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Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

sand

As part of the counterbalance to my recent posts on death and suffering I thought it was about time to republish something a bit more positive. So, here’s another post from 2009.

Hints about the Infinite

It’s interesting how life keeps drawing our attention to a special theme sometimes. Images and eternity seems to be my theme of the moment and life won’t let me leave it alone. I felt about as powerful in the grip of this idea as a doll in the jaws of a dog. I decided to give in gracefully and write another post about it.

Some reminders came in response to the post on the subject so they perhaps don’t count, though one was very valuable: it concerned ‘Auguries of Innocence.’ For some reason I had completely forgotten the opening lines of this poem by William Blake, so central though they were to my theme:

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.

Others were not prompted by me in that way though perhaps I sought them out unconsciously.

There was the television programme about the cracking of  the ‘Narnia Code.’ Life was reminding me again about imagery and its power, especially in the way that Michael Ward, whose doctorate was focused on this issue, was eloquent on screen about the way that every natural object in our world has mystical significance.

A.A. Gill reviewed the programme in the Culture section of the Sunday Times (19th April 2009). The discovery was that:

the seven books of the [Narnia] cycle relate to the seven planets. The revelation posed three questions the programme didn’t quite answer. Why keep it a secret? Lewis was an unstoppable explainer and not a little pleased with his own cleverness, so why hide this bit?”

(I won’t bother quoting the other two questions. They get worse.)

There is an explanation that would probably throw Gill into paroxysms of disbelief. Perhaps C. S. Lewis didn’t consciously know what he was doing. While this may seem far-fetched in this case, let’s not throw out this enthralling possibility because of one possibly bad example.

An author’s text and an author’s conscious intentions have a very uncertain relationship. People end up saying far more than they consciously mean. This is part of the power of art. Imagery contributes a huge amount to this effect. It’s why a great work of art means different things to us at different periods of our lives and to people in general at different points in human history. Put crudely, Shakespeare could never have anticipated that Richard III would be performed in modern military uniform as a comment on Fascism.

budsAnother reminder came last week when I was sitting in a sunlit room in the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford with a group of people discussing chaplaincy. Philip Sutton is the head of the Chaplaincy Service there and, in the course of his comments on chaplaincy, he spoke of the power of natural objects like flowers to help people connect with the mystery of life, of how they can help move someone’s vision beyond the prison walls of their misery to a transcendent awareness of this mystery in a way that brings them some relief from their sorrow. (Another gem of his was to say that, when people are coping with terminal illness or bereavement, what they often need most is ‘a good listening to.’)

I was reminded of the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil . . . .
There lives the dear freshness deep down things.

And hardly had I drawn breath when my plan to finish Wordsworth‘s Prelude after twenty years of trying brought another reminder right before my eyes:

. . . . . the very faculty of truth,
Which wanting, . . . . man, a creature great and good,
Seems but a pageant plaything with vile claws,
And this great frame of breathing elements
A senseless idol.

(Book Fourth: 1805, lines 298-304)

This is not one of Wordworth’s clearest passages on this insight, which is probably why he dropped it from his 1850 edition. It links though with the lines from his great poem composed above Tintern Abbey where he speaks of

. . . . . a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused.’

(Lines 96-97)

But the Prelude passage also draws attention to the observer and his qualities.

While I was being reminded of what I had already said in my earlier post, I was also being reminded of what I had left unsaid. The natural world does not always seem such an uplifting experience.

Complicating Factors

Last week a group of us were sitting together looking at the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh:

O My Servants! Were ye to discover the hidden, the shoreless oceans of My incorruptible wealth, ye would, of a certainty, esteem as nothing the world, nay, the entire creation.

Gleanings: CLIII

That doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for seeing the world as drenched in mystical meanings!

The same section of the Gleanings, which I looked at later, contains the following:

The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality. Set not your affections upon it.  . . . . . Verily I say, the world is like the vapour in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion.

People have also struggled with the dark side of our experience of the world. Tennyson puts this very powerfully: he describes nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ (In Memoriam: 56) and at moments experiences life as very bleak:

. . . when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

(In Memoriam: 50)

europ-eagle-owlSome poets, when they are not recoiling from its dark side, can see the world as having no meaning at all beyond the material reality of it: a crib-site has this to say about William Carlos Williams and says it far better than I could:

Citing Williams’s dictum, “No ideas but in things,” and such poems as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Miller claims that–in contrast to the duality inherent in the idealism of the classical, romantic, or symbolist traditions, wherein the objects of the world signify transcendent “supernatural realities”–the objects of Williams’s poetry signify themselves and nothing more, existing “within a shallow space, like that created on the canvases of the American abstract expressionists”, exposing the poem not as a representation of an object, but as an object in itself. Miller finds in Williams’s verse “no symbolism, no depth, no reference to a world beyond the world, no pattern of imagery, no dialectical structure, no interaction of subject and object–just description”.

Pablo-Picasso-Painting-The-Old-Guitarist2

Picasso – ‘The Old Guitarist’ (for website see link)

Wallace Stevens even went so far as to make poetry a religion:

. . . . . . . . .  Poetry
Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns.

(The Man with the Blue Guitar: Section v)

He seems to be making a god out of poetry rather than poems out of God.

So the world (and presumably poetry that celebrates it) is either a snare to delude us, a block in our path or simply the  trigger of brain activity shaped by evolution to help our bodies to survive, not a gateway to the spiritual after all?

A Way out of the Difficulty

Bahá’u’lláh also writes:

Every created thing in the whole universe is but a door leading into His knowledge, a sign of His sovereignty, a revelation of His names, a symbol of His majesty, a token of His power, a means of admittance into His straight Path. . . . . . . . As to thy question whether the physical world is subject to any limitations, know thou that the comprehension of this matter dependeth upon the observer himself. In one sense, it is limited; in another, it is exalted beyond all limitations.

(Gleanings: LXXXII)

And again:

Know ye that by “the world” is meant your unawareness of Him Who is your Maker, and your absorption in aught else but Him. . . . . Whatsoever deterreth you, in this Day, from loving God is nothing but the world. . . . .  Should a man wish to adorn himself with the ornaments of the earth, to wear its apparels, or partake of the benefits it can bestow, no harm can befall him, if he alloweth nothing whatever to intervene between him and God, for God hath ordained every good thing, whether created in the heavens or in the earth, for such of His servants as truly believe in Him.

(Gleanings: CXXVIII)

So, it depends upon the attitude of the person. If we are attached to the things of the world, if we want to exploit them for our own purposes, they will veil us from spiritual realities. If we are detached and dispassionate, every thing will speak to us of mysteries, of God as the ground of being, not of course as a bearded figure in the sky.

Which brings us back to Wordsworth’s observation that if we lack ‘the faculty of truth’ the world is drained of meaning. Looking back on his own experience, in one of the greatest poems ever written in English, he feels that, as an adult, he has since childhood lost much of this power to discern the glory of the world.

Whereas at one time everything seemed ‘apparelled in celestial light’ now there has ‘passed away a glory from the earth.’ He asks:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

He sees adulthood as robbing us of this direct vision. In contrast with the child,

At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

He sees something that helps offset this:

Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

And in the end, speaking of the ‘faith that looks through death’ and in awareness of human suffering, he can write:

To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Perhaps Blake was right after all — heaven is to be found in a wild flower. It depends on how you look at it. Maybe this topic will now ease its grip on me. Maybe not. Time will tell.

wild-flower

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Tree roots

Tree Roots & Trunks

Though I cannot predict what I shall be able to do, I hope to make a few sketches with perhaps something human in them…

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – 4 September 1880 (page 82)

The recent revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear (about 20 days to go for this BBC iPlayer programme), as well as the recent Guardian long-read article by  on the latest exhibition of his work in Amsterdam, made it inevitable I would decide to republish my blog sequence of last year, which attempted to capture my complex and powerful responses to his work. This is the third of five posts scheduled to come out each day this week.

Having tried to tune into van Gogh’s thinking about his art and attempting to dispose of the suicide myth, it’s time to share my immediate responses to some of the paintings.

The Paintings At Last

This now brings me to what these posts have to deal with at some point: the art itself and its impact on the mind.

What is my response to his paintings?

I’ll need to fess up to other influences than his letters before tackling my own raw responses on that day in the museum when I stood before the unmediated art – not photographs in a book, not a commentary by a critic, not a documentary however well-informed.

There’s Schama for a start. His book, Power of Art, was a retirement gift. It’s been on my shelves since 2008. I don’t read books like this cover-to-cover. I dip into them when the mood overtakes me. Van Gogh, Caravaggio and Rembrandt were early reads. This is his take on Tree Roots & Trunks (1890, and probably Van Gogh’s last painting, taken to be unfinished – the picture is scanned, as are all the other paintings throughout, from the Taschen book, page 693, and the quote is from Schama, page 346):

[This] may well be another view from inside Vincent’s hectic brain: all knots and strangling thickets, knobbly growths, bolting ganglia, claw-like forms, and pincers the look more skeletal than botanical . . . . . But this amazing painting – one of the very greatest (and least noticed) masterpieces from the founding moment of modernism – is yet another experiment in the independent vitality of painted line and colour, as well as the uncontainable force of nature.

You get the drift.

VG posterInterestingly, when an art therapy friend of mine and I compared notes after seeing the documentary Vincent van Gogh: a new way of seeing, we both felt this painting, which featured strongly in the film, carried a sense that he was trying to go back to his roots in order to refresh his vision of what he was doing. There is though something both menacing and incoherent about it when seen in its original that is somehow lost in reproduction. This is partly because of its size, which is almost exactly the same as the huge canvas of Wheatfield with Crows. You feel as though you are about to get lost in the tangle of it all, painted as it is on a canvas that would do justice to a jungle.

The Taschen Edition, which I really like as well, is equally confident of its position. At the start of their book they choose to discuss his paintings of two chairs – his own and Gauguin’s while he stayed with him (pages 7-8):

The two paintings are his statement of the friendship of two artists. His own chair, simple and none too comfortable, with his dearly-loved pipe lying on it, stands for the artist himself. It is meant just as metaphorically as the more elegant, comfortable armchair where Gauguin liked to settle. Everyday things, purely functional objects, acquire a symbolic power. The eye of love sees the mere thing as representing the man who uses it quite matter-of-factly. We may well be tempted to recall the pictorial tradition that provided van Gogh with his earliest artistic impressions. . . . . . Van Gogh’s unoccupied chairs pay respect to a tendency to avoid representation of the human figure. Gauguin is there, sitting in his armchair, even if we cannot see him – according to this formula.

This is a more knowing art-scholar take on the paintings, though they certainly agree with Schama’s sense of van Gogh as a founder of modernism, though their reasons are very much their own (page 698):

[H]e wanted to pave the way for . . . . that societal power which he was convinced lay with the common people.

It is this that makes van Gogh the forerunner par excellence of Modernism, or at any rate of the Modernist avant-garde.

We will be coming back to his ideas about the role of art in society. They seem to me to include but go beyond simply being a positive social influence.

I can’t compete with either Schama’s panache or Walther and Metzger’s confident expertise. I have to find a way of stepping back from his breathless and their measured perspectives.

There’s no way either I can attempt to capture and record here my responses to the approximately 200 images housed in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, so I have decided to focus on four paintings only. I realise from what van Gogh wrote in his letters that he saw his paintings as best experienced in groups – sunflowers, rooms and furniture, portraits, blossoms, cornfields and so on. However, that would further complicate a task I think is a bit too ambitious as it is.

Anyway, I’ll take a deep breath and plunge into the paintings I’ve chosen to focus on which are:

  1. Harvest at La Crau (1888 – page 347);
  2. Blossoming Almond Tree (February 1890 – page 615).
  3. Cypresses and Two Women (February 1890 – page 619);
  4. Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background (May 1890 – page 622).

I realise that there are no portraits in this list, even though this was an important art form for van Gogh. However, of his three great loves – literature, nature and those who worked the land – I decided to focus on paintings of nature. Portraits would have needed to be dealt with separately.

Harvest

First we come to Harvest at La Crau (June 1888 – page 347).

One of the most striking things about this painting are the tiny figures. He saw those who worked the land as infused by nature but also scarred by the hardships they endured as a result. Many of his paintings focused on the demands of such labour and the toll it took.

This painting makes a similar point by dwarfing the figures in the landscape.

The painting was created before 23 December 1888, when the rift with Gauguin, and all the attendant razor wielding and ear-shredding traumas, irreversibly clouded the landscape of his mind and began to fuel our 125-year-old Van Gogh legend.

The colours are bright and the feel is positive. There is a sense of activity within a sustaining environment. There is also clearly present what came to be the characteristic vibration of the van Gogh brushwork.

Standing in front of the painting I could not escape a sense of the seasons with all the reminders of Keats, whose death cut short the promise of his genius even earlier and of whose existence van Gogh was also clearly aware given his use of two of Keats’s poems in his flirtation with the married Caroline Haanebeek (Van Gogh: The Life – page 89).

Yes, this is summer – blissful, light, warm – bringing with it glowing rewards for all that has been endured in winter. There is the promise of a rich harvest, which none the less will entail back-breaking labour to bring in. The huge difference between the tiny figures and the vast landscape serves to reinforce the magnitude of that cost, something which, at that point in human history before the large-scale mechanisation of farming, had to be paid, year on year.

The brooding of the hills in the background, and an awareness of the work that is to come, cannot mar the joy of this golden moment. Although death is a distant prospect, it is not undetectable in this painting.

Those were my immediate reactions to this particular painting.

After commenting on all these four paintings I’ll use the final sections of this sequence of posts to test out some more general conclusions in the light of the Letters as a whole once I have read them to the end. They may confirm my immediate intuitions or undermine them completely. I’m not sure yet which way that will go.

Blossoming Almond Tree VG 1890

Then we have Blossoming Almond Tree (February 1890 – page 615). Though the emotional pain of the break up with Gauguin, and the death of his dream of creating a commune of artists, cast a long shadow over van Gogh for the remainder of his life, and triggered his psychiatric hospitalisations, this gift to his newly-born nephew was a rare but splendid moment of relief. The beauty of nature seems to have broken through to be captured in this picture.

The painting, for all its deceptive simplicity, is powerful.

One part of its effect is in the angle of view. I was looking straight at the picture in the gallery, my head level. What I saw was a vision of the sky through blossom. That’s a very suggestive dislocation, as though the heavens are within reach from ground level if we just direct our gaze appropriately. The effect was so strong that I felt a faint sense of the crick in my neck that would’ve ensued at my age, were I to gaze at the sky for any length of time. The blending of the green of plants into the ethereal blue of the sky adds to this sense of their ultimate interconnectedness, for me at least.

Again I couldn’t escape a sense of the seasons, winter’s grip easing as the days lengthen and the skies brighten.

And the Japanese influence is strongly present. Van Gogh resonated strongly to their style as his letters testify. He had even (Letters – page 356) ‘sent Gauguin a portrait of himself as a “bonze” (a Japanese priest).’

The delicate blossom and the gnarled branches also provide a thought-provoking contrast. It suggests, amongst other things, that beauty has a price. It is paid for by the endurance of hardship. I cannot resist quoting at this point, rather than at the end, where perhaps it belongs, what van Gogh wrote to his brother just two years before this was painted (Letters – page 381):

The more wasted and sick I become, a broken pitcher, the more I may also become a creative artist in this great renaissance of art of which we speak.

All this is certainly so, but eternally continuing art, and this renaissance – this green shoot sprung from the roots of the old sawn-off trunk, these are matters so spiritual that we can’t help but feel rather melancholy when we reflect that we could have created life for less than the cost of creating art.

The whole experience of these galleries created in me a strong sense that van Gogh is a poet in paint, and that his paintings repay the same kind of close detailed attention as poems have always done for me. And this does not mean I have to understand as fully as I would like all the technical aspects of his craft. Not that I’m convinced that van Gogh himself would’ve been delighted with the poet of paint idea. In a letter of 1888, in which coincidentally, he mentions cypresses, he goes on to protest (page 402):

It always seems to me that poetry is more terrible than painting, although painting is dirtier and ultimately more tedious. And the painter on the whole says nothing, he holds his tongue, and I prefer that too.

Rembrandt, interestingly, is more a dramatist in paint for me, which is one of the reasons I see him as the Shakespeare of pictorial art.

Cypresses and Two Women VG 1890Now it’s the turn of Cypresses and Two Women (February 1890 – page 619). Almost the first association I had with this picture as I stood before it was a song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act II Scene 4). The first lines are:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.

The notes (page 667) to Jonathan Bates’s William Shakespeare: complete works explains the reference to cypress as to either a cypress wood coffin or sprigs of cypress: either way the tree is associated with mourning. This association inevitably influences my experience of the painting.

I know van Gogh admired Shakespeare greatly and was familiar with a number of his plays, but not this one as far as I can tell from the books I have at hand. So, would he be aware of the link between cypress and mourning? I don’t know but I don’t think it matters. Darkness has returned.

The women are clearly dwarfed by the tall and swirling trees. They also appear to be faceless. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that the picture surprised me by how small it was (43.5 x 27 cm) – not much bigger than a sheet of foolscap. I had expected a much larger canvas. This means that the trees feel about the size that people should be, and the women seem disproportionately tiny by comparison. That the taller tree is cropped at the top gives the impression of even greater height.

Given the colour of what seems to be corn, I found it hard to resist the idea of flames. This in turn led me to see the swirls of the cypresses also as flame-like, as well, possibly, as the clouds. I am aware that van Gogh sought to capture the effects of the wind in this way, and when the mistral blew its impact was dramatic. The women appear about to be engulfed by flame. That their feet and lower legs are either cropped or their dresses are blending with the vegetation, gives the impression perhaps that the consuming process has begun.

That just about captures my immediate responses on the day, barely registered before I swept onto the next picture.

My abstracting mind can now have a field day at my desk speculating about what that all might mean. It produces more questions than answers. For example, why two women and not a woman and a man? (I think it’s a cop out to say they were the ones who happened to be there at the time. His letters indicate that he was overwhelmed by the number of possible subjects he could paint and often produced variation after variation on a theme before opting finally for two or three related versions.) Is it nature that is overwhelming human beings, or is it some other force, such as the fire of death that turns all to ash or the vibrations of the infinite sustaining consciousness for ever, that is affecting both?

Vase with Irises VG 1890

And finally we have Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background (May 1890 – page 622). This painting produced even more complex responses in me.

Brightness and the dark compete, or, perhaps more appropriately, are held in an uneasy balance. We have muted yellow in the background sinking almost to brown as it crystallises into the pot and the ledge supporting it.

The irises are dying, or at least close to the end of their lives, but still retain something of their original beauty. (A note to this painting in the gallery I think suggested that the colour of the paint had itself faded from its original blue, which would be an ironic reinforcement of my reading of the painting but may not have been part of van Gogh’s original intention, though I think the wilting stem on the right suggests otherwise.)

An association that may not have been in van Gogh’s consciousness at all is the idea of the iris as part of the eye. It controls light levels inside the eye similar to the aperture on a camera. What, if anything, are we meant to be seeing through the irises that van Gogh has provided? Are all his paintings irises in this sense?

It is also hard to escape the probability, given that he was painting this during his enforced stay in the asylum at St Rémy, that he somehow identified with the flowers, uprooted and displaced, trapped even, withering in their confinement, as he might have felt himself to be also at times.

A strong association for me is with the irises we have in our own garden, resonating with what might be a similar blue. They triggered a sombre poem of mine once (2012):

Darkening into the Night
The walls of consciousness wear thin. Yellow
roses on the window ledge are drying
to a brittle gold. The jasmine’s dying.
My eyes light on the irises outside
the colour of a late sky streaked with cloud
and pricked with stars flickering across vast
distances which stretch faster than the reach of light.
Soon I will be darkening into the night
that collapses all points into one past
which not even poetry can follow.

That the poem also contains the gold motif is uncanny. I probably retained an unconscious memory of the painting which then crept into the verse. I could substitute ‘artistry’ for ‘poetry’ in the last line and the fit would be perfect.

After reflecting in this way on these four paintings I am left with a sense that, in painting the real, van Gogh is also at the same time seeking to capture the subliminal, to fix infinity in colour and shape.

I think I will save any further thoughts until the last sections of this sequence of posts, which draw on the insights from van Gogh’s letters in an attempt to find my own way to some answers, both about his art and about the states of mind that must have helped shape them. I will defer revisiting any of my various books to see what those authors have to say until that time as well.

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Mindful Eye Coffe cup

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing today, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This first sequence is about my struggles with practising mindfulness.

The earlier post on interconnectedness included a declaration of intent – I was going to seek a deeper understanding of the concept both by reading and by the practice of mindfulness, amongst other things. I began my first practice using Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book on Mindfulness some time ago. It comes with a CD of guided exercises.

They write of how mindfulness changes the brain in ways that make us healthier, happier and more compassionate (pages 47-49):

[Research demonstrated] that mindfulness training allowed people to escape the gravitational pull of their emotional setpoint. [The] work held out the extraordinary possibility that we can permanently alter our underlying level happiness for the better. . . . Another unexpected benefit of [mindfulness] was that [peoples]’s immune systems become significantly stronger. . . . [In addition] the insula becomes energised through meditation.  . . . This part of the brain is integral to our sense of human connectedness as it helps to mediate empathy in a very real and visceral way.

As a result of even these early stages of this practice, I have slowly become aware of how my mind spends at least 50% of its time in writing mode, flooded with suggestions about how to improve the wording of a blog post I’m drafting and squandering a significant amount of the remainder on aimless daydreams. I’ve decided to label the former tendency the Writing Mind. The other main aspects of my mind, as I’m experiencing it, I’ll come back to in a later post as they weren’t discovered at this point.

I am chastened and amazed to discover so graphically how much time I spend locked inside my thoughts. I have known for a long time that I have a mildly irritating version of Transactional Analysis’s Hurry Up driver which I seek to counteract whenever I spot it, but I don’t think I realised before how very driven I am in a more general way.

Williams and PenmanI’ve a long way to go to catch up on Sue Vincent whose rewarding blog conveys how far ahead of me she is in mindfulness. The breathing meditation I have been regularly practicing for some years now is so much second nature that it comes relatively easily. It’s far harder simply to watch my mind as it distracts me from a simple body scan and notice what it’s doing, without getting on every train of thought that passes by and being taken vast distances into the deserts of fruitless rumination.

It’s not helped by the fact that being asked to focus on my feet regularly draws a blank. As far as my scanning mind is concerned my feet don’t exist.

Anyway I’m determined to keep going for the necessary eight weeks.

As I sit to eat my lunch now at the garden table, I see a spider hanging from a thread of its web and struggling to immobilise the prey intended for its next meal – definitely more demanding than peeling a banana as I’ve just done.

It is strange to see this completely silent fight for life and for food, survival at stake on both sides, enacted in miniature merely inches away. It sets me wondering yet again why God, if He exists and I believe He does, built so much pain into existence. (I’ve shared my thoughts on that at length before so I won’t go there this time.) Interestingly, I actually noticed this battle was happening despite my determination to focus on my own munchings, and I was also drawn into the hunger and the anguish of the protagonists.

Maybe there’s something in this mindfulness practice as a means of engendering compassion after all.

Two quotations from my favourite poet come to mind, the first from Measure for Measure (Act II Scene 1):

. . . the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

The second is from Venus and Adonis (lines 1034-1037):

. . . the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smothered up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again.

I have always been captivated by his capacity to identify with even the tiniest of creatures, though recent research suggests that Shakespeare was not always so empathic when his interests were at stake, as in the case of his alleged response to the starving who needed some of the corn he had hoarded.

The Bard of Avon, who championed the downtrodden in plays like “Coriolanus,” was a conniving character in his personal life, British researchers claim — a tax dodger who profiteered in food commodities during a time of famine.

William Shakespeare was fined repeatedly for illegally hoarding grain, malt and barley for resale during a time of food shortages. . . . . The profits were channeled into real-estate deals, the researchers wrote, making Shakespeare one of Warwickshire’s largest landowners.

It would seem that Shakespeare was drawing on personal knowledge when he wrote “Coriolanus,” a political tragedy that includes an early 1600s version of an Occupy protest against the 1%:

“They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain . . . ”

But then, even geniuses are human – but there’s been more than enough about genius on this blog recently.

Within a few short moments of spotting the mortal combat, I was distracted from the scene of battle by the soft whispering of the wind in the long grass of the meadow we call our back garden. Nature’s redness ‘in tooth and claw’ has been balanced, yet again, by her ‘dearest freshness deep down things.’

Anyway, back to my banana. Being mindful of what I’m eating is trickier than I thought.

Mindfulness is not, at my level at least, about solving such mysteries of the universe. It’s simply about freeing my preoccupied mind to notice them, fully experiencing them and resisting the temptation to philosophise about them. And to that extent it’s been a mixed success. Encouraging enough to continue, though.

I’ll let you know again soon how things go unless it’s a complete disaster.

Our garden meadow

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Shanghai skyline

Shanghai Night Skyline

I’m back home at my desk at last. Feeling slightly spaced out still. This is hardly surprising given the jetting across time zones I’ve been doing recently. UK to India. India to China. China to India. India to UK. All within a month. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so tired as I do now even days later – or do I mean daze?

It has been worth it. We’ve spent quality time with my wife’s mother in India, and with our son and his wife in China. That was all very rewarding.

What about the countries in themselves?

The Dark Side

Well, they provide a fascinating contrast in spite of certain similarities.

The core distinction I’d summarise by saying India is free but chaotic, while China is oppressed but organised. They’re both impatient cultures currently and both are struggling with corruption, though India probably more so. Also in both countries a rising tide of competitive materialism is threatening to drown other ancient and more holistic traditions.

A stark and distasteful example of the unhealthily excessive influence of money in China is the practice of scalping. Michael Sandel discusses this in his thought-provoking book What Money Can’t Buy (pages 24-25). This practice rides on the back of increasingly scarce hospital appointments for many rural patients whose hospitals have closed. They are forced now to attend at city hospitals in high demand.

They queue up overnight, sometimes for days, to get an appointment ticket to see the doctor.

. . . . . But it isn’t easy to get one. Rather than camp out for days and nights in the queue, some patients, desperate for an appointment, buy tickets from scalpers. [Scalpers] hire people to line up for appointment tickets and then resell the tickets for hundreds of dollars – more than a typical peasant makes in months.

In India there are even worse examples (see link):

For at least five years, thousands of young men and women had paid bribes worth millions of pounds in total to a network of fixers and political operatives to rig the official examinations run by the Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal – known as Vyapam – a state body that conducted standardised tests for thousands of highly coveted government jobs and admissions to state-run medical colleges. When the scandal first came to light in 2013, it threatened to paralyse the entire machinery of the state administration: thousands of jobs appeared to have been obtained by fraudulent means, medical schools were tainted by the spectre of corrupt admissions, and dozens of officials were implicated in helping

The investigation into the scam lead to many deaths:

. . . . . as the investigation widened, people started dying. Some had perished before the taskforce had a chance to interrogate them – such as Anuj Uieke, a medical student accused of working as a middleman connecting exam aspirants and Vyapam officials. He died along with two friends also accused of involvement in the scam when a truck ploughed into their car in 2010. Others apparently took their own lives, like Dr Ramendra Singh Bhadouriya, who was accused of cheating his way to a medical college seat in 2008 and then helping others do the same. He was found hanging from the ceiling fan in his home in January 2015. (Five days later, his mother took her own life by drinking acid.) Another suspect, Narendra Tomar – a seemingly healthy 29-year-old veterinary doctor at a government hospital, who had been arrested for his role as a middleman in the scam – had a sudden heart attack in jail this June and died in hospital the next day.

Not that scalping is the worst of what China is alleged to be doing according to an Amnesty international report (see Guardian link):

Chinese security agents continue to employ a medieval array of torture methods against government opponents, activists, lawyers and petitioners, including spiked rods, iron torture chairs and electric batons, a report claims.

The Amnesty International report, called No End in Sight: Torture and Forced Confessions in China, is based on interviews with nearly 40 Chinese human rights lawyers and contains chilling details of alleged beatings and torture sessions endured by those taken into police custody.

Also Wild Grass by Ian Johnson contains disturbing though more routine abuses, for example (page 39):

[One] district had a population of 65,000, although 25,000 had found conditions so difficult that they’d left to find work in the city. Taxes for a family of five amounted to an astonishing $310 a year, virtually wiping out every family’s cash income. Despite that, the village governments that collect the taxes were under such pressure to keep channelling money to higher-ups that each village in the township owed on average a staggering $500,000 in back taxes.

I am always conscious at the back of my mind of such disturbing news stories when I am planning to visit either of these countries.

What is the experience of the visitor though – me in this case?

My Personal Experience 

Inevitably direct experience over a short period of time does not lead to a confrontation with the dark side of either culture. So here goes for my attempt to capture the impact of each culture during my one month’s shared exposure to both.

A junction in MumbaiMy recent poem on the traffic and the crowds in Mumbai captures perhaps the most striking impact of that city’s environment. You end up deafened and dazed by the din even before you risk the dangers of crossing to the other side of the street. The relative silence and order of the Shanghai traffic was a welcome relief, though the rapid weaving across all lanes on the motorways outside was a heart stopper.

A constant tickle in the throat signalled high levels of pollution in both cities. A taxi driver told us there are a million taxis in Mumbai alone. Admittedly, given that the cramped boundaries of the city hold the same population as Australia, only about one in every twenty people is a taxi driver, if that figure is correct. In China, at the same time as the growing economy has lifted millions out of poverty, it is killing roughly a million people each year with pollution-related diseases.

High Rise Shanghai

High Rise Shanghai-style

Landing in Shanghai once more reminded me of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description as his ship approached New York harbour in 1912: on seeing the Wall Street skyscrapers ‘He had laughed and said, “Those are the minarets of the West.”’ (Diary of Juliet Thompson – page 233). Even since 2013, when we were last there, the number and height of these temples of materialism have increased massively. Not just towering office blocks and shopping malls now display their competitive geometry on almost every corner of every street, like gigantic peacocks of capitalism determined to impress: there’s more than a shade of Ballard’s High Rise here as well, I feel.

India has not yet joined this wasteful race. Yes, there are some skyscrapers but nowhere near so many. It is possible to move along at street level and not feel constantly dwarfed. Yes, the pavements are dirtier and far more uneven, and you need to watch where you tread all the time, and the roads are pockmarked with all-too-frequent potholes, but that felt somehow less intimidating, even though it probably indicated that significant amounts of money were going astray into someone’s pocket without reaching their intended target.

A bridge in Dafeng

A bridge in Dafeng

There was one way in which, on this trip at least, China had a distinct advantage over India in terms of the impression it made on us. We didn’t stay in Shanghai. And we didn’t move to another big city as we had done in the past. We drove to Dafeng. By UK standards, with a population of 750,000 it would qualify as large. By Chinese standards it’s a small town. Not only that but we drove out of Dafeng into the surrounding area to visit a family who had farmed there for three generations at least. And that was very dfferent from what we had ever experienced before.

The town of Dafeng was at one level a kind of miniaturised Shanghai, though with its own charm thrown in, being smaller in scale and boasting narrower bridges. The smog when it happened on one day we were there was just as thick though. But it was surrounded by countryside. Acres upon acres of flat farmland criss-crossed with canals and ditches, with no tower blocks, only single storey farm houses and barns. There was calm and quiet with sunsets and cloud-scapes of unassuming beauty.

Sunset in Dafeng

Sunset in Dafeng

In India, because our priority was to spend as much time as possible with my wife’s mother, now in her nineties, we were stuck in Mumbai, which had not been the case in the past when, even if starting there, we had escaped to the hills around Poona into villages such as Panchgani where the international Bahá’í school is located. On this trip, however, we were locked into the cacophonous pollution of the megacity.

Wood burning stove

A Sense of Common Humanity

What was interesting though was the way that even this contrasting experience reinforced a sense of common humanity. In Dafeng we visited a family where the grandmother and her two sons, who lived close by, were sharing the work of the farm. Signs of the scale of this, sacks of corn piled halfway to the ceiling, almost hid one whole wall of the dining room.

Inside her home we had a heart-warming surprise. My wife looked at the simple wood-burning stove on which the grandmother had cooked our food that evening and exclaimed, ‘That’s exactly the same kind of stove that my grandmother had in Yazd where my mum grew up!’

Suddenly, her mother living now in Mumbai and reared in Yazd, and this household in Dafeng, instead of being distant not just in miles but in kind, were intrinsically related at a basic level through a shared simplicity in their backgrounds. They had a common heritage hidden behind the differences. This somehow symbolised for me the often so invisible but fundamental bond of common humanity that binds us all together in spite of our insistence upon our differences.

This reinforced a sense I had experienced a couple of days earlier, as we sat eating round a different table in a different more modern house, and I was listening to the ebbs and flows of conversation in Chinese, a language I do not know at all. You would think I would have felt a stranger in a strange land, and in one way of course I did. But at another level I tuned into a powerful sense of our common humanity, how behind all the differences of language and cultural trappings, we were every one of us essentially the same. I could identify the teasing, the affection, and even the tensions, that the dance of their conversation expressed, even though I had no idea what they were saying specifically.

At the back of my mind the words at the core of Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice (Act III, Scene 1, ll 40-45 – RSC Edition) murmured themselves quietly:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?

This was one of the most important lessons I have brought back with me from this demanding but rewarding trip. What binds us together at this deep level is of far more importance than what tends to split us off from one another. We are indeed ‘leaves of one tree’ even though it has been all too easy in the past to pretend that we are not.

After the meal

After the meal – my coat and scarf indicates how cold it was even indoors

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

Hamlet almost kills Claudius (For source of image see link)
Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company. Directed by Gregory Doran

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

(Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3, lines 73-80)

I ended the last post with a question:

Maybe this is partly why I ignored the whispers to hang on in there, shot the albatross in the heat of a conflict situation, and betrayed myself in the process. At least I think it was. Maybe this, rather surprisingly, is the lesson Bahá’u’lláh wants me to learn from all this crackle in my system. Can I, should I make a virtue of uncertainty, at least in some circumstances, and have the courage of my confusion?

This leaves another question still hanging in the air: ‘Maybe there are situations where waiting is clearly a mistake, and then isn’t doing something better than dithering indefinitely?’ And if so, how do I tell the difference? And when I sense a difference, how do I step back from the clamour in my head and stay still with no sense of guilt? We’ll be coming onto that aspect of things soon now.

Mammering

Given my default position of doubt, it’s no wonder that Hamlet is the Shakespeare play I resonate to most strongly. ‘Now could I do it pat!’ except he can’t. Instinct gives way to the scanning of intellect. He stands ‘mammering,’ as Othello scathingly refers to this kind of hesitation.

Othello & Desdemona

Othello after killing Desdemona (for source of image see link)

It is intriguing to note at this point that if Othello had been in Hamlet’s shoes, Hamlet would have been much shorter and far less interesting, probably ending at Act I, Scene 2, shortly after Othello had left the battlements and cut his uncle’s throat before breakfast, whereas, if Hamlet had starred in Othello, Desdemona would probably still be alive, with Iago on a perilous mission somewhere in Africa, probably never to return. Neither play would have worked as a tragedy, or even as a comedy for that matter, as it would have lacked the necessary mismatch between character and situation.[1]

To return to the main issue, ‘mammering’ has a bad press in our culture. ‘He who hesitates is lost,’ we parrot, ‘Strike while the iron is hot!’ quite forgetting that it might just possibly be better to look before we leap. Such a bad press in fact that it has taken me quite some time to recognise the possibility that there could be times when mammering is the best policy. He who hesitates may well be the wisest of them all.

Indecision is pathologised in our culture, but that should be when it’s a pattern which disables our ability to decide what to eat, where to go for a walk, what book or clothes to buy – none of which is the case with me as far as I can tell. Maybe refusing to decide to act when the stakes are too high, nothing is clear and we don’t really have to, is quite rational and in fact the toughest decision to make, not a sign of weakness at all.

The question though that confronts me every time in every situation is, ‘Is this situation one of those where mammering is best?’

Trying to apply this kind of thinking more closely to the actuality of an experience is also difficult for all of us. What happens when a specific situation presses a button, for example when we are convinced that someone close has lied to us? What do we say or do when a trusted friend has refused to help us? How do we deal with the soreness left after we feel betrayed and an important bond had been badly damaged if not completely broken?

Well, I think I might have a glimpse of the answer to those kinds of questions.

I think I now realise, and not just intellectually, that there is a huge difference between the reality we see when we stand back and the reality we experience when we allow the hurt to distort our perceptions, and the crucial Trafalgar we fight is when we battle not to board the ship whose sails are perceptions with the wind of hurt behind them.

When the pain and the reality collide and pressurise me to warp my perception and experience and decide something destructive, I need to learn to stand back and, first, tell myself that storm water on the mind’s window doesn’t alter what’s outside, and, second, that, with friends and family especially but perhaps with human kind as a whole, the basic relationship can only be blurred by pain but need not be destroyed by it – not even if we plan never to speak to or spend time with them again.

We are all inextricably linked, as Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner implies, so to use emotional pain on the spur of the moment as an excuse, for example, for not speaking again ever, while human and understandable, is not a viable way forward. (Physical harm is a different matter of course and requires that measures be taken as soon as possible to secure our safety.) I also agree that there are a very few people we might know whose speech comes to be too dangerous to listen to ever again: verbal abuse and systematic denigration, for example, should not be endured. I’d have to be sure you’re such a person before I cut you off completely.

But I am dealing now with what I would call the routine mainstream of human relationships, where there are serious mistakes but no calculated malice. In such circumstances, ‘I’m not taking this crap any more!’ and walking out might sound like strong minded forthrightness, but all too often it’s only camouflaged cowardice.

So, what has all this got to do with the Three-Brain model? How could that possible help?

The Three Brain Model Revisited

Well, a key issue is to learn how to step back from all the usual programming that tempts us to press the button marked ‘Fire’ too early, in case we kill an albatross. As we discussed earlier, different parts of our brain system are triggered in different ways along different time-scales.

When we lived in caves and usually had only one chance to learn how to recognise and escape from a tiger, instinct was really handy. It still is. It helps us get out of the way of an oncoming train and sense if an attack in a dark alley is likely to happen. It also tends to mistake a black plastic bag for a mugger.

So, basically, it’s a good idea to put our instincts on a leash when we’re not in clear physical danger. We can allow the warning light to keep flashing, but we don’t have to attack or escape until we’ve made sure that the threat is real. Sometimes, even when the threat is real, we can keep the leash tight in order, for example, to help others out of danger before we escape ourselves. We can even save an albatross before we save ourselves. This over-ride is one of the things that makes us human rather than simply animal, though I accept that some animals can demonstrate something remarkably like altruism.

The ability to pull on the leash before the leopard leaps needs constant practice. Mindfulness helps. The earlier we can learn to spot the reaction the better the chance we have of stopping it and swapping it for a more considered response.

If we can keep the leash tight and keep calm as well, something that also comes with practice as we learn how to step mindfully back from our reactions, thinking remains possible.

In our culture, thinking tends to have pride of place. Science and logic are highly valued. We love the way we can analyse experience. There are huge advantages to this way of working. We go way beyond gut reactions, which can only really be trusted when situations are crisp, clear and self-evident or else, if complex, are predictably patterned and deeply familiar.

Such situations are most certainly not the only ones we meet in our complex and global society, far different from the forests of our distant origins. Snap judgements can now be seriously flawed, and the flaws grow in size as situations become more complex and chaotic. So, taking the time and making the effort to work things out carefully pays off in all complex situations where the consequences, though not necessarily life-threatening, could be scarily high. My home, my health or my wealth could be at stake. In addition to Kahneman’s work already referred to, Daniel Levitin, in his book The Organised Mind, has much to say about how, for example, we can become better at making difficult decisions about what steps to take to mend our health (page 219-267).

 

3 brain awareness v4

We need to dig a bit deeper still.

I have produced a very left-brain diagram to roughly illustrate a right-brain model. Hopefully, if my left-brain buys it, there might be some chance it will give my right-brain enough space and time to function! The ellipse labelled Conscious Awareness represents a process and is not meant to be reified (or deified for that matter). In terms of the discussion below it is primarily to be seen as ‘consciousness influenced by brain systems/processes’ and restricted by the brain’s limited but nonetheless impressive capacity to act as a receiver of signals.

To place this in a context, which I won’t be exploring in this post, conscious awareness (CA) is underpinned by preconscious processes and rests on a brain foundation of unconscious responses, usually termed ‘subliminal’ in the psychology literature. Also, for a Bahá’í and an Irreducible Mind enthusiast such as me, Mind in its totality is a sphere of potential consciousness, within which the ellipse of CA resides, and which emanates from a spiritual dimension to which our brains can only achieve an intermittent connection at best for most of us.

Signal RedAs the diagram attempts to show, if we think of the input from each of these brain systems as radio, television or satellite signals, then the instinctual signal is strongest. In the brain as it is wired, it also has a fast track and begins to trigger a reaction before the higher centres know what’s going on, hence the long thin wiring to the intellect and intuition. Also the descending neural pathways used to help the higher centres of the brain keep calm are fewer in number than the ascending ones raising the alarm. They do win in the end though if we use them enough and wisely.

So, putting instinct on hold can be very difficult in situations where our feelings are running high. Also, as Baumeister and Tierney have analysed in detail, our ability to restrain ourselves can tire just like a muscle, and our grip on our instincts is loosened. They wrote in February 2012’s edition of The Psychologist:

. . . . self-control is like a muscle that gets tired. People may start the day fresh and rested, but as they exert self-control over the course of the day, their powers may diminish. Many researchers have observed that self-control tends to break down late in the day, especially if it has been a demanding or stressful day. . . .

A series of experiments confirmed that willpower is tied to glucose (Gailliot et al., 2007). After people exert self-control, even on artificial lab tasks, their blood glucose levels drop. Low levels of blood glucose predict poor performance on tests of self- control.

Signal OrangeHowever, as the brain learns with practice to use the higher centres to hold back the tiger on each particular issue, we can get better at it, self-restraint develops more stamina, can hold on longer, and our fangs and claws may therefore more rarely rip into impetuous action.

The signal from the intellect is weaker than instinct’s and, although the diagram can’t show it clearly without muddling the main issue, the emotional centre of the archaic brain can keep interfering with the thinking process and colouring its deliberations. We can be infected by irrational fear, anger, impatience and so on, and, to make matters worse, because of our confirmation bias we will be very tempted to look only at the evidence that feeds our prejudices. We have to work very hard to keep the tiger in check, and to make ourselves look at evidence that contradicts our instinctive assumptions. That’s why paradigm shifts are so difficult to make in science as well as everywhere else: scientists are not immune to the impact of the primitive emotional investments they’ve made in what they have come to believe. Anyone interested in that area of exasperation need only read Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain, the Kellys’ Irreducible Mindor Malcolm Kendrick’s Doctoring Data.

Signal GreenHowever, more often than we realise, there are other serious limitations to our logical thinking processes in themselves as well, against which we also have to guard. Iain McGilchrist has explored the ramifications of this in his excellent book The Master & His Emissary, in which he argues that the way we privilege our left-brain logical linguistic mode of processing is fraught with danger: we have to balance it with the right-brain holistic intuitive approach, which is sensitive to our connectedness with others and able to correct distortions in our schematic mapping. The so-called ‘rational’ processes aren’t geared to securing a good grasp of values, human relationships, complex organic interactions, spiritual dimensions, wholes rather than parts and so on. Through right-brain processes we can have access to a mind that is far better at dealing with such things, but we do not often give it the time to operate effectively nor are we good at attending to its findings, which tend to come not in words but in intimations, metaphors, symbols, dreams, and other intuitive shapes. At least this is how it seems to me things usually are in our spiritually illiterate culture.

When any factors such as values are involved we would do well to step back from our thoughts, quieten our minds and wait – and I don’t mean wait for just a few minutes. Sometimes I have waited for days, weeks or in rare cases, with various difficult issues, months before either meditation, dreams or apparently random flashes of insight come bursting in with the answer – or possibly not bursting in but whispering the solution quietly in the background, waving somewhere from a far corner of my mind’s eye. Unfortunately our receiver is not good at tuning into the signal from the wisest part of ourselves that makes the best decisions, and we experience its signal as frustratingly weak, so weak sometimes we convince ourselves it does not exist, and blast on regardless.

So when reason has done all it’s work, it can be best to wait if there is no real urgency, but waiting is very hard to do, especially when we do not believe there will be anything worth waiting for – I’m sure that there will be all sorts of imaginary reasons our mind can manufacture to persuade us that we cannot and need not wait. Under mindful inspection such spurious reasons burst like soap bubbles on a pin. If there is a valid reason why we must act now, then perhaps we should, but not unless. Rushing to react kills albatrosses, something that waiting for the wisdom of intuition will help us avoid.

A Traffic-Light System

What I am suggesting is a simple set of traffic lights.

Sorry they’re up side down in the picture above but I couldn’t reconcile myself to placing instinct on a higher level than intuition and reason, even to create a more familiar symbol. But at least I discussed them in the familiar order. It’s a simple visual reminder, when there is a lot at stake, to stop, put all action on hold, if no danger threatens. Then to think hard for as long as necessary to get a grip on what’s really going on, and even then, only to act if it’s genuinely urgent. If we can do that, marinating our minds in the complexity of the issue, we will inevitably gain access to a rich and subtle vein of creative processing that will enable us to make truly wise as against hastily quick, or apparently clever decisions that might be missing something vital and doing serious harm.

It is my belief also that once we achieve this level of consciousness, can tune into it at will, though not necessarily consistently, and can begin to avoid our usual mistakes, even perhaps beginning to compensate for some past errors as well, the weight of unnecessary guilt, rage, self-blame and angst will fall off our shoulders, we will stand straighter and see much further.

At least that’s where I’ve got up to in my thinking so far! I hope it was worth sharing my mariner experience. If not, writing it down as clearly as I can might help me remember when the next albatross is in danger.

Footnote:

[1] I was shocked to discover (or perhaps to be reminded) that I wasn’t the first person to think of this possibility. In December 2015, six months after posting this, I read, on page 149 of Mark Edmundson’s brilliant Self & Soul, ‘A. C. Bradley has said that if you put Hamlet into Othello’s play, the prince will quickly make Iago [out] for what he is and just laugh him to scorn. In Hamlet’s place, Othello would draw his sword and slice Claudius nave to chops in the first act. In either case: no play.’ I definitely read Bradley 50 years ago. Was this then a case of cryptoamnesia? I think so. What does that suggest about the rest of what I write? I dread to think and feel obliged to apologise to anyone I have inadvertently plagiarised.

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Tree roots

Tree Roots & Trunks

Though I cannot predict what I shall be able to do, I hope to make a few sketches with perhaps something human in them…

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – 4 September 1880 (page 82)

Having tried to tune into van Gogh’s thinking about his art and attempting to dispose of the suicide myth, it’s time to share my immediate responses to some of the paintings.

The Paintings At Last

This now brings me to what these posts have to deal with at some point: the art itself and its impact on the mind.

What is my response to his paintings?

I’ll need to fess up to other influences than his letters before tackling my own raw responses on that day in the museum when I stood before the unmediated art – not photographs in a book, not a commentary by a critic, not a documentary however well-informed.

There’s Schama for a start. His book, Power of Art, was a retirement gift. It’s been on my shelves since 2008. I don’t read books like this cover-to-cover. I dip into them when the mood overtakes me. Van Gogh, Caravaggio and Rembrandt were early reads. This is his take on Tree Roots & Trunks (1890, and probably Van Gogh’s last painting, taken to be unfinished – the picture is scanned, as are all the other paintings throughout, from the Taschen book, page 693, and the quote is from Schama, page 346):

[This] may well be another view from inside Vincent’s hectic brain: all knots and strangling thickets, knobbly growths, bolting ganglia, claw-like forms, and pincers the look more skeletal than botanical . . . . . But this amazing painting – one of the very greatest (and least noticed) masterpieces from the founding moment of modernism – is yet another experiment in the independent vitality of painted line and colour, as well as the uncontainable force of nature.

You get the drift.

VG posterInterestingly, when an art therapy friend of mine and I compared notes after seeing the documentary Vincent van Gogh: a new way of seeing, we both felt this painting, which featured strongly in the film, carried a sense that he was trying to go back to his roots in order to refresh his vision of what he was doing. There is though something both menacing and incoherent about it when seen in its original that is somehow lost in reproduction. This is partly because of its size, which is almost exactly the same as the huge canvas of Wheatfield with Crows. You feel as though you are about to get lost in the tangle of it all, painted as it is on a canvas that would do justice to a jungle.

The Taschen Edition, which I really like as well, is equally confident of its position. At the start of their book they choose to discuss his paintings of two chairs – his own and Gauguin’s while he stayed with him (pages 7-8):

The two paintings are his statement of the friendship of two artists. His own chair, simple and none too comfortable, with his dearly-loved pipe lying on it, stands for the artist himself. It is meant just as metaphorically as the more elegant, comfortable armchair where Gauguin liked to settle. Everyday things, purely functional objects, acquire a symbolic power. The eye of love sees the mere thing as representing the man who uses it quite matter-of-factly. We may well be tempted to recall the pictorial tradition that provided van Gogh with his earliest artistic impressions. . . . . . Van Gogh’s unoccupied chairs pay respect to a tendency to avoid representation of the human figure. Gauguin is there, sitting in his armchair, even if we cannot see him – according to this formula.

This is a more knowing art-scholar take on the paintings, though they certainly agree with Schama’s sense of van Gogh as a founder of modernism, though their reasons are very much their own (page 698):

[H]e wanted to pave the way for . . . . that societal power which he was convinced lay with the common people.

It is this that makes van Gogh the forerunner par excellence of Modernism, or at any rate of the Modernist avant-garde.

We will be coming back to his ideas about the role of art in society. They seem to me to include but go beyond simply being a positive social influence.

I can’t compete with either Schama’s panache or Walther and Metzger’s confident expertise. I have to find a way of stepping back from his breathless and their measured perspectives.

There’s no way either I can attempt to capture and record here my responses to the approximately 200 images housed in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, so I have decided to focus on four paintings only. I realise from what van Gogh wrote in his letters that he saw his paintings as best experienced in groups – sunflowers, rooms and furniture, portraits, blossoms, cornfields and so on. However, that would further complicate a task I think is a bit too ambitious as it is. I am now dreading even more the task I have set myself later of attempting to deal with Rembrandt’s even more complex and challenging depths.

Anyway, I’ll take a deep breath and plunge into van Gogh. The paintings I’ve chosen to focus on are:

  1. Harvest at La Crau (1888 – page 347);
  2. Blossoming Almond Tree (February 1890 – page 615).
  3. Cypresses and Two Women (February 1890 – page 619);
  4. Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background (May 1890 – page 622).

I realise that there are no portraits in this list, even though this was an important art form for van Gogh. However, of his three great loves – literature, nature and those who worked the land – I decided to focus on paintings of nature. Portraits would have needed to be dealt with separately, and in any case I’ll be focusing on that form when I come to deal with Rembrandt, and it seems likely that some of my thoughts on van Gogh’s portraits will also creep in then.

Harvest

First we come to Harvest at La Crau (June 1888 – page 347).

One of the most striking things about this painting are the tiny figures. He saw those who worked the land as infused by nature but also scarred by the hardships they endured as a result. Many of his paintings focused on the demands of such labour and the toll it took.

This painting makes a similar point by dwarfing the figures in the landscape.

The painting was created before 23 December 1888, when the rift with Gauguin, and all the attendant razor wielding and ear-shredding traumas, irreversibly clouded the landscape of his mind and began to fuel our 125-year-old Van Gogh legend.

The colours are bright and the feel is positive. There is a sense of activity within a sustaining environment. There is also clearly present what came to be the characteristic vibration of the van Gogh brushwork.

Standing in front of the painting I could not escape a sense of the seasons with all the reminders of Keats, whose death cut short the promise of his genius even earlier and of whose existence van Gogh was also clearly aware given his use of two of Keats’s poems in his flirtation with the married Caroline Haanebeek (Van Gogh: The Life – page 89).

Yes, this is summer – blissful, light, warm – bringing with it glowing rewards for all that has been endured in winter. There is the promise of a rich harvest, which none the less will entail back-breaking labour to bring in. The huge difference between the tiny figures and the vast landscape serves to reinforce the magnitude of that cost, something which has to be paid, year on year.

The brooding of the hills in the background, and an awareness of the work that is to come, cannot mar the joy of this golden moment. Although death is a distant prospect, it is not undetectable in this painting

Those were my immediate reactions to this particular painting.

After commenting on all these four paintings I’ll use the final sections of this sequence of posts to test out some more general conclusions in the light of the Letters as a whole once I have read them to the end. They may confirm my immediate intuitions or undermine them completely. I’m not sure yet which way that will go.

Blossoming Almond Tree VG 1890

Then we have Blossoming Almond Tree (February 1890 – page 615). Though the emotional pain of the break up with Gauguin, and the death of his dream of creating a commune of artists, cast a long shadow over van Gogh for the remainder of his life, and triggered his psychiatric hospitalisations, this gift to his newly-born nephew was a rare but splendid moment of relief. The beauty of nature seems to have broken through to be captured in this picture.

The painting, for all its deceptive simplicity, is powerful.

One part of its effect is in the angle of view. I was looking straight at the picture in the gallery, my head level. What I saw was a vision of the sky through blossom. That’s a very suggestive dislocation, as though the heavens are within reach from ground level if we just direct our gaze appropriately. The effect was so strong that I felt a faint sense of the crick in my neck that would’ve ensued at my age, were I to gaze at the sky for any length of time. The blending of the green of plants into the ethereal blue of the sky adds to this sense of their ultimate interconnectedness, for me at least.

Again I couldn’t escape a sense of the seasons, winter’s grip easing as the days lengthen and the skies brighten.

And the Japanese influence is strongly present. Van Gogh resonated strongly to their style as his letters testify. He had even (Letters – page 356) ‘sent Gauguin a portrait of himself as a “bonze” (a Japanese priest).’

The delicate blossom and the gnarled branches also provide a thought-provoking contrast. It suggests, amongst other things, that beauty has a price. It is paid for by the endurance of hardship. I cannot resist quoting at this point, rather than at the end, where perhaps it belongs, what van Gogh wrote to his brother just two years before this was painted (Letters – page 381):

The more wasted and sick I become, a broken pitcher, the more I may also become a creative artist in this great renaissance of art of which we speak.

All this is certainly so, but eternally continuing art, and this renaissance – this green shoot sprung from the roots of the old sawn-off trunk, these are matters so spiritual that we can’t help but feel rather melancholy when we reflect that we could have created life for less than the cost of creating art.

The whole experience of these galleries created in me a strong sense that van Gogh is a poet in paint, and that his paintings repay the same kind of close detailed attention as poems have always done for me. And this does not mean I have to understand as fully as I would like all the technical aspects of his craft. Not that I’m convinced that van Gogh himself would’ve been delighted with poet of paint idea. In a letter of 1888, in which coincidentally, he mentions cypresses, he goes on to protest (page 402):

It always seems to me that poetry is more terrible than painting, although painting is dirtier and ultimately more tedious. And the painter on the whole says nothing, he holds his tongue, and I prefer that too.

Rembrandt, interestingly, for reasons that I will hopefully return to in another sequence of posts, is more a dramatist in paint for me, which is one of the reasons I see him as the Shakespeare of pictorial art.

Cypresses and Two Women VG 1890Now it’s the turn of Cypresses and Two Women (February 1890 – page 619). Almost the first association I had with this picture as I stood before it was a song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act II Scene 4). The first lines are:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.

The notes (page 667) to Jonathan Bates’s William Shakespeare: complete works explains the reference to cypress as to either a cypress wood coffin or sprigs of cypress: either way the tree is associated with mourning. This association inevitably influences my experience of the painting.

I know van Gogh admired Shakespeare greatly and was familiar with a number of his plays, but not this one as far as I can tell from the books I have at hand. So, would he be aware of the link between cypress and mourning? I don’t know but I don’t think it matters. Darkness has returned.

The women are clearly dwarfed by the tall and swirling trees. They also appear to be faceless. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that the picture surprised me by how small it was (43.5 x 27 cm) – not much bigger than a sheet of foolscap. I had expected a much larger canvas. This means that the trees feel about the size that people should be, and the women seem disproportionately tiny by comparison. That the taller tree is cropped at the top gives the impression of even greater height.

Given the colour of what seems to be corn, I found it hard to resist the idea of flames. This in turn led me to see the swirls of the cypresses also as flame-like, as well, possibly, as the clouds. I am aware that van Gogh sought to capture the effects of the wind in this way, and when the mistral blew its impact was dramatic. The women appear about to be engulfed by flame. That their feet and lower legs are either cropped or their dresses are blending with the vegetation, gives the impression perhaps that the consuming process has begun.

That just about captures my immediate responses on the day, barely registered before I swept onto the next picture.

My abstracting mind can now have a field day at my desk speculating about what that all might mean. It produces more questions than answers. For example, why two women and not a woman and a man? (I think it’s a cop out to say they were the ones who happened to be there at the time. His letters indicate that he was overwhelmed by the number of possible subjects he could paint and often produced variation after variation on a theme before opting finally for two or three related versions.) Is it nature that is overwhelming human beings, or is it some other force, such as the fire of death that turns all to ash or the vibrations of the infinite sustaining consciousness for ever, that is affecting both?

Vase with Irises VG 1890

And finally we have Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background (May 1890 – page 622). This painting produced even more complex responses in me.

Brightness and the dark compete, or, perhaps more appropriately, are held in an uneasy balance. We have muted yellow in the background sinking almost to brown as it crystallises into the pot and the ledge supporting it.

The irises are dying, or at least close to the end of their lives, but still retain something of their original beauty. (A note to this painting in the gallery I think suggested that the colour of the paint had itself faded from its original blue, which would be an ironic reinforcement of my reading of the painting but may not have been part of van Gogh’s original intention, though I think the wilting stem on the right suggests otherwise.)

An association that may not have been in van Gogh’s consciousness at all is the idea of the iris as part of the eye. It controls light levels inside the eye similar to the aperture on a camera. What, if anything, are we meant to be seeing through the irises that van Gogh has provided? Are all his paintings irises in this sense?

It is also hard to escape the probability, given that he was painting this during his enforced stay in the asylum at St Rémy, that he somehow identified with the flowers, uprooted and displaced, trapped even, withering in their confinement, as he might have felt himself to be also at times.

A strong association for me is with the irises we have in our own garden, resonating with what might be a similar blue. They triggered a sombre poem of mine once (2012):

Darkening into the Night
The walls of consciousness wear thin. Yellow
roses on the window ledge are drying
to a brittle gold. The jasmine’s dying.
My eyes light on the irises outside
the colour of a late sky streaked with cloud
and pricked with stars flickering across vast
distances which stretch faster than the reach of light.
Soon I will be darkening into the night
that collapses all points into one past
which not even poetry can follow.

That the poem also contains the gold motif is uncanny. I probably retained an unconscious memory of the painting which then crept into the verse. I could substitute ‘artistry’ for ‘poetry’ in the last line and the fit would be perfect.

After reflecting in this way on these four paintings I am left with sense that, in painting the real, van Gogh is also at the same time seeking to capture the subliminal, to fix infinity in colour and shape.

I think I will save any further thoughts until the last sections of this sequence of posts, which draw on the insights from van Gogh’s letters in an attempt to find my own way to some answers, both about his art and about the states of mind that must have helped shape them. I will defer revisiting any of my various books to see what those authors have to say until that time as well. The next post comes out this Thursday: the last one next Monday.

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JK frontispiece

Last time we began looking at Keats’s idea of a ‘pleasure thermometer,’ which Benton, in his paper written in 1966 (Philosophy East and West V. 16 No. 1/2 (1966) pp. 33-47 Copyright 1966 by University of Hawaii Press Hawaii, USA), claims to have found in Endymion.

It is somewhat more complicated even than the idea of steps or rooms that we looked at last time.

It’s interesting that Walter Jackson Bate, as a literary critic rather than a philosophical Zen practitioner, relates to this at least in part through the idea of gradus ad Parnassum. Wikipedia explains:

The Latin phrase Gradus ad Parnassum means “Steps to Parnassus” . . .  The phrase has often been used to refer to various books of instruction, or guides, in which gradual progress in literature, language instruction, music, or the arts in general, is sought.

He also feels (page 334) that the ‘general sense’ Keats now had ‘was of a labyrinth rather than of steps,not least because of the impending darkness of his brother Tom’s deathFor reasons too complicated to unpack fully now I do not see the metaphors of ‘steps’ or of a ‘labyrinth’ as necessarily mutually exclusive: I see them as potentially complementary. The image of steps of course conveys the idea of effortful upward progression well, but a labyrinth captures the mystery of experience and how difficult it is to get our bearings and be sure we are moving in the right direction (see the poem below for my own take on the image of a labyrinth – it doesn’t stand comparison with Keats but it shows part of my own sense of the matter).

In any case, for present purposes, Keats described it, as Benton quotes from a letter of January of that same year, in terms of ‘a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a Truth.’ Keats was ‘certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the Truth of the Imagination — what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.’

We have been here before with the Kellys’ discussion of Myers ideas of the ‘subliminal uprush’ and their description, quoted in the same post, of the inspired mathematician, Ramanujan, one of whose criteria for deciding if his equations were true was their degree of beauty. In my twenties I had dismissed the declaration in Ode to a Grecian Urn that

‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’; that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

as mere rhetoric given that much that is real in material terms, such as man’s inhumanity to man, seemed to me grotesque and ugly in the extreme, and still does of course. But that is not exactly the truth that Keats is talking about here, but my immature and disbelieving mind had no idea what he was really saying and was too skeptical to bother finding out.

Duncan Wu, in Blackwell’s excellent collection – Romanticism – explains some of its complexity (page 1011):

. . . . it is clear that by ‘beauty,’ Keats means the sensation shared by the poet with the external object into which his consciousness is merged [see below for more on this]. It is to do with the hitherto unknown reality of what it is to share in the existence of the nightingale or the Grecian urn; an imaginative involvement with those things is inherently beautiful and true – in the sense that it is real, rooted in the world of ‘misery and heartbreak, pain, sickness, and oppression.’ There is nothing escapist about any of this; indeed, the great Odes of summer 1819 are permeated with an awareness of death.

How things have changed that I can begin to see this now! I accept that I am still not completely there yet, as my posts about mindfulness are showing, but I think I’m on the way,

The Uncertainty Principle – Keatsian version

And I am now also much more in tune with Keats than was my earlier dogmatic self in another key respect, as my posts on uncertainty testify at length. According to Keats, Benton says, and as I have already quoted in part:

. . . the genuine truth seeker is a man “capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” He defines such a human quality as “Negative Capability.” This quality also involves the loss of self-identity and the submitting of oneself to things.

Benton then puts his finger on where I may be going wrong so often when I’m stuck in my quest mode (and I’ve known this for years since my exploration of Zen in the 70s but often refuse to believe it and push myself in ways I should know are unproductive).

Keats’s epistemology is very like that of Zen. According to Zen, the real is within us, so that “we lack nothing.” No deliberate effort on our part to discover the real within us is required. In fact, deliberate effort is an obstacle, since it involves an act of personal will and thus perpetuates the I-process — which is exactly what must be eliminated if the real is to be apprehended.

It’s important to understand how this differs from quest as Zen describes it:

The whole process of Zen experience therefore involves, at least according to one school of Zen thought, the stages of quest, search, ripening, and explosion, the last stage providing us with insight into the real. The restlessness of the quest stage corresponds closely to the mental condition of Keats’s man of negative capability when his mind is in a state of uncertainty, mystery, and doubt without being irritated by facts and reasoning.

The parallels don’t end there.

Zen also takes much the same attitude toward dogmatism that Keats does, being very independent and admitting “the possibility of a fundamental freedom and a non-conditionment of the mind.” The Zen patriarch Seng Ts’an advised, “Cease to cherish opinions.”

JK 1819

John Keats in July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

The Genuine Poetical Character

Benton has much more to say that I hope to come back to when I have explored Keats once more from my current perspective. It looks as though I completely misjudged and underestimated him in the past.

One further aspect of Benton’s perspective which I will quote now points in the direction of greater complexity than I had realized although I am not yet convinced that the exact meaning Keats intended is the same as Benton would like it to be.

He is concerned to emphasise how Keats’s creativity depended upon his loss of self:

In Keats’s view, the genuine poet is a man of a non-egotistical type whose character is opposed to “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone.” To Keats, Shakespeare was the exemplar of this non-egotistical type. The “poetical Character itself,” he declares — he means the genuine poetical character — is “not itself — it has no self — it is every thing and nothing — It has no character.” In speaking of it as having “no character,” he means that it has succeeded in extinguishing its own ego or self-identity.

Duncan Wu pins down what this characteristic of Wordsworth’s might be (ibid: page 1011): ‘. . . the tendency of Wordsworth to focus his attention on his own imaginative processes.’

Benton quotes Ode to a Nightingale in support of his point:

In Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, the nightingale itself appears to be a symbol of the larger Self that is universal and eternal in us. In Stanza VI, Keats contrasts his mortal self with the immortal Self in which he sees he can rest. He says:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

He goes on and in my view strains his argument to breaking point (but then I would think that as my earlier No-Self post indicates):

And in the next stanza, Keats defines the exact character of the self in relation to the Self: The ego is particular and mortal; the Self is universal and eternal. In his words:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

He concludes:

In this ode, then, Keats’s theme is that the loss of personal identity is a kind of dying, but it is a dying into life when we discover the immortal Self within us. This view is neither Christian nor Platonic. Our immortality does not consist in our retention of personal identity but in the loss of such identity altogether. Such a view fully conforms to that of Zen.

His final conclusion puts me in touch with a nobler version of Keats by far than the one I left behind in my early manhood:

. . . . if . . . romantic self-abandonment is [the norm], then Keats clearly ought to be regarded as an exception to this rule. His particular kind of self-annihilation was not egotistic and solipsistic and an excuse for “the extremest form of romantic self-expansion.” His self-annihilation did not result in the inflation of his personal ego, but in a genuine loss of self-identity and in a discovery of his True Self.

JK life mask v2

Haydon’s Life Mask of John Keats (image from Joanna Richardson’s Folio Society volume)

Imaginative Identification

He adduces far more evidence than I have reproduced here to support his view and I need to re-read Keats carefully once more, both in his poetry and his letters, to make sure that I am still not misreading him in terms of a loss of personal identity. I recognise that as death approached and he grew physically and mentally weaker his capacity for poetry at this highest level diminished. I resonate none the less to the possibility that this loss of ego, even if intermittent, could be the source of both his and Shakespeare’s uncanny capacity to enter into the consciousness of even tiny creatures:

One of the factors involved in the loss of self-identity on the part of Keats’s man of negative capability is his “imaginative identification” with and submission to things. Like the typical Chinese artist with Taoist or Buddhist training, he seeks “harmony with the universe by communion with all things.” Keats himself underwent such an experience on more than one occasion, as he tells us in . . . . his letters. In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 22 November 1817, he discloses that he has come to submit himself to things to the extent that “if a Sparrow comes before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.”

Duncan Wu (op.cit. page 1011) holds a similar view:

Hunt had taught him one important lesson which he was never to relinquish – that it is not the poet’s task to impose a vision or interpretation on the outside world, but to immerse, and lose, the self in what is perceived.

This aspect of his character sheds an even deeper light into the topic of compassion, which has preoccupied me so much and for so long. I have already shared on this blog a moment in Shakespeare of this same remarkable kind. I quoted these lines from ‘Measure for Measure‘ (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 85-88):

The sense of death is most in apprehension,
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

Benton may be right and it would not diminish my new found respect for Keats as a man and a poet if he were, and Keats had a comparable capacity to Shakespeare’s for the reasons Benton gives: Keats, at his best, may be far deeper than I ever thought and I have my dreaming self to thank for that realisation.

I’m not sure this will help me write more poems but it has definitely been a most rewarding journey!

Labyrinth

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