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Posts Tagged ‘Gerald Manley Hopkins’

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

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

Before this account of the cruise is over there are just two more tales to tell.

The first concerns our stop in Barcelona. Unlike our first trip there some years back, when we stayed several days in the city, enjoying streets fringed with Gaudi and galleries teeming with Picassos, which compensated for three disturbing encounters with pocket pickers, on this occasion we only really had time to stick to La Rambla.

The Columbus monument (for the source of the image, see link)

The boulevard was only a short walk from the ship. The first landmark we encountered was Columbus’s statue, erected, as the tourist website puts it ‘in 1888 to honour Christopher Columbus when he disembarked from Barcelona to find the New World.’ It was only a few yards later that we saw the motionless figure of a gold painted man in a golden costume mimicking those of the 15thCentury. We couldn’t take a photo of him as he was charging everyone who did. For reasons I’m about to explain I didn’t feel comfortable giving money away for this purpose.

The sheer height of the statue speaks for the elevated regard in which Spaniards still hold this founder of their American imperialist ambitions.

So why is this relevant here?

Because it relates to nature again, but not nature as Clare experienced it, more as those he railed against saw it. Patel and Moore spell this out in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. They write (pages 50-51):

[Columbus] launched a colonisation of nature as pecuniary as it was peculiar. European empires, beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese, obsessively collected and ordered natural objects – including ‘savage’ human bodies – always with an eye on enhanced wealth and power. Columbus’s cataloguing of nature to evaluate (put a price on) it was an early sign that he understood what nature had become under early modern capitalism.

I love Spain for many reasons, not least for its culture, language and the warmth of its people. However, if I can’t condone aspects of the history of imperialism of my home country, I’m obviously not going to feel comfortable with the exploitative imperialism of anywhere else. So, yet again the cruise dropped an uncomfortable reminder in my lap. The heyday of national imperialism is long over, but a different kind of imperialism continues with societies that boast industrialised and technologically savvy societies feeling justified in regarding themselves as superior representatives of a global elite.

A more measured position was expressed by the Bahá’í Office of Social and Economic Development in a Statement on Social Action (page 5 – my emphases):

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialised. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

There is therefore a lingering and destructive form of imperialism still at work in the world and I was travelling on one of its products.

Before I say what the cruise’s second experience was that I want to share here, I’m going to move onto an artist who worked in Spain across the divide between Europe before the French Revolution and Europe afterwards, a time of considerable political and personal tension.

Goya

Back home I began my efforts to store the pollen of wisdom my bees of reflection had collected during the cruise. This sequence as a whole is part of that attempt.

Time now to examine a key figure in art that the prints of Dalí in the cruise ship’s gallery pointed me towards. This was an after-gain of the cruise experience but a result of the cruise none the less.

Once I was home I had time to check the background to Goya’s Caprichos, works that he tried to sell in the 1790s.

It took a while before one discerning critic realised that at least two modes of thought were blending in Goya’s caprichos. Werner Hofman in his book on Goya (page 79) points out that Baudelaire recognised the presence of ‘two complementary features’ in Goya’s art: ‘the sharp eye for événements fugitifs, “fleeting events” and what he called the débauches du rêve, “dream debaucheries.”’

Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya’

Before we dig deeper I want to flag up a general point that applies to all this work, I suspect, and relates to Capricho 43 – The Sleep/Dream of Reason. Hofman explains (page 130):

Bearing in mind that the Spanish word sueño can mean both ‘dream’ and ‘sleep’, this means ‘the dream/sleep of reason produces monsters,’ but generally this double meaning has been ignored by scholars.

He feels that dreams are an important source of Goya’s inspiration, as they were with Dalí, but they have to be considered in the light of the tradition that distinguishes between deceptive and true dreams (page 131).  ‘What then,’ Hofman asks, ‘were Goya’s dreams – the benevolent, helpful dreams, or the oppressive variety?’ Is there a realm in-between?

Telling the difference can be difficult (page 132):

Light and dark enter into a symbiotic relationship, which is difficult and fundamental to Goya’s art: between concealing and revealing, between masking and unmasking.

Bearing all that in mind let’s plunge in.

Baudelaire’s was the first ‘rave review’ of the Caprichos. According to Hofman he claimed that (page 104):

. . . they represent a seamless interweaving of transient reality… and wild dreams which emanate from the imagination. Baudelaire was particularly impressed by Goya’s artistic control, which enabled him to bind heterogeneous elements together and to accommodate the absurd and the monstrous within the everyday spectrum of human life.

Goya argued that (pages 95-96)’ it is as proper for painting to criticize human error and vice as for poetry and prose to do so,’ though he felt this should be directed at a general level rather than at specific people as targets. He ended his attempt to sell these images and went into hiding to escape La Santa– the Inquisition. Out of 300 sets only 27 were sold.

Baudelaire (page 104) labelled Goya ‘artistic caricaturist.’ What he missed though, ‘what Baudelaire would not see was that Goya worked with both levels of caricature. He lashed out at contemporary Spanish uses and abuses, made fun of vices, ignorance and self-seeking… but at the same time he transcends the specific context of the society scenes and turns them into paradigms and generalisations.’

He concludes (Page 111) that ‘It might all be described as a panoramic view, which includes social disablement and oppression…’ What is absolutely true is that (page 114) ‘Goya strikes at the heart of those who abused their political power.’

He gives an example (page 115) to illustrate his sense that nightmares are contextualised to make a critical point about society:

He brings [imagined monsters] back into the prison of human vice: And Still They Don’t Go!(Capricho 59). An emaciated, naked man is trying to hold up a gigantic slab. Those who remember the horrors of the extermination camps, or who are still living today under the iron fist of oppressive regimes, will recognize the despair and the helplessness conveyed by this scene.

Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya’

This element is consistently present in the caprichos and the black paintings of Goya, but absent in Dalií in erms of his own original art. Goya’s art in this respect at this point, and also in the black paintings, continues to fuse dream and reality in this way. Fantasy has a positive purpose. Concerning Capricho 43 – The Sleep/Dream of Reason, Hofman quotes Goya (page 123):

‘Fantasy, having been abandoned by reason, brings forth impossible monsters.
Combined with reason, it is the mother of the arts and the origin of wonders.’

His inventions concern (page 128) ‘putting together things that do not belong together, the linking of figures, the combination of people and animals… as well as the charm of fragmentary, exaggerated caricatures, and the terrors of things themselves…’

This echoes a poet we are moving on to in a moment, of whom Johnson said he yoked disparate ideas by violence together. Goya did something similar by bringing such incongruous elements together in his caprichos.

From a technical point of view (page 129):

He wanted to transplant his inventions from fiction into reality, to endow them with convincingly realistic features that would distinguish them from the impossible forms and reveries . . .  regarded as aberrations.

Unlike Dalí, he does not seem afraid to risk the condemnation of his society nor does his primary concern appear to be profit. This was definitely the case with his black paintings which enriched the walls of his home and appear never to be have been intended for purchase.

One of the most famous yet enigmatic of the black paintings (Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya”

Hofman’s view is that (page 133):

Guided by reason, Goya can enter the abyss of irrationality and bring forth monsters in the form of people, animals and hybrids. In other words, he can control and subjugate them with his creative power.

In a sense (page 133) ‘He exorcises himself as the inventor and the summoner of monsters and demons, by transforming his dark obsessions into the images.’

Ultimately, (page 135) ‘Freed from the web of Christian and humanist values, Goya – [an] impenitent [in contemporary terms] – places his faith in the power of creative self-healing.’ Perhaps in Goya’s mind his paintings were not just ‘ilustración meaning “illustration”’ but ‘ilustración . . . meaning ‘enlightenment.”’

He was passionately convinced that reason and feeling should not be divorced, and Hofman quotes Forster to unpack the reasons why (page 146):

One of the first Jacobins, Georg Forster [in a letter to his wife of 16 April 1793] describes where reason leads when feelings have gone. There is a new despotism: ‘The dominance, or rather the tyrannyof reason, perhaps the most iron-fisted of all, is still in store for the world.’

I begin to feel we are closing in on a familiar quandary but in somewhat different terrain. Just as Clare, in his intense observation and idealisation of nature, almost made it a faith, so does Goya seem to do a similar thing in placing his trust in feeling to curb reason in a reciprocally constructive relationship.

Just as nature is not God, so neither reason nor feeling nor their combination, as Goya hoped, are in themselves enough to avoid the traps of despotism and deception in the realms of political and domestic power. Goya’s quandary stems from discounting, as Clare also does I feel, a spiritual or transcendent dimension. They try to make either our world, in Clare’s case nature, or our mind, in themselves transcendent, an enterprise that is doomed to failure.

A useful compass reading to take at this point might be the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Son of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith (Some Answered Questions Chapter 83 – new revised edition):

. . . what the people possess and believe to be true is liable to error. For if in proving or disproving a thing a proof drawn from the evidence of the senses is advanced, this criterion is clearly imperfect; if a rational proof is adduced, the same holds true; and likewise if a traditional proof is given. Thus it is clear that man does not possess any criterion of knowledge that can be relied upon.

This is what led me to explore, in an earlier sequence of posts, what I called the third ‘I’ – something beyond either reasons or emotion or gut feeling. It would be too much of a diversion to recap that here. For those interested click on these seven links.

Towards the end of the cruise, I had finished Bate’s book on John Clare. I stared at my modest pile of books on the bedside table before going on deck one morning, wondering which one to take with me. The choice fell between The Islamic Enlightenment and the Norton edition of John Donne. My choice was swayed not so much by which would be the more interesting book but which would be lighter to carry, a surprising factor as I wouldn’t have to carry the book far on board ship and I had no plans to take it on land.

Did Donne help me deal with the issue of the need for transcendence?

John Donne

Nature is not enough – despite the almost compelling case mobilised by Bate. Neither is art. Which is perhaps why I am glad that, towards the end of the cruise I gravitated towards re-reading John Donne and looking at some of the critical comments in the Norton Edition I had taken with me. All the page references below relate to this book unless otherwise stated.

When we were in Barcelona, sharply aware of Spain’s imperial history, we were probably closest to the Spain that got closest to conquering England when Donne was 12 years old in 1588. This conflict between two powerful nations piled further fuel on the fire of religious prejudice already blazing in Elizabethan England.

I’ve already mentioned Samuel Johnson’s comment on the metaphysical poets, as he termed them, including John Donne (page 194):

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

A different pattern of daring from Goya’s but one that seems to make them kindred spirits in some respects.

John Carey, writing about what he calls Donne’s ‘Apostasy’, suggests that Donne’s faith was not easily won, as he struggled to choose between his family’s Roman Catholic and his country’s Protestant/Anglican religion (page 220):

The poetic evidence of this crisis is Satire III – the great, crucial poem of Donne’s early manhood. . . . a self-lacerating record of that moment which comes in the lives of almost all thinking people when the beliefs of youth, unquestioningly assimilated and bound up with our closest personal attachments, come into conflict with the scepticism of the mature intellect.

The tolerance for all faiths embedded in the most famous passage of that poem may have had its roots in his ultimately divided loyalties (page 223):

Though Donne eventually came to accept Anglicanism, he could never believe that he had found in the Church of England the one true church outside which salvation is impossible. To have thought that would have meant consigning his family to damnation. Instead he persuaded himself that the saved would come from all churches.

Marotti’s line of argument points in the same direction (page 238):

In the third satire Donne refused to defend or reject either Catholicism or the Established Church.

He goes on to strongly suggest that Donne’s decision was unlikely to be self-serving (page 238-9):

He would not abandon the religion of his youth until he had satisfied himself intellectually and morally that it was the right thing to do.

The private circulation of the document, Marotti points out, was Donne’s safeguard against dire consequences.

The lines in question from the satire are:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

His sense that all religions may be in essence one is confirmed in the same poem:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.

Basically, Donne implicitly believed in a transcendent realm, but the context in which he held that belief was a polarised one.

Plantinga

It may seem unlikely that faiths that were so fiercely divided could be compatible with a dispassionate quest for the Truth. However, the picture may be somewhat more complex than that, as Plantinga argued when he made the case in his book, Where the conflict really lies, that religion and science are compatible

He claims to show, and I am inclined to agree, that the motivation of early science came from a felt need to explore nature to find God’s order there. Nature was a teacher, in this case, not something to be exploited in the manner of Columbus and others. It complements, in its rationality, Clare’s emotional exploration of nature, while Hopkins’s intense search for signs of God in nature, of which he felt a part, is an additional perspective. Martin describes the poet’s recurrent theme, in his biography of Hopkins, as (page 204) ‘the unity of man and nature as parts of Divine creation.’

Plantinga summarises his main points (page 265):

Recall my overall thesis: there is superficial conflict but deep concord between theistic religion and science, but superficial concord and deep conflict between naturalism and science.

Most people who have bought into the prevailing myth will have expected the exact opposite and he knows that.

He opens with an obvious truth which most of us may well have overlooked and whose implications he is keen to unpack (page 266):

Modern Western empirical science originated and flourished in the bosom of Christian theism and originated nowhere else. . . . it was Christian Europe that fostered, promoted, and nourished modern science. . . . This is no accident: there is deep concord between science and theistic belief.

I am setting aside something he does not discuss: the debt European science owed to other traditions such as Islam.

He defines what he means by science in this context (pages 267-268):

the fundamental class to which science belongs is that of efforts to discover truths—at any rate it is science so thought of that I mean to deal with here.

He accepts that what distinguishes the scientific approach or method is empiricism, the need to test belief against experience in a systematic way (page 268):

While it is difficult to give a precise account of this empirical component, it is absolutely crucial to science, and is what distinguishes science from philosophy.

He is looking at the notion, commonly held by Christians everywhere, that we are made in God’s image, and this will have an unexpected link to empiricism (ibid.):

God is a knower, and indeed the supreme knower. . . . We human beings, therefore, in being created in his image, can also know much about our world, ourselves, and God himself.

Alvin Plantinga

This capacity to learn about our world is a key aspect of our being and relates to this issue in his view (ibid.): ‘this ability to know something about our world, ourselves and God is a crucially important part of the divine image.’ And this is where he springs on us an unexpected point in favour of his case (pages 268-269):

God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties. . . . . For science to be successful . . . there must be a match between our cognitive faculties and the world.

That match is not at all what we should necessarily expect. The world could just as easily, probably far more easily be an incomprehensible and apparently random puzzle to us, but it is not. This predictability makes successful empiricism possible.

His key point is that an expectation of such predictability is built into theistic religion (ibid.):

It’s an essential part of theistic religion—at any rate Christian theistic religion—to think of God as providentially governing the world in such a way as to provide that kind of stability and regularity. . . . . The world was created in such a way that it displays order and regularity; it isn’t unpredictable, chancy or random. And of course this conviction is what enables and undergirds science.

If we see one role of religion as to help us find the Truth, as far as we are able, we have to accept that we will not arrive at the ‘whole truth,’ and probably not achieve ‘nothing but the truth.’ We will only see part of the truth as ‘through a glass darkly.’ The Bahá’í view is that true religion and real science complement each other, and are not contradictory.

If the idea of truth as standing on a hill that can be approached from various sides is true for religion, does it also apply to philosophy, art and science? Can each within themselves only see the truth from one angle? Even if we pool them in our consciousness, presumably we are yet again limited by the same constraints, even if the angle becomes somewhat wider.

Habermas

I think it may even go further than this.

Michael Pusey I have quoted in a previous post. He explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Jurgen Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Discourse from the other two positions plays second fiddle to the ‘instrumental’ (sorry! I couldn’t resist the pun!) This impoverishes the decision-making processes of our public lives. Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.

It looks as though we need to add beauty (the aesthetic), practical usefulness (the instrumental) and morality (the ethical) into the mix. How fairly can we expect art of various kinds to blend and integrate all four of these – beauty, usefulness, morality and truth – into a representation of reality? Is this how we should distinguish great from lesser art?

This is a complex problem and I’m by no means the first to wrestle with it. Interestingly, almost as soon as I began to ponder on it, I re-read, in Robert Martin’s life of Hopkin’s (page 131), about the way the issue surfaced in Hopkins’s relationship with Walter Pater. Hopkins was being tutored by Pater and knew of his essay ‘advocating Beauty as the standard by which to judge morality. Hopkins himself certainly recognised the dangers of such a position, as well as its attractions.’

I’m entering difficult waters but here goes.

I don’t share the perspective that John Keats places in the mouth of the Grecian Urn:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

What looks beautiful is not always true, and the truth is quite often not even slightly beautiful. Once you begin to factor in the possible need for representations of truth to also capture the good and beautiful we may be asking the impossible.

I think Goya in art and, for example, Wilfred Owen in poetry, offer some kind of potential solution. Neither of them shies away from depicting the worst aspects of humanity, but their underlying positive values are still detectable in their way of presenting the unacceptable. It is partly expressed in what I experience as the outrage of the utterance. They neither condone nor capitulate anymore than they mitigate. Something gives them the strength to contain and convey the unendurable.

My argument would be that they manage to combine a special kind of haunting beauty with the horror. I think the revulsion I feel is in them and in their art as well, so there is a moral compass orienting their perspective, but it does not preach.

Is it useful? I think it is, but not in the simplistic sense of prescribing a clear line of action. It is useful socially and culturally because it does what perhaps nothing else can do as well: in its immediacy and power it can change our consciousness, can help us feel what a soldier feels or a victim of tyranny. It can thereby enable us to resist whatever social forces operate simplistically in those contexts. It can enhance our sense of connection with other creatures and even with the earth itself, in the case of Clare.

It can make the world a better place.

In spite of the doubts expressed in this sequence, I accept that science, technology and the Enlightenment have brought huge material benefits, but as I tried to express in a poem, we’re out of balance. We also always need to recognise that every such advance from fire to atomic power is a double-edged sword and cuts both ways, and we must always therefore be vigilant about the way we use them.

Perhaps I’d better leave it there, except to say that the unintended consequence of my failed attempt to escape from the pressures of our complex world has been to help me deepen my understanding of the purpose and potential methods of the arts, something that perhaps the temporary freedom from mundane tasks gave me the space, time and energy to do. Being on a big ship worth millions should, if anything, have sailed me further away from reality into fantasy. I was fortunate that in this case, more by good luck than good management, it did the opposite.

This experience has also reinforced something I have always felt. It is impossible to run away from all your problems because you carry most of them in your head.

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Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Tablets of Bahá’u’lláhpage 142

Once on board, each night before I slept I read at least 50 pages of Bate’s biography of Clare. This was usually after spending an hour or two on one of the decks watching the sunset and looking out for dolphins. I hoped it would help me get a better grip on what Bate’s had meant by poetry being the song of the earth.

Eventually, I’d settle down with my book, faintly conscious of the slight swaying of the ship and the constant grumble of the engine.

Bate’s compassionate account of Clare’s troubled existence brings to life some of the more abstract aspects of man’s exploitation of nature. Clare was both deeply connected from childhood with the nature around him and forcibly cut off from it first by the Enclosure Movement, then by an enforced move from his birth home to one he experienced as every different and finally by his incarceration in an asylum. All these dislocations were further confounded by his success as a poet, where his experience of London changed him radically.

This time I picked up the book from where I had left off, already with a clear sense of how damaging the process of Enclosure had been for Clare, his family and his neighbours. As Bate’s explains (pages 49-50):

Enclosure was… symbolic of the destruction of an ancient birthright based on cooperation and common rights. The chance of Clare’s time and place of birth gave him an exceptional insight into this changed world.

This was because a high proportion of local villagers held common rights, an unusually large area of the parish was heathland, and the open fields survived until an unusually late date.

Bate continues:

For Clare himself, enclosure infringed the right to roam, which had been one of the joys of his youth… E.P. Thompson grasped the radical significance of this, discerning that ‘Clare maybe described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.’

In Clare’s own words:

Inclosure like a Bonaparte let nothing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
and hung the moles as traitors –

Much later I came across this prose description in a similar spirit, which I’ll quote now to give another clear example of Clare’s unedited mode of writing (page 272): ‘what terryfying rascals these wood keepers and gamekeepers are – they make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers.’

His love of nature, I already knew, was quasi-religious (page 59):

. . . though he professed himself an Anglican, Clare’s attendance at church was mostly irregular. His deepest feelings of a religious kind were reserved for his experience of nature and his memories of childhood innocence and joy.

I was really looking forward to learning more, though I knew that Clare’s life had a tragic trajectory, ending as it did in an asylum over almost his last two decades.

Clare’s feeling for nature were not unique and he would have resonated to Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime’ of ‘something far more deeply interfused’ within it (pages 100-101):

. . . if someone who had never read – perhaps never even heard of – such nature poets as Thomson, Cowper and Wordsworth nevertheless responded to nature in the same way as they, then there must be ‘universal feelings’ about nature which poetry was but an echo… Clare saw it as his task to write down the poetry that was already there in nature itself.

That his gift was recognized by a publisher was a blessing to his parents (page 120):

Drury’s faith in the potential of Clare’s poetry saved Parker and Ann from the poor-house.

But this came at a price (page 166):

[On his way to London in the wake of his success] full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing a place known only from fireside tales, he looked out from the coach at the labourers ploughing and ditching in the fields: ‘the novelty created such strange feelings that I could almost fancy that my identity as well as my occupations had changed – that I was not the same John Clare but that some stranger soul had jumped into my skin.’

He had become disconnected from his old sense of self (page 171):

After his exposure to fame and London, he could never fully return to his old life. In this sense, his consciousness of a new identity as he sat in the Stamford coach was prophetic.

I put the book down and switched off the light. My head hit the pillow to the continuing growl of the engine. As usual, my sleep was fitful. Just as I was falling asleep again for the umpteenth time, I heard the ship’s intercom through the cabin door: ‘For exercise only. For exercise only. For exercise only. All medical staff to the muster room on B deck. Repeat – all medical staff to the muster room on B deck.’

My wife and I were both awake. It was 7.30 am. We groaned and got up grumbling.

When we were dressed and had left the cabin to head for breakfast at the buffet on Deck 15, we bumped into our steward in the narrow corridor outside our room.

Standing by the trolley piled high with towels and bedding, he greeted us with his usual friendly smile.

‘How are you both?’

We asked him if he knew about the recent earthquake. He didn’t. We apologised for worrying him but explained that we were concerned to know whether his family were all OK.

He was clearly concerned. He explained that he would not be able to find out yet but hoped to get in touch with family later in the day.

We parted without our usual exchange of joking comments.

En route to the buffet we picked up our newsletter and puzzles. The puzzle sheet had a fairly demanding Sudoku on one side and ridiculously easy crossword on the other. The newssheet was based generally on yesterday’s news and was only worth picking up if we’d missed Sky news the night before.

Horizon was a more valuable read. It told us what would be happening the following day and was left in our cabin the evening before. On this occasion, over my usual breakfast of oats, raisins and milk plus a slice of toast and for once marmalade, we looked at the day’s events and spotted a talk on Lowry, a joint favourite, in the theatre. As we both knew a fair bit about the artist from reading his biography and going to see his paintings at Salford Quays, we decided to give the talk a miss but to go to the gallery where some prints were on show.

This was probably a wise decision given the delay caused by having to queue for clean teacups at the buffet. We would’ve missed the start of the talk anyway. As it was there was only one print that caught our attention: The Brothers. I don’t have a copy of that in my Shelley Rohde’s biography, nor have I ever seen the original anywhere.

Lowry’s ‘The Brothers’ (For source of image see link.)

Its impact was quite intense.

The way the brothers overlap in the print conveys the strong sense of a symbiotic relationship. Their merged black hats make them seem almost like twins joined at the head. The colour of the arch overhead matches their coats and, along with the narrowness of the picture, seems to imply that they are both in some way imprisoned or at least overshadowed by their relationship. The townscape behind them is unusually constricted for Lowry and the church and flats, if that’s what the red buildings were, would not look out of place in a doll’s house, hinting that, in spite of the greying hair of the background brother, we are not quite in a fully adult world here.

Most of Lowry’s work contrasts quite strongly with Clare’s rural home, in which I was so vicariously immersed at the time. His less well-known seascapes, which I first encountered on visiting the Lowry gallery at Salford Quays, added a new dimension to my understanding of his work, and would’ve blended in better with my cruise perhaps if I’d found one of those in the ship’s gallery.

I didn’t realise at this point that I would soon be encountering a third very different environment in paint. Blended with the artificial world of the cruise ship, nature, art and town alone began to weave a pattern of insights I haven’t quite digested yet.

‘Head of Man with Red Eyes’ painted after spending an exhausting night ministering to his hypochondriacal autocratic mother’s imaginary needs. (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

Part of the pattern is clear. Clare was uprooted from the earth of his childhood with devastating effects on his mental health and an inspiring impact on his poetry. Lowry’s roots were in the Northern townscape, which fed his art but may have starved his emotional life, though his voraciously demanding mother and a possible poorly understood autistic tendency didn’t help.

The third world I entered, through prints again, opened up another world altogether, but that will have to wait till next time. Together they illustrate just how complex is the relationship between art, personal life and nature. This idea, that poetry might, at some level, simply be the song of the earth, was seeming slightly fragile.

Even Bate, in his biography of Ted Hughes, is clearly aware that poetry comes in many forms. For example (page 93), he describes Yeats as ‘the poet of the land and the spirit of place’ in contrast to Eliot as ‘the poet of deracinated modernity.’ This of course still leaves begging the question of whether a poet who simply ‘gives voice to a new terror: the meaningless’, is a poet in the full sense of the word, no matter how powerful and honest that voice may be.

This relates to my struggle, explored in earlier posts, with much modern art, if it seems to capitulate to the dissonance and disbelief of the modern world with no counterbalancing sense of meaning and purpose. Can true poetry be simply nihilistic? Not that I’m saying, as should be clear by now, that poetry is only authentic if it sings about nature. Nature is not the only higher value poetry can draw upon to give it depth.

Clare though made a strong case for nature as a front runner in this race (page 480):

‘Birds bees trees flowers all talked to me incessantly louder than the busy hum of men and who so wise as nature out of doors on the green grass by woods and streams under the beautiful sunny sky – daily communings with God and not a word spoken.’

To complete the picture, it might help here to fast-forward to where my reading of Bate’s whole biography of Clare left me.

After his brief moment in the spotlight and two less successful collections of what Bate feels were superior poems, Clare’s world was turning significantly darker. Not only was the impact of Enclosure still tightening but his success had brought with it the opportunity to move three miles away to a more spacious home, something which proved a mixed blessing.

Even before the move things were not going well (page 276):

The changes in the land wrought by enclosure were by now symbolic of his own narrowing prospects and the loss of the familiar landmarks of his childhood.

There was no going back (page 317):

Save in memory and poetry, there was no road back to childhood, to the unenclosed commons, to Eden. As his depression closed in upon him, the only future was alienation.

Now there was the impending challenge of a serious mental health problem, brought on by a combination of factors, not least his increasing sense of alienation. His move to Northborough did not help (page 388):

The accommodation was much more spacious than at Helpston… But the village never became home. It felt like a closed community, hostile to newcomers.

Clare describes his feelings of loss and displacement in The Flitting (Page 389):

I’ve left my own old home of homes,
Green fields, and pleasant place:
The summer, like a stranger comes,
I pause – and hardly know her face.’

His poetry, which Bate sees as rooted in Clare’s ‘art of noticing’ and ‘intuitive responsiveness to minute particulars’ (pages 300-01) had so far lost nothing of its power though in this unhinging process (page 390):

His remembrance is not just of his old home, but specifically of the pre-enclosure landscape. It was also at this time that he wrote another of his great enclosure elegies, a vigourous poem of political complaint spoken in the very voice of a piece of land, ‘Swordy Well’. . . . With the enclosure, it was taken by the parish overseers as a source of stone for road mending. In the poem, the land speaks out against its own enclosure in the same terms as a labourer would have used to complain about his loss  of ancient rights. ‘I ha’n’t a friend in all the place,’ sings the desecrated earth, ‘Save one and he’s away.’ That one is Clare himself, both physically away from Helpston and mentally distant from his own unenclosed youth.

And again (page 405):

Clare’s sense of his own status as a perpetual outsider, a man who did not fully belong in either the world of London property or that of literary propriety, is nowhere better caught that in a sonnet on his fear of trespassing: ‘I dreaded walking where there was no path.’

I can resonate to this to some degree, as I was transplanted from lower middle class roots at the age of seventeen to the lofty heights of privilege at Cambridge in the early 60s. Since then I have always felt déclassé, belonging neither to my culture of origin nor to the rarified atmosphere of dinner suits and cocktail parties. This may partly account for why I found the cruise concept of ‘black-tie dining’, something that happened on four nights of our journey, a somewhat bizarre experience: I tried it once, in my green suit not a dinner suit, and stuck to the casual dress of the buffet after that.

Compared to Clare though my experience was relatively mild. The stresses of it did not strain me beyond endurance so that I would end my life staring from the window of an institution which felt like a prison, as Clare did in his asylum according to one of his visitors (page 475):

‘There was a birdcage, with a skylark in it, near the window; and pointing to the iron bars in his apartment, he smiled gloomily, and said, in a strong provincial accent, “We are both of us bound birds, you see.”’

I couldn’t help but remember Hopkins’s poem as I read those words[1]:

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –

In a sense that Clare does not express as far as I know, this would make him double-caged, as of course was Hopkins in the Jesuit order, though he never admitted that explicitly in any of his poems as far as I’m aware. Hopkins shared another passion with Clare (Robert Bernard Martin’s biography – page 212):

When an ash tree was felled in the garden, he ‘heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.’

Clare would certainly have been familiar though with the words of Blake that came tumbling into my head a this point:

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.

I was beginning to feel that the motif of the prison was becoming an uncomfortably frequent theme.

In the end, divorced from nature by the Enclosure process, by his well-meant but unavoidable move to a different locality and by the social elevation his obsessive versifying earned him, he broke down and entered the final alienation of the asylum. He registers the ultimate consequence in his poem An Invite to Eternity (page 491):

Clare had coined the term self identity. Now he coins its opposite: sad non-identity. The absence of home and family has stripped Clare of his sense of self. At the same time, the very act of writing is a defiant assertion of the self. ‘At once to be and not to be’ is a breath-taking riposte to Hamlet’s question.

Even so, he is able to capture this in powerful poetry that does not completely capitulate to his sense of annihilation.

In the end there was no viable escape from his distress, except through poetry. Concerning his poem I am Bate writes (page 505):

In imagination, even in the asylum, he could complete the circle of vision, undoing his troubles by laying himself to rest between grass and ‘vaulted sky.’ He longs at once for both childhood and the grave.

He does not, if Bate’s sense of him is to be trusted, invest as much meaning in the horizon, or perhaps even in nature, as Emily Dickinson did, according to Judith Farr in her book, The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity,’ and she makes this explicit. This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Maybe though for Clare, even though poetry began as a song of the earth, in the end it was more than that. I’m not sure I can quite find words right now for what that means. All I can say at the moment is that poetry itself can be a kind of transcendence, that brings meaning, perhaps even consolation, into the darkest moments of our lives.

When we spoke to our steward later that day to check how things were back home, he looked quite worried and told us that his cousin was missing, but the rest of his family were thankfully OK. We commiserated with him and assured him that we would remember his family in our prayers and hope that all would be well.

Footnote:

[1]. It would be fascinating to explore this further here but the post is long enough already. For now it is enough to indicate that R B Martin’s biography of Hopkin’s suggests (page 268) that an enforced move from St Beuno’s in rural Wales, where he had been studying for the priesthood, may have accounted in part for this sense of (page 264) ‘limitation, entrapment, a kind of stifling imprisonment of the spirit.’ The intensity of his connection with nature (page 203) would be more than enough to suggest a close affinity with Clare at least in this respect, and a comparable reaction to being torn away from nature by his move.

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A Mumbai pavement

The drive up the section of the Western Ghats from Mumbai towards Panchgani was much less scary than the last time we came. Instead of the single track, with two way traffic winding alongside vertiginous drops into the valleys below, we wound our way serenely up and down three-lane dual carriageways higher and higher into the mountains, past the same river and in sight of the same lakes as before.

Even so it was a longer drive than expected, more than five hours, because of the dense volume of traffic leaving Mumbai.

The closer we got the more peaceful it became. Unlike Mumbai, Panchgani had not changed all that much – slightly busier perhaps, but still much quieter, much slower, than Mumbai.

I’m publishing a couple of poems relating to this place, one that I love the most in India. One is the reposting last Monday of the story of the burial of my wife’s grandma and the next one tries to capture the emotional impact of this most recent visit.

This post has a different purpose.

Bougainvillea in Panchagani

The value of this visit did not just reside in revisiting old haunts, like grandma’s grave, Table Land or my wife’s old school, important as those experiences were.

This post is going to try and record something much harder to define. It is something that belongs among those strange coincidences and sudden leaps of faith that led to my becoming a psychologist and choosing the Bahá’í path. It didn’t involve anything so dramatically life changing but it had something of the same strange unsettling power.

Panchgani is much colder than Mumbai, though I did not really notice this until after sunset. We hadn’t thought to bring any warmer clothes than those we had been wearing at sea level.

As the sun was setting and we sat on the patio of the Prospect Hotel where we were staying, the conversation became an ever more intense exploration of spiritual issues with like-minded souls (I’ll not share their names for fear of embarrassing them). Two of them were as deeply interested in spiritual psychology as I am. Rarely have I ever had the chance to meet with psychologists with a spiritual bent, probably because such people are as almost as rare as the Phoenix, for reasons I have explored elsewhere on this blog. The sense of rising energy became stronger every moment as the exploration continued and I did not notice at first how much I was shivering.

At last I apologised for breaking the flow of the conversation saying that I had to go to my room to get my dressing gown, the only warm garment I had with me. Immediately, I was offered a warm sweater, which I gratefully accepted, and sat down again to immerse myself once more in the refreshing flow of conversation.

As we spoke many books were mentioned. I threw into the mix at various points the recent books I’d read about Shoghi Effendi through the eyes of the pilgrims who visited Haifa in his lifetime, and at least one book from long ago – Schweder’s Thinking Through Cultures – which I blogged about a long time back.

One of my companions mentioned a book I’d never heard of: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I wrote the title and the author down, but didn’t think much more of it at the time. I noticed that the sweater had not done much to diminish my underlying sense of shaking which clearly wasn’t to do with feeling cold anymore. It didn’t feel like shivering anymore: perhaps it had never been only that.

I had to entertain the possibility that some other seismic change was taking place at an altogether different level, something perhaps to do with the territory we were treading together or the connection that was active between us all or maybe both.

Anyway, once the intensity of the conversation died down, the rest of the visit, though memorable for the beauty of the place, the hospitality of our hosts and tranquility of the whole environment, lacked anything quite so dramatic.

We were very sad to leave the following day after so short a stay.

It was only later that a synchronicity occurred that suggested that the conversation in Panchgani might have had more to it than I thought.

I was lamenting to my wife that I should have brought more books. I had finished the two massive tomes I’d brought with me. I thought they’d last the whole trip and possibly beyond. Three weeks, with not much other work to do, can gobble up more pages than I realized.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door.

‘It’s a parcel for you,’ my sister shouted.

‘For me?’

‘Yes, for you.’

I went to the door and signed for the package the postman handed over.

I looked at the label. It was from the person who had recommended the book by Shafak. I could tell immediately the parcel contained a book.

You will have already guessed which book it contained. You’ve got it: The Forty Rules of Love.

As usual I checked out the reviews. One of them referred to it as a children’s book, not my usual diet. Other reviews and a quick glance inside the book itself quickly dispelled that delusion. I don’t know (m)any children who would read their way through this book.

Even more convincing was my web search of the topic and the discovery of the entire list of 40 rules in condensed form. Some of them were amazingly resonant. I’ll deal with the issue of whether they are expressed in this way by either Shams or Rumi later.

Take Rule 6 for example: ‘Loneliness and solitude are two different things. When you are lonely, it is easy to delude yourself into believing that you are on the right path. Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely. But eventually it is the best to find a person who will be your mirror. Remember only in another person’s heart can you truly see yourself and the presence of God within you.’

One sentence in particular struck a chord with me: ‘Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely.’

Ever since childhood, with its experiences of stays in hospital for surgery before the days when parents could remain close, I have felt that in the end I cannot be absolutely sure that, in times of need, I will have someone there to support me. I learned the importance of self-reliance early and have practiced it often. This, combined with my introversion, means that loneliness is not a feeling I’m familiar with. I don’t generally feel lonely when alone. I invent, or perhaps naturally possess, purposes to pursue by myself. I love the company of like-minded hearts as the Panchgani episode illustrates, but I can use books, writing, art and nature as satisfactory substitutes for quite long periods of time if necessary. So, I relate to that point, though admittedly in my fashion. I’m not so clear about the mirror idea.

I also found I related pretty strongly to Rule 9 as well: ‘East, west, south, or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.’

Not only have my tendencies in this direction been reinforced by the spiritual path I travel, in that Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, both quotes ‘Alí, Muhammad’s successor in the Seven Valleys (34):

. . . . reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

“Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?”

and in the Hidden Words (from the Arabic 13) directly urges us to recognise that if we ‘turn our sight unto’ ourselves we may find God standing within us, ‘mighty powerful and self-subsisting.’ This same idea is echoed in the Quaker phrase used by George Fox who spoke of ‘that of God in every man.’

Poetry also has reinforced these tendencies within me. I’ll quote just two examples, the first from an Anglican priest.

The best journey to make
is inward. It is the interior
that calls. Eliot heard it.
Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind, and let himself
down for the poetry stranded
on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

And the second from a Jesuit priest looking at the dark side of that immensity, something which puts many of us off such explorations:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins: No worst, there is none)

I don’t think it’s something only priests tend to do, by the way, but maybe not all poets – only poets who are also priests perhaps. I must check out George Herbert and John Donne: I don’t remember anything of quite that kind in their work, though I’m fairly  sure Thomas Traherne came pretty close. I may just need to revisit every other poet on my shelves in case a find a black swan poet of the interior who isn’t a priest: my first ports of call will probably be Henry Vaughan, a 17th Century medic and mystical poet, David Gascoyne, whose later poetry became distinctly mystical, followed by Wordsworth and Eliot as Thomas points firmly in their direction. One of my favourite Wordsworth poems, – Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood – according to some, owes a debt to Vaughan, something else to tease out if possible.

That’s enough for now. Next time I’ll close in on the question of the Rules’ origin.

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Cliff

Cliff

. . . . 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.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,Section 36)

In preparation for a couple of posts later this week it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence.

A Community of Selves?

I have pondered this issue over many decades. It seems that the person who is writing this now may not be the same person who did the first draft years ago. I am not, of course, referring to my body even though it may have replaced most of its cells in that time, as cell replacement does not seem necessarily to entail self-replacement. As the brain, if not driven to new learning, tends to lose cells rather than grow new ones, the brain I’m using now may be significantly smaller than it was when I wrote the first draft, but will be otherwise the same, I should not be greatly changed as a result.

It is the person that I have my doubts about. I have had to select one of my selves to edit this post at this point, and I had to trust that the me who did so would not be too out of step with the me who originally wrote it!

That the self is vast there is no doubt. According to Bahá’u’lláh it contains the universe enfolded. Other spiritually oriented people generally share the same view. One poet, who was a Jesuit priest, wrote:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

(G.M. Hopkins, Poems Oxford Edition page 107).

R.S. Thomas, also a priest, wrote that:

Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind.

(Later Poems page 99).

But size does not of necessity entail multiplicity.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

The Great Brain Robbery

I have already gone over in detail the implications of meditation and the Third ‘I’ and the threebrain models.

That can all seem a bit dramatic – a bit like the Great Brain Robbery.

It goes something like this.

Lots of people, when they’re explaining the value of mindfulness and meditation, describe the body as our car. So, if I think I’m the driver of this car, in full control, I’m deluded. I’ve been car-jacked.

Yes, my centre of awareness is in the driving seat, hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals, but every seat in the car is taken by a presence that’s holding a gun to my head. Directly behind me is Johnny Fear, known to his friends as Mr Rabbit. On my left is Jimmy Rage, the ‘auld croc.’ Back left is Sissy Thinker, who thinks she’s the brains of the outfit.

In the worst case scenario, I can hear an occasional thud and grunt from the boot of the car where they have locked my True Self, tightly bound and gagged. What he knows but I don’t is that their guns are loaded with blanks. They’re all bluff and thunder but no lightning at all.

When Sissy Thinker has bought into an ideology that sees almost everyone except her gang as a sworn enemy and unbeliever, Jimmy Rage takes control of the car and goes on a killing spree. Either that, or Mr Rabbit grabs the wheel, slams his foot on the accelerator and makes a run for it.

As we’ve looked at those issues in enough detail already, I’ll focus now on how to understand another aspect of the complexity of our interior in less loaded terms, more to do with our cultural conditioning than our evolutionary and instinctual heritage.

The Bahá’í Perspective

To get us going, what might be the beginnings of a Bahá’í perspective on all this?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote (GleaningsCXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

There are many passages in the Bahá’í Writings that explain various ways in which each of us can experience or be subject to divisions within, to a point at which one part of us is even in conflict with another. Such conflicts have implications for our relationships with others but it is not my purpose to consider those in detail now.

The focus of this post is the community of selves within each of us. Where is the evidence that we are more than one self?

The above quotation from Bahá’u’lláh describes us as not inwardly united, which implies that we may be inwardly divided. Bahá’u’lláh also talks of the self but in ways that conflict. For example, we are enjoined to flee the self as a prison[1] on the one hand, and to turn our sight towards it, on the other, and see Bahá’u’lláh as God standing within us[2]. We clearly cannot be talking about the same self in each case. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi develop this idea in many places[3].

Furthermore ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes character as coming in three kinds – innate, inherited and acquired: there is also natural capacity and acquired capacity.[4]

There is in addition the question of divine attributes (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings XXVII):

Upon the reality of man… He hath focussed the radiance of all of His names and attributes… and made it a mirror of His own self.

This multitude of varied attributes is hard to reconcile into one concept of God let alone integrate into a single self as the unwavering centre of a unified consciousness![5]

If the Bahá’í picture suggests at least a family of selves, what does the Western world think? I shall draw for the most part on psychology in the profile that follows.

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

The Psychological Perspective

The layman seems typically to value consistency, which, in effect, means singleness. In psychology too the assumption has sometimes been that there really is a unity, accounting for differences and inconsistencies within the same person by variations of the trait perspective. However a vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories[6], clinical experiences with multiple personalities[7] and the auditory hallucinations of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia[8], as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring[9] are useful starting points in getting our bearings.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child[10]. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls[11] whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

Split-brain research strongly suggests that the left and right halves of the brain function in distinct ways. If they become surgically or traumatically disconnected then the patient can be shown to process reality in simultaneous but conflicting ways. Radical developments in academic psychology and its research take the view that no such thing as personality in the traditional sense exists. We are constructed from our social experience. Roles and the internalised descriptions of others produce an illusion of solid selfness. However, rather as with the proverbial onion, once you take these layers away is there nothing left above and beyond these disparate and ephemeral imaginings!

Amartya Sen, in Identity and Violence, expresses his view that our multiple identities are inescapable and to be celebrated (page 172) partly at least because there is the danger of intolerant extremism once we ‘think of [our]selves only as Hindus or only as Muslims (who must unleash vengeance on “the other community”) and as absolutely nothing else: not Indians, not subcontinentals, not Asians, not members of a shared human race.’

Next time we’ll look at some implications of these possibilities.

Notes:

  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words (Persian) no. 40.
  2. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words (Arabic) no. 13.
  3. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions chapter 64, and Shoghi Effendi in Living the Life 28.
  4. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions chapter 56.
  5. See the Long Healing Prayer for a concentrated exposure to this problem.
  6. See N. Ornstein. Multiminds: A New Way to Look at Human Behaviour. Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1986.
  7. See A. Crabtree. Multiple Man: Explorations in Possession And multiple Personality. London: Grafton Books, 1988.
  8. See L.S. Benjamin . “Is Chronicity a Function of the Relationship Between the Person and Auditory Illusion?” Schizophrenia Bulletin (1989) 15: 291-310.
  9. See E. Berne. “Games People Play”. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964; and R. Assagioli. Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings. 3d. ed. London: Turnstone, 1975.
  10. For a full and very intelligible description, see S. Woolams and M. Brown. TA: The Total Handbook of Transactional Analysis. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1979, pp. 9-40.

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Cliff

Cliff

. . . . 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.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,Section 36)

A Community of Selves?

I have pondered this issue over many decades. It seems that the person who is writing this now may not be the same person who did the first draft years ago. I am not, of course, referring to my body even though it may have replaced most of its cells in that time, as cell replacement does not seem necessarily to entail self-replacement. As the brain, if not driven to new learning, tends to lose cells rather than grow new ones, the brain I’m using now may be significantly smaller than it was when I wrote the first draft, but will be otherwise the same, I should not be greatly changed as a result.

It is the person that I have my doubts about. I have had to select one of my selves to edit this post at this point, and I had to trust that the me who did so would not be too out of step with the me who originally wrote it!

That the self is vast there is no doubt. According to Bahá’u’lláh it contains the universe enfolded. Other spiritually oriented people generally share the same view. One poet, who was a Jesuit priest, wrote:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

(G.M. Hopkins, Poems Oxford Edition page 107).

R.S. Thomas, also a priest, wrote that:

Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind.

(Later Poems page 99).

But size does not of necessity entail multiplicity.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

The Great Brain Robbery

I have already gone over in detail the implications of meditation and the Third ‘I’ and the threebrain models.

That can all seem a bit dramatic – a bit like the Great Brain Robbery.

It goes something like this.

Lots of people, when they’re explaining the value of mindfulness and meditation, describe the body as our car. So, if I think I’m the driver of this car, in full control, I’m deluded. I’ve been car-jacked.

Yes, my centre of awareness is in the driving seat, hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals, but every seat in the car is taken by a presence that’s holding a gun to my head. Directly behind me is Johnny Fear, known to his friends as Mr Rabbit. On my left is Jimmy Rage, the ‘auld croc.’ Back left is Sissy Thinker, who thinks she’s the brains of the outfit.

In the worst case scenario, I can hear an occasional thud and grunt from the boot of the car where they have locked my True Self, tightly bound and gagged. What he knows but I don’t is that their guns are loaded with blanks. They’re all bluff and thunder but no lightning at all.

When Sissy Thinker has bought into an ideology that sees almost everyone except her gang as a sworn enemy and unbeliever, Jimmy Rage takes control of the car and goes on a killing spree. Either that, or Mr Rabbit grabs the wheel, slams his foot on the accelerator and makes a run for it.

As we’ve looked at those issues in enough detail already, I’ll focus now on how to understand another aspect of the complexity of our interior in less loaded terms, more to do with our cultural conditioning than our evolutionary and instinctual heritage.

The Bahá’í Perspective

To get us going, what might be the beginnings of a Bahá’í perspective on all this?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote (GleaningsCXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

There are many passages in the Bahá’í Writings that explain various ways in which each of us can experience or be subject to divisions within, to a point at which one part of us is even in conflict with another. Such conflicts have implications for our relationships with others but it is not my purpose to consider those in detail now.

The focus of this post is the community of selves within each of us. Where is the evidence that we are more than one self?

The above quotation from Bahá’u’lláh describes us as not inwardly united, which implies that we may be inwardly divided. Bahá’u’lláh also talks of the self but in ways that conflict. For example, we are enjoined to flee the self as a prison[1] on the one hand, and to turn our sight towards it, on the other, and see Bahá’u’lláh as God standing within us[2]. We clearly cannot be talking about the same self in each case. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi develop this idea in many places[3].

Furthermore ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes character as coming in three kinds – innate, inherited and acquired: there is also natural capacity and acquired capacity.[4]

There is in addition the question of divine attributes (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings XXVII):

Upon the reality of man… He hath focussed the radiance of all of His names and attributes… and made it a mirror of His own self.

This multitude of varied attributes is hard to reconcile into one concept of God let alone integrate into a single self as the unwavering centre of a unified consciousness![5]

If the Bahá’í picture suggests at least a family of selves, what does the Western world think? I shall draw for the most part on psychology in the profile that follows.

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

The Psychological Perspective

The layman seems typically to value consistency, which, in effect, means singleness. In psychology too the assumption has sometimes been that there really is a unity, accounting for differences and inconsistencies within the same person by variations of the trait perspective. However a vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories[6], clinical experiences with multiple personalities[7] and the auditory hallucinations of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia[8], as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring[9] are useful starting points in getting our bearings.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child[10]. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls[11] whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

Split-brain research strongly suggests that the left and right halves of the brain function in distinct ways. If they become surgically or traumatically disconnected then the patient can be shown to process reality in simultaneous but conflicting ways. Radical developments in academic psychology and its research take the view that no such thing as personality in the traditional sense exists. We are constructed from our social experience. Roles and the internalised descriptions of others produce an illusion of solid selfness. However, rather as with the proverbial onion, once you take these layers away is there nothing left above and beyond these disparate and ephemeral imaginings!

Amartya Sen, in Identity and Violence, expresses his view that our multiple identities are inescapable and to be celebrated (page 172) partly at least because there is the danger of intolerant extremism once we ‘think of [our]selves only as Hindus or only as Muslims (who must unleash vengeance on “the other community”) and as absolutely nothing else: not Indians, not subcontinentals, not Asians, not members of a shared human race.’

Next time we’ll look at some implications of these possibilities.

Notes:

  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words (Persian) no. 40.
  2. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words (Arabic) no. 13.
  3. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions chapter 64, and Shoghi Effendi in Living the Life 28.
  4. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions chapter 56.
  5. See the Long Healing Prayer for a concentrated exposure to this problem.
  6. See N. Ornstein. Multiminds: A New Way to Look at Human Behaviour. Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1986.
  7. See A. Crabtree. Multiple Man: Explorations in Possession And multiple Personality. London: Grafton Books, 1988.
  8. See L.S. Benjamin . “Is Chronicity a Function of the Relationship Between the Person and Auditory Illusion?” Schizophrenia Bulletin (1989) 15: 291-310.
  9. See E. Berne. “Games People Play”. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964; and R. Assagioli. Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings. 3d. ed. London: Turnstone, 1975.
  10. For a full and very intelligible description, see S. Woolams and M. Brown. TA: The Total Handbook of Transactional Analysis. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1979, pp. 9-40.

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This is National Poetry Day. I have sought to choose a poem to post that will combine two of my most abiding preoccupations: faith and lyric poetry. The writer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) was an English poet, Roman Catholic convert, and Jesuit priest. His experiments in poetic structure (especially sprung rhythm, which is structured around feet with a variable number of syllables with the stress always falling on the first syllable in a foot), and his use of imagery, established him as an innovator at a time of mainly traditional verse. The tension between his chosen vocation as priest, and the vocation which chose him as poet, was sometimes unbearable. This poem is one of his most famous and vividly conveys the challenges confronting anyone who strives to understand suffering in the context of a belief in God.

Gerald Manley Hopkins

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

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Cliff

Lake District Cliff

The best journey to make

is inward. It is the interior

that calls. Eliot heard it.

Wordsworth turned from the great hills

of the north to the precipice

of his own mind, and let himself

down for the poetry stranded

on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

When we considered the mind as a mirror, we felt that it could then contain the universe as a reflection within it. The idea of the heart as a garden or as soil works differently but we should still be thinking in terms of a vast landscaped garden rather than a small suburban one.

The Inscape

In writing about Jung in 1976, Laurens van der Post used the word I have borrowed from time to time ever since – ‘inscape.’ He wrote:

Gerald Manley Hopkins had already said it definitively when he wrote that there were not only ‘landscapes’ for us but ‘inscapes’ as well, or as he put it in one of his greatest poems,

‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall,

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.’

(‘Jung and the Story of our Time‘: page 20)

Whether we are simply talking about the mind as a product of the brain or as an emanation from the soul, this holds true. If we move from the poets to a psychologist, we find:

The assembled oddities of human nature point to the fact that it is not just the mind that bursts out of the . . . . straitjacket into which it has been forced; it is the very core of the self, of human identity, that threatens to escape. I am darker, and more dispersed, and more various, and more changeable, than I am supposed to be . . .

(Guy Claxton: The Wayward Mind page 350)

Though the idea of the universe may seem too much too swallow for some, even if we restrict ourselves only to thinking of the brain, our inscape is larger and more complex than many of us are prepared to admit. This throws us back onto the problem we wrestled with right at the beginning: if we have such a complex and powerful hinterland of forces within us, where does free will fit in?

The metaphor of the garden and cultivation helps us here to understand in what ways our freedom to decide is circumscribed by what is happening out of consciousness: at the same time it shows us that we are not completely powerless and we do have responsibility. We can shape the way things go but we cannot do this arbitrarily and in ignorance of the way the mind-brain system works. For those who want a more detailed understanding of what psychology thinks about this issue, Claxton’s books are a good place to start.

Free Will

We are going to be simplifying the situation in order to focus on a central issue. Bahá’u’lláh tells us:

hyacinthSow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of thy heart.

(Persian Hidden Words, No. 33)

The balance of conscious decision-making against automatic unconscious processes implied here is very much how things really are, I think. We can choose what we sow in the soil: we can even make sure that some of the conditions are favourable. But it is the soil and the sun that do the bulk of the work. Without the power of nature the gardener could do nothing. And this captures the balance of forces between our decisions and the actions we take, which are relatively puny but of great significance, and the massive spiritual and mental forces that are then mobilised to bring our plans to fruition. We have to work with those forces for we cannot work against them. We are the puny rider training the massive elephant, to use Jonathan Haidt‘s different image. If we plant something other than the hyacinths of wisdom, that’s what we’ll get. If we plant nothing and do no weeding, then we’ll have, in the words Hamlet uses of the state of Denmark:

. . . an unweeded garden

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely.

(Act I, Scene ii, lines 135-137: merely means ‘completely.)

(It is perhaps no coincidence that both Zen Buddhism and Islam also see spiritual sustenance in both experiencing and maintaining a well-kept garden: that I’m good with the hammock and bad with the trowel worries me sometimes.)

We must allow that the brain has vast unconscious forces working in parallel. But what we do with our minds influences what those forces do in highly significant ways. It is not deterministic and we do have free will — up to a point. Beneath the surface, our mind processes outside our consciousness what we drop into it. We can learn, if we are skillful and resolute, to control by act of will what is planted in our minds though we may not be able to control exactly what our mind then does with it.

What about the soul?

Now we must return to a crucial point. While what I have just explored holds true regardless of whether we are talking about brains, minds or souls, I also accept that the evidence and the reasons for thinking it is the soul are not compelling. If we were compelled by their cogency and force to accept them, there would be no freedom of choice and no moral value in believing or not believing in a soul, anymore than there is moral value in believing that grass is green or the sun is hot.

However, I would like, before the end of this series of posts, to quote two writers from very different traditions who feel that there is a powerful body of evidence, disparaged in our culture, that says the spiritual or transcendental dimension has to be taken seriously, however you might choose to define it.

Ken Wilber concludes a complex review of what should constitute evidence and falsifiability by stating:

. . . it then becomes perfectly obvious that the real battle is not between science which is ‘real,’ and religion, which is ‘bogus,’ but rather between real science and religion, on the one hand, and bogus science and religion, on the other. Both real science and real religion follow the three strands of valid knowledge accumulation, while both bogus science (pseudo-science) and bogus religion (mythic and dogmatic) fail that test miserably. Thus, real science and real religion are actually allied against the bogus and the dogmatic and the nonverifiable and the nonfalsifiable in their respective spheres.

(The Marriage of Sense and Soul, page 169)

Margaret Donaldson, in an equally brilliant book that looks at the development of the human mind from infancy to adulthood, concludes:

. . . . if the intellect has unbalanced us, there are corrective steps open to us which are not regressive and which do not entail a rejection of reason. At the same time, we may come to feel less embarrassed about and suspicious of transcendent emotion, seeing it as no more ‘wierd’ than the capacity for mathematical thought. Neither of these is, or is ever likely to seem, banal or commonplace. Each has its element of mystery. Yet each is a normal, though generally ill-developed, power of the human mind.

(Human Minds, page 266)

The value of a spiritual perspective

It is my view that, if we can accept the spiritual dimension, we will be more motivated to persist in the difficult work of cultivating our inscape, and if we do not we will be inclined to give up far too soon with dire consequences for ourselves and our societies.

The Elizabethans often compared the state to a garden. There is a strong connection, it seems to me, between the state of the gardens of our minds and the state of the gardens of the societies that we create. If we want to see the Tudor picture of a harmonious garden within and outside us we need to accept that arduous and persistent work needs to be done. The Gardener in King Richard the Second laments:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . O, what a pity is itforsythia

That [the king] had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land

As we this garden! We at time of year

Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit trees,

Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,

With too much riches it confound itself;

. . . . . . . . . . . . Superfluous branches

We lop away, that bearing boughs may live;

Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,

Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

(Act III, Scene iv, lines 55-66)

What is true for them and for King Richard is also true for us in terms of our own hearts and our own communities. If we fail to do the necessary systematic work, then we will perhaps end up with Richard lamenting:

I wasted time and now doth time waste me.

(Act V, Scene v, line 49)

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