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Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

 

The Wheel of Being (My idea of ‘how’ to approach experience)

I thought that the poetic element was not the word in its phonic value, nor colour, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep pulsing of spirit: what the soul supplies, if it does supply anything; or what it says, if it says anything, when aroused to response by contact with the world.

(Antonio Machado, quoted in Alan S. Trueblood’s Selected Poems – page 7)

Given my recent triggering to go back yet again to David Gascoyne’s poetry I couldn’t resist republishing this short sequence.

As a result of the trigger described in the last post, yet again I come to the same kind of realization, of an insight into the importance of the heart, so recently diluted yet again by my habitual over-emphasis on left-brain pragmatics and planning.

Pattern-Breaking 

As  I have indicated in the previous post in more detail, I’ve been here before. This poem explored similar material to that which I am about to explore but from a more tentative angle.

On 6th January I scribbled in my portable black notebook:

Having worked out ‘how’ I want to do whatever I am doing, it looks as though I have been catapulted into being reminded of ‘what’ I need to bring more into focus. The book sent to me in the aftermath of an energizing conversation in Panchagani, with its themes of Rumi, poetry and The 40 Rules of Love, has forced me to recognize that spiritual poetry is something I need to read and if humanly (or do I mean Hulmanly?) possible write to keep my life in balance: at least that’s what it looks like right now.

Later I followed this up by writing:

The 40 Rules of Love parallels almost exactly my encounter all those years ago with the dancing flames dream itself and more recently with the rediscovery of my dream notes and the consequent epiphany, which I kept consistently discounting in the aftermath. In some way, because of the prolonged discounting, its impact this time has been even more powerful.

How am I going to break this pattern by which my left brain pragmatism and obsession with being useful keeps stifling my poetic heart until it almost dies. I must never let this happen again. I must keep poetry and song much closer. . .   I can get carried away with practicalities and fail to keep the two kinds of operation in balance as I am convinced the Faith would have me do.

And I am following this up by drafting this blog post to the strains of Beethoven in spite of the pressure to draft the minutes of a conference call yesterday.

I have now had three powerful reminders – the dancing flames dream, the hearth dream and now The Forty Rules of Love – to emphasise how important poetry is to my spirituality, to nurturing my heart. Maybe my recent enthusiastic and rather protracted exploration of the poetic style of Virginia Woolf’s late novels was nudging me in this direction but I failed to realise it by convincing myself that my focus was on consciousness – not that I have lost my interest in consciousness, I hasten to add.

Let’s hope it’s third time lucky!

Revisiting Gascoyne

But I badly need a plan. And it’s a plan that is going to need my left-brain on side. Usually, whenever I’m immersed in music, art or poetry, especially of the kind that is not immediately comprehensible, I can feel the fingers of my left-brain tapping impatiently on my skull. If that side of my mind doesn’t buy into the plan, its impatience will sink it, not just because it will be a distracting presence at the back of my mind, but also because I sense that I am too identified with my pragmatic and prosaic side. A tough bit of disidentification work and heartfelt persuasion is going to be needed to get that part of me on board. (Incidentally, this may go some way towards explaining my distaste for modernist poetry. It has little emotional appeal, so my right-brain’s not interested, and it usually doesn’t make any immediate sense, so both sides of my brain switch off.)

For now though, I am at least sticking to the spiritual poetry plan of reading and re-reading the books of that kind on my shelves as time permits, not at the expense of other priorities but persistently and mindfully.

Revisiting David Gascoyne is proving very rewarding. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to keep focused and remain fully aware that spiritual poetry is something that really matters. It will be easy to forget that this may be a key to help me bring all parts of my being to bear on experience and my responses to it, and that it may be telegraphing one of the most important things I am meant to be doing with my time from now on, not to the obsessional exclusion of everything else, but not to be sacrificed for anything else either, if I am to bring out the best in myself and become more integrated, unified, standing on the ground of my being rather than floating on the surface of my mind.

So, how is reading Gascoyne helping?

The introduction to my edition of his Collected Poems (edited by Robin Skelton) may help explain that. The comment I quote follows on from the editor’s outline of Gascoyne’s concept of the role of the poet as both ‘seer’ and ‘victim.’ He writes (page xiii):

This is a simplified interpretation, but it makes it easier to see how Gascoyne’s romanticism, left-wing sympathies, surrealist tendencies, and concern to explore deep into the world of dream, obsession, and suffering, could lead him towards a fundamentally religious poetry.

This is not done with arrogance or fanaticism. Skelton quotes from a poem I still remembered from my first reading of Gascoyne in 1982, just before I began to tread the Bahá’í path.

Before I fall
Down silent finally, I want to make
One last attempt at utterance, and tell
How my absurd desire was to compose
A single poem with my mental eyes
Wide open, and without even one lapse
From that most scrupulous Truth which I pursue
When not pursuing Poetry, – Perhaps
Only the poem I can never write is true.

As I began to read my way through the later pages of this collection I began to wonder whether I had seriously underestimated the influence of his poems on my eventual decision to tread the Bahá’í path. If poetry can do something so fundamentally important, it has clearly been a mistake to sideline it as severely as I have done at times.

I have always been aware of Peter Koestenbaum’s influence and have drawn attention to it many times in these posts. I feel I have done Gascoyne an injustice that I now want to correct.

Graham Sutherland – sketch for the Crucifixion

What really set me thinking in this way was re-reading a poem from which I have always remembered key lines but whose whole context had slipped into partial oblivion. I say ‘partial’ because re-reading it strongly suggested that it had continued to influence me in its entirety, not just by the few lines I remembered consciously.

The poem is ‘Ecce Homo.’ Only once on this blog before today have I mentioned this poet, and that was to quote, without comment, from this poem.

Not from a monstrance silver-wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man’s long journey through the night
May not be in vain.

And yet there is so much else I could have quoted from just that one poem, let alone the rest of his work. He speaks of us as ‘Callous contemporaries of the slow/Torture of God.’ He obviously has in mind the toxic ideologies of his time when he speaks of ‘Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,’ who ‘Greet one another with raised-arm salutes,’ but what he wrote resonates still, I feel. A key stanza reads:

He who wept for Jerusalem
Now sees His prophecy extend
Across the greatest cities of the world,
A guilty panic reason cannot stem
Rising to raze them all as he foretold . . .

Why do I think he might have influenced my attraction to the Bahá’í Faith?

Well, in this same poem he asserts that ‘The turning point in history/Must come.’ And, writing still under the shadow of war he speaks (The Post-war Night) of how far we are from realizing ‘the innate sense/Of human destiny that we are born with.’ He defines this as ‘truly our aim on earth: one God-ruled globe,/Finally unified, at peace, free to create!’

Does that thought ring any bells among my readers?

The status quo will continue, he felt, as long as we remain ‘Comfortably compromised collusionists.’

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

He speaks to the artist in particular (The Artist) as having a crucial role in reversing this process, ‘by offering your flesh/As sacrifice to the Void’s mouth in your own breast!’ There is some hope in terms of the wider society (A Vagrant) in that many of us are ‘gnawed by’ our ‘knowledge of [society’s] lack of raison d’être.’ He wryly admits that ‘The city’s lack and mine are much the same.’

Perhaps it goes without saying that he does not have a conventional or simplistic view of religion (Fragments towards a Religio Poetae – Stanza 7):

Really religious people are rarely looked upon as such
By those to whom religion is secretly something unreal;
And those the world regards as extremely religious people
Are generally people to whom the living God will seem at first
an appalling scandal;
Just as Jesus seemed a dangerously subversive Sabbath-breaker
Whom only uneducated fisherman, tavern talkers and a few
blue-stockings of dubious morals
Were likely after all to take very seriously,
To the most devoutly religious people in Jerusalem in Jesus’s day.

There is much more to his poetry than this, including his subtle and unnerving way of describing how minds work and how adept we are at avoiding uncomfortable truths, but this is probably enough for now.

It is certainly enough to spur me on not only to finishing my re-reading of this collection, but also to embarking on revisiting many more of the long-ignored volumes of spiritual poetry on my shelves. To my surprise this has taken the shape of carefully re-reading the poems of Antonio Machado. Progress is slow as I’m not just relying on Trueblood’s excellent translations: I’m reanimating the corpse of my long neglected Spanish to soak up the sounds and the sense of the originals. More of that in due course, I hope.

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My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly – . . . . I see something . . . . quite different from the masterly reproduction of the materials, something quite different from light and brown, something quite different from the colour – yet that something quite different is achieved by the precise rendering of the light effect, the material, the colour.

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 272)

When we return to Davis’ book, The Transferred Life of George Eliot, the idea of humans as divided beings, and the need for the novel to capture that, soon follow:[1]

 . . . she who was not a character at unity with herself could become a writer who, even so, could do right by both sides.

Given my parliament of selves, I think he should have said ‘all’ sides, unless the comment is restricting itself to the hemisphere spilt discussed in the previous post. Anyway, I get his basic point.

The Ego

The battle to escape from such limitations was tough:[2]

. . . . even the desire to get out of the ego – that point of view from which she must experience everything that affected her – was still expressed within it.

The idea of the ego constraining our understanding just as a lens can limit or distort our vision echoes the limitations analytic verbal understanding imposes upon what we can grasp intuitively in the holistic right hemisphere.

A critical insight for George Eliot involved moving outwards from a sense that pleasing oneself was ‘the central necessity of the universe.’[3] Transitioning to adulthood involved for her a recognition of her ‘own self-centredness’ alongside imagining ‘the equivalent centre within others simultaneously.’  She found in her fiction what[4]  ‘could best depict the achievement of a sudden, unlikely human connection.’ Critical to her being able to transcend her ego in this way ‘was her power of identification’[5], ie with others not just with herself.

She used the term ‘transhumanation’ to capture the way ‘great value in a person or a work or an idea could expand the powers of those who received it beyond what they could normally command.’[6]

Much later in his exploration, Davis makes a point that is relevant to bring in here:[7]

A ‘not-herself’ took dramatic possession of her best writing and she felt her own personality to be no more than an instrument through which this spirit was acting.

This suggests that another factor is at work, possibly one related to the hemispheric issue touched on in the previous post, or perhaps something that goes deeper.

Transliminality

Davis quotes Myers[8]:

The genius among human kind . . . is one who possesses a readier communication between supraliminal and subliminal forces than most ordinary people can achieve.

We’ve been here before with Virginia Woolf. Her diaries confirm what at least two of her novels suggest: that there was a degree of transliminality about her consciousness. Things kept bubbling up from below its threshold. These could occur at any time:[9]

But how entirely I live in my imagination; how completely depend upon spurts of thought, coming as I walk, as I sit; things shining up in my mind and so making a perpetual pageant, which is to be my happiness.

The work itself drew her ever deeper. Concerning the writing of Mrs Dalloway she wrote:[10]

. . . it seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world. . .

One thing, in considering my state of mind now, seems to be beyond dispute; that I have, at last, bored down into my oil well, and can’t scribble fast enough to bring it all to the surface.

Fishing is the metaphor she settled on at one point to describe it:[11]

She talked about the creative process, describing it as one of apparent inertia, of “mooning”, in which the artist as fisherwoman lets herself “down into the depths of her consciousness”, surrendering herself to “the mysterious nosing about, feelings around, darts and dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and elusive fish the imagination.’

What this meant in practice, for George Eliot, was that the novelist becomes like the universal consciousness of Kastrup’s theory. Through the benefits of subliminal inspiration, they come to know more about their own character and can seek to capture what the characters don’t about the inner states of other characters than themselves, and what they often don’t even know about themselves. They can become an omniscient novelist.

As Davis puts it:[12]

‘George Eliot’ may begin as a commenting persona or an anonymous narrator but her existence in the novels was increasingly that of a language-presence which came out of her abstracting from the characters all that they could not say or could not think or could not be, holding that for them when there was no other vehicle or home.

This is not necessarily an arrogant didactic know-it-all position[13]  ‘under her pen . . . the secular realist novel’ did not ‘have in advance a clear final aim – precisely because of its inner search for such a thing, through its character struggles.’

However, with the onset of Modernism this approach was much disparaged. What came to be valued was the capturing of the inner consciousness of the characters with no sense of a know-it-all author nudging us to understand the larger reality.

I’ve explored this ambition at some length on this blog already, so I’ll just summarise the main points here.

The picture Julia Briggs paints in Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life is a helpful starting point. She feels that[14] ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.”’ She feels that:[15]

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…

This does not do justice to the 19th Century novel. For example, what Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate their novels fairly consistently through the eyes of one of the characters, rather than in their own voice.

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) – containing the much admired example of stream of consciousness writing.

In Mrs Dalloway[16] Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room[17] ‘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[18] ‘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.’

As a result of this perspective, it became irresistibly tempting for me to assume that this was the benchmark by which to judge a modern novel and possibly dismiss most 19th century versions as deeply flawed, though I was never able to be completely comfortable with this conclusion.

The question I find myself raising now is whether, given that the consciousness of most characters in a novel is narrow and flawed, and even the sum total of all their consciousnesses does not embrace the whole of accessible reality, can any novel confining itself to the inscape of its characters, even if it includes some of their many interactions with the world, convey to us anything remotely approaching the whole truth about the nature of our social, natural and spiritual reality. Would that mean I was grossly underestimating the value of the omniscient narrator?

I will continue to reflect on that question, giving myself time, I hope to revisit more of George Eliot’s novels, and take another look at Virginia Woolf.

It’s only fair to add here at the very end that George Eliot would almost certainly not have appreciated her work as a novelist being even remotely compared to Kastrup’s Universal Consciousness, dissociated alters notwithstanding, as Davis makes clear when he describes her reaction to the work that Myers was doing in the field of parapsychology:[19]

‘Do you understand,’ George Eliot said to him plainly one day, ‘that the triumph of what you believe would mean the worthlessness of all that my life has been spent in teaching?’… Virtue for her had no otherworldly rewards.

Footnotes

[1]. Page 30 (unless otherwise stated all quotations are from The Transferred Life of George Eliot .
[2]. Page 53.
[3]. Page 53.
[4]. Page 56.
[5]. Page 57.
[6]. Page 58.
[7]. Pages 228-29.
[8]. Page 168.
[9]. A Writer’s Diary – page 67.
[10]. A Writer’s Diary – pages 69-74.
[11]. A Writer’s Diary  – page 271.
[12]. Page 271.
[13]. Page 264.
[14]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 77.
[15]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 93.
[16]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 132.
[17]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 133.
[18]. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life – page 164.
[19]. Page 265.

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Question: What do you say regarding the theory of the evolution of beings to which certain European philosophers subscribe?

Answer. . . . Briefly, this question comes down to the originality or non-originality of the species, that is, whether the essence of the human species was fixed from the very origin or whether it subsequently came from the animals.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Some Answered Questions – 2014 edition – page 220,  quoted from the earlier edition in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief edited by Keven Brown – page 45)

A friend recommended I read Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver.

‘If you only read one book in the next 12 months, let it be this one,’ he insisted.

To be honest, of late I’ve not taken much pleasure in novels. I’m a bit stuck in the past. Apart from Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much,in recent days I’ve usually drawn a blank with anything later than Virginia Woolf.

Not so this time though.

I recently battled to define the balance successful novels need to strike if they are to hold the reader’s attention. For me, they should ideally combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in the memory. If authors stray too far from some form of narrative it is possible they might diminish the long-term impact of their books on the reader. From the reviews I skimmed Unsheltered looked like it would manage to avoid that trap.

I checked that my local Waterstones had a copy and dashed down there to get it. I hadn’t much time before I was due to meet my wife in town. I scanned all the shelves and was frustrated not to be able to find it anywhere.

There was an irritating queue at the counter. I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes to go. I slotted in at the back of the queue.

‘Thank you for your help,’ the woman at the front enthused, as she struggled with her bags, purse and cards.

‘I’m really looking forward to reading this,’ she droned on as she was forcing the book into a spare corner of her M&S bag, dropping her points card on the floor as she did so.

With relief I saw her pick up her card, stuff it back into her wallet and stagger out of the shop with her bags.

The person in front handed over his paperback and was gone in seconds, thank God.

‘Can I help?’ the familiar face behind the till enquired, her hand poised over the keyboard as I approached with my notebook in hand. She knew me well enough to realise she might have an online search on her hands.

‘I hope so,’ I smiled. ‘I’m looking for Kingsolver’s Unsheltered,’ I explained. ‘It says on your website you’ve got it here but I couldn’t find it anywhere. It’s not on the new stack or the main novels section.’

I took a quick look behind me to see if anyone was waiting. Thankfully no one was. I’d’ve been as irritating as the bag lady if there had been, blethering as I was.

‘I’ll just check for you. I won’t be a moment.’

She headed straight for the new stack I’d just searched carefully through.

She found it within seconds.

‘So it wasn’t stored in alphabetical order,’ I said, feeling slightly embarrassed as it had obviously been in plain sight.

‘No, we stack them in order of priority. We put the best ones near the top.’

‘Ah! I’ll try and remember that next time.’

‘Do you want to buy it?’

Usually I would scan a £20 book before risking a purchase, but there was no time for that.

‘I do,’ I said at the same time as wondering whether this might be a big mistake.

‘Do you need a bag?’

‘No, I’ve got one here.’

I had my points card and my cash in hand, paid for the book, picked it up, shoving my receipt hastily inside, fumbled it into the Waterstones bag I always carried with me and hurried to the exit. Time was running out, and so should I.

. . . .

I couldn’t wait to get home. I didn’t contradict my wife when she supposed I had work to do. There was work, it was true, but I wanted to squeeze in an extra few moments to taste the opening pages.

At first I thought I might have made a mistake. The opening didn’t grip me as I’d hoped. Dialogues about the state of a building aren’t my cup of tea. I had to get on with my work at this point and found it hard to stop beating myself up for wasting my money again by buying in haste a book I didn’t like.

As soon as I could, I beat a retreat to an armchair with a coffee and the book. I needed to find out if I’d thrown my money away.

Within 13 pages I was hooked. A death is almost bound to get my attention. I could barely put it down. Every spare moment after that I stepped back into the double worlds of this enthralling novel. The stepping between the past and present reminded me of A S Byatt’s Possession, though the themes are different. Kingsolver is more concerned with how the two periods in history echo each other: bigotry, inequality, denialism and so on.

In terms of the nineteenth century story line, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the passionate resistance to it are a main thread. In terms of the twentieth century it’s our similar and far more potentially threatening commitment to unsustainable economic growth.

Either way it matches my current preoccupations since the cruise by emphasising from early on our connection with nature. Mary Treat tries to convey to Thatcher Greenwood what sustains her relationship with plants (page 83):

‘I become attached, you see. After so many months with these plants, observing them intimately, I begin to feel as if we are of the same world.’

‘But you are of the same world, of course.’

Within four days of buying it I had finished it. I was scribbling in my diary quotes from the closing chapters, so I wouldn’t forget them.

The moment, for example, when Thatcher, the main character from the nineteenth century, an invention of the author, refrains from telling Mary Treat, a real-life courageous female pioneering scientist of the time and respected correspondent of Darwin’s, that ‘he could see her soul. It was a giant redwood.’

This had not been the first such quote. Willa, the main contemporary character, ‘looked at the oak over their heads. Its trunk was a monument to resilience and its branches to tenderness.’ That resonates with the part of me that wrote the poem Oak in Winter.

Also in September I published on this blog a sequence about becoming an Ent. I wrote:

I came to feel a powerful affinity with trees. It was as though at some deep level I feel as though I am a tree, an image of myself I need to hold onto. It represents patiently and resiliently operating in a long time scale, rooted in the earth but reaching after the sun – in effect constituting a kind of bridge between earth and heaven, something we all have the potential to be.

What makes the book so marvellous for me is that it brings together both that aspect of my inner life and my reactions to the society we live in. For example, towards the end of the book, Tig, Willa’s daughter declares vehemently, ‘The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell.’

Now that I have finished the book, and am experiencing that strangely bereft feeling that comes when you can’t step back into the fascinating world of a superb fiction, I find myself taking stock.

I thought I had made it clear to myself that from now hearticulture is my calling. I thought that would make it easy to decide what I needed to do and what would be a waste of time.

‘Was reading novels like this a waste of time?’ I found myself thinking. ‘You told yourself you’d focus on poetry.’

‘Well, yes,’ I replied to myself. ‘But compared to this most of the poetry I’ve got on my shelves is boring. I only really like about half a dozen poets and the rest I rarely look at.’

‘And anyway,’ another part of my head chipped in, ‘Wading through too much poetry wouldn’t be much better than drowning yourself in novels.’

The words of Unsheltered came back to me again, ones I’d resonated to almost in tears as I read them the first time: ‘Mary had lived with her discipline. Both of them had, she and Thatcher, with an integrity that led them to give up, practically speaking, their lives. . . Willa ached for a devotion like that, something to move her beyond herself.’

I began to wonder whether all this might be a sign that I wasn’t completely on board with my hearticulture plan in the context of my Bahá’í convictions, as I’d fooled myself into believing I had. Was I now calling my calling into question? Perhaps I still haven’t found out what, given my current levels of energy, I should be focusing my time on for the rest of my life, over and above the obvious commitments I have.

Where was all this taking me?

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

At the end of the previous post I indicated that the helicopter view of the lives and art of Proust and Beckett leaves us with a number of serious questions. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete. I’ll try and tackle this now.

Cronin BeckettIs it out of balance?

Some people certainly thought so (Page 450 – Cronin):

[Arnold] Toynbee alleged that what Beckett had done was to carry ‘his despair and disgust to the ultimate limits of expression – indeed beyond them.

. . .  by continuing to live, and still more by continuing to write, the author refuted his own message and it is no use saying, in such a case, that we must not confuse the creator with the creature and so on. This book [Molloy] is a serious statement or a personal attitude or it is nothing. I am inclined to think that it is nothing.’

Toynbee was on surer artistic ground perhaps 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.’

He’s singing from basically the same hymn sheet as François Mauriac here, speaking Night at the Majesticabout Proust (pages 200-01 – A Night at the Majestic):

One feels that Sodom and Gomorrah are confused with the entire universe. A single saintly figure would be enough to re-establish the balance. . . . ‘God is terribly absent from Marcel Proust’s work,’ he lamented in a major assessment that he published a fortnight after Proust’s death.

Mauriac later shared a similar caveat about Beckett (page 540 – A Night at the Majestic).

Richard Davenport-Hines quotes Claudel about Proust (page 200): ‘It’s the light of God that shows the best of human nature, and not, as in Proust, the phosphorescence of decomposition’ along similar lines as Anthony Cronin quotes Tynan about Beckett (page 466):

Tynan described the sort of pessimism displayed as ‘not only the projection of personal sickness but a conclusion reached on inadequate evidence.’ He was ready to believe, he said, ‘that the world is a stifling, constricted place,’ but not if his informant was “an Egyptian mummy.’

LehrerRooted in Reductionism?

If we accept Lehrer’s depictions of Virginia Woolf and Proust, as quoted in the first post of this sequence, then the bleakness of the visions we are encountering here might have its roots in the soil of a radical reductionism.

Our ‘ever-changing impressions’ (page 172) ‘are held together by the thin veneer of identity’ and (page 176):’ the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the “unified soul“ simply because we didn’t have one.’  He concludes that (page 182):

The self is simply a work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity.

If so, is there any need to adversely judge these works on the grounds of a materialistic perspective, no matter how skillfully that is depicted?

Cronin thinks not (page 482)

[At a symposium in response to criticisms from Brien, Cronin] replied that where art was concerned, one truthfully expressed vision as good as another; that this truth is seldom anything but partial except in the case of one or two very great, very inclusive artists, such as Shakespeare; but that even such a partial vision had immense value if its truth had never been encompassed before. This argument still seems to me to be central to a defence of Beckett, if defence is needed.

To get even close to explaining why I think materialistically biased accounts of human experience, even if honestly corresponding to the felt experience of the writer, are not only dispiriting but false, I have to rehash some old material. In doing so I will share other reductionist views so as not to fudge the difficulty of the issue.

Buddha BrainA Spiritual Perspective

Hanson and Mendius in The Buddha’s Brain have a fair bit to say about the nature of the self. At one level it doesn’t particularly challenge my core beliefs, even though the writers themselves do not accept the existence of anything like a soul as a source of self (page 204):

. . . now we come to perhaps the single greatest source of suffering – and therefore to what is most important to be wise about: the apparent self. . . . When you’re immersed in the flow of life rather than standing apart from it, when ego and egotism fade to the background – then you feel more peaceful and fulfilled.

What’s the problem with that? Most ethically minded people, whether theists or not, regard the ego with great suspicion. But problems then begin to creep in whose full degree of dissonance needs unpacking (page 206):

Paradoxically, the less your “I” is here, the happier you are. Or, as both Buddhist monks and inmates on death row sometimes say: “No self, no problem.”

What exactly do they mean by ‘no self’? Is that no self at all, of any kind? Well, maybe. We need to look at various other expressions they use before looking at what an atheist practitioner of Buddhist meditation thinks it means.

First of all, they explain (page 213): ‘It’s not so much that we have a self, it’s that we do self-ing.’ More than that, they feel we should (page 214): . . . try to keep remembering that who you are as a person – dynamic, intertwined with the world – is more alive, interesting, capable, and remarkable than any self.’ And most dismissively of all they describe the self as (page 215) ‘simply an arising mental pattern that’s not categorically different from or better than any other mind-object.’ That sounds familiar.

Sam Harris meditation pic v2

For source of adapted image see link

While there is a sense that they are slightly hedging their bets here, Sam Harris is not so coy about the matter. In his fascinating article – An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality– he pushes the boundaries somewhat further:

Indeed, the conventional sense of self is an illusion—and spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.

To illustrate the moment when this can be experienced he refers to the ‘awakening’ of Ramana Maharshi(1879– 1950), ‘arguably the most widely revered Indian sage of the 20th century.’

While sitting alone in his uncle’s study, Ramana suddenly became paralyzed by a fear of death. He lay down on the floor, convinced that he would soon die, but rather than remaining terrified, he decided to locate the self that was about to disappear. He focused on the feeling of “I”—a process he later called “self inquiry”—and found it to be absent from the field of consciousness. Ramana the person didn’t die that day, but he claimed that the feeling of being a separate self never darkened his consciousness again.

Ramana described his conclusion from this by saying at one point:

The mind is a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is the thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.

Though Ramana’s disciple, Poonja-Ji, had a great impact on Sam Harris, there was a teacher who made an even greater impression: ‘Another teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, had a lasting effect on me.’

What he feels he learnt from Tulku Urgyen he describes with dramatic clarity:

The genius of Tulku Urgyen was that he could point out the nature of mind with the precision and matter-of-factness of teaching a person how to thread a needle and could get an ordinary meditator like me to recognize that consciousness is intrinsically free of self. There might be some initial struggle and uncertainty, depending on the student, but once the truth of nonduality had been glimpsed, it became obvious that it was always available— and there was never any doubt about how to see it again. I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.

He unpacks its implications in the light of subsequent practice:

This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering—fear, anger, shame—in an instant. At my level of practice, this freedom lasts only a few moments. But these moments can be repeated, and they can grow in duration. Punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference. In fact, when I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows. That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however, I’m as confused as anyone else.

For Harris as an atheist one of the greatest benefits of his assisted experience, he believed, was that he did not have to accept any of the ‘baggage’ of the religion in whose context these insights and practices had been generated – he could make sense of the experience in his own way. I’m not so sure it was really as simple as that.

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

More of that in the final post of this sequence.

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Cronin Beckett

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

At the end of the last post there was a pointer to suggest that it would not be wise to adopt a simplistic approach to Beckett, the man. Cronin, his biographer, had met met Beckett and what he found surprised him (pages 478-79) because ‘the powerful impact of his work’ conveyed ‘an impression of rejection of the world’s affairs and even of its comforts, a sardonic asceticism if not quite a saintly resignation.’ In addition, ‘there was a growing legend of an enigma, a solitary who despised or was indifferent to the joys, such as they were, of ordinary human association.’ And what happened? Cronin states ‘I met instead an agreeable, courteous, indeed almost affable man.’

There does seem a consensus, though, that his later writings at least are unremittingly bleak.

Beckett

The dark side of Beckett’s life was very much reflected in his work.

At the very beginning, when Beckett was transitioning from religion to writing, there was a soon to be eradicated tinge of transcendence (page 147):

[Of his book on Proust Cronin writes that] Although this opportunity to attribute a transcendental belief to Proust is passed up there is certainly a general impression of an attitude to art which partakes of a sort of religious fervour, or rather an attempt to make a sort of surrogate religion art. This attempt is not uncommon among hitherto religious young people who discover art at the same time as they are in the process of abandoning religion.

It didn’t take long before his inherent pessimism kicked this into touch (page 307):

In his vision at its starkest, nothing really changes. As one cause succeeds another, calling for meaningless loyalties and betrayals, we get deeper into the mire. ‘We belong to suffering,’ [says one of his characters].

This was made even more painful in what he saw (page 398) ‘as the artist’s special burden and torment, the categorical imperative to create when combined with the impossibility of creation.’ The effect of this take on creativity was not all bad though (page 374) in the sense that ‘in the work of no other author does hatred for the necessity of creating a fiction shine through so clearly or is the detestation of that necessity expressed with so mordant a wit.’

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.’

Perhaps the most important factor in shaping Beckett’s art was his insight, after his unpublished early work, that (page 359) ‘instead of writing about that exterior world he should have written about the inner world, with its darkness, its ignorance, its uncertainty.’

Beckett playsOthers, such as Proust, Joyce and Woolf, made the same choice, without ending up in the same place as Beckett did. His decision carried other complicating factors that impacted upon the pattern of his writing:

From this point on there would be an entire abandonment of pretence of any kind, including the ordinary fictive pretences of plot, a total renunciation of all certainties, including philosophic certainties of any kind; and there would instead be a reiteration of ignorance, a restitution to their rightful place in his work of the uncertainties and confusion of which life was made up.

This almost inevitably meant that ‘the mode for such a reiteration and restitution would be the only possible one: first person monologue.’

The bleak legacy of his vision of life did not stop there (page 364): ‘something else would now be banished besides plot and description – something that might be called the hope of salvation.’ And this banishment was unqualified (page 365 – my emphasis) for ‘in the novels and plays Beckett was to write there would be neither the hope nor the fear of any outcome.… Nobody would be found wanting because all Beckett’s characters have already been found wanting. There is no hope for them.’

Cronin 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 seems to accept that life is as meaningless as Beckett felt it was. We’re in the realm of extreme existentialism here: life is meaningless even though we cannot help creating meanings to help us live.

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.

Even at this point, such a position runs into serious problems. For example, Cronin lauds Beckett for his honourable uncertainty. Such a degree of uncertainty would be incompatible with a belief that all is meaningless. We may not be able to reach a firm conclusion that there is a meaning and decide definitely what that meaning is, but we would similarly not be able to conclude there is no meaning at all. A secondary problem is that someone’s position of stoic nihilism dismisses the rest of us as deluded and contains more than a hint of arrogance. I am all in favour of Keats’ doctrine of ‘negative capability’ and the need to resist ‘irritably reaching after fact,’ but that is not the same thing as nihilism at all. I will be returning to an examination of this later in the sequence.

Beckett Novels

It is interesting that Rilke, one of my solitarios, confronted his inner emptiness and, according to Robert Hass in his introduction to the Stephen Mitchell translations of the poems (page xvi), sought ‘to find, in art, a way to transform the emptiness, the radical deficiency, of human longing into something else.’

Probably the simplest summing up comes towards the end of the book (page 451) When Cronin writes that, in a review, René Lalou lists those critics ‘who had been among the first to hail Waiting for Godot’and ‘proclaim the value of this tragedy of despair not even lit by a glimmer of consciousness.’ Lalou referred to Beckett’s ‘constant use of monologue as an artistic technique, his implacably pessimistic vision and his insistence on the degrading functions of the human body.’

A few additional points may again be worth making.

The first of these paves the way towards Proust (page 182)

. . . few things are more striking about Beckett than his willingness to abandon himself to the life of memory, both in young manhood and later on. Most of the events of life may have been ‘occasions of fiasco’ as they occurred; but the subsequent remembrance of them was nevertheless more tolerable than present existence could ever be.

The second simply amplifies on the dilemma residing in his persistent creativity in the face of his sceptical pessimism (page 375): ‘ The object of the fiction must be truth of some sort; but by definition it is necessarily a lie.’

The last idea points to where he is absolutely different from Proust (page 376):

He yearned for silence, the blank white page, the most perfect thing of all. . . [He felt] more intensely than others that the object of true, achieved and necessary utterance is silence…

The consequence of this being that (pages 376-77) ‘his works would after a certain point get shorter and shorter.’

Night at the MajesticProust

Proust’s relationship with his writing was perceived by his contemporaries as damaging (page 284) in that Dr Maurice Bize felt that ‘Proust was killing himself by overwork,’ and he is reported to have said to his servant, Céleste, (page 303) ‘only when I have finished my work, will I start looking after myself.’ This attitude extended to the minor aspects of self-care as well. Jaloux (page 304) spoke of Proust’s ‘miserable little under-furnished room that testified to his indifference to comfort.’ François Mauriac expressed it rather dramatically in saying (page 305) ‘We must reflect on the extraordinary fate of a creator who was devoured by his own creation…’

His aim was to focus almost exclusively on his writing after his mother’s death (page 83) when he:

sought (during the seventeen years of life that remained to him) to confine himself in a Noah’s Ark of his own devising. . . His life in the Ark helped to preserve the immediacy of his vision of people, objects and sensations.

He (page 91) ‘believed it was the only way he could discover the meaning beneath appearances: that is, to create great art.’

His most celebrated contribution to the novel are his madeleine moments, when a sensation such as taste can trigger a flood of memories (page 98):

These sudden intuitions of a moment are presented with pictorial vividness, and were intended to be as beautiful and suggestive as Old Master paintings… [They] were tantamount to a series of religious revelations, as Middleton Murray wrote in a tribute after Proust’s death, ‘this modern of the moderns . . . had a mystical strain in his composition.

In that sense he is inspiring the work of Joyce, Beckett and Woolf, fellow explorers of the recesses of consciousness.

LehrerJonah Lehrer, in his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, focuses his discussion of Proust particularly on this part of his legacy. He explains that Proust (page 77) believed that ‘only the artist was able to describe reality as it was actually experienced’ and that (page 78) ‘the nineteenth century novel, with its privileging of things over thoughts, had everything exactly backward.’ Proust had concluded that (page 81) ‘only by meticulously retracing the loom of our neural connections… can we understand ourselves, for we are our loom, adding that ‘Proust gleaned all of this wisdom from an afternoon tea.’

Proust was ahead of his time, Lehrer argues, in other ways as well. He believed that (page 82) ‘our recollections were phoney. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications. Take the madeleine. Proust realised that the moment we finished eating the cookie,… we begin working the memory of the cookie to fit our own personal narrative.’ Lehrer contends that (page 85) ‘Proust presciently anticipated the discovery of memory reconsolidation. For him, memories were like sentences: they were things you never stopped changing.’ Lehrer quotes the incontrovertible evidence that our memories are subject to constant editing and reediting.

Richard Davenport-Hines essentially concurs (page 128), quoting Proust when he wrote ‘the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths…’

There are other characteristics of Proust’s art that need adding into this mix. Davenport-Hines feels (page 103) that:

Temps Perdu is the work of an implacable and often anguished moralist who scorned the ways that people‘s conversation and behaviour were usually directed, regardless of their class, by neither the desire to be good nor to be truthful, but by the wish to affirm by their words the sort of people they wanted to be taken for.

He clinically dissects his contemporary world (page 104) ‘in scenes of social comedy and of moral tragedy.’ Proust exposed ‘the babbling, hypocritical, corrupt, decadent tendencies – the negative mass psychology – of his secularised age.’

Davenport-Hines sees Proust’s treatment of homosexuality as a trope (page 139) in that ‘Temps Perdu. . . placed homosexuality more centrally in human experience than any previous novel or treatise, and used it to demonstrate the degenerative squalor of human emotions,’ and used it as (page 183) ‘a secularised representation of humankind‘s fall from grace.’ It was a brave move to make at that point in history, and Proust was anxious about its impact on the acceptance of his novel and his own reputation after the publication of the fourth volume of his sequence. His choice would be viewed rather differently were he writing now.

His jaundiced view of humanity was not confined to sexuality though, it seems (page 216) given that, as Davenport-Hines argues ‘his interests focused on degenerative processes. His fiction is a prolonged study of class degeneration, of moral degeneration and of physical degeneration.’

This helicopter view of their lives and art leaves us with a number of serious questions. These will have to wait till next time. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete.

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VirginiaWoolf

[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

In a previous sequence of posts I came to the tentative conclusion that Virginia Woolf was attempting, in her later fiction, to capture our consciousness as effectively as she could in words.

I didn’t follow this up immediately or systematically, as I had thought I might. Nothing new there then.

Instead, for reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post, I accidentally stumbled across another book that added weight to my conclusions.

Jonah Lehrer is very clearly in accord with my hesitant but hard-won conclusion (page 168):

In 1920,… Virginia Woolf announced in her diary: ‘I have finally arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel.’ Her new form would follow the flow of our consciousness, tracing the ‘flight of the mind’ as it unfolded in time.

What he goes on to say resonates so closely with my own experience as expanded on in my parliament of selves sequence, that it felt a bit weird to read it (page 177):

. . .the head holds a raucous parliament of cells that endlessly debate what sensations and feelings should become conscious… What we call reality is merely the final draft.

He adds that, in To the Lighthouse, the character Lily notes that every brain is crowded Lehrerwith at least two different minds. We’ll catch up with that idea again in a minute when I come to discuss Pessoa.

Just in case you feel I’m cherry-picking, I have another source that points in basically the same direction This is the introduction by Elaine Showalter to Mrs Dallawoy (Penguin Classics Edition).

She explains the process in terms of a philosopher’s perspective (page xx):

Bergson had … given guidance to writers seeking to capture the effects of emotional relativity, for he had suggested that a thought or feeling could be measured in terms of the number of perceptions, memories, and associations attached to it. For Woolf the external event is significant primarily for the way it triggers and releases the inner life. … Like other modernist writers experimenting with the representation of consciousness, Woolf was interested in capturing the flux of random associations…

DallowayThis resonates with developments in modern art at the time (Page xxi):

… it can be said that in trying to show us her characters from a variety of embedded viewpoints rather than from the fixed perspective of the omniscient narrator, Woolf ‘breaks up the narrative plane… as the Cubists broke up the visual plane.

This approach has clear advantages, in her view, over more traditional methods (page xix):

[Her narrative technique] can deepen our understanding and compassion for Woolf’s characters in the way an Edwardian omniscient narration might not achieve.

I think this may act as an unintended discount of the power of free indirect speech, an approach originally pioneered by Jane Austen in English, but also used brilliantly by Ford Madox Ford in his novels The Good Soldier (1915), and the Parade’s End tetralogy (1924–28). Still her point is none the less a valid one as the Edwardian era technically ended in 1910.

I don’t follow Lehrer in his next step though (page 172):

Woolf’s writing exposes the fact that we are actually composed of ever-changing impressions that are held together by the thin veneer of identity.

Although I accept that it can sometimes feel that way, Lehrer treats it as a fact. He quotes a modernist in support (page 176):

[T.S.Eliot] believed that the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the ‘unified soul’ simply because we didn’t have one.

And concludes (page 182):

The self is simply a work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity.

I’ll come back to my doubts about that later in the sequence.

MachadoI felt after my posts on her later novels that I would be exploring Virginia Woolf more. However, I found myself drawn instead to the inscapes of three poets who have always intrigued me: Machado, Pessoa and Rilke. This was triggered by the book I acquired on my India trip: The Forty Rules of Love. My earlier blog post explained how reading that book impelled me to feel that I should revisit spiritual poetry.

I really thought I was onto a theme that I would stick with. Why wouldn’t I? For a start there is a lot about death.

For example, Machado’s young wife’s death cast a long shadow over his life and led to some of his most powerful poetry. One short example will have to suffice.

Una noche de verano
—estaba abierto el balcón
y la puerta de mi casa—
la muerte en mi casa entró.
Se fue acercando a su lecho
—ni siquiera me miró—,
con unos dedos muy finos,
algo muy tenue rompió.
Silenciosa y sin mirarme,
la muerte otra vez pasó
delante de mí. ¿Qué has hecho?
La muerte no respondió.
Mi niña quedó tranquila,
dolido mi corazón,
¡Ay, lo que la muerte ha roto
era un hilo entre los dos!

I have made a fairly literal translation of it here.

One summer evening –
the balcony and the doors open –
death came into my house.
Approaching her bed
– not even seeing me –
with slender fingers
it tore something most delicate.
Silent and blind to me
death passed by again.
‘What have you done?’
Death made no reply.
As precious as my sight,
my child stayed silent
as my heart splintered.
What death had cut was
the thread between those two.

It is simple but, in my view, profound. The same is true for much of his poetry. There are other examples of my attempts to render him in English elsewhere on my blog which seem to suggest that he was grappling constantly with the need to find meaning in his pain, another bonding influence for me.

Hence my attraction to Pessoa, in his various heteronyms or subpersonalities. In late 2016 I had been 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.

PessoaBut that was not the magnet this time. I was interested to have a closer look at his Book of Disquietude. This was partly because the strongest quality these three poets seemed to share was their isolation, hence the title I have given this sequence. Pessoa was notoriously asocial, although he could fake sociability. The Book of Disquietude records his almost unrelenting focus on his inscape (page 58):

My only real concern has been my inner life.

This was perhaps what spawned his crowded cast of sub-personalities (page 59):

I have a world of friends inside me, with their own real, individual, imperfect lives.

But it came at a price (page 54):

I bore the weariness of having had a past, the disquietude of living the present and the tedium of having to have a future.

And this price was sometimes unbearable (page 62):

. . . today I woke up very early… suffocating from an inexplicable tedium.… It was a complete and absolute tedium, but founded on something. In the obscure depths of my soul, unknown forces invisibly waged a battle in which my being was the battleground, and I shook all over from the hidden clashing.

The last of this trio, Rilke, was similarly a loner, as Richard Zenith writes in his Rilkeintroduction to the Carcanet edition of Neue Gedichte (New Poems – page 15):

All poets can do harm to their fellow men and women in their own way; although Berryman subscribed … conscientiously… to the doctrine of our needs and duties… he created social and mental havoc on a scale which makes Rilke’s withdrawal from the usual demands of love and marriage seem – as indeed it was – a scrupulous necessity for his survival as a poet, a way of exercising his own sort of moral humanity. Rilke remained deeply attached to his wife and daughter, in spite of the fact that he could not and did not live with them, and was always anxious for their welfare.

Just as this fascinating exploration was getting off the ground, decluttering led me to discover two long neglected books in what turned out to be a fatal derailing of my plan. Did I hear someone echo Lady Macbeth, whispering ‘infirm of purpose’?

Next time I’ll try and explain why the distraction of Samuel Beckett, in Cronin’s biography, and Marcel Proust, in a chapter of Lehrer’s book, turned out to be so hard to resist, after my attempt at decluttering brought them to light again. I was checking to see if my not having read them for years meant that I could take them to the charity shop. As soon as I opened them I was doomed to read them from cover to cover. But further exploration of that will have to wait a while.

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