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Posts Tagged ‘Claire Tomalin’

Much has been happening this year to give me cause to reflect, whether I wanted to or not, on the meaning of life.

‘Judging by your blog posts, you do this anyway,’ I can almost hear you comment.

Yes, that’s true but only up to point, it seems.

I accept that I have explored at possibly excruciating length the importance of reflection, and kept coming back relentlessly to the issues of the afterlife, and the nature of the mind/brain relationship. I have banged on endlessly about the impact of my sister’s death before I was born and how grappling with my parents’ grief shaped my childhood.

The same kind of preoccupations persist, of course.

Time-Torn

Recently, when I was in Birmingham, I bought a book that I already owned. This is only the second time I’ve done so. It was the greeny-blue paperback edition of Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy: the Time-torn Man. I knew I owned one book about his life but it didn’t look like this one, so I bought it, partly motivated by the BBC’s recent screening of a new version of Far from the Madding Crowd.

It took me a while to find the one I’d got. I combed my re-arranged shelves (we’ve been de-cluttering again), and was almost on the point of putting my name on the flyleaf of my new acquisition, when I spotted a cream coloured hard-back.

‘Found it!’ my mind shrieked.

I managed to get my money back from Waterstones and, afterwards, decided to check whether I’d read the book. My de-cluttering and reorganisation process is based partly on examining books to see when I bought them and if I’ve even looked at them. I’m operating a 10 year rule. If I’ve had it 10 years and not read it, I should consider taking it to the Oxfam shop.

This book surprised me. I’d bought it in 2006, but there was no evidence I’d ever read it, though I thought I had.

Next test: ‘Read the opening pages.’

I did.

There was no way this was going to charity.

Memories came flooding back, even more than had been triggered by the film, which linked only with the other novels. The biography brought back the poems, because they were the focus of the prologue, including a particularly haunting one, written after the death of his wife, from whom he had become increasingly estranged over the years, though they continued to live in the same house:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

Tomalin doesn’t quote the whole poem, only the first and last verses, but my mind (or was it my heart?) filled in much of the rest.

I am now almost at the end of her engaging account of his life. The debt I owe to Hardy, who helped me place my family’s grief and suffering in a wider context as I grew up through adolescence to something closer to maturity, is very great indeed. It’s good to be reminded of that, even though I had much further to go than he could take me.

But even describing this, and mentioning the next book on my list, Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison (another one rediscovered unread) which deals with suicide, doesn’t quite convey where I find I’m up to now.

Recent Experiences

To do that I need to touch briefly on some events of the last few months.

First, there was the series of colds that left me with a cough I couldn’t shake off, and a deep sense of fatigue. This overlapped with a health MOT that flagged up a highly elevated blood pressure, which I thought might have been triggered by the series of  infections.

Antibiotics, which cleared the cough, and Amlodipine, which brought down my blood pressure, levelled things off for a while. Even so something had shifted in my consciousness.

Maybe it was the evident panic of the nurses at the sight of a systolic BP in excess of 200, and the manic sequence of blood tests that followed to check out the state of my major organs, that changed my sense of my own body. Whereas before my body was something that I identified with so closely that I barely noticed it if it did not hurt, tingle or display some similarly intense experience, now I was aware of it plodding along most of the time.

But, and this is an important ‘but’, I do not feel I am my body. I have a body obviously, and depend upon it to get me around and carry my consciousness.

Somehow, though, the hand I write with and the feet I walk with, no longer feel part of who I really am. They are instruments I use, and I catch myself watching them as I write or walk, but they are not me. I need them, and as my body gets tired faster than it used to, I get impatient with them and frustrated by them more often. Yeats’ expression of feeling ‘fastened to a dying animal’ is taking on new meanings for me.

More recently, and literally the day before I was due to travel to Scotland to run a workshop on unity, I found myself needing to go to the doctor’s again, unable to drive myself because I was suddenly seeing two of everything. My GP couldn’t explain why it had suddenly occurred, though he knew the name for it: diplopia.

He referred me to the hospital and they confirmed my diagnosis but had no real idea either what might have caused it. They gave me a prism patch to place on the left lens of my spectacles. It deflects the light and corrects my double vision. I’ll need to wear it till the damaged nerve is repaired, which could take months.

This diplopia, perhaps predictably, redoubled the problem.

Not only was I feeling different about my body now, but the world had changed its appearance and was reinforcing the sense, which I have had for as long as I can remember, that all I have is a simulation of reality. When your simulation breaks down further, and doesn’t even fulfil its evolutionary purpose too well, there’s no get out.

Not only am I not my body, it feels, but I don’t even know what the world is really like anymore, if I ever did.

Reaffirmations

This has led me to reaffirm even more strongly the importance of reflection, stepping back from my identifications with the contents of my consciousness, and consultation, comparing simulations as dispassionately as possible with others in order to get closer to the truth. Learning to act reflectively has come to seem even more crucial.

Following on from that reminder, I added in my journal:

This needs to be held in mind along with my metaphor of the bees of reflection gathering the pollen of wisdom and the honey of love from the flowers of experience, and with my dream metaphor of the hearth (see link for a full description) with its associations of earth, heart, art, ear and hear, plus the peat that burns within the structure of the grate to provide light and warmth.

It was only as I re-read those words this morning that I realised another level of interpretation of that dream.

This was the dream:

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

My interpretation of ‘peat,’ as written down several years after, was that ‘the essence of my being – peat – is to fuel’ the process of’ ‘giving warmth to the mansion of being.’

Peat was perhaps not simply, as I had originally thought, a pun on my name that related to the idea of sacrificing an innate spiritual deeper self for a higher purpose (light/warmth): it now seemed to be pointing towards something more complex.

This is partly because there are implications concerning the time scales involved. The Wikipedia article explains: ‘In natural peatlands, the “annual rate of biomass production is greater than the rate of decomposition”, but it takes “thousands of years for peatlands to develop the deposits of 1.5 to 2.3 m [4.9 to 7.5 ft], which is the average depth of the boreal [northern] peatlands”.’

If I translate that into personal terms, peat, although derived from the earth, becomes to some degree at least an attribute painstakingly acquired, something that takes long periods of time to create or evolve. It is not already available nor can it be created impatiently, in a rush. Yes, it is the fuel which gives the energy to bring light (wisdom?) and warmth (love?) into the world of being but it needs work to bring it into existence.

In short, I am not burning something that is already there fully formed from birth, as it were, ‘the Soul that rises with’ me, as Wordsworth put it, but something that I have had to devote time to creating. It is almost certainly related to my soul and to spirit, but it is also involves something which I have a responsibility to develop, create, bring into being.

Perhaps I had only partly understood my dream all this time, glibly oversimplifying it. Why doesn’t what surprise me?

What had seemed like separate aspects of experience suddenly have come to seem connected.

Reflection requires patience. Long periods of practice are required to even begin to get the hang of it. Using it entails slowing down. Periods of silence, as quiet as the deep ground that holds the formation of peat, are essential prerequisites to reflection and the ultimate creation of its fruits.

I am still in the process of digesting these insights and refining them. I can’t yet articulate them clearly or exactly.

What it means for this blog is that I will only publish when I feel I really have something to say, not at the dictates of a calendar deadline. I am still not even sure exactly which direction my writing will now take.

There will be more silence and fewer words. Be patient with me. It may prove worth it.

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As a bridge between last week’s posts on the subject of psychopathy and next week’s on the theme of poetry, it seemed a good idea to look again at a couple of posts I wrote on the relationship between creativity and psychopathology. The first was posted yesterday: this is the second and last. 

An earlier post focused on how great the gap can be between the achievement of an artist in his art and the depths to which he can sink in his life (historically it’s usually been a ‘he’). In His Writings, Bahá’u’lláh makes clear that for Bahá’ís there should be no such distance between what a person professes and how they are (Gleanings: page 305).

CXXXIX: Say: Beware, O people of Bahá, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds.

I ended up wondering what the possible explanations for such huge gaps might be. I am most intrigued by two ways of accounting for the vast gulfs that can separate an artist’s life from his or her art: the psychological and the spiritual.

Tomalin, in her fascinating biography of Dickens, plainly felt she’d found one of the first kind. She was delighted to have been able to quote Dostoevsky’s account of his conversation with Dickens whom he met, apparently, on his visit to London in 1862. It seems to shed so much light on the relationship between the man and his art (page 322):

The person he [the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand. or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine … in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather. what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. ‘From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.’ ‘Only two people?’ I asked.

Tomalin’s comments below show that this could be gold, though it’s clear she feels the insights Dickens has shared seem slightly improbable given the slender nature of the acquaintance (ibid):

This is an amazing report, and if Dostoevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was aware of drawing his evil characters from a part of himself that he disapproved of and yet could not control. Dostoevsky’s Dickens reminds us of Eleanor Picken‘s, now one sort of man, now another, the mood-swinging, the charm turning to aggression, the fun that gets out of hand.

In a Sunday Times article she revealed that there is now considerable doubt over the authenticity of this account and it will be relegated to a footnote in future editions. The trail back to the original documents breaks down, and Dickens was only in London for two days during the Russian novelist’s visit. They did have a common language in which to communicate though as both were proficient in French. I thought it worth including as a plausible account of how the black and white world of heroes and villains in some of Dickens’ novels could’ve been rooted in the flaws and virtues of his own character.

While Dostoevsky’s comments can be seen as describing what’s happening during the creative act, in this case of a novelist, it doesn’t really help us understand how a Dickens would have arrived at that place or why. They are compatible with those accounts which see human beings as having a dual potential: angelic and satanic. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá summarises this and we can see clearly how the spiritual, the  psychological and the creative can overlap in this domain:

What is inspiration? It is the influx of the human heart. But what are satanic promptings which afflict mankind? They are the influx of the heart also. How shall we differentiate between them? The question arises, How shall we know whether we are following inspiration from God or satanic promptings of the human soul?

(Foundations of World Unity: page 46-47)

These questions are crucial. The idea of ‘inspiration’ lies at the heart of our exploration of creative writing. The dual potential we find here needs some unpacking in this context. One way among many is to look at the matter of the heart which is really the heart of the matter.

Elsewhere I have dealt at some length with the concept of the heart as a mirror (see the first three links below). Various factors too complex to go into here can cause us to make two kinds of interacting mistake. We can turn the mirror to those areas of experience that degrade us as human beings: that’s the first mistake. Then we can also identify with what we experience reflected in our heart: that is the second and by far the greater mistake. To do so can make a mistake even out of reflecting higher things because we come to think that we are what we are turned towards and become proud of the glory we find there as though it were our own.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear. (For source of image see link)

Great art is capable of reflecting both these areas of experience without making the mistake of identifying with either of them. This results in the breath-taking balance of Shakespeare’s art where he depicts evil and the suffering its causes without, in his greatest work, losing perspective and descending into a theatre of cruelty that seems to enjoy the horror. He combines compassion and detachment to an astonishing degree.

It is hard to find the man behind the characters. Perhaps we are lucky that we know so little of his true biography that we cannot expose the discrepancy between the life and the art in his case as in that of Dickens, or perhaps his life was more of a piece with his art. I’d like to think so, though recent evidence that he hoarded grain at times when people were starving suggests otherwise.

We are no nearer understanding, though, why some people identify so closely with their own narrow interests that they ride roughshod over others, either in the name of their art or simply to gratify a whim, while others can rise above their own perspective and embrace the views and needs of others with life-enhancing compassion, not just in their art but in their lives as well.

Temporary states of mind induced by periods of threat or stress are not what we’re after here. We’re looking for traits of character rather than states of mind. In that case, early experience as well as inherited temperament are bound to play a part. But is there something about high levels of creative skill that forges an inescapable life-time link with self-centredness?

Does a selfless artist seem the exception because egotism is needed before great art can emerge? How else, we might ask, is a genius going to persist so obsessively with the thousands of hours of intensive practice that the fostering of such a gift requires (see link below to post about effort)? The high levels of drive that seem so essential to great success in any field in our society seem to correlate with a high degree of self-centredness. But is that just because we live in a culture that cultivates and rewards the ruthlessly competitive?

It is perhaps impossible to prove it either way at this point in human history. Maitreyabandhu, whom I have quoted at length in two previous posts (see last two in the list below), has a subtle take on this whole issue that suggests that this binding chain is not only breakable, it may even be undermining an artist’s ability to rise to the highest levels of achivement in his or her chosen field.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in this Autumn’s Poetry Review 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.

The Kellys derive a similar idea from Myers when they speak of ‘subliminal uprush.’ If we are to move as a species from our present level of functioning, both as individuals and as societies, it is to be hoped that the vision unfolded in Maitreyabandhu’s Buddhist approach as well as those of other spiritual traditions, including that of the Bahá’í Faith, will prove within our reach. The day when great artistic skill and noble character consistently combine to produce works of uplifting genius, we will know our culture has achieved true integrity.

I believe that to be possible but I don’t for one moment  think it will be easy, so deeply are we convinced that great creativity in any field sadly but almost invariably flourishes best in the soil of extreme egotism.

Related articles:

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As a bridge between last week’s posts on the subject of psychopathy and next week’s on the theme of poetry, it seemed a good idea to look again at a couple of posts I wrote on the relationship between creativity and psychopathology. This is the first: there second will be posted tomorrow. 

This is a quandary that has puzzled me for a long time. A vast number of artists have displayed such a fierce degree of focus on their art combined with a casual disregard for the well-being of other people that their lives have fallen far short of both their art and any remotely acceptable standard of humane behaviour. Not all have admittedly gone as far as killing someone, in the manner of Ben Jonson and Caravaggio, but the Romantics often set the bar pretty high in terms of the self-absorbed exploitation of others if Byron and Shelley are anything to go by.

From a spiritual point of view such huge discrepancies between a lofty art and a debased life are seen as undesirable and avoidable:

Perfect harmony between religion and science is the sine qua non of the higher life for humanity. When that is achieved, and every child is trained not only in the study of the sciences, and arts, but equally in love to all mankind and in radiant acquiescence to the Will of God as revealed in the progress of evolution and the teachings of the Prophets, then and not till then, shall the Kingdom of God come and His Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven; then and not till then shall the Most Great Peace shed its blessings on the world.

(Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era: page 210)

However, in the imperfect world in which we currently live, the discrepancy between the life style held up for emulation in the art and the lived life of the artist is sometimes so wide it almost beggars belief. Dickens was one of the most famous and gifted examples of that gulf. Amongst other things, he advocated compassion, friendship and domestic bliss. Every year at Christmas we can generally choose which version of the glow of The Christmas Carol we can warm our hearts against in the cold season. We can have the musical version with Albert Finney, the old classic with Alastair Sim or a modern update with Patrick Stewart. And if that leaves us dissatisfied there are apparently 37 other screen versions to turn to. And if all else fails we can always read the book.

To be fair to Dickens, as the latest searching, unflinching and immensely readable biography by Claire Tomalin reveals, he did a huge amount of good. Not only did he address the wrongs of his age in what he wrote and moved others to do what they could to right them, he also exerted himself to help those in need from his own time, energy and resources. There is a sense though in which he was tainted by more than a trace of Mrs Jellyby and her family in his behaviour towards his own wife and children.

This family features in Bleak House and Wikipedia summarises its pattern by saying:

The “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs Jellyby, who pursues distant projects at the expense of her duty to her own family, is a criticism of women activists like Caroline Chisholm.

Dickens seems to have gone even further and sacrificed his wife as well as  many of his children, and their well being, not just to his art and his philanthropy but to his personal need. The description  that has come down to us from his daughter, Katey, says it all. She describes the pain he left behind when he exiled his wife, and all those in his family and among his friends who did not side with him, as he pursued his extramarital relationship with Ellen Ternan. The account here comes from notes by Gladys Storey taken down from 1923 until Katey’s death, but not published until 1939, ten years after she died. Claire Tomalin quotes her at length (pages 414-415):

Katey (1839-1929: third child of the marriage) had been old enough to be a clear-eyed observer of the break-up of her parents’ marriage [the open split was in May 1858]. ‘Ah! We were all very wicked not to take [my mother’s] part,’ she said. ‘Harry (1849-1933: eighth child) does not take this view, but he was only a boy at the time, and does not realize the grief it was to our mother, after having all her children, to go away and leave us. My mother never rebuked me. I never saw her in a temper. We like to think of our great geniuses as great characters – but we can’t.’ Of her mother, she said, ‘My poor mother was afraid of my father. She was never allowed to express an opinion-  never allowed to say what she felt.’ She praised her mother for her ‘dignified and nobler course of silence’ when her husband was making public statements.” She also said, ‘My father was like a madman when my mother left home, this affair brought out all that was worst – all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.”‘

‘I know things about my father’s character that no one else ever knew; he was not a good man, but he was not a fast man, but he was wonderful!’ she said, her buts acknowledging the difficulty of making a definitive moral judgement on him. Miss Storey described a day when she said dramatically, “‘I loved my father better than any man in the world – in a different way of course. . . I loved him for his faults.” Rising from her chair and walking towards the door, she added: “My father was a wicked man – a very wicked man.” And left the room.’ She also reported Katey saying he did not understand women, and suggesting that any marriage he made would have been a failure.

Sue Perkins has also explored this territory in a recent BBC2 programme.

So where exactly does this leave us? How best can we explain such a failure to practise what he preached? An attempt to answer that will have to wait until the next post.

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An earlier post focused on how great the gap can be between the achievement of an artist in his art and the depths to which he can sink in his life (historically it’s usually been a ‘he’). In His Writings, Bahá’u’lláh makes clear that for Bahá’ís there should be no such distance between what a person professes and how they are (Gleanings: page 305).

CXXXIX: Say: Beware, O people of Bahá, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds.

I ended up wondering what the possible explanations for such huge gaps might be. I am most intrigued by two ways of accounting for the vast gulfs that can separate an artist’s life from his or her art: the psychological and the spiritual.

Tomalin, in her fascinating biography of Dickens, plainly felt she’d found one of the first kind. She was delighted to have been able to quote Dostoevsky’s account of his conversation with Dickens whom he met, apparently, on his visit to London in 1862. It seems to shed so much light on the relationship between the man and his art (page 322):

The person he [the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand. or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine … in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather. what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. ‘From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.’ ‘Only two people?’ I asked.

Tomalin’s comments below show that this could be gold, though it’s clear she feels the insights Dickens has shared seem slightly improbable given the slender nature of the acquaintance (ibid):

This is an amazing report, and if Dostoevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was aware of drawing his evil characters from a part of himself that he disapproved of and yet could not control. Dostoevsky’s Dickens reminds us of Eleanor Picken‘s, now one sort of man, now another, the mood-swinging, the charm turning to aggression, the fun that gets out of hand.

In a Sunday Times article she revealed that there is now considerable doubt over the authenticity of this account and it will be relegated to a footnote in future editions. The trail back to the original documents breaks down, and Dickens was only in London for two days during the Russian novelist’s visit. They did have a common language in which to communicate though as both were proficient in French. I thought it worth including as a plausible account of how the black and white world of heroes and villains in some of Dickens’ novels could’ve been rooted in the flaws and virtues of his own character.

While Dostoevsky’s comments can be seen as describing what’s happening during the creative act, in this case of a novelist, it doesn’t really help us understand how a Dickens would have arrived at that place or why. They are compatible with those accounts which see human beings as having a dual potential: angelic and satanic. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá summarises this and we can see clearly how the spiritual, the  psychological and the creative can overlap in this domain:

What is inspiration? It is the influx of the human heart. But what are satanic promptings which afflict mankind? They are the influx of the heart also. How shall we differentiate between them? The question arises, How shall we know whether we are following inspiration from God or satanic promptings of the human soul?

(Foundations of World Unity: page 46-47)

These questions are crucial. The idea of ‘inspiration’ lies at the heart of our exploration of creative writing. The dual potential we find here needs some unpacking in this context. One way among many is to look at the matter of the heart which is really the heart of the matter.

Elsewhere I have dealt at some length with the concept of the heart as a mirror (see the first three links below). Various factors too complex to go into here can cause us to make two kinds of interacting mistake. We can turn the mirror to those areas of experience that degrade us as human beings: that’s the first mistake. Then we can also identify with what we experience reflected in our heart: that is the second and by far the greater mistake. To do so can make a mistake even out of reflecting higher things because we come to think that we are what we are turned towards and become proud of the glory we find there as though it were our own.

King Lear in the Storm

Great art is capable of reflecting both these areas of experience without making the mistake of identifying with either of them. This results in the breath-taking balance of Shakespeare’s art where he depicts evil and the suffering its causes without, in his greatest work, losing perspective and descending into a theatre of cruelty that seems to enjoy the horror. He combines compassion and detachment to an astonishing degree.

It is hard to find the man behind the characters. Perhaps we are lucky that we know so little of his true biography that we cannot expose the discrepancy between the life and the art in his case as in that of Dickens, or perhaps his life was more of a piece with his art. I’d like to think so.

We are no nearer understanding, though, why some people identify so closely with their own narrow interests that they ride roughshod over others, either in the name of their art or simply to gratify a whim, while others can rise above their own perspective and embrace the views and needs of others with life-enhancing compassion, not just in their art but in their lives as well.

Temporary states of mind induced by periods of threat or stress are not what we’re after here. We’re looking for traits of character rather than states of mind. In that case, early experience as well as inherited temperament are bound to play a part. But is there something about high levels of creative skill that forges an inescapable life-time link with self-centredness?

Does a selfless artist seem the exception because egotism is needed before great art can emerge? How else, we might ask, is a genius going to persist so obsessively with the thousands of hours of intensive practice that the fostering of such a gift requires (see link below to post about effort)? The high levels of drive that seem so essential to great success in any field in our society seem to correlate with a high degree of self-centredness. But is that just because we live in a culture that cultivates and rewards the ruthlessly competitive?

It is perhaps impossible to prove it either way at this point in human history. Maitreyabandhu, whom I have quoted at length in two previous posts (see last two in the list below), has a subtle take on this whole issue that suggests that this binding chain is not only breakable, it may even be undermining an artist’s ability to rise to the highest  levels of achivement in his or her chosen field.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in this Autumn’s Poetry Review 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.

If we are to move as a species from our present level of functioning, both as individuals and as societies, it is to be hoped that the vision unfolded in Maitreyabandhu’s Buddhist approach as well as those of other spiritual traditions, including that of the Bahá’í Faith, will prove within our reach. The day when great artistic skill and noble character consistently combine to produce works of uplifting genius, we will know our culture has achieved true integrity.

I believe that to be possible but I don’t for one moment  think it will be easy, so deeply are we convinced that great creativity in any field sadly but almost invariably flourishes best in the soil of extreme egotism.

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This is a quandary that has puzzled me for a long time. A vast number of artists have displayed such a fierce degree of focus on their art combined with a casual disregard for the well-being of other people that their lives have fallen far short of both their art and any remotely acceptable standard of humane behaviour. Not all have admittedly gone as far as killing someone, in the manner of Ben Jonson and Caravaggio, but the Romantics often set the bar pretty high in terms of the self-absorbed exploitation of others if Byron and Shelley are anything to go by.

From a spiritual point of view such huge discrepancies between a lofty art and a debased life are seen as undesirable and avoidable:

Perfect harmony between religion and science is the sine qua non of the higher life for humanity. When that is achieved, and every child is trained not only in the study of the sciences, and arts, but equally in love to all mankind and in radiant acquiescence to the Will of God as revealed in the progress of evolution and the teachings of the Prophets, then and not till then, shall the Kingdom of God come and His Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven; then and not till then shall the Most Great Peace shed its blessings on the world.

(Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era: page 210)

However, in the imperfect world in which we currently live, the discrepancy between the life style held up for emulation in the art and the lived life of the artist is sometimes so wide it almost beggars belief. Dickens was one of the most famous and gifted examples of that gulf. Amongst other things, he advocated compassion, friendship and domestic bliss. Every year at Christmas we can generally choose which version of the glow of The Christmas Carol we can warm our hearts against in the cold season. We can have the musical version with Albert Finney, the old classic with Alastair Sim or a modern update with Patrick Stewart. And if that leaves us dissatisfied there are apparently 37 other screen versions to turn to. And if all else fails we can always read the book.

To be fair to Dickens, as the latest searching, unflinching and immensely readable biography by Claire Tomalin reveals, he did a huge amount of good. Not only did he address the wrongs of his age in what he wrote and moved others to do what they could to right them, he also exerted himself to help those in need from his own time, energy and resources. There is a sense though in which he was tainted by more than a trace of Mrs Jellyby and her family in his behaviour towards his own wife and children.

This family features in Bleak House and Wikipedia summarises its pattern by saying:

The “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs Jellyby, who pursues distant projects at the expense of her duty to her own family, is a criticism of women activists like Caroline Chisholm.

Dickens seems to have gone even further and sacrificed his wife as well as  many of his children, and their well being, not just to his art and his philanthropy but to his personal need. The description  that has come down to us from his daughter, Katey, says it all. She describes the pain he left behind when he exiled his wife, and all those in his family and among his friends who did not side with him, as he pursued his extramarital relationship with Ellen Ternan. The account here comes from notes by Gladys Storey taken down from 1923 until Katey’s death, but not published until 1939, ten years after she died. Claire Tomalin quotes her at length (pages 414-415):

Katey (1839-1929: third child of the marriage) had been old enough to be a clear-eyed observer of the break-up of her parents’ marriage [the open split was in May 1858]. ‘Ah! We were all very wicked not to take [my mother’s] part,’ she said. ‘Harry (1849-1933: eighth child) does not take this view, but he was only a boy at the time, and does not realize the grief it was to our mother, after having all her children, to go away and leave us. My mother never rebuked me. I never saw her in a temper. We like to think of our great geniuses as great characters – but we can’t.’ Of her mother, she said, ‘My poor mother was afraid of my father. She was never allowed to express an opinion-  never allowed to say what she felt.’ She praised her mother for her ‘dignified and nobler course of silence’ when her husband was making public statements.” She also said, ‘My father was like a madman when my mother left home, this affair brought out all that was worst – all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.”‘

‘I know things about my father’s character that no one else ever knew; he was not a good man, but he was not a fast man, but he was wonderful!’ she said, her buts acknowledging the difficulty of making a definitive moral judgement on him. Miss Storey described a day when she said dramatically, “‘I loved my father better than any man in the world – in a different way of course. . . I loved him for his faults.” Rising from her chair and walking towards the door, she added: “My father was a wicked man – a very wicked man.” And left the room.’ She also reported Katey saying he did not understand women, and suggesting that any marriage he made would have been a failure.

Sue Perkins has also explored this territory in a recent BBC2 programme.

So where exactly does this leave us? How best can we explain such a failure to practise what he preached? An attempt to answer that will have to wait until the next post.

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