fable to illustrate more clearly what he means (pages 150-52):

There is an Eastern parable of the horse, carriage, and driver that richly illustrates our nature as three-brained beings and the problems resulting from poor development of each and from imbalance. . . . . .the carriage is our physical body. The horse is our emotions. The driver is our intellectual mind. The Master is what we could become if we provided for the development of our higher nature.

He goes on to describe what he feels, on the basis of Gurdjieff’s model, are the basic ways in which we can develop this higher nature. He emphasises what he calls ‘self-observing’ and ‘self-remembering.’ For reasons that will hopefully become clear, it is not necessary, even if we had the time, to examine those processes in detail. They are in my view in any case closely related to mindfulness and Vipassanā

Vipassanā as practiced in the Theravāda centers on mindfulness, including mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence.

The underlying principle is the investigation of phenomena as they manifest in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness highlighted in the Satipatthana Sutta:[15][note 5]

  1. kaya (body or breath),
  2. vedana (feeling tone or sensation)
  3. citta (mind or consciousness), and
  4. dhamma (mind objects/phenomena).

Tart’s conclusion is important to quote though (pages 197-98):

. . . by creating a deliberate centre of consciousness that is outside of the usual automated pattern of identifications and conditions, we create a more awake, less entranced self, the foundation for the Master, with which we can both know ourselves better and function more effectively.

Georges Gurdjieff

Georges Gurdjieff

Higher Centres

It is at this point that things for me get really interesting when it comes to getting a clearer idea of what an understanding heart might be (page 217):

Gurdjieff claimed that in addition [to the three-brained aspects of our being] we have two more centres, the higher emotional centre and the higher intellectual centre. Each of these higher centres is tremendously more powerful and intelligent than the ordinary emotional and intellectual centre, and each operates far more rapidly than the ordinary centres. The higher emotional centre includes what Gurdjieff called “real consciousness,” as opposed to the relative, conditioned morality of consensus trance. Both of these centres are part of our natural heritage as human beings and fully developed and operational, but it takes great work on one’s development to create the third-level foundation for contacting and utilising them.

Even though Gurdjieff has separated emotion from intellect in these higher centres, could this third level relate to the idea of an ‘understanding heart’?

Perhaps Gurdjieff was mistaken to see intellect and emotion as separate in this way at this higher level. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is very clear that the mind is a unity and it is our experience in the body that creates the feeling of separation in terms of its qualities, and Bahá’u’lláh could not be clearer, as we read in the first post, that the heart is ‘one and undivided’ and we should not split its affections.

My own sense is that unity is key here and that we should not be looking for splits and distinctions of this kind in the spiritual realm.


Before we leave this topic of conflicted feeling and divineness, it is worth going back to Tart’s thoughts on prayer quoted in the earlier post (pages 229-30):

. . . effective petitionary prayer for Gurdjieff, then, is intense and consistent desire and thought. However, most petitionary prayer, formal or unwitting, has almost no effect.

First, because the ordinary person is plagued by shifting identities that have disparate and often conflicting desires, the unwitting prayers of various identities tend to contradict and largely cancel one another.

Second, an obstacle to effective prayer is our inability to be consciously intense.

Effective petitionary prayer would be much more possible to a person who is genuinely conscious, who, at will and for extended periods, deliberately summoned up the intellectual and emotional intensity to pray consciously without distraction. If he prayed from his more integrated and constructive subpersonalities or from his essence, better yet. Praying from the third level of consciousness, remembering yourself while you pray, is the most effective all.

Maybe that’s why I have always found prayer so difficult, more difficult even than mindful meditation on holy scripture.

Tart then goes on to say things to which any Bahá’í, and any other soul convinced of the essential oneness of humanity anywhere, would resonate (page 232):

At times it has been perfectly obvious to me that we are not separate, isolated beings, that we are a part of a divine plan, that our prayers come from our deeper selves, which are also a part of that plan, and that our prayers are answered in ways that are best for our evolution.

Next time we will be looking at how all this relates to what we know about brain function and where that might leave us in the battle to get in better touch with our understanding heart.

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Head Hand & Heart v4

. . . . .the people are wandering in the paths of delusion, bereft of discernment to see God with their own eyes, or hear His Melody with their own ears. Thus have We found them, as thou also dost witness.

Thus have their superstitions become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God, the Exalted, the Great.

(Bahá’u’lláhTablet of Ahmad)

. . . . consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.

(Charles Tart: Waking Up – page 85)

My recently published sequence of two posts on the power of metaphor suggested strongly that I should publish this sequence again. It is a perfect illustration, in my view, of Lakoff and Johnson’s contention in Metaphors We Live By that (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’  Until I read their words I don’t think I had fully appreciated exactly what I was doing when I grappled with the challenges of understanding what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

When I set my foot on the Bahá’í path in 1982 there were many things that puzzled and tested me. I have already dealt with one of the main ones – ‘mind is an emanation of the spirit‘ at considerable length. That most certainly was not the only one.

Another was the phrase ‘understanding heart.’ This occurs at least 30 times in currently translated Bahá’í texts. It made no sense to me at all at the time, but it challenged me by its regular occurrence to grapple with what for me was its irreconcilable paradox. The head, in my view at the time, did the understanding: the heart did the feeling. In so far as there was a relationship between them it was better to keep the heart in a subordinate position and let your head rule, OK. Understanding in an emotional sense bordering on thought was found in such expressions as ‘She’s very understanding,’ and had nothing to do with penetrating into the meaning of profound statements about spiritual reality.

I needed to know in what sense my heart could understand what Bahá’u’lláh was talking about better than my head.

I was familiar with apparent profundities such as Pascal’s ‘The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.’ I made sense of them within my frame of reference by dismissing them as nonsense.

It was clear I had an Everest to climb. The muddle in the picture at the head of this post doesn’t convey the half of it. Let’s just say that what my sceptical gaze fell upon was a confused mix of psychological and layman’s points of reference poking through the layered screens of memory and perception that constituted my experience, and here I was, being required to completely revise them in the light of the new perspective I had catapulted myself into accepting.

My first step was to read all the Bahá’í Writings at my disposal – I had no computer, not even a Concordance, at this time. I noted down on index cards every reference to the heart that I could find. There were hundreds of them. I arranged them into various groups. I think this work was probably what brought me to the point where I had the dream I described and explained in a recent post. Sadly, I have long ago shredded them thinking that they had served their purpose, not realising then that I would have need of them now.

Into the mix of my muddled understanding at the time went ideas about reflection. After all Bahá’u’lláh had quoted the hadith ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ These I have also explored at length elsewhere. Reflection was something I saw as very closely related to meditation and heavily dependant upon, if not overlapping with, aspects of detachment.

That was pretty good going really for a recently derailed died-in-the-wool atheist. But, as life went out of its way to prove, it was by no means enough. So I’m back here once more feeling I need to pull together stuff I’ve learned over the years in an attempt to dig even deeper into this paradox.  Sometimes it feels as though the rest of my life might depend upon it in some way I don’t quite understand yet, probably because of the heart problem I’m talking about.

Divided Heart v4

Let me illustrate one place where problems still clearly lurk for me behind the bushes of ignorance with which the garden of my mind is overgrown. Over many months, years even, off and on, I used the following quotation in my morning meditations:

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . .  And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness., the Exalted, the Great.

(Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh: page 52)

Anyone who reads that carefully will almost certainly recognise one of the key challenges it presents. Do you know anyone personally who answers to the description of possessing an ‘undivided’ heart? I don’t. And I definitely know mine has a variety of allegiances. Books for a start, food, lyric poetry, coffee, songs, murder mysteries, Shakespeare, chocolate – need I go on? I find it hard enough to forego sitting in a chair watching Poirot, as I dunk ginger biscuits in my coffee, even for the sake of the physical heart within me that I know for sure exists and whose earnestly desired ability to beat for a bit longer depends upon exercise and diet. How do I learn to sacrifice all that and much more for the sake of my invisible inaudible insensible but apparently understanding heart in some other sense?

I hope I can make my desperate explorations of this topic clear enough to be of use to others. Even if I can’t, I need to do it any way, and doing it this way, in public, makes me try harder than I would if I did it in private. And after all, you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to.

I know I’m not the only one to be divided against myself. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it completely clear:

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. 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.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 78)

That he needs to state this at all implies that most of us don’t experience things that way.

The list he also makes, at another point, of things we crave for can apply not just to different people but to the same person who can at different times long for different things, particularly those, like me, of a butterfly-minded tendency, flitting from the marigold of one temptation to the dandelion of another:

Every soul seeketh an object and cherisheth a desire, and day and night striveth to attain his aim. One craveth riches, another thirsteth for glory and still another yearneth for fame, for art, for prosperity and the like. Yet finally all are doomed to loss and disappointment. One and all they leave behind them all that is theirs and empty-handed hasten to the realm beyond, and all their labours shall be in vain. To dust they shall all return, denuded, depressed, disheartened and in utter despair.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  : page 204)

Waking Up

Charles Tart has a very interesting explanation, the first one he gives in a list of several, for why prayer can so often seem completely ineffective (Waking Up: pages 229-30):

. . . . most petitionary prayer, formal or unwitting, has almost no effect. First, because the ordinary person is plagued by shifting identities that have disparate and often conflicting desires, the unwitting prayers of various identities tend to contradict and largely cancel one another.

This view is indirectly supported by statements in the Baha’i Writings where we are assured of the efficacy of our prayers if we say them ‘with absolute sincerity’ or with ‘pure-hearted devotion.’ Not an easy state of mind and heart to achieve.

It does not take much thought to realise that this mishmash of conflicted attachments probably stems from some deeper cause. Most spiritual traditions would agree that it stems at least in part from what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out: we think that matter is more real and more important than spirit, and our culture is probably further down that road than most.

It does take a bit more unpacking though to grasp why we are so prone to the mistake of investing emotionally in empty vessels, and even why that vulnerability and its context make it so difficult even to see that we are vulnerable at all.

For the beginnings of an explanation of our vulnerability to this trap it’s useful to turn to someone who does not feel we need a faith in anything beyond ourselves. Even the most sceptical might then be prepared to accept this as a valid premise upon which to proceed further, though with caution. Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

For me though his explanation does not go far enough, in one respect in the same way as Kahneman’s does not.

First of all though, it implies that we would all search for a single dominating focus until we found it, but this is so often not the case for so many people. Many are lost in a mist of competing and chaotic distractions with no real focus whatsoever.

The similarity to the deficiency of Kahneman’s two-brain model is that Fromm’s thesis also misses out too much. Even before I accepted the reality of a spiritual realm, something not easily reducible the mechanics of matter and its formulae was thrusting itself upon my attention with an insistence that would not be dismissed. My dreamwork was the main example of this.

Fromm does not deal with some of the basic questions, it seems to me. For example, do we fall so easily into the quicksand, not just of debased frames of reference but also of divided attachments, not least because we are mistaken in thinking that matter is all that matters? If this idea is an illusion it would be as much use to us as individuals and communities as a mirage of water to a man dying of thirst. If it is an illusion, why do so many of us believe it? More of that next time.

garden of earthly delights

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights – for source of image see link

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Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events concerning the best way to deal with those who had been drawn into working with Daesh in Syria, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The three posts, of which this is the last, appeared on consecutive Thursdays.

The first post looked at the implications of two books – Altruism and Black Earth – which led me to reflect on the possibility that we might not be immune to a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust. At the end of the previous post we had reached the point of arguing that it is essential, if our society is to lift its collective consciousness to a more compassionate level, that we focus more intently upon the education of our children.

There are two key areas that determine the direction of a child’s development: parenting and schooling.


Let’s take parenting first, and why it matters.

One main point is, and probably always should have been, fairly obvious, though now we have empirical evidence to back it up. When Jeremy Rifkin in his excellent book – The Empathic Civilisation – looks at where we are at present with the challenges we face, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, acceptance, and a sense of belonging.

There are also less obvious forces at work as well. Ricard explores the exact relationship as currently understood between evolution and altruism. He looks carefully at the evidence and quotes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s conclusion from her research that (page 173):

. . . . ‘novel rearing conditions along the line of early hominids meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers than just their mothers, and this dependence produced selection pressure that favoured individuals who were better at decoding the mental state of others, and figuring out who would help and who would hurt.’

In other words, the fact that newborns interact quickly with a large number of people may have contributed considerably to raising the degree of cooperation and empathy among humans.

Hrdy’s final point of view is very clear (page 174):

. . . without the help of “alloparents,” there would never have been a human species.

We are now breaking that pattern (ibid.):

The notion of “family” as limited to a couple and their children developed only in the 20th century in Europe, and as late as the 1950s in the United States. Before that, most families included members of three generations, comprising aunts, cousins, et cetera.

This carries a significant risk (pages 175-76):

. . . . given empathy and the faculties of understanding others developed thanks to particular ways of taking care of children, and if an increasing proportion of humans no longer benefited from these conditions, compassion and the search for emotional connections would disappear. [Hrdy] questions whether such people “will be human in ways that we now think of as distinguishing our species – that is, empathic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care.”


Is there any sign that our educational systems, not just in the West but also in countries such as China, are working hard enough to counteract a trend towards narcissistic materialism and competitiveness? There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Of American education John Fitzgerald Medina writes in his hard-hitting Faith, Physics & Psychology (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

Though Jeremy Rifkin sees it more positively and refers to the existence in schools of programmes designed to develop empathy, he is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

[An example of what Rifkin refers to elsewhere in his book when describing programmes for cultivating empathy is in this clip.]  

An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians.

An article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

chinese teachers

Chinese Teachers in UK (for source of image see link)

A recent series on BBC television showed clearly how China is walking along the same potentially destructive path. Four teachers came to the UK to prove how the Chinese system is far more effective than ours in boosting academic performance. They emphasised, in their comments on their approach, how China stresses preparing their students to succeed in what they see as an extremely and inevitably competitive world. Their blackboard-based monologues, pumping out facts with no opportunity to experience their living meaning, was reminiscent of the Gradgrind approach to education Charles Dickens satirised in Hard Times:

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘My father as calls me Sissy. sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. . . . Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours. . . .’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. . . . . .

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Unfortunately the Chinese teachers’ approach was shown to produce better grades than the UK system. My worry is that it probably does not produce better human beings, even while conceding that our own system leaves a lot to be desired still in that respect.

In addition to the need to build back into the curriculum elements of creativity, morality, and spirituality, there is an additional vital element we must not forget. A service component, something at the core of the Bahá’í approach, is almost certainly crucial to any educational system, not just one for remedial purposes. Compassion has to be linked to action to be fully internalised.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. For example, the research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems. He was reacting to the fact that an expensive implementation of the programme involving nearly 600 students across several sites failed to produce any of the expected benefits (page 131):

What happened? It turns out that each site was given a fair amount of latitude in how they implemented the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme], and none of the sites adopted the entire curriculum. In particular, most of the site managers decided to focus on the mentoring aspects of the program and non-fully implemented the community service component – the very component that we know, from the Teen Outreach and Reach for Health programs, has beneficial effects! Sadly, more than $15 million was spent on a five-year intervention in which a key ingredient (community service) was eliminated. . . .

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

For a sense of the what the Bahá’í Approach involves this video is a good introduction. It shows how the Bahá’í emphasis upon engaging young people in the process of child education and community building works in practice.

(Published on 2 May 2013: You can download this film from the Official website: http://www.bahai.org/frontiers/)

It seems to me imperative that everyone, no matter what their circumstances might be, needs at the very least to find whatever ways they can to raise consciousness among their family, friends and contacts, so that more and more people internalise a vision of humanity as one family and understand better how to nurture and sustain people, fellow creatures and the planet. If that can also involve directly relevant action so much the better.

It is also appropriate to add here that even those who have ended up seduced by the manipulations of extremists can potentially be rehabilitated, as a recent article by Lynne Wallis in the Guardian contended, and, if we are to be true to the Universal House of Justice’s exhortation to take responsibility for the welfare all human beings without exception, then, provided we protect ourselves at the same time, we should offer them this chance.

Wallis feels strongly, in spite of the difficulties involved, that the evidence suggests ‘the process of indoctrination can . . . be reversed. It is commonly referred to as “exit counselling”, and when it happens – it’s often hard to get a cult member alone for long enough – it is often successful.’ As we are not dealing with people embedded in a ‘cult’ with repatriated Daesh members: they may well have gone through a process in the courts and be prisoners, in which case consistent access should be no problem.

My personal plan

For the foreseeable future I plan to explore, as often as I am able, this whole issue of altruism. In particular I want to understand more fully what factors enable us to widen the compass of our compassion and what factors narrow it.

I am already fairly clear that this will take me back over some familiar territory, though perhaps seeing it through a slightly different lens, but it will also require me to look carefully at some areas I have not explored in detail. Historical texts, for example, have not been my favourite grazing ground in the past – something about the way they marshal information switches me off. However, Snyder’s book has persuaded me I ought to give them another chance as I came to realise, from reading Black Earth, how little I really understood about many of the background factors that shaped the Holocaust. Maybe I also need to revisit some philosophical work that I have previously avoided as too challenging in its approach.

Some bolder experiments in terms of my personal experience might not come amiss either. I doubt that I can fully understand the challenges of this area without stepping into the fire.

What I have realised about this topic is that I can investigate it almost anywhere at any time, no matter what I am doing – perhaps even when I am chilling out in front of some anodyne murder mystery on the television.

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