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Posts Tagged ‘R. S. Thomas’

A Mumbai pavement

The drive up the section of the Western Ghats from Mumbai towards Panchgani was much less scary than the last time we came. Instead of the single track, with two way traffic winding alongside vertiginous drops into the valleys below, we wound our way serenely up and down three-lane dual carriageways higher and higher into the mountains, past the same river and in sight of the same lakes as before.

Even so it was a longer drive than expected, more than five hours, because of the dense volume of traffic leaving Mumbai.

The closer we got the more peaceful it became. Unlike Mumbai, Panchgani had not changed all that much – slightly busier perhaps, but still much quieter, much slower, than Mumbai.

I’m publishing a couple of poems relating to this place, one that I love the most in India. One is the reposting last Monday of the story of the burial of my wife’s grandma and the next one tries to capture the emotional impact of this most recent visit.

This post has a different purpose.

Bougainvillea in Panchagani

The value of this visit did not just reside in revisiting old haunts, like grandma’s grave, Table Land or my wife’s old school, important as those experiences were.

This post is going to try and record something much harder to define. It is something that belongs among those strange coincidences and sudden leaps of faith that led to my becoming a psychologist and choosing the Bahá’í path. It didn’t involve anything so dramatically life changing but it had something of the same strange unsettling power.

Panchgani is much colder than Mumbai, though I did not really notice this until after sunset. We hadn’t thought to bring any warmer clothes than those we had been wearing at sea level.

As the sun was setting and we sat on the patio of the Prospect Hotel where we were staying, the conversation became an ever more intense exploration of spiritual issues with like-minded souls (I’ll not share their names for fear of embarrassing them). Two of them were as deeply interested in spiritual psychology as I am. Rarely have I ever had the chance to meet with psychologists with a spiritual bent, probably because such people are as almost as rare as the Phoenix, for reasons I have explored elsewhere on this blog. The sense of rising energy became stronger every moment as the exploration continued and I did not notice at first how much I was shivering.

At last I apologised for breaking the flow of the conversation saying that I had to go to my room to get my dressing gown, the only warm garment I had with me. Immediately, I was offered a warm sweater, which I gratefully accepted, and sat down again to immerse myself once more in the refreshing flow of conversation.

As we spoke many books were mentioned. I threw into the mix at various points the recent books I’d read about Shoghi Effendi through the eyes of the pilgrims who visited Haifa in his lifetime, and at least one book from long ago – Schweder’s Thinking Through Cultures – which I blogged about a long time back.

One of my companions mentioned a book I’d never heard of: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I wrote the title and the author down, but didn’t think much more of it at the time. I noticed that the sweater had not done much to diminish my underlying sense of shaking which clearly wasn’t to do with feeling cold anymore. It didn’t feel like shivering anymore: perhaps it had never been only that.

I had to entertain the possibility that some other seismic change was taking place at an altogether different level, something perhaps to do with the territory we were treading together or the connection that was active between us all or maybe both.

Anyway, once the intensity of the conversation died down, the rest of the visit, though memorable for the beauty of the place, the hospitality of our hosts and tranquility of the whole environment, lacked anything quite so dramatic.

We were very sad to leave the following day after so short a stay.

It was only later that a synchronicity occurred that suggested that the conversation in Panchgani might have had more to it than I thought.

I was lamenting to my wife that I should have brought more books. I had finished the two massive tomes I’d brought with me. I thought they’d last the whole trip and possibly beyond. Three weeks, with not much other work to do, can gobble up more pages than I realized.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door.

‘It’s a parcel for you,’ my sister shouted.

‘For me?’

‘Yes, for you.’

I went to the door and signed for the package the postman handed over.

I looked at the label. It was from the person who had recommended the book by Shafak. I could tell immediately the parcel contained a book.

You will have already guessed which book it contained. You’ve got it: The Forty Rules of Love.

As usual I checked out the reviews. One of them referred to it as a children’s book, not my usual diet. Other reviews and a quick glance inside the book itself quickly dispelled that delusion. I don’t know (m)any children who would read their way through this book.

Even more convincing was my web search of the topic and the discovery of the entire list of 40 rules in condensed form. Some of them were amazingly resonant. I’ll deal with the issue of whether they are expressed in this way by either Shams or Rumi later.

Take Rule 6 for example: ‘Loneliness and solitude are two different things. When you are lonely, it is easy to delude yourself into believing that you are on the right path. Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely. But eventually it is the best to find a person who will be your mirror. Remember only in another person’s heart can you truly see yourself and the presence of God within you.’

One sentence in particular struck a chord with me: ‘Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely.’

Ever since childhood, with its experiences of stays in hospital for surgery before the days when parents could remain close, I have felt that in the end I cannot be absolutely sure that, in times of need, I will have someone there to support me. I learned the importance of self-reliance early and have practiced it often. This, combined with my introversion, means that loneliness is not a feeling I’m familiar with. I don’t generally feel lonely when alone. I invent, or perhaps naturally possess, purposes to pursue by myself. I love the company of like-minded hearts as the Panchgani episode illustrates, but I can use books, writing, art and nature as satisfactory substitutes for quite long periods of time if necessary. So, I relate to that point, though admittedly in my fashion. I’m not so clear about the mirror idea.

I also found I related pretty strongly to Rule 9 as well: ‘East, west, south, or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.’

Not only have my tendencies in this direction been reinforced by the spiritual path I travel, in that Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, both quotes ‘Alí, Muhammad’s successor in the Seven Valleys (34):

. . . . reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

“Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?”

and in the Hidden Words (from the Arabic 13) directly urges us to recognise that if we ‘turn our sight unto’ ourselves we may find God standing within us, ‘mighty powerful and self-subsisting.’ This same idea is echoed in the Quaker phrase used by George Fox who spoke of ‘that of God in every man.’

Poetry also has reinforced these tendencies within me. I’ll quote just two examples, the first from an Anglican priest.

The best journey to make
is inward. It is the interior
that calls. Eliot heard it.
Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind, and let himself
down for the poetry stranded
on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

And the second from a Jesuit priest looking at the dark side of that immensity, something which puts many of us off such explorations:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins: No worst, there is none)

I don’t think it’s something only priests tend to do, by the way, but maybe not all poets – only poets who are also priests perhaps. I must check out George Herbert and John Donne: I don’t remember anything of quite that kind in their work, though I’m fairly  sure Thomas Traherne came pretty close. I may just need to revisit every other poet on my shelves in case a find a black swan poet of the interior who isn’t a priest: my first ports of call will probably be Henry Vaughan, a 17th Century medic and mystical poet, David Gascoyne, whose later poetry became distinctly mystical, followed by Wordsworth and Eliot as Thomas points firmly in their direction. One of my favourite Wordsworth poems, – Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood – according to some, owes a debt to Vaughan, something else to tease out if possible.

That’s enough for now. Next time I’ll close in on the question of the Rules’ origin.

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My current sequence of posts on subliminal influences makes it seem timely to republish this sequence that last saw the light two years ago. I have changed the numbering from before. The posts are interwoven with current sequences.

I know you will say I brought this on myself. Nobody asked me to tackle this issue in public. I have only myself to blame. I wanted to know more clearly what is meant by Bahá’u’lláh’s expression ‘ the understanding heart.’  I decided to go public with my struggles to do so. Now I’m not so sure that was such a great idea after all. I’m not at all convinced I can deliver in a way that advances anyone’s understanding more than a few millimetres at best. Some people may even feel I’m taking them back a step or two.

Anyway I said I would have a go, so let’s get on with it.

I have so far been tackling the easy bit. I’ve clarified that the heart in the sense Bahá’u’lláh meant could not be reduced to our gut feelings, or possibly even to our feelings of any surface kind.

Buddha in Blue jeans-1

Downloadable at this link

Interestingly, Tai Sheridan touches on this distinction in his pamphlet Buddha in Blue Jeans (page 7): ‘Your feelings are your heart and gut response to the world.’

The heart obviously does not mean our thoughts, though the thoughts we have, which relate to our beliefs about the world and what it means, can trigger a whole host of diverse feelings. Given that our view of the world is probably a kind of cultural trance, it’s not likely to be the pathway to our understanding heart.

What we discover about the nature of the understanding heart should not be too grandiose, that’s for sure. Though wiser than our other faculties, it will be a fallible and limited organ nonetheless. Bahá’u’lláh makes that abundantly clear. We can’t even use it to understand a key aspect of our own mind let alone more abstruse mysteries:

Consider the rational faculty with which God hath endowed the essence of man. . . . . . Wert thou to ponder in thine heart, from now until the end that hath no end, and with all the concentrated intelligence and understanding which the greatest minds have attained in the past or will attain in the future, this divinely ordained and subtle Reality, . . .  thou wilt fail to comprehend its mystery or to appraise its virtue. Having recognized thy powerlessness to attain to an adequate understanding of that Reality which abideth within thee, thou wilt readily admit the futility of such efforts as may be attempted by thee, or by any of the created things, to fathom the mystery of the Living God . . . . . . This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man’s development.

(Gleanings: page 164-166: LXXXIII)

He leaves us with the paradox that we would we wiser to recognise our limitations in this respect. This may be a good place to start in our investigation of what an understanding heart would be like if we were aware of it. We’d know what we couldn’t know. We’d have a realistic sense of humility in the face of the unknowable. We would probably not be saying that it could not exist because I can’t measure or physically detect it. 

What then do we need to do to get closer to a state of mind that might allow us to get in touch with our understanding heart, which Gurdjieff in his way, and Bahá’u’lláh in His, assure us that we potentially can do?

This is where we leave the easy bit behind. Bahá’u’lláh writes:

When a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading unto the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. . . . . . He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 162)

We are in difficult territory here. First of all, we have the need to dispense with every trace of love as well as hate. At the same time we have to take account of what Bahá’u’lláh says in other places. For example: ‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold.’ This is from the Persian Hidden Words (PHW: 3).

Red rose 2

I am clearly unable to give an authoritative explanation of how these two sets of statements can be reconciled. They clearly indicate that we must not be too simplistic here. They probably suggest that doing verbal pyrotechnics would not be as good an idea as meditating upon these two quotations for a long period of time until they sink into the depths of our consciousness as a result of which we may come to benefit from the whisperings of our understanding heart if we are patient and attentive enough.

For now, all I can say is that it reactivated the same puzzlement in me as when I read how Buddhism suggests we have to relinquish even the desire for enlightenment as we meditate if we are ever to achieve it and the compassion and wisdom that are its fruits. How was I supposed to persist for years in meditation without any desire for what was supposed to result?

Bahá’u’lláh’s phrase ‘the rose of love’ suggests that He might be pointing us towards the possibility that there are many kinds of love but only one that would be compatible with realising the truth. It feels to me that the many feelings of ‘love’ that I have experienced, even when I have thought it was the love for God, might well be the nettles and thistles of love which the Kitáb-i-Íqán seems to be telling me I have to weed out of my heart. The same pattern may be true also of the ‘nightingale of affection and desire:’ I’m stuck with the crows and ravens perhaps, not even the robins.

I could of course be hopelessly off the mark, though my inference here is given some credibility by the fact that the comparison between the nightingale and the Messenger of God is often made in the Bahá’í Writings, for example: ‘ the Nightingale of Paradise singeth upon the twigs of the Tree of Eternity, with holy and sweet melodies, proclaiming to the sincere ones the glad tidings of the nearness of God,’ and one rose in particular is described in exceptional terms:

In the Rose Garden of changeless splendour a Flower hath begun to bloom, compared to which every other flower is but a thorn, and before the brightness of Whose glory the very essence of beauty must pale and wither.

What is unarguable is that the path I have to tread to get in touch with my understanding heart will be long and arduous, though infinitely rewarding.

I am reminded of Margaret Donaldson‘s book Human Minds. Part of her contention in this deeply rewarding book is to argue that our modern so-called developed society has chosen to value and promote the arduously won insights of mathematics and the scientific method  over the equally arduously won insights of the meditative traditions. In both cases most of us do not test or investigate in depth for ourselves the insights won: we simply trust the experts.  

We also fail to appreciate that the arduously won insights of the meditative traditions are equally testable and replicable as those of hard science for those prepared to devote enough hours to the acquisition of the requisite skills.  Because our society encourages the latter, we have scientific adepts in abundance: because it is suspicious of the former, accomplished mystics are hard to come by. We are out of balance and will eventually pay the ultimate price if we are not already beginning to do so.

Bahá’u’lláh has no doubt about the benefits of the path of search he advocates:

Then will the manifold favors and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. . . . . . Gazing with the eye of God, he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth him to the stations of absolute certitude.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 196)

WILLIAM BLAKE

William Blake (for source of image see link)

We are in the world of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

And Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.’ When mystics and so many poets agree we would have to be arrogant indeed to dismiss out of hand the possible truth of what they describe.

Donaldson also refers interestingly to the views of Iris Murdoch on the value of art and imagery to this process of deepening understanding (op.cit.: page 230):

Murdoch . . . . . defends art as giving us ‘intermediate images’ and argues, correctly I think, that most of us cannot do without the ‘high substitute for the spiritual and the speculative life,’ that it provides. But she also recognises that images can lead to a full stop if they are taken as being ‘for real.’

This sounds like the mistake we all might be making, which is to take what we sense for what truly is.  Basic science scuppers that in any case. Colour is not in the object, nor is it even in the eye, but in the mind of the beholder. We translate a particular wavelength of light into red, blue, green and so on. Red could just as easily have been experienced as blue. The colour allocation is arbitrary and not inherent in the object.

Science even carries us as far as understanding that solid objects have more empty space than matter in them. It is the force that particles exert that creates the illusion of solidity. It is not then quite such a huge leap of imagination to suppose that atoms could be doorways to a deeper reality if only we could detach ourselves sufficiently from the delusions and attachments of consensus reality.

Where then do we turn from here in order to progress further in this task?

As the heart, in the sense we are using the word, is a metaphor it is perhaps not surprising that the best way of enhancing our understanding of the term might be through other metaphors. We’re at the cusp where mysticism and poetry intersect, it seems.

We’ve been here before on this blog, with my encounter with R S Thomas. I found his anthology of religious verse published in the 60s, and read in his introduction (page 9):

The mystic fails to mediate God adequately insofar as he is not a poet. The poet, with possibly less immediacy of apprehension, shows his spiritual concern and his spiritual nature through the medium of language, the supreme symbol. The presentation of religious experience is the most inspired language in poetry. This is not a definition of poetry, but a description of how the communication of religious experience best operates.

That is where we look next time, and given that Bahá’u’lláh was both a mystic and an accomplished poet it should be a fruitful but perhaps demanding experience.

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Hay books

Hay-on-Wye

Is there a place
here for the spirit? Is there time
on this brief platform for anything
other than the mind’s failure to explain itself?

(R S Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990, page 362)

Given my recent visit to Hay-on-Wye and even more because of my recent re-encounter with R S Thomas it seems a very good time to re-publish this post from 2013.

A couple of weeks back Poetry Review (PR), the magazine of the Poetry Society, dropped through my letterbox. I skimmed through it quickly to see if anything immediately caught my eye. It had an article about a poet I have too long neglected after buying his Collected Poems in 1995. The poet I’m talking about is Thomas – not Dylan, but Ronald Stuart.

The article is by Gwyneth Lewis. It hooked me straightway.  She begins by saying how much she had initially been repelled by his work, and not just once. The first time she couldn’t accept his portrayal of the Welsh: then she discovered that how he had described them wasn’t really how he saw them which she summarily dismissed as bad faith (PR Summer 2013, page 92), ‘So, for a second time, I thought I’d wiped my hands of his work.’

But that was premature. On meeting him she was taken by his charm and subsequently by his later themes (op. cit.: page 93), such as ‘the Machine as an enemy of  man.’ She quotes Thomas in an interview (ibid.):

It is not pure science and religion that are irreconcilable, but a profit-making attitude to technology…  If pure science is an approach to ultimate reality it can differ from religion only in some of the methods.

For me this was an irresistible mixture of the Bahá’í idea that religion and science are completely compatible and of McGilchrist’s antagonism to the ‘machine mind.’

And as if that was not enough she quotes him liberally in ways that strengthen the attraction, for instance (ibid. page 95):

I have this that I must do
One day: overdraw on my balance
Of air, and breaking the surface
Of water go down into the green
Darkness to search for the door
To myself in dumbness and blankness…

Another obsession of mine.

During her article Lewis mentions a book that Thomas had edited in 1963: The Penguin Book of Religious Verse.  The poets she lists Thomas as including create such an unlikely congregation that I felt I just had to get hold of a copy of this book. What on earth were Byron and Swinburne doing in a book of religious verse, for example?

I had to place my plan on hold for a while until the friend in the photo at the top of this post came on a visit. We planned to go to Hay-on-Wye, the world’s biggest bookshop, occupying as it does virtually the whole of the town. And I knew that in this town lay a delightful poetry bookshop that seemed stacked to the rafters  with secondhand poetry books. And I also knew that in the middle of her stay rain was forecast for the whole day – a perfect time to spend indoors between shelves bending under the weight of every possible kind of book.

hayonwye-booksellersIn the afternoon, after a light lunch, with a soft rain falling, I left my friend with her preferred temptations in the Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, and headed off to the Poetry Bookshop. After a couple of wrong turns brought on by the difficulty of managing an umbrella and a map at the same time, I found intoxicating shelter among thousands of poetry books. I was on a mission not only to find the Thomas anthology, but also to track down books by a poet I had never heard of until recently – Jorie Graham. I found examples of her fusion of metaphor and metaphysics without much difficulty – but that is another story.

After that I found the shelves stacked with anthologies, but with no sign of the Thomas book, even after much bending and kneeling. So, after what seemed an eternity of unwanted yoga, I decided to defy my conditioning as an Englishman, and ask the proprietor if he had a copy of the book I was looking for.

‘It’s on the top of that set of shelves over there,’ he said before diving behind his desk again.

And there it was indeed in plain sight, its tiny size compensated for by the vibrant purples and reds of its cover. It was carefully encased in a transparent plastic jacket. I picked it up gently and opened it carefully as the years had browned and dried its pages giving them the feel of fragility. I looked inside the front cover. The label read ‘£15.’

‘It’s a first edition, then,’ I shouted in shock to the owner.

‘That’s right,’ he smiled. ‘And it’s never been reprinted since to my knowledge. It’s very rare. I’ve never seen another copy.’

I was a bit stunned.

‘It’s not the kind of book I usually buy,’ I explained. ‘I read books with a highlighter pen in one hand and a pencil in the other.’

‘You can’t buy that then,’ he shot back. ‘I couldn’t allow it. Attacking a book like that with a highlighter pen – it’s unthinkable.’

I was in a quandary. I really wanted the book but how could I gain possession of it with a clear conscience when my intention was to take it away and deface such a national treasure?

I turned over each and every page and the names of a pantheon of English poets passed before my eyes: Hopkins, Thompson, Herbert, Skelton, Byron, Donne, Vaughn. The list went on and on. I had to have a copy but couldn’t buy this one, not because he had said in jest that I mustn’t but because I couldn’t let myself. I’d feel too guilty to enjoy the book. It’d stay on my shelves in its plastic tabernacle far too holy to be disturbed until they buried me with it.

‘I’m looking at every page,’ I told him, as I slowly leafed through the slender volume.

‘That’s a good idea,’ he murmured sympathetically. ‘At least you’ll have experienced it and will have something to remember.’

I got to the end of the book knowing I wouldn’t buy that one, but that I’d have to find another copy somewhere that I could buy. There was no escaping its pull on me.

I paid for my Jorie Grahams and went out into the street. The rain had stopped. I got out my iPhone and checked on Amazon. £32.  Perhaps I should have bought the book after all. I nearly went back but something stopped me.

When I rejoined my friend after nearly an hour she was amazed I’d come back so soon. ‘You’ve only been gone five minutes,’ she exclaimed. I empathised. Time stops in libraries and bookshops.

When I got back home I went straight onto the web after unloading my purchases from the car. These included a couple of books on William James, another of my current obsessions, and a biography of Teilhard de Chardin.

Frustratingly there were no sites that had soft copies of the book that I could download permanently. I trawled some more. Then, as if by magic hardly daring to believe my eyes, I found a hard copy at GBL books. £4!  I looked again. £4. It was real. The blurb said it had the previous owner’s name inside the cover – obviously another book vandal. It was also a bit stained along the bottom apparently.

Perfect for me. Not a national treasure I couldn’t carry around in my bag. Not a precious relic that I needed to handle with white gloves. Not an illuminated manuscript I couldn’t lay an unlawful pen upon.  Instead, something I could interact with, without fear, in the same way as I related to all my books when I wanted to absorb their contents. And all I had to do was press a button and send a cheque. And the lady behind the site explained in her response to my phone message that when she received the cheque she’d send the book, and when I phoned her to say I was happy with it, she’d cash the cheque. All in all a delightful experience.

Too good to be true? Not a bit of it. The photograph below proves that I have now in my possession to paw and peruse as I please, this rare and never since republished classic exactly as described and about which you may hear more later.

I can’t think of any better way to close this post than to quote from Thomas’ introduction (page 9):

Roughly defining religion as embracing an experience of ultimate reality, and poetry as an imaginative presentation of such, I have considered five aspects of that experience: the consciousness of God, of the self, of negation, of the impersonal or un-nameable, and of completion. . . . The mystic fails to mediate God adequately insofar as he is not a poet. The poet, with possibly less immediacy of apprehension, shows his spiritual concern and his spiritual nature through the medium of language, the supreme symbol. The presentation of religious experience is the most inspired language in poetry. This is not a definition of poetry, but a description of how the communication of religious experience best operates.

Relig Poetry

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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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Deaths of the Poets

Deaths of the Poets

England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger to my lips,
An offence to the ear, a shackle on the tongue
That would fit new thoughts to an abiding tune?

(From R S Thomas’s The Old Language in Collected Poems: 1945-1990 – page 25)

I am on the train coming back from Birmingham. No one seems particularly disturbed to find someone close by reading about death and poetry.

The girl sitting next to me is probably too preoccupied too notice as she switches between her phone, her book (I wish she’d hold it at a different angle – it’s frustrating: I can’t even read the chapter heading let alone see the cover – it looks thick and interesting) and her tablet. She soon gives up on the book and ends up spending the rest of the time till she gets off the train looking at pictures of buildings on her tablet – must’ve had a tranquilising effect.

My book on deaths of the poets has been an up-and-down experience. I have sometimes skipped through several pages at Woody Allen speed (You remember the quip? “I did a speed reading course. I’ve just read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.’), only to break hard to ruminate long over other passages.

My attention is already hooked well and truly by the chapter on war poets and I’ll probably come back to that at some point in the future, but I am absolutely fixated when I get to House Calls, the one dealing with poets who have jobs.

Back at my desk, I’ve really chewed the cud of that one in an effort to extract every implication that resonates with me. I’m not sure why it pulled me in so strongly, except possibly my own past struggle to balance the prose of paid work with the unsalaried poetry of imaginative flight. I’ve blogged about this in detail in the Dancing Flames post where I wrote, ‘I had been coming to the end of my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called mentally ill. I then had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.’

Riding Two Horses?

The chapter soon gets going with a key question. Farley and Roberts ask (page 205):

If poetry is a vocation in itself, and an all consuming, life threatening one at that, then what can life be like for poets who have vocational day jobs?

Following the prevailing pattern of the book, they visit key places in a poet’s life and they learn for instance (page 206):

How Williams himself contained both vocations within the same house: a study in the attic for the night work of poetry and a consulting room in the annex for the day work of medicine.

His life seemed an unremitting alternation between scribbling and prescribing. They wonder whether this tension fed his poetry (page 210):

In Rutherford everyone knew him. He was a pillar of respectability…. But in Manhattan he was the great modernist poet, a doctor among the Bohemians. Was it in the pull, the polarity of these two lives, these two selves, that he found the energy to write?

Why are they so concerned with the idea of vocation though? Perhaps because of the possible connection they are exploring in this book between poetry and self-destruction – a link whose inevitability is tested potentially to breaking point by the lives of the poets in this chapter. They are questioning the pain and poetry relationship (page 207):

Great poems don’t land in your lap, or so the legend says. Great poems are hewn from great suffering and risk and pain. It must be a vocation.

Finding the Right Words

This is in itself a theme that would be guaranteed to hold my interest. The chapter also raises a problem I’ve explored elsewhere at some length: the challenge of pared-back poetry (page 208):

Thomas’s uncompromising, pared-back poems show the clear influence of early American modernists, and Thomas admired the later, more ambitious Williams poems in particular. . . . . Thomas sought to break and reshape an English fitted to the landscape and spirit of Wales.

In Williams’s poetry it takes a shape that became associated with his work (page 217):

[Williams’s] lifelong struggle to define a new kind of authentic American poetic nature, an authentic American poetic, is still being weighed and calibrated in seminar rooms and lecture theatres. His notion of the ‘variable foot’[1], which marks out the music of a truly American poetic line, is – depending on your point of view – a canon-defining perception of genius or an impenetrable piece of sophistry.

I’m afraid that for me it still feels like the latter. And there were major problems for him at the time with maintaining the credibility of his pioneering approach, as the Poetry Archive describes:

What Williams did not foresee, however, was the “atom bomb” on modern poetry—T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Williams had no quarrel with Eliot’s genius—he said Eliot was writing poems as good as Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”—but, simply, “we were breaking the rules, whereas he was conforming to the excellencies of classroom English.” As he explained in his Autobiography, “I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I’m sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself —rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.” Not only did Williams feel threatened by Eliot’s success, but also by the attention The Waste Land received. As Karl Shapiro pointed out, “he was left high and dry: Pound, who was virtually the co-author of Eliot’s poems, and Marianne Moore were now polarized to Eliot. Williams felt this and would feel it for another twenty years. His own poetry would have to progress against the growing orthodoxy of Eliot criticism.”

What’s Poetry For?

I was far more engaged with their discussion of Thomas, a poet I have admired in spite of his modernist style. Part of the reason may lie in what they reveal of his critique of the modern world, which suggests that I am responding to the passion that lies behind the style. They quote from an interview with Thomas (page 223):

Asked about the state of contemporary poetry as we approach the end of the twentieth century, he is a bleak in his evaluation: ‘What troubles me is the superficiality, shallowness. As you know, you’ve only got to sit in the Underground in London and see this panorama of humanity passing and to glimpse behind the masks of the faces before you the joy and the glory and suffering and disappointment and frustration. Here you’ve got major themes for poetry, and they’re not being . . . . . Not all the stops are being drawn out. Contemporary poets are guilty, I think, of playing around the fringes of the human psyche.

We are back in the London of Blake here:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

He feels that this failure is costing poetry its place in the modern culture. The crucial question for Thomas is this (page 224):

‘. . . . is poetry in the twenty-first century going to maintain its position as one of the great arts, or is it going to drift further and further into what it’s already in danger of being, a minority art?

This passionate concern, Farley and Roberts feel, is rooted in his work, which confronted him with the harsh reality of humanity’s situation (page 225):

Like WCW and his patients, R. S. Thomas’s life of service to his poor and hard-working parishioners convinced him of the threats he found were gathering – in the mid-twentieth century – to our essential humanity

The trigger was similar for both poets (ibid):

The turmoil came in part from the particular encounter with humanity afforded by their secondary vocations, and in part from the language itself, which sent WCW back and back to the page in search of an authentic American poetry, and condemned Thomas to produce work of great beauty and acclaim in the language of his political enemies.

The words of Williams state his position simply but powerfully (page 226):

He wanted his readers to meet the people he met as a doctor, and challenged himself to see if he could do justice to them. ‘My words are inspired by my fellow human beings,’ he told his young trainee.

img_3397

The Poetry Archive vividly captures this dynamic:

Beginning with his internship in the decrepit “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York City and throughout his forty years of private practice in Rutherford, Williams heard the “inarticulate poems” of his patients. As a doctor, his “medical badge,” as he called it, permitted him “to follow the poor defeated body into those gulfs and grottos…, to be present at deaths and births, at the tormented battles between daughter and diabolic mother.” From these moments, poetry developed: “it has fluttered before me for a moment, a phrase which I quickly write down on anything at hand, any piece of paper I can grab.” Some of his poems were born on prescription blanks, others typed in a few spare minutes between patient visits.

I respect and admire the values he expressed through his work: I feel that his poetry in the pared down passages all too often fails to do them justice. The Poetry Archive gave me reason to look again at some of his work[2] but I still cannot change my feeling that he ends up writing what I have called elsewhere ‘left-brain’ poetry, something that leaves me cold.

I think that Williams was himself very aware of the problem. Take this passage from his modernist epic Paterson as an example (Penguin Poets Edition: pages 113-114 – excuse the number of dots in the first line – it was the only way to get the words in the right place!):

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  So that

to write, nine tenths of the problem
is to live. They see

to it, not by intellection but
by sub-intellection (to want to be

blind as a pretext for
saying, We’re so proud of you!

A wonderful gift! How do
you find the time for it in

your busy life? It must be a great
thing to have such a pastime.

But you were always a strange
boy. How’s your mother?)

. . . . Your father was such a nice man.
I remember him well   .

Or, Geeze, Doc, I guess it’s all right
but what the hell does it mean?

There are many powerful and reasonably accessible passages in this book-long poem, but there are also many pages that lose sufficient coherence to permit my understanding at least. To be fair, Browning’s The Ring & the Book, which I feel is his masterpiece, is often almost as obscure, so I may be operating some kind of double standard here. The short passage above gives perhaps a taste of this oscillation between the completely clear and the virtually opaque. I’ll probably continue to grapple with my reaction: perhaps it’s as Williams himself said (Paterson: page 100): ‘The poem moves them or/it does not move them.’

An important consideration here is that Williams seems to accept the inevitability of leaving most readers behind if he is to write as he feels he must. The blurb inside the cover of my edition of Paterson quotes him: ‘In 1920 he wrote, “I’ll right whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please…”’ I’m glad he clarified that.

img_3398Writing on Behalf of his People

Thomas is different, I think. There is an intriguing link to the Mass that Farley and Roberts flag up (page 226):

In the old rite of the Mass, the priest would stand at the head of his congregation with his back to them, leading his people in the incantations and prayers, representing them. Once the rules changed and the priest turned around to face the congregation, Thomas felt that something crucial had been lost. As did David Jones. Fortunately, his poetic vocation still permitted RST to take on that role, to turn and face the emptiness on behalf of his people, to cast words into the void of God for them.

I’ll use an example of the power with which Thomas is able to capture accessibly the bleak reality of his subject without lapsing into traditional modes of expression (Collected Poems 1945-1990 Phoenix Edition – page 464). I’ve picked a poem that illustrates how strong Thomas’s love for and commitment to the Welsh language was: he deeply regretted that his strength in it was not sufficient to carry his poetry.

Drowning

They were irreplaceable and unforgettable,
inhabitants of the parish and speakers
of the Welsh tongue. I looked on and
there was one less and one less and one less.

They were not of the soil, but contributed
to it in dying, a manure not
to be referred to as such, but from which
poetry is grown and legends and green tales.

Their immortality was what they hoped for
by being kind. Their smiles were such as,
exercised so often, became perennial
as flowers, blossoming where they had been cut down.

I ministered uneasily among them until
what had been gaps in the straggling hedgerow
of the nation widened to reveal the emptiness
that was inside, where echoes haunted and thin ghosts.

A rare place, but one identifiable
with other places where on as deep a sea
men have clung to the last spars of their language
and gone down with it, unremembered but uncomplaining.

As the Wikipedia article on Thomas puts it:

Fearing that poetry was becoming a dying art, inaccessible to those who most needed it, “he attempted to make spiritually minded poems relevant within, and relevant to, a science-minded, post-industrial world”, to represent that world both in form and in content even as he rejected its machinations.

(Their quote is from Daniel Westover’s R. S. Thomas: A Stylistic Biography – University of Wales Press, 2011.) 

My sense is that he succeeded.

Last Words

Whatever the rights and wrongs of my preconceptions about the value of their poetry, an important implication of both their lives is the possibility that their work protected them from the harmful myth so many post-Romantic poets have succumbed to (page 226-27):

Both poets struggling to hold their lives in balance – outward facing lives as pastor and doctor, and their inward-facing lives as poets. . . . . . Perhaps, in both cases, their sense of duty to the people they served help them to avoid the meltdown of poetic self destruction.

All in all, though the experience varied in quality, this book as a whole was a richly rewarding experience that deepened my understanding of the complex relationship between poetry, the poet and the life. I’m glad I read it.

Footnotes:

[1] From Wikipedia: ‘Williams referred to the prosody of triadic-line poetry as a “variable foot”, a metrical device to resolve the conflict between form and freedom in verse.[4] Each of the three staggered lines of the stanza should be thought of as one foot, the whole stanza becoming a trimeter line.[5] Williams’ collections Journey to Love (1955) and The Desert Music (1954) [6] contained examples of this form. This is an extract from “The Sparrow” by Williams:

Practical to the end,
……………….it is the poem
………………………………of his existence

(The dots are the only way to get the words in the right place! I’ve copied the arrangement from my Paladin Edition of his work Volume II – page 294: it differs slightly from that found on the Wikipedia page.)

[2] From Poetry Archive: “Elsewhere Williams’ social conscience is to the fore, in the act of imaginative empathy of ‘The Widow’s Lament in Springtime’ and the more overtly political vision of ‘The Yachts’ and ‘To Elsie’. The former is radical in a different way from the experimental minimalism of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ as it presents an image of capitalist oppression: Williams captures the exhilaration of the yachts’ triumphant progress, but he also sees the ruthlessness of privilege which they represent. ‘To Elsie’, its twenty two stanzas poured out in a single sentence, constructs a powerful critique of a modern world in which the lower classes are degraded by lust and exploited by the better off. The final poem, ‘The Dance’, celebrates movement and Williams’ great love of art. Here he does use a traditional metre, the dactyl (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed) which gives the poem a powerful forward momentum. The whirling energy of the peasants is also intensified through the enjambment of each line which doesn’t allow a pause for breath. It feels especially important to be able to listen to this great celebrant of American speech, his light clear voice relishing the different kinds of music created by each poem.”

 

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subliminal

The best journey to make

is inward. It is the interior

that calls. Eliot heard it.

Wordsworth turned from the great hills

of the north to the precipice

of his own mind, and let himself

down for the poetry stranded

on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

Given the unfolding story of my Parliament of Selves, republishing this sequence on consecutive days seemed a no-brainer.

In the previous post I briefly described the circumstances that led me to risk an encounter weekend run under the auspices of People Not Psychiatry in the mid-70s. The experience illustrates my life-changing encounter with some of the powerful unconscious undercurrents of my mind – proof, if any were needed, that consciousness has a filter to screen out unwanted experiences from below and it can sometimes take extraordinary circumstances to create a leak in the filter.

A standard definition of such a group as I experienced goes something like this:

Encounter Groups were nontraditional attempts at psychotherapy that offered short-term treatment for members without serious psychiatric problems. These groups were also known as sensitivity (or sensory) awareness groups and training groups (or T-groups). Encounter groups were an outgrowth of studies conducted in 1946 at the National Training Laboratories in Connecticut by Kurt Lewin. The use of continual feedback, participation, and observation by the group encouraged the analysis and interpretation of their problems. Other methods for the group dynamics included Gestalt therapy (working with one person at a time with a primary goal of increasing awareness of oneself in the moment, also known as holistic therapy) and meditation. (Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/encounter-group#ixzz2TCE6yY76)

In the case of the group I went to, delete ‘Gestalt therapy’ and insert ‘a hybrid of Reichian Breathwork and Primal (Scream) Therapy.’ A reasonable definition of Reichian Breathwork can be found at the GoodTherapy website. They write:

Reichian Breathwork helps clients achieve a sense of peace and calm by guiding them to focus only on their breath. They release their worry and rather than thinking about planning and doing, they are instructed to go inside their own body and simply be. This is an arduous task at first, but with practice clients learn to control their breathing and still the inner and outer voices. Complete calm and stillness must be achieved in order to direct all of one’s attention on one’s breath. This practice is performed in groups, in class and studio settings, or can be performed individually. There are a number of various tools available to help people learn the art of Reichian Breathwork.

The basic idea behind Primal Therapy is explained in wikipedia as:

Janov states that neurosis is the result of suppressed pain, which is the result of trauma, usually trauma of childhood origin. According to Janov, the only way to reverse neurosis is for the neurotic to confront their trauma in a therapeutic setting. Janov contends that by confronting their trauma, the neurotic can relive the original traumatic incident and can express the emotions that occurred at that time, thereby resolving the trauma. . . . . Janov believes that there is only one source of mental illness (besides genetic defects)—imprinted pain. He argues that this unitary source of neurosis implies that there can be only one effective cure—re-experiencing.

The encounter weekend’s method fused both these two forms of therapy into one. The aim was to reconnect you with primal pain by focused breathing.

Urban Breath NYC Deal

I climbed the steep and uncarpeted stairs to the therapy room on that first Friday evening with a degree of trepidation, my footsteps echoing off the walls. I walked through the door into a converted bedroom with a spongy covering over the entire floor. Spread around the room were countless pillows. There were about fifteen of us who would spend the entire weekend till Sunday afternoon breathing hard and pounding pillows with very little sleep until a small minority of us plunged through the floor to the basement of our minds to confront whatever demons had been locked away there.

Those with anger as the dominant emotion were the ones to pound the pillows most, often shouting out their rage to the person they’d been paired with for the purpose. Others, like me, who tried pounding the pillows hunting for anger but failed to connect, and who were completely unable to put any kind of label on the emotional quarry we were pursuing, spent a lot of time lying on our backs focusing on our breathing. Friday night was a disappointment. The rabbits of our primal pain were still deep in their burrows, silent and invisible.

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

This process went on for what seemed hours. The theory was that the more deeply you went into the experience, the more likely your were to connect with its cause. Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings (see link). That didn’t happen this first time, nor was I ever able to connect this pool of tears with any specific event or determine its meaning. When I discovered it, I realised it had always been there. Decades later it seems that it always will be, as long as I live in this body at least.

I can invent reasons for its existence (there’s a lot of material to choose from – see for example the poems about my family, my searching (which in a way still continues) and my operation: these experiences all predated my breakthrough into my mind’s basement) but I cannot safely conclude that any of them apply as none of them ever popped to the surface to be identified as the culprit during breathwork. It seems to be just as Virgil wrote ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’ (‘There are tears for [or “of”] things and mortal things touch the mind.” So, no explanation at all really.

However, the main point of this extract from my life experience is to illustrate why I know for an absolute fact that there is a whole world of unacknowledged experiences seething beneath the surface of our minds. As Gerald Manley Hopkins put it:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

Most people interested in such things will now readily accept that there is more going on underneath our awareness than we will probably ever know. I’m not sure that in the west we would give the same degree of credence to the probability that there is even more going on above it.

But a consideration of my experiences in that direction will have to wait for next time.

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Cliff

Cliff

Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind, and let himself
down for the poetry stranded
on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: Later Poems – page 99)

In preparation for a couple of posts later this week it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence.

What then?

Last time we looked at various ways in which we could be seen, not as a single unitary self, but as a composite of many selves. If we are such a community of selves – what then?

Bahá’u’lláh exhorts us to (Seven Valleys 34):

. . . . reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states[1] are folded up and hidden away within him.

“Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?”

Rowan refers to the Buddhist concept of “mutual interpenetration,” (John Rowan, Subpersonalities page 220), and quotes Wilber as saying: “the universe is likened to a net of glittering gems, wherein each Jewel contains the reflections of all other jewels, and its reflection in turn exists in all other gems: one in all, all in one, or unity in diversity, diversity in unity.”

This suggests that the world within us is as manifold, vast and complex as the world outside us. Outside us there is, as it were, a landscape: inside us there is perhaps, to borrow Hopkins’ word, an ‘inscape.’ Rowan spells out certain implications by saying (page 220):

. . . we are back to the idea that the inner world and the outer world have the same laws and the same features and the same structures. The personal and the political are one.

The implications of this, if it is true, or even if it is merely useful, are too vast for this post or perhaps even this blogger to encompass. However, several really do stand out already.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Implications

Firstly that which lies within the individual becomes subject to Bahá’u’lláh’s statements that mankind needs to establish unity before other problems can be resolved and that this unity can only be created if we first of all follow His counsels.

Secondly the processes of consultation and compassion should apply with equal force within as without. In practice this might mean allowing different aspects of ourselves to communicate one with another, and ensuring that we respond even to the unprepossessing parts of our selves with loving acceptance. After all, can we expect to bring out the best in an “unsavoury” new acquaintance whom we have just met by cutting him dead and keeping him in Coventry? Why, then, should we expect the beings peopling our inner world to respond well when we treat them badly?

Thirdly, as we are within so will we create our world outside ourselves. Hence the vital importance of Bahá’u’lláh’s exhortation to free ourselves that the whole world might become free.

Fourthly, it strongly suggests that we must stop pigeon-holing others, refrain from either-or thinking and nothing-butism and eschew forcing people to behave in ways that are consistent with our expectations and prejudices. If, within them, they contain multitudes, why should we draw conclusions about them based on only a fraction of their being?

And last of all, as Bahá’ís, it may not be sufficient to deepen only our most immediately accessible selves in the Faith: we need to reach our minorities inside, our despised and outcast ones within, with the loving Message of Bahá’u’lláh, or else there is very little chance that we will reach those the world at large rejects!

Magna Carta (for source of image see link)

Magna Carta (for source of image see link)

The Gallery of Selves

It is perhaps necessary to add that this gallery of selves comprises various levels. The lowest level may correspond to the acquired character, which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá regarded as the potential source of evil and is fragmented by traumatic experience and the need to play different roles in different situations. Such selves are vivid to us but are not perhaps the most vital aspects of our being and may become potential members of the brain-robber gang I described earlier.

Perhaps at a higher level of significance are the selves that pertain to the inherited character: there is strong evidence, for example, that distinct temperaments are morally neutral and discernible in all of us from day one. Jung, who proposed the idea of archetypes such as the Anima and the Animus, also argued for such underlying tendencies as extraversion and introversion; Eysenck contended these also are inherited. Different aspects of our temperament may not always sit easily together.

At the highest level there is the innate character and the innate capacity, which come from God and are all good. This may not be a simple unity either. There are, as I have suggested, many attributes of God, not all of which appear immediately compatible. Also Bahá’u’lláh describes the Godlike in us in different ways at different times. For example, in the Arabic Hidden Word mentioned above, we are to experience Him as “mighty, powerful and self-subsisting” whereas in the Gleanings He refers to the “seas of (His) Loving Kindness”[2] moving within us. We are likely to experience those two aspects of God’s attributes very differently, it seems to me, assuming that any of us reach the point of experiencing them at all!

Nonetheless the higher aspects of what seems likely to be a single variously experienced transcendent self may be the best or only way of rising above or resolving the conflicts between the lower selves (which have to be consciously understood however if they are not to subvert all our efforts at spiritual development). Rowan’s position is (page 206):

(At) the same time, when the person gets in touch with the real self, or the greater self, the question of the subpersonalities becomes less important … They move gradually from being great feudal barons to being colourful banners brought out on appropriate occasions.

The conflicts between aspects of the higher self may well be more apparent than real.

I have skated over many difficulties but have sought to convey as simply as I could a possibly underestimated aspect of our inner reality. If what I have described is true or useful, it will be extremely important to remember for Bahá’u’lláh counsels us in the first Taraz[3] to know ourselves and that within us which leads to loftiness or lowliness.

Perhaps a good place to stop would be the moving words of a clergyman poet:

The best journey to make
is inward. It is the interior that calls

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . For some
it is all darkness; for me, too,
it is dark. But there are hands
there I can take, voices to hear
solider than the echoes without.
And sometimes a strange light
shines, purer than the moon,
casting no shadow, that is
the halo upon the bones
of the pioneers who died for truth.

(Thomas, Later Poems, page 99)

Notes

  1. E.g. the dream.
  2. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings page 327.
  3. Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets page 35.

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