Posts Tagged ‘Bahá’í Faith’

At a time when conquest and aggression have lost their credibility as means of solving difficult problems, qualities in which women are strong, such as the capacity to link intuition to the other rational processes, and facility with networking and cooperation, are gaining importance. Thus as increasing numbers of women are admitted into centers of decision-making, consultation is being enlightened by fresh perspectives; a new moral and psychological climate is spreading, enabling new dynamics of problem-solving to emerge. The inclusion of women thus directly affects the pace and success of the peace-building process.

(Bahá’í International Community, 1993 March 15, Women and the Peace Process)

The Mad Woman in the AtticIt seemed logical to follow on from the republished sequence on Emily Dickinson, with this one.

Picking up from where I left off last time, I was after evidence of some kind that the feminine take on the representation of reality might be more balanced than the masculine. I thought I’d found that principally in a key chapter on George Eliot.

Before plunging into The Mad Woman in the Attic‘s treatment of Middlemarch, her masterpiece, I’ll take a brief detour into Austen territory (Chapter 5).

Early in the chapter Gilbert and Gubar capture an essential quandary for women at the time (page 162):

All women may be, as she is, split between the conflicting desire for assertion in the world and retreat into the security of the home – speech and silence, independence and dependency – Austen implies that this psychic conflict can be resolved.

Austen battled to solve this dilemma in her fiction. I recently read Mansfield Park for the first time, having been deterred by a sense that it was considered a flawed work by too many critics, partly because of Fanny Price’s supposedly unprepossessing character. In reading the book for myself, I saw her as complex and strong. According to Gilbert and Gubar she may have a key role in Austen’s attempt to deal with her quandary (page 165):

Recently, two feminist critics have persuasively argued that, when Fanny refuses to marry for social advantage, she becomes the moral model for all the other characters, challenging their social system and exposing its flimsy values.

One of the most unconvincing aspects of this novel is the rapidity and suspicious neatness with which Austen ties up all the loose ends, wherever possible into marriage knots. The authors’ take on that pattern, which they claim is not unique to this book, is intriguing (page 159):

Many critics have already noticed duplicity in the “happy endings” of Austen’s novels in which she brings her couples to the brink of bliss in such haste, or with such unlikely coincidences, or with such sarcasm that the entire message seems undercut.

Much else that they say suggests that Austen was unable in the end to resolve her dilemma in her fiction, though she was acutely aware of how fiction was failing to do so in a way that left her dissatisfied. Her last novel, Persuasion, imbued as it is with yearning, pins down the main problem when she creates the discussion between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville, in which Anne explores ‘her sense of exclusion from patriarchal culture’ (page 179):

‘men have had every advantage of us in telling their story… The pen has been in their hands.’ Anne Elliot will ‘not allow books to prove anything’ because they ‘were all written by men.’

I want to leap now over several chapters, all fascinating and mostly concerned with the Brontës, to one key chapter (Chapter 14) which focuses on one of my favourite novelists and her greatest book: George Eliot and Middlemarch. Until I read further in their book I thought Eliot had gone as far as it was possible for a woman to go at this period of history.

Right at the start of the chapter Gilbert and Gubar captured my deep interest by quoting Margaret Fuller, an American journalist, critic, and women’s rights advocate (page 479): ‘Will there never be a being to combine a man’s mind and woman’s heart…?’ They write of Eliot’s ‘commitment to heart and hearth’ and the ‘tension between mind and heart’ in her life and writing.

They describe Eliot (page 482) as being drawn to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s emphasis on ‘the need for men to develop “feminine” receptivity, specifically that of female nurturance.’ More even than that, in a way that resonates with the Bahá’í position on the equality of men and women, they point out that (ibid):

Stowe’s revolutionary books insist that maternal sensations and feminine powerlessness alone can save a world otherwise damned by masculine aggression.

They see the central concern of Eliot’s work, almost from the very start (page 484), as wanting ‘to expand our faith in the redemptive possibilities of compassion.’ They also amplify on this (pages 498-9):

Eliot dramatizes the virtues of a uniquely female culture based on supportive camaraderie instead of masculine competition. . .

Eliot’s fiction . . . associates women with precisely the traits she felt industrial urbanized England in danger of losing: a commitment to others, a sense of community, an appreciation of nature, and a belief in nurturing love.

She realizes she harbours this problem within herself as well. It is not just outside her (page 500):

[S]he is fundamentally concerned with the potential for violence in the two conflicting sides of herself that she identifies as the masculine mind and the feminine heart.

MiddlemarchIn Middlemarch she explores these tensions through character and plot. For example (page 508) ‘if Casaubon represents the intellectual bankruptcy of criticism and the arts, Tertius Lydgate tells as much about the moral mediocrity of the sciences.’ Bulstrode, plotting murder, is part of her portrayal of the dark side, which she carefully counterbalances with the light. Rebecca Mead in her engaging book, The Road to Middlemarch argues that, while Bulstrode in Middlemarch, exemplifies what happens when protestations of piety are betrayed in corrupt action, the Reverend Camden Farebrother is the touchstone of genuine religion and morality (page 227):

He delivers pithy sermons, which draw listeners from parishes other than his own, but his religion is shown in how he treats others, rather than how he preaches to them.

In examining acts (page 517) of ‘sympathetic identification between women’ she links them with ‘a perspective on life that widens as the heroine escapes what the novelist depicts as the ultimate imprisonment, imprisonment within the cell of the self.’ Also for a character, not surprisingly a female one, tuning into nature can allow her to ‘obtain . . . a sense of “the largeness of the world.”’ This leads Dorothea, the main character of Middlemarch, to a ‘realization that she is herself a part of “that involuntary, palpitating life’” outside her self. In the end the widowed Dorothea abandons the wealth inherited from her oppressive husband and marries again for love.

In discussing Eliot’s role as narrator they argue that she transcends the conflict that held Austen back (page 523):

Meditative, philosophical, humorous, sympathetic, moralistic, scientific, the narrator presents her/himself as so far above and beyond the ordinary classifications of our culture that (s)he transcends gender distinctions. Doing in a woman’s way a traditionally male task of knowing, Eliot makes such gender-based categories irrelevant. Because her voice sympathetically articulates opposed perspectives, because it is highly provisional and tentative even as it risks generalisations, this narrator become an authentic “we,” a voice of the community that is committed to accepting the indeterminacy of meaning, as well as the complex kinship with people and things.

They feel she manages this without discounting the hard reality that in Victorian society ‘female characters’ are ‘forced to live within conventional roles.’

Eliot feels (page 528) that women have a ‘special capacity for altruism,’ but, the authors feel, if Dorothea (page 530) does ‘not escape the confining maze of social duties and definitions, this is because no such transcendence seems possible or even necessarily desirable in Eliot’s world.’

So, even though Eliot had accepted certain limitations as inevitable, I think the authors make a strong case for supposing one female author at least achieved an almost miraculous balance in her writing between apparently irreconcilable opposites.

I think, as I have explored previously on this blog, that she strove to go even further.

Daniel DerondaI shared my astonishment about the time I finally came to read her grossly under-rated final novel, Daniel Deronda published in 1876.

It strives to achieve an integration of two divergent cultures, of two distinct ways of life, of two sometimes seemingly contradictory worldviews – the Jewish and the Christian – into a transcendent pattern at a higher level than the component parts could achieve alone. I may be going too far in seeing in it glimpses, from an imperial island in the 19th Century, of what the world needs now in the 21st.  I feel it is, if only partially realised, a truly admirable striving towards a more world embracing vision – another and greater example of the way her concerns so consistently anticipate ours.

It seems to me an amazing attempt to see where the world might be going. Frederick Karl expresses it intriguingly, unbiased as he is by any desire to read Bahá’í thought backwards into her text (though Tolstoy had heard of the Bahá’í Faith, there is no evidence Eliot had living so early as this in the Faith’s history – page 547):

The Jewish and Christian elements [of the novel] link as a historical, temporal unity. If we view the novel in this perspective, we can connect the two plot strands into a universal entity or into a generalised human struggle reaching for some transcendental level, a form of ultimate health.

He goes onto describe her as (ibid.) ‘reaching towards some cure for the Western world as for herself,’ and failing in the attempt. Most critics, perhaps rightly, also feel she has failed and the two threads of understanding expressed in the two plot lines fail to blend as she would have wished, and the novel is irremediably split.

On the other hand, what she was striving for needed to be attempted and, I feel, there is so much depth and vigour in what she has succeeded in expressing that the novel is a richly rewarding read. As such, it took my breath away when I read it only a few years ago. The unsympathetic assessment of the book by the critics had put me off, in the same way as I had been steered away from Mansfield Park, and I regret that.

I was about to discover another discounted and neglected classic that I regret not having read much sooner. More of that next time.

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Given the degree of uncertainty concerning the facts of Plath’s life and character highlighted in the current sequence, this group of posts seemed particularly relevant, and I even refer to a quote from it in the next post on Plath coming up on Monday. 

Having explained some of the probable origins of my default position of uncertainty and explored Croce’s explanation of James’s version of that state of mind in his book Science & Religion in the Era of William James, only one thing remains to be done, I think.

And as for me?

Now, I want to briefly explore how my faith and my doubt can so tranquilly coexist, and perhaps why I found Croce’s exploration of William James’s uncertainty so congenial.

Just to repeat, I am chronically sceptical. I even doubt myself most of the time (for the background to some of this see previous posts). I exasperate people by checking up on anything important that they tell me if it does not gel with what I already know. When they express their legitimate irritation, I reply: ‘I don’t trust my own judgement. Why should I trust anyone else’s?’ Even when I obtain current confirmation, I regard my understanding of the point at issue as very much provisional.

Before I look at two particulars in the Bahá’í teachings perhaps I should also quote something that, to my mind. supports my checking script. Almost at the start of a core text by Bahá’u’lláh He writes:

O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

Now for the key points.

There are two main threads in Bahá’í belief, as I understand it, that make my default mode so easily tolerable.

First is the concept of progressive revelation with its connected idea that what changes are the social teachings of a religion, not its spiritual core. A brief but clear explanation comes from a Bahá’í website:

The Messenger of God reveals both spiritual truths, which are eternal, and laws belonging to a particular age. The spiritual truths are revealed according to the spiritual development of the men of that time. Thus Moses said: “Love thy neighbour as thyself,”  (4) but only the rarer spirits in His dispensation realised that Gentiles also were their neighbours. Jesus stressed that love should extend beyond the Jewish race, but still His followers were unable to grasp fully the oneness of mankind. Only recently have men progressed enough to regard the whole human race as one family, without division of colour, class or creed. Bahá’u’lláh, coming to a world prepared by the long line of earlier Messengers of God, could make this a central feature of His Teaching. All three Messengers were aware of the truth taught by Bahá’u’lláh, but until now man has not been ready to receive its full force.

Secondly, is the clear indication that Bahá’u’lláh gives that what he is explaining to us is pitched at the level of our current understanding and is not an undiluted and complete exposition of reality as He apprehends it.

O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favour! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

Both these quotations suggest that humanity’s understanding of the truth will always be incomplete, even incorrect sometimes, though it can evolve under the influence of science and revelation. Perhaps my lack of certainty is neither irrational nor irreligious.

In Bahá’í terms scripture is the City of Certitude: there is no one living now who can justifiably claim to dwell there. All any of us can now hope to do is inch a little closer to the gates. That’s why, for me, hearing a person state ‘I became a Bahá’í’ would be a declaration of intent rather than a statement of fact, no matter who said it.

Not only is scepticism about one’s own understanding healthy; as I understand it from the teachings of my faith, it’s essential. It not only makes fanaticism less likely, but it also serves to make consultation possible between people whose views and opinions differ widely. Without consultation, which is an essentially spiritual process dependent upon participants having sufficient detachment from their own views to listen effectively to the views of others, there would be no progress, or at least progress would be immeasurably retarded. A Bahá’í document entitled The Prosperity of Human Kind captures a key point:

. . . .  consultation is the operating expression of justice in human affairs. So vital is it to the success of collective endeavor that it must constitute a basic feature of a viable strategy of social and economic development. Indeed, the participation of the people on whose commitment and efforts the success of such a strategy depends becomes effective only as consultation is made the organizing principle of every project. “No man can attain his true station”, is Bahá’u’lláh’s counsel, “except through his justice. No power can exist except through unity. No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.”

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

All this might just suggest that my state of mind, far from being an unhealthy and condemnable dithering bordering on disbelief, may well be both more realistic and more constructive than the kind of certainty so conducive to the  ‘arrogance and hatred . . . peddled in the thoroughfares,’ which Yeats prayed that his daughter would be protected from. If I were certain this was true, I would not then be true to my belief in the value of uncertainty – a bit of a bind that one. As I explained earlier, I have recently republished a sequence of posts about the danger of high levels of certainty about our beliefs.

My best hope is fairly clear, even so. I can always look to refine my imperfect understanding, bringing it ever closer to what I hope is the truth but never knowing whether I have got there yet or not.

Interestingly that completely coincides with what Lamberth reports as William James’s point of view, reinforcing further my feeling that he was indeed a kindred spirit and explaining satisfactorily why I got such a buzz out of finding this second book after reading these words in the first one I had read (page 222):

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

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WJ pencil

William James – self-portrait in pencil

Given the degree of uncertainty concerning the facts of Plath’s life and character highlighted in the current sequence, this group of posts seemed particularly relevant, and I even refer to a quote from it in the next post on Plath coming up on Monday. 

Yesterday I attempted to explain my default position of uncertainty and why it lent such a strong appeal to Paul Jerome Croce’s book on William James. Now comes the difficult task of cherry picking key quotes from the book to illustrate why the feeling of attraction did not wear off as I read my way through it.

Principled Uncertainty

What follows here, designed simply to illustrate this one point, is a sparse selection of quotes from this book’s richly detailed and rewarding survey of the thinking of the time. I’m going to pick up the story with the impact of Darwin.

It would be impossible to overstate the degree of shock his book created. This is both because its argument was profoundly unsettling, and its accessibility meant that it was very widely read. What I hadn’t realised till I read Croce’s book was that he shocked not only the religious but the scientific community as well (page 88):

Science practised under the star of Darwinism represented the displacement of the cultured amateur by professional experts and a divorce of science from moral purpose and religious conviction. Most important, the new science, operating according to probabilities, removed its findings from expectations of certainty in either science or religion. This methodological challenge to scientific certainty is the true Darwinian revolution, far more than the supposed triumph of science over religion or even the dominance of Darwin’s particular insights about evolution.

The effect of this on William James is of particular interest to me (page 109-110):

The major shock of Darwin for James turned out to be the great biologist’s method and its implications for science and religion. Because the theory of natural selection was a plausible explanation rather than a proof of the origin of species, James began to doubt the need to expect certainty in either his science or his religion. . . . . . Darwin’s approaches provided a signpost, but William James in the 1860s still had much learning and struggling to do in his journey toward adopting beliefs without certainty.

In the 1850s and 1860s William James was a member of a loosely constituted group of young thinkers that called itself the Metaphysical Club (page 154):

The central issue of their enquiries was certainty. They saw that neither scientific theory nor religious faith could generate conventional forms of certainty, and they searchingly asked whether there could be any other basis for belief and action.

This has always been a key question for me. It’s not surprising, then, that I felt myself to be in like-minded company. At this point I found an interesting side issue mentioned, suggesting that Richard Dawkins might be blindly following a long line of misguided popularisers, dating back to Darwin’s own time, and suggests that he really should know better. Croce refers to (page 155) ‘the recent revolution in Darwin studies, which demonstrates the scientific unorthodoxy of Darwin’s probabilistic methods and attributes the materialistic claims of scientific certainty to Darwin’s popularisers rather than to Darwin’s science itself.’ Music to my ears again.


Chauncy Wright

A key influence on William James was a contemporary and fellow Metaphysical Club member, Chauncy Wright (page 174):

William James learned from his friend Wright to reject the certainties of traditional religion and to regard science in probabilistic terms, but James never accepted the claim that science offered alternative certainties. By considering the uncertainties of both fields, he extended Wright’s ideas further than Wright himself could imagine.

James then moved further on the shoulders of Charles Sanders Peirce (page 195):

Without intending it, this rigorous pacesetter for James’s understanding of science became a role model for the younger man’s more thorough embrace of uncertainty. Pierce’s ambiguities opened a wedge in the edifice of scientific authority which James expanded into wholesale questioning of the possibility of finding certainty in any beliefs.

A core aspect of Peirce’s thinking concerned the nature of what we can achieve by thinking (page 144):

[He maintained that] our minds can never reach the essences of things, but only come to know them in mediated ways. . . . . “Our idea of anything is an idea of its sensible effects. . . . . .[H]e claimed our minds can really know the world (at least in the long run), but that such knowledge will always be mediated; . . . . [T]he method of science is focused correctly on effects, not essences.

He felt that most knowledge was probabilistic (page 216):

Probabilities can provide certainties, but with important qualifications: as Peirce had already realised at least as early as 1867, they provide answers only about groups and in the long run. So he declared it “unsound” to claim “that knowing a thing to be probable is not knowledge.”

This approach requires as assumption of orderliness in nature (page 219):

Inductive inquiry, which gains knowledge through “a process of sampling,” relies on the assumed orderliness of its sample to do its business, since the inquirer presumes that the randomly selected portion “has nearly the same frequency of occurrence” as the whole class of things under evaluation. . . . He leaned his faith in induction on the orderliness of the human mind and the world it comes to investigate.

CS Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

(This sounds like an anticipation of Plantinga’s recent case that science and religion are inherently in harmony.) It’s clear therefore that Peirce did believe ‘in a divine creator and an orderly universe’ but his ‘prime goal [was] to lay the cosmological ground for his scientific project.’ Where did this leave James? Croce is preparing the ground for a second volume that does not seem yet to have appeared, so he does not go into great detail (page 223):

He was much more attuned than his more logical colleague to addressing the growing suspicion among scientists, religious believers, science watchers, and religion watchers that their propositions could not provide the certainty that previous generations had cherished.

He then qualifies this (page 224):

Recognition was only the first step, because he realised even more acutely than his peers the psychological appeal of certainty. To maintain the moral commitments that his whole circle cherished, to avoid a slide into nihilism, and to reconstruct belief for a scientific audience, James would need to find the moral equivalent of certainty.

Lamberth, whose work I looked at in a previous post, has much more light to shed on where James’s thinking ended up than I have time to repeat here. The final sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in this tome.

All that remains is to explain how I find it possible to feel at home with both this level of uncertainty and my commitment to the Bahá’í path. That will have to wait until tomorrow.

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Given the degree of uncertainty concerning the facts of Plath’s life and character highlighted in the current sequence, this group of posts seemed particularly relevant, and I even refer to a quote from it in the next post on Plath coming up on Monday. 

David C Lamberth’s excellent treatment of William James’s thought was not the only trophy I brought back from a second-hand book shop recently. A second book (please don’t groan – there is a third to come!) by Paul Jerome Croce has proved equally, if not more fascinating. The full title is Science and Religion in the Era of William James: Eclipse of Certainty (1832-1880).

At first I thought I would fit everything I wanted to say into one post. It turned out to be too long so I have split this into three to be posted on three consecutive days. 

Even before I read a word of it, just seeing the title of the book on its cover and the tantalising photograph behind it gave me goose bumps. Sad really I suppose that I should react so strongly to something so apparently obscure.

What was it exactly that triggered such a strong positive reaction to the sight of such an ordinary seeming book? I’m not sure I can answer that question fully but I know what some of the elements are of its attraction.

The Period of History

The dates for starters.

That period of history is full of strong emotionally loaded associations for me. Right from my childhood I was told stories of my mother’s parents and their conversion to the Roman Catholic Church as a result of the Oxford Movement. I’ve already blogged about that so I won’t go into more details here.

Not only that but one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins was also a convert and recently reading his story revealed what a huge price people had to pay at that time for that choice. It could totally wreck their prospects. My father’s family disowned him for choosing to marry my Catholic mother. When I was in my late thirties, I followed my grandparents’ footsteps and converted, in my case from my sceptical atheism to the Bahá’í Faith.

This strengthened my ties to this period of history in two ways. For one, I felt closer to my grandparents. The other reason is that the Bahá’í Faith is rooted in this same period of history. The day the Faith first shone out was in 1844 to be followed by a greater disclosure of its meaning in 1863. It’s fair to add that the charisma of William James added considerably to the force of the frisson I felt.

My Default Position

This is all very straightforward as an explanation of part of my strong reaction to the book. What may be less clear is why the eclipse of certainty should have held any attraction at all for someone who had converted to a new faith?

This is harder to pin down but is at least as powerful a component as the other things I have mentioned and a brief exploration of some of the ideas in the book will have to be included in this explanation.

To begin at the beginning though, I need to say that my default position, for as long as I can remember, has been doubt. The crisis of my two pre-school experiences of hospitalisation underpinned this position. As I have explained in an earlier post the feeling of being abandoned by my parents, who were not allowed in those days to stay in the hospital, and the sense that Christ was not rescuing me, led to the conclusion that I had only myself to rely on and that I could not really trust anyone or anything else including God. Perhaps related to this my chronic condition is uncertainty.

This was reinforced by my absolute revulsion, as someone growing Mixed Dictators v5up in the shadow of World War II, from dogmatic and damaging ideologies such as Nazism, Maoism and Stalinism,  which had been or were being implemented with ferocious conviction.

Certainty came to seem pathological to me. I do not believe that I can be certain of anything except possibly my memory of such things as my name and address.

Reinforcing still for me the value of this state of mind are the widespread current evidences of the toxic effects of certainty. People are resolutely butchering other human beings completely convinced of their own rectitude. I have also blogged about this dark side of conviction before, and have recently republished this sequence of posts so I won’t dwell on it further right now.

Even so, when I finally sat down to read this book I had not expected to feel quite so relieved to be so comfortably at home with the ideas it explores. But more of that tomorrow.

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When I first republished this short sequence, I was explaining that my rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry, with a vague memory that I’d been somewhere like this before. And sure enough I had. This pair of posts from 2011 is covering related ground so it seemed an obvious step to do the same thing again!  The first came out yesterday. This is the second and last.

In the previous post on this topic we ended with DH Maitreyabandhu‘s attempt to create a test of the value of a poem (The Furthest Reach – page 61, footnote):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

He moves on in the remainder of his article in the Poetry Society magazine, Poetry Review, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

John Keats in July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative-  beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

This, it could be said, is where I begin to lose my grip on his meaning but where I most want to grasp it fully. I want to grasp what he goes on to say because I believe – and not just because my religion says so – that religion and science are like the two wings of a bird. We need them both if we are to live wisely and well, but to use them properly we have to integrate our understanding of their different  approaches to the truth. Maybe there is a transcendent position, as Jung would say, that dissolves their apparent differences and from which we can see their essential unity. I’m not sure this is what Maitreyabandhu is getting at, but I hope so. Let’s see where he goes from here. I can already feel the rope of his meaning slipping through my fingers.

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (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 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.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

I still don’t feel I have completely understood all that he is trying to say but I do hope that I haven’t introduced too much distortion or dilution into my attempt to convey the tenor of his inspiring exploration of the nature of imagination and its role in poetry. I am looking forward to integrating his insights more deeply into both my practice of writing and my practice of compassion.

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Map of Consciousness
Given how embroiled I am again in struggling to understand genius and creativity it made sense to throw these three posts at you once more! I’m posting them on consecutive days, from Thursday to Saturday. The first is really a bit of a stand alone but I’ve relocated as the first of three.

Genius as the Norm

Given the butterfly nature of my brain it seemed best to approach the chapter on genius by Edward Kelly and Michael Grosso in Irreducible Mind from different angles. So this is one of a series of posts, each on an aspect of the topic.

Something that leapt out at me about the authors’ treatment of this theme was the idea that genius would eventually be the norm (page 476):

Myers portrays genius as the norm of the future, representing a condition of improved psychic integration. The genius thus stands for him among the vanguard of an evolutionary track which humanity as a whole is pursuing . .

Myers picks up on this idea in the context of the then contemporary and vexed debate about the exact relationship between ‘genius’ and ‘madness’ (page 426):

[Myers] . . . characterised hysteria as a disintegrative or “dissolutive” process involving loss of control of normally supraliminal elements of the personality. Genius for Myers presents the opposite situation. Specifically, in genius an increased “strength and concentration of the inward unifying control” results in enhanced coordination and integration of the supraliminal and subliminal phases of personality. . . . . Genius represents the evolution of personality toward a more ideal form of psychic functioning, and therefore toward a truer standard of “normality.”

In Human Personality vol 1, page 71, he writes of genius as: A power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought. . . . . [Inspiration] will be in truth a subliminal uprush, an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated, but which have shaped themselves beyond his will, in profounder regions of his being.

The diagram at the head of this post is my latest attempt to capture the ‘subliminal stream’ pictorially in what is for me the counterintuitive  sense that, while we experience the material world vividly as though it were all that there is and it surrounds us completely, the opposite is possibly true: it is a tiny part of reality as a whole, and our perception of it is internally generated and adapted for our physical survival only, while our perception of that far greater transcendent reality seeps into our consciousness from below filtered through the funnel of our personal residue of subconscious material.

Myers’s final position is made very clear (page 471):

… genius and madness share, as an essential common feature, an unusual openness to the subliminal. . . . . [However] genius masters its subliminal uprushes. [Those who succumb to them lose their mental balance.] Genius is not degenerate but “progenerative,” reflecting increased strength and concentration of inward unifying control and increased utilisation of subliminal forms of mentation in service and supraliminal purpose. Indeed, in its highest developments genius represents the truest standard of excellence, and a more appropriate criterion of “normality” than conformity to a statistical average.

Irreducible Mind is unequivocal about the need for us to move further forward in our systematic investigation of the exact relationship between the two, and I may return to this topic at some point, but I need for now to look more deeply into the notion that everyone could potentially be a genius in future.

This isn’t the first time I’ve met this kind of idea of course.

Shoghi Effendi

For source of image see link

To begin with, for me at least, something like it is a core part of the Bahá’í concept of humanity’s future. Shoghi Effendi places this idea within the Bahá’í framework (World Order of Bahá’u’lláhpage 202):

The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood. Then will the human race reach that stature of ripeness which will enable it to acquire all the powers and capacities upon which its ultimate development must depend.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it crystal clear that we will develop new capacities as part of this process (Foundations of World Unity – page 9-10):

Man must now become imbued with new virtues and powers, new moralities, new capacities. New bounties, bestowals and perfections are awaiting and already descending upon him.

My memory tells me that Bahá’u’lláh wrote words to the effect that the child of the future will be as intelligent at the adult of now. Unfortunately I haven’t yet been able to trace that quote again. I’ll keep looking!

In addition, it is clear that evolutionary theory is beginning to address this issue as well. I have blogged about the work of Robert Wright before, after reading his fascinating book The Evolution of God. I was intrigued to find that Irreducible Mind also quotes him (page 602):

Commentator Robert Wright (1999)… while explicitly denying that evolution is directed specifically towards us – Homo sapiens – points out that the average complexity of species has in fact risen in general, driven by competitive pressures (“arms races”) within and between species, and that mammalian lineages in particular have tended toward increased “braininess.” Certain useful properties such as vision and flight have also been reinvented repeatedly during the course of evolution, and Wright explicitly proposes that similar built-in tendencies may exist with respect to higher order properties, such as intelligence, altruism, and love, that are of course central to Myers’s vision.

We are not just talking here about intellectual capacities but spiritual qualities also, though he may not quite go as far as I would like in accepting a transcendent realm.

How could this work?

This is where the chapter on genius becomes particularly fascinating (page 477):

Genius… effects fuller “cooperation of the submerged with the emergent self and in this way it expresses a nisus (striving or drive) to greater psychic integration or wholeness that Myers sees as a fundamental property of human nature

For source of image see link.

Carl Jung. For source of image see link.

The authors are well aware that others have struggled to articulate similar ideas, not least Carl Gustav Jung with his notion of individuation. However, they clearly feel that Myers’s model is the most satisfactory and is strongly linked to the concept of evolution (page 480:

[Myers wrote] “Man is in course of evolution,” . . . and “it may be in his power to hasten his own evolution in ways previously unknown.” . . . . It follows from his general theory that any procedures which encourage increased but controlled interaction with the subliminal can potentially move us in the desired direction.

What might some of those procedures be?

They give Jung his due when they quote his explanation of one strong possibility (page 481):

For Jung … art provides more than aesthetic pleasure; indeed, to the extent that we can imaginatively involve ourselves in a great work of art we vicariously participate in the transformative, integrative process effected by its creator, and are in some measure transformed and integrated ourselves. Some such “resonance” effect may account, for example, for John Stuart Mill’s famous declaration that he was healed by reading Wordsworth’s poetry . . .

In a later post I will be clarifying how the core aspect of this theory of genius could have positive evolutionary implications, but for now I’m simply going to look at one teasing but seminal possibility which intrigues me as someone always interested in literature.

The writers feel there is a link between this developmental and integrative effect and the power of imagination. This is by no means a straightforward issue.

It’s one that Nancy Evans Bush tackles in her book on distressing NDEs. Bush explains, in Dancing Past the Dark that (Kindle reference 2919) ‘NDEs cannot be the territory they represent: they are signposts, arrows; maps written in symbol.’

We have to be careful though to distinguish two different categories of thought when we are talking about symbols (2923):

What is imaginary does not really exist but is made up, pretend, fantasy. What is imaginal, on the other hand, as . . . . . Joseph Campbell . . . . noted, “is metaphysically grounded in a dreamlike mythological realm beyond space and time, which, since it is physically invisible, can be known only to the mind.”

Imagery therefore can potentially link our language dependent minds with that which reality places beyond the reach of speech. We can attempt to apprehend and convey aspects of the ineffable. The trap is that imagination can feed delusion rather than promote insight. This may in part be from where Myers’s derives his paradoxical perception of the influx from the subliminal which my diagram above hints at (page 430):

Not all such 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 sounds like Yeats’s ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart:’ the heart, though potentially contaminated by our reptilian self, is for me also potentially the experience of soul in consciousness, the place Yeats was combing for signs of the anima mundi. The introduction to Albright’s edition of Yeats’s poetry explains (page xxi):

[Yeats] came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s general soul.

This therefore does not mean that we should dismiss all imagery and symbol out of hand as hallucinatory even if we should be wary of it too (page 455):

Imagination [for Coleridge] is organic and active; it assimilates, dissolves and recreates, fuses, synthesises, and unifies. It transmutes the chaos of raw materials provided by everyday experience, forging and shaping them by means of its inherent . . “alembic” . . . powers into truly novel creations that balance or reconcile seemingly opposite or discordant qualities in harmonious unity. It is above all a unique form of thought, and one of the principal powers human mind.

Coleridge sees imagination, not to be confused with ‘fancy,’ as working at the root of all perception (Romanticism edited by Duncan Wu – page 525):

The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception . .

Bahá’í Scripture has similar views about the dual potential of the human imagination.

On the one hand Bahá’u’lláh warns us of the traps that await us when we abuse imagination (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláhpage 58):

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs. God grant you may be graciously aided under all conditions to shatter the idols of superstition and to tear away the veils of the imaginations of men.

On the other hand Bahá’í Scripture is also clear that imagination is a spiritual power (‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Some Answered Questionspages 201-11):

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

I am not sure whether imagination as such is included in the spiritual power that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is referring to in the following quotation. If it is it further reinforces Coleridge’s view of the imagination. If not, Myers’s view is still basically endorsed by Bahá’í Scripture in that both are describing some form of transcendent capacity in human beings to tune into dimensions of existence hidden from our basic senses (Some Answered Questionspage 186):

Though man has powers and outer senses in common with the animal, yet an extraordinary power exists in him of which the animal is bereft. The sciences, arts, inventions, trades and discoveries of realities are the results of this spiritual power. . . .  It even perceives things which do not exist outwardly—that is to say, intellectual realities which are not sensible, and which have no outward existence because they are invisible; so it comprehends the mind, the spirit, the qualities, the characters, the love and sorrow of man, which are intellectual realities. Moreover, these existing sciences, arts, laws and endless inventions of man at one time were invisible, mysterious and hidden secrets; it is only the all-encompassing human power which has discovered and brought them out from the plane of the invisible to the plane of the visible.

What is even more exciting for me about this passage is that it seems to me to be endorsing what Myers is also arguing for: that art, and science too for that matter, progress largely by way of a process of inspiration from a subliminal realm, and that art is therefore potentially an instrument for personal and societal development and transformation – a key component of the process by which we are evolving towards our full potential.

Gerard Manley Hopkins. For source of image see link.

Gerard Manley Hopkins. For source of image see link.

There are many who would attempt to deny this and argue that great works of art, as well as scientific discovery, are purely the result of diligence augmented by automatic brain processes. I will be returning to this in more detail in a later post, but for now will limit myself to a quote from a republished book I recently purchased on the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Robert Bernard Martin (page 70):

[Hopkins] attempts to distinguish between the “first and highest” form of “poetry proper, the language of inspiration,” and that written by great poets when inspiration has failed them although their habitual level of high competence remains.

For the young Hopkins diligence was not enough to produce a true poem. Another ingredient was necessary, one that the modern mind would like to explain completely in terms of material processes but which Myers and William James, as we have seen in earlier posts, described as demanding a transcendental explanation. We will come back to that again soon in the context of genius and subliminal inspiration.


I am aware that the logic of this explanation may have been a touch hard to follow as I am to some degree working things out as I go, so a summary might help.

I believe the thinking that this post quotes is suggesting that humanity is evolving in a potentially dramatic way. The prediction is that our level of functioning will massively increase intellectually, creatively and spiritually.

This process is not purely a material one. In fact, in terms of its most important fruits, it is a spiritual one drawing on powers and insights from a transcendent realm of which most of us are for now only subliminally aware at best. The process triggers breakthroughs in both arts and sciences whose agents are described as geniuses.

The way both groups of geniuses, artist and scientist alike, access the subliminal stream that carries the necessary insights is seen by some to be assisted by the imagination, at least partly through the power of image and symbol. Exposure to products of artistic genius helps us enhance our powers and achieve higher levels of personal integration. Ultimately most of us will also be able to function at genius level when our civilisation peaks, if we do not destroy ourselves first, for we will then be able to draw inspiration from the same subliminal stream that genius accesses now.

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