Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Carr’

Besides which there was the heavy battery operating just beneath the ridge, at a kept interval of minutes, with unnerving inevitability, as a malign chronometer, ticking off with each discharge an exactly measured progress toward a certain and prearranged apocalypse.

(From In Parenthesis by David Jones – Part 6, page 135)

I was in Waterstones in Cardiff at the end of March, just browsing aimlessly.

Even so, because I knew a book on David Jones was soon to come out, I thought I’d check that one out just in case. Nothing in Biography. In the Arts Section though I found something. A large powder-blue cover with an intriguing tree-scape on it: The Art of David Jones. Even a quick flip through revealed page after page of superb reproductions of engravings and paintings displaying a captivating beauty which hinted at something beyond the scene, person or situation depicted.

There was no price that I could see. I picked it up anyway and headed for the psychology section. Nothing much there.

Smart Thinking had one book of interest: The Distracted Mind. It seemed to be delving into the same ground as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows but a bit more deeply into the psychology of distraction and smart technology. I picked that up as well.

A brief scour of the rest of the shelf revealed nothing. I headed for the till.

After a short wait a member of staff appeared.

‘How much is this?’ I asked, handing over the David Jones book. ‘If it’s £100 I’m putting it back.’

She scanned its barcode.

‘£35,’ she informed me.

This was less than I had paid for the equally beautiful book I had bought about Stanley Spencer after first spotting it in Liverpool’s remarkable Central Library. I instantly agreed to buy it. As it turned out it was by the same publisher: Lund Humphries.

At this point I spread across the desk at least three book tokens, my points card and a Waterstones Stamp Card. It took several minutes to work out that, after all of these had been emptied, I owed £15 but had gained six stamps on my card and heaven knows how many points. It seemed a good deal.

Since then I have acquired another book token which should cover most of the cost of Dilworth’s David Jones biography which I still intend to buy.

Why am I prepared to invest so much money, even if most of it is a gift, in books about David Jones?

‘In Parenthesis’

Near the Serpentine

My fondness for and interest in David Jones as a poet goes back a long way. More than 20 years in fact. The story of my first reading of In Parenthesis illustrates how much he matters.

It had been a long weekend meeting. I was shattered. I walked across Hyde Park by the Serpentine to Paddington Station. When I reached the station, for some reason I convinced myself my train was in and boarded it, dumping my stuff on the seat and placing my copy of In Parenthesis on the table. I felt really hot and thirsty.

In blind reaction, I did something I had never done before and have never repeated since. I got off the train and went to the Upper Crust stall to buy a coffee.

It was as I was standing in the queue that I realised that the train I had put my stuff on was not going to Hereford. It was not even going anywhere near there. I had chosen completely the wrong train.

Blind panic.

I dashed back to the train, scrambled up my stuff from the seat and stumbled back to the concourse with it awkwardly in my arms. As I did so I heard the train pulling out behind me.

As I tidied up my possessions again on a nearby bench, I realised I had donated my copy of In Parenthesis to the rail company – can’t remember which one. I was furious with myself. On the way to London I had been deeply absorbed in reading this compelling description of the front line in the First World War, the intensity of my interest probably fuelled by a desire to know more of what my taciturn father never spoke, his experience of the trenches in the Machine Gun Corps. T S Eliot, its publisher in 1937, regarded it ‘as a work of genius.’ I was so looking forward to finishing reading it on the way home, even though I was tired.

I had squandered this delight in the hope of a cup of coffee!

Needless to say, after I had stopped beating myself up for my stupidity, and had calmed down at home, I took the first opportunity to buy a replacement copy of the 1978 Faber & Faber edition. And at least I hadn’t continued in the queue long enough to see all my luggage receding out of the station, powerless to retrieve it. And as for the strange looks the other passengers cast on me, I couldn’t care less. It was not the loss of face I cared about, but the loss of the book.

The Art

I am 150 pages into the book on his art and do not regret for one moment having bought it. There is nothing better I could have spent the book tokens on.

The authors, Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, manage to combine clear explanations of his developing technical skill with a strong sense of what the particular piece of art represented for Jones. At the peak of his career he was producing something like 50 paintings a year, except when what might have been recurrences of some form of post-traumatic stress reaction derailed him, as they did from time to time. The war had made an indelible impact upon him, as upon so many others. That it led in the end in his case, nearly twenty years later, to one of his masterpieces, In Parenthesis, is a blessing that goes some way to compensate for the curse.

It will take me some time to absorb the richness and depth of his art, with which I was not previously familiar, and to revisit his poetry, which I haven’t read for at least a decade and a half, before I can say more. Both his poetry and his art are challenging in their intricacy and in the honesty with which they confront the challenges of both war and peace. The complexity of some of his paintings doesn’t translate well into the smaller format of the page. Even so, the skill, delicacy and power come across sufficiently strongly often enough to give me a foothold at least on the cliff of their significance, and make the effort of further attempts to climb higher seem well worthwhile.

The best I can say for now, at least about his poetry, is this. Though he is acclaimed by Dilworth, his recent biographer,  as a ‘lost modernist,’ I do not feel his kind of modernism is the usual capitulation to materialistic incoherence and obscurity. Rather he stands with T S Eliot, the later W H Auden and R S Thomas (though he insisted on using only two of his names) as someone with his gaze fixed beyond the material even as he replicates the complex chaos of our age on the surface of much of his work. He repays rather than repels the effort of engaging with his struggle to articulate his perspective on the ineffable. I am convinced this will also be true of his art. I’ll let you all know if I change my mind.

Even at this early point in my encounter, I just thought it was worth flagging up how much I valued the work of a poet-painter who has somehow stayed under the radar of widespread popularity for so long.

It’s time he was more widely appreciated. Maybe this will help a little to achieve that.

Liverpool Library


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. . . . . [T]he change of consciousness required in the world could only come through a change within each person: it seemed that the possibility of redemption for the world and the possibility of redemption for each person were part of the same process; one could not happen without the other.

(Jean Hardy – A Psychology with a Soul – page 209)

It is the honeybee’s social behaviour, more than its ecological role, that has fascinated and amazed humans down the ages. . . . . No other creature has in turn been used as a metaphor for feudal hierarchy, absolute monarchy, republicanism, capitalist industry and commerce as well as socialist aspirations.

(Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum – A World without Beespages 13-14)

Bee & Snapdragon

At the end of the last post I indicated this one would be dealing with my early meditation practice and beyond.

At that time, I had to do a fair bit of travelling by train and used those journeys to practice meditation. I had been advised to begin with modest amounts of time and build up from there. To begin with, even two minutes of following the breath was as much as I could manage before my mind went walk-about. Not too disconcerting for other passengers then. No chance they’d think I had gone into a coma.

As I remember it took me months – not sure how many – before I could meditate for 10 minutes, and even longer before I reached the magic half-an-hour. By the time this was achieved, I was practising in the morning before I left home. Trains were too distracting to create this amount of quiet time.

Almost two years later towards the end of my Clinical Psychology course and after my prolonged exploration of Buddhism with its intensive meditative practice, I was jolted into re-examining the two schools of therapy I’d put on hold. By this stage I was often meditating for an hour at a time, usually at night. This may have prepared me, in ways I didn’t understand, for the experiences that were to follow. Even so, I wasn’t having any obviously mystical experiences and God wasn’t coming into the equation yet for me.

Existential statesThe core of what is relevant to my next step up the as-yet-undetectable ladder came in a brilliant book on existentialism by Peter Koestenbaum – The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy – which I read at that time.

In this book he states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.

An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:

. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .’

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life.

Koestenbaum explains this (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

I was almost at the end of my clinical training when I read those words. At last, I felt, I had begun to understand something of the real power of that idea. With Transactional Analysis I had begun to grasp, in its idea of decontamination, the glimmerings of what might lie ahead in terms of full reflection. I then moved onto my initial practice of disidentification, which could be seen as a strong extension of decontamination, and, at the same time, Buddhist meditation. They all had in their overlapping ways begun to open the eye of my heart.

These words of Koestenbaum words jolted it even wider.

‘That settles it,’ I thought. ‘As soon as I finish this course and get a job, I’ll explore this form of therapy.’

What I didn’t realise, at that point, was how prepared my mind was for another shift of consciousness. I’ve described this at length elsewhere on this blog in Leaps of Faith, so I won’t dwell on it here. In short, I found the Bahá’í Faith and all my spare energy and time, after I completed my course, were invested in learning more about the path I had committed to.

Jean HardyLooking back on that whole process now reveals exactly what I couldn’t see was happening right from square one.

Jean Hardy’s book on Psychosynthesis – A Psychology with a Soul – resonates right from the outset with what I have come to believe as a Bahá’í, though I never encountered her book till much later. Not that this lets me off the hook as she quotes on her opening page a letter of 1819 from John Keats, a favourite poet of mine, to his brother and sister: ‘Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making”.’

This is really close to where I have ended up. In Bahá’í terms this world is a womb (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh LXXXI):

The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.

Different words: same implications. Even more uncanny, if I didn’t know that he had corresponded with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, would be the connection Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, makes between the personal and transpersonal progress of the individual and the progress of society (Hardy: page 19).

What I had failed to appreciate as I progressed along the road through these countries of the mind was how they represented closely related steps up a ladder of increased understanding. Only now looking back do I see that. The words of T S Eliot, through the mouth of Becket, came floating into my mind as I wrote that: only ‘Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain.’

The upshot was that I plunged deep into a new profession, that felt more like a vocation, and a new spiritual path, that was a declaration of intent rather than an end state, both of which took up almost all my time, leaving no space for training in psychotherapy.

Reflection Cube

The Experience Cube

The Power of Reflection

There’s more now that I need to explain though, I feel. Please don’t groan. We’re almost there.

Right at the beginning of July, when I thought I’d got this sequence almost finished, I realised that I had a strong sense of frustration about something. Slowly light dawned.

I’ve spoken briefly about my 3Rs on this blog before. That’s my mnemonic for the three activities that help me process experience and make better sense of it: reflection, reading and writing. It suddenly clicked that my strong need to find space and time for these was clashing with at least two more Rs: my religion and my relationships, both of which obviously make demands on my time. Recreation, a sixth R, was also competing to a lesser degree.

I spent several days mulling over how to resolve the clash, so that I didn’t feel frustrated when the treadmill of minutes and emails for faith-related matters stopped me from quietly thinking over the events of the day, or feel guilty when writing about my experiences interfered with my time on the treadmill helping my wife in the garden.

The light bulb moment was when I realised that reflection is something I can do all the time. Even more, as I wrote in my journal at the time of this light bulb moment, ‘how I want/need to do everything is reflectively.’ 

This is difficult to explain clearly.

The best way I could represent it at first was in the diagram above. All sides of the cube of experience, as I am calling it, interpenetrate. The skylight through which the fullest illumination of reality falls is that of Reflection. At first I saw Reading and Writing as consolidating what could be loosely termed Wisdom, just as Religion (in my case the Bahá’í Faith with Buddhist traces) and Relationships clearly fostered Compassion and a spirit of service to others.

I searched for a way of holding onto this core idea in a more powerful and emotionally richer way than was captured in this rather abstract diagram.

Bee in Snapdragon 3As I sat in our garden with my coffee at the usual dimpled glass table, I watched the bees foraging in the snapdragons close at hand. I am always lost in wonder at the patient and tireless way bees work at collecting the pollen and nectar so crucial for the health of the hive.[1]

‘That’s it,’ I thought. ‘My mind is more like a bee than a butterfly.’

I realised that what I need to be mindful of is how to gather the nectar of love and the pollen of wisdom in every situation, and equally importantly of the need to return to my hive frequently enough to store what I have gathered there before I drop and lose it. In this way the metaphor of the bee will help me remember how I want to be. In that way, doing and being will cease to be at odds.

I couldn’t quite leave it there though, as the slightly illogical twist in the metaphor indicates.

My mind is not a bee but the hive that contains them – and it is not a hive in the chaotic and disparaging way I have used the image in some of my poems, as a buzzing and distracting mess.

My mind is buzzing, and in the past I misunderstood the way much of that buzzing is focused and interconnected. Just as in the hive bees are engaged in activities that gather and process nectar and pollen, which are vital to their being able to feed their young and survive the winter, so my mind sends out feelers to explore its environment. What I have failed to understand is that, beneath my consciousness, my mind has been striving to reflect on what it then experiences so that the nectar of love and the pollen of wisdom can be gathered from the flower of every experience, before being stored so that other largely subconscious processes can strengthen my mind’s ability to reflect even more effectively and consolidate what it is learning.

At the peak of the eureka moment I wrote, ‘No deadlines, only beelines for my reflection work from now on.’ In a way it has taken bees to teach me how to be.

At the risk of creating an infinite regress of a Russian-doll-type, we could say that if we can bring the hive inside our minds into order we can become constructive workers within the hive of society, whether at local, national, continental or global level.

The Experience Cube FinalIn the end all this ties quite neatly into the idea of the Third ‘I’ that I have explored on this blog before and republished recently.

Reflection helps connect me to my heart, the source of deep intuitions. That’s obvious enough. In addition, I just had to modify the Cube of Experience not only to accommodate the Third ‘I’, but also to recognise that I had neglected how important Nature and the Arts are to me and how Reflection is linked more closely than anything else to Wisdom and Compassion.

You may wonder also why Recreation occupies a central role in its panel, rather than religion. I was strongly tempted, for what I expect are obvious reasons, to put Religion in the centre spot, but decided not to. I pondered upon what Recreation – or rather Re-Creation – should be about if it was to be more than simply rest, and wanted to remind myself graphically of my conclusions. I decided that Re-Creation would be both the effect of Religion and Relationships, and in its turn enhance my engagement with them, so it was placed in the middle.

I’m aware that this is still very much a work in progress. Maybe I’ll pull it all together better in a later post somewhat along the lines of the diagram at the bottom, where the end state on the right echoes the traffic light system I’ve explored elsewhere.

Since I began this sequence I have encountered some ideas that I need to ponder on as well. My good friend, Barney, pointed me in the direction of The Shallowsa book by Nicholas Carr about the impact of the internet upon our brains and minds. Even though my shelves are crammed and my pile of unread books is increasing inexorably towards the ceiling, I bought it, and I’m glad I did. Carr explains how undue use of the net is antithetical to the whole idea of reflection. Having discussed how the internet strengthens certain capacities of the brain, he moves on to discuss the downside (page 120):

What we’re not doing when we’re online . . . has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.

My hope is that if I can approach all experiences reflectively I can have my cake and eat it, gaining the best of both worlds. I can blog and surf the net without damaging my reflective capacities as long as I do it reflectively (probably easier said than done) and as long as I protect with rigorous time-banding sufficient time to read and write (not type on my laptop) in a quiet undistracted space. Carr’s book suggests such an attempt might be an imperative necessary (page 168):

The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. . . . . The problem today is that we are losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind.

What’s rather spooky is that when I had written all this, and picked up The Shallows again to read on, what should I find but the following (page 179):

“We should imitate bees,” Seneca wrote, “and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and then turn them into a  single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.”

Weird or what, to be unintentionally rendering a faint echo of Seneca across so many centuries. It testifies to the close affinity that exists between humanity and bees.

Anyhow, I’ve said enough for now I think. Instead, I need to make a plan for how to practice what I’m preaching. I need to give myself the time and space to do that so my blog might carry a lighter footprint for the time being.



[1] It’s perhaps worth pointing out that this picture was obtained at risk of life, limb and camera. As I tilted forward on my plastic garden chair and snapped the bee in the snapdragon I also snapped the chair leg and nearly sent the camera flying as I tried to halt the fall. Was there a warning there somewhere?

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