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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)

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the 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, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the third of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next three weeks.

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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I hadn’t bought a book on Shakespeare for about a year, so when my eyes fell upon Emma Smith’s lively approach to the Bard in This Is Shakespeare resistance was a lost cause.

Her take on most of the plays is interesting.

She resists stereotypical categorizations and tries instead to look at the play exactly as it is, and points out how Shakespeare in turn resists our attempts to pin down his exact intentions by such manoeuvres as omitting critical stage directions that would reveal to the actor how the character is supposed to feel as they speak, or even failing to provide any speech at all, leaving the audience to interpret the silence according to how the director/actor is signalling us to do.

My interest was particularly hooked by her approach to two plays which I had to teach in an earlier incarnation – Hamlet and King Lear. A bit more on that later.

Let’s start with Hamlet.

She looks at how changing tastes have impacted upon the play’s reputation (page 163):

We are so used to seeing a Hamlet that anticipates modernity, a play that is more popular and more appreciated four centuries after its composition than it ever was at the time, but it is hard for us to register the ways it is deeply retrospective in tone.

I won’t rehearse her detailed reasons for thinking the play is looking backwards rather than forwards: it’s partly to do with the cross-generational names of Hamlet and Fortinbras, both named after their fathers. It’s enough now perhaps to repeat here her reason for attributing some kind of nostalgia to the play (page 169):

Like Elizabethan culture more widely, the play prefers to look backwards rather than forwards: to dare to think forwards, to a time post-Elizabeth, was a crime.

She then looks forwards at how the play’s status has changed over time (page 224):

For the nineteenth century, Hamlet was identified as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, as clever, modishly alienated men saw themselves reflected in its cerebral and isolated protagonist. But as the 20th century unleashed it’s mad cruelties at Passchendaele, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, King Lear insinuated itself into the cultural imagination instead. The play registered as the ultimate modern tragedy of desolation in which, as the Duke of Albany recognizes, ‘Humanity must perforce prey on itself,/Like monsters of the deep“ (4.2.49-50). . . .  A. D. Nuttall traced the shift from art as moral to art as provocation: ‘It is now virtually unimaginable that a reviewer of a new play should praise it by saying that it offers solace or comfort. Conversely the adjective uncomfortable is automatically read as praise’: the newly cruel King Lear whispers its siren song of nihilism into our willing postmodern ears.

Hamlet has always been a favourite play of Shakespeare’s for me. I’ve written at length about aspects of why this might be. At one point I explained:

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.

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 OthelloDesdemona 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]

I still remember more lines from Hamlet than Lear, most of them from the soliloquies of its protagonist. Some of the most well-known quotes, and seemingly straightforward out of context, are as double-edged and difficult to definitively interpret as anything we are about to look at. Take the much quoted (Act I, Scene iii, line 78): ‘to thine own self be true.’ It seems straightforward enough until you remember it is said by a corrupt time-serving sycophant to his son. My marginal note to this whole speech, when teaching Hamlet was, ‘Ironically, if he had been able to heed such advice, he might have lived longer.’

Lear, perhaps because of its bleakness as well as Edgar’s interminable ramblings, has never stood as high in my estimation, though I never wished to go as far as mutilating it in order to make it more enjoyable, which is what happened late in the 17thcentury (page 226-27):

Nahun Tate . . . rewrote the play in 1681 as The History of King Lear.… This version notably reworks the ending of King Lear. Tate leaves a chastened but restored Lear and Gloucester alive at the end, men who have learnt from their experiences of doubting those who truly love them. The two faithful children of these parallel fathers, Cordelia and Edgar, are married. . . . His amelioration of that conclusion gained its critical stamp of approval when it was quoted by Samuel Johnson in the general introduction to his important 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

Eighteenth century taste was delighted. Good was rewarded and only evil punished, exactly as it should be. This situation did not last long (page 227):

Inevitably, Dr Johnson‘s discomfort at Shakespeare’s King Lear was on precisely the grounds that the next generation found so electrifying. Neoclassical preoccupations with regularity and probability and the moral obligation to reward virtue and punish vice was swept away by the romantic embrace of emotional extremity as a version of the sublime.

Nor should we complacently feel that the struggle to decide on exactly what the play is about, and how valuable its insights are into the human condition, has now been resolved in our more enlightened times.

We might be inclined to dismiss out of hand attempts to redemptively Christianise the play as A. C. Bradley and G. Wilson Knight tried to do. We need, though, to be careful not to assume that we’ve nailed it with our latest take, when their attempts to soften the bleakness of the play give way to existentialist endorsements of it (page 230-31):

Kott takes an existentialist view of the tragedy as the absurdist machinations of a world drained of providential intent. If for Wilson Knight King Lear is a kind of bad-weather Pilgrim’s Progress, for Kott it is a blank verse Waiting for Godot.

As readers of this blog will know, I have struggled to accept that bleak despairing depictions of the human lot are basically more authentic than more positive ones (see the Los Solitarios sequence for more). I will keep it brief here.

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

Cronin, Beckett’s biographer, has no problem with where this takes us (pages 378-79:

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

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

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

Toynbee resonated with me when he called for a more inclusive vision, saying that Malloy expressed ‘an attitude to life which cries out for at least some opposing one.’

What makes this hole issue even more interesting in terms of deciding about Shakespeare’s intentions are the changes he made to his sources (pages 233-34):

It’s often pointed out – Dr Johnson mentioned it in his disapproval of Cordelia’s fate – that Shakespeare’s historical and other sources do not end in the way his play does. As for most of Shakespeare’s works, there is already established a well-known story and part of what is well known about it is that it has a happy ending: reinstating Lear to his throne, to be succeeded by Cordelia.[2]

This strongly suggests that bleakness of this magnitude was the playwright’s intention. This is further confirmed by the evidence that Shakespeare made bleakening changes to the original version of his own play (page 234):

Shakespeare even revised his own text: So the ending of King Lear is a prominent act of rewriting, and is itself rewritten. King Lear exists in two early and distinct texts, printed in 1608 and in 1623. They are different in hundreds of small, and scores of larger, ways. [The first is The History of King Lear and the second is The Tragedy of King Lear].

A critical example is probably the easiest to consider here (page 235 – my emphasis):

One example of this might be the detail around Gloucester’s torture at the end of Act 3. Gloucester is blinded on stage in a horrific scene of brutality, leaving him describing his world as ‘all dark and comfortless’ as he is thrust out to “smell/his way to Dover“. The History has a short but telling sequence that is later cut. In this version, two servants prepare to care for the wounded Gloucester… and [end] praying ‘heaven help him!’. It’s a moment of tenderness: not everyone is indifferent to Gloucester’s suffering, and servants behave with more decency than their masters. Without this, the play has no corrective to its own cruelties.

Interestingly the Arden edition I used in teaching Lear in the early 70s has the more humane History version of the blinding episode, whereas the Jonathan Bate RSC Complete Works has only the bleak version, while the Stephen Greenblatt Norton Edition prints both versions in parallel. How this change might influence an audience’s reaction is illustrated by the notes I made in the margins of my Arden edition. You can see, in the illustration, that I had written in the left-hand margin of page 144: ‘Humane values beginning to reassert themselves. The turning point.’ This feeling persists even at the dark ending of the play where the Arden uses the later bleaker edition upon which to base its text. By the side of the newly introduced line (Act V, Scene 3, line 311) ‘Look there, look there!’ I wrote ‘Dies partly of joy.’

This raises the question again: what was his real intention? Having Lear respond possibly to the spirit of his dead daughter could be seen as intending to invoke a sense of a compensating afterlife. Does this cancel out the earlier deletion of the compassionate servants? The Arden edition retains both the deletion and the addition in their version of the play, without as far as I can establish acknowledging that it has done so.

Perhaps we can go no further in understanding Shakespeare’s intentions than Smith describes, admittedly from her perspective that he loves to tease our understanding in this way thus permitting many different and equally valid interpretations of his text (page 237):

So Shakespeare is the first of the long history of literal and figurative rewriters of King Lear. His saddest play has prompted extraordinary spiritual, philosophical and artistic efforts to ameliorate its desolation, and the history of those interventions is a cultural history of just what it is we want from our tragic art: comfort, exhilaration or dissection.

Where do I stand in terms of this ambiguity? Firmly on the side of its being evidence of his genius. If you are really going to be able to render experience convincingly maybe you have to make your rendering as ambivalent as life itself. None the less I prefer the more balanced take on reality offered by the inclusion of the compassionate servants, otherwise he may have tilted the scales too far to the darkness to be completely authentic in my view.

Footnotes:

[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.

[2]. See also John Kerrigan Shakespeare’s Originality, pages 63-82, for a fuller discussion of the changes Shakespeare made to his sources in the writing of King Lear.

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I found myself staring outside my window earlier today, but not the same day that triggered my recent poem on the death of trees. I looked past the silver birch immediately outside, with most of its green or golden leaves in place, to the bare branches of the denuded sycamore, left with only a handful of its leaves on this cold but sunny November day. As I looked the words of the sonnet penned 400 years ago came floating into my mind:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Shakespeare, of course: sonnet 73.

That led me to Don Paterson’s reflections from his book on ‘Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: a new commentary.’ A later line of the sonnet reads: ‘Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.’ Paterson observes (page 212) that ‘WS is referring to night, though Death’s brother has long been sleep, whom he’s also invoking indirectly.’ Inevitably, we go further yet. He adds, ‘Remember Macbeth’s Come seeling night,/Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.’ He reminds us that ‘seel’ is to ‘stitch the eyelids shut, as one would a hawk’s.’

The reference to Macbeth reminded me of the fascinating book that I had just finished reading: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

He couldn’t resist wheeling out Macbeth either (page 108):

Ironically, most of the “new,” twenty-first-century discoveries regarding sleep were delightfully summarized in 1611 in Macbeth, act two, scene two, where Shakespeare prophetically states that sleep is “the chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

He argues that our industrialised society is chronically sleep deprived. And he harvests acres of evidence to prove (page 107) that sleep, amongst other things, ‘enhances memory,’ ‘makes [us] more creative,’ ‘protects from cancer and dementia,’ lowers our ‘risk of heart attacks and stroke,’ and leads to our feeling ‘happier, less depressed, and less anxious.’ We need to wake up to the danger we are in by not sleeping enough.

Three examples

Because I’m still a clinical psychologist at heart, to prove the value of the book I want to focus on his discussion of three problems: Autism, ‘Schizophrenia’ and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I have called them problems rather than illnesses or disorders because I am deeply sceptical, as I have explained elsewhere, about the value of such labeling.

But I can set aside such quibbling for now and focus on his demonstration of how much sleep can do to mitigate such problems and how much the lack of it makes them worse.

Autism

His link between autism and sleep abnormality is dramatically strong (page 82):

Autistic individuals show a 30 to 50 percent deficit in the amount of REM sleep they obtain relative to children without autism.

A word of explanation might be necessary here.

During waking hours, in terms of information, we are in reception mode, he argues. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep performs a kind of reflective function (page 52) and stores and strengthens the ‘raw ingredients of new facts and skills’ whereas rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (dreaming sleep) integrates the information, ‘interconnecting the raw ingredients with each other, with all past experiences, and, in doing so, building an ever more accurate model of how the world works.’

He accepts that this correlation does not prove that the sleep problem in humans is the cause of autism or vice versa. However, research using animals suggests that when infant rats are deprived of REM sleep ‘aberrant patterns of neural connectivity, or synaptogenesis’ occur in the brain, and the rats affected ‘go on to become socially withdrawn and isolated.’

He adds that, since ‘alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep that we know of’ it can ‘inflict the same selective removal of REM sleep.’ ‘Vibrant electrical activity’ is the detectable sign of REM sleep. The infants (page 83) ‘of heavy-drinking mothers showed a 200 percent reduction in this measure of vibrant electrical activity relative to the infants born of non-alcohol-consuming mothers.’ However, even when pregnant mothers consumed only two glasses of wine (pages 83-84), it ‘significantly reduced the amount of time that the unborn babies spent in REM sleep, relative to the non-alcohol condition.’

While he acknowledges that for humans (page 85) ‘we do not yet fully understand what the long-term effects are of fetal or neonate REM sleep disruption, alcohol-triggered or otherwise,’ the abnormalities caused in adult animals is clear.

I also feel that the evidence adduced by Raine in his masterly book The Anatomy of Violence may be partly explicable in these terms, though Walker makes no reference to it. In this study of violent offenders, Raine finds that foetal alcohol exposure is very much a factor needing to be taken into account, and not just with violent offenders, the main focus of his book, as it has implications for cognitive functioning including memory as well as impulse control in general (pages 163-164):

Part of the reason for this is its effects upon the hippocampus. The hippocampus patrols the dangerous waters of emotion. It is critically important in associating a specific place with punishment – something that helps fear conditioning. Criminals have clear deficits in these areas. The hippocampus is also a key structure in the limbic circuit that regulates emotional behaviour . . .

This impairment then interacts with early experiences of attachment, and disruptions to attachment make the likelihood of later personality problems much higher. Sleep strongly impacts upon the functioning of the hippocampus as Walker explains (page 155):

The very latest work in this area has revealed that sleep deprivation even impacts the DNA and the learning-related genes in the brain cells of the hippocampus itself.

So, whatever the exact direction of causation, and regardless of what other factors may or may not be involved, REM sleep disruption and autism are undoubtedly linked.

‘Schizophrenia’:

Even though I worked in mental health over thirty years, until I read his book I never realised fully the important role of sleep in the problems I was looking at, even though I used to explain to lay audiences that psychosis, as it is termed, was a kind of waking dream, which, I used to say, meant that we all became psychotic at night, whether we remembered our dreams or not.

There is an additional twist to the role of NREM sleep here (page 89): ‘Of the many functions carried out by deep NREM sleep… it is that of synaptic pruning that features prominently during adolescence.’

He goes on to explain how important adequate sleep is for the adolescent brain, given that it is critically involved in determining what synapses (neuronal connections) are removed to mature the brain appropriately. Then he makes his key point early on in the book (page 92):

Individuals who developed schizophrenia had an abnormal pattern of brain maturation that was associated with synaptic pruning, especially in the frontal lobe regions where rational, logical thoughts are controlled – the inability to do so being a major symptom of schizophrenia. In a separate series of studies, we have also observed that in young individuals who are at a high risk of developing schizophrenia, and in teenagers and young adults with schizophrenia, there is a two- to three-fold reduction in deep NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. . . . Faulty pruning of brain connections in schizophrenia caused by sleep abnormalities is now one of the most exciting areas of investigation in psychiatric illness.

He does not deal with this here except in terms of correlation. This therefore does not exclude the possibility that there are other causative elements at work.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

I am well aware, for example, of the strong evidence for the role of trauma in the development of so-called schizophrenia. His treatment of trauma is quite separate from his discussion of schizophrenia, as he is content to term it, and he relates the persistence of nightmares in the aftermath of trauma to the failure of the brain to suppress noradrenaline, a failure that keeps the terror alive. Normally the brain suppresses noradrenaline in sleep so that dream experiences do not create strong feelings of fear and the mind is desensitised to the terror by the calming dreams – a very different process from the NREM one he is describing here.

None the less, the correlation is significant and potentially valuable therapeutically. I would hope that future research is less diagnostically naïve and includes other potentially relevant factors in the mix.

Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

His exposure of the way in which sleep deprivation is ignored as a fundamental factor in ADHD was music to my ears. He launches it by saying (page 314):

An added reason for making sleep a top priority in the education and lives of our children concerns the link between sleep deficiency and the epidemic of ADHD. … If you make a composite of the symptoms (unable to maintain focus and attention, deficient learning, behaviourally difficult, with mental health instability), and then strip away the label of ADHD, the symptoms are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep.

The drugs we prescribe to treat it further prevent sleep.

He is not claiming there is no such thing as ADHD, simply that many people to whom the diagnosis has been attached are simply sleep deprived. The treatment makes it worse not better. He quotes the figures (page 316):

Based on recent surveys and clinical evaluations, we estimate that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder, yet a small fraction know of their sleep condition and its ramifications.

And more than that. Because our society undervalues sleep (ibid.):

Well over 70 percent of parents [believe] their child gets enough sleep, when in reality, less than 25 percent of children aged 11 to 18 actually obtain the necessary amount.

He points to early starting times in schools as one of the culprits and late bedtimes as another. This blind spot in our culture is damaging lives, he argues. We have to change.

Dreams

I can’t resist a quick postscript on dreams. Oliver Burkeman, in a recent Guardian article, nails the difficulty I have with Walker’s reductionist approach, which he describes accurately: ‘recent work by researchers including Matthew Walker, author of the new book Why We Sleep, strongly suggests dreams are a kind of “overnight therapy”: in REM sleep, we get to reprocess emotionally trying experiences, but without the presence of the anxiety-inducing neurotransmitter noradrenaline. In experiments, people exposed to emotional images reacted much more calmly to seeing them again after a good night’s dreaming.

He rightly argues that Jung would not have agreed that this was all there was to it, and neither would I. He even provides a counteracting argument that retains the magic of dreams even while conceding they might be random:

So you wrote down a dream, then studied it, with or without a therapist, trying out different interpretations, and if one rang true – if it gave you goosebumps or triggered strong emotions – you pursued it further. What’s striking, you may have noticed, is that this approach would work even if Jung were wrong, and dreams were just random. If you treat them as potentially meaningful, retaining only those interpretations that really “click”, you’re going to end up with meaningful insights anyway. I’ve dabbled in this, and highly recommend it. To ask what your dreams might be trying to tell you is to ask deep and difficult questions you’d otherwise avoid – even if, in reality, they weren’t trying to tell you anything at all.

Walker’s disappointing take on dreams does not for me diminish one jot the fundamental importance of his book. Sleep really matters and he marshals convincing evidence to prove just how vital it is that we recognise this and act accordingly. It’s a compelling, accessible, credible and critically important read.

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. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

The next two posts are going to be more challenging to write than the previous ones. The issues are a bit of a stretch. Firstly, it’s going to be quite difficult to convey what Woolf manages to achieve, and secondly it’s going to be almost equally tricky to tease out all the variables that can impact on any objective assessment of the quality of her achievement.

For example, my subjective response is so strong it clouds other issues to some extent, such as the need to examine the probable nature of consciousness from more than just this somewhat poetic perspective. Even if I do that, we come to possibly important distinctions between normal consciousness, in the sense of consciousness as most of us experience it, and other kinds of consciousness, some of which have been labeled ‘abnormal’ in a critical sense, and others which are seen as enhanced, as a result, for instance, of prolonged meditation under expert instruction.

Should an artist’s achievement be judged only in terms of how well she captures normal consciousness? In which case what is normal? Or should we be setting our sights somewhat higher and expecting an artist to tackle other states of consciousness in any work attempting, as the novel does, to represent a reality beyond the average scope? Perhaps we can fairly expect ‘madness’ to be delineated in places, and mystical states.

This is not even beginning to tackle aspects such as literary skill and the zeitgeist, or pervading collective cultural consciousness of the period.

You can see my problem.

I’m going to blast on anyway! Please stick with me if you still wish to do so.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention?

A fair question to ask at this point is whether she intended consciously to replicate consciousness in the novels under consideration here, ie To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

As is becoming my habit here, I’m going to start with the picture Julia Briggs paints. She feels that (page 77): ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.” She feels that (page 93): ‘Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…’

To be fair to earlier novelists I feel obliged to subject you all to another detour.

The Cultural Context

Before attempting to convey the impact upon me of Woolf’s mapping of consciousness, it’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the literary context out of which her work sprang.

Thought she mentioned him only rarely in her work, journals and letters, Briggs was in no doubt that Shakespeare was a key influence upon her. Amongst other things he was the master of the soliloquy. This is not the same exactly as Woolf was attempting, but it may have been the soil in which her plan had its roots.

The main difference is that Shakespeare’s words were to be performed on stage and, while soliloquies were designed to give the audience an insight into a character’s mind that could not otherwise be conveyed, they were not attempting to reproduce exactly the contents of the character’s consciousness – not even in Hamlet, where the protagonist is famous for his introspection. Most of his soliloquies serve to open for the audience an illuminating window on his vacillation and his feelings about that. We see the tugging to and fro within his mind. It’s definitely a step towards Woolf’s destination and would almost certainly have influenced her, whether consciously or not. But she planned to divorce her maps of introspection from the switchbacks of a plot.

To leap forward to the 19th Century, and before we consider Jane Austen’s innovation – free indirect speech – we can give a passing glance to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and his complex masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, written after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Again, even though he is hoping to convey, in the latter work, the differing perspectives of the various characters on the key events of the plot, they are all addressing an audience of some kind as they speak. They are in persona, rather than introspecting alone.

What Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate her novel always through the eyes of one of her characters, rather than in her own voice.

A short quote from Austen’s Emma will illustrate her skill and give an example of her typical tone. Emma’s disastrous plan to link the low-born Harriet to the aspiring clergyman on the rise is being incubated precipitously and with no sense of its limitations in Emma’s mind:

Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what every body else must think of and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hartfield. The longer she considered it, the greater was her sense of its expediency. Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.

We are not in Emma’s mind in the same way Woolf will enter the minds of her characters, but Austen is definitely not being the omniscient narrator, and we are experiencing Emma’s thought processes with all their limitations. She handles the clash of perspectives between characters mostly through skillful dialogue.

Ford Madox Ford followed faithfully in Austen’s footsteps. One example from the opening of Chapter III of Some Do Not (1924) will illustrate this clearly:

At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret room. It had a sloping roof outlined by black beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. . . . .Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in the surroundings, appeared unreasonable. . . . To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper.

He then skillfully develops their contrasting perspectives without dialogue, which brings him even closer to the experiments Woolf then attempted.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922), an author about whom she was somewhat ambivalent: James Joyce. She found him ‘sordid’ but ‘brilliant’ (Briggs – page 133). She felt he got ‘thinking into literature’ but recoiled from what she experienced as his ‘egotism’ and ‘desire to shock’ (Lee – page 403). I’m ignoring Proust, whom she acknowledges in an article of 1926, and had been reading since 1922. His use of memory though is often echoed in her work.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention continued?

Back to Briggs again.

In Mrs Dalloway (page 132) Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room (page 133) ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse (page 164) ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

Woolf was all too aware of how words can fail to catch the mind’s pearls (page 238): in a letter to Ethel Smyth, she wrote: ‘one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.’

It is at this same point in her text that Briggs possibly overextends her argument in a way that I want to accept but don’t think I can. She writes, ‘despite an energetic and enjoyable social round, she always felt that the life of the mind was the only “real life”…’

In my copy of her widowed husband’s extracts from Woolf’s diaries I have the exact entry Briggs refers to here (Diaries – page 144).

The problem for me is that Woolf doesn’t use the word ‘mind’: she describes her work on the novel that became The Waves. The other diary entry Briggs refers to in her notes implicates a more appropriate word: Woolf writes (Diaries – page 126), ‘the only exciting life is the imaginary one.’ Imagination seems to be what Woolf is extolling. This distinction matters to me. Imagination is a power of the mind, but mind is not reducible to imagination, and therefore the life of the mind is beyond imagination alone. I may come back to that in more detail in a later post.

Do we have any other leads in her diary entries – the ones available to me at least?

A key quote for me comes on page 85:

I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life; … I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; and that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.

At the end of this sequence I may try to tackle more deeply the possible implication in this context of such words as mind, imagination, soul etc. For now all I will say is that the word soul could be taken to be subsuming into one concept thought, feeling, reason, imagination, mind etc. She is not engaged in refined philosophical discriminations here: she is using words that she knows are mere approximations to what she is trying to say. In which case is I’d better stop my nit-picking for now.

She does describe her experience of the mind as (page 123) ‘the most capricious of insects, fluttering.’ She is well aware it is elusive (page 131): ‘But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.’ At times she feels she is getting the hang of it (page 81): ‘My summer’s wanderings with the pen have I think shown me one or two new dodges for catching my flies.’ But even such slight confidence clearly comes and goes. We have already heard her say (page 212), ‘I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip. . .’

Once she begins to really connect it gets easier but she has to proceed with due caution (Pages 218-20:

I make this note by way of warning. What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.

… the well is full, ideas are rising and if I can keep at it widely, freely, powerfully, I shall have two months of complete immersion. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. I can see the day whole, proportioned – even after a long flutter of the brain such as I’ve had this morning it must be a physical, moral, mental necessity, like setting the engine off.

She is also very conscious of the many different levels of experience that she needs to attend to. She describes them jokingly at one point (page 75):

But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.

On a more serious note, but well after To the Lighthouse and The Waves were written, she hesitantly acknowledges (page 259:

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

I will close with what I find to be a very revealing thought (page 97):

Have no screens, the screens are made out of our own integument; and get at the thing itself, which has nothing whatsoever in common with the screen. The screen-making habit, though, is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might probably dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible. But the screens are in the excess; not the sympathy.

It is this permeability which so strongly characterises her writing. Here she speaks of a permeability to others, but she also displays the same porous quality to her own unconscious. What she then experiences is hard to capture. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to poetry so much (page 326), ‘is the best poetry that which is most suggestive – is it made of the fusion of many different ideas, so that it says more than is explicable?’

I think I may be ready now to tackle the texts themselves.

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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)

This sequence last seen two years ago seems to follow on naturally from the Understanding Heart sequence I’ve just republished. So here it comes again on three consecutive days this time.

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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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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