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Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Proust’

I was hardest hit by the ending of Chapter 83 of Middlemarch[1], the one where Dorothea and Will transcend the barriers between them and at long last unite, when Dorothea realises that she does not want to be bound by her dead husband’s will, which meant she would lose the property he hasd bequeathed her if she married Will.

At last [Will] turned, still resting against the chair, and stretching his hand automatically towards his hat, said with a sort of exasperation, ‘Good-bye.’

‘Oh, I cannot bear it – my heart will break,’ said Dorothea, starting from her seat, the flood of her young passion bearing down all the obstructions which had kept her silent – the great tears rising and falling in an instant: ‘I don’t mind about poverty – I hate my wealth.’

In an instant Will was close to her and had his arms round her . . .

I was in floods of tears.

Back to my well of pain again! It tends to get triggered by people in real life, on TV or in fiction, recovering something precious.

As I grappled vainly once more with what might be the origins of this, my focus began to shift. First to the idea expressed in the diagram at the head of this post. Perhaps what I needed to be doing was understanding more about the causes of suffering and its possible remedies.

Later, though something far more important clicked into place in my head. It didn’t kick the first idea into touch, but it placed it in a wider context.

My Future Focus

I suddenly knew what my future focus needed to be: Understanding and Enhancing Consciousness in Context (more on that in a moment). This constitutes the answer to the question, ‘What should be my focus?’ Taking CARE, will constitute the answer to the question, ‘How should I pursue it?’ ‘Taking CARE’ is an acronym for using Consultation, Action, my 3Rs (reading, writing and reflection) and Experience as the methods I employ. I won’t go more deeply into that as it is going over old ground covered in detail already on this blog.

The immediate positive effect has been to help me decide how to declutter my bookshelves. I’m currently working on my second large bag of books to take to the local Oxfam bookshop. The several volumes I bought in the early 2000s about cosmology and physics were clear candidates. I’d only read the first few pages of one of them. Not surprising really given what my unconscious priorities had always been.

It also helped in my reading of Ziya Tong’s book The Reality Bubble. There were points that were of some relevance to my clearer focus. In terms of our grasp of massively large numbers she writes[2] : . . . ‘scale blindness can be monstrous, because we can’t feel once we have lost our sense of scale, and once we can’t feel, we lose the ability to act appropriately.’ She describes the experimental example of asking for contributions towards helping different numbers of oil-slicked birds (ibid.): ‘The team found that whether the number of oil-slicked birds was 2000, 20,000, or 200,000, the financial offer of help was about the same. Meaning scale simply did not register.’

Here she was highlighting one of the limitations of our consciousness.

Earlier in the book[3] she made a point of some interest about the micro and macro worlds, which, when they were made visible, after the invention of the microscope and telescope, ‘with this new and improved sight came the realisation that we inhabit not only one reality, but three.’ An enhancement of consciousness this time.

Her introduction contains points relevant also to my sequence of posts inspired by Selling SpiritualityShe describes us[4] as a ‘human population’ of ‘eight billion strong, marching to a capitalist drumbeat of eat, work, shop, and sleep. . . . Why do we do it? The big myth, I would argue, is that we are brought up believing there is no other way. We are simply told that this is how the system works.’ She asserts that we can find a new way of looking, ‘new eyes’ in the words of Proust. Smack bang in the middle of my most recent focus, whose exact nature I know better now.

Having the lens of my focus (or should I say the focus of my new lens) made it so much easier to select the quotations that served to increase my understanding of what most matters to me. The feeling was exhilarating. I have a strong sense that this will work with any book I read.

Intriguingly George Eliot was ahead of the reality bubble game in this respect when she wrote[5]:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lives on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walks about well wadded with stupidity.

Why So Long?

In the end what is puzzling is why it has taken so long to see what should have been obvious. From the time I switched from literature to psychology understanding consciousness has been one of my main purposes in life, drawing on psychology and the Bahá’í Writings, mainly, to help me.

What this new focus adds, by the words ‘in context,’ is to clarify where I derive my butterfly tendency to flit from history (very briefly because I find it hard going), through economics to biography, for example. These were all relevant to my understanding of the context of consciousness, but not of any interest in their own right as a specialty, which is what I hadn’t fully understood.

Why should this matter?

Well, I have been fretting for quite some time over what I should be doing with whatever spare time I have. Hobbies such as stamp collecting and playing bowls do not appeal to me partly because they don’t teach me anything new of any value to me. I do watch some TV, not always informative documentaries, but usually when I’m too tired to do anything more engrossing or useful.

It is a great relief to have defined a flexible and constructive way to choose what books to read and which quotations to note down. It also means that I can see every relationship, good or bad, as an opportunity to learn more about how consciousness works in other people as well as myself. I have been frustrated by my inability consistently to turn every conversation I have to meaningful topics and have tended to simply switch off when this happens, and make my exit as soon as possible.

Perhaps my new perspective will help me create opportunities, within my own mind at least, to learn what makes people tick who are very different from me.

This clarity of focus also makes plain why I gain such satisfaction from deep conversations, and also the understanding and alleviating of pain aspect explains why I find helping people deal with their distress so satisfying. A touch of the clichéd wounded healer, I guess, but I think it’s true.

Finally, it will be of use whenever I have a really testing encounter with someone. I have known, since becoming a Bahá’í, that such encounters represent an opportunity to learn spiritually. Now I can see them as an opportunity to deepen my understanding of consciousness, which should make such experiences feel somewhat more positive than they used to.

So, discovering all these benefits from this newly defined focus has eased my mind considerably about what I should be doing with my leisure hours in the relatively short time I still have left. The downside is that it will probably take me a hell of a lot longer to produce a blog post that satisfies me!

The Last Word

Perhaps it would be useful to conclude this short sequence by explaining what it is that drew me most strongly to Eliot’s books, and Middlemarch in particular.

Just as I have recently struggled to find a focus for my leisure time, I struggled for many years in the past to find a faith that would help me realise my desire to help others and to improve society. This was largely because the faith I eventually espoused had to sail most skilfully between two equal dangers: it had to avoid what sinks many an ideology, the rock of supposing that its ends justify almost any means that might achieve them, and to steer clear of what sucks most of the others to a watery grave, the whirlpool of being so determined to look harmless that they become of very little actual use in the real world.

Not surprisingly, both on my way towards discovering the Bahá’í Faith, in my view a ship of faith that steers successfully between the two hazards I’ve described, and also afterwards, George Eliot wrote a great deal that was helpful and it is fascinating to find that Rebecca Mead also draws inspiration from this[6]:

To the extent that she had a faith, it was in what she called ‘meliorism’ – the conviction that, through the small, beneficent actions and intentions of individuals, the world might gradually grow to be a better place.’

She unpacks further what George Eliot might have meant by that[7]:

Her credo might be expressed this way: if I really care for you, if I try to think myself into your position and orientation – then the world is bettered by my effort at understanding and comprehension. If you respond to my effort by trying to extend the same sympathy and understanding to others in turn, then the betterment of the world has been minutely but significantly extended.’

Not sure where I’ll be coming from next but it might look something like that!

Footnotes:

[1] Middlemarch – page 812.
[2]. The Reality Bubble –  page 42.
[3]. The Reality Bubble – page 35.
[4]. The Reality Bubble – page 7.
[5]. Middlemarch – page 204.
[6]. The Road to Middlemarch – page 221.
[7]. The Road to Middlemarch – page 223.

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It’s time to explore in more detail what makes it possible to see capitalism as a religion, but also to see how important it is to factor in other influences than disconnected spirituality to explain our paralysis in the face of capitalism’s deficiencies.

A key point was made in the Century of Light, a statement published by the Bahá’í World Centre in 2001. They wrote:

In an age of scientific advancement and widespread popular education, the cumulative effects of . . . . disillusionment were to make religious faith appear irrelevant.[1]

Adding, later on the same page, the important caveat that:

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

My very battered copy of this classic.

I’ve explored this before on this blog. In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm, on a similar track, writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length:

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.[2]

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The thirst for belief may partly explain why we have ended up putting our faith where it currently lies, lies being the operative word. Carrette and King use a quote from Tony Benn to make the main comparison point:

‘The most powerful religion of all… is the people who worship money.… The banks are bigger than the cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinational companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues.’[3]

They feel that business becomes ‘the religion of the market.’[4]

They specify some of the details about how it works:

A religion of feel-good affluence reassures the consuming public that religion can indeed be just another feature of the capitalist world with little or no social challenge to offer to the world of business deals and corporate takeovers. Spirituality is appropriated for the market instead of offering a countervailing social force to the ethos and values of the business world.[5]

These are not the only forces at work, alongside the trance-inducing pacifying factors listed previously. Wilhelm Streeck, in his book How Will Capitalism End?, refers, for example, to the way the system founds ‘. . . social integration on collective resignation as the last remaining pillar of the capitalist social order, or disorder.’[6]

We probably need to unpack the possible causes of such disabling resignation.

For one thing, as Carrette and King point out, ‘The market is being presented to us as natural and inevitable.’[7], a quality captured in the term capitalist realism’, used by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher to describe the sense that ‘not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system… it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it’.

To catch essentially the same point Streeck uses a German term:

Sachzwang: A factual constraint residing in the nature of things it leaves you no choice. Soon even the left began to internalise the idea of globalization [of capital] as a natural evolutionary process unstoppable by political means . . .[8]

He spells out this suppressive force most clearly when he writes:

. . . over two decades, globalisation as a discourse gave birth to a new pensée unique, a TINA (There Is No Alternative) logic of political economy for which adaptation to the ‘demands’ of ‘international markets’ is both good for everybody and the only possible policy anyway.[9]

The net effect of this is to create a social climate of powerless dissatisfaction, in which deracinated spirituality acting as a tranquilliser is not the only paralysing influence, as Streeck explains:

A pervasive cynicism has become deeply ingrained in the collective common sense. . .  elite calls for trust and appeals to shared values can no longer be expected to resonate with the populace nursed on materialistic-utilitarian self-descriptions of a society in which everything is and ought to be for sale.[10]

This combination of seeing no alternative, cynical acceptance and bogus spirituality have brought us to the point where, to quote Carrette and King this time:

Neoliberal ideology seeps into the very fabric of how we think, indeed into the very possibilities of our thinking to such an extent that people now live as if the corporate capitalist structures of our world are the truth of our existence.[11]

This is very much in harmony with the Bahá’í perspective:

The overthrow of the twentieth century’s totalitarian systems has not meant the end of ideology. On the contrary. There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multi-form it may have been, that did not derive its thrust from some foundational interpretation of reality. Such a system of thought reigns today virtually unchallenged across the planet, under the nominal designation “Western civilization”. Philosophically and politically, it presents itself as a kind of liberal relativism; economically and socially, as capitalism—two value systems that have now so adjusted to each other and become so mutually reinforcing as to constitute virtually a single, comprehensive world-view. [12]

Others also refuse to accept this tunnel vision. Ziya Tong, in her book The Reality Bubble, describes us as a ‘human population’ of ‘eight billion strong, marching to a capitalist drumbeat of eat, work, shop, and sleep. . . . Why do we do it? The big myth, I would argue, is that we are brought up believing there is no other way. We are simply told that this is how the system works.’[13] She asserts that we  can find a new way of looking, ‘new eyes’ in the words of Proust.

As a Bahá’í I am very clear in my own mind that there are alternatives to this dispiriting way of disorganising things, but any more detailed consideration of these will have to wait until the last post in this sequence. The gloom will have to continue for a bit longer so we can explore it more deeply.

Perhaps one of the central and most insidious sleights of mind perpetrated by this ideology is defined by Streeck as ‘the exaltation of a life in uncertainty as a life in liberty.’[14]

Streeck goes on to explain that, if there is active, or at least perceptible discontent, it is to be labelled as a problem within the person:

The entropic society of disintegrated, de-structured and under-governed post-capitalism depends on its ability to hitch itself onto the natural desire of people not to feel desperate, while defining pessimism as a socially harmful personal deficiency.[15]

And of course, deracinated spirituality, ‘the new cultural Prozac,’[16] comes in as the weapon of choice to defuse any incipient feelings of desperation.

This raises the issue, which there is no time to explore more deeply just now, of how much the current unequal, disempowering and disconnecting system in which we live is responsible for many of the health problems, and, more relevantly here, mental health problems from which we suffer. One quote from James Davies’ book Cracked, which I reviewed in the past, will have to suffice. Davies interviewed Dr Peter Breggin, a US psychiatrist who is critical of the medical model. Breggin explained his viewpoint:

Most problems are created by the contexts in which people live and therefore require contextual not chemical solutions. ‘People who are breaking down are often like canaries in a mineshafts,’ explained Breggin. ‘They are a signal of a severe family issue.’ .  . . . For Breggin, because the medical model fails to take context seriously – whether the family or the wider social context – it overlooks the importance of understanding and managing context to help the person in distress.[17]

As a qualifying point, it’s true that, in the UK at least, psychology has shifted away from an unqualified endorsement of the medical model. The British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology recently published a report emphasizing the utility of psychotherapeutic approaches to psychosis. The executive summary opens with the observation that ‘Hearing voices or feeling paranoid are common experiences which can often be a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation. Calling them symptoms of . . . psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.’[18]

Also, the practice of individual psychologists, including me before I retired, has always been careful to avoid doing anything that might induce someone to adapt to the unacceptable, whether that was within an abusive relationship or an oppressive work environment.

I’ll pause at this point. There are certain ingredients that we need to add into this explanatory salad, such as baffling complexity, if it is to create a more satisfactory account of our lack of concerted opposition to the system’s defects. Once done, I can then move on to possible ways of transcending the problems. I am grateful though to Selling Spirituality for triggering me, with its energising critique, to revisit this whole area, and both for emphasising the complicity of so-called spirituality and for confronting me with the barely credible possibility that many people actually invest what amounts to a religious strength of faith in capitalism.

Footnotes

[1] Century of Light – Page 59.
[2] The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – pages 260-61.
[3] Page 23. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Selling Spirituality.
[4] Page 157.
[5] Page 126.
[6] Streeck – Page 15.
[7] Page 174.
[8] Streeck – Page 22
[9] Streeck – Page 23.
[10] Streeck – Page 34.
[11] Page 170.
[12] Century of Light – Page 135.
[13] The Reality Bubble – (page 7).
[14] Streeck -Page 46.
[15] Page 33.
[16] Page 77.
[17] Page 279
[18] BPS, 2014, p. 6.

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No one truth can contradict another truth. Light is good in whatsoever lamp it is burning! A rose is beautiful in whatsoever garden it may bloom! A star has the same radiance if it shines from the East or from the West. Be free from prejudice, so will you love the Sun of Truth from whatsoever point in the horizon it may arise! You will realize that if the Divine light of truth shone in Jesus Christ it also shone in Moses and in Buddha. The earnest seeker will arrive at this truth.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Paris Talks – page 137)

Tu verdad? No, la Verdad,
y ven conmigo a buscarla.

[Your truth? No, the Truth,
and come with me to seek it.]

(Quoted in Xon de Ros – page 226)

In the previous three posts I’ve traversed a wide range of issues impacting on Machado’s poetry, including politics, life’s complexity, doubt, egotism, spirituality and dreams, to name but a few. Just to repeat, before I plunge right in, there are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Reality, Understanding & Language

I am going to move onto slightly different territory now. Truth is the first main focus. As we have begun to suspect, Machado’s characteristic stance is uncertainty. One Day’s Poem illustrates this as it meanders between humour and philosophy, taking its own sweet time. Just over half-way through we stumble over these lines:

Water from true springs
welling clear,
flowing on;
poetry, sprung from the heart.
Something to build on?
There is no solid ground
in the spirit or the wind.
Only oar and sail
drifting on,
down to the shoreless sea.

Trueblood unpacks what underlies this kind of thought (page 68):

. . . it is hard to conceive of his finding ultimate satisfaction within the limitations of a purely existential outlook. There would have remained the doubt of which he was writing…, not ‘doubt after the manner of philosophers… but poetic doubt, which is human doubt, that of a man solitary and uncertain of his path, among many paths. Among paths which lead nowhere . .’

The problem for Machado is that (Trueblood – page 39), ‘personal truths are not truths at all; one must seek the truth.’ He trusts experience but not necessarily his explanation of it (page 45): ‘One never doubts what one sees, only what one thinks.’

This reminds me of my encounter with William James. At the end of my three part sequence I concluded:

My best hope is fairly clear . . . I can always look to refine my imperfect understanding, bringing it ever closer to what I hope is the truth but never knowing whether I have got there yet or not.

Interestingly that completely coincides with what Lamberth reports as William James’s point of view, reinforcing further my feeling that he was indeed a kindred spirit and explaining satisfactorily why I got such a buzz out of finding this second book after reading these words in the first one I had read (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

So, exactly how does Machado think we can capture the closest possible representation of experience?

Reality is complex and fluid. That would make capturing it in words difficult enough. What makes it even more difficult is that our perceptions are not stable either. An understanding of this is not unique to Machado. Xon de Ros quotes Machado (page 5): ‘cambian la mar y el monte y el ojo que los mira’ [‘The sea and the mountain and the eye that sees them change.’] Munch expresses  the related idea that mood alters perception (Prideaux – page 81-83): ‘Experience told him that each individual found his own landscape based on his inner feeling. . . One sees things at different moments with different eyes… The way in which one sees also depends on one’s mood . . .’

Poetry, though, could be the best means of overcoming these difficulties (Xon de Ros – page 4):  ‘. . . the notion of immobility in perpetual change that defines living reality can only be communicated by poetic language (Macrí).’ A further confounding element though is the presence of the past (page 5): ‘Machado’s concern had moved from the past as it is filtered into our consciousness, to the past that inhabits and shapes are reality.’

Given that reality is to a certain degree ineffable there are limits to how far it can be captured, even in poetry (page 116):

‘. . . the effort to make sense of the unpresentable by means of metaphorical substitution inevitably leaves (leads?) the subject to appeal to connections already intelligible within [his] specific cultural context.’ Quoted from Kirk Pillow Sublime Understanding 2000 – page 253.

So not just history but current culture comes into play. These challenges, constituting (page 115) a ‘crisis of representation,’ pave the way for the use of one possible remedy, which is expressed by Mautner (page 209): ‘a predilection for ambiguity of language because it reflects the ambiguity of the world.’

This is where aphorisms come into play at times (page 211): ‘ambiguity is a virtue of the modern aphorism . .’ (Mautner page 816): furthermore, as Vickers points out (page 209): ‘the true aphorist has a fragmented kaleidoscopic vision from which this genre is the perfect form.’

This catapults us back into links with Cubism (page 225 re Nuevas Canciónes):

the contraposition of fragments, jumping and cutting from philosophy to the commonplace, seriousness to humour, seems to preclude a sequential reading, suggesting the simultaneity of the Cubist work. . . . Paradox and uncertainty are prominent in the series.

Obscurity again

The question for me becomes, as I discussed in an earlier post of this sequence, whether there is complete capitulation to unintelligible complexity or not. My sense is that Machado generally stays well this side of gibberish. We need this to be so because (page 227) ‘the mind, nevertheless, seeks pattern, continuity, and coherence in the disjunctive.’

We’ve been here before in my sequence on van Gogh:

He wanted to remain rooted in recognisable reality (page 223-24):

‘I find Breitner’s stuff objectionable because the imagination behind it is clumsy and meaningless and has virtually no contact with reality.’

[He has a strong sense] sense that disorder in art relates to disorder in the mind of the artist. Speaking of work he does not like he writes: ‘I look on it as the result of a spell of ill-health.’ He speaks of Breitner’s ‘coffee-house existence’ which creates a ‘growing fog of confusion,’ and of his having been ‘feverish,’ producing things which were ‘impossible and meaningless as in the most preposterous dream.’ Van Gogh felt that:

‘Imperceptibly he has strayed far from a composed and rational view things, and so long as this nervous exhaustion persists he will be unable to produce a single composed, sensible line or brushstroke.’

The ‘subliminal uprush,’ as Myers would term it (see Irreducible Mind), needs conscious organisation to make the best of it.

However, coherence should not be bought at the expense of new insights. Xon de Ros quotes Gifford as saying (page 15) that ‘every real poem starts from a given ground and carries the reader to an unforeseen vantage point, whence he views differently the landscape over which he has passed,’ adding ‘This remark is undoubtedly true of Machado’s best poems.

There was also something else that Frost valued (Matthew Hollis on Edward Thomas page 77), something akin to what Robert Hayden quoted as Auden’s version of it, that poetry is about ‘solving for the unknown,’ as dealt with in an earlier post:

‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ [Frost] said that he never started a poem whose ending he already knew, for to have done so would, he believed, deny a fundamental purpose in poetry: that writing is an act of discovery. ‘I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.’ Other times he phrased the idea slightly differently, but always the same basic premise: surprise leading to discovery. It was a thrilling and courageous approach to poetry . . .

In their introduction to their edition of ‘The Poetry of Táhirih’ John Hatcher and Amrollah Hemmat explore this further, initially referring to Hayden again (page 16):

The poet Robert Hayden was fond of saying that poetry is the art of saying the impossible. . . Another thing Hayden was fond of noting is that often the most popular poetry – if poetry has any sort of popularity of these days – is usually mediocre poetry because it can be easily understood. . . . great poetry, poetry with lasting merit, takes us from our present state of awareness to some place else . . .

I am happy to go with them this far, though I am not so convinced of the general mediocrity of popular poetry for reasons I will come back to in a moment. I find it harder to buy into where their next contention takes us (page 17):

We are urged to possess the cleverness to discern how language employs poetic devices to reach out beyond itself, to point us to some larger idea. . . . [T]he poet . . . is attempting something beyond description. . . . Those who are over the course of time considered to be the ‘good’ poets or the ‘great’ poets, most often happen to be the poets who are not always easy to understand.

And the clinching issue is this (pages 17-18):

The good poet, the demanding poet, thus writes for a small audience, people who think it worth their time to go through the intense and sometimes agonising process of trying to figure out what the artful use of language is trying to tell us.

It smacks for me of intellectual snobbery.

It also reminds me of the debate that sparked around Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry. Was it too simple and naïve to be of any real value, in spite of its popularity.

Dana Greene’s biography contains many instances of this position, for example, concerning her Extending the Territory in 1985 (page 149):

The detractors depressed her. John Lucas, writing in the New Statesman, criticized her ‘vapid’ poems, with their unvaried language and uninteresting subject matter.’

Some admirers of Geoffrey Hill would probably have thought the same as Lucas. Nonetheless it won the Southern Arts Society prize of £1,000.

Michael Schmidt, as her editor for 25 years and publisher of Poetry Nation Review described her as (page 186) ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement,’ and  attributed ‘her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, this was generally written in strict form.’

I think, however, Hatcher and Hemmat do raise a valid point in saying (page 18):

. . . The artist may not always be concerned with what is the most effective way to communicate to others what insight he or she has achieved. Rather the artist is searching for the best sensual referent or concrete expression for what has been a thoroughly personal experience.

But I can’t join them, at least as far as Schoenberg and Beckett are concerned, when they write (ibid):

It takes a bit more energy and training to appreciate the atonality of Sternberg [sic – should be Schoenberg], Eliot’s The Wasteland, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Joyce’s Ulysses.… a good artist does not talk down to the audience, does not ‘dumb down’ the art.

A YouTube comment from P. Teagan on the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 pins down the reason for my reluctance:

‘Schoenberg, to me, and I’m no music professor, but this perfectly sums up the anxiety I feel constantly through life in its various forms and energy levels. Each voice of the various instruments, the different motifs, and the vigor in which they are played embody the many forms and sources of our daily worry and fears. All the subtle things nagging at our subconscious. The constant fear of death, loneliness, and pain. The true chaos of the universe and our existence. The feeling of loss of order. The realization that everything we experience is just a product of a soft computer sitting in our heads. I definitely don’t feel too great after listening to this, but I absolutely have to respect it for its ability to invoke these strange thoughts and confusing emotions.’

This is exactly why I think there should be something more in the mix, in the case of both Schoenberg and Beckett. We have more than a soft computer in our heads. Dissonance, no matter how well it reflects the jarring reality stretching tightly across the surface of our times, is not enough. There needs to be at least a taste of some sort of transcendence.

Their closing remark is unexceptionable speculation (page 19):

The artist may further presume that, having discovered this window on reality, we might somehow be better people for our efforts… the artist may take such delight in the existential act of creating that communication is the furthest thing from the artist’s mind.

My own feeling is that the question is more complex than they acknowledge. Perhaps poets are akin to psychotherapists, whose best pattern of action is to match their communication to where their client is coming from and encourage them to step onto different ground. Successful matching in this way facilitates a meeting of minds that means we are likely to be able to induce others to move from their current constricted position to a healthier place. In the process we learn as well.

Poems that do not match a large enough readership are hardly going to change the world for the better, no matter how brilliant their abstruse and inaccessible message is: by the time the future understands it, if it ever does, their message will either be too late or already understood without its help. Poems that do not challenge their readers to step out of their comfort zone will not do so either.

Striking the right balance is a matter of great skill, something only the greatest poets ever achieve: accessible enough to attract a wide readership and demanding enough to lift the consciousness of its readers to a higher level. I personally feel that Machado rises to this challenge in many of his poems.

Alter Egos

Another complicating factor of particular interest to me is how the task of capturing experience in words is complicated by the problem of how we decide who we are. Don Paterson raises the basic point, when he says (page 55): ‘there are several Antonio Machados.’ Xon de Ros quotes Machado on Proust (page 185): ‘No conviene olvidar nuestro espíritu contiene elementos para la construcción de muchas personalidades.’ [It’s best not to forget that our soul contains elements for the construction of many personalities.’] At the very least this triggers (Page 211): ‘the poet’s inner dialogue in which the addressed ‘other’ does not imply a social relationship with the world, but with the poet’s own self.’

The issue is fundamental to an understanding of Machado, as much so possibly as is the case with Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms, though Machado distinguishes his position from Pessoa’s.  Xon de Ros unpacks its exact importance (page 244):

This conception of the self as an aggregate underlies Machado’s theory of the apocryphal, distinguishing this figure from those founded on an originary, unified consciousness: the double, the heteronym, and the pseudonym. Unlike these, the apocryphals are manifestations of what Machado refers to as the essential heterogeneity of the self. . . ‘No conviene olvidar tampoco que nuestro espíritu contiene elementos para la construcción de muchas personalidades.’

I absolutely accept that this is a not uncommon state of mind. My own sequence on my Parliament of Selves demonstrates that I’m not stranger to this myself. Machado is not wrong in that sense. I resonate strongly to his perspective. However, he is also not seeing it as a fragmentation that needs to be resolved if we are to change ourselves and the world for the better.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it completely clear ((Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 78):

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

That He needs to state this at all implies that most of us don’t experience things that way.

Why might this be so important? After all, having a crowd of selves inside sounds quite exciting.

The Bahá’í concept of unity is key.

The unity necessary to discover truth through consultation in the true sense of that word, and then act effectively, depends upon detachment. Bahá’u’lláh writes in the Hidden Words, ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

Not only that. Being detached enough from our lower selves to be at one within ourselves and connected to our true self, the soul in common speech, gives us the best chance of uniting with others, and vice versa of course. That level of unity is what is required if we are going to be able to solve the global problems confronting humanity right now, including the two most challenging – global heating and gross inequality.

Nature

There is so much more I could explore but this last post has already gone for longer than I planned. So, I will deal with an important aspect of his approach to poetry very briefly. Nature mattered greatly to him. Xon de Ros interprets this in a way whose relevance is greater than ever (Page 6):

Machado’s attention to the particular detail – the turn of the river, the quality of its water, the trees along the banks, and the differences between actual rivers – suggests an ecopoetic concern, in which the poet’s relation to nature is re-imagined in such a way as to encourage environmental awareness and responsibility.

Moreover (page 247) ‘[his poems] more often . . .  display a relationship with nature in which the human is not dominant but an integral part of the natural world.’ This view is supported by Gerald Brenan (page 430):

It is . . . a poetry that thinks, and by its thought endeavours to reach down to some inner, deeply hidden core. . . in Machado this language of the soul is expressed through the mediation of natural objects. All through [Soledades] we find certain things in nature appearing and reappearing – rocks, poplars, ilex trees, streams, water. Above all, water. Whether in the form of rivers, rocks, springs, tarns or fountains, his verse plays with it and draws from it a symbolical nourishment.

He concludes (page 435): ‘This was his message – “Awake!“ The eye must be taught to see, not merely to look: the brain to think and the soul to contemplate the eternal, if uncertain, things.

I can’t think of a better place to stop than that.

As usual I am adding at the end a poem that I find particularly resonant. The first version is the original Spanish, the second Trueblood’s translation and finally my recent attempt to render what it means to me in a poem of my own.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una fontana fluía
dentro de mi corazón.
Dí: ¿por qué acequia escondida,
agua, vienes hasta mí,
manantial de nueva vida
en donde nunca bebí?

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una colmena tenía
dentro de mi corazón;
y las doradas abejas
iban fabricando en él,
con las amarguras viejas,
blanca cera y dulce miel.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que un ardiente sol lucía
dentro de mi corazón.
Era ardiente porque daba
calores de rojo hogar,
y era sol porque alumbraba
y porque hacía llorar.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que era Dios lo que tenía
dentro de mi corazón.

 

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a fountain flowing
deep down in my heart.
Water, by what hidden channels
have you come, tell me, to me,
welling up with new life
I never tasted before?

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

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hot sun shining
deep down in my heart.
The heat was in the scorching
as from a fiery hearth;
the sun in the light it shed
and that tears it brought to the eyes.

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

 

The Closest We Can Reach (after Machado)

Last night my dreams were blessed. A vision
came to me. Deep in my heart a spring
of fresh water gushed from some hidden

source. Though I asked the water flowing
past, how its revitalising powers
were formed, it could not say. I am growing.

Tonight my dreams are blessed. From flowers
within my mind, crowds of bees return
to their hive, changing the bitterness

of past loss to soft wax and golden
honey for my cells, lifting my heart
up to a different, higher plane.

Will tomorrow’s dreams, to heal my heart,
again be blessed, with radiant sunlight
this time, hotter than the warmest hearth?

If that should happen, there’ll be no doubt,
in my mind at least – my heart does hold
within it, at its deepest point, what
feels the closest we can reach to God.

‘The Sun’ by Edvard Munch (for the source of the picture see link)

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Mirror of the DivineHow is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

To explore further this issue of whether or not there is a self beneath the flux of consciousness with some hope of clarity, I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

The No Self Issue

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.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, and that reductionist explanations are missing the point, where does this leave us?

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

I am reminded here of the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander. I have dealt elsewhere on this blog with books that explore near death experiences (NDEs) in a more scientific way (see above links). I have chosen to quote here from one person’s experience partly because it is more appropriate to this examination of literature and also because it counterbalances Harris’s one-person account. If sceptics are happy to accept Harris’s conclusions from his experience, I can see no reason for me not to accept Alexander’s.

I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

Proof-of-HeavenHe, as a sceptical scientist, on the basis of his very different experience, made a different decision from that of Harris.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, as Harris is, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?

Well, I think they bridge the gap between what Harris describes and what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us (Tablets: page 730):

Know thou for a certainty that in the divine worlds the spiritual beloved ones will recognize one another, and will seek union with each other, but a spiritual union. Likewise a love that one may have entertained for anyone will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom, nor wilt thou forget there the life that thou hadst in the material world.

How come?

For a start, it shows someone conscious but without any memory for who he is – awareness stripped of self, in the terms we are using here. This leaves me feeling it maps onto, even if it goes beyond, the state of mind Harris describes.

So, with at least some resemblance to an extreme meditative state, it takes us one step further. It demonstrates consciousness without a brain. The coma has helpfully disconnected his brain, without any need for him to learn how to do it himself via meditation, and yet he is still aware.

Even more amazing is that, with his brain shut down, he has been able to retain detailed memories of a rich week-long experience and begin the process of reintegrating it into his brain-bound identity.

Equally surprisingly, a consciousness he didn’t know but which clearly knew him, a survivor of the body’s death, connects with him. Even though, in this NDE Alexander has forgotten who he is, and therefore does not confirm that aspect of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, the consciousness of his dead sister had obviously retained a sense of who she had been and what her relationships were, even when there had been no interaction physically with Alexander during her mortal life. It seems legitimate to assume that, if Alexander’s experience is a precursor to an eternal afterlife, there would be time for him to reconnect with memories of who he was.

What has all this got to do with los Solitarios and Lehrer’s ideas about the novel?

Just to clarify, I am not simplistically concluding that all the Solitarios are equally reductionist. Pessoa, Machado and Rilke each have their own more spiritual take on reality at times. What I am suggesting here is that Proust and Beckett, along with other modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, have fallen into the modernist trap to some degree.

Why do I call it a trap?

Once we deny any form of spiritual or transcendent reality it is only a short step to concluding that life has no meaning beyond what we arbitrarily give to it. Beckett’s existential despair becomes a predictable symptom, as does what Richard Davenport-Hines summarized as the degenerative, secularised squalor of the world Proust saw around him and depicted in his work.

A further consequence of this world picture is a powerful sense of alienation. This adds to the dispiriting bleakness of life as experienced through this lens. Both Beckett and Proust lived lives that were profoundly disconnected from the social world around them. I am on dangerous ground here if I simplistically attribute this disconnection only to their materialistic approach to the world. My other Solitarios are equally alienated from the social world but, with the possible exception of Rilke, do not inhabit as bleak a subjective reality. My contention is that the combination of a tendency to extreme introversion combined with a reductionist worldview is a toxic prescription for despair. As such the literature it engenders will render a seriously distorted view of existence.

If their versions of reality are unbalanced, what to do?

Is the novel, part of Beckett’s and all of Proust’s greatest work, an inherently materialist form? Is the same true of drama as well, so no get-out for Beckett there? Is only poetry suitable for and tending towards spiritual matters, hence the difference that exists between these two novelists and the work of Rilke, Machado and Pessoa?

The quality of Beckett’s and Proust’s writing is indisputable: the deficiencies of their moral and spiritual perspective create significant flaws in their overall achievement. What, if any, might be the remedy?

Beckett clearly felt there was none.

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

Reading Proust is less of a journey into an existential Arctic. However, although he has a strong sense of what he feels is right, the world his work explores has lost its moral compass a long time ago.

Three novels immediately spring to mind as having combined darkness with light in  a more balanced way.

tenant-of-wildfell-hallI recently drew attention to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The journal of the heroine is a disturbing description of an abusive marriage. Helen mistakenly marries the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington, and laments (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Her novel integrates her faith with her art in way that adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

Bahiyyih-Nakhjavani-009

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: another book that comes close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Mucha brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih(“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

I must also include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

It clearly can be done, and, if those three books are anything to go by, a strong focus on the consciousness of the characters depicted does not require a reductionist approach. These novels are very much in the tradition of Joyce, Beckett and Proust in this respect. But they do not lack a sense of the spiritual or transcendent also.

In addition, for me at least, they combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in my memory. If an author strays too far from some form of narrative it is possible he might diminish the long-term impact of his book on the reader.

Interestingly, all three books are by women authors.

Art, in my view, should create an experience that deepens our understanding of reality without unduly distorting it. Paradoxically, feminine writers are more effective in that respect than masculine ones, it seems. (It may be that ultimately I mean writers of a female cast of mind regardless of ostensible gender.)

Anyhow, when I now ponder on my current pantheon of novelists, women outnumber men. Jane Austen, the Brontês, Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot), Elizabeth Gaskell, Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantell, A S Byatt, Margaret Attwood, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and Marilynne Robinson, to name but the most important to me, leave Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Doestoyevsky trailing forlornly in the rear.

This realisation has come as a bit of a shock to me. I hadn’t expected it to turn out quite such a one-sided contest. It was not always thus – it’s only since I recently realised that Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray amongst others, have fallen from grace in my mind’s eye over the years.

I need to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of some of the authors I’ve just mentioned before I leap to a firm conclusion that those with a feminine cast of mind seem to hold the balance between spirit and matter, plot and consciousness, better on the whole than those whose orientation is more macho.

Whatever the truth of the gender idea may be, that at least some writers can achieve this balance confirms it is not impossible, and, if we believe as I do, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, for the reasons I have given throughout this blog, then art has a duty to incorporate it into its representations of experience. It does not need to do so explicitly, any more than The Handmaid’s Tale has to spell out in detail the moral code that condemns the abuses it depicts but the moral code has to at least be implicit and not completely absent.

Well, that new slant on things has made my rather demoralising exploration of Proust and Beckett well worthwhile.

There will soon be more on the value of the feminine perspective.

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. . . . 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)

At the end of the previous post I indicated that the helicopter view of the lives and art of Proust and Beckett leaves us with a number of serious questions. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete. I’ll try and tackle this now.

Cronin BeckettIs it out of balance?

Some people certainly thought so (Page 450 – Cronin):

[Arnold] Toynbee alleged that what Beckett had done was to carry ‘his despair and disgust to the ultimate limits of expression – indeed beyond them.

. . .  by continuing to live, and still more by continuing to write, the author refuted his own message and it is no use saying, in such a case, that we must not confuse the creator with the creature and so on. This book [Molloy] is a serious statement or a personal attitude or it is nothing. I am inclined to think that it is nothing.’

Toynbee was on surer artistic ground perhaps when he called for a more inclusive vision, saying that Malloy expressed ‘an attitude to life which cries out for at least some opposing one.’

He’s singing from basically the same hymn sheet as François Mauriac here, speaking Night at the Majesticabout Proust (pages 200-01 – A Night at the Majestic):

One feels that Sodom and Gomorrah are confused with the entire universe. A single saintly figure would be enough to re-establish the balance. . . . ‘God is terribly absent from Marcel Proust’s work,’ he lamented in a major assessment that he published a fortnight after Proust’s death.

Mauriac later shared a similar caveat about Beckett (page 540 – A Night at the Majestic).

Richard Davenport-Hines quotes Claudel about Proust (page 200): ‘It’s the light of God that shows the best of human nature, and not, as in Proust, the phosphorescence of decomposition’ along similar lines as Anthony Cronin quotes Tynan about Beckett (page 466):

Tynan described the sort of pessimism displayed as ‘not only the projection of personal sickness but a conclusion reached on inadequate evidence.’ He was ready to believe, he said, ‘that the world is a stifling, constricted place,’ but not if his informant was “an Egyptian mummy.’

LehrerRooted in Reductionism?

If we accept Lehrer’s depictions of Virginia Woolf and Proust, as quoted in the first post of this sequence, then the bleakness of the visions we are encountering here might have its roots in the soil of a radical reductionism.

Our ‘ever-changing impressions’ (page 172) ‘are held together by the thin veneer of identity’ and (page 176):’ the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the “unified soul“ simply because we didn’t have one.’  He concludes that (page 182):

The self is simply a work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity.

If so, is there any need to adversely judge these works on the grounds of a materialistic perspective, no matter how skillfully that is depicted?

Cronin thinks not (page 482)

[At a symposium in response to criticisms from Brien, Cronin] replied that where art was concerned, one truthfully expressed vision as good as another; that this truth is seldom anything but partial except in the case of one or two very great, very inclusive artists, such as Shakespeare; but that even such a partial vision had immense value if its truth had never been encompassed before. This argument still seems to me to be central to a defence of Beckett, if defence is needed.

To get even close to explaining why I think materialistically biased accounts of human experience, even if honestly corresponding to the felt experience of the writer, are not only dispiriting but false, I have to rehash some old material. In doing so I will share other reductionist views so as not to fudge the difficulty of the issue.

Buddha BrainA Spiritual Perspective

Hanson and Mendius in The Buddha’s Brain have a fair bit to say about the nature of the self. At one level it doesn’t particularly challenge my core beliefs, even though the writers themselves do not accept the existence of anything like a soul as a source of self (page 204):

. . . now we come to perhaps the single greatest source of suffering – and therefore to what is most important to be wise about: the apparent self. . . . When you’re immersed in the flow of life rather than standing apart from it, when ego and egotism fade to the background – then you feel more peaceful and fulfilled.

What’s the problem with that? Most ethically minded people, whether theists or not, regard the ego with great suspicion. But problems then begin to creep in whose full degree of dissonance needs unpacking (page 206):

Paradoxically, the less your “I” is here, the happier you are. Or, as both Buddhist monks and inmates on death row sometimes say: “No self, no problem.”

What exactly do they mean by ‘no self’? Is that no self at all, of any kind? Well, maybe. We need to look at various other expressions they use before looking at what an atheist practitioner of Buddhist meditation thinks it means.

First of all, they explain (page 213): ‘It’s not so much that we have a self, it’s that we do self-ing.’ More than that, they feel we should (page 214): . . . try to keep remembering that who you are as a person – dynamic, intertwined with the world – is more alive, interesting, capable, and remarkable than any self.’ And most dismissively of all they describe the self as (page 215) ‘simply an arising mental pattern that’s not categorically different from or better than any other mind-object.’ That sounds familiar.

Sam Harris meditation pic v2

For source of adapted image see link

While there is a sense that they are slightly hedging their bets here, Sam Harris is not so coy about the matter. In his fascinating article – An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality– he pushes the boundaries somewhat further:

Indeed, the conventional sense of self is an illusion—and spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.

To illustrate the moment when this can be experienced he refers to the ‘awakening’ of Ramana Maharshi(1879– 1950), ‘arguably the most widely revered Indian sage of the 20th century.’

While sitting alone in his uncle’s study, Ramana suddenly became paralyzed by a fear of death. He lay down on the floor, convinced that he would soon die, but rather than remaining terrified, he decided to locate the self that was about to disappear. He focused on the feeling of “I”—a process he later called “self inquiry”—and found it to be absent from the field of consciousness. Ramana the person didn’t die that day, but he claimed that the feeling of being a separate self never darkened his consciousness again.

Ramana described his conclusion from this by saying at one point:

The mind is a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is the thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.

Though Ramana’s disciple, Poonja-Ji, had a great impact on Sam Harris, there was a teacher who made an even greater impression: ‘Another teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, had a lasting effect on me.’

What he feels he learnt from Tulku Urgyen he describes with dramatic clarity:

The genius of Tulku Urgyen was that he could point out the nature of mind with the precision and matter-of-factness of teaching a person how to thread a needle and could get an ordinary meditator like me to recognize that consciousness is intrinsically free of self. There might be some initial struggle and uncertainty, depending on the student, but once the truth of nonduality had been glimpsed, it became obvious that it was always available— and there was never any doubt about how to see it again. I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.

He unpacks its implications in the light of subsequent practice:

This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering—fear, anger, shame—in an instant. At my level of practice, this freedom lasts only a few moments. But these moments can be repeated, and they can grow in duration. Punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference. In fact, when I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows. That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however, I’m as confused as anyone else.

For Harris as an atheist one of the greatest benefits of his assisted experience, he believed, was that he did not have to accept any of the ‘baggage’ of the religion in whose context these insights and practices had been generated – he could make sense of the experience in his own way. I’m not so sure it was really as simple as that.

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

More of that in the final post of this sequence.

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Cronin Beckett

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

At the end of the last post there was a pointer to suggest that it would not be wise to adopt a simplistic approach to Beckett, the man. Cronin, his biographer, had met met Beckett and what he found surprised him (pages 478-79) because ‘the powerful impact of his work’ conveyed ‘an impression of rejection of the world’s affairs and even of its comforts, a sardonic asceticism if not quite a saintly resignation.’ In addition, ‘there was a growing legend of an enigma, a solitary who despised or was indifferent to the joys, such as they were, of ordinary human association.’ And what happened? Cronin states ‘I met instead an agreeable, courteous, indeed almost affable man.’

There does seem a consensus, though, that his later writings at least are unremittingly bleak.

Beckett

The dark side of Beckett’s life was very much reflected in his work.

At the very beginning, when Beckett was transitioning from religion to writing, there was a soon to be eradicated tinge of transcendence (page 147):

[Of his book on Proust Cronin writes that] Although this opportunity to attribute a transcendental belief to Proust is passed up there is certainly a general impression of an attitude to art which partakes of a sort of religious fervour, or rather an attempt to make a sort of surrogate religion art. This attempt is not uncommon among hitherto religious young people who discover art at the same time as they are in the process of abandoning religion.

It didn’t take long before his inherent pessimism kicked this into touch (page 307):

In his vision at its starkest, nothing really changes. As one cause succeeds another, calling for meaningless loyalties and betrayals, we get deeper into the mire. ‘We belong to suffering,’ [says one of his characters].

This was made even more painful in what he saw (page 398) ‘as the artist’s special burden and torment, the categorical imperative to create when combined with the impossibility of creation.’ The effect of this take on creativity was not all bad though (page 374) in the sense that ‘in the work of no other author does hatred for the necessity of creating a fiction shine through so clearly or is the detestation of that necessity expressed with so mordant a wit.’

Kenneth Tynan expressed the opinion (page 448) that ‘for the author of Godot’ passing the time in the dark ‘is not only what drama is about but also what life is about.’

Perhaps the most important factor in shaping Beckett’s art was his insight, after his unpublished early work, that (page 359) ‘instead of writing about that exterior world he should have written about the inner world, with its darkness, its ignorance, its uncertainty.’

Beckett playsOthers, such as Proust, Joyce and Woolf, made the same choice, without ending up in the same place as Beckett did. His decision carried other complicating factors that impacted upon the pattern of his writing:

From this point on there would be an entire abandonment of pretence of any kind, including the ordinary fictive pretences of plot, a total renunciation of all certainties, including philosophic certainties of any kind; and there would instead be a reiteration of ignorance, a restitution to their rightful place in his work of the uncertainties and confusion of which life was made up.

This almost inevitably meant that ‘the mode for such a reiteration and restitution would be the only possible one: first person monologue.’

The bleak legacy of his vision of life did not stop there (page 364): ‘something else would now be banished besides plot and description – something that might be called the hope of salvation.’ And this banishment was unqualified (page 365 – my emphasis) for ‘in the novels and plays Beckett was to write there would be neither the hope nor the fear of any outcome.… Nobody would be found wanting because all Beckett’s characters have already been found wanting. There is no hope for them.’

Cronin has no problem with where this takes us (pages 378-79:

. . . reduced as his characters are to the extreme simplicities of need and satisfaction, indeed by virtue of the fact that they are so reduced, Beckett does succeed in laying bare much of the reality of human situation as well as the grossness of its perhaps necessary illusions.

He seems to accept that life is as meaningless as Beckett felt it was. We’re in the realm of extreme existentialism here: life is meaningless even though we cannot help creating meanings to help us live.

He endorses Beckett’s vision as more authentic than most of the work that preceded him (page 383): ‘. . . one could argue that the Beckett man, in all his abysmal aspects, is ‘truer’ to humanity’s real lineaments than most of what has gone before.’ His conclusion is that (page 384):

For 3000 years the bias of literature had been tilted one way, towards the heroic and the lyrical-poetic. Now it has been tilted the other, a process which began with the appearance of the first modern anti-heroes and culminated in Beckett.

Even at this point, such a position runs into serious problems. For example, Cronin lauds Beckett for his honourable uncertainty. Such a degree of uncertainty would be incompatible with a belief that all is meaningless. We may not be able to reach a firm conclusion that there is a meaning and decide definitely what that meaning is, but we would similarly not be able to conclude there is no meaning at all. A secondary problem is that someone’s position of stoic nihilism dismisses the rest of us as deluded and contains more than a hint of arrogance. I am all in favour of Keats’ doctrine of ‘negative capability’ and the need to resist ‘irritably reaching after fact,’ but that is not the same thing as nihilism at all. I will be returning to an examination of this later in the sequence.

Beckett Novels

It is interesting that Rilke, one of my solitarios, confronted his inner emptiness and, according to Robert Hass in his introduction to the Stephen Mitchell translations of the poems (page xvi), sought ‘to find, in art, a way to transform the emptiness, the radical deficiency, of human longing into something else.’

Probably the simplest summing up comes towards the end of the book (page 451) When Cronin writes that, in a review, René Lalou lists those critics ‘who had been among the first to hail Waiting for Godot’and ‘proclaim the value of this tragedy of despair not even lit by a glimmer of consciousness.’ Lalou referred to Beckett’s ‘constant use of monologue as an artistic technique, his implacably pessimistic vision and his insistence on the degrading functions of the human body.’

A few additional points may again be worth making.

The first of these paves the way towards Proust (page 182)

. . . few things are more striking about Beckett than his willingness to abandon himself to the life of memory, both in young manhood and later on. Most of the events of life may have been ‘occasions of fiasco’ as they occurred; but the subsequent remembrance of them was nevertheless more tolerable than present existence could ever be.

The second simply amplifies on the dilemma residing in his persistent creativity in the face of his sceptical pessimism (page 375): ‘ The object of the fiction must be truth of some sort; but by definition it is necessarily a lie.’

The last idea points to where he is absolutely different from Proust (page 376):

He yearned for silence, the blank white page, the most perfect thing of all. . . [He felt] more intensely than others that the object of true, achieved and necessary utterance is silence…

The consequence of this being that (pages 376-77) ‘his works would after a certain point get shorter and shorter.’

Night at the MajesticProust

Proust’s relationship with his writing was perceived by his contemporaries as damaging (page 284) in that Dr Maurice Bize felt that ‘Proust was killing himself by overwork,’ and he is reported to have said to his servant, Céleste, (page 303) ‘only when I have finished my work, will I start looking after myself.’ This attitude extended to the minor aspects of self-care as well. Jaloux (page 304) spoke of Proust’s ‘miserable little under-furnished room that testified to his indifference to comfort.’ François Mauriac expressed it rather dramatically in saying (page 305) ‘We must reflect on the extraordinary fate of a creator who was devoured by his own creation…’

His aim was to focus almost exclusively on his writing after his mother’s death (page 83) when he:

sought (during the seventeen years of life that remained to him) to confine himself in a Noah’s Ark of his own devising. . . His life in the Ark helped to preserve the immediacy of his vision of people, objects and sensations.

He (page 91) ‘believed it was the only way he could discover the meaning beneath appearances: that is, to create great art.’

His most celebrated contribution to the novel are his madeleine moments, when a sensation such as taste can trigger a flood of memories (page 98):

These sudden intuitions of a moment are presented with pictorial vividness, and were intended to be as beautiful and suggestive as Old Master paintings… [They] were tantamount to a series of religious revelations, as Middleton Murray wrote in a tribute after Proust’s death, ‘this modern of the moderns . . . had a mystical strain in his composition.

In that sense he is inspiring the work of Joyce, Beckett and Woolf, fellow explorers of the recesses of consciousness.

LehrerJonah Lehrer, in his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, focuses his discussion of Proust particularly on this part of his legacy. He explains that Proust (page 77) believed that ‘only the artist was able to describe reality as it was actually experienced’ and that (page 78) ‘the nineteenth century novel, with its privileging of things over thoughts, had everything exactly backward.’ Proust had concluded that (page 81) ‘only by meticulously retracing the loom of our neural connections… can we understand ourselves, for we are our loom, adding that ‘Proust gleaned all of this wisdom from an afternoon tea.’

Proust was ahead of his time, Lehrer argues, in other ways as well. He believed that (page 82) ‘our recollections were phoney. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications. Take the madeleine. Proust realised that the moment we finished eating the cookie,… we begin working the memory of the cookie to fit our own personal narrative.’ Lehrer contends that (page 85) ‘Proust presciently anticipated the discovery of memory reconsolidation. For him, memories were like sentences: they were things you never stopped changing.’ Lehrer quotes the incontrovertible evidence that our memories are subject to constant editing and reediting.

Richard Davenport-Hines essentially concurs (page 128), quoting Proust when he wrote ‘the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths…’

There are other characteristics of Proust’s art that need adding into this mix. Davenport-Hines feels (page 103) that:

Temps Perdu is the work of an implacable and often anguished moralist who scorned the ways that people‘s conversation and behaviour were usually directed, regardless of their class, by neither the desire to be good nor to be truthful, but by the wish to affirm by their words the sort of people they wanted to be taken for.

He clinically dissects his contemporary world (page 104) ‘in scenes of social comedy and of moral tragedy.’ Proust exposed ‘the babbling, hypocritical, corrupt, decadent tendencies – the negative mass psychology – of his secularised age.’

Davenport-Hines sees Proust’s treatment of homosexuality as a trope (page 139) in that ‘Temps Perdu. . . placed homosexuality more centrally in human experience than any previous novel or treatise, and used it to demonstrate the degenerative squalor of human emotions,’ and used it as (page 183) ‘a secularised representation of humankind‘s fall from grace.’ It was a brave move to make at that point in history, and Proust was anxious about its impact on the acceptance of his novel and his own reputation after the publication of the fourth volume of his sequence. His choice would be viewed rather differently were he writing now.

His jaundiced view of humanity was not confined to sexuality though, it seems (page 216) given that, as Davenport-Hines argues ‘his interests focused on degenerative processes. His fiction is a prolonged study of class degeneration, of moral degeneration and of physical degeneration.’

This helicopter view of their lives and art leaves us with a number of serious questions. These will have to wait till next time. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete.

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 … the artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity attained at a given point in his life, along with the characteristics he may have assimilated from his national culture, his local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.

(Ludwig Tulman in Mirror of the Divine page 118)

Cronin BeckettAt the end of the last post, after exploring my plan to spend time reading the works of los Solitarios Pessoa, Machado and Rilke once more, I indicated that the distraction of Samuel Beckett in Cronin’s biography and Marcel Proust in a chapter of Lehrer’s book turned out to be too hard to resist, after my attempt at decluttering brought them to light again. I was checking to see if my not having read them for years meant that I could take them to the charity shop. As soon as I opened them I was doomed to read them from cover to cover.

What follows tries to pin down the power of their attraction in the context I found them, while also explaining why I don’t feel tempted to immerse myself further in their work. An obvious point to make before I even start is that they both have a characteristic they share with los Solitarios. I’ll leave you to work out what that is as my exploration unfolds. It partly explains why the shift was so easy.

I read Cronin on Beckett first, though I was still dipping into Pessoa’s Book of Disquietude at the same time. In the end the experience of both was profoundly dispiriting.

So what was my initial derailing attraction to Beckett?

With him it was Fred Mires, the psychologist in me, that got hooked. His take on life was so dark I was keen to understand where it came from. And when I came to look at Proust the feeling was not quite the same but along the same lines.

Lehrer led me onto Richard Davenport-Hines’s A Night at the Majestic, where I found a wealth of information. Unless otherwise specified all the Beckett quotes are from Anthony Cronin, and the Proust quotes from Richard Davenport-Hines.

The Darkness

In what way was it dark?

According to Cronin, in his biography (page 463):

. . . he declared his belief that it was difficult to be anything other than unhappy for more than a few minutes at a time ‘with the help of dope, or work, or music, or the other’ – the other being, presumably, sex.

He believed that (page 143):

The common state of humanity is suffering and if our sensibility were not dulled by habit we would feel it to an almost unbearable extent.

BeckettThis bleakness has to be counterbalanced by other considerations including Barbara Bray’s perception of the man (page 518). She thought he had ‘a great capacity for enjoyment – a capacity inseparable from his fineness and keenness of perception.’ However, this very ‘fineness of perception’ amounted, in her view, to ‘hyperaesthesia, or specially heightened consciousness’ and this ‘made him suffer more than most people did in company or circumstances which were antipathetic to him.’ His humour and his insight helped him counterbalance this, so that ‘unlike other hypersensitive people he would not allow himself to go to pieces or to be blown off course because of it.’

The hyperaesthesia point could easily be applied to Proust as well (page 215): ‘ his senses were not like those other people,’ wrote Sydney Schiff. ‘ lying in the shuttered and curtained room, the walls of which were lined with cork to prevent noises reaching him, he seemed to know everything that went on outside.’ This must have helped his thirst for information about others. Proust (page 263) apparently had ‘an intrusive, apparently, undiscriminating inquisitiveness about other peoples personal details.’

Proust’s darkness though was of a rather different and perhaps less likable kind than Beckett’s (page 264): ‘Testy self-pity was another trait’ of his.

For Beckett, in addition, there is the influence of his long-term partner and eventual wife, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil (page 326):

All Beckett’s later statements about the changes produced in him by co-habitation with Suzanne were on the lines of ‘she made a man out of me,’ or ‘she rescued me.’ He spoke of his neurotic state, his utter in inactivity, his habit of staying in bed half the day and – – – of Suzanne as having changed all that.

This darkness ran deep even so (page 388):

. . . His own basic problem in regards to existence was an inclination to doubt its very nature. . . . A phrase he used to describe it was ‘existence by proxy,’ the inability to take a step without feeling that someone else was taking it. In most situations one went through the motions while having a feeling of ‘being absent’…

Combined with his possible hyperaesthesia, this seems the likeliest cause of his social withdrawal, his other most prominent character trait (page 140):

[For Beckett] Yeats’s figures were sad, solitary beings who inherited a landscape which cared nothing for them and reflected back none of their feelings. He expressed Beckett’s own sense of human alienation…

This though is also related to his writer’s craft (page 364):

The sensation of being apart while in company is not confined to literary artist, . . . but it is commoner among such artists than among others; and Beckett, who sometimes had doubts about his own literal existence except perhaps as a consciousness, had it more strongly than most.

Marcel_Proust_1900-2This certainly applied to Proust (page 93): ‘Each of us, Proust insisted, is irretrievably trapped in inviolable solitude.’ It took its toll on him and those who cared about him (page 295) in that ‘his fatalism, his refusal of care, anguished those who loved him.’

Cronin also refers to (page 106): ‘[Beckett’s] general narcissism and quietism, his preference for what took place in his own mind rather than the outer, real world, with its contingencies, its disturbances of inner tranquillity, its futile exercises of will and ambition.’

I’ll come back to this in more detail soon, not least because this is close to the core of Proust’s approach to his writing.

One last point needs to be made about Proust, something which links him most strongly with another of the solitaries, Rilke, but also to Beckett to some extent.

Despite a surface sociability, Proust despised social interaction (page 127): he insisted that ‘chatter is spiritually depleting, and that the social impulse achieves only mediocrity.’ Even more significantly (page 128) he depicted friendship as trivial, ugly and dependent on those polite lies that are socially indispensable yet spiritually catastrophic.

It is Beckett himself who clarifies this further in his own terms (pages 128-29 – A Night at the Majestic🙂

‘Friendship, according to Proust,’ Beckett explained in his perceptive Proust monograph of 1931, ‘is the negation of that irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned. Friendship implies an almost piteous acceptance of face values.’

Rilke Selected PoemsJust in case it again might seem that I am cherry picking from a couple of lives to reach conclusions that don’t extend beyond them, I’ll just take a brief detour into Rilke, for an even more disquieting dislocation from sociability. I am quoting here from Robert Hass’s introduction to Stephen Mitchell’s translations of the poetry.

A woman artist, Paula Becker, for whom he cared deeply, died of an embolism after being consigned to her bed for 18 days after giving birth to her daughter, Mathilde. Hass writes (page xxxi) that ‘when the social claims seemed to kill Paula Becker’ Rilke was confirmed in ‘his belief that life was the enemy of art.’

There is something deeply perverse about this statement, though it may reflect Hass’s interpretation of Rilke rather than Rilke himself. A complete dislocation from life would obviously wreck the art. Hass has probably overstated the case here. However, it is true that an asocial perspective was a deeply embedded trait (page xxxii):

He did not trust relationships, but the truth was that he did not have much capacity for them either.

Hass seeks to defend Rilke from the charge of narcissism (pages xxxii-xxxiii):

It would be wrong to conclude from this… that Rilke was simply narcissistic, if we mean by that a person who looks lovingly into the shallow pool of himself. He was, if anything, androgynous.

By this Hass means:

the pull inwards, the erotic pull of the other we sense buried in the self. … Rilke … was always drawn, first of all and finally, to the mysterious fact of his own existence. His own being was otherness to him.

It is hard though to accept this defence when Hass concludes (page xxxiv):

This is the answer to the question of Rilke’s attitude towards human relationships. It is not that he was not involved, intensely and intimately, with other people. He was, all his life. But he always drew back from those relationships because, for him, the final confrontation was always with himself. And it is partly because he was such a peculiarly solitary being that his poems have so much to teach us.

The question remains, though, ‘How far does the charge of narcissism, or at least of excessive self-preoccupation, apply to Beckett and Proust, and maybe the other solitarios as well? I’ll come back to that much later. For now it’s perhaps enough to add, on a related theme, that making art your god and seeing yourself as its priest, with all the self-glorification that involves, would be a dangerous decision to make.

From where did this darkness come?

Beckett's mother

Beckett’s mother

What more obvious place to start with than the mothers. Cronin places much of the blame for Beckett’s gloom on her (page 23):

[Mary Manning felt that] Sam was emotionally ‘under-nourished. He suffered from emotional malnutrition.’ . . . There is no doubt that May Beckett loved her son fiercely. Later on he would speak of her ‘savage loving,’ but somehow it did not come through to him as a child in the right way.

Even though Cronin’s book quotes many examples of where a destructive symbiosis may have been at work between them, I think it is also important to include the possibility of inherited temperament as a factor here. Though I am resisting the temptation to speculate as to what such a contribution might have been, I certainly do not think we should rule it out.

Proust’s background, as with Beckett, particularly in terms of his mother, clearly played a part in shaping his isolation (page 79):

The mutually intense and possessive relationship between Proust and his mother had reduced the likelihood that he would seek emotional fulfilment in conventional ways, and by the mid-1890s he was already an expert in the pains, longings and dreaminess of unreciprocated love. . .

His mother’s death effectively changed nothing:

Once Proust had accepted his vocation (after his mothers death in 1905) to write his great novel, he seems to have ensured more than ever that he remained unfulfilled and even twisted in his emotions.

Then he found (page 113) that ‘insignificant routines’ held ‘immense inherent importance in [his] universe: they provide the context that makes sense of mortality, memory and time.’

Was it all dark?

Before going on to look at what Cronin says about the effect of the man on the art, some general points are worth making.

Beckett had to persist almost beyond endurance in the struggle to get published. Cronin attributes this in part at least to (page 385) an ‘incomprehensible imperative to create,’ and points out that ‘it was beginning to look as if he would never have any other reason for writing than a dumb obedience to it.’ Beckett himself felt that his works ‘went out into a void and he heard no more about them.’ I think Cronin’s description of the trait that Beckett displayed during this period as ‘literary heroism of the highest order’ is not too much of an exaggeration.

When I come to look at the career of Proust something similar is to be seen.

Other traits are important to remember here (page 64): Cronin detects a ‘distrust of ideologies and isms and collective emotions, a belief in the individual’s truth as the only truth’ and feels that these ‘were the attitudes which Beckett was discovering in himself,’ as he battled on.

Interestingly Cronin met Beckett and what he found surprised him (pages 478-79) because ‘the powerful impact of his work’ conveyed ‘an impression of rejection of the world’s affairs and even of its comforts, a sardonic asceticism if not quite a saintly resignation.’ In addition, ‘there was a growing legend of an enigma, a solitary who despised or was indifferent to the joys, such as they were, of ordinary human association.’ And what happened? Cronin states ‘I met instead an agreeable, courteous, indeed almost affable man.’

For me a telling point, and the last one I will share for now, was his way of relating to Suzanne at the time of his long-term affair with Barbara Bray (page 505). He refused to leave Suzanne and even made her his beneficiary in his will, not least because of an awareness of the debt his art owed her. Cronin reports Pinter’s comments concerning Beckett’s loyalty to Suzanne:

Throughout the conversation Pinter felt that what he was saying was that it would be very difficult to leave Suzanne and that he would if he could but he simply could not be responsible for hurting anybody to that extent.

Night at the MajesticProust may not have shared that positive quality, at least in terms of his response to individuals (page 122):

Prince Antoine Bibesco depicted Proust as a heartless, inconstant friend who nevertheless showed compassion for collective human pain…

Even so, there were mitigating factors bequeathed him by his background (page 67):

A certain Jewish family piety, intensity of idealism and implacable moral severity, which never left Proust’s habits of self-indulgence and his worldly morality in peace, were among the fundamental elements of his nature,’ Edmund Wilson declared in his great study of Modernism, Axel’s Castle(1931).

Something else that lightened the darkness of his solitary path somewhat was his feeling (page 172) that ‘one does not need to journey to look at new landscapes so much as to look with new eyes.’

In the next post I’ll take a look at the relationship between their work and their lives as a whole.

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