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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Bate’

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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O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh  No. CLII)

My wife and I were sitting reading on the upper deck as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. The sea was calm. There was a low band of cloud floating just at the bottom of the sky-line. It didn’t look as though we’d get the spectacular fire-forge of a sunset we’d been hoping for. Still, it was pleasant to sit, stroked by a relatively gentle wind, before a sky far wider than we usually enjoyed.

I took out my copy of Mindfulness and the Natural World by Claire Thompson. I had decided to use one of her meditations (page 124) to help me tune in more to nature.

‘Write a list of five things in nature that you noticed that day and feel grateful for.’ I started to work on my list, glancing at the sinking sun as I scoured my memory.

There was the fig tree in the square in Cadiz, at least I think it was a fig tree. The fruit hanging from its branches might have been just a tad too large to be a fig, but I wrote that down anyway.

Then there was the old tree in the coastal garden there. We’d been hurrying back to the boat at that point so I didn’t really have time to savour fully the complexity of its system of branches, but the impact it made even so had stuck in my mind.

I was beginning to struggle at this point. Clearly my campaign to connect with nature was getting off to a bad start here.

As I gazed at the slowly reddening sun, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a woman with an expensive camera leaning over the rail and staring at the water.

The melons I had eaten in my fruit salad came to mind for some reason. I wrote it down. That concoction was going to be a regular feature of my on-board diet, though I didn’t know that yet. Gratitude would shift into boredom.

Then I remembered the flocks of seagulls swooping down towards the waves as we pulled out of Cádiz.

As I worked on remembering another item to make my list of five, and tried to summon up a feeling of gratitude for the experiences I had remembered, the lady with the camera approached.

‘Hallo,’ she said, in a clearly Spanish accent.

‘Hi,’ I responded. ‘Glad you came up to speak to us. I was wondering what you were hoping to catch in your camera.’

‘Whales or dolphins.’

‘Ah, that explains your badge,’ I said, catching on slightly late to something I had noticed earlier even at a distance. I could read it clearly now. ‘Orca. What does that mean exactly?’

She gave me her opt-in card.

‘We’re giving a talk tomorrow. Would you like to come? It’s at 10 o’clock in the theatre.’

‘We will do. By the way it’s a bit of a coincidence that I was trying to tune into nature better when you showed up.’

I showed her the page I was working on and what the meditation was about.

She expressed polite interest before moving on to the next deck chair.

Later, at her talk, we learned, amongst other things, that the Orca, though it is known as the killer whale, is really a dolphin because it has teeth, which whales do not. There are 29 species of the whale/dolphin family in the Mediterranean. The tongue of the largest whale is large enough for an African elephant to stand on and its heart is the size of a VW car, apparently. The Orca is more modestly sized as a bus. The sperm whale can hold its breath for two hours. I’m not sure this factual approach was helping me in my efforts to tune in to the natural world.

After she walked away, I remembered the pigeons cooling off in the fountain just off the Plaza de España in Cádiz. I was kicking myself for not having taken a photograph.

I had a half-hearted attempt to meditate with gratitude on the five things in nature I’d recently noticed, before picking up the book to read some more, glancing at the setting sun as I did so, but failing to wonder why I hadn’t used that in my list instead of the melons.

Unfortunately I bumped up against one of my bêtes noirs almost as soon as I started reading (page 33

Like our bodies and our senses, our minds came from nature and were shaped by living in the natural world.

It is amazing to me how deep-seated and taken for granted this reductionist view of the mind is, spawned within the default materialism in which our minds swim. A materialistic model of the mind leaves us only with the Earth as a self-transcendent source of meaning and a motivator to lift our sights higher and behave more morally. This is the problem I have discussed before in reaction to Rifkin’s prescription for a change that would save our civilisation. Rifkin clearly feels our connection with the earth is the best hope we’ve got (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

As I expanded on in that post, my sense is that, sadly, nature alone will not be enough to lift us above our tendencies to self-destruction.

Of course, I also accept that some forms of ‘religion’ have led to the opposite problem, an exploitative contempt for nature and recognize that we need to integrate both religion and nature constructively if we are to survive.

Thompson’s reductionist assumptions continued (page 49):

To live in the realms of our minds and to cling to the idea of a constant separate ‘I’ experiencing our entire lives lies at the heart of most of our unhappiness.

It is true that our idea of who we are can cause unhappiness, but it does not prove that believing there is no self at all will make us happy. She is conflating mind with its contents. She is not considering the possible nature of pure consciousness, another issue I have dealt with at length elsewhere in a discussion of Sam Harris’ position in the light of his meditative practice. The part of it that is relevant to recall here, because of Thompson’s attachment to Buddhism, is this:

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied centre of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

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

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

I put the book down again and picked up that day’s Sudoku puzzle, something the cruise printed off every morning for all passengers to battle with between watching the waves, the sunset or the dancing lessons in the Atrium (that term is an interesting remnant of the Roman civilisation which made it difficult to shake of the amphitheatre associations I described last time).

Instead of focusing on the numbers, I found my mind drifting back to another book I’d read before setting off on this trip, one that dealt with nature, this time in the context of poetry, and hadn’t pressed my anti-scientism button to quite the same extent, but enough to explain why my mind now drifted off in that direction.

Before setting foot on any deck, I had completed my reading of Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth. Its rich and intriguing exploration of the relationship between poetry and nature was reshaping my understanding of both nature and poetry. I took it with me onboard ship along with his biography of John Clare, a sensation in his time as a peasant poet, an English equivalent of Robert Burns. The lifelong theme of his poetry was nature. His almost obsessional life’s work was a vast collection of poems rooted in his passionately intense and minute observations of the natural world.

I had naively thought that the cruise would bring me closer to the sea in a way that would deepen my relationship with nature. I had underestimated how hard the glittering carapace of the cruise ship would make connecting with the sea it sailed on, and how the instrumental architecture of the docks we landed at would virtually delete from sight the land we disembarked on. Cranes and containers, warehouses and duty free shops, competed for my attention instead.

Even driving through the countryside near Livorno, on the way to Pisa, had its ironic contrasts: on the right flourished green glades of umbrella pines opposite the war machine of an American army base.

Even so the conclusions Bate had reached in The Song of the Earth were still rattling round my head.

An important insight towards the end of the book comes from a poet whose complete works I recently took to the local Oxfam shop as not worth keeping. Bate writes (page 238):

Murray implies that the vastness and untamability of Australia mean that the peculiar power and sacredness of that land may still be sensed. He christens this religious sense ‘Strine Shinto.’ His own poetry – though tempered with wryness, irony and self-deprecation – undertakes a complex integration of the ancient idea that nature is the book in which a transcendent God writes his presence with a kind of secular Shinto which serves as the ground for an environmental ethic.

The insight, combining as it does the sacred and poetic with the natural, resonated strongly with me. I have written before of how repellant I find our exploitative relationship with the earth, a point that Bate touches on (page 244):

Advanced Western culture has a distinctive and perhaps exceptionally divisive understanding of humankind’s relationship to nature, an understanding which may for convenience be traced back to Baconian empirical science and Cartesian philosophical dualism, and which was further developed in Kantian idealism.

He pushed me to confront an issue that I hadn’t really thought much about before (page 251):

If ‘world’ is, as Ricoeur has it, a panoply of possible experiences and imaginings projected through the infinite potentiality of writing, then our world, our home, is not earth but language. . . . There is a special kind of writing, called poetry, which has the peculiar power to speak ‘earth’. Poetry is the song of the earth.

I’m not sure I agree with his point about where our home is, but I was eager to explore the idea of poetry as the ‘song of the earth.’

The sun was almost set now. Time to go back to our room and listen to the news before attempting to go to sleep, in my case with the usually reliable sedative of a good book.

As we took the lift down through the eight levels to Deck 5 after our conversation about whales and dolphins, I remembered the point in the mindfulness book that had linked with Thompson’s reductionism and Bate’s use of the example of one poet who has always intrigued me, though also frustrated my full understanding of what he is attempting to say (page 263):

In a letter of 13 November 1925 to his Polish translator, Rilke explained his purpose in his master work, the Duino Elegies. He considered these meditations as responses to the transience of all earthly things. In the face of transience, the poet must undertake the work of transformation. . . The language of unification and transformation, the yoking of earth and consciousness, the divinisation of the immanent world as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm: these are all the moves which Wordsworth made in ‘Tintern Abbey’.

The phrase ‘as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm’ struck a warning bell to which I will return later in this sequence – shades of reductionism again perhaps?

For now the key point is the haunting truth that (page 281):

The poetic articulates both presence and absence, it is both the imaginary recreation and the trace on the sand which is all that remains of the wind itself. The poetic is ontologically double because it may be thought of as ecological in two senses: it is either (both?) a language (logos) that restores us to our home (oikos) or (and?) a melancholy recognising that our only (oikos) home is language (logos).

It relates to something I was already aware of: transience. A haunting example cut literally across my path in China when I saw a man writing in water on the path of a Shanghai park. I learnt that this was a symbol of transience, of how all things fade eventually as time goes by.

When we got back to our cabin we watched Sky news, our default channel and not my preferred fare, which on this occasion was focused partly on the earthquakes in Indonesia. There had been a second one, slightly weaker than the first but still causing damage and possible loss of life. We promised ourselves we’d check with our steward the following day to make sure his family were all OK. 

Writing with Water in a Shanghai Park – a Buddhist symbol of Evanescence

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[Y]e walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you.

(Bahá’u’lláh Persian Hidden Words No. 20)

There are four main things I have learnt from mindfulness of the natural world: acceptance, patience, impermanence and interconnectedness.

(Mindfulness and the Natural World by Claire Thompson – page 109)

An Overview

When I was floating on the Mediterranean Sea recently, I read Richard Fortey’s words in his ‘intimate history’ of the earth (page 33): ‘ The floor of the Mediterranean Sea is a collage of tectonic plates. Ultimately, that sea is doomed to obliteration when the main body of Africa ploughs into the European mainland in thirty million years or so.’

My peaceful experience of floating on the barely rippling surface of this ultimately doomed stretch of water served to reinforce, by its gigantic contrast, his later observation about humanity’s predicament as a whole (page 192): ‘Mankind is no more than a parasitic tick gorging himself on temporary plenty while the seas are low and the climate comparatively clement. The present arrangement of land and sea will change, and with it our brief supremacy.’

In a way this captures the whole ambivalent nature of my cruise experience.

I was travelling in a microcosm of our larger world, a mobile self-contained community culture in itself – a massive technological marvel, more like a floating city centre than a boat. As the more than three thousand of us moved across the planet fed, entertained and watered in our apparently innocent pleasures by a crew of more than one thousand, floods killed in Kerala and earthquakes in Indonesia, hurricanes threatened Hawaii and there was talk of impeachment in America. We were not quite emperors fiddling while Rome burned, but certainly we could not unfairly be described as the privileged many indulging ourselves while the Arctic icepack melted in unexpected places.

In a very real sense this was a mind-broadening journey on many levels and across many different kinds of territory. There was the literal journey, which had its peak experience moments, such as the one in the Amphitheatre in Cartegana.

There was the arc of travel via the visual arts, of which our encounter with Goya via Dali in the ship’s Gallery was the best example. These images from the tensions and tragedies of the Spanish past brought us face to face with the ongoing trauma of the Rohingya and the refugees from Syria, forcing us to see that we are still replaying the same heart-rending situations as were enacted in Europe in the 19thand 20thcenturies.

There was my journey to somewhere closer to the centre of the earth via my reading, something already hinted at in my references to Fortey’s book, but which was deeply enriched by my exploration of the poet John Clare’s life, courtesy of Jonathan Bate’s biography, which I read as a kind of sequel to his equally enthralling Song of the Earth.

The ship too had something to offer in that respect with a talk about and a brief glimpse of dolphins, along with, of course, some spectacular sunsets. Watching the wake of the ship one day I also came to realize with what stunning accuracy Hokusai had captured the behavior of deeply disturbed foam. Art and nature are often not very far apart.

I’ll come back to all these later.

Getting used to it

Adapting to the cruise experience was initially quite demanding for this fussy septuagenarian. The cabin was tiny, and the hall of mirrors effect did little to compensate. I never felt like a king of the ‘infinite space’ Hamlet refers to, though the mirrors facing each other created an illusion of infinite regress. I remained very much ‘bounded in a nutshell’ throughout the journey, but that bothered me less as days passed by. In a way it was more like Macbeth than Hamlet, even though I had not ordered anyone to be killed. I was ‘cabined, cribbed, confined’ rather by the doubts that come from possibly contributing to the deaths of others by my life style.

Just as the idea of the ship as a microcosm of our society stuck with me, so was the prison cell aspect of the cabin something I could never quite shake off, partly I think also because the freedom afforded by the decks outside was still constricted, except when we had docked. I was, and am still, very aware that a luxury cruise is about as far from a real prison experience as it’s possible to get, but I am also very aware that if I chafed to this degree over these minor constraints how painful must a real prison be.

This was another way in which the cruise experience deepened my understanding of apparently unrelated things.

Sleep was another unexpected addition to the price tag. I lost quite a lot of sleep as a result of the grumbling engine and other noises at night. As a result I’m now not quite as rested on my return as I had hoped to be, another trigger to deeper insight into how it must feel to be even more sleep deprived in far more testing circumstances, such as the involuntary travel demanded to escape death or persecution.

You may be wondering by now why I ever booked onto a cruise in the first place. I’m shaping up to be the archetypal killjoy and spoilsport. Partly it was in memory of my Aunt Anne, who went on a cruise to ease her grief two years after the relatively early death of her husband. It certainly helped her.

She was someone I felt close to, admired and respected. Somewhere deep down I’ve always had the feeling I should try out the same experience, in spite of my reservations about its being an unnecessary indulgence. So, eventually I bit the bullet with mixed results.

To be completely honest, there was also the need I felt to step off my treadmill of tasks for a short time, and the cruise seemed to offer a good way of doing that.

On the whole though, in spite of these whinges and of the poor quality of the vegetarian food options, I can’t really complain.

We were well looked after, and the ship provided all the customary escapes and distractions we need to keep our trance of materialism deep enough to persuade us we are happy. My disappointment is my fault. How would I realistically expect a holiday cruise to bring me closer to nature in a rapid well-encapsulated sea journey and enrich my understanding of other cultures in a series of one-day exposures on land to basically shiny tourist resorts?

The Upside

I am grateful to the cruise company that we were assisted to arrive where we could enjoy at least two enlightening self-conducted explorations, one in Pisa, where I found treasures I’d missed in a 1978 visit, long before the more recent spate of suicides from the Torre Pendente, and one in Cartagena, which I would never have dreamed of visiting had it not been for this cruise.

I now need to spell out in more detail some of the ways that the literal voyage intertwined with other kinds of journey to expand my understanding and awareness.

I can begin to look at the first kind of voyage straightaway.

Cartagena took us completely by surprise. We never expected to find something as breathtaking as these remnants of the Roman amphitheatre that had been so recently uncovered. Built originally in the last decade BC, it had been lost completely to sight after the 13thcentury cathedral was built over the seating area. In 1988 the first remains of the theatre were discovered during the construction of the Centro regional de artesanía. The archaeological excavations and the restorations were completed in 2003. In 2008 a museum, designed by Rafael Moneo, was opened.

My response was complex.

The size of the intact span of the seating area was stunning. We stepped from the relative darkness of the museum, rich in background tamed by display cabinets, into the full glare of the Amphitheatre’s arc at the level of the very top of the seating.

I gasped.

As we explored the magnificent ruin, in all its damaged glory and pride, my admiration and pleasure began to mingle with a sense of sic transit gloria mundi. As this leached more deeply into my experience of the sunlit stonework, I couldn’t help but apply the same warning to the cruiseship I was travelling on, especially as many places in this part of Spain, not just Cartagena, have a complex history involving fallen civilisations still detectable not just in Roman, but also in Byzantine and Moorish traces. The ship was tempting us all to remain trapped in a glittering simulation of reality, in the same way as the Roman people were placated by that Empire’s bread and circuses. In terms of its purpose, and setting aside gladiators and the perhaps exaggerated connection between Christians and lions, the Amphitheatre was just the Roman equivalent of the Cruise and of all the other trance-inducing trappings of our materialistic civilisation. Its ruins, a symbol of the typical fate of all civilisations no matter how apparently invulnerable, were making it impossible for me to evade the real nature of the journey I had embarked on. 

Why should our cruise and all it stood for be an exception? Why should I not be at risk of the shock of similar losses? After all, the kind and helpful steward who took care of our cabin would soon be distressed about the disappearance of his cousin in the wake of the second earthquake in Indonesia. That was a reminder quite close to home.

Other insights triggered by the cruise will have to wait until next time.

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The ideas in this post have taken a long time to reach the light of day. The fact that they are doing so now is down to reading a fascinating book about someone who was blogging before blogs were invented.

Montaigne

Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne picks up on this (page 6):

He was the most human of writers, and the most sociable. Had he lived in the era of mass networked communication, he would have been astounded at the scale on which such sociability has become possible: not dozens or hundreds in a gallery, but millions of people seeing themselves . . . . . from different angles.

She points out that his attraction is that we find ourselves reflected in his account of himself. And sure enough I did when I came to Chapters 6 & 7 in her book. She writes of his debt to philosophy, particularly the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics.

She describes stoics (page 114) as being ‘especially keen on pitiless mental rehearsals of all the things they dreaded most.’ They sought to achieve equanimity by confronting sources of discomfort head on. Epicureans were more inclined to avoid unpleasantness by turning ‘their vision away from terrible things, to concentrate on what was positive.’ The sceptics, she claims, sought to get to the same destination by a rather different route (page 124):

The key to the trick is the revelation that nothing in life need be taken seriously.

The way the trick is worked though is the really interesting bit. You deal with problems by what the Greeks termed epokhe. That triggered an immediate frisson of recognition in me because I recognised behind that unfamiliar Greek word a more familiar French one: époché. I’d seen this in books on existentialist philosophy and psychotherapy where it is used to mean ‘bracketing’ when referring to assumptions and beliefs (see Spinelli). This meant placing them in brackets to put some distance between yourself and your operating assumptions so that you could inspect them in a more detached way. Epokhe, according to Montaigne, meant suspending judgement, a very similar concept.

It’s beginning to be obvious why this latter version of scepticism meant something to me as I have always been taken by the power of suspending my identification with my ideas so that I could reflect on them and maybe change them, including my ideas of who I am. Reflection is a word also used in existentialism to convey this concept of disidentification, about which I have written at length in other posts. My encounter with Montaigne even at second hand in this way was rather uncannily mirroring me. He evinces the same kind of doubt and uncertainty about the validity of his preconceptions as has been my default position for as long as I can remember.

Interestingly Montaigne did not find this kind of scepticism at odds with his Christian Faith. This is a point to which I shall return.

Before we lose the initial thread completely I need to go back to why I resonated to Montaigne’s version of Stoicism and Epicurianism as presented by Sarah Bakewell.

The emphasis I derived from the stoic position was endurance, facing discomfort down. For me this connects with the idea in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that you need to develop the capacity to enact your values in the face of discomfort and not use discomfort as an excuse to do nothing of use or value. For me this is closely allied to the idea of duty. Epicurianism on the other hand seemed to value avoidance and distraction as a means of defusing unpleasantness. Seen this way these two philosophies capture an apparent polarity that splits my mind on many occasions.

Duty calls me to exert myself which I might do until fatigue and stress flip me into escapism: I then distract myself with something less demanding. Initially it may seem as though duties and distractions are genuinely opposite. However, whether something seems a duty or a distraction can shift depending upon my point of view and most importantly what value I detect as in reality underpinning the activity.

A duty undertaken not for its objective usefulness or moral value but as a means of making a good impression on others suddenly becomes suspect. An apparent distraction such as watching Hamlet or Lark Rise to Candleford on television may inspire a deeper understanding of people or rekindle a strong sense of community that makes me a better person capable of greater empathy and kindness: what was despised as a temptation from the path of duty becomes the means of enriching my sense of common humanity.

So what seemed initially the clear contradiction between duty and distraction turns out to be a false dichotomy. My encounter with Montaigne via Bakewell has suddenly become not just a mirror but a microscope. It has brought a subtle problem into clearer focus.

This shouldn’t really have come as such a surprise to me. Since my teens I have lived with and partly through Shakespeare, and Shakespeare and Montaigne are kindred spirits.

Hamlet almost kills Claudius Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company Directed by Gregory Doran

Hamlet almost kills Claudius
Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Gregory Doran

Jonathan Bate describes this in his brilliant book on Shakespeare, Soul of the Age (page 410):

If there is a single book that . . . brings us close to the workings of the mind of Hamlet, it is Montaigne’s Essays. Scholars debate as to whether or not Shakespeare saw Florio’s translation before it was published in 1603. The balance of evidence suggests that he probably did not, but rather that his mind and Montaigne’s worked in such similar ways that Hamlet seems like a reader of Montaigne  even though he could not have been one.

And I’ve known of this connection for a long time but been too lazy or unwilling to grapple with Montaigne directly even in the most recent skilled translation of the complete essays by Screech which I bought in 2003. One of the reasons  why I have been unable to convince myself that I should invest the necessary effort in reading its 1200 pages is that I cannot make up my mind whether to do so would be enacting a duty in the face of discomfort or succumbing to a distraction that would lead me away from the path I ought to be pursuing. You see the problem? It’s also clear why I find Montaigne’s tentative scepticism so appealing. I’m like the old joke about the man who went to the psychotherapist saying: ‘I have this terrible problem. I have to qualify everything I say. Well, almost everything.’

Time to return now to the problem we mentioned earlier: how is such doubtful dithering compatible with faith? A possible key to this is touched on in Bakewell’s book (page 130). She quotes Montaigne:

We must really strain our soul to be aware of our own fallibility.

She goes on to say:

There was only one exception to his ‘question everything’ rule: he was careful to state that he considered his religious faith beyond doubt.

While this went down well during his life time, it’s interesting to note that sometime after his death he ended up on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books where he remained for a hundred and eighty years.

Clearly this is not a stance without its complications. In an age of evangelical atheism and creationism how does this idea that we can doubt everything but faith hold up?

For Bahá’ís this is an interesting issue in that our scriptures give us some hints about how this apparent contradiction might be managed in our own lives. Bahá’u’lláh tells us:

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.

(Arabic Hidden Words: Number 67)

Our understanding is therefore never going to be the same as the truths the Revelation is seeking to convey. Bahá’u’lláh also seems to distinguish between the sort of cast-iron certainty we sometimes have about our understanding and Certitude which is the highest form of faith.

When the channel of the human soul is cleansed of all worldly and impeding attachments, it will unfailingly perceive the breath of the Beloved across immeasurable distances, and will, led by its perfume, attain and enter the City of Certitude….

(Kitáb-i-Íqán: page 126 UK Edition)

And He explains what exactly the City of Certitude is:

That city is none other than the Word of God revealed in every age and dispensation.

(Op. Cit.: page 127 UK Edition)

So certitude is about our relationship with the Word of God itself, not about our relationship with what we think Revelation means. In the first section of the Íqán Bahá’u’lláh has made it very clear how wide of the mark of divine purpose the understandings of mankind can be. This maps closely onto the distinction Paul Lample makes in his book Revelation and Social Reality between religion and Revelation. There is a crucial distinction, he feels (page 21), between Revelation as the undiluted Word of God and religion as the way the Word is applied.

Therefore a deep scepticism about my own understanding can be quite compatible with an unswerving faith in the Scriptures of a religion. Such a position is in fact preferable to a cast-iron commitment to our current interpretation of our religion which will either crack under the hammer blows of the tests life smashes into us or be used as a weapon with which to crack the skulls of our so-called enemies.

How amazing that the blogs of a sixteenth century Frenchman resonate so strongly with my 20th Century mind. We still have a lot to learn from him it seems. Perhaps I should tackle Screech’s book after all.

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David Tennant’s Hamlet

When I was away over Christmas I couldn’t watch Dr Who — sorry David Tennant — playing Hamlet at the time of its showing.  I’ve only just got round to watching my recording of this Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production now in the middle of this second big freeze of the winter — its power took me by surprise. At the same time I’m in the middle of reading Peter Taylor’s demanding but rewarding book Chill. Much to my surprise these experiences are for me connected, each echoes the other.

Perhaps I need to clarify from the off that it’s not the ‘bitter cold’ referred to in the first ten lines of Hamlet that I’m thinking about here though it is a strongly common element. It’s to do with seeming, actuality and action. Both Hamlet and Chill at their core share a concern with the relationship between appearance and reality and the implications of that for both understanding what is likely to happen and deciding what to do. In both works there is a political dimension to complicate the way things work themselves out.

I realise of course that there are a small number of trivial differences. The Danish court that Hamlet experiences as a prison is not wracked by angst about its carbon emissions or living in fear of a rising sea disrupting its conspiracies: regicide trumps CO2 for them. Similarly, Chill is not written in blank verse, there are no kings and queens, no ghosts appear and no one, not even the Chair of the IPCC, is poisoned in an orchard while asleep. So, am I forcing the point here a bit?

I don’t think so.

On page 200 of his book Taylor writes:

. . . we need to be clear that it is the duty of science to state clearly the boundary conditions of its knowledge and to draw attention to what currently lies upon the fringe – the place where breaking knowledge will inevitably appear and transform the current view. If science strays from this duty, it becomes a tool of the political or religious order of the day.

In Hamlet, the eponymous hero is confronted with a stark choice: to kill Claudius or not. Whether he does so depends upon what view of appearances he takes. Is the apparition that discloses his father’s murder to him really the ghost of his father or is it the devil come to tempt him to destruction? The wheels of the first two acts of the play revolve around this axle.  After his encounter with the players at the end of Act II and his decision to have them stage a representation of his father’s alleged murder, he knows he has set up an experiment of a kind to determine if at all possible where the truth lies (I’ve always found that those last two words have an interesting double meaning in our language).

. .  . . The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this; the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

(Act II, Scene 2: lines 530-537)

The word ‘relative’ here is used more in the sense of ‘relevant.’

It is interesting to note that it is through a play, not through a controlled scientific experiment, that Hamlet proposes to test for the truth. Jonathan Bate, in his introduction to Hamlet in the carefully researched and beautifully presented RSC edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, points this up very clearly (page 1920):

[Hamlet] comes to the truth through a ‘fiction’ and a ‘dream of passion.’ In this he can only be regarded as an apologist for the art of his creator.

Is there no hard distinction then between imagination and reality? Perhaps it is not as absolute as we would like.

Chris Frith (The Psychologist: October 2009: page 843) reminds us of some fascinating points about the reality/perception issue:

This Helmholtz/Bayes framework had a number of interesting implications, and I suspected that many people might be quite shocked by them.

*Our experience of having a direct perception of the world is an illusion. This illusion is created by our lack of awareness of the inferences being made by our brain.
*There is no qualitative difference between perceptions and beliefs. A perception is a belief about the world that we hold to have extremely high probability.
*Perceptions are created by combining bottom-up, sensory signals with top-down, prior beliefs.
*Our perceptions are an estimate of the state of the world and never the true state of the world. However, we can constantly improve our estimate by making and testing predictions. For survival it is more important to be able to predict the state of the world than to have a very good estimate of what it was in the past. Furthermore, for survival all that matters is that our model of the world makes useful predictions.

But this issue of prediction is a tricky one when we are dealing with complex global phenomena like climate change. Taylor argues (page 220):

We have to ask the question whether there is any value in prediction when the science is so uncertain. In my view the answer is no. In fact, any pretence at prediction may proffer an unreliable knowledge upon which quite counter-productive policies could be based.

But that does not mean we are powerless to act.

. . . it is better to assume no knowledge of the future climate, but to examine current vulnerability to change in any direction. This is the concept of resilience or robustness that ecologists apply to ecosystems. We need to know what a robust human support system looks like. We certainly do not have one now . . .

In terms of possibly counter-productive policy, Taylor feels that there is a high probability that we are in for a period of global cooling which will, for example, have a massive impact on food production exacerbated by such measures as the extensive use of land for the production of bio-fuel. He explains this at some length in the following YouTube video along with the sociopolitical dynamics that in his view are perpetuating the probably erroneous opposite view (more fascinating footage can be found at this link):

There is at least as much at stake here for us as a collective as there was for Hamlet as an individual. Much will depend upon the choices we make as a society. Claudius’ murder of a king who was his brother and Hamlet’s reaction to that crime cost Polonius (Laertes’ father killed by Hamlet, who by that act became as culpable in Laertes’ eyes as Claudius was in his), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother who married his father’s killer), Claudius, Laertes and Hamlet their lives, and Ophelia (Polonius’ daughter) her sanity as well as her life. The personal scale of these consequences plays to the strengths of our way of processing experience and assessing risk (see Gardner’s excellent book for a full analysis of this).

The havoc we could wreak by responding wrongly to the rise in global temperature experienced in the final two decades of the 20th Century (and Taylor does not dispute that there was such a rise — he simply does not accept the case as proven that CO2 played more than a very minor role in that rise) would dwarf the ‘havoc’ (i.e. mound of bodies) confronting Fortinbras in the final moments of the play (not in the TV version sadly). If so much damage can be done when the situation is basically confined within a court and our stone-age brains are well adapted to calculating the risks involved, just think what we can do when the whole world is our stage and we don’t really have a clue what’s going on.

At this point it is hard to be absolutely sure who is right but the next few years will tell. What I am clear about is that, in confronting the choices we have to make, we need to remain as open-minded as possible. Keats defined an attitude of mind that is very relevant to this. To describe this quality, Keats used the term “negative capability” in a letter to his brother dated Sunday, 21 December 1817. He says:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Bahá’u’lláh reminds us in the Arabic Hidden Words that our capacity to understand has limits:

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.

(Number 67)

However, as other posts on this blog have attempted to describe (see the link for an example), our understandings are enhanceable by dispassionate and principled consultation, the difficult art of spiritual conference whose usefulness extends to all realms of human discourse including that of science, especially when such consultation is conducted in the light of experience.

So, here we stand at a crucial choice point. Perhaps we can empathise with Hamlet when he groans:

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

(Act I, Scene 5: lines 205-206)

Fortunately, we are not bound by the conventions of a Revenge Tragedy and do not have to murder anyone to solve this problem. We just have to do the best we can to make sure that as few people as possible lose their lives as a result of our making a bad situation worse, and making this bad situation situation worse is what we will do if we end up combining a failure to recognise the extent of our ignorance with that most dangerous fuel of all with which to power the juggernaut of human action – an absolute conviction born of panic.

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