Posts Tagged ‘Jurgen Habermas’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why is this relevant here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya’

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

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

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

Telling the difference can be difficult (page 132):

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

Bearing all that in mind let’s plunge in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya’

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

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

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

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

From a technical point of view (page 129):

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

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

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

Hofman’s view is that (page 133):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Donne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lines in question from the satire are:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Plantinga summarises his main points (page 265):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alvin Plantinga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I think it may even go further than this.

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

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

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

I’m entering difficult waters but here goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can make the world a better place.

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

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

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


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glass of green teaAt the end of last Monday’s post I stated that a sense of common humanity was one of the most important lessons I have brought back with me from my recent demanding but rewarding trip to Indian and China. What binds us together at a deep level is of far more importance than what tends to split us off from one another. We are indeed ‘leaves of one tree’ even though it has been all too easy in the past to pretend that we are not.

As a result I find as yet vague intentions taking shape within me. I want to be able to communicate more fully with my aging memas, who only speaks Persian and Hindi. I also want to understand the culture of China better, what Habermas might have termed the life-world [1]of China, that intricate and subjective web of implicit values and relationships that predates Communism, or even the Republic, and has not been completely obliterated by their modernity. Last week’s Guardian article on the fruitful legacy of Raymond Williams’ thought amplifies exactly what this might mean:

Williams’s tool for elucidating these unexpected inter-relationships [between country and town] is the so-called “structure of feeling” of any given period – described by his cultural studies ally, Stuart Hall, as “the way meanings and values were lived in real lives, in actual communities”. How did people conceptualise their present state, what was the material and intellectual underpinning behind it, and how did it structure their feelings? Or as Williams himself explained: “The most difficult thing to get hold of, in studying any past period is this felt sense of the quality of life at any particular place and time; a sense of the ways in which the particular activities combined into a way of thinking and living.”

Not all of that web will be light I realise. The history of marginalised and foot-bound women is only the most obvious example of the historical dark side of a deeply stratified and bureaucratic society. However, much of China’s implicit life-world on the positive side relates not to the overlay of competition that is so current, but to the importance of the family and the community as co-creators of a more harmonious reality in many ways.

Michael Wood deals with this theme as an historian in his BBC2 series The Story of China. It was screened while I was away and I’m just beginning to catch up on what I recorded. The first programme opens with a family connecting with their ancestor of a thousand years ago. They had to find the gravestone, lost during the cultural revolution, and reinstate it. At the personal level this parallels the scholars of Confucius who found the pieces his gravestone, also destroyed during the heyday of communism, and put them back together again. Rituals to celebrate ancestors on the one hand and Confucianism on the other went unobserved for decades, but can now be seen again reverently played out at these two locations that could so easily have been lost forever.

The second programme explores how the spirit of Buddhism was brought to China and how it blended into and helped shape the culture. Already the complex mix of influences that are still alive in China is becoming apparent as this series unfolds. I am very much looking forward to the next episode.

Watching the rest of this fascinating series will be easy. Will I have the determination to follow through with the idea of learning conversational Persian and deepening my understanding of China much further? I hope so. My relationship with two key people in my life – memas and my daughter-in-law – will be greatly enriched if I do.

Wild GrassWild Grass

I’ve started my exploration of China with a book I bought in 2005 that has remained untouched on my shelves ever since. It’s Wild Grass by Ian Johnson. It tells the stories of three brave and forward-looking people who, each in their different way (page 9), ‘represents key problems facing China: the crises in its villages, cities and its soul.’

What surprised me as I started reading this book was that the sentence that triggered the strongest response early on was about tea. He is travelling on a train through the Loess Plateau. In conversation with a man in the otherwise empty open-plan sleeper compartment they are drinking tea together. He writes (page 15): ‘We blew on our tea leaves, hurrying their descent to the bottom of the cup.’

Memories of my recent trip flooded back. I couldn’t count the number of times we ended up drinking green tea from a glass. The leaves float on the top of the water for ages only dropping to the bottom as they soak. If you drink at that point, they get in your mouth and you have to discreetly spit them out. I found that poking at them can help them sink but it’s not guaranteed. I wish I’d read this book before I went to China.

But the glasses of tea are just one node in a web of many other memories.

We sat at least twice a day at table.

One table was round, and, during the big family meals of Chinese New Year, it was expanded by bringing a large disc of plywood from the back room. This was adapted to fit more or less securely on top of the table. There were one or two moments when a heavy elbow triggered a wobble that spilt the tea, but most of the time it worked well and we all fitted comfortably round the adapted table.

Another table in a different house brought back other memories. It was rectangular with a split in the middle. A handle plugged into a socket so that turning it opened the split and an expansion of the table top could be slotted it. No wobbles with that one to spill any tea, but my mind flooded with pictures of a larger table we had at home when I was a child. The similar handle and a similar extra piece of table allowed us to seat far more people when other family members visited at Christmas and New Year.

The Round Table

In China, the way the meals then worked was to have a couple of people on kitchen duty. For at least an hour most times they stayed there, producing dish after dish while everyone else tucked in. There were usually at least a dozen dishes served. No rice during such big gatherings.

We were touched to see how our for them eccentric vegetarian diet was catered for so carefully. On at least three occasions a salad, lovingly researched on the internet, was served specially for us. Apparently this was the first time anyone there had ever seen a salad served as part of a meal in this way.

At the same time as tea was served, the cooks of the day appeared from the kitchen. Some of us made way and they sat at the table to eat.

The culinary rewards and challenges of India were different. I have always loved Indian food and eating vegetarian is easy over there. As long as I avoid the tap water, with its dense population of unpleasant bacteria and other organisms, I’m fine. This can be difficult when eating out, as salad may have been washed in it and yoghurt and even fruit juices been diluted by it.

Where my wife’s mum lives has challenges in terms of cooking rather than eating. Aluminium pans with no handles that don’t balance well on a basic gas hob would raise the blood pressure of every health and safety expert for miles around in the UK. The pile of oven gloves nearby was no guarantee you could safely grab a pot of boiling dhall before it spilled everywhere.

The most alarming practice, which none the less had delicious results, was reheating yesterday’s chapatis on the naked gas flame. At least the long tongues kept vulnerable fingers out of harm’s way. Regrettably, my enjoyment of the outcome somehow prevented me from protesting vigorously enough against the method.  Reheating chapatisIn China, once the meal was finished it was time for cards – they played a complex variation of rummy, which I never quite worked out. Memories again. As a child I remember how, once the dishes were cleared away, the cards came out and we played Newmarket. It was a gambling game but we played for dried peas, which had been equally distributed to all the players at the start of the game. We were as noisy then at Christmas as these family members were at their New Year. Laughter rang out constantly as fortunes fluctuated within the game. My wife, our son, his wife and I had our deck of Uno cards and were given a table of our own to play at. The four of us probably made as much noise as the ten at the other table.


It was like going back in time for me – the custom of more than sixty years ago brought back to life. And it is striking how sharing such a simple game seems to bring you closer.

As I progress through Wild Grass I know the dark side of China, not just the hope that lives in the hearts of its ordinary people, will come to the fore. Even so, I don’t think the strong links, that began to form with this family during our stay in Dafeng this Chinese New Year, will be damaged by that. I might be saddened to understand more fully how hard life is for them in many ways, but that will bring me closer to them for sure.

The VagrantsSo, I’m closing my laptop now and going back to the book, the first of many unread volumes about China on my shelves.

I might even summon up the courage to read The Vagrants by Yiyun Li. I still have the bookmark at page 10 where I stopped in my first attempt in 2009. The book, based on a true story, is about a couple in 1979 whose daughter is executed. Because my parents, all through my early childhood and even beyond, were grieving for the loss of my sister before I was born, I found the painful theme of parental grief too hard to cope with. I hope I can tackle it now. Let’s see how it goes.

My copy of Colloquial Persian has arrived. Will I ever get past the alphabet in the Introduction?


1. Kraus is quoted in Wikipedia as stating: ‘Life conditions mean a person’s material and immaterial circumstances of life. Lifeworld means a person’s subjective construction of reality, which he or she forms under the condition of his or her life circumstances.’

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The tarn lies among mountains. A rabbit enjoys the grass near the water’s edge. A slight breeze wrinkles its surface in which is reflected a hawk hovering in the pale blue sky. The landscape is deserted – not a soul in sight. The deep green of the tarn’s bed is lost in shadows.

This dream of thirty years ago has stayed with me. I am not present as a person on the bank or gazing down from a nearby hilltop. In some strange way I am part of the landscape. What I see is me.

I am the lake, the rabbit, the sky and the hawk – possibly even the breeze as well. I could unpack for you now all the implications of this dream that have occurred to me over the years. However, it’s much more interesting to ask: ‘What would the dream mean if you had dreamt it?’

‘How am I supposed to know?’ you might well ask. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea how to puzzle out the meaning of my own dreams, let alone yours.’


There are many methods proposed by many writers and therapists working in all sorts of different traditions, from the Freudian through the Jungian to the Gestalt and beyond. Ann Faraday’s book The Dream Game gives a pretty good approach to working a dream.

I don’t propose to go into the details now. I wanted simply to demonstrate that the human mind creates realities out of nothing every night. I wanted to point out that the human mind, though locked in language a lot of the time, is a weaver of images as well. We think in symbols for huge portions of our sleeping time and most of our waking time too, under the surface of our conscious mind’s dazzling play of light and shade.

When wide awake and conscious, we may be baffled by our dreams. In executive mode, busy with the practicalities of life, we may read a poem and experience it as nonsense.

Is that how it has to be? Are dreams and poems pointless games the mind plays with itself? Do they deserve to be dismissed with a contemptuous shrug? Is looking more closely at such things a complete waste of time?

Poetry Matters

Indeed. O Brother, if we ponder each created thing, we shall witness a myriad perfect wisdoms and learn a myriad new and wondrous truths. One of the created phenomena is the dream. Behold how many secrets are deposited therein, how many wisdoms treasured up, how many worlds concealed.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Seven Valleys: page 32)

If we take Bahá’u’lláh’s words seriously I don’t think we can dismiss dreams, poems, imagery and symbols.

When I was writing in an earlier post about the limits of reason I quoted Michael Pusey on Jurgen Habermas.

Pusey explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.

In previous posts I have dealt a lot with values, partly through discussions about our ideas of God. I have tended to neglect the area of art, beauty, imagery, poetry and the like – the means with which we build bridges between what we experience directly and think we understand and what we can’t and don’t. It’s often how one person explains her take on the inexplicable to someone who doesn’t really get it. It’s usually a man who doesn’t get it and goes back to fixing his motorbike.

Bahá’u’lláh tells us that every atom in the universe has been given us for our training. He also conveys much of what He wants to tell us in picture language. So does Jesus in His parables and metaphors. ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not neither do they spin.’ The words echo down to me clearly still along the corridors of memory.

I know them by heart – such an interesting metaphor itself. They are part of my core being, internalised – we would not lose such treasures in a shipwreck though we fear burglary by such ruthless intruders as Alzheimer’s because they seem able to break into our very heart and pillage it. Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha assure us though that the soul remembers even if the brain forgets.

A Tale of Three Kingdoms

What exactly is going on when the Founder of a great world religion speaks of His ‘Father’s house’ having ‘many mansions’ or tells us that the ‘pure heart is as a mirror’?

A good place to start is a statement from Erasmus: ‘In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.’ Divorcing it from its context, we can play with this idea.

Let’s pretend there are three neighbouring kingdoms: Forgedom where only blacksmiths live, Tandoorstan red-hot1which is inhabited exclusively by chefs, and Pays de Jardins whose only citizens are gardeners. In each kingdom lives a one-eyed woman, trying to explain colour to her sightless fellow citizens. In Forgedom Cinders speaks of red as fire, Saffron in Tandoorstan describes red as chilli powder, while in the Pays de Jardins Violette uses the scent of the rose to help them understand.

Unfortunately, each country takes these metaphors literally and regards the inhabitants of the neighbouring countries as dangerously deluded. That, though, is not the fault of the one-eyed women. How else could they convey an idea of red to those who have been blind from birth? How could it be their fault if the people mistook the map for the territory?

Images of Eternity

This is the trap in which we all find ourselves.

We have to use what we know to give us a sense of the unknowable. It can work well if we don’t take it literally. It can give us something to carry in our hearts that works itself deeper and deeper into the core of our being conveying a sense of the sublime that might otherwise be completely inaccessible to us. This suggests that the images used by Messengers of God (and by poets as well of course) can affect us deeply, if we will only reflect upon them, immerse ourselves in them. Our very hearts are changed.

Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.. . . ‘

(Bahá’u’lláh: Gleanings: LXX).

These processes, when the material we immerse ourselves in is speaking to our higher nature, are not the vain imaginings Bahá’u’lláh condemns as delusional but the proper use of the imagination as a spiritual power ( See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions, page 210)

Keith Ward wrote in Images of Eternity:

What needs to be done is to develop a sense that the world of finite things is able to express an infinite reality beyond and yet also infusing it. We need to learn to see things as pointing beyond themselves, as sacramental of a supreme reality and value, as visible images of eternity, in what I have called the iconic vision.

(Page 3)

John Hatcher felt much the same:

. . .  it is the Bahá’í belief that the physical world is, in reality, but the spiritual world expressed in concrete symbols. As such, the relationships among all the constituent parts of the physical world are expressions of relationships in the spiritual realm.

(The Purpose of Physical Reality: page 69)

(Incidentally, this has echoes of the medieval world picture which Habermas depicts as more unified in its understanding of the world, though perhaps unduly privileging the ethical over the instrumental and the aesthetic in ways that became intolerant and punitive. It did seem to leave a lot more room for the aesthetic than we have eventually come to allow. That we whitewashed over our icons and smashed our statues in the Protestant backlash against Rome has been adduced as one reason why our pictorial art lagged so far behind that of Italy and Spain who built on their medieval heritage. Instrumental thinking in its current form has its own prejudices in this respect and finds artistic modes of expression flaky, unreliable, even dangerous. We still have a long way to go before we get the balance right)



We human beings climb up the ladder of understanding on rungs constructed from the raw materials of our experience of the physical world. Keith Ward, followed by Margaret Donaldson, talks of how some of us at least, who practice very hard, become increasingly capable of grasping deep realities such as the spiritual more directly, more abstractly, floating rather than climbing further upwards – not using the ladder anymore. But most of us need a ladder almost all the time if we are to rise to new heights of understanding. In the same way most of us will never understand the abstract mathematics used to describe the universe’s underlying processes: we need analogies from our felt experience to bridge the gap in our understanding.

If we turn our backs on the ladder of poetic expression and close the door to the staircase of our dreams, we do so at our peril. The deepest and wisest aspects of our being communicate more often without speech – in intimations and intuitions that cloth themselves in poetic language and in dreams. This core, our essence, absorbs wisdom and seeks to share it with our conscious mind in this way.

Reality transcribes eternity into symbols the heart can read if we will let it:

‘That Beauty in which all things work and move’ can beam on us ‘[c]onsuming the last clouds of cold mortality.’

(Shelley: Adonais, lines 479 and 486)

So, let’s make a bit more room for the poetic in our society and stop kidding ourselves as a civilisation that everything worth knowing can be said in prose.

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An Insult to Reason

To disparagingly call reason a candle in the dark vastness of the universe as I did in a recent post might seem a bit dismissive. Perhaps there was a touch of overstatement there. It may not be quite that feeble but the difference between a candle and a searchlight in virtually infinite space might not count for much.

My problem is, though, that Western culture does tend to display what Karl Popper calls an ‘irrational faith in reason’. That we, who

Elephant and rider

Elephant and Rider

are its inheritors, do so is a value judgement not an objective assessment. This is what I wanted to call into question.

The earlier bald statement could be seen as an example of the dogmatism I distrust so much. So, I thought I’d better unpack my thinking now with a touch more humility.

Reason is not perfect

From 1904, for a period of about three years, Laura Clifford Barney recorded her conversations with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. This record was published as Some Answered Questions. It covers a wealth of fascinating topics including a  discussion of how we acquire knowledge. On page 297 he is recorded as saying:

the method of reason is not perfect, for the differences of the ancient philosophers, the want of stability and the variations of their opinions, prove this. For if it were perfect, all ought to be united in their ideas and agreed in their opinions.

Of course, our modern methodology involves using reason alongside systematically explored experience. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá questions the reliability of sense data as well (same page).

. . . the principal method of gaining knowledge is through the senses; [philosophers] (a term he used at this point in a way that would include scientists) consider it supreme, although it is imperfect, for it commits errors. For example, the greatest of the senses is the power of sight. The sight sees the mirage as water, and it sees images reflected in mirrors as real and existent; large bodies which are distant appear to be small, and a whirling point appears as a circle. The sight believes the earth to be motionless and sees the sun in motion, and in many similar cases it makes mistakes. Therefore, we cannot trust it.

We may well feel, reading this, that quoting what was said in someone’s “tired moments” (page xvii) more than 100 years ago,  no matter how wise and spiritual the insights might be, is about as helpful in the 21st Century as a furcoat in the Sahara.

I think instead that what he said is more relevant than ever and I am not alone. Much has been written on the same issue since, and some of it very recently at that, and it’s coming from much the same position. Highly regarded thinkers, whose lives have been dedicated to puzzling over precisely these problems, are among those espousing this point of view.

Reviewing Some Recent Thinking

I’ll be looking very briefly at what Jurgen Habermas, Ken Wilber and Jonathan Haidt have said about the limits of reason and dangers of an uncritical acceptance of the supposedly scientific approach.

Before I talk about Habermas I have a confession to make. I don’t read German and I have struggled with English translations of his work.  I’ll be relying instead on secondary sources, mainly Michael Pusey‘s excellent book, and will be slightly simplifying the discussion there for present purposes.

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

Ken Wilber in ‘The Marriage of Sense and Soul‘ does not shrink from using a more expressive and subjective language when he makes his case. Again I will be highly selective in my treatment here in order to keep it short as well as relatively straightforward. The book, though, is brilliant and needs to be read from cover to cover more than once.

He says (page 56):

Put bluntly, the I and the WE were colonialised by the IT. The Good and the Beautiful were overtaken by a growth in monological Truth . . . . Full of itself and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism, the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull  in the china shop of consciousness.

For monological substitute ‘monochrome’ or ‘tunnel-visioned’ if it helps.

He advocates a broader sense of what empiricism is (page 152-3):

. . . there is sensory empiricism, . . . mental empiricism . . . , and spiritual empiricism. In other words, there is evidence seen by the eye of the  flesh, evidence seen by the eye of the mind, . . . and evidence seen by the eye of contemplation.

Interestingly this brings us back to ‘Some Answered Questions,’ the point from which we started:

Know then: that which is in the hands of people, that which they believe, is liable to error. For, in proving or disproving a thing, if a proof is brought forward which is taken from the evidence of our senses, this method, as has become evident, is not perfect; if the proofs are intellectual, the same is true; or if they are traditional, such proofs also are not perfect. Therefore, there is no standard in the hands of people upon which we can rely.

But the bounty of the Holy Spirit gives the true method of comprehension which is infallible and indubitable. This is through the help of the Holy Spirit which comes to man, and this is the condition in which certainty can alone be attained.

Whether you accept that spiritual insight is the only approach we can rely on or whether you feel it is one of several ways of knowing that complement one another, what is clear is that the spiritual method is not to be discounted and the method of reason is not to be enshrined.

The Last Word (for now)

I’ll give the last word on the limitations of reason to Jonathan Haidt from his book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis.’ He draws upon the analogy used in the ancient traditions of the East, which see reason as the rider on the back of a huge elephant consisting of all the other forces inside us (page 17):

. . . the rider is an advisor or servant: not king, president or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. . . . The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, the visceral reactions, emotions and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don’t always work together well.

And he goes on to analyse why and in what ways.

In my view, what is true for an individual is also true by analogy of a society. It’s time we as a collective dethroned reason and learned to work with the elephant and reason together. The price of failing to do so could be very high indeed.

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