Posts Tagged ‘FWH Myers’

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly – . . . . I see something . . . . quite different from the masterly reproduction of the materials, something quite different from light and brown, something quite different from the colour – yet that something quite different is achieved by the precise rendering of the light effect, the material, the colour.

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 272)

When we return to Davis’ book, The Transferred Life of George Eliot, the idea of humans as divided beings, and the need for the novel to capture that, soon follow:[1]

 . . . she who was not a character at unity with herself could become a writer who, even so, could do right by both sides.

Given my parliament of selves, I think he should have said ‘all’ sides, unless the comment is restricting itself to the hemisphere spilt discussed in the previous post. Anyway, I get his basic point.

The Ego

The battle to escape from such limitations was tough:[2]

. . . . even the desire to get out of the ego – that point of view from which she must experience everything that affected her – was still expressed within it.

The idea of the ego constraining our understanding just as a lens can limit or distort our vision echoes the limitations analytic verbal understanding imposes upon what we can grasp intuitively in the holistic right hemisphere.

A critical insight for George Eliot involved moving outwards from a sense that pleasing oneself was ‘the central necessity of the universe.’[3] Transitioning to adulthood involved for her a recognition of her ‘own self-centredness’ alongside imagining ‘the equivalent centre within others simultaneously.’  She found in her fiction what[4]  ‘could best depict the achievement of a sudden, unlikely human connection.’ Critical to her being able to transcend her ego in this way ‘was her power of identification’[5], ie with others not just with herself.

She used the term ‘transhumanation’ to capture the way ‘great value in a person or a work or an idea could expand the powers of those who received it beyond what they could normally command.’[6]

Much later in his exploration, Davis makes a point that is relevant to bring in here:[7]

A ‘not-herself’ took dramatic possession of her best writing and she felt her own personality to be no more than an instrument through which this spirit was acting.

This suggests that another factor is at work, possibly one related to the hemispheric issue touched on in the previous post, or perhaps something that goes deeper.


Davis quotes Myers[8]:

The genius among human kind . . . is one who possesses a readier communication between supraliminal and subliminal forces than most ordinary people can achieve.

We’ve been here before with Virginia Woolf. Her diaries confirm what at least two of her novels suggest: that there was a degree of transliminality about her consciousness. Things kept bubbling up from below its threshold. These could occur at any time:[9]

But how entirely I live in my imagination; how completely depend upon spurts of thought, coming as I walk, as I sit; things shining up in my mind and so making a perpetual pageant, which is to be my happiness.

The work itself drew her ever deeper. Concerning the writing of Mrs Dalloway she wrote:[10]

. . . it seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world. . .

One thing, in considering my state of mind now, seems to be beyond dispute; that I have, at last, bored down into my oil well, and can’t scribble fast enough to bring it all to the surface.

Fishing is the metaphor she settled on at one point to describe it:[11]

She talked about the creative process, describing it as one of apparent inertia, of “mooning”, in which the artist as fisherwoman lets herself “down into the depths of her consciousness”, surrendering herself to “the mysterious nosing about, feelings around, darts and dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and elusive fish the imagination.’

What this meant in practice, for George Eliot, was that the novelist becomes like the universal consciousness of Kastrup’s theory. Through the benefits of subliminal inspiration, they come to know more about their own character and can seek to capture what the characters don’t about the inner states of other characters than themselves, and what they often don’t even know about themselves. They can become an omniscient novelist.

As Davis puts it:[12]

‘George Eliot’ may begin as a commenting persona or an anonymous narrator but her existence in the novels was increasingly that of a language-presence which came out of her abstracting from the characters all that they could not say or could not think or could not be, holding that for them when there was no other vehicle or home.

This is not necessarily an arrogant didactic know-it-all position[13]  ‘under her pen . . . the secular realist novel’ did not ‘have in advance a clear final aim – precisely because of its inner search for such a thing, through its character struggles.’

However, with the onset of Modernism this approach was much disparaged. What came to be valued was the capturing of the inner consciousness of the characters with no sense of a know-it-all author nudging us to understand the larger reality.

I’ve explored this ambition at some length on this blog already, so I’ll just summarise the main points here.

The picture Julia Briggs paints in Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life is a helpful starting point. She feels that[14] ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.”’ She feels that:[15]

Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…

This does not do justice to the 19th Century novel. For example, what Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate their novels fairly consistently through the eyes of one of the characters, rather than in their own voice.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922) – containing the much admired example of stream of consciousness writing.

In Mrs Dalloway[16] Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room[17] ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse[18] ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

As a result of this perspective, it became irresistibly tempting for me to assume that this was the benchmark by which to judge a modern novel and possibly dismiss most 19th century versions as deeply flawed, though I was never able to be completely comfortable with this conclusion.

The question I find myself raising now is whether, given that the consciousness of most characters in a novel is narrow and flawed, and even the sum total of all their consciousnesses does not embrace the whole of accessible reality, can any novel confining itself to the inscape of its characters, even if it includes some of their many interactions with the world, convey to us anything remotely approaching the whole truth about the nature of our social, natural and spiritual reality. Would that mean I was grossly underestimating the value of the omniscient narrator?

I will continue to reflect on that question, giving myself time, I hope to revisit more of George Eliot’s novels, and take another look at Virginia Woolf.

It’s only fair to add here at the very end that George Eliot would almost certainly not have appreciated her work as a novelist being even remotely compared to Kastrup’s Universal Consciousness, dissociated alters notwithstanding, as Davis makes clear when he describes her reaction to the work that Myers was doing in the field of parapsychology:[19]

‘Do you understand,’ George Eliot said to him plainly one day, ‘that the triumph of what you believe would mean the worthlessness of all that my life has been spent in teaching?’… Virtue for her had no otherworldly rewards.


[1]. Page 30 (unless otherwise stated all quotations are from The Transferred Life of George Eliot .
[2]. Page 53.
[3]. Page 53.
[4]. Page 56.
[5]. Page 57.
[6]. Page 58.
[7]. Pages 228-29.
[8]. Page 168.
[9]. A Writer’s Diary – page 67.
[10]. A Writer’s Diary – pages 69-74.
[11]. A Writer’s Diary  – page 271.
[12]. Page 271.
[13]. Page 264.
[14]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 77.
[15]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 93.
[16]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 132.
[17]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 133.
[18]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 164.
[19]. Page 265.

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No one truth can contradict another truth. Light is good in whatsoever lamp it is burning! A rose is beautiful in whatsoever garden it may bloom! A star has the same radiance if it shines from the East or from the West. Be free from prejudice, so will you love the Sun of Truth from whatsoever point in the horizon it may arise! You will realize that if the Divine light of truth shone in Jesus Christ it also shone in Moses and in Buddha. The earnest seeker will arrive at this truth.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Paris Talks – page 137)

Tu verdad? No, la Verdad,
y ven conmigo a buscarla.

[Your truth? No, the Truth,
and come with me to seek it.]

(Quoted in Xon de Ros – page 226)

In the previous three posts I’ve traversed a wide range of issues impacting on Machado’s poetry, including politics, life’s complexity, doubt, egotism, spirituality and dreams, to name but a few. Just to repeat, before I plunge right in, there are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Reality, Understanding & Language

I am going to move onto slightly different territory now. Truth is the first main focus. As we have begun to suspect, Machado’s characteristic stance is uncertainty. One Day’s Poem illustrates this as it meanders between humour and philosophy, taking its own sweet time. Just over half-way through we stumble over these lines:

Water from true springs
welling clear,
flowing on;
poetry, sprung from the heart.
Something to build on?
There is no solid ground
in the spirit or the wind.
Only oar and sail
drifting on,
down to the shoreless sea.

Trueblood unpacks what underlies this kind of thought (page 68):

. . . it is hard to conceive of his finding ultimate satisfaction within the limitations of a purely existential outlook. There would have remained the doubt of which he was writing…, not ‘doubt after the manner of philosophers… but poetic doubt, which is human doubt, that of a man solitary and uncertain of his path, among many paths. Among paths which lead nowhere . .’

The problem for Machado is that (Trueblood – page 39), ‘personal truths are not truths at all; one must seek the truth.’ He trusts experience but not necessarily his explanation of it (page 45): ‘One never doubts what one sees, only what one thinks.’

This reminds me of my encounter with William James. At the end of my three part sequence I concluded:

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

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

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

So, exactly how does Machado think we can capture the closest possible representation of experience?

Reality is complex and fluid. That would make capturing it in words difficult enough. What makes it even more difficult is that our perceptions are not stable either. An understanding of this is not unique to Machado. Xon de Ros quotes Machado (page 5): ‘cambian la mar y el monte y el ojo que los mira’ [‘The sea and the mountain and the eye that sees them change.’] Munch expresses  the related idea that mood alters perception (Prideaux – page 81-83): ‘Experience told him that each individual found his own landscape based on his inner feeling. . . One sees things at different moments with different eyes… The way in which one sees also depends on one’s mood . . .’

Poetry, though, could be the best means of overcoming these difficulties (Xon de Ros – page 4):  ‘. . . the notion of immobility in perpetual change that defines living reality can only be communicated by poetic language (Macrí).’ A further confounding element though is the presence of the past (page 5): ‘Machado’s concern had moved from the past as it is filtered into our consciousness, to the past that inhabits and shapes are reality.’

Given that reality is to a certain degree ineffable there are limits to how far it can be captured, even in poetry (page 116):

‘. . . the effort to make sense of the unpresentable by means of metaphorical substitution inevitably leaves (leads?) the subject to appeal to connections already intelligible within [his] specific cultural context.’ Quoted from Kirk Pillow Sublime Understanding 2000 – page 253.

So not just history but current culture comes into play. These challenges, constituting (page 115) a ‘crisis of representation,’ pave the way for the use of one possible remedy, which is expressed by Mautner (page 209): ‘a predilection for ambiguity of language because it reflects the ambiguity of the world.’

This is where aphorisms come into play at times (page 211): ‘ambiguity is a virtue of the modern aphorism . .’ (Mautner page 816): furthermore, as Vickers points out (page 209): ‘the true aphorist has a fragmented kaleidoscopic vision from which this genre is the perfect form.’

This catapults us back into links with Cubism (page 225 re Nuevas Canciónes):

the contraposition of fragments, jumping and cutting from philosophy to the commonplace, seriousness to humour, seems to preclude a sequential reading, suggesting the simultaneity of the Cubist work. . . . Paradox and uncertainty are prominent in the series.

Obscurity again

The question for me becomes, as I discussed in an earlier post of this sequence, whether there is complete capitulation to unintelligible complexity or not. My sense is that Machado generally stays well this side of gibberish. We need this to be so because (page 227) ‘the mind, nevertheless, seeks pattern, continuity, and coherence in the disjunctive.’

We’ve been here before in my sequence on van Gogh:

He wanted to remain rooted in recognisable reality (page 223-24):

‘I find Breitner’s stuff objectionable because the imagination behind it is clumsy and meaningless and has virtually no contact with reality.’

[He has a strong sense] sense that disorder in art relates to disorder in the mind of the artist. Speaking of work he does not like he writes: ‘I look on it as the result of a spell of ill-health.’ He speaks of Breitner’s ‘coffee-house existence’ which creates a ‘growing fog of confusion,’ and of his having been ‘feverish,’ producing things which were ‘impossible and meaningless as in the most preposterous dream.’ Van Gogh felt that:

‘Imperceptibly he has strayed far from a composed and rational view things, and so long as this nervous exhaustion persists he will be unable to produce a single composed, sensible line or brushstroke.’

The ‘subliminal uprush,’ as Myers would term it (see Irreducible Mind), needs conscious organisation to make the best of it.

However, coherence should not be bought at the expense of new insights. Xon de Ros quotes Gifford as saying (page 15) that ‘every real poem starts from a given ground and carries the reader to an unforeseen vantage point, whence he views differently the landscape over which he has passed,’ adding ‘This remark is undoubtedly true of Machado’s best poems.

There was also something else that Frost valued (Matthew Hollis on Edward Thomas page 77), something akin to what Robert Hayden quoted as Auden’s version of it, that poetry is about ‘solving for the unknown,’ as dealt with in an earlier post:

‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ [Frost] said that he never started a poem whose ending he already knew, for to have done so would, he believed, deny a fundamental purpose in poetry: that writing is an act of discovery. ‘I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.’ Other times he phrased the idea slightly differently, but always the same basic premise: surprise leading to discovery. It was a thrilling and courageous approach to poetry . . .

In their introduction to their edition of ‘The Poetry of Táhirih’ John Hatcher and Amrollah Hemmat explore this further, initially referring to Hayden again (page 16):

The poet Robert Hayden was fond of saying that poetry is the art of saying the impossible. . . Another thing Hayden was fond of noting is that often the most popular poetry – if poetry has any sort of popularity of these days – is usually mediocre poetry because it can be easily understood. . . . great poetry, poetry with lasting merit, takes us from our present state of awareness to some place else . . .

I am happy to go with them this far, though I am not so convinced of the general mediocrity of popular poetry for reasons I will come back to in a moment. I find it harder to buy into where their next contention takes us (page 17):

We are urged to possess the cleverness to discern how language employs poetic devices to reach out beyond itself, to point us to some larger idea. . . . [T]he poet . . . is attempting something beyond description. . . . Those who are over the course of time considered to be the ‘good’ poets or the ‘great’ poets, most often happen to be the poets who are not always easy to understand.

And the clinching issue is this (pages 17-18):

The good poet, the demanding poet, thus writes for a small audience, people who think it worth their time to go through the intense and sometimes agonising process of trying to figure out what the artful use of language is trying to tell us.

It smacks for me of intellectual snobbery.

It also reminds me of the debate that sparked around Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry. Was it too simple and naïve to be of any real value, in spite of its popularity.

Dana Greene’s biography contains many instances of this position, for example, concerning her Extending the Territory in 1985 (page 149):

The detractors depressed her. John Lucas, writing in the New Statesman, criticized her ‘vapid’ poems, with their unvaried language and uninteresting subject matter.’

Some admirers of Geoffrey Hill would probably have thought the same as Lucas. Nonetheless it won the Southern Arts Society prize of £1,000.

Michael Schmidt, as her editor for 25 years and publisher of Poetry Nation Review described her as (page 186) ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement,’ and  attributed ‘her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, this was generally written in strict form.’

I think, however, Hatcher and Hemmat do raise a valid point in saying (page 18):

. . . The artist may not always be concerned with what is the most effective way to communicate to others what insight he or she has achieved. Rather the artist is searching for the best sensual referent or concrete expression for what has been a thoroughly personal experience.

But I can’t join them, at least as far as Schoenberg and Beckett are concerned, when they write (ibid):

It takes a bit more energy and training to appreciate the atonality of Sternberg [sic – should be Schoenberg], Eliot’s The Wasteland, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Joyce’s Ulysses.… a good artist does not talk down to the audience, does not ‘dumb down’ the art.

A YouTube comment from P. Teagan on the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 pins down the reason for my reluctance:

‘Schoenberg, to me, and I’m no music professor, but this perfectly sums up the anxiety I feel constantly through life in its various forms and energy levels. Each voice of the various instruments, the different motifs, and the vigor in which they are played embody the many forms and sources of our daily worry and fears. All the subtle things nagging at our subconscious. The constant fear of death, loneliness, and pain. The true chaos of the universe and our existence. The feeling of loss of order. The realization that everything we experience is just a product of a soft computer sitting in our heads. I definitely don’t feel too great after listening to this, but I absolutely have to respect it for its ability to invoke these strange thoughts and confusing emotions.’

This is exactly why I think there should be something more in the mix, in the case of both Schoenberg and Beckett. We have more than a soft computer in our heads. Dissonance, no matter how well it reflects the jarring reality stretching tightly across the surface of our times, is not enough. There needs to be at least a taste of some sort of transcendence.

Their closing remark is unexceptionable speculation (page 19):

The artist may further presume that, having discovered this window on reality, we might somehow be better people for our efforts… the artist may take such delight in the existential act of creating that communication is the furthest thing from the artist’s mind.

My own feeling is that the question is more complex than they acknowledge. Perhaps poets are akin to psychotherapists, whose best pattern of action is to match their communication to where their client is coming from and encourage them to step onto different ground. Successful matching in this way facilitates a meeting of minds that means we are likely to be able to induce others to move from their current constricted position to a healthier place. In the process we learn as well.

Poems that do not match a large enough readership are hardly going to change the world for the better, no matter how brilliant their abstruse and inaccessible message is: by the time the future understands it, if it ever does, their message will either be too late or already understood without its help. Poems that do not challenge their readers to step out of their comfort zone will not do so either.

Striking the right balance is a matter of great skill, something only the greatest poets ever achieve: accessible enough to attract a wide readership and demanding enough to lift the consciousness of its readers to a higher level. I personally feel that Machado rises to this challenge in many of his poems.

Alter Egos

Another complicating factor of particular interest to me is how the task of capturing experience in words is complicated by the problem of how we decide who we are. Don Paterson raises the basic point, when he says (page 55): ‘there are several Antonio Machados.’ Xon de Ros quotes Machado on Proust (page 185): ‘No conviene olvidar nuestro espíritu contiene elementos para la construcción de muchas personalidades.’ [It’s best not to forget that our soul contains elements for the construction of many personalities.’] At the very least this triggers (Page 211): ‘the poet’s inner dialogue in which the addressed ‘other’ does not imply a social relationship with the world, but with the poet’s own self.’

The issue is fundamental to an understanding of Machado, as much so possibly as is the case with Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms, though Machado distinguishes his position from Pessoa’s.  Xon de Ros unpacks its exact importance (page 244):

This conception of the self as an aggregate underlies Machado’s theory of the apocryphal, distinguishing this figure from those founded on an originary, unified consciousness: the double, the heteronym, and the pseudonym. Unlike these, the apocryphals are manifestations of what Machado refers to as the essential heterogeneity of the self. . . ‘No conviene olvidar tampoco que nuestro espíritu contiene elementos para la construcción de muchas personalidades.’

I absolutely accept that this is a not uncommon state of mind. My own sequence on my Parliament of Selves demonstrates that I’m not stranger to this myself. Machado is not wrong in that sense. I resonate strongly to his perspective. However, he is also not seeing it as a fragmentation that needs to be resolved if we are to change ourselves and the world for the better.

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

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

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

Why might this be so important? After all, having a crowd of selves inside sounds quite exciting.

The Bahá’í concept of unity is key.

The unity necessary to discover truth through consultation in the true sense of that word, and then act effectively, depends upon detachment. Bahá’u’lláh writes in the Hidden Words, ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

Not only that. Being detached enough from our lower selves to be at one within ourselves and connected to our true self, the soul in common speech, gives us the best chance of uniting with others, and vice versa of course. That level of unity is what is required if we are going to be able to solve the global problems confronting humanity right now, including the two most challenging – global heating and gross inequality.


There is so much more I could explore but this last post has already gone for longer than I planned. So, I will deal with an important aspect of his approach to poetry very briefly. Nature mattered greatly to him. Xon de Ros interprets this in a way whose relevance is greater than ever (Page 6):

Machado’s attention to the particular detail – the turn of the river, the quality of its water, the trees along the banks, and the differences between actual rivers – suggests an ecopoetic concern, in which the poet’s relation to nature is re-imagined in such a way as to encourage environmental awareness and responsibility.

Moreover (page 247) ‘[his poems] more often . . .  display a relationship with nature in which the human is not dominant but an integral part of the natural world.’ This view is supported by Gerald Brenan (page 430):

It is . . . a poetry that thinks, and by its thought endeavours to reach down to some inner, deeply hidden core. . . in Machado this language of the soul is expressed through the mediation of natural objects. All through [Soledades] we find certain things in nature appearing and reappearing – rocks, poplars, ilex trees, streams, water. Above all, water. Whether in the form of rivers, rocks, springs, tarns or fountains, his verse plays with it and draws from it a symbolical nourishment.

He concludes (page 435): ‘This was his message – “Awake!“ The eye must be taught to see, not merely to look: the brain to think and the soul to contemplate the eternal, if uncertain, things.

I can’t think of a better place to stop than that.

As usual I am adding at the end a poem that I find particularly resonant. The first version is the original Spanish, the second Trueblood’s translation and finally my recent attempt to render what it means to me in a poem of my own.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una fontana fluía
dentro de mi corazón.
Dí: ¿por qué acequia escondida,
agua, vienes hasta mí,
manantial de nueva vida
en donde nunca bebí?

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una colmena tenía
dentro de mi corazón;
y las doradas abejas
iban fabricando en él,
con las amarguras viejas,
blanca cera y dulce miel.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que un ardiente sol lucía
dentro de mi corazón.
Era ardiente porque daba
calores de rojo hogar,
y era sol porque alumbraba
y porque hacía llorar.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que era Dios lo que tenía
dentro de mi corazón.


Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a fountain flowing
deep down in my heart.
Water, by what hidden channels
have you come, tell me, to me,
welling up with new life
I never tasted before?

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
Within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hot sun shining
deep down in my heart.
The heat was in the scorching
as from a fiery hearth;
the sun in the light it shed
and that tears it brought to the eyes.

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.


The Closest We Can Reach (after Machado)

Last night my dreams were blessed. A vision
came to me. Deep in my heart a spring
of fresh water gushed from some hidden

source. Though I asked the water flowing
past, how its revitalising powers
were formed, it could not say. I am growing.

Tonight my dreams are blessed. From flowers
within my mind, crowds of bees return
to their hive, changing the bitterness

of past loss to soft wax and golden
honey for my cells, lifting my heart
up to a different, higher plane.

Will tomorrow’s dreams, to heal my heart,
again be blessed, with radiant sunlight
this time, hotter than the warmest hearth?

If that should happen, there’ll be no doubt,
in my mind at least – my heart does hold
within it, at its deepest point, what
feels the closest we can reach to God.

‘The Sun’ by Edvard Munch (for the source of the picture see link)

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Glass table with book & VG

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the last of five posts which were spread over five weeks.

Art and Illness

I have blogged at length elsewhere in these pages about the possible links between art and mental health so I relished the opportunity, at the end of this sequence of posts, to see if what van Gogh wrote from his own experience sheds any further light on the matter, over and above what I have touched on in the earlier ones.

I think I need to take this in three steps.

First I need to look at what the letters say about the actual experiences. From there I can move to looking at any conclusions he and his brother may have drawn about the nature of van Gogh’s problem and the relation it has to his art. Lastly, I will add some further information tentatively into the mix to try and make my own sense of the matter. To do so I will draw, amongst other things, on a very interesting account of the possible epilepsy of van Gogh’s American near contemporary Emily Dickinson.

  1. His Experience

It is in the later letters, after his rift with Gauguin, that we get the clearest account of what the breakdowns feel like from the inside. The first thing he mentions (page 444) when speaking ‘of my own condition – I am so grateful for yet another thing. I’ve noticed that others, too, hear sounds and strange voices during their attacks, as I did, and that things seem to change before their very eyes.’ The reason he has been given for these hallucinations follows shortly after (page 445): his problem was in both sight and hearing at the same time ‘which is usual at the outset of epilepsy.’

In Arles, after an attack in July 1889, he describes what happened (page 449): ‘I apparently pick up dirt from the ground and eat it.’ De Leeuw expands on this: ‘A swollen throat made taking food difficult. Because he had also put paint in his mouth and had drunk turpentine, he was ordered not to do any painting until further notice…’ There were mentions of the parallels with Dostoyevsky. Referring to Delacroix (page 452), he wonders whether he will be the same ‘in the sense that my sad illness makes me work in pent-up fury – very slowly – but without leaving off from morning till night – and – that is probably the secret – to work long and slowly.’ Interestingly, he dates the beginning of his problems to Paris (page 454) ‘when all this was coming on.’

He worries (page 459) whether ‘a more violent attack could destroy my ability to paint for good.’ Grimly he next observes ‘I am trying to recover, like someone who has meant to commit suicide, but then makes for the bank because he finds the water too cold.’ He refers also (page 460) to the attacks taking ‘a religious turn.’ In late 1889 he had another violent attack in which (page 475) ‘he had again tried to poison himself by swallowing paint,’ as a result his doctor ‘decided once more that until further notice he must confine himself to drawing.’

Dr Gachet

Dr Gachet

On his move to Auvers-sur-Oise, he made a sardonic observation about Dr Gachet, the homeopath and psychiatrist who will play such a key role in his last few months of life (page 489):

Gachet, however, was not only an eccentric but seemed to be at least as neurotic as the afflicted artist, which caused van Gogh to observe, “Now when one blind man leads another blind man, don’t they both end up in the ditch?”

During this most vexed period, the art he produced was receiving high praise and greater recognition, including from Gauguin who wrote (page 494):

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, . . . .

His brother’s sudden problems, mainly about his work, money issues and his child’s health, came as a stressful shock to van Gogh, not least because his brother was turning to him for advice and perhaps even eventual financial support, not things that Vincent felt well-equipped to provide.

  1. His Perspective

He is very explicit that art at least in part depends upon a high degree of control, something not associated in his mind with neurosis or mental disturbance (page 206):

What is drawing? How does one come to it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How is one to get through that wall – since pounding at it is of no use? In my opinion one has to undermine that wall, filing through it steadily and patiently. . . . . As it is with art so it is with other things. And great things are not something accidental, they must be distinctly willed.

He is of the same view as Myers was, that inspiration needs to be controlled if it is to be effective (page 209):

He . . . mentioned the fact that as soon as the landscape painter and Martinus Boks was admitted to a lunatic asylum, his colleagues’ appreciation of his work began to increase. Van Gogh observed this phenomenon with not a little irony. That his own work would be linked to his mental illness by later generations renders these comments particularly poignant. In general, however, his reactions to his colleagues’ afflictions were very down-to-earth. Thus he had nothing positive to say about the effects of [another artist’s] condition on his work.

A related point comes when, in powerful terms, he compares his own situation to his brother’s (page 380-81):

Consider . . . . the new painters still isolated, poor, treated as madmen, and because of this treatment actually going insane, at least as far as their social life is concerned – then remember that you are doing exactly the same job as these primitive painters, since you provide them with money and sell their canvases, which enables them to produce others.

If a painter ruins himself emotionally by working hard at his painting, and renders himself unfit for so much else, family life, &c., &c., if, consequently, he paints not only with colour but with self-sacrifice and self-denial and a broken heart, then your own work is not only no better paid, but costs you, in exactly the same way as a painter, this half-deliberate, half-accidental eclipse of your personality.

In his period of incarceration there is a revealing exchange of letters between the brothers (page 447): Theo praises van Gogh for the intensity of the colour in his recent pictures and for having conveyed ‘the quintessence of your thoughts about nature and living beings,’ while expressing anxiety about how much ‘that brain of yours must have laboured, and how you have risked everything in venturing to the very brink, where vertigo is inevitable.’

Vincent does seem to feel at one point, after the break with Gauguin, that (page 428) ‘I must start afresh, but I shall never again be able to reach the heights to which the illness to some extent led me.’ The caveat – ‘to some extent’ – is probably significant.

Overall he does not see a close positive relationship between art and mental breakdown. He does see some kind of relationship though. This is not conforming to the conventional 19th Century myth of believing that being mad is an essential prerequisite of genius, but rather in terms of how the pressures society places on the artist can precipitate a breakdown. When you take into account his acknowledgement, in another letter already quoted, that their shared heredity may be making a contribution to their instability he is not undermining this main point. Van Gogh had speculated (page 349) whether his ‘neurosis’ had a dual origin, first and foremost his ‘rather too artistic way of life’ but also possibly in part his ‘inescapable heritage,’ which he shared with his brother.

  1. My Perspective
FWH Myers

FWH Myers

The ideas that the Kellys explore in depth in their comprehensive survey Irreducible Mind is of great relevance here. I will shortly be republishing them. For present purposes I’ll simply use one quotation from that sequence. Myers had little patience with those in the 19th Century who conflated genius and madness and subscribed to a ‘degeneracy’ theory. However, he did manage to sift some flecks of truth from its silt (page 471):

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

On the issue of epilepsy, which is the diagnosis favoured by the authors of Van Gogh: The Life though not by Wilfred Niels Arnold who backs the porphyria hypothesis (see below), I was reminded of the possibility, explored by Lyndall Gordon in her book Lives Like Loaded Guns, that Emily Dickinson might well have suffered from epilepsy. Regardless of whether this theory should prove true, her treatment of the problem in a 19th Century context gives us a sense of what van Gogh might have also experienced within himself, during his treatment and from his friends and family.

Gordon quotes from Dickinson, suggesting she was covertly conveying what the experience of a fit was like – covertly because of the social stigma attached to the illness (page 116):

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam –
But could not make them fit –

After the fit, Gordon explains (page 118), the brain sinks into a ‘Fog’ – something that Dickinson describes as ‘the Hour of Lead.’

The reaction of society was harsh, fuelled by the strong stigma which Gordon feels is the explanation for Dickinson’s lifelong seclusion, imposed on by her family for her protection and willingly accepted by Emily as it fostered her creativity (page 119):

In the 19th century, epileptics were sometimes incarcerated in asylums, and the more advanced asylums segregated them: too disturbing for the mentally ill.… Families therefore colluded to keep the conditions a lifelong secret.

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

Even Dickinson’s need for medication was kept secret. The reason has never been clear. Gordon feels that (page 122) ‘[t]he undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time with “hysteria,” masturbation, syphilis and impairment of the intellect leading to “epileptic insanity.”’

Gordon plays with interesting possible associations between Dickinson’s epilepsy and her creativity. She quotes Dickinson as saying (page 124):

‘I like a look of Agony,’ she said, because Agony opened up what lies beyond the limits of language: visionary states of mind she would not otherwise have comprehended and which became prime material for the poems. We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the ‘Torrid Noons’ of her early thirties had lain their Missiles by –,’ though the Thunder that once brought ‘the bolt’ did rumble still.

I am not really competent at this point, not having explored in any detail the nature of epileptic experience, to conclude either that Gordon is correct about Dickinson’s epilepsy, let alone whether such a perspective could lend any support to the idea that something about Vincent’s experience of epilepsy enriched his art. I am also aware that he undoubtedly experienced depression and intense anxiety at times, and that various other factors have been adduced to explain this combination of difficulties. Amongst these are: porphyria [1], which has been strongly argued for but not widely accepted; bipolar disorder, which many feel explains ‘Van Gogh’s extreme enthusiasm and dedication to first religion and then art’ as well as his subsequent exhaustion and depression; absinthe, whose toxic component, thujone, is claimed to have worked against Van Gogh, aggravating his epilepsy, suspected porphyria or possible manic depression, as well as, in high doses causing him to see objects in yellow; and lead poisoning, one of whose symptoms is swelling of the retinas, which can cause one to see light in circles like halos around objects, as in paintings like The Starry Night [2]. Blumer summarised what seems to be the general consensus when he wrote in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2002 [3]:

Henri Gastaut, in a study of the artist’s life and medical history published in 1956, identified van Gogh’s major illness during the last two years of his life as temporal lobe epilepsy precipitated by the use of absinthe in the presence of an early limbic lesion. In essence, Gastaut confirmed the diagnosis originally made by the French physicians who had treated van Gogh. However, van Gogh had earlier suffered two distinct episodes of reactive depression, and there are clearly bipolar aspects to his history.

The best I can say, as a diagnostic sceptic who distrusts simplistic one-dimensional explanations of phenomena as multi-faceted as a human being, is that when I stood in front of Cypresses and Two Women, I felt it might be recording some kind of altered state of consciousness, or possibly a strong perceptual distortion of uncertain cause. I am aware that van Gogh cultivated the expression of intensity in his art, not just in terms of ‘an intensity of colour . . . not achieved before’ as Theo pointed out (page 447) but also involving what his brother termed ‘a frenzy’ which made them seem ‘a little further removed from nature.’ Whether this was a quality of perception borrowed from his memory of his ‘attacks,’ perceptual distortions caused by toxins, or whether it was simply part of his search for that (page 448) ‘momentary revelation of superhuman infinitude,’ which he found both in Rembrandt and in Shakespeare, is impossible for me to determine at this point. Whatever the influences upon them, partly material and possibly also sublime, these paintings are works of inspired creativity, which will inevitably have a powerful impact on any careful observer.

A particularly telling perspective, which suggests that something rather uncanny was going which can’t reduce his depiction of a starry night simply to lead poisoning, is explained in the TED talk at the bottom of this post. A friend kindly alerted me to this after I had started posting about van Gogh.


Which brings us on to the matter of spirituality, which is never far away where van Gogh is concerned. How does his spirituality relate to his art?

First and foremost, it must be remembered that he shifted in vocation from preacher to painter.

He later, in 1881, expressed regret for his earlier intense sense of mission (page 123):

If there is anything I regret then it is that period when I allowed mystical and theological profundities to mislead me into withdrawing too much into myself. I have gradually come to change my mind.

Later he looks back and describes that period as (page 216) ‘a few years which I can scarcely comprehend myself, when I was confused by religious ideas, by some kind of mysticism.’

His shift is initially related to his emotional attachment, at this point, to his cousin, Kee Vos. In the 1881 letter he explains to Theo (page 124):

It is my belief that the Jesuitisms of clergyman and devout ladies often make a greater impression on her then on me, Jesuitisms which, precisely because I have acquired some dessous de cartes [inside information], no longer have any hold on me now. But she is devoted to them and would be unable to bear it if the system of resignation and sin and God and I know not one else, proved to be vain.

Later still, in the light of his relationship in 1882 with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, he is even more emphatic (page 279):

Oh, I am no friend of present-day Christianity, though its founder was sublime – I have seen through present-day Christianity only too well. That icy coldness mesmerised even me in my youth – but I have taken my revenge since then . . . . by worshipping the love which they, the theologians, call sin, by respecting a whore, etc.

He still retained a belief in some form of transcendence though (page 124-25):

You see, for me that God of the clergy is as dead as a door nail. But does that make me an atheist?… [I]f we are alive there is something wondrous about it. Now call that God or human nature or whatever you like, but there is a certain something I cannot define systematically, although it is very much alive and real, and you see, for me that something is God or as good as God.

Whatever he did believe seems to have some implications for an afterlife (page 153):

The world of takes no account at all of what happens beyond the grave. That is why the world goes no further than its feet will take it.

Tolstoy (for source of image see link)

Tolstoy (for source of image see link)

There is a key letter on religion written in September 1888. This is particularly intriguing for me as a Bahá’í because of the terms in which he describes what he believes, and because he is linking that to his reading of Tolstoy at the time, though it was of course much later that Tolstoy was interested enough to find out more about the Bábí and Bahá’í Faiths [4] (pages 406-09):

. . . it appears that Tolstoy is enormously interested in the religion of his people.… I believe there is a book on religion by Tolstoy… In it he goes in search, or so I gather from the article, of what remains eternally true in the Christian religion and what all religions have in common.

He admits to not having read the book yet himself but adds (ibid.):

I don’t imagine that his religion is a cruel one which increases our suffering, but must be, on the contrary, a very comforting one, inspiring one with peace of mind and energy, and the courage to live…

He goes onto write:

Tolstoy implies that whatever happens in a violent revolution, there will also be an inner revolution in the people, after which a new religion will be born, or rather, something completely new which will be nameless, but which will have the same effect of consoling, of making life possible, as the Christian religion used to.

This all relates to his idea of what art should be about (page 362):

I am still enchanted by snatches of the past, have a hankering after the eternal, of which the sower and the sheaf of corn are the symbols. But when shall I ever get around to doing the starry sky, that picture which is always in my mind?

Rembrandt was often his inspiration and model (page 377-78):

Anything complete and perfect renders infinity tangible . . . . . This is how Rembrandt painted angels. He does a self-portrait, old, toothless, wrinkled, wearing a cotton cap, a picture from life, in a mirror. . . . . . So Rembrandt paints a supernatural angel with a da Vinci smile behind that old man who resembles himself.


In the end his calling as a painter, with all its hardships and its blessings, both hurt and healed him and left him doubtful about or feeling severed from God (page 394):

Ah, my dear brother, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can well do without God in both my life and also my painting, but, suffering as I am, I cannot do without something greater than myself, something which is my life – the power to create.

Patrick Brontë around 1860 (for source of image see link)

Patrick Brontë around 1860 (for source of image see link)

At the end of this prolonged encounter with Vincent van Gogh I was reminded of another family who had been similarly torn to pieces by a sequence of tragedies: the Brontës.

Six months after Vincent died, Theo was dead. Lies, his sister, had borne a child in secret, which she abandoned to a peasant family. His brother, Cor, shot himself in 1900, during a bout of fever in the Transvaal. Two years later, his sister Wil was committed to an asylum where she died forty years later. His mother saw most of this unfold until her death in 1907 (details from Van Gogh: The Life – page 867). Patrick Brontë, parish priest, had seen, by the age of 78, his wife, his son and all his five daughters die tragically young: three of those daughters are now famous novelists.

What is exceptional of course about these families is the genius of at least one member. Their tragedies, sadly, were more or less the norm for those days. That death was common meant that the need to decide what to do with your short life was vividly present. Only a favoured few had much choice in the matter.

In our prosperous Western civilisation, we all in the end have to make a decision about what our lives are for, and where the power to accomplish that comes from, and fortunately many more of us now than then have the power to enact that choice.

That’s why van Gogh’s life resonates so strongly still, both through his paintings and his letters. His struggle is our struggle, his defeats and triumphs ours as well. His inspiration, in spite of all his flaws and weaknesses, can hopefully raise us all to follow our calling and enhance our world in whatever way we can.

I hope this sequence of posts has done some kind of justice to the genius and compassion of this flawed but brilliant man and that I really was right not to confine the intensity of my thoughts to my diary, but rather tap away on my internet machine in the sunlight in celebration of his supremely creative life.

The Unexpected Maths behind van Gogh’s Starry Night


[1] A brief account of this view can be found in an article by Natalie Angier, published in the 12 December 1991 edition of the NY Times. There is also a detailed article by Wilfred Niels Arnold in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 2004, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 22–43 which can be downloaded in full from the website.

[2] This information is drawn from the Van Gogh gallery website.

[3] The link accesses the abstract only.

[4] See the link for more detail in the article from which the following quote is taken. ‘Tolstoi had encountered the Bábí movement as early as 1894 and maintained sporadic contact with Bahá’ís from 1901 until his death in 1910. Ghadirian has recounted Tolstoi’s vision of ideal religion, and his encounters with Bahá’ís, beginning with Isabel Grinevskaya and later ‘Aziz’ulláh Jazzah Khorasani, who was apparently despatched from `Akká by `Abdu’l-Bahá to speak to Tolstoi during a period of house arrest that followed his excommunication from the Orthodox church. Collins and Jasion, having recently reviewed 80 published sources on Tolstoi and the Bábí and Bahá’í religions, have cautioned that the novelist’s attitude to both religions was ambivalent, moving between the sympathies he expressed to Isabel Grinevskaya, and even to “Caucasian Mohammedans”, and others more negative. They suggest it is more appropriate to view the positive statements Tolstoi made on the Bahá’í Faith as testimony to some moments of perspicacity about the future of a religion which was at that time only beginning to make inroads in the West and undeveloped countries. `Abdu’l-Bahá notes that Tolstoi was a well-wisher of humanity but that he was still caught up in politics and opinion.’

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Glass table with book & VG

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the first of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next five weeks.

Getting a Feel for van Gogh

I am sitting in the sunlight at the dimpled glass garden table as I type. Its dappling effect seems to be clumsily mimicking the style of the man I am reflecting on right now. The white screen and shining metal of the laptop seem at odds with him and all he represented, all he most passionately believed in, and yet pounding on its keys is the closest I can get to an adequate response. Scribbling in my private diary didn’t seem enough.

IMG_2110I am almost twice the age at which he died, and have only fairly recently been conscious of my own death as something relatively close. As I sat on the flight to Amsterdam, I continued to read as much as I could of the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I was quite glad of the plane’s computer malfunction before take off as it gave me another 45 minutes’ reading time.

In August 1883 he wrote to his younger brother, Theo (page 228):

For no particular reason, I cannot help adding a thought that occurs to me. Not only did I start drawing relatively late in life, but it may well be that I shall not be able to count on many more years of life either.

Given the shorter life spans of the 19th Century it is perhaps not surprising that a man who had just turned 30 should already be thinking about his death. Given what we know now, what he goes on to say is perhaps more uniquely poignant (page 228-29):

So, as to the time I still have ahead of me for work, I think I may safely presume that my body will hold up for a certain number of years quand bien même [in spite of everything] – a certain number between 6 and 10, say. (I can assume this the more safely as there is for the time being no immediate quand bien même.)

He is setting the context of his painting within these sobering constraints, which proved all too close to the mark. In just under seven short years’ time he was dead of a gun shot wound. (We’ll be coming back to that event later.) Theo died six months later, aged 33.

At the time of writing the letter, he feels that (ibid.) ‘within a few years I must have done a certain amount of work – I don’t need to rush, for there is no point in that but I must carry on working in complete calm and serenity, as regularly and with as much concentration as possible, as much to the point as possible.’

The intensity with which he feels what he writes is indicated by the underlining, which is his. He explains why this is so important to him: ‘The world concerns me only in as far as I owe it a certain debt and duty, so to speak, because I have walked this earth for 30 years, and out of gratitude would like to leave some memento in the form of drawings and paintings – not made to please this school or that, but to express a genuine human feeling.’

I was reading these words to get a feeling for the man even before I stood in front of his paintings in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. And yet that is precisely what he seems to have wanted people to get from his paintings. He never meant to have his letters published. These were for the eyes of his brother, not the world.

The Myth, the Man and the Artist

My eventual experience in the museum, after queuing for two hours outside in an icy wind, illustrated allIMG_2113 too well how the myth gets in the way of the both the man and his art.

In the final room of the exhibition we caught up with a tour guide. She asked her group loudly, in front of his painting of the cornfield and the crows, ‘’How did van Gogh die?’

The predictable answer came back: ‘He shot himself.’

This same response I’d seen on the screen as we waited in the queue to come in. The same question – ‘How did van Gogh die? – flashed up with three answers to choose from (the wording may be slightly off as I didn’t write it down at the time):

  1. consumption;
  2. heart attack; or
  3. he shot himself in a cornfield.

After a few seconds the third answer darkened to indicate it was the correct one.

‘That’s right,’ the tour guide confidently responded: ‘He shot himself.’

‘No, he didn’t,’ my mind screamed back. ‘He was accidentally shot by a local lad.’ I’m not sure whether it was cowardice or consideration for her obviously pregnant and already stressed state that caused me to swallow my words.

‘This,’ she went on,’ pointing to the cornfield painting, ‘was his last picture.’

‘No, it wasn’t,’ shouted my head. ‘The last painting was of the tree roots.’ The passionate pedant in me was seething by this stage.

‘Why was he so poor, d’you think?’ she asked her enraptured audience.

Dissatisfied with the answers on offer she provided her solution. ‘He was the first artist ever to work outside the box, be completely original.’ The pedant in my head was reduced to the unprintable by this stage, though words such as Turner and Rembrandt amongst many others can be safely reproduced here. If the mould-breaking Impressionists had not made such an impression on him we’d have none of the late van Goghs.

As I moved away in mental melt down, hoping that no one would notice the steam coming out of my ears, I heard her say, ‘He only sold one painting in his entire life,’ and ‘No, he didn’t,’ exploded inside my brain.

VG book stackAs we explored the gift shop downstairs I saw on sale the very same book in which Naifeh and White Smith explain in detail their carefully researched evidence that calls into question the suicide myth (more detail in the next post). Doesn’t the museum read the books it sells?

My mind was also ringing with memories of a statement in the Letters, which I’d read in bed the previous evening indicating that he did make a few sales in his lifetime (page 168):

Van Gogh, about whom the myth persists that he sold just one work in his lifetime, received 20 guilders from his uncle C. M. in Prisenhage for a batch of drawings.

I had to admit though, when I had calmed down, that selling drawings to your uncle isn’t exactly making a breakthrough into the art market, no matter what de Leeuw, the editor of the letters, seems to think it is.

The simple blacks and whites of the myth are far more profitable of course than the muddled and muddied colours of his reality.

However, as I read my way through the account in his letters of his years of struggle with his art, I came to understand far more clearly what he felt he was about as an artist, and I believe that gave me a greater ability to experience the paintings as he meant me to than I would otherwise have had. It also kept the simplistic myths firmly at bay.

Inside his Mind

Let me unpack that a bit.

At one level my grasp of his intentions is pretty superficial. I was delighted to read (pages 311-12):

Van Gogh decided to concentrate on portraits . . . . In this field, he resolved to surpass photography, which, he felt, remained lifeless at all times, while ‘painted portraits have a life of their own, which springs straight from the painter’s soul and which no machine can approach.’

I got a buzz out of seeing van Gogh use the same image as I have borrowed ever since from my reading of McGilchrist to convey basically the same idea: when we submit simply to left-brain machine mode without reference to the holistic and organic richness of the right-brain process we have sold our souls.

Van Gogh is also indicating that he is close to Myers’s territory as explored by the Kellys in Irreducible Mind. There is a transcendent dimension to consciousness, which we must take care not to betray. Rather we should use conscious control to help us access it. He refers to this kind of approach in various places (page 272):

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

His shift from religion to art as a vocation is perhaps partly explained by the strained relationships he had with his parents and their generation This split was forming even before his unwelcome passion for his cousin, which alienated his uncle, and his even more testing liaison in 1882 with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, which torpedoed his links with his father, at least for the time being. In about 1879 his father had threatened to have him incarcerated in a mental institution in Gheel, and it was probably at this time that van Gogh changed from practising preacher to aspiring painter. He was seeking to break free of his cage (page 74):

I am caged, I am caged, and you say I need nothing, you idiots! I have everything I need, indeed! Oh, please give me the freedom to be a bird like other birds.

His final religious disconnect was clearly with the church rather than with spirituality, and art for him would always seem to be a spiritual practice. Dogmatism, simplification and hypocrisy remained anathema to him.

This did not mean that his paintings would be abstract and ethereal. He wanted to remain rooted in recognisable reality (page 223-24):

I find Breitner’s stuff objectionable because the imagination behind it is clumsy and meaningless and has virtually no contact with reality.

What maps his thinking even more closely onto the Myers perspective is his sense that disorder in art relates to disorder in the mind of the artist. Speaking of work he does not like he writes: ‘I look on it as the result of a spell of ill-health.’ He speaks of Breitner’s ‘coffee-house existence’ which creates a ‘growing fog of confusion,’ and of his having been ‘feverish,’ producing things which were ‘impossible and meaningless as in the most preposterous dream.’ Van Gogh felt that:

Imperceptibly he has strayed far from a composed and rational view things, and so long as this nervous exhaustion persists he will be unable to produce a single composed, sensible line or brushstroke.

The ‘subliminal uprush,’ as Myers would term it, needs conscious organisation to make the best of it.

Van Gogh also speculated (page 349) whether his ‘neurosis’ had a dual origin, first and foremost his ‘rather too artistic way of life’ but also possibly in part his ‘inescapable heritage,’ which he shared with his brother.

He did though see a value in suffering (page 285):

I can tell you that this year is bound to be very grim. But I keep thinking of what Millet said, ‘Je ne veux point supprimer la souffrance, car souvent c’est elle, qui fait s’exprimer le plus énergiquement les artistes.’ [‘I would never do away with suffering, for it is often what makes artists express themselves most forcefully.’

He also felt burdened at times by his work as an artist (page 355):

One knows one is a cab horse, and that one is going to be hitched up to the same old cab again – and that one would rather not, and would prefer to live in a meadow, with sunshine, a river, other horses for company free as oneself, and the act of procreation.

He trusted at the same time that the sacrifices would be worth it (ibid.):

There is an art of the future, and it will be so lovely and so young that even if we do give up our youth for it, we can only gain in serenity by it.

Thursday’s post will begin to examine in more detail both what van Gogh thought painting should be about, and also the issue of whether he died by his own hand or someone else’s.


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. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.

(Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmospage 85)

Now I come to the question of transcendence.

Transcending the crocodile does not depend upon accepting the existence of a soul, though that’s where this post will be going in the end.

Even if we only consider the brain and see the sense of self as its product, with no ‘true’ or ‘real’ self beyond that, we have ground to stand on which will enable us to shake off the shackles of the crocodile and avoid the swamp it lives in.

I’ve recently been reading Julian Baggini’s book How the World Thinks. His discussion of the No-Self issue addresses this point succinctly and may help me avoid rehashing arguments used elsewhere on this blog. He explores the Buddhist concept of anattā, which denies the reality of the ātman or self (page 178):

There is no ātman that has physical form, sensations, thoughts, perceptions of consciousness. Rather, what we think of as the individual person is merely an assemblage of these things.

He adds an important qualification (page 179):

If anattā seems more radical a view than it is, that is in large part because its usual translation is ‘no-self.’ But all it really means is no ātman: no eternal, immaterial, indivisible self. This is very different from denying there is any kind of self at all.

That Buddhism then encourages the effortful practice of meditative techniques to free us from the prison of this illusion of self clearly indicates that the no-self doctrine is not incompatible with the idea that we can escape the crocodile inside.

So, whether or not we have an immortal soul or self that is not a by-product of the brain, we can use techniques such as reflection or disidentification to rise above the tangle of thoughts, feelings, plans and perspectives with which we weave our convincing patterns on the loom of consciousness.

If I am relying on reason alone there is no way I can prove that the mind is independent of the brain anymore than someone else can prove conclusively it isn’t. Agnosticism is the only position available to reason alone. Many people are content to leave it at that. They may even happily look at the evidence marshaled for soul or no soul and keep their options open. I did that myself for a number of years.

Some of us though prefer in the end to make a choice. We’d rather decide there is or is not a soul, a God and/or an after-life. Either way that’s an act of faith.

I decided, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, to believe we have a soul. I now feel this is the simplest explanation for all the data marshalled by psychologist David Fontana in his rigorous exploration of the evidence, Is There an Afterlife? For those interested in exploring further a more accessible book is Surviving Death by journalist Leslie Kean. Powerful individual testimony also comes from Eben Alexander in his account of his own experience as a sceptical neurosurgeon, Proof of Heaven.

If you prefer not to believe in a soul, the vast body of hard evidence still demands some kind of credible explanation, because trying to write it all off as flawed or fake won’t work. The evidence is in many cases more rigourous than that ‘proving’ the efficacy of the tablets we take when we have a problem with our health.

Anyway, I have come to think it’s easier to accept that our consciousness is not just an emergent property of our brain. If you’d like to stick with it we’ll see where it takes us on this issue.

Mind-Brain Independence

A quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter in Irreducible Mind on Frederick Myers’s approach (page 76) seems a good place to start from, because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (Kelly – page 73):

. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.

This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

Where does this take us?

Given the mirror used to illustrate the power of reflection, a reasonable description of the effects of sticking with the ego and its crocodile can be found in these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Promulgation of Universal Peace– page 244):

What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

To find a close correspondence to the idea of disdentification in the words of an 18thCentury thinker felt like a further confirmation of its validity. Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quotes Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

This contradicts my quasi-namesake David Hume’s perception of the situation as quoted by Braggini (pages 185-86):

What you observe are particular thoughts, perceptions and sensations. ‘I never catch myself, distinct from such perception,’ wrote Hume, assuming he was not peculiar.

I noted in the margin at this point, ‘’That’s not my experience.’

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supernormal experiences is strong enough to warrant serious consideration (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91):

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.

He is arguing that the science of psychology needs to investigate these phenomena. I am not suggesting that, as individuals, we need to have had any such experiences if we are to make use of this model of the mind successfully. I personally have not had any. However, my belief that there is a higher self strongly motivates me to work at transcending the influence of my ego and its crocodile, and I suspect that subliminal promptings towards constructive action in complex and difficult circumstances often come from that direction.

This brings us into the territory explored by Roberto Assagioli in the psychotherapeutic approach called Psychosynthesis, with its use of concepts such as the Higher Self, for which I am using the term True Self.

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

A crucial component in implementing the Psychosynthesis model, in addition to finding it credible, is will power.

Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, contends that we are being raised by a higher force ‘into order, harmony and beauty,’ and this force is ‘uniting all beings . . . . with each other through links of love’ (Psychosynthesis: page 31). He explores what we might do to assist that process, and what he says resonates with Schwartz’s idea that persistent willed action changes brain structure. He writes (The Act of Will: page 57):

Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously.

And he is not just talking about the kind of physical skills we met with in Bounce. He goes on to say (page 80):

Thus we can, to a large extent, act, behave, and really be in practice as we would be if we possessed the qualities and enjoyed the positive mental states which we would like to have. More important, the use of this technique will actually change our emotional state.

This is what, in the realm of psychology, underpins the power of determination that the Universal House of Justice refers to in paragraph 5 of their 28 December 2010 message:

Calm determination will be vital as [people] strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress.

Changing ourselves in this way as individuals will ultimately change the world in which we live.

I am not arguing that transcending the crocodile is easy, nor am I saying that one particular way of achieving this will suit everyone. It is an effortful path and we each have to find our own. It is important that we do not mistake a credible looking path for the destination itself. If the path is not moving us towards our goal we must find another one. Nonetheless I am convinced the goal is within our grasp if we can believe in it enough to make the effort.

The Higher Good

There is one last important point for those of us who wish to believe in a God of some kind.

My very battered copy of this classic.

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

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

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

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

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The way forward, I believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained throughout our lifetime. For many of us that is God (from Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

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Dali – ‘The Persistence of Memory’ – for source of picture see link

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que una colmena tenía
dentro de mi corazón;
y los doradas abejas
iban fabricando en él,
con las armaguras viejas,
blanca cera y dulce miel.

(Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.)

(From Antonio Machado Selected Poems translated by Alan Trueblood: page 90-91)

The Implications of Integration

So far this sequence has been a rather extensive treatment of the basic aspects of dreamwork as one example of how we can gain access to another system of thinking than the two Kahneman seems to feel are all that is available to us.

The point reached – the integration of and balance between extremes – hopefully has signalled how useful even this one approach could be to helping us, for example, get past a pendulum dilemma, where we swing between two apparently incompatible courses of action in response to a challenge, where we are deeply conflicted in some way. There is a theme that Jung deals with, but which is already present in Myers’s thought, that is relevant here. To quote Ellen Kelly in the Kellys’ monumental book Irreducible Mind  (page 64):

In keeping with his “tertium quid” approach, [Myers] believes that the challenge to science does not end but begins precisely when one comes up against two contradictory findings, positions, or theories, and that breakthroughs occur when one continues to work with conflicting data and ideas until a new picture emerges that can put conflicts and paradoxes in a new light or a larger perspective.

Jung believed that when we are caught in the vice-like grip of this kind of conflict, we have to find the ‘transcendent’ position that lifts us above the paralysis induced by two apparently irreconcilable opposites to which we feel compelled to respond in some way. Stephen Flynn makes an important point in his discussion of Jung’s concept:

Jung mentions one vital aspect of Transcendent Function, as ‘active imagination’ whereby the apparent haphazard frightening images from the unconscious are integral to the healing process.

This obviously relates to my figure from the freezer and anything else of the same nature. He then quotes Jung himself about any related conflict (The structure and Dynamics of the Psyche 1960 – page 88):

The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing – not a logical stillbirth in accordance with the principle tertium non datur but a movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation ….  the shifting to and fro of argument and affects represent the transcendent function of opposites.

There are other paths towards this kind of transcendence and discussion of them inevitably includes a consideration of the undoubtedly spiritual. I have deliberately avoided confronting that aspect of the matter so far, as even the more mundane powers of the dream seem magical to me, and draw on the right brain or what we often short-hand as the heart, something not reducible to either System 1 or System 2, in my view.

I can now explore some of these implications partly in the light of an important dream I once experienced. As a preparation for the way the first of these will edge closer to a sense of the way that dreams can be seen as a borderland between ordinary and transcendent consciousness, and even at the risk of making this long post unbearably longer, I think it’s worth sharing the experience of a Visiting Professor of Transpersonal Psychology which he quotes in relation to his investigations of paranormal phenomena. David Fontana describes it towards the end of his book, Is There an Afterlife? (page 425):

[Psycho-spiritual traditions teach that] astral and energy bodies hover just above the sleeping physical body each night . . . . I once had an interesting experience that could be connected with this belief in some way. For many nights I have been waking briefly in the middle of the night with a clear awareness of a presence standing on the left side of my bed. I had no idea of the identity of this presence, and it seemed to vanish each time just as I became fully conscious. Every time this happened, I fell asleep again almost at once. There was nothing frightening about the seeming presence, but I was interested to find an explanation for it. One night when I awoke with a strong sense of it, I received simultaneously the clear impression that to find the answer I must think back to what had been happening just before I awoke, rather as one rewinds a film. I did so – many things seem possible in the moment of waking from sleep – and immediately became aware, to my utter astonishment, that the “presence” was in fact myself, in the moment of reuniting with the physical body. . . . Whether or not [the experience] supports the notion that consciousness leaves the body each night during sleep I cannot say. But I know that the experience happened, I know it was not a dream, and I know that, having had the curious insight into what might have caused the presence, the experience never happened again . . .

I mentioned earlier Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 models of decision-making before looking at some length at dreamwork as one possible way of going deeper.

How deep can dreamwork take us?

I want to draw on my own experience for this again. Mainly this is because I know what I dreamt and I know what I learnt from it. The evidence in that respect is as solid as it gets for me. It therefore interposes fewer filters between anyone who reads this and the raw experience it relates to. The drawback is that I have never had a dream that was stunningly prophetic or profoundly mystical, so the example I am going to give might seem a bit run of the mill. However, because I found an apparently simple dream profoundly enlightening, I thought it was worth sharing.

A rag rug

My 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.

I worked on this dream using the methods described in the previous two posts. Various elements were profoundly meaningful, such as the rug made by my aunt, not least because of what she represented to me. For a sense of that those of you who are interested could read the poem The Maiden Aunt (see below). I want, for present purposes, to focus on what for me has become the core of the dream’s meaning, a meaning which is still evolving even though this dream is now more than 15 years old – still in adolescence really so there’s probably more to come.

There were two kinds of clue to this core meaning: one derived from word play and the other from role play.

Word Play

I’ll take the word play first as it’s easier to explain. The ‘chewing gum’ element of the dream can be dealt with quickly. It related to various ways I was stuck and perhaps still am!

More richly significant was the image of the hearth. The fact that it was in a chimney ‘breast’ helps convey the power of the realisation that came to me. The word ‘hearth’ is comprised of several other key words: ‘ear,’ ‘hear,’ ‘earth,’ ‘art’ and most powerful of all ‘heart.’ All of these words were separately of huge significance for me though I had some sense of how they might all fit together.

For example, I had latched early onto the words of Walter Savage Landor, long before I had the dream:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved; and next to Nature, Art.
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

The art of listening had separately been extremely important to me in my work as a clinical psychologist which made finding the ‘ear’ so closely tied into this central image not entirely surprising. Also having an ear to hear the intimations of the spirit is emphasised in Bahá’í literature as being of critical importance to moral progress.

This only got me so far though. I needed some other way of decoding the full import of the dream.

Peat Digging

Role Play

If you remember, when I was explaining dreamwork, I spoke of how each dream element is part of the dreamer and we can unlock the meaning of the symbolism not only by tracking our associations with it, but also by pretending to be the element in the dream and speaking as though we were it.

The result in the case of the fuel burning in the hearth was dramatic. I had been really struggling to make sense of this part of the dream. What had a coal fire got to do with my situation, except as a memory of childhood with relatively little relevance? I decided I needed to sit right in front of the hearth of the house I was living in at the time and speak as the fuel itself.

The Fuel: I am peat. You dig me from the earth and I burn. You feed me to the flowers and they grow.

Need I go any further really with what I said? That first moment contains the key to unlocking a whole treasure chest of meanings.

On the 26th April 2003, at least five years after beginning to work on the dream, I wrote in my journal, trying to summarise some of my insights:

I’m part poet/writer, part psychologist, part educator, (both subsumed by the term mind-wright) – the words wright and writer catch one part of my essence – my tools are words by and large – mind does not quite catch the other part – soul is too grand and beyond my competence – the nearest I can get is being a wordsmith and a heartwright. The word heart helps because it includes in itself the words art and (h)ear, an essential combination of skills or qualities entailed in heartwork. It leads back to my concept of heart-to-heart resuscitation. Hearts have to connect. That it also links with my archetypal dream of the hearth, where the fire of spirit burns to give warmth to the mansion of being, makes it all the more powerful a word to use in this context. The essence of my being – peat – is to fuel this process. An additional thought: 28.04.03 – if you place Heart and Earth overlapping you get Hearth. Each is also an anagram of the other. In the Bahá’í Writings the heart is often spoken of as a garden and of having soil. Also I have prayed for God to ignite within my breast the fire of His love and Bahá’u’lláh refers to the ‘candle” of our heart. Hearth eloquently combines these notions of the heart as a garden and as a container of fire. What does this mean in practice?

I’m still trying to answer that question.

Digging Deeper

The progression up to this understanding and beyond is also intriguing.

When I first had the revelation that the fuel was a pun on my name in its shortened form, I took a narrow view of what it meant. The name my parents gave me was ‘Peter’ with all the associations of rock. When I first began to work on the idea of ‘peat,’ I felt that the dream was saying that I should draw on the essence of who I was, not the persona my upbringing had fabricated in me after the image of my silent and stoical father, hiding his undoubted love behind a wall of reserve.

Then, pushing it somewhat further, the idea of burning Pete came to mind, which suggested the idea of self-sacrifice. But increasingly, as time went on, an even deeper meaning, complementary not contradictory, began to come through: perhaps ‘peat’ was not ‘me’ but came from something outside me and far richer and much more substantial. The earth became a symbol for the realm of spirit and peat came to represent the power that could flow from that realm into my being to give me the strength, energy and wisdom to do far more, far more effectively than I could ever do by any other means.

Of course, none of this exhausts the implications of the dream. The quotation at the head of this post was one of the associations that came to mind when I was working on the dream very early on. It gives yet another level of meaning to the dream to interpret it in the light of that quotation.

I don’t expect to get to the bottom of this dream’s meanings in this life. I just think I have to keep referring back to it to see what else it can teach me. I think it is a dream about the heart that came from my heart. I feel the heart in this sense is ‘the experience of soul or spirit in consciousness,’ as a friend of mine once put it in a workshop. Heart is used in other ways, I know, in our culture, and many of these ways connect it primarily with our emotions – anger, envy, desire, what passes for love, sadness and so on. That is only one way of looking at what the heart might be. The heart is also a source of inspiration, and, while our emotions shout, the heart whispers its wisdom and we do not hear it unless our minds are quiet.

An intriguing question arose after I had re-read Machado recently.  Did I read him before I had this dream? Was there some subliminal influence from that encounter? The date I bought the book permits that possibility, but I can’t be absolutely sure. What I do know is that the following quote from Bahá’u’lláh became far more meaningful for me (Gleanings No. CLII):

O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge. Be ablaze as the fire, that ye may burn away the veils of heedlessness and set aglow, through the quickening energies of the love of God, the chilled and wayward heart. Be light and untrammeled as the breeze, that ye may obtain admittance into the precincts of My court, My inviolable Sanctuary.

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