Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘John Cowper Powys’

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

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

A Blast from the Past

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

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

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

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

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

I’m glad I made the purchase.

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

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

Critical Quadrants

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 15 touches on Quadrant D:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a residual problem.

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

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

John Cowper Powys (For source of image see link)

Possible Plot Spoiler

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

An example might help to illustrate what I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is the credibility problem here?

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

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

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

More of this later maybe!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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

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

A Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She agreed to put me through to discuss the MRI.

‘Radiology here. How can I help?’

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

‘Yes, it is.’

I began my explanation.

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

‘Will my hospital number do?’

‘Yes. That’s fine.’

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

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

‘So when might that be?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Valid Criterion?

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

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

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

Taking that into account, what am I expecting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And where does this leave me?

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

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

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

Relating

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

Reflecting

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

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

Reading & Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »