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For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

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Mirror of the DivineHow is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

To explore further this issue of whether or not there is a self beneath the flux of consciousness with some hope of clarity, I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

The No Self Issue

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, and that reductionist explanations are missing the point, where does this leave us?

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

I am reminded here of the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander. I have dealt elsewhere on this blog with books that explore near death experiences (NDEs) in a more scientific way (see above links). I have chosen to quote here from one person’s experience partly because it is more appropriate to this examination of literature and also because it counterbalances Harris’s one-person account. If sceptics are happy to accept Harris’s conclusions from his experience, I can see no reason for me not to accept Alexander’s.

I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

Proof-of-HeavenHe, as a sceptical scientist, on the basis of his very different experience, made a different decision from that of Harris.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, as Harris is, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?

Well, I think they bridge the gap between what Harris describes and what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us (Tablets: page 730):

Know thou for a certainty that in the divine worlds the spiritual beloved ones will recognize one another, and will seek union with each other, but a spiritual union. Likewise a love that one may have entertained for anyone will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom, nor wilt thou forget there the life that thou hadst in the material world.

How come?

For a start, it shows someone conscious but without any memory for who he is – awareness stripped of self, in the terms we are using here. This leaves me feeling it maps onto, even if it goes beyond, the state of mind Harris describes.

So, with at least some resemblance to an extreme meditative state, it takes us one step further. It demonstrates consciousness without a brain. The coma has helpfully disconnected his brain, without any need for him to learn how to do it himself via meditation, and yet he is still aware.

Even more amazing is that, with his brain shut down, he has been able to retain detailed memories of a rich week-long experience and begin the process of reintegrating it into his brain-bound identity.

Equally surprisingly, a consciousness he didn’t know but which clearly knew him, a survivor of the body’s death, connects with him. Even though, in this NDE Alexander has forgotten who he is, and therefore does not confirm that aspect of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, the consciousness of his dead sister had obviously retained a sense of who she had been and what her relationships were, even when there had been no interaction physically with Alexander during her mortal life. It seems legitimate to assume that, if Alexander’s experience is a precursor to an eternal afterlife, there would be time for him to reconnect with memories of who he was.

What has all this got to do with los Solitarios and Lehrer’s ideas about the novel?

Just to clarify, I am not simplistically concluding that all the Solitarios are equally reductionist. Pessoa, Machado and Rilke each have their own more spiritual take on reality at times. What I am suggesting here is that Proust and Beckett, along with other modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, have fallen into the modernist trap to some degree.

Why do I call it a trap?

Once we deny any form of spiritual or transcendent reality it is only a short step to concluding that life has no meaning beyond what we arbitrarily give to it. Beckett’s existential despair becomes a predictable symptom, as does what Richard Davenport-Hines summarized as the degenerative, secularised squalor of the world Proust saw around him and depicted in his work.

A further consequence of this world picture is a powerful sense of alienation. This adds to the dispiriting bleakness of life as experienced through this lens. Both Beckett and Proust lived lives that were profoundly disconnected from the social world around them. I am on dangerous ground here if I simplistically attribute this disconnection only to their materialistic approach to the world. My other Solitarios are equally alienated from the social world but, with the possible exception of Rilke, do not inhabit as bleak a subjective reality. My contention is that the combination of a tendency to extreme introversion combined with a reductionist worldview is a toxic prescription for despair. As such the literature it engenders will render a seriously distorted view of existence.

If their versions of reality are unbalanced, what to do?

Is the novel, part of Beckett’s and all of Proust’s greatest work, an inherently materialist form? Is the same true of drama as well, so no get-out for Beckett there? Is only poetry suitable for and tending towards spiritual matters, hence the difference that exists between these two novelists and the work of Rilke, Machado and Pessoa?

The quality of Beckett’s and Proust’s writing is indisputable: the deficiencies of their moral and spiritual perspective create significant flaws in their overall achievement. What, if any, might be the remedy?

Beckett clearly felt there was none.

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

Reading Proust is less of a journey into an existential Arctic. However, although he has a strong sense of what he feels is right, the world his work explores has lost its moral compass a long time ago.

Three novels immediately spring to mind as having combined darkness with light in  a more balanced way.

tenant-of-wildfell-hallI recently drew attention to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The journal of the heroine is a disturbing description of an abusive marriage. Helen mistakenly marries the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington, and laments (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Her novel integrates her faith with her art in way that adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

Bahiyyih-Nakhjavani-009

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: another book that comes close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Mucha brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih(“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

I must also include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

It clearly can be done, and, if those three books are anything to go by, a strong focus on the consciousness of the characters depicted does not require a reductionist approach. These novels are very much in the tradition of Joyce, Beckett and Proust in this respect. But they do not lack a sense of the spiritual or transcendent also.

In addition, for me at least, they combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in my memory. If an author strays too far from some form of narrative it is possible he might diminish the long-term impact of his book on the reader.

Interestingly, all three books are by women authors.

Art, in my view, should create an experience that deepens our understanding of reality without unduly distorting it. Paradoxically, feminine writers are more effective in that respect than masculine ones, it seems. (It may be that ultimately I mean writers of a female cast of mind regardless of ostensible gender.)

Anyhow, when I now ponder on my current pantheon of novelists, women outnumber men. Jane Austen, the Brontês, Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot), Elizabeth Gaskell, Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantell, A S Byatt, Margaret Attwood, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and Marilynne Robinson, to name but the most important to me, leave Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Doestoyevsky trailing forlornly in the rear.

This realisation has come as a bit of a shock to me. I hadn’t expected it to turn out quite such a one-sided contest. It was not always thus – it’s only since I recently realised that Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray amongst others, have fallen from grace in my mind’s eye over the years.

I need to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of some of the authors I’ve just mentioned before I leap to a firm conclusion that those with a feminine cast of mind seem to hold the balance between spirit and matter, plot and consciousness, better on the whole than those whose orientation is more macho.

Whatever the truth of the gender idea may be, that at least some writers can achieve this balance confirms it is not impossible, and, if we believe as I do, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, for the reasons I have given throughout this blog, then art has a duty to incorporate it into its representations of experience. It does not need to do so explicitly, any more than The Handmaid’s Tale has to spell out in detail the moral code that condemns the abuses it depicts but the moral code has to at least be implicit and not completely absent.

Well, that new slant on things has made my rather demoralising exploration of Proust and Beckett well worthwhile.

There will soon be more on the value of the feminine perspective.

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After my relatively recent preoccupation with dreams it seems appropriate to republish this sequence which is a fictional attempt to project my inscape into words. Dreams and day dreams feature quite a lot! 

I’m asleep. At least I think I am. We’re altogether this time, sitting round the glass table in the garden. We are wrestling with the problem of how to find out if my head has any other entities lurking beneath consciousness and if so, how to get in touch with them. We’ve postponed trying to reach agreement on how to reflect more often and more effectively until we’ve sorted this issue out.

‘We don’t seem to be getting very far with our watching brief plan. And I don’t think we’re going to. We need to do something more proactive.’ He paused for a moment and when no one else spoke he added, ‘Why don’t we try using an ouija board?’ Frederick Mires seems slightly embarrassed to be making this suggestion.

‘Good to see a brain scientist prepared to put something so discredited to the test, Fred.’ Christopher Humfreeze finds it hard to conceal his pleasure at scoring such an unlikely point. For once he is not on the receiving end of Mires’s unremitting need to test the validity of his faith in meditation.

‘Too easy to fake, isn’t it?’ comments the pragmatic Emma Pancake dismissively. Anything so flaky is unlikely to receive the support of such a hard-line campaigner in the socio-political sphere.

‘What’s an Ouija board?’ asks the bewildered William Wordless. Exploring and rhapsodising about mountains and forests has obviously given him too little time to explore the esoteric.

I feel it’s time I stepped in.

‘I don’t think we have to explain that to you, Bill, I’m happy to say. I’m not convinced that tables, letter cards and up-turned tumblers are going to get us very far towards solving this problem. We’re not in a material space now but an immaterial one: dreamland requires a different approach, I feel.’

There is a period of silence.

‘I have an idea but it’s unlikely to work,’ Mires muses.

‘We’d be glad to hear it, whatever it is,’ is my attempt at an encouraging response.

The Conscious Universe IRM‘Well, you know I’ve been investigating consciousness for decades now, and there is one method that in my view, if it can work at all, could just possibly work as well in dreamland as in waking time.’ He pauses dramatically.

‘Come on, Fred. Don’t keep us hanging in suspense.’ Pancake has little patience with anyone’s dramatics except her own.

‘Calm down, Emmie! I’m going to tell you now. If we had access to a psychic, a spirit medium, we could possibly detect and access whatever is there.’

‘That puts the kibosh on that one then,’ gloats Pancake. ‘We haven’t got a medium.’

‘Slow down a moment, folks. Not so hasty.’ Bill clearly doesn’t like Pancake’s knee jerk dismissal of this idea. There’s always been a tension between them. He knows she despises his love of poetry: she sees it as an impractical waste of time. He, on the other hand, distrusts the frantic activity with which she chases her dream of changing the world.

‘Maybe we have someone who doesn’t know they’re a medium.’

‘How likely is that, Bill?’ asks Mires. ‘We’ve been together in here for decades. We know each other really well. I don’t see anyone among us with a secret gift for contacting spirits.’

‘That’s where I think you’re mistaken, Fred. You’ve never been convinced that meditation does what Chris says it can. What if he’s right? What if he is closer to his soul than any of us? What if that means he can tune in to the world of souls and spirits that we can’t sense?’

‘Steady on, Bill, for heaven’s sake,’ Humfreeze butts in. ‘It’s my head you’re talking about here. Don’t let your poetic imagination run away with you. I have never had, and I do not expect ever to have, psychic powers, whatever they are. That’s not why I meditate.’

‘I’m not suggesting that is why you do it, only that it might have helped you be able to do it and not even know. Why don’t you just give it try? We really need to find a way to do this.’

Humfreeze seems to be shrinking with repugnance at the whole idea.

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

‘I know this probably cuts across everything you feel you are trying to do,’ Mires interjects sympathetically, ‘and I will respect and understand whatever decision you make in the end. However, I think there is something here that trumps your reluctance. If there is a hidden entity inside Pete’s head and if contacting it results in us all becoming more able to do more good, then there’s no blame attached to your testing the existence of a possible skill you never tried to acquire. It can do no harm and might do a lot of good.’

‘That’s an awful lot of ifs,’ laments Humfreeze. He pauses for a moment as he ponders what to say. We all realise this is a tipping point and keep schtum.

‘OK. This is the deal. I want to hear everyone’s opinion on this insane suggestion. If I end up feeling that all of you are definitely in favour of this plan, I will give it a go. I will try three times and three times only. If nothing happens, I’m not doing it again, do you all understand?’

‘Thank you, Chris. That’s very gracious of you, and we really appreciate how much it cost you to say that. So, what do we all think of the plan, then? You first, Emmie.’ Mires gives Pancake a searching look.

‘Did you have to start with me, Fred?’ Pancake complains. ‘I need more time. Ask someone else.’

Mires’s stops himself from commenting that this is the first occasion to his knowledge that she has wanted more time before deciding to act.

‘I’ll come back to you then. What do you think, Bill. Are you still for the idea?’

‘Definitely. I think we have to give it a go.’

‘Pete, what do you think?’

‘Well, I’m not very happy to go down this road, but I can’t think of a better idea. I have a really strong sense there is some kind of being underneath our awareness that we absolutely need to get in touch with, so I feel we should accept Chris’s generous offer and see if he’s psychic after all.’

‘Back to you then, Emmie. I’m in favour of trying this out even though I’m anything but sure it will work. It can’t do any harm and there’s a lot at stake here, and I’ve been wrong before.’

‘Can I have that in writing, Fred, for use in future arguments?’ quips Pancake. We all laugh, glad to have an excuse to break the tension a little.

‘I’ve had time to think and I agree we should go with this idea. I find it hard to believe it will work but we’ve got nothing to lose by trying.’

‘That’s it then, Chris. I come back to you with a unanimous decision that we ask you to try.’

‘I was afraid that would be how it turned out. I said I would do it if you all agreed and I’ll stick to my word. Can you give me just a bit more time to prepare?’

We all nod and agree to meet as soon as Humfreeze lets us know he’s ready.

Coming through the open window in the heat, the sound of the milkman’s van outside wakes me up. It’s light already but far too early to get up. I turn on my other side mulling over the contents of the dream as the mist of sleep slowly blots out my thoughts.

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Bee & Snapdragon

After my relatively recent preoccupation with dreams it seems appropriate to republish this sequence which is a fictional attempt to project my inscape into words. Dreams and day dreams feature quite a lot! 

My Parliament of Selves is in furious session. It’s a bit early in the day even for them. I’m barely halfway through my first cup of coffee. I’ve known for a long time about their constant squabbling, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier.

William Wordless, smelling the fuschias hanging from the basket by the wall, scowls as he speaks.

‘I feel we really need to set aside quality time for writing poetry. It’s been months since I’ve written anything worth reading in that line.’ His long grey hair mimics the swinging of the blossoms in the breeze.

‘For God’s sake, Bill, grow up!’ Frederick Mires is lounging in his garden chair at the long glass table with a book in his hand as he growls. There is a pile of several thick volumes on the table beside him. ‘You can’t have your head in the clouds singing about daffodils the whole time. There are far more important things than that.’ The sunlight flashes dazzlingly from the lenses of his reading glasses.

‘Like what for heaven’s sake, Fred? What’s more important than singing about nature in words that reach the heart.’ Wordless blinks as he speaks and can’t meet the glare of Mires’s gaze.

‘The mind, Bill, the mind. Even if I spent the rest of my days working to understand consciousness, I’d still be only just scratching the surface when I died. But consciousness is what we truly are, and we must understand it better. It’s vital, and psychology is by far the best path.’

‘May I get a word in edgeways here?’

A tall figure in a kaftan moves out of the shadows at the far end of the garden. Christopher Humfreeze hates arguments. In fact he doesn’t like company of any kind much, feeling that his time alone communing with his spirit is far too valuable to squander on small talk.

Wordless bares his teeth in a wide grin. ‘If you must!’

‘Poetry and psychology are all very well as far as they go, but they don’t go anywhere near far enough. They are word-blocked. We have to go deeper than words can carry on us: we have to learn how to travel the path of silence.  That’s the only way to get to the very heart of things in themselves.’

‘But that’s what poetry does as well in a different way, you bigoted idiot!’ blurts Wordless somewhat tactlessly.

‘Calm down, Bill,’ soothes Mires in a slightly condescending fashion. ‘Give him a chance to explain himself. Psychology teaches that every perspective is valuable in helping us understand a reality as complex as . . . .’

‘Thank you, Fred. Can I carry on now?’ interjects Humfreeze with the calm under provocation that only his many hours of meditative practice enable him to do, and with only the faintest tinge of contempt for Mires’s patronising tone.

‘Not if I have anything to do with it!’ Emma Pancake snorts as she strides across the garden, throwing her handbag and a stack of leaflets onto the table. ‘I’ve heard all this a zillion times before.’ She throws herself into a vacant chair, pours a cold coffee from the cafetière and sits back with her feet on the table.

‘Do you really believe that sitting still for hours on end is going to change the world for the better? Never in a million years! You all need to grow up and get real. Yes, I agree that words aren’t enough in themselves, but decades of navel-gazing isn’t the answer either. We’ve got to get out there and do something fast. We can’t wait until our words tinkle like bells, until we’ve got completely bogged down trying to understand everything completely, or only after we’ve plumbed the depths of our own mind to the bottom of beyond.’

‘We’ve heard all this from you before as well, Emmie, as you dash around too fast with your half-baked plans,’ Humfreeze cuts across her quietly, ‘and anyway it was my turn to speak and you interrupted.’

‘Sorry to say this,’ Wordless butts in clearly not meaning it. ‘We can all say that. We’ve heard your icily detached take on things a million times or more, Chris, and to be fair we’ve sat through mine and Fred’s as well. We can go over and over this for another thirty years and end up in exactly the same pointless stand-off. I will be writing no real poems. You won’t understand consciousness any better than you do now, Fred. You’ll still be skating across the mind’s surface, Chris, and you, Emmie, will have done almost nothing to change anything. Until we learn to work together we are never going to get anywhere.’

‘And how are the hell are we supposed to do that, if you don’t mind my asking?’ she retorts acidly.

Bee in Snapdragon 3I take another sip of coffee and gaze at the three bees foraging on the snapdragons. The skill with which they lift each flower head’s petal lid to gain entry is spellbinding to watch.

Wordless is right. How am I ever going to get these warring selves in my head working together?

Till now I’ve given each of them a parcel of my time, switching between poetry, meditation, psychology and activism. As a result I’ve not got very far with any of them. It takes focus and almost endless effort to achieve excellence in any field, but I have seemed unable to decide what to focus on in this way for any length of time. A pentathlete can win a gold medal across five disciplines, but of course is unlikely to overtake a specialist in any of them. In this case, at least though, all the skills are in the domain of physical prowess. I’ve not put anywhere near even that level of effort into any of the four fields I am pretending to plough, and they are not even closely related at first glance. No wonder excellence seems to be eluding me across the board!

From my supraliminal point of view, I’m being taken over by each of them in turn in a blind and random way, rather than choosing consciously and deliberately to identify with whichever of them best suits the current situation and my carefully chosen purposes.

Could Humfreeze be right in one sense at least, though they didn’t give him a chance to explain it? Mastering the art of deep reflection might not just benefit him, but lift the poet, the activist and the psychologist within me to higher levels of functioning which will benefit me as well.

If so, how to make a plan that would achieve this? And who’s going to make it?

‘That remains the challenge of the moment,’ I think as I get up, say farewell to the foragers, pick up my cup, and go back indoors to rinse it in the sink as mindfully as I can.

Wish me luck, whoever I am!

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I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

(A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf – page 259):

A Blast from the Past

When I was writing the closing post of the last sequence on Virginia Woolf, a name rose up from the depths of my memory store, a name I had not consciously been aware of since I took my borrowed copy of A Glastonbury Romance back to the library more than 40 years ago. That in itself would not be particularly remarkable. I assumed he’d just popped into my head, as these things do, in response to my need at the time for the name of a reasonably well-regarded novelist who didn’t stick strictly to the materialistic script.

I checked with Wikipedia that my memory was basically accurate in that respect. But the name did not go away. I fuzzy fragment of half-remembered pleasure lingered on in connection with his work. Maybe more than that, as I discovered when I began to read the copy of Wolf Solent I had brought back from Cardiff.

Cardiff’s Castle Arcade hides a gem of a bookshop – Troutmark Books. Readers may remember this was where I found a replacement copy of Robert Browning’s The Ring & the Book, a treasure I had lost decades before. We were in Cardiff on other business on this occasion, but I had time to sneak off down one of my favourite rabbit holes into a bookaholic’s Wonderland.

It didn’t take me more than a minute to locate a couple of books by John Cowper Powys. One I didn’t recognise: the other I did – Wolf Solent. One of his handful of best works that I had never read. I’d wanted to find Weymouth Sands or A Glastonbury Romance in order to pick up the thread where I had left it off and to confirm my own vague memory of his mix of mysticism, humour, deft plot twists and weird characters.

But Wolf Solent it was meant to be and I bought it. I checked with the bookseller before I left, but she couldn’t find any other of his novels.

I’m glad I made the purchase.

Maybe my subconscious knew that it would be the perfect novel against which to test the ideas that brewed as I read Virginia Woolf. I needed a novel that captured consciousness but in a more balanced way than The Waves or To the Lighthouse. I wanted to pick up from her tentative formulation as expressed in my diagram at the time.

Somehow ‘Not I’ and ‘Outer’ were so much the same in my mind I couldn’t find a way of using them to test a narrative. I had to find an alternative set of co-ordinates for my quadrants, not completely different, but making the distinction she apparently does not.

Critical Quadrants

As a result I tweaked her wording and came up with the diagram a few paragraphs below.

As a way of explaining fairly simply what kind of narrative might fit into each quadrant, I’ve decided to pick some early passages from Wolf Solent. This will also flag up just how perfect a match this novel is to my needs of the moment.

I need to add here that I am aware that Powys’s narrative technique is far more conventional than Woolf’s, and does not rise to the levels of transliminal intensity that her novels achieve. Even so he makes a good enough fist of it for my purposes, especially given his tolerance for the eccentric, even mystical, in consciousness.

Right from the very first lines of the novel we are in Quadrant A (Penguin 1978 Edition -page 13):

From Waterloo Station to the small country town of Ramsgard in Dorset is a journey of not more than three or four hours, but having by good luck found a compartment to himself, Wolf Solent was able to indulge in such an orgy of concentrated thought, that these three or four hours lengthened themselves out into something beyond all human measurement.

Much of the text occupies this quadrant, but not at the expense of both what bubbles up in Quadrant D and impinges on his consciousness from Quadrant B.

Page 15 touches on Quadrant D:

One of the suppressed emotions they had burst forth on that January afternoon had had to do with the appalling misery of so many of his fellow Londoners. He recalled the figure of a man he had seen on the steps outside Waterloo Station. The inert despair upon the face that this figure had turned towards him came between him now and a hillside covered with budding beeches. The face was repeated many times among these great curving masses of emerald-clear foliage.

One more example of Quadrant A will hopefully convey something of the intensity Powys manages to achieve at times (pages 16-17):

As he stared through the open window and watched each span of telegraph-wires sink slowly down till the next telegraph-post pulled them  upward with a jerk, he indulged himself in a sensation which always gave him a peculiar pleasure, the sensation of imagining himself to be a prehistoric giant who, with an effortless ease, ran along by the side of the train, leaping over hedges, ditches, lanes, and ponds, and easily rivalled, in natural-born silent speed, the noisy mechanism of all those pistons and cog-wheeels!

He felt himself watching this other self, this leaping giant, with the positive satisfaction of a hooded snake, thrusting out a flickering forked tongue from coils that shimmered in the sun. And as the train rushed forward, it seemed to him is if his real self were neither giant nor snake; but rather that black-budded ash tree, still in the rearward of its leafy companions, whose hushed grey branches threw so contorted a shadow on the railway bank.

His only companion in the carriage is a bluebottle. Quadrant B pops up. He is not oblivious to its antics as it crawls across the adverts of seaside resorts (Page 21):

The bluebottle fly moved slowly and cautiously across Weymouth Bay, apparently seeking some invisible atom of sustenance, seeking it now off Redcliff, now off Ringstead, now off White Nore.

I’ll come back to Quadrant C in a moment.

Basically then, Quadrant A captures the unexpressed workings of a character’s mind. Quadrant B takes in the external world as it impinges consciously on the senses of a character.

Quadrant D most probably focuses most of the time as here upon leaks from the unconscious as they surface, and is therefore technically speaking no longer the unconscious from that point on.

However, it might theoretically be possible for the actions or emotions of a character to indicate that (s)he had been affected subliminally by some form of trigger although I am almost certainly going to treat such moments as belonging more appropriately in Quadrant C.

Jung gives a perfect example of this when he describes walking with friends and being overtaken by a sudden inexplicable feeling of sadness. It was so strong he felt compelled to leave the group to walk on ahead while he backtracked to see if he could find what had triggered this feeling. It did not take him long to walk past a hedge through which the scent of a particular flower was wafting in the breeze. Its associations brought back a painful memory. When he first walked past he had not consciously registered the scent but it had affected him subliminally and powerfully nonetheless.

Quadrant C could also contain neutral descriptions of the inanimate world, the material conditions surrounding the character at the time, by which the character is probably neither consciously nor unconsciously affected. It might even include the appearance of the character himself, as with Wolf Solent at the start of the book (page 13):

He was tall and lean; and as he stretched out his legs and clasped his hands in front of him and bowed his head over his bony wrists, it would have been difficult to tell whether the goblinish grimaces that occasionally wrinkled his physiognomy were fits of sardonic chuckling or spasms of reckless desperation.

It is hard to read this as Wolf Solent’s own view of himself. Occasionally then in this book we are going to find the ghost of the narrator stepping out of Wolf Solent’s mind.

There is a residual problem.

I am not yet sure where I should place mystical or transcendent experiences. Should they be in Quadrant A or Quadrant B? Perhaps this will depend upon what I conclude John Cowper Powys believes. If he clearly writes as though the transcendent world is real for him, descriptions of it could belong in Quadrant B: if not, they would belong in Quadrant A. The presumption then would be that they could not be shared with other characters, only experienced by one.

I am really looking forward to seeing whether this approach succeeds in teasing out how well John Cowper Powys captures consciousness in a broader context than Woolf was attempting to do in the novels I explored in the previous sequence, and whether that makes for a more satisfactory experience for me as a reader who is fascinated by the idea of learning more about this elusive yet all-pervading experience.

John Cowper Powys (For source of image see link)

Possible Plot Spoiler

I am now more than 100 hundred pages into this 600 page narrative, and can already detect that, for the right balance to be struck between consciousness and context, not only has the rendering of consciousness to be credible and engaging, which it has been so far for the most part, but the context also has to feel the same. Both have to be credible enough at least not to undermine my willingness to suspend my disbelief. I’m not so sure on that last point yet.

An example might help to illustrate what I mean.

What follows contains a plot spoiler so if you plan to find the novel and read it you may prefer to stop reading this post right now.

Wolf Solent has gone back to his roots and to the place where his father planted more than a few wild oats. Unexpectedly one day he learns that his mother is arriving that evening and planning to stay. He has to find her a place to sleep that night, prior to her moving with him to a cottage on the estate whose owner he is working for. He drops in on an old family friend, Selena Gault, and finds she has a child with her, Olwen Smith. Olwen almost immediately remarks upon the fact that his nose is the same as her Aunt Mattie’s.

On the very first page of the book I had learned that Solent has a hooked nose.

When the child twigs his mother needs somewhere to stay, she insists that it be with her aunt and her granddad, the hatter his father knew.

When he takes his mother to the hatter’s house he meets Mattie for the first time. His Quadrant A reactions to Quadrant B data are significant (page 140):

Mattie turned out to be a girl with a fine figure, but an unappealing face. She looked about twenty-five. She was not pretty in any sense at all, in spite of what [his mother] had said. Her thick, prominent nose was out of all proportion to the rest of her face. Her chin, her forehead, her eyes, were all rendered insignificant by the size of this dominant and uncomely feature.

This must be what Solent notices about Mattie as it is described as the result of his study of her. This, as we will see, is a Quadrant D trigger for some Quadrant C subliminally leaked reactions (page 142): ‘What was this queer attraction which he felt for her, so different from the interest excited in him by her father and by the little girl?’

This example is a good one as it contains material from all four quadrants and therefore illustrates the way in which Wolf Solent as a novel balances internal and external more completely than Woolf’s The Waves.

So what is the credibility problem here?

Given that the novel up to this point has conveyed a picture of Solent as both observant, perceptive and very tuned in to his own mind and its reactions, I find it hard to believe, given his understanding of his father’s waywardness, that it did not occur to him almost straightaway that there might be a family resemblance here resulting from a closer than socially acceptable connection between his father and her mother. The need to tease me as reader, which is quite amusing I agree, has trumped the need for consistency in Solent’s character, or so it seems at this point.

Admittedly we might adduce a degree of resistance in Solent to an unpalatable truth, so I am probably rushing to judgement a bit here. It seemed worth including it, even so, as a possible early example of how the capturing of consciousness can be compromised by the demands of a plot – not a problem that Woolf allows to happen given her abandonment of plot in any meaningfully accepted sense in the two novels I have examined so far.

Subsequent twists and turns of plot in Wolf Solent may cause me to revise my current estimate.

More of this later maybe!

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

A Test

As I explained earlier in this sequence, I’m not contending that mapping consciousness is the sole criterion for judging a work of art but it is a key one for my purposes as a student of consciousness, as the mind map above illustrates. I’ll unpack what the mind map is about later.

My ability to apply to ongoing experience what I have learned in theory was about to be tested. How clearly could I catch hold of and write down an experience under pressure?

The day I sat planning at some point to work on this post proved interesting. Two letters plopped through our letterbox. They looked like the ones I had been expecting, telling me when my next hospital appointments were.

I didn’t pick them up straightaway as I was keeping an eye on the pressure cooker as it built up a head of steam, ready to turn it down when the whistle hissed. No, I don’t mean my brain as it coped with all my deadlines. We were beginning to get the food ready for the celebration of the Bicentenary of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh in two days time. The lentils apparently needed cooking well ahead of time.

Once pressure cooker duty was over, I dashed upstairs to tweak the slide presentation for the following day. I’d been enlisted to do the presentation at a friend’s celebration event. While the slide show notes were printing, I thought I’d better check the hospital letters out, not my favourite activity. The first one I opened was as I expected, an appointment for the ophthalmology department. I moved on to the second one. When I opened it I saw it was identical, same date, same time.

‘They’ve messed up,’ I groaned inwardly. ‘I was supposed to go for an MRI scan as well. I’d better give them a ring.’

I stapled the slide show notes together, picked up my iPhone and rang the number they had given me on the letter. A robot answered.

‘Thank you for calling the orthoptic department. We are currently dealing with a new electronic patient record system [I didn’t relish being seen as an electronic patient] and may be delayed in returning your call, [change of voice undermining the impression of caring that was to follow] but your call is important to us. Please leave your hospital number, the name of the patient, and a brief message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Thank you.’

I responded after the beep, fortunately also remembering to give them my number as I wasn’t convinced they’d pick that up automatically. Most robots check whether they have absorbed your number correctly.

Rather than waste time waiting, I got my laptop and brought it downstairs to rehearse my presentation. I set up AppleTV and was just about to set my timer and start, when my phone rang.

‘Orthoptic Department. How can I help?’ She sounded pleasant and surprisingly unstressed.

‘The new system must be taking some of the pressure off,’ I thought.

I explained that not only had I got double vision but I was also now getting my letters twice as well. Well, no not really. I told her I’d got two identical letters when I’d expected one to be for an MRI scan.

She checked out what I meant and then explained that the letter I’d got was for my routine appointment. The other was an error on their part. I should also be getting a letter for the MRI scan, I clarifed, but they did not know anything about that. I added that after that I should get an appointment from a consultant about the scan. She couldn’t help with that either, even though he was in her department.

She agreed to put me through to discuss the MRI.

‘Radiology here. How can I help?’

‘Is that where you do MRI scans?’ I asked, not being sure whether they counted as radiology or something else.

‘Yes, it is.’

I began my explanation.

‘I’m sorry. I need your name and date of birth.’

‘Will my hospital number do?’

‘Yes. That’s fine.’

Once she knew who I was, I told her my problem and asked when I could expect my scan to be as were we hoping to be away some time in December.

‘It’ll take 6-8 weeks from the time they sent the request.’

‘So when might that be?’

‘It’ll probably be the week beginning 27 November.’

‘And when will the consultant see me to discuss it after that.’

‘I can’t say because he wouldn’t send out appointments normally until he receives the scan.’

‘So how long is the gap likely to be then?’

‘We don’t deal with that. You’d have to speak to his secretary.’

She couldn’t put me through so I rang Ophthalmology again and got the robot. I hung up and rang the hospital switchboard and they put me through straightaway. Must remember that next time.

I spoke to the same person as before. She explained that she didn’t really know. She was just the receptionist. His secretary was off till next week. She’d leave a note for her and if I could ring back then she might help.

I hung up and made a note in my diary to ring next week.

Before this all happened, I’d jotted down in the notebook I always carry: ‘It doesn’t matter whether I’m enjoying myself or not, as long as I’m squeezing every drop of meaning out of the lemon of the present moment.’ The phone calls to the hospital where a particularly sour experience, so my note was intriguingly prophetic. I had managed to stay calm, and even found the whole experience slightly amusing with its many examples of ‘I don’t know. That’s not my department. You need to talk to…’

At last I was able to settle down and rehearse the presentation before finally returning to my plan to draft this post.

The whole episode highlighted for me the need not only to slow down and keep calm, but also to sharpen my focus. Not that I will ever be able to write as well as Virginia Woolf, but without that combination of skills I doubt that anyone would ever be able to capture consciousness in words on paper, or even in speech.

A Valid Criterion?

So now we come back to the critical question. Is its skill in conveying consciousness a valid criterion by which to judge a work of art? As I indicated earlier, I’m not arguing it is the only one, nor even necessarily the best. What I have come to realise is that it is a key one for me.

I also need to clarify that capturing consciousness is not the same as conveying a world view or meaning system. So, you might argue that when Alice Neel is painting people that the art world usually ignores, just as I gather Cézanne also did, while the act of painting itself is sending a clear ideological message that these people matter, unless the portrait is more than a realistic rendering of the subject’s appearance we have not been capturing the artist’s consciousness. If any distortions of sensory experience merely serve to strengthen the message, these would be more like propaganda than maps of consciousness. Also the culture in which we are immersed, as well as our upbringing and individual life experiences, influence the meaning systems we adopt, or perhaps more accurately are induced into evolving.

Capturing consciousness is also a tad more demanding than simply conveying a state of mind or feeling, whether that be the artist’s own or their subject’s, something which music can also do perfectly well. That is something I value very much, but it’s not my focus right now.

Taking that into account, what am I expecting?

Woolf gives us a clue in her diaries ((page 259):

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – … (18.11.35):

I have quoted this already in an earlier post of this sequence. I also added the date on which she wrote it to emphasise that it was after the completion of both To the Lighthouse and The Waves, as if she sensed that her approach up to that point had been too inward looking. Her question mark after ‘four’ suggests she was entertaining the possibility of more dimensions.

The diagram maps what Woolf said very crudely. Most of To the Lighthouse and The Waves takes place in the top right hand quadrant. They are brave experiments. In places they work beautifully but are uneven and at times disappointing. She sensed that I suspect.

However, other novels she wrote take more account of the other quadrants except possibly the one on the bottom right, although there are places where she seems almost to be attempting to tune into the inscape of natural objects.

Clearly then it might be appropriate to judge a novel by how well it balances the three main quadrants, ie excepting the bottom right.

There is a catch here though. It all depends upon on what the prevailing culture defines as ‘outer.’ Is this to be confined only to the material realm? Mysticism is present in all cultures to some degree, though its legitimacy has been downgraded in the West. The critically endorsed novel has, with some rare exceptions such as John Cowper Powys and perhaps what is termed ‘magical realism,’ been seen as needing to focus on the world of the senses, the stream of consciousness and social interaction.

Is that enough?

Woolf expresses this whole dilemma with wry humour in To the Lighthouse (page 152):

The mystic, the visionary, walking the beach on a fine night, stirring a puddle, looking at a stone, asking themselves “What am I,” “What is this?” had suddenly an answer vouchsafed them: (they could not say what it was) so that they were warm in the frost and had comfort in the desert. But Mrs McNab continued to drink and gossip as before.

Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, for example? Should mysticism be normalised and not be either excluded or presented as eccentric?

Given that I think expanding our consciousness is the key to enabling us to mend our world I am sceptical of any school of thought that would devalue and marginalise novels that attempt to treat outlying ways of thought and experience as of equal interest and legitimacy. It has already been demonstrated that the novel, in its present form, enhances empathy. It helps connect us in a more understanding way with the experiences of others very different from ourselves. Art in general is one of the most powerful means we have for lifting or debasing consciousness. It reaches more people in the West probably than religion does, especially if we include television, cinema, computer games etc.

I must add a word of warning here. Consciousness can be seen as expanding in all sorts of different ways.

Sometimes, though, I feel that just by pandering to our desire for exciting new experiences we might not be expanding our consciousness at all, but narrowing it rather.

Alex Danchev, in his biography of Cézanne, quotes an intriguing passage from Hyppolyte Taine (page 104):

In open country I would rather meet a sheep than a lion; behind the bars of a cage I would rather see a lion than a sheep. Art is exactly that sort of cage: by removing the terror, it preserves the interest. Hence, safely and painlessly, we may contemplate the glorious passions, the heartbreaks, the titanic struggles, all the sound and fury of human nature elevated by remorseless battles and unrestrained desires. . . . It takes us out of ourselves; we leave the commonplace in which we are mired by the weakness of our faculties and the timidity of their instincts.

I draw back instinctively from the elevation of the titanic, the fury, the remorseless and the unrestrained in human life. Exploring those aspects of our nature unbalanced by other more compassionate and humane considerations is potentially dangerous for reasons I have explored elsewhere. To express it as briefly as I can, it’s probably enough to say that I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. Suzy Klein’s recent brilliant BBC series on Tunes for Tyrants: Music and Power explores what can happen when the arts are harnessed to violent ends in the name of some dictator’s idea of progress.

And where does this leave me?

I am at a point where I have decided that I need to explore consciousness more consistently, perhaps more consistently than I have ever explored anything else in my life. It blends psychology, literature, faith as well as personal experience, and therefore makes use of most of my lifetime interests. This object of interest would give them a coherence they have so far lacked. Instead of flitting between them as though they had little real or deep connection, I could use them all as lenses of different kinds to focus on the one thing that fascinates me most.

I have ended up with the completely revised diagram of my priorities at the head of this post, repeated just to the left above in smaller size. The blurring at the edges represents its unfinished nature. It seems to express an interesting challenge. It shows that I am on a quest, still, to understand consciousness. Does the diagram suggest the idea that consciousness is both the driving force and destination of this quest? It looks as though consciousness is seeking to understand itself, in my case at least: that makes it both the archer and the target. Mmmmm! Not sure where that leads!

What is clear is that my mnemonic of the 3Rs needs expanding. It has to include a fourth R: relating. In the diagram I have spelt out what the key components are of each important R.

Relating

This involves consultation (something I have dwelt on at length elsewhere). It also entails opening up to a sense of the real interconnectedness of all forms of life, not just humanity as a whole. It has to entail some form of action as well, which I have labelled service, by which I mean seeking to take care of others.

Reflecting

How well a group can consult, as I have explained elsewhere, depends upon how well the individuals within it can reflect. My recent delving into Goleman and Davidson’s excellent book The Science of Meditation suggests that there is more than one form of meditation that would help me develop my reflective processes more efficiently (page 264): mindfulness I have tried to practice (see links for some examples), focusing I do everyday, using Alláh-u-Abhá as my mantra, and loving kindness or compassionate meditation is something I need to tackle, as it relates very much to becoming more motivated to act. I have baulked at it so far because it relies, as far as I can tell, upon being able to visualise, something I am not good at.

They also describe another pattern, which I’ve not been aware of before (ibid.): ‘Deconstructive. As with insight practice, these methods use self-observation to pierce the nature of experience. They include “non-dual” approaches that shift into a mode where ordinary cognition no longer dominates.’

Reading & Writing

Readers of this blog, or even just this sequence of posts, will be aware of how I use writing and reading in my quest for understanding so I don’t think I need to bang on about that here.

The Science of Meditation deals with the idea that long-term meditation turns transient states of mind into more permanent traits of character. I have placed altruism in the central space as for me, having read Matthieu Ricard’s book on the subject, altruism is compassion turned to trait: it is a disposition not a passing feeling. I am hopeful that insight may similarly turn to wisdom, but as I am not sure of that as yet, I just called it insight.

I am already aware that the diagram inadequately accounts for such things as the exact relationship between the 4Rs, understanding and effective and useful action. It does not emphasise enough that my desire to understand consciousness better is not purely academic. It is also fuelled by a strong desire to put what I have come to understand to good use.

I am also aware that I failed to register in my discussion as a whole that there are distinctions to be made between capturing consciousness in art and other closely related scenarios, such as describing experience in terms of its remembered emotional impact (conveying a state of mind) or giving an account of what happened through the lens of one’s meaning system (evaluating an event). It is perhaps also possible to attempt to convey only the basic details of what happened with all subjective elements removed (a ‘factual’ account).

I can’t take this exploration any further than this right now but hope to come back to the topic again soon. I also said in an earlier post that I might delve more deeply into the soul, mind, imagination issue. However, this post has gone on long enough, I think, so that will have to wait for another time.

Rita and Hubert 1954 (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

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Despite your illness you have never before done such well-balanced work, without sacrificing any feeling or any of the inner warmth demanded by a work of art, . . . .

Gauguin to van Gogh in 1890, quoted in the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 494

Having inched my way to this point through art to illustrate what I was talking about, Woolf’s depression and possible transliminality, and whether she intended to convey our inscape or not, I can finally come to the crunch question.

Did Woolf succeed in capturing consciousness?

At this stage I can only base a carefully considered answer to that question on a complete reading of To the Lighthouse. I’m only halfway through The Waves.

This is where my own diary entries might come in useful, at least to explain the initial impact of To the Lighthouse.

Within the first 30 pages I was writing ‘there are already intriguing hints about Virginia Woolf‘s experience of consciousness, eg (page 28) ‘to follow her thought was like following your voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil… all of this danced up and down like a company of gnats… in Lilly’s mind.’

When I was halfway through, though I felt it was uneven, there were ‘many places where she achieves the almost impossible. She transitions from inscape to inscape.’ I think I need a fairly long example to illustrate this. Pages 97-98 provide a good one.

We begin in Mrs Ramsay‘s head, pitying Mr William Bankes:

. . . she concluded, addressing herself by bending silently in his direction to William Bankes—poor man! who had no wife, and no children and dined alone in lodgings except for tonight; and in pity for him, life being now strong enough to bear her on again, she began all this business, as a sailor not without weariness sees the wind fill his sail and yet hardly wants to be off again and thinks how, had the ship sunk, he would have whirled round and round and found rest on the floor of the sea.

“Did you find your letters? I told them to put them in the hall for you,” she said to William Bankes.

And suddenly we are in Lilly Briscoe’s mind which has a very different take on things:

Lily Briscoe watched her drifting into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible and yet their going inflicts such a chill on those who watch them that they always try at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon.

How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought, and how remote. Then when she turned to William Bankes, smiling, it was as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again, and Lily thought with some amusement because she was relieved, Why does she pity him? For that was the impression she gave, when she told him that his letters were in the hall. Poor William Bankes, she seemed to be saying, as if her own weariness had been partly pitying people, and the life in her, her resolve to live again, had been stirred by pity. And it was not true, Lily thought; it was one of those misjudgments of hers that seemed to be instinctive and to arise from some need of her own rather than of other people’s. He is not in the least pitiable. He has his work, Lily said to herself.

This leads Lily to recall her own true focus: painting.

She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the tablecloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree.

I found that last moment an astute observation on Woolf’s part.

It seems to me that Woolf picks up skilfully on how one character sees another in a different way from that in which the person sees themselves. Where the truth lies is for the reader to decide.

I was getting completely carried away by this stage and wrote: ‘She is so astonishingly good at creating a convincing simulation of consciousness in To the Lighthouse. It’s as though I can experience some of her characters more clearly and completely then I experience aspects of myself.’

Conveying Consciousness

Reading Woolf was making me realise that having my primary focus on the nature of consciousness and the means to enhance it does not entail my turning my back, as I have over the last few years, on the novel. It simply provides me with the criterion by which to judge whether a novel really interests me. If it sheds no light on consciousness and is only concerned with plot and personality, then it is of no interest to me. Character and consciousness are key for me.

It raised a wider question. Is what I am after in a novel, poem or any written art form, the conveying of a state of mind? My reaction to Woolf suggests it is. At first I had thought that I shifted from studying literature to studying psychology because I was more interested in people in general than I was in the words that describe them. And that was true up to a point. Now I realise that I am not just interested in understanding people in ‘objective’ terms: I am also interested as much, if not more than anything else, in inner experience – something that psychological science and brain imaging cannot directly access, even if they can shed some light on how brain activity relates to inner experience and external action.

This goes beyond simply capturing routine streams of consciousness. I also believe there are aspects of reality that lie along a spectrum beyond our usual sensory settings. These can break through from the brain and its workings below ordinary consciousness, or break through from beyond the brain, from what I term a transcendent reality, whose exact nature tends to be defined in primarily metaphorical terms.

This raises a further question. Should the novel, drama and poetry be concerned with those, and to what extent? It even includes the question ‘Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, a sense of our global interconnectedness at some level beyond the purely material?

How far does Woolf take it?

For now I will examine just how far Woolf goes with this in To the Lighthouse and to a lesser extent in The Waves.

At various points in the novel Woolf offers glimpses into how a character experiences their mind. I think it’s worth sharing some of these to indicate how broad her understanding is of these patterns.

Even the same character at different points has different experiences. Take Lilly, for example. At one time (page 168) ‘… a question like Nancy’s— opened doors in one’s mind that went banging and swinging to and fro and made one keep asking, in a stupefied gape, What does one send? What does one do?’

At another (page 184):

Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.

And shortly after is something about as close as she comes to the mystical most of the time (page 186):

And, resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularise itself at such moments as these, when she released faculties that had been on the strain, stood over her, paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come.

And there is one moment captured that must reflect Woolf’s own struggles as a writer (page 206):

Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind.

James, Mr Ramsay’s son, has another kind of experience (page 195):

He began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain…

And his combing of memory continues (page 214):

Turning back among the many leaves which the past had folded in him, peering into the heart of that forest where light and shade so chequer each other that all shape is distorted, and one blunders, now with the sun in one’s eyes, now with a dark shadow, he sought an image to cool and detach and round off his feeling in a concrete shape.

Whether one of Lilly’s later thoughts is meant to capture a more final view is hard to say (page 224):

It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.

Maybe, maybe not, but there is something heroic about Woolf’s battle with herself and her material.

In any case, the clear balance in To the Lighthouse is tilted heavily in favour of the inner life as against external events, of which latter there are very few.

Even though I have still some way to go with The Waves, I can share one impression that is beginning to take shape in my mind.

This novel seems to be exploring in part at least the nature of the self. Whether there even is a self perhaps: Rhoda clearly doesn’t think so (page 47). ‘Identity failed me. We are nothing,’ she declares. Bernard is at something of an opposite extreme (pages 49-50): ‘I do not believe in separation. We are not single. . . . . we are one.’ He even sees his own self as multiple (page 56): ‘I am not one and simple, but complex and many.’ Neville feels connected but doesn’t like it (page 61): ‘How useful an office one’s friends perform when they recall us. Yet how painful to be recalled, to be mitigated, to have one’s self adulterated, mixed up, become part of another.’

Bernard, of course, sees it differently (page 66): ‘For I am more selves than Neville thinks, We are not simple as our friends would have us to meet their needs. Yet love is simple.’

Louis is more of an outsider but people still bug him (page 69): ‘ People go on passing; they go on passing against the spires of the church and the plates of ham sandwiches. The streamers of my consciousness waver out and are perpetually torn and distressed by their disorder.’ Susan on the other hand can feel more connected with nature (page 73): ‘I think sometimes . . . I am not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground. I am the seasons, I think sometimes, January, May, November; the mud, the mist, the dawn.’ Jinny, which incidentally was Woolf’s pet name, has a different take again. After dancing at a party her fancy takes off (pages 78): ‘I fill my glass again. I drink. The veils drop between us. I am admitted to the warmth and privacy of another soul. We are together on some high Alpine pass . . . There! That is my moment of ecstasy. Now it is over.’

I’m not sure yet where all this is going to lead in The Waves. What I see so far is an exploration of the poles of interconnectedness, an almost mystical concept, and isolation. This is a key aspect of consciousness for me and I am intrigued to see where she will take this theme. What I am still delighted by is her fusion of the poetic with the person, how she lifts language to a level where it almost becomes capable of doing justice to inner experience in a stable and consistent way. She can’t quite sustain it though and not all passages are equally convincing. Even so it is a rare and fine achievement.[1]

Where now?

There is another set of questions that I plan to explore next time: is success in the capturing of consciousness a valid standard by which to evaluate a work of art? Would it even be possible in such a diverse and global village as we live in now for a novelist to bring all shades and styles of consciousness together between the pages of one book? And when they failed how could that be seen as a defect? We are clearly only able to capture a small part of the spectrum. How much would we have to capture to be seen as a success?

I think there are ways of resolving the possibly specious problem raised by those questions.

More of that next time.

Footnote:

[1] I have now almost finished The Waves. Sadly I have to say that I do not find it as satisfying as To the Lighthouse. The forward to the Penguin Modern Classics edition expresses the problem with it clearly (page xxxiii): ‘Of all Woolf’s novels, The Waves is the one which most readily lays itself open to the charge of esoteric remoteness from the ordinary world.’ Even so it is a brave attempt to dramatise (page xi) ‘how identities themselves do not stand, ultimately, clear and distinct, but flow and merge into each other.’ Though her theme of ‘interconnectedness’ (page xii) strongly appeals to me I have to admit she does not satisfactorily achieve her aim in conveying it here for reasons which I hope to address in more detail in the last post of this sequence.

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (the link for source of image no longer works)

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