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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen E Braude’

LamberthIs consciousness spirit, mind or brain?

Or none of the above perhaps?

Just kidding.

I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the University of Birmingham at the beginning of March. I have done this once before (see link) and have ruminated on the issues before and since on this blog. I had so much running round in my mind-brain, whichever it is, that I needed to start organising my ideas in good time. Writing a blog post seemed a good way of helping in that process. The last post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is simply what I thought I might say!

‘Doubt Wisely’

David Lamberth in William James and the Metaphysics of Experience reports James’s point of view on the investigation of such matters, and I feel this is a good place to begin (page 222):

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

When it comes to these issues, fundamentalist certainty is completely out of place. I may have chosen to believe certain things about the mind and its independence of the brain but I cannot know what I believe is true in the same way as I can know my own address. Similarly, though, those like Dennett and Churchland who believe that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain cannot be absolutely sure of their position either.

We are both performing an act of faith.

is-god-a-delusionIt is in this spirit that I want to explain my point of view and with the same intent as Reitan in his book Is God a Delusion? He explains that he wishes to demonstrate that it is just as rational to believe in God as it is not to believe in God. I am not trying to persuade anyone to believe as I do, I simply want people to accept that I am as rational as any sceptic out there, and more so than the so-called sceptics who have absolute faith in their disbelief. The only tenable position using reason alone is agnosticism. Absolute conviction of any kind is faith, which goes beyond where reason can take us.

John Hick adduces an argument to explain why we cannot be absolutely sure about spiritual issues, an argument which appeals to a mind like mine. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe in a spiritual perspective whether it involves the concept of God or the idea I’m discussing here, that the mind is independent of the brain. Conversely, materialists should be aware that there is no evidence that could compel us not to believe it either. There is only enough evidence either way to convince the predisposed to that belief.

As an atheist/agnostic of almost 25 years standing and a mature student at the time I finished my clinical psychology training after six years of exposure to a basically materialist and sceptical approach to the mind, I was pretty clear where I’d confidently placed my bets.

There were three prevailing ideas within the psychological community at the time about the nature of the mind: the eliminative materialism advocated by such thinkers as Paul Churchland; the epiphenomenological approach which says consciousness is simply an accidental by-product of brain complexity; and the emergent property idea that posits that, just as the cells in our body as a whole combine to create something greater than themselves, so do our brain cells. I’d chosen the last option as the most sensible. Consciousness is not entirely reducible to a simple aggregate of cells: the mind is something extra. But I didn’t believe for one moment that it was not ultimately a material phenomenon.

mind v3The Emanation Shock

Well, not that is until I took the leap of faith I call declaring my intention to work at becoming a Bahá’í.

The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.’

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart.

My memory of the process by which I set out to investigate suggests that my initial research involved looking into near death experiences (NDEs) and Psi.

I decided that, as I was not absolutely certain of this, I’d better make sure I was even aware of that body of data at this time. I checked my bookshelves. To my surprise, it showed that I was reading about NDEs and Psi even before I declared as a Bahá’í. My copies of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and John Randall’s Parapsychology and the Nature of Life both date from 1981, a whole year earlier at the very least. There is no reference to either book in my journals of 1981/82 so I don’t know whether I read them before finding the Bahá’í Faith.

Not that in the end, after years of checking this out as more research became known, NDEs have provided completely conclusive proof that there is a soul and that the mind derives from it. Even my Black Swan example of Pam Reynolds, which I discovered much later, could not clinch it absolutely. This was the beginning of my realisation that we are inevitably dealing with acts of faith here and that both beliefs are equally rational when not asserted dogmatically. Even if you couldn’t explain them away entirely in material terms, the existence of Psi complicated the picture somewhat.

For example, Braude’s work in Immortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

I’ll explore this in more detail in the next post on Saturday.

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filter-spectrum-v2At the end of the last post we looked at psi. Other transpersonal experiences, particularly ones relating to mind-brain independence, are more controversial, if that is possible. Psi is even seen as a confounding variable, which I suppose is progress of a kind, rather than a supportive prop.

For example, Braude’s work in Mortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

Quotations from Thompson’s sceptical and Mario Beauregard’s convinced account will illustrate the problem. I’ll focus on the hearing issue, though that is by no means the only point of contention.

thompsonThompson writes in Waking, Dreaming, Being (page 307):

Reynolds’s eyes were taped shut, so she wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on around her. Although she was wearing fitted ear plugs that delivered 40-decibel white noise to one ear and 95-decibel clicks every eleventh of a second to her other ear (in order to monitor her auditory brainstem response), she probably would have been able to hear the sound of the saw through bone conduction (as when you hear inside your head the sound of the dentist’s drill). On the basis of hearing the sound, she may have generated a visual image of the saw, which she described as looking like an electric toothbrush. She would have been familiar with the surgical procedure from the surgeon’s description and from having read and signed the informed consent form, and she would have seen the layout of the operating room because she was awake when she was wheeled in. So she probably had enough knowledge to create an accurate visual and cognitive map of her surroundings during her out-of-body experience. Reynolds’s ability to hear what the cardiac surgeon said may seem less likely, but to my knowledge no one has tried to replicate the auditory stimulus conditions to determine whether speech is comprehensible through those sound levels or during the pauses between the clicks.

mind-brain-relationshipBeauregard’s view is different (Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – page 132):

Sceptics will argue that when Reynolds saw the surgeon cutting her skull or heard a female voice say something about the size of her blood vessels, she was not clinically dead yet. Nevertheless, her ears were blocked by small moulded speakers continuously emitting 100-dB clicks (100 dB correspond approximately to the noise produced by a speeding express train). Medical records confirmed that these words were effectively pronounced (Seabom 1998). Moreover, the speakers were fixed with tape and gauze. It is thus highly unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation.

Intriguing or what? Deuce maybe? Or a plague on both their houses?

In terms of Reynold’s supposedly prior knowledge, it is perhaps also worth quoting Penny Sartori’s 2008 work in Swansea, quoted by Fenwick in a later chapter of the mind-brain book. In her study she was able to ask (page 148):

. . . whether the patients who said they left their bodies during the cardiac arrest were able to give a more accurate account of what happened during their resuscitation, than those who did not claim to have left their bodies or to have any memory of seeing the resuscitation. She asked both groups to describe what they thought had happened during the resuscitation and found that those who said they had seen the resuscitation were more accurate in their account of what had occurred than those who were simply guessing. This finding is important as it is the first prospective study which suggests that veridical information may indeed be obtained in some manner by someone who is deeply unconscious and who has none of the cerebral functions which would enable them either to see or to remember.

Thompson feels, even so, that there is a possible way of explaining these sorts of experiences. He quotes the work of Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez (page 313) who ‘put forward a model of how the distinct brain areas known to be frequently damaged in cardiac arrest patients may contribute to the various elements that make up near-death experiences.’ They claim to have found two types of NDE, one linked to right- and the other to left-hemisphere functioning. He adds (my italics): ‘it also seems possible that a patient could have both types of near-death experience and later link them together into one remembered and reported episode. Pam Reynolds’s near death experience, for example, might have been of this kind.’

So, you pay your penny and takes your choice.

I feel I’m back in a familiar place, the one described by John Hick.

John Hick adduces a very compelling argument that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what Pam Reynolds, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to  believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe.

To be fair to Thompson I need to add two more quotes which resonate with this in a way, the first from the end of the section on NDEs (page 314):

Although Blanke and Dieguez’s model is speculative, as they admit, it serves to illustrate how we can begin to approach near-death experiences from a cognitive neuroscience perspective, instead of supposing, as many near-death experience researchers do, that these experiences pose an insurmountable challenge to neuroscience.

This is at least honestly tentative, untainted by fundamentalist scientism. His basic position is similarly balanced (ibid.):

One way to lose touch with the existential meaning of near-death experiences is to argue, on the basis of the kind of cognitive neuroscience perspective just sketched, that these experiences are nothing other than false hallucinations created by a disordered brain. Another way is to argue that these experiences are true presentations of a real, transcendent, spiritual realm to which one’s disembodied consciousness will journey after death.

Both of these viewpoints fall into the trap of thinking that near-death experiences must be either literally true are literally false. This attitude remains caught in the grip of a purely third-person view of death… Both viewpoints turn away from the experience itself and try to translate it into something else or evaluate it according to some outside standard of objective reality.

Where does that all leave me?

I have failed so far to find evidence to confirm that transliminality of any kind is anything more than an occasional correlate of psychosis. Moreover, I sense that at this point, I am going to be hard-pressed to find strong evidence that will support the notion that psychosis entails the leaching into consciousness both of subconscious brain activity and extrasensory stimuli.

300px-psychosynthesis-egg-diagram_color

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

Disappointing.

Still, I have clarified to my own satisfaction what I think I need to find evidence for. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Some Answered Questions that (pages 241-42):

The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names—the human spirit and the rational soul—designate one thing. . . .

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

The diagram at the top of this post, with which I illustrated in an earlier post the issue of brain-produced and extrasensory stimuli, plainly does not go far enough. One of the best existing attempts of something that does is to be found in psychosynthesis.

It neatly distinguishes the conscious self (the ego) from the Higher Self – in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms the mind as a power or fruit of the spirit. With its help I am hoping to explore these issues further, particularly with respect to psychosis and creativity.

I would hope eventually to be able to tease out how trauma can lift us towards compassionate self-transcendence instead of shrinking us towards self-protective egotism, depending upon our response to it. The implication for creativity would be whether the pain of life makes a better person as well as a better artist because greater creativity and access to the transcendent are both possible and facilitated by pain, and for psychosis whether pain causes less effective filtering for both brain-generated and extrasensory experiences.

In both cases trauma could lift or lower the trajectory of a person’s life. I’d like to explore more deeply why some people go up and others go down.

I’ll leave it there until the New Year, and pause my posts until then as I did last year. I wish all my readers well over this festive season.

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subliminal

It is useful to begin with an apparently unrelated subject.

Recently I read with great interest Stephen E Braude’s Immortal Remains, his detailed examination of the evidence for life after death. He resolutely probes several strong and apparently convincing examples of this evidence, seeking to determine first of all whether there is something in need of explanation (ie something paranormal happened), and then whether we would be justified in thinking that what he calls super-psi can be ruled out, leaving survival after death as the likeliest explanation.

He is not flaky in the least. One example of that is what I wish to use now to get me going.

He is explaining what he sees as the various problems in the survivalist literature. A serious problem for him is (page 23) ‘its superficial treatment of dissociation.’ He continues:

Beginning at least as far back as the Delphic Oracle, and continuing through the more recent and rich history of hypnosis, we find many indications that dissociative phenomena elicit (or a least accompany) psychic functioning. And of course, it takes only a casual acquaintance with hypnosis and multiple personality to see striking similarities between their manifestations and the behaviour of many mediums. We have to wonder, then, whether the entities apparently communicating through a medium are nothing more than dissociative parts of the medium’s own mind, parts that simply claim and otherwise appear to be deceased communicators.

The logic is simple but telling. How can we know that what a medium claims is a departed spirit is not simply a split off segment of themselves?

For me, this logic cuts both ways though.

When we are dealing with so-called psychosis can we reasonably do so in ignorance of the rich literature on psi and spirituality? Should we not be subjecting the evidence to the same rigorous process as he does to determine, if we can, which parts of a ‘psychotic’ experience have meaning (not necessarily a transcendent one even) and which do not, rather than simply dismissing the whole lot as irrational? How can we do this effectively if we have not considered all kinds of evidence relating to what modern science considers to be insane states?

I have framed the title of this piece in terms of an extreme possibility, because I believe the question absolutely needs to be asked in this way if all the possibly relevant evidence is to be taken into account.

FWH MyersTransliminality

Why do I think this?

The main plank in my springboard to this position is the concept of transliminality.

Readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in the concept of a threshold between the conscious and the unconscious, and of my belief, on the basis of such thinkers as Myers in the 19th Century along with contemporary researchers such as the Kellys, and of the possibility that what crosses the line between can come from either the ‘treasure house’ or the ‘rubbish dump,’ and we have to be careful to make a distinction between them.

A good place to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (Irreducible Mind – page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of transcendental or supernormal experiences is strong enough to warrant serious consideration and he distinguishes between that and subliminal experiences that come, as it were, from underneath (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91):

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.

We have still a long way to go in this respect and the price can be high for those whose experiences cross the line between culturally acceptable and beyond the pale, as we will see.

How far Myers was ahead of the game becomes clear in what followed. Kelly, in Irreducible Mind, explains (page 99):

In short, Myers believed that hysteria, when viewed as a psychological phenomenon, gives ‘striking’ support to ‘my own principal thesis’, namely, that all personality is a filtering or narrowing of the field of consciousness from a larger Self, the rest of which remains latent and capable of emerging only under the appropriate conditions.

Even the expanded consciousness of genius, in this view, is still filtering a lot out – in fact, it still leaves most of potential consciousness untapped.

There is in addition a common quality of excessive porousness which explains why, in Shakespeare’s phrase, the ‘lunatic . . . . . and the poet are of imagination all compact.’ Myers’s view is that (page 100):

Because genius and madness both involve similar psychological mechanisms – namely, a permeability of the psychological boundary – it is to be expected that they might frequently occur in the same person; but any nervous disorders that accompany genius signal, not dissolution, but a ‘perturbation which masks evolution.’

I have explored that last point in an earlier sequence of posts that highlights the idea of psychosis as potentially a trigger for growth so won’t expand upon it here.

In next Thursday’s post I’ll be looking more closely at the idea of the threshold in the context of psychosis.

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Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) Image scanned from 'The Centenary Pessoa.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) Image scanned from ‘The Centenary Pessoa.’

Gottfried Benn said: ‘No one, not even the greatest poets of our time, has left more than eight or ten perfect poems . . For six poems, thirty or fifty years’ asceticism, suffering, battle!’

(A Centenary Pessoa edited by Eugénio Lisboa & L. C. Taylor – page 18)

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

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-BaháSection 36)

For the first time since I read him in the late 90s, this September I was triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):

Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.

I resonate strongly to much that Pessoa writes. I’m not sure I can explain this fully but this is my best attempt.

Pessoa himself clarifies exactly what he meant by heteronym (A Centenary Pessoa – page 133):

A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; the heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be.

I occasionally notice that I am talking to myself as though I were somebody else, and I don’t mean the usual split second outburst of ‘You idiot!’ when I’ve made a stupid mistake. I mean a more measured tone. For instance, I was about to heat some milk in a cup with a metallic glaze.

‘Don’t do that, my friend,’ I said. ‘It’ll upset the microwave.’

It’s possible I do this more often than I notice. We’re probably all in the same boat to some extent.

Even so, and even including my Parliament of Selves problem, this is small beer compared with what Fernando Pessoa had to contend with or benefited from, depending on your point of view, but it helps explain at least part of his fascination for me. Apparently, over his entire life he created 72 characters in what he called (page 125) ‘the intimate theatre of the self,’ many of them ‘vividly alive and themselves creative.’

Michael Hamburger quotes him as saying (The Truth of Poetry – page 139):

Each group of imperceptibly related states of mind thus becomes a personality with a style of its own and feelings that may differ from the poet’s own typical emotional experiences, or may even be diametrically opposed to them.

Hamburger also tellingly points out (page 145) that ‘Fernando Pessoa’s disguises were assumed out of the conviction that poetry is more true than the poet.’ On this same theme he adds (page 147):

It is the feelings of the empirical self which poetry enlarges, complements or even replaces with fictitious ones, but only because the empirical self is not the whole self, cramped as it is in its shell of convention, habit and circumstance. Pessoa’s disguises did not impair his truthfulness because he uses them not to hoodwink others, but to explore reality and establish the full identity of his multiple, potential selves.

Image from 'The Centenary Pessoa'

Image from ‘The Centenary Pessoa’

There are other factors at work though in fuelling my interest.

Pessoa is a deeply unsettling poet, as his most powerful poems testify, and in a way that has echoes of my own disquiet with the dark side of existence.

He uses his heteronyms to say what might be otherwise unsayable for him. As Ricardo Reis, for example, he writes (page 69):

I have heard tell that once when Persia was
At war – I don’t know which –
As the invading City burnt its way
And all the women screamed,
There were two players at a game of chess
Who went on with their game.

And he makes absolutely sure that we know exactly what this means:

Houses were burnt, and brought to rack and ruin
Was every arch and wall,
Women were raped and then propped up against
Collapsing masonry
To be run through with spears, their children were
Pools of blood in the streets . . .

And the players carry on playing even though ‘the desert wind brought messages/To them of screams and cries’ that they knew for sure were from their wives and daughters. The poem appears to celebrate this callous preoccupation with the ‘useless joy. . . . of playing a good game.’

We know this is not Pessoa’s own view. It is one ‘diametrically opposed’ to what he really thinks. Octavio Paz, in his introduction to A Centenary Pessoa, lists what he feels are Pessoa’s particular contributions (page 17) to ‘spiritual understanding, the highest and most difficult form of understanding:’ these are ‘sympathy; intuition; intelligence; comprehension; and the most difficult, grace.’ Not then an attitude likely to agree with Reis and his chess players.

The freedom from the restraint of his own perspective that Reis gives him enables him to produce a deeply disturbing experience for the reader of a particularly conscious and deliberate variation of the callous indifference we see almost everywhere that colludes with atrocity by means of distraction. To write a sermonising polemic would not have been half as effective.

In the persona of Álvaro de Campos we see the same problem from quite another angle in Martial Ode, where he conveys how it feels to be implicated in atrocity even if only by our failure to prevent it (page 107):

Yes, I was to blame for it all, I was the soldier – all of them –
Who killed, raped, and smashed,
I and my shame and my remorse with a misshapen shadow
Walked all over the world like Ahasueros[1]

His sense of exile also resonates with me (page 94):

I go to the window and see the street as an absolute clarity.
I see the shops, I see the pavements, I see passing cars,
I see living beings in clothes in each other’s way,
I see dogs that also exist,
And all this weighs on me like being condemned to exile,
I know this is foreign, like everything.

This is rooted in different aspects of his life than mine, as he was twice uprooted during the crucial years of identity development and something so radical has never been my test, but even so I tend to stand emotionally at the edge of things and watch almost but not quite from the outside. My sister’s death before I was born, which haunted my earliest years, and the two hospitalisations before I went to school, were my prompts towards cautious alienation, which it has taken decades to undo, albeit partially.

Perhaps that’s why I also empathise strongly with the sense of emptiness he so powerfully conveys. His poems testify to the challenging problem for him of deciding who he was (page 94):

My heart is an empty bucket.
As those who call up spirits I call up
Myself and there is nothing there.

This obviously relates to the multiple identities he created to express aspects of his being. It also foreshadows the increasing awareness as the century progressed of the uncertainty that surrounds our identity, how multifaceted it seems and yet how elusive is any sense of a core Self, a ground of being, upon which we can stand more securely to confront the tests of experience.

My exploration of psychosis and spirituality may be shedding further light on this problem (Neil Douglas Klotz in Psychosis and Spirituality edited by Isabel Clarke – page 60):

Without [a] gathering or witnessing awareness, which is intimately tied up with the body’s proprioceptive awareness, the subconscious self . . . splits into a multiplicity of discordant voices forgetful of the divine Unity (the source of all ‘I am-ness’).

I am still only a short way into my re-exploration of this complex and powerful poet, whose lonely existence, rendered tolerable but also significantly shortened by alcohol, echoes so hauntingly across the decades between us.

I may return to this theme after I have gone further in my exploration of psychosis. I’ve tried not to let this interest in Pessoa distract me too much from that task and it may be more closely linked than I had at first suspected. It’s hard to keep so many keen interests in balance!

Footnote:

[1] Ahasueros: biblical tyrant, husband of Esther.

He wasn’t there again today v3

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