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It seems worth republishing this sequence again, mainly because of my current sequence on The Matter with Things, to which it resonates strongly. The first four posts will appear this week: the last two next Tuesday and Wednesday.

In this sequence, triggered by Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality, I have looked at how Neoliberals ‘offer – no, demand – a religious faith in the infallibility of the unregulated market.’[1] I have examined the claim that this is assisted by the commandeering of a deracinated spirituality to act as a kind of tranquilliser to damp down any feelings of discontent with the capitalist system. I also took into account how our individualised society relies on psychological approaches, in contrast to more socially oriented cultures, and accepts a perspective on our situation that suggests we have no effective alternative, as capitalism is the best option.

This all combines to reduce the potential for forms of collective resistance.

We need now to look at how a combination of two reciprocally reinforcing factors makes resistance even less likely than even Carrette and King’s model would predict. We need to do this before we look at possible alternatives. I’ll start with complexity, and a related factor, before going on to look at coherence in the next post.

Complexity

Putting the problem at its simplest ‘Economists model people as knowing exactly how the economy works, whereas we would argue that they themselves do not have the full picture.‘[2]

There is fascinating evidence in support of the idea that even the economic experts don’t have much of a clue.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent analysis of our flawed decision-making abilities in general, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, turns his attention to what goes on in the process of financial speculation.

Tracking individuals, he finds, does not confirm their sense that they know what they are doing:

Many individual investors lose consistently by trading, an achievement that a dart-throwing chimp could not match.[3]

In Chapter 24, after reviewing the evidence he concludes:

. . . . . financial officers of large corporations had no clue about the short-term future of the stock market; the correlation between their estimates and the true value was slightly less than zero! When they said the market would go down, it was slightly more likely than not that it would go up. These findings are not surprising. The truly bad news is that the CFOs did not appear to know that their forecasts were worthless.[4]

There were exceptions to this general trend in that ‘the most active traders had the poorest results, while the investors who traded the least earned the highest’[5]  and  ‘men acted on their useless ideas significantly more often than women, and that as a result women achieved better investment results than men.’[6]

This is not a very flattering state of affairs for the economic pundits:

There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not—and few of them do—are playing a game of chance. The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are no more accurate than blind guesses.[7]

Kahneman’s own research confirms this view. He was invited to investigate the figures of a firm to whom he had been invited to speak. He was given access to a ‘spreadsheet summarizing the investment outcomes of some twenty-five anonymous wealth advisers, for each of eight consecutive years.’[8]

He took the first basic step in this assessment of skill:

It was a simple matter to rank the advisers by their performance in each year and to determine whether there were persistent differences in skill among them.[9]

The rank ordering allowed for the calculation of how well each person’s rank held up over the whole time period studied. The more consistent people were the stronger the correlations would be between each year’s figures.  He created 28 correlation coefficients, one for each pair of years.

Then came the surprise:

I knew the theory and was prepared to find weak evidence of persistence of skill. Still, I was surprised to find that the average of the 28 correlations was 0.01. In other words, zero.[10]

Which meant, in effect, that ‘[t]he results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.’ ‘The illusion of skill’[11] is a deeply embedded one in this area, but it is also deeply misplaced. What we learn from carefully analyzed data is that:

. . . . people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.[12]

I will return in a later section to another aspect of this problem from Kahneman’s point of view. At this point I need to focus on what others have to say on his main point about the global economic complexity in which this unpredictability has its roots.

In The Econocracy the authors make their position plain: ‘many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . .’[13] and that ‘the economic knowledge that forms the basis of [the economists’] claim to expertise is often inadequate.’[14]

Wilhelm Streeck points out what makes this complexity even more difficult to fathom:

[There remained] little if any space for collective action, . . .  because it was hard for most people in financial markets to understand their own interests and identify their exploiter. . . . The prosperity, relative and absolute, of millions of citizens depends on decisions of central bank executives, international organisations, and councils of ministers of all sorts, acting in an arcane space removed from every day experience and impenetrable to outsiders, dealing with issues so complex that even insiders often cannot be sure what they have to do and are in fact doing.[15]

There are, however, ways we could enhance our chances of decoding some of the mystery if the will was there. The next section explores some of the removable obstacles impeding our progress in this respect.

Tunnel Vision

Let’s pick up the threads of this with Kahneman’s analysis of decision-making in complex social, political and economic situations again. He uses a key expression that needs more examination (my emphasis):

In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.[16]

He feels that two important lessons need to be learned from all this:

The first lesson is that errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable. The second is that high subjective confidence is not to be trusted as an indicator of accuracy (low confidence could be more informative).[17]

He concludes that ‘stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.’[18]

This sounds like confirmation of John Donne’s dictum: ‘Doubt wisely.’

How can what other writers say help us unpack the dangers of hyperspecialisation and suggest potential partial remedies?

The Econocracy is a good place to start. They explain that ‘economics students only learn one particular type of economics and . . . they are taught to accept this type of economics in an uncritical manner.’[19] Moreover, they teach ‘this perspective as if it is economics’ which ‘allows economists to see their discipline as a complete system.’[20] They conclude that ‘this amounts to nothing less than indoctrination into the neoclassical way of thinking about the economy.’[21]

So, hyperspecialisation paves the way to patterns of teaching which amount to indoctrination, in their view. They go on to clarify that economists differ in one critical respect from other academic disciplines:

. . . a considerable majority from all the social sciences, from history to psychology, agreed with the statement [that ‘in general, interdisciplinary knowledge is better than knowledge obtained by single discipline’], illustrating that economists are unique in their belief that their discipline has all the answers.[22]

They lack what the authors term ‘pluralism.’ They suffer from a kind of tunnel vision

It seems a no-brainer, then, to realise that, if a system is highly complex, it’s going to take more than one perspective to grasp its patterns with any hope of predicting developments and controlling consequences.

The remedy The Econocracy proposes rings bells for me from a Bahá’í perspective at least. They write:

. . . many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . . Our vision is of a world in which economic experts recognize that their knowledge of a complex economy is limited and that economic issues are the proper subject of collective democratic debate. The role of experts is to inform citizens of their choices rather than to make those choices for them.[23]

They unpack some implications of this much later in their book:

The kinds of skills and qualities needed by citizens in a broad democracy to function effectively are learned, not innate, and must be practiced to be mastered. They include listening, compromise, the ability to critically evaluate verbal and numerical argument, and developing independent judgement. They can only come through practical experience of being involved in participatory democratic institutions. In this sense, moving towards a system of broad democracy is a process of learning by doing.

. . . . . We have spent considerable time and energy thinking about the pedagogy we use for public education activities because we are aware that embedding critical reflection and pluralism at their core is not easy.[24]

Why do Bahá’í bells ring?

In terms of The Econocracy’s point about ‘participatory democratic institutions’, bells ring because a core discipline of the Bahá’í Faith is consultation. The Prosperity of Humankind contains a succinct statement of its purpose which also conveys a great deal about its methods and assumptions: `the adversarial method, . . [is]. . fundamentally harmful to [the] purpose [of consultation]: [which] is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.’ It is basically a process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that: (a) no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth, (b) groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and (c) today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Secondly, because Selling Spirituality emphasizes the importance of having a moral compass based in true spirituality to counterbalance purely material considerations, the Bahá’í case for much the same kind of balance immediately springs to mind. A Bahá’í statement on social action addresses this issue:

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. 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. . . . Together, these two sources of knowledge tap roots of motivation in individuals and communities, so essential in breaking free from the shelter of passivity, and enable them to uncover the traps of consumerism.

At present too many of us in so-called ‘developed’ societies, by which I mean ‘industrialised,’ are caught in the ‘traps of consumerism,’ the trancelike mind-set of the markets, convinced they’ll find riches and fulfilment there. We are convinced there is no way out.

Streeck describes this and to a degree subscribes to it:

The problem is, while we see [capitalism] disintegrating before our eyes, we see no successor approaching. . . . There is also the absence of a vision of a practically possible progressive future, of a renewed industrial or new post-industrial society developing further and at the same time replacing the capitalist society today. Not just capital and its running dogs but also their various oppositions lack a capacity to act collectively.[25]

Which brings us back to the other problem, hinted at by the Bahá’í quote above. There is another key capacity that is lacking: coherence. We have to have some sense of how this can be remedied if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Footnotes

[1] McChesney (1999) quoted in Selling Spirituality – Page 169
[2] The Econocracy – Page 98.
[3] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3843.
[4] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4738.
[5] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3856.
[6] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3857.
[7] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3877.
[8] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3882.
[9] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3884.
[10] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3887.
[11] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3899.
[12] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3958.
[13] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[14] The Econocracy  – page 27.
[15] Streeck – page 20.
[16] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3963.
[17] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3982.
[18] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4347.
[19] The Econocracy  – page 37.
[20] The Econocracy  – page 40.
[21] The Econocracy  – page 54.
[22] The Econocracy  – page 115.
[23] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[24] The Econocracy  – pages 152-56.
[25] Streeck – page 35-36.

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Given that the recent post on the expectation effect hinted strongly at our perception of reality being essentially a simulation, reposting some poems that touch on that seemed a good idea.

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

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For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

Read Full Post »

In this sequence, triggered by Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality, I have looked at how Neoliberals ‘offer – no, demand – a religious faith in the infallibility of the unregulated market.’[1] I have examined the claim that this is assisted by the commandeering of a deracinated spirituality to act as a kind of tranquilliser to damp down any feelings of discontent with the capitalist system. I also took into account how our individualised society relies on psychological approaches, in contrast to more socially oriented cultures, and accepts a perspective on our situation that suggests we have no effective alternative, as capitalism is the best option.

This all combines to reduce the potential for forms of collective resistance.

We need now to look at how a combination of two reciprocally reinforcing factors makes resistance even less likely than even Carrette and King’s model would predict. We need to do this before we look at possible alternatives. I’ll start with complexity, and a related factor, before going on to look at coherence in the next post.

Complexity

Putting the problem at its simplest ‘Economists model people as knowing exactly how the economy works, whereas we would argue that they themselves do not have the full picture.‘[2]

There is fascinating evidence in support of the idea that even the economic experts don’t have much of a clue.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent analysis of our flawed decision-making abilities in general, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, turns his attention to what goes on in the process of financial speculation.

Tracking individuals, he finds, does not confirm their sense that they know what they are doing:

Many individual investors lose consistently by trading, an achievement that a dart-throwing chimp could not match.[3]

In Chapter 24, after reviewing the evidence he concludes:

. . . . . financial officers of large corporations had no clue about the short-term future of the stock market; the correlation between their estimates and the true value was slightly less than zero! When they said the market would go down, it was slightly more likely than not that it would go up. These findings are not surprising. The truly bad news is that the CFOs did not appear to know that their forecasts were worthless.[4]

There were exceptions to this general trend in that ‘the most active traders had the poorest results, while the investors who traded the least earned the highest’[5]  and  ‘men acted on their useless ideas significantly more often than women, and that as a result women achieved better investment results than men.’[6]

This is not a very flattering state of affairs for the economic pundits:

There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not—and few of them do—are playing a game of chance. The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are no more accurate than blind guesses.[7]

Kahneman’s own research confirms this view. He was invited to investigate the figures of a firm to whom he had been invited to speak. He was given access to a ‘spreadsheet summarizing the investment outcomes of some twenty-five anonymous wealth advisers, for each of eight consecutive years.’[8]

He took the first basic step in this assessment of skill:

It was a simple matter to rank the advisers by their performance in each year and to determine whether there were persistent differences in skill among them.[9]

The rank ordering allowed for the calculation of how well each person’s rank held up over the whole time period studied. The more consistent people were the stronger the correlations would be between each year’s figures.  He created 28 correlation coefficients, one for each pair of years.

Then came the surprise:

I knew the theory and was prepared to find weak evidence of persistence of skill. Still, I was surprised to find that the average of the 28 correlations was 0.01. In other words, zero.[10]

Which meant, in effect, that ‘[t]he results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.’ ‘The illusion of skill’[11] is a deeply embedded one in this area, but it is also deeply misplaced. What we learn from carefully analyzed data is that:

. . . . people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.[12]

I will return in a later section to another aspect of this problem from Kahneman’s point of view. At this point I need to focus on what others have to say on his main point about the global economic complexity in which this unpredictability has its roots.

In The Econocracy the authors make their position plain: ‘many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . .’[13] and that ‘the economic knowledge that forms the basis of [the economists’] claim to expertise is often inadequate.’[14]

Wilhelm Streeck points out what makes this complexity even more difficult to fathom:

[There remained] little if any space for collective action, . . .  because it was hard for most people in financial markets to understand their own interests and identify their exploiter. . . . The prosperity, relative and absolute, of millions of citizens depends on decisions of central bank executives, international organisations, and councils of ministers of all sorts, acting in an arcane space removed from every day experience and impenetrable to outsiders, dealing with issues so complex that even insiders often cannot be sure what they have to do and are in fact doing.[15]

There are, however, ways we could enhance our chances of decoding some of the mystery if the will was there. The next section explores some of the removable obstacles impeding our progress in this respect.

Tunnel Vision

Let’s pick up the threads of this with Kahneman’s analysis of decision-making in complex social, political and economic situations again. He uses a key expression that needs more examination (my emphasis):

In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.[16]

He feels that two important lessons need to be learned from all this:

The first lesson is that errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable. The second is that high subjective confidence is not to be trusted as an indicator of accuracy (low confidence could be more informative).[17]

He concludes that ‘stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.’[18]

This sounds like confirmation of John Donne’s dictum: ‘Doubt wisely.’

How can what other writers say help us unpack the dangers of hyperspecialisation and suggest potential partial remedies?

The Econocracy is a good place to start. They explain that ‘economics students only learn one particular type of economics and . . . they are taught to accept this type of economics in an uncritical manner.’[19] Moreover, they teach ‘this perspective as if it is economics’ which ‘allows economists to see their discipline as a complete system.’[20] They conclude that ‘this amounts to nothing less than indoctrination into the neoclassical way of thinking about the economy.’[21]

So, hyperspecialisation paves the way to patterns of teaching which amount to indoctrination, in their view. They go on to clarify that economists differ in one critical respect from other academic disciplines:

. . . a considerable majority from all the social sciences, from history to psychology, agreed with the statement [that ‘in general, interdisciplinary knowledge is better than knowledge obtained by single discipline’], illustrating that economists are unique in their belief that their discipline has all the answers.[22]

They lack what the authors term ‘pluralism.’ They suffer from a kind of tunnel vision

It seems a no-brainer, then, to realise that, if a system is highly complex, it’s going to take more than one perspective to grasp its patterns with any hope of predicting developments and controlling consequences.

The remedy The Econocracy proposes rings bells for me from a Bahá’í perspective at least. They write:

. . . many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . . Our vision is of a world in which economic experts recognize that their knowledge of a complex economy is limited and that economic issues are the proper subject of collective democratic debate. The role of experts is to inform citizens of their choices rather than to make those choices for them.[23]

They unpack some implications of this much later in their book:

The kinds of skills and qualities needed by citizens in a broad democracy to function effectively are learned, not innate, and must be practiced to be mastered. They include listening, compromise, the ability to critically evaluate verbal and numerical argument, and developing independent judgement. They can only come through practical experience of being involved in participatory democratic institutions. In this sense, moving towards a system of broad democracy is a process of learning by doing.

. . . . . We have spent considerable time and energy thinking about the pedagogy we use for public education activities because we are aware that embedding critical reflection and pluralism at their core is not easy.[24]

Why do Bahá’í bells ring?

In terms of The Econocracy’s point about ‘participatory democratic institutions’, bells ring because a core discipline of the Bahá’í Faith is consultation. The Prosperity of Humankind contains a succinct statement of its purpose which also conveys a great deal about its methods and assumptions: `the adversarial method, . . [is]. . fundamentally harmful to [the] purpose [of consultation]: [which] is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.’ It is basically a process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that: (a) no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth, (b) groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and (c) today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Secondly, because Selling Spirituality emphasizes the importance of having a moral compass based in true spirituality to counterbalance purely material considerations, the Bahá’í case for much the same kind of balance immediately springs to mind. A Bahá’í statement on social action addresses this issue:

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. 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. . . . Together, these two sources of knowledge tap roots of motivation in individuals and communities, so essential in breaking free from the shelter of passivity, and enable them to uncover the traps of consumerism.

At present too many of us in so-called ‘developed’ societies, by which I mean ‘industrialised,’ are caught in the ‘traps of consumerism,’ the trancelike mind-set of the markets, convinced they’ll find riches and fulfilment there. We are convinced there is no way out.

Streeck describes this and to a degree subscribes to it:

The problem is, while we see [capitalism] disintegrating before our eyes, we see no successor approaching. . . . There is also the absence of a vision of a practically possible progressive future, of a renewed industrial or new post-industrial society developing further and at the same time replacing the capitalist society today. Not just capital and its running dogs but also their various oppositions lack a capacity to act collectively.[25]

Which brings us back to the other problem, hinted at by the Bahá’í quote above. There is another key capacity that is lacking: coherence. We have to have some sense of how this can be remedied if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Footnotes

[1] McChesney (1999) quoted in Selling Spirituality – Page 169
[2] The Econocracy – Page 98.
[3] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3843.
[4] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4738.
[5] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3856.
[6] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3857.
[7] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3877.
[8] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3882.
[9] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3884.
[10] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3887.
[11] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3899.
[12] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3958.
[13] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[14] The Econocracy  – page 27.
[15] Streeck – page 20.
[16] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3963.
[17] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3982.
[18] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4347.
[19] The Econocracy  – page 37.
[20] The Econocracy  – page 40.
[21] The Econocracy  – page 54.
[22] The Econocracy  – page 115.
[23] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[24] The Econocracy  – pages 152-56.
[25] Streeck – page 35-36.

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The peaceful and uplifting simplicity of the interior of the Methodist Church in Ludlow

I was asked to give a talk at a South Shropshire Interfaith meeting in the Methodist Church in Ludlow. This sequence is based on the slides I showed and the explanations I gave. It does not attempt to give an account of the experience of the evening: it would be impossible to do justice to that. Suffice it to say, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these issues with such a welcoming group of seekers after truth.

The Oneness of God

For present purposes I am of course assuming we can all accept that a power we label God in English actually exists. It would take too long to deal with that issue fully right now. What we can deal with briefly is to confirm the essential unknowable nature of God: in the end it is the words we use to describe this Great Being, the Ground of Being, that divide is.

‘McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary explains (page 193): ‘Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.’ Similarly with painting: Each painting says what words can never capture. Munch wrote (Prideaux’s biography – page 201): ‘Explaining a picture is impossible. The very reason it has been painted is because it cannot be explained in any other way . . .’

When we try and capture such an immense ineffability as God, we are in the country of the blind where the one-eyed man is king, as they used to say. Imagine two adjacent countries, the one a culture of cooks, the other of gardeners. For the land of cooks, the colour red has been explained to them by the one-eyed king as chilli: in the land of gardeners, their one-eyed king has said that red is like the perfume of a rose . When people from these two different countries meet they quarrel bitterly, sometimes killing each other for not believing in the rose or in chilli, when in fact they are talking about the exact same thing but do not know it. So . . . .

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

The Oneness of Religion

This is not a new idea, though. John Donne, an Elizabethan poet-priest in Tudor England, wrote:

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.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. Only when someone’s idea of God takes them downhill, perhaps killing others in His name, or at least hating them as misguided deviants, should we realize their God is not ‘worthy of worship,’ to use Eric Reitan’s phrase, and is not God at all. Theirs is not a true religion. All the great world religions are in essence one. It is only when we mistake the cultural trappings and rituals for the core that we think this is not true.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

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

A material symbol of this essential unity is the Bahá’í Temple.

Bahá’í Temples, as the world community of Bahá’ís grow larger, will be surrounded by ‘a complex which, as it unfolds in the future, will comprise in addition to the House of Worship a number of dependencies dedicated to social, humanitarian, educational, and scientific pursuits.’ These will be open to all.

I will explore the oneness of humanity next time.

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O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favor! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

Bahá’u’lláh Arabic Hidden Words No. 67

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.

(John Donne Satyre III lines 79-82)

Themes that Resonate

The previous two posts, after a brief look at his life, considered issues such as politics, linguistic obscurity, doubt and egotism in relation to his poetry. Now I’ll begin to look at the themes that resonate most for me. There will some slight overlap with the themes previously discussed. The main problem though will be knowing where to start and when to stop. There is so much I could say.

Just to say, before I plunge right in, there are two main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, and Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Spirituality

Perhaps the best place to start is with the explicitly spiritual aspect of Machado’s poetry, and it’s not just me, with my bias in that direction, finding a spiritual element. It’s there in Machado’s own words, as translated by Trueblood (Page 5): ‘I thought that the poetic element was not the word in its phonic value, nor colour, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep pulsing of spirit: what the soul supplies, if it does supply anything; or what it says, if it says anything, when aroused to response by contact with the world.’ Xon de Ros quotes the original Spanish to support her sense of what Machado describes as his genuine voice – voz verdadera (page 186):

However, Paterson’s post-modern notion of a decentred identity is alien to Machado’s metaphysics where the individual consciousness (however problematic) lies behind both the Bergsonian ‘moi fondamental’ and the ‘tú esencial’ of his later poetry. Machado defines his ‘voz verdadera’ in rather abstract terms as ‘una honda palpitación del espíritu; lo que pone el alma, si es que algo pone, o lo que dice, si es que algo dice, con voz propria, en respuesta animada al contacto del mundo.’

I do not feel his doubts about the soul disqualify the use of the word ‘spirit,’ though exactly what he does mean by the term is hard to determine.

Trueblood raises the interesting possibility that his later style has traces of a mysticism which relate at least partly to the impossibility of expressing what he has experienced (Page 57):

The sureness of Machado’s mature touch is revealed in this mere hint of a state of consciousness which, like that of the mystic at the end of his journey, is inherently inexpressible – and, to the modern mind, unknowable.

I’ll be looking more closely at the issue of the inexpressible later. What will also come into the mix is Machado’s use of paradox to convey the ambivalent state of his reaction to experience (Xon de Ros – page 4): ‘paradox invites resolution, urging the mind to expand and move beyond both scepticism and belief.

Dreams & Spirit

Right now I want to look briefly at a poem that illustrates the interconnection in Machado’s writings between spirit, dreams and loss, all issues of concern to me, as readers of this blog will know.

Poem 10 in Trueblood’s selection pulls these three themes together. It opens with ‘Oh tell me, friendly night, so long beloved,/bringer of my puppet world of dreams,/bare barren stage that holds/only my phantom inside . . .’ before shifting later to a sense of loss in the night’s response, ‘I do not know your secret,/although I have seen that forlorn phantom/you speak of, roaming through your dream.’ Night also admits ignorance because ‘in the deep recesses of the soul,/whether weeping is voice or echo/I do not know.’ This intermixing of such themes runs through the whole of Machado’s poetry. The uncertainty here is also characteristic of Machado’s take on reality as I will explore later, explaining why this also appeals strongly to me.

The notes (page 281) shed light on the effect of writing such poems on Machado’s mind by quoting another poem of his: ‘If I speak, my own voice sounds like an echo and my song is so hollow that my pain is no longer frightening.’ I’ll also come back later to another note to this poem – this time one dealing with the issue of our having ‘many personalities.’

Trueblood quotes Machado to explain why dreams were so important to him (page 19): ‘one who does not remember his dreams does not even know himself. . . . I have always been a man very attentive to his own dreams, because they reveal to us our deepest disquietudes, those which do not always reach the surface of our waking consciousness.’ The influence of Freud is detectable here. Their effect, for Machado, is more profound though than Freud’s take on the matter (page 22): ‘Poem 18 . . . equates the inner space of a dream with the deep vault of the soul.’ Trueblood hypothesizes that they are linked perhaps in Machado’s mind with poetry itself, referring to an English Romantic poet (page 200): ‘Keats’s final poem ‘Sleep and Poetry’ establishes a correlation between the two as purveyors of visions and dreams conceived as a source of creativity.’

If anyone needs an explanation of why Machado’s engagement with dreams resonates with me at least as much as his sense of loss, they will find it in my discussion of my Hearth dream. At the end of my explanation I wrote: ‘I don’t expect to get to the bottom of this dream’s meanings in this life. I just think I have to keep referring back to it to see what else it can teach me. I think it is a dream about the heart that came from my heart. I feel the heart in this sense is ‘the experience of soul or spirit in consciousness,’ as a friend of mine once put it in a workshop.’

At the head of the post I had quoted from Machado (Selected Poems translated by Alan Trueblood: page 90-91):

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

Not surprisingly it triggered an arresting thought: ‘An intriguing question arose after I had re-read Machado recently.  Did I read him before I had this dream? Was there some subliminal influence from that encounter? The date I bought the book permits that possibility, but I can’t be absolutely sure.’ A Machado moment if ever there was one!

This poem is one I love to read and re-read. Partly because, as Trueblood explains in the notes (page 281), it is ‘expressive of aspiration to faith but not of its possession.’ The poem ends:

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

I will be exploring later my uncertainty principle and the idea that John Donne expressed of ‘doubting wisely,’ a turn of phrase to be found a few lines later in Satyre III which I quote at the top of this post. Absolute certainty is elusive and possibly illusory and not the same as the ‘Certitude’ Bahá’u’lláh explores in a book of that name (the Kitáb-i-Íqán). Not all the dreams we have of God are true.

His preoccupation with bees, a frequent trope in his poems, also holds my interest. Until I read Trueblood’s notes, though, I hadn’t realized that ‘bee imagery is not uncommon in manuals of devotion.’ However, there is a caveat here before we assume that this is exactly what Machado means: ‘Whereas the emphasis of the mystical writers cited is on the humility and the diligence of the bees, with Machado it is characteristically on the mysterious powers of creative transformation of their honey-making process, powers here seen at their most striking.’

The ending of the next poem in Trueblood’s selection flags up how far Machado is from the comfort of complete faith, and how close he is to the spirit that infuses R S Thomas’ poetry (page 93):

No, my heart is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
Not asleep, not dreaming –
its eyes are opened wide
watching distant signals, listening
on the rim of the vast silence.

That’s enough for now I think. More on resonant themes next time. For now I’ll close with another poem about bees. The first poem below is the Spanish version, followed by Trueblood’s translation, with my lame version trailing behind, though I have improved the ending over my first attempt.

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