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 – the first came out yesterday. This is the second and last.
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.
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.
- Writing & Reality (1): the mystery of revelation
- Writing & Reality (2): the role of lesser mortals
- Writing & Reality (3): look in your heart and write