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Posts Tagged ‘William Blake’

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Tablets of Bahá’u’lláhpage 142

Once on board, each night before I slept I read at least 50 pages of Bate’s biography of Clare. This was usually after spending an hour or two on one of the decks watching the sunset and looking out for dolphins. I hoped it would help me get a better grip on what Bate’s had meant by poetry being the song of the earth.

Eventually, I’d settle down with my book, faintly conscious of the slight swaying of the ship and the constant grumble of the engine.

Bate’s compassionate account of Clare’s troubled existence brings to life some of the more abstract aspects of man’s exploitation of nature. Clare was both deeply connected from childhood with the nature around him and forcibly cut off from it first by the Enclosure Movement, then by an enforced move from his birth home to one he experienced as every different and finally by his incarceration in an asylum. All these dislocations were further confounded by his success as a poet, where his experience of London changed him radically.

This time I picked up the book from where I had left off, already with a clear sense of how damaging the process of Enclosure had been for Clare, his family and his neighbours. As Bate’s explains (pages 49-50):

Enclosure was… symbolic of the destruction of an ancient birthright based on cooperation and common rights. The chance of Clare’s time and place of birth gave him an exceptional insight into this changed world.

This was because a high proportion of local villagers held common rights, an unusually large area of the parish was heathland, and the open fields survived until an unusually late date.

Bate continues:

For Clare himself, enclosure infringed the right to roam, which had been one of the joys of his youth… E.P. Thompson grasped the radical significance of this, discerning that ‘Clare maybe described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.’

In Clare’s own words:

Inclosure like a Bonaparte let nothing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
and hung the moles as traitors –

Much later I came across this prose description in a similar spirit, which I’ll quote now to give another clear example of Clare’s unedited mode of writing (page 272): ‘what terryfying rascals these wood keepers and gamekeepers are – they make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers.’

His love of nature, I already knew, was quasi-religious (page 59):

. . . though he professed himself an Anglican, Clare’s attendance at church was mostly irregular. His deepest feelings of a religious kind were reserved for his experience of nature and his memories of childhood innocence and joy.

I was really looking forward to learning more, though I knew that Clare’s life had a tragic trajectory, ending as it did in an asylum over almost his last two decades.

Clare’s feeling for nature were not unique and he would have resonated to Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime’ of ‘something far more deeply interfused’ within it (pages 100-101):

. . . if someone who had never read – perhaps never even heard of – such nature poets as Thomson, Cowper and Wordsworth nevertheless responded to nature in the same way as they, then there must be ‘universal feelings’ about nature which poetry was but an echo… Clare saw it as his task to write down the poetry that was already there in nature itself.

That his gift was recognized by a publisher was a blessing to his parents (page 120):

Drury’s faith in the potential of Clare’s poetry saved Parker and Ann from the poor-house.

But this came at a price (page 166):

[On his way to London in the wake of his success] full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing a place known only from fireside tales, he looked out from the coach at the labourers ploughing and ditching in the fields: ‘the novelty created such strange feelings that I could almost fancy that my identity as well as my occupations had changed – that I was not the same John Clare but that some stranger soul had jumped into my skin.’

He had become disconnected from his old sense of self (page 171):

After his exposure to fame and London, he could never fully return to his old life. In this sense, his consciousness of a new identity as he sat in the Stamford coach was prophetic.

I put the book down and switched off the light. My head hit the pillow to the continuing growl of the engine. As usual, my sleep was fitful. Just as I was falling asleep again for the umpteenth time, I heard the ship’s intercom through the cabin door: ‘For exercise only. For exercise only. For exercise only. All medical staff to the muster room on B deck. Repeat – all medical staff to the muster room on B deck.’

My wife and I were both awake. It was 7.30 am. We groaned and got up grumbling.

When we were dressed and had left the cabin to head for breakfast at the buffet on Deck 15, we bumped into our steward in the narrow corridor outside our room.

Standing by the trolley piled high with towels and bedding, he greeted us with his usual friendly smile.

‘How are you both?’

We asked him if he knew about the recent earthquake. He didn’t. We apologised for worrying him but explained that we were concerned to know whether his family were all OK.

He was clearly concerned. He explained that he would not be able to find out yet but hoped to get in touch with family later in the day.

We parted without our usual exchange of joking comments.

En route to the buffet we picked up our newsletter and puzzles. The puzzle sheet had a fairly demanding Sudoku on one side and ridiculously easy crossword on the other. The newssheet was based generally on yesterday’s news and was only worth picking up if we’d missed Sky news the night before.

Horizon was a more valuable read. It told us what would be happening the following day and was left in our cabin the evening before. On this occasion, over my usual breakfast of oats, raisins and milk plus a slice of toast and for once marmalade, we looked at the day’s events and spotted a talk on Lowry, a joint favourite, in the theatre. As we both knew a fair bit about the artist from reading his biography and going to see his paintings at Salford Quays, we decided to give the talk a miss but to go to the gallery where some prints were on show.

This was probably a wise decision given the delay caused by having to queue for clean teacups at the buffet. We would’ve missed the start of the talk anyway. As it was there was only one print that caught our attention: The Brothers. I don’t have a copy of that in my Shelley Rohde’s biography, nor have I ever seen the original anywhere.

Lowry’s ‘The Brothers’ (For source of image see link.)

Its impact was quite intense.

The way the brothers overlap in the print conveys the strong sense of a symbiotic relationship. Their merged black hats make them seem almost like twins joined at the head. The colour of the arch overhead matches their coats and, along with the narrowness of the picture, seems to imply that they are both in some way imprisoned or at least overshadowed by their relationship. The townscape behind them is unusually constricted for Lowry and the church and flats, if that’s what the red buildings were, would not look out of place in a doll’s house, hinting that, in spite of the greying hair of the background brother, we are not quite in a fully adult world here.

Most of Lowry’s work contrasts quite strongly with Clare’s rural home, in which I was so vicariously immersed at the time. His less well-known seascapes, which I first encountered on visiting the Lowry gallery at Salford Quays, added a new dimension to my understanding of his work, and would’ve blended in better with my cruise perhaps if I’d found one of those in the ship’s gallery.

I didn’t realise at this point that I would soon be encountering a third very different environment in paint. Blended with the artificial world of the cruise ship, nature, art and town alone began to weave a pattern of insights I haven’t quite digested yet.

‘Head of Man with Red Eyes’ painted after spending an exhausting night ministering to his hypochondriacal autocratic mother’s imaginary needs. (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

Part of the pattern is clear. Clare was uprooted from the earth of his childhood with devastating effects on his mental health and an inspiring impact on his poetry. Lowry’s roots were in the Northern townscape, which fed his art but may have starved his emotional life, though his voraciously demanding mother and a possible poorly understood autistic tendency didn’t help.

The third world I entered, through prints again, opened up another world altogether, but that will have to wait till next time. Together they illustrate just how complex is the relationship between art, personal life and nature. This idea, that poetry might, at some level, simply be the song of the earth, was seeming slightly fragile.

Even Bate, in his biography of Ted Hughes, is clearly aware that poetry comes in many forms. For example (page 93), he describes Yeats as ‘the poet of the land and the spirit of place’ in contrast to Eliot as ‘the poet of deracinated modernity.’ This of course still leaves begging the question of whether a poet who simply ‘gives voice to a new terror: the meaningless’, is a poet in the full sense of the word, no matter how powerful and honest that voice may be.

This relates to my struggle, explored in earlier posts, with much modern art, if it seems to capitulate to the dissonance and disbelief of the modern world with no counterbalancing sense of meaning and purpose. Can true poetry be simply nihilistic? Not that I’m saying, as should be clear by now, that poetry is only authentic if it sings about nature. Nature is not the only higher value poetry can draw upon to give it depth.

Clare though made a strong case for nature as a front runner in this race (page 480):

‘Birds bees trees flowers all talked to me incessantly louder than the busy hum of men and who so wise as nature out of doors on the green grass by woods and streams under the beautiful sunny sky – daily communings with God and not a word spoken.’

To complete the picture, it might help here to fast-forward to where my reading of Bate’s whole biography of Clare left me.

After his brief moment in the spotlight and two less successful collections of what Bate feels were superior poems, Clare’s world was turning significantly darker. Not only was the impact of Enclosure still tightening but his success had brought with it the opportunity to move three miles away to a more spacious home, something which proved a mixed blessing.

Even before the move things were not going well (page 276):

The changes in the land wrought by enclosure were by now symbolic of his own narrowing prospects and the loss of the familiar landmarks of his childhood.

There was no going back (page 317):

Save in memory and poetry, there was no road back to childhood, to the unenclosed commons, to Eden. As his depression closed in upon him, the only future was alienation.

Now there was the impending challenge of a serious mental health problem, brought on by a combination of factors, not least his increasing sense of alienation. His move to Northborough did not help (page 388):

The accommodation was much more spacious than at Helpston… But the village never became home. It felt like a closed community, hostile to newcomers.

Clare describes his feelings of loss and displacement in The Flitting (Page 389):

I’ve left my own old home of homes,
Green fields, and pleasant place:
The summer, like a stranger comes,
I pause – and hardly know her face.’

His poetry, which Bate sees as rooted in Clare’s ‘art of noticing’ and ‘intuitive responsiveness to minute particulars’ (pages 300-01) had so far lost nothing of its power though in this unhinging process (page 390):

His remembrance is not just of his old home, but specifically of the pre-enclosure landscape. It was also at this time that he wrote another of his great enclosure elegies, a vigourous poem of political complaint spoken in the very voice of a piece of land, ‘Swordy Well’. . . . With the enclosure, it was taken by the parish overseers as a source of stone for road mending. In the poem, the land speaks out against its own enclosure in the same terms as a labourer would have used to complain about his loss  of ancient rights. ‘I ha’n’t a friend in all the place,’ sings the desecrated earth, ‘Save one and he’s away.’ That one is Clare himself, both physically away from Helpston and mentally distant from his own unenclosed youth.

And again (page 405):

Clare’s sense of his own status as a perpetual outsider, a man who did not fully belong in either the world of London property or that of literary propriety, is nowhere better caught that in a sonnet on his fear of trespassing: ‘I dreaded walking where there was no path.’

I can resonate to this to some degree, as I was transplanted from lower middle class roots at the age of seventeen to the lofty heights of privilege at Cambridge in the early 60s. Since then I have always felt déclassé, belonging neither to my culture of origin nor to the rarified atmosphere of dinner suits and cocktail parties. This may partly account for why I found the cruise concept of ‘black-tie dining’, something that happened on four nights of our journey, a somewhat bizarre experience: I tried it once, in my green suit not a dinner suit, and stuck to the casual dress of the buffet after that.

Compared to Clare though my experience was relatively mild. The stresses of it did not strain me beyond endurance so that I would end my life staring from the window of an institution which felt like a prison, as Clare did in his asylum according to one of his visitors (page 475):

‘There was a birdcage, with a skylark in it, near the window; and pointing to the iron bars in his apartment, he smiled gloomily, and said, in a strong provincial accent, “We are both of us bound birds, you see.”’

I couldn’t help but remember Hopkins’s poem as I read those words[1]:

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –

In a sense that Clare does not express as far as I know, this would make him double-caged, as of course was Hopkins in the Jesuit order, though he never admitted that explicitly in any of his poems as far as I’m aware. Hopkins shared another passion with Clare (Robert Bernard Martin’s biography – page 212):

When an ash tree was felled in the garden, he ‘heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.’

Clare would certainly have been familiar though with the words of Blake that came tumbling into my head a this point:

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.

I was beginning to feel that the motif of the prison was becoming an uncomfortably frequent theme.

In the end, divorced from nature by the Enclosure process, by his well-meant but unavoidable move to a different locality and by the social elevation his obsessive versifying earned him, he broke down and entered the final alienation of the asylum. He registers the ultimate consequence in his poem An Invite to Eternity (page 491):

Clare had coined the term self identity. Now he coins its opposite: sad non-identity. The absence of home and family has stripped Clare of his sense of self. At the same time, the very act of writing is a defiant assertion of the self. ‘At once to be and not to be’ is a breath-taking riposte to Hamlet’s question.

Even so, he is able to capture this in powerful poetry that does not completely capitulate to his sense of annihilation.

In the end there was no viable escape from his distress, except through poetry. Concerning his poem I am Bate writes (page 505):

In imagination, even in the asylum, he could complete the circle of vision, undoing his troubles by laying himself to rest between grass and ‘vaulted sky.’ He longs at once for both childhood and the grave.

He does not, if Bate’s sense of him is to be trusted, invest as much meaning in the horizon, or perhaps even in nature, as Emily Dickinson did, according to Judith Farr in her book, The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity,’ and she makes this explicit. This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Maybe though for Clare, even though poetry began as a song of the earth, in the end it was more than that. I’m not sure I can quite find words right now for what that means. All I can say at the moment is that poetry itself can be a kind of transcendence, that brings meaning, perhaps even consolation, into the darkest moments of our lives.

When we spoke to our steward later that day to check how things were back home, he looked quite worried and told us that his cousin was missing, but the rest of his family were thankfully OK. We commiserated with him and assured him that we would remember his family in our prayers and hope that all would be well.

Footnote:

[1]. It would be fascinating to explore this further here but the post is long enough already. For now it is enough to indicate that R B Martin’s biography of Hopkin’s suggests (page 268) that an enforced move from St Beuno’s in rural Wales, where he had been studying for the priesthood, may have accounted in part for this sense of (page 264) ‘limitation, entrapment, a kind of stifling imprisonment of the spirit.’ The intensity of his connection with nature (page 203) would be more than enough to suggest a close affinity with Clare at least in this respect, and a comparable reaction to being torn away from nature by his move.

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

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

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

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

Buddha in Blue jeans-1

Downloadable at this link

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

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

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

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

(Gleanings: page 164-166: LXXXIII)

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

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

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

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

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 162)

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

Red rose 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 196)

WILLIAM BLAKE

William Blake (for source of image see link)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

Were one to observe with an eye that discovereth the realities of all things, it would become clear that the greatest relationship that bindeth the world of being together lieth in the range of created things themselves, and that co-operation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.

(Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet quoted in part in a statement from the Bahá’í International Community Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith)

Post-truth politics also poses a problem for scepticism. A healthy democracy needs to leave plenty of room for doubt. There are lots of good reasons to be doubtful about what the reality of climate change will entail: though there is scientific agreement about the fact of global warming and its source in human activity, the ultimate risks are very uncertain and so are the long-term consequences. There is plenty of scope for disagreement about the most effective next steps. The existence of a very strong scientific consensus does not mean there should be a consensus about the correct political response. But the fact of the scientific consensus has produced an equal and opposite reaction that squeezes the room for reasonable doubt. The certainty among the scientists has engendered the most intolerant kind of scepticism among the doubters.

(From How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous by David Runciman – Guardian Friday 7 July 2017)

At the end of the last post I shared the hope that my helicopter survey of a vast field has done enough to convey clearly my sense that as individuals and communities we are locked into unconsciously determined and potentially destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour, until we discover the keys of reflection for individuals and consultation for groups.

What we might do next is the focus of the final two posts.

When people resist therapy the personal price can be high. When cultures resist change the social and environmental costs can be even greater.

At whatever level we consider the matter, counteracting our default patterns requires significant effort, and the more complicated the problem, as in the case of climate change, the greater the effort. Even a simple puzzle can defeat even the best brains if the necessary effort is not taken to solve it. And often no effort is made because no failure in problem-solving is detected. Take this beautiful illustration of the point from Daniel Khaneman’s excellent treatment of what he calls System 1 (rapid fire reaction) and System 2 (careful effortful thinking) in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.I have dealt at length elsewhere with my distaste for the use of the word ‘intuitive’ in this context: I prefer ‘instinctive.’ Now though is not the time to delve into that problem: I’m currently republishing some of the posts dealing with that question.

The main point and its relevance is hopefully clear.

Biosphere Consciousness

Taking on the difficult problems is clearly going to be a challenge when we don’t even recognise or admit that our default reponses are so wide of the mark.

We need to reach at least a basic level of interactive understanding on a global scale if we are to successfully address the problems of our age. But we need more than that.

Rifkin, in his excellent book The Empathic Civilisation argues the case eloquently. He recognizes that to motivate us to make the necessary sacrifices to allow our civilization to survive its entropic processes we need something larger than ourselves to hold onto. By entropic he means all the waste and excessive consumption a growing population generates.

He doesn’t think religion will do the trick though.

For example, he sees the Golden Rule, a central tenant of all the great world religions, as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808), version from the “Butts set” (for source of image see link)

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’ He feels Christianity has warped this ideal, especially in respect of the existence of Satan, the Fall of man, and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap. However, he dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society.

He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

He clearly hopes it does. He describes the exact nature of the challenge our situation creates (page 593):

The challenge before us is how to bring forward all of these historical stages of consciousness that still exist across the human spectrum to a new level of biosphere consciousness in time to break the lock that shackles increasing empathy to increasing entropy. . . .

And he concludes (ibid.):

In a world characterised by increasing individuation and made up of human beings at different stages of consciousness, the biosphere itself maybe the only context encompassing enough to unite the human race as a species.

This position is perhaps an inevitable consequence of his unwillingness to admit the possibility of a theological inspiration. I am astonished even more by a subsequent claim, which is imbued with the same blinkering assumption that Western materialist models of the world have basically got it right. He blurts out, in surprise (page 593-4):

While the new distributed communications technologies – and, soon, distributed renewable energies – are connecting the human race, what is so shocking is that no one has offered much of a reason as to why we ought to be connected. . . .

Does he have no awareness of current trends in holistic thinking, which assert that we are already and have always been interconnected at the deepest possible levels, not simply in terms of these recently emerged material factors? Is he ignoring long-standing spiritual systems such as that of the Native Americans whose foundation stone is this concept of interconnectedness? Does he not know of the empirical evidence being generated by near-death experiences, many of which include reports of just such a sense of nonmaterial interconnectedness? Has he not heard even a whisper of the Bahá’í position, admittedly recently emerged but with a longer history than the roots of holism in physics, that humanity is one and needs to recognise its essential unity if we are to be able to act together to solve the global problems that confront us? The problem is not that no one is offering a reason ‘why we ought to be connected’: the problem is that too few people are accepting the idea, expressed by millions of our fellow human beings in many complementary models of the world, that we are already deeply connected at a spiritual level, not just with each other but with the earth that sustains our material existence.

Naomi Klein makes a powerful case for hoping that the shock of climate change will have just the kind of positive effect that Rifkin looks for in Gaia, though she also is fully aware that shock often narrows our capacity to think, feel and relate and we end up in the tunnel-vision of fight and flight. She is aligned with Rifkin in his hope that identification on our part with the plight of the planet will be a sufficient catalyst to produce the desired shift.

Altruism

Matthieu Ricard takes on these issues from a different angle.

There are major obstacles to addressing our challenges effectively and Ricard is not blind to them (page 580):

. . . . . in a world where politicians aim only to be elected or re-elected, where financial interest groups wield a disproportionate influence on policy makers, where the well-being of future generations is often ignored since their representatives do not have a seat at the negotiating table, where governments pursue national economic policies that are to the detriment of the global interest, decision-makers have barely any inclination to create institutions whose goal would be to encourage citizens to contribute to collective wealth, which would serve to eradicate poverty.

Snower contends, and Ricard agrees with him and so do I, that reason alone will never get us beyond this point (page 581):

. . . . no one has been able to show that reason alone, without the help of some prosocial motivation, is enough to persuade individuals to widen their sphere of responsibility to include all those who are affected by their actions.

Because he is a Buddhist, in his book Ricard chooses to advocate altruism (ibid):

Combined with the voice of reason, the voice of care can fundamentally change our will to contribute to collective goods. Such ideas echo the Buddhist teachings on uniting wisdom and compassion: without wisdom, compassion can be blind without compassion, wisdom becomes sterile.

Ricard (page 611) raises the issue of ‘altruism for the sake of future generations.’ If we accept the reality of climate change, as most of us now do, our behaviour will unarguably affect our descendants for the worse if we do not change it. Given that evolution has produced a human brain that privileges short term costs and benefits over long-term ones, such that a smoker does not even empathise with his future self sufficiently strongly to overcome in many cases the powerful allure of nicotine addiction, what chance has altruism in itself got of producing the desired effect?

Ricard to his credit faces this head on and quotes the research of Kurzban and Houser (page 631-32). They conclude from their research that:

20% of people are altruists who bear the fortunes of future generations in mind and are disposed to altering their ways of consumption to avoid destroying the environment. . . . . .

[However], around 60% of people follow prevailing trends and opinion leaders, something that highlights the power of the herd instinct in humans. These ‘followers’ are also ‘conditional cooperators:’ they are ready to contribute to the public good on the condition that everyone else does likewise.

The final 20% are not at all inclined to cooperate and want more than anything to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. They are not opposed to other people’s happiness in principle, but it is not their business.

Shades of Pettigrew again! This clearly indicates that reaching the tipping point, where most people have widened out their unempathic tunnel vision to embrace the whole of humanity and future generations in a wide-angled embrace, is some way off still. He goes on to outline the many practical steps that lie within our reach, such as recycling more of our waste metals and moving to hydrogen powered cars. Enough of us have to want to bring those steps into reality before change will occur at a fast enough rate.

According to Ricard, we must move (page 682) from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

The last post will take a closer look at that amongst other possibilities.

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Things have been a bit difficult lately – three colds in three months. Really fed up with it. Not sure why my immune system is misfiring. Will be finding out soon from the GP.

Books have always been reliable companions for me. No surprise that this has left traces.

I can still remember 1975. It was my first job in mental health. I hadn’t been there long before the Deputy Manager shared her impressions of me.

‘You’re doing quite vell but you know vot you’re problem iss?’ She had a slight Austrian accent.

‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ I lied as a dozen possibilities leapt instantly to mind.

‘You talk like a Buch.’

‘Shouldn’t everyone,’ I thought but did not say.

Things haven’t changed much since then I think. I number books among my friends and most of my closest friends love books. Bookish is my mother tongue.

So anyone who knows me well would know where I might go to lift my mood: Hay-on-Wye.

It was good to end up in one of my favourite haunts if only for a short while, though it was a bit tedious driving there along the slow and winding route I had decided to take for some strange reason. Maybe I thought it would make up in the picturesque for what it lacked in speed. This proved a delusion as the hedgerows en route blocked off most of the view.

We drove back along wider roads.

We only had time for one bookshop and a coffee. When this is the case it’s a no-brainer which shop to head for – the cinema bookshop.

My time spent grazing there will feed my appetite for reading for a week or two.

In the end, I was sitting, well-pleased with life once more, at a table in the Shepherd’s ice cream and coffee parlour, with my small crop of books spread across the table well away from my cappuccino.

The view from the window was more like a painting, the lines were so sharp and the colour was so bright.

I had hoped to find some books on David Jones but my search had drawn a blank. I had at least found a book on Alice Neel and a biography of William Blake.

The only other downer in the cafe was the father at the next table, with his wife and two young sons, who never lifted his head from his mobile phone from when we arrived until they all left.

After being so enthused by a recent BBC programme, I was pleased to get hold of the book on Alice Neel as my attempts to buy a collection of her watercolours had failed so far. It is shortly to be reprinted though. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to buy her only recent biography as the reviews weren’t all that good and the price was quite high. For a mere £2 the biography hard back by the Belchers was quite a bargain.

Getting the biography of Blake was a bonus. My interest has been reactivated by my reading about the art and poetry of David Jones, who is referred to by many as the modern Blake. Peter Ackroyd’s work is usually readable and informative so this should be a pleasure in store.

The last purchase was a complete surprise. While I was busily brevitting on the upper floors for books on David Jones, my wife had stayed at the stacks near the entrance and was waiting for me with further temptations when I emerged from my expedition into the interior. Maybe there is a lesson to learn there – by going too fast into the depths I might often be missing something important at the surface.

She grabbed my arm as I was about to walk into reception to pay and pointed to a blue pile of books at the end of a nearby shelf.

‘I thought you might be interested in that,’ she confidently stated.

Dylan Thomas!

What amazed me was that these were the paperback centenary editions of his poetry that only came out in 2016 at a price of £16.99 in Waterstones. I’d decided to wait and see, much as I admired and enjoyed his poetry in my 20s: even though the book I recently reviewed on The Death of Poets re-whetted my appetite, it had not done so strongly enough to make that price seem worth paying. To find all his poems here for a paltry £6.99 made buying a copy seem irresistible.

Fragments of his lyrics flew into my mind. ‘Now I am a man no more no more/And a black reward for a roaring life,/(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of strangers),/Tidy and cursed in my dove cooed room/I lie down thin and hear the good bells jaw–’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ ‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,/The night above the dingle starry,/Time let me hail and climb/Golden in the heydays of his eyes,/And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns,’ and ‘in my craft or sullen art.’

It is perhaps worth quoting the last poem in full before I close this post.

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Now which book of my £12.99 haul should I read first?

It shouldn’t take me more than a month to decide.

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'Newton' by William Blake

‘Newton’ by William Blake (scanned from ‘William Blake‘ by Kathleen Raine)

 Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.

(A Compilation on ScholarshipBaha’i Reference Library)

My parody of materialist thought yesterday gives me a good excuse to republish this series on Medina’s book. This is the first of three posts: the rest will come out over the weekend.

Why this book?

I’ve recently been ploughing on seeking to adequately review Jeremy Rifkin’s massive tome The Empathic Civilisation. I just put that to bed at the end of last week. Why start another sequence on a related theme so soon?

Some weeks ago I finished reading John Fitzgerald Medina’s heartfelt and wide-ranging exploration of our predicament – Faith, Physics & Psychology. Ernest Ochsner tipped me off about the book when he left a comment on my blog recommending it and saying ‘I believe you would find it a very good read.’ That would win the prize for the understatement of the year here in Hereford.

The book has proved a mine of important insights and understanding, not so much about the faith Medina and I share, but about the issue we both seem to feel passionately about. And passionate is a good word to describe much of the content of this book. He feels strongly about what he describes, perhaps because his shared heritage, part Mexican, part native American Indian, has shown him the dark side of our Western culture. He has lived too close to it for comfort, possibly.

While the passion occasionally destabilises the balance of his argument, most of the time it simply lends added power to the carefully gathered evidence he mobilises to support his perspective. I was moved, intrigued, excited and informed at every turn. It is truly one of the best books I have read for quite some time.

He covers so much ground I again have the Rifkin problem – how do I do justice to such a rich and complex canvas in a sequence of short blog posts. Again I have decided to focus only on certain key areas of his exploration, the ones that for me powerfully reveal exactly why we need to lift our sights and aim for the goal of rebuilding our civilisation on the basis of unity and interconnectedness: his depiction of our worldview, his critique of the American educational system and finally his treatment of racism, the last two of which I found both moving and revealing. I don’t enjoy dwelling on the weaknesses of our contemporary world but I do believe we have to confront the realities we face if we are to overcome the problems they are presenting us with.

Medina does exactly that. The remedy he advocates is so close to what this blog is all about I have not repeated it again here. His masterly depiction of what is going wrong has deepened my understanding immeasurably which is why I feel I simply have to share it as best I can in a way that will hopefully inspire you to read his book for yourselves.

He also analyses Abraham Maslow’s and Ken Wilber’s models of human development. Even though he raised Maslow in my estimation somewhat and slightly increased my reservations about Wilber, the effect was not significant enough for me to revisit the issue of levels of consciousness in a hurry given my repeated recent surveys of that area.

You will be relieved to know that I have also decided not to throw everything at you in rapid succession. I’ll be leaving a bit of a gap between each instalment.

I’m going to start with our worldview.

The Cartesian-Newtonian worldview 

Medina sees the current worldview as destructively rooted in the thinking of Descartes and Newton. He refers to it throughout as the ‘Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.’ Descartes split mind from body, which he considered to be a machine. He considered that all true understanding derived from analysis (splitting into components) and logic. Add to this Newton’s determinism (we can predict anything from our knowledge both of its starting state and the operation of immutable universal laws) and, in Medina’s view, we have the current, in his view pernicious, Cartesian-Newtonian worldview (page 14):

. . . . this classical science worldview is based on a mechanistic view of human beings and the universe that alienates human beings from their spiritual, moral, and emotional faculties. It has divided the world into mutually exclusive opposing forces: the dichotomies of science versus religion, reason versus faith, logic versus intuition, natural versus supernatural, material versus spiritual, and secular versus sacred. The result is a materialistic worldview that emphasises the truth of science, reason, logic, the natural, the material, and the secular while ignoring or even denigrating the truth of religion, faith, intuition, the supernatural, the spiritual, and the sacred.

462px-William_Blake_by_Thomas_Phillips

‘William Blake’ by Thomas Phillips

Medina is by no means alone in this view. Take Margaret A Boden for example in her book The Creative Mind: myths and mechanisms (2004 – page 278):

William Blake had a word for it – or rather, many. “May God keep us”, he wrote, “from Single vision & Newton’s sleep!” . . . .

[Blake] was reacting against the scientistic enthusiasm that had lead Alexander Pope to declare: “God said “Let Newton be”, and all was light.” For Blake, Newton’s light made only singlevision possible. Matters not dealt with by natural science, such as freedom and harmony, were insidiously downgraded and ignored – even tacitly denied.

Kathleen Raine in her book of Blake’s illustrations (page 87) comments on his picture of Newton[1]:

Newton shows the ‘spiritual state’ of a great scientist; he is absorbed in mathematical calculations, his eyes fixed on the diagrams he draws on the bottom of that “sea of time and space” which is the principle to which he is confined. . . . . the dark and dense medium of water, traditional esoteric symbol of the material world.

We are in rather familiar territory for readers of this blog in that Iain McGilchrist’s compelling analysis of the modern mindset in the West – The Master & his Emissary – which I have often referred to, is similarly disenchanted with this left-brain bias of our culture, as he would see it, which has left us credulously taking our analytic diagrams of the world as the world itself, ignoring the richly subtle and more holistic take on life that the right-brain provides us with. He writes (pages 228-229):

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

We are in urgent need of a new paradigm, Medina feels, and, fortunately, there are contenders for the title (page 15):

As Capra suggests, the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview is being seriously challenged by a variety of people who subscribe to what Capra calls “the holistic conception of reality” – the holistic worldview.

Even physics seems to be coming to the rescue (ibid):

As we will later discuss in significant detail, recent developments in the field of quantum physics seem to validate the holistic worldview while debunking the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.

His basic inspiration comes from three places (page 17):

This book explores the fresh and inspiring perspective provided by three different yet complementary movements: the Bahá’í Faith, an independent world religion; the self actualisation movement, which is based on the comprehensive theoretical work of the late psychologist Abraham Maslow; and the holistic movement, which is based on theories and research from various disciplines such as quantum physics, philosophy, psychology, neurophysiology, economics, education, medicine, ecology, and cosmology.

Holism again!

David Bohm

David Bohm

He is yet another thinker to draw on the work of Bohm, not an issue about which I feel fully qualified to comment as I have stated elsewhere. He states (page 38) quoting Michael Talbot on David Bohm in The Holographic Universe:

“One of Bohm’s most startling assertions is that the tangible reality of our everyday lives is really a kind of illusion, like a holographic image. Underlying it is a deeper order of existence, a vast and more primary level of reality that gives birth to the objects and appearances of our physical world in much the same way that a piece of holographic film gives birth to a hologram. Bohm calls this deeper level of reality the implicate (which means ‘enfolded’) order, and he refers to our own level of existence as the explicate, or unfolded, order. . . .”

For me this has inescapable parallels with Bahá’u’lláh’s quotation from the Imam ‘Alí:

‘Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded’

And also to Blake when he wrote in Auguries of Innocence:

‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower . . .’

Medina goes onto spell out the implications in very similar terms (page 39):

. . . . According to Bohm’s theory, every entity, whether it be a person, a stone, or an atom, carries within it every form of energy, matter, consciousness, and life that ever proceeded out of the deeper reality. Talbot states, ‘Every cell in our body enfolds the entire cosmos. So does every leaf, every raindrop, and every dust mote.”

This idea has radical implications (page 48):

[Talbot writes] ‘In fact, Bohm believes that consciousness is a more subtle form of matter, and the basis for any relationship between the two lies not in our own level of reality, but deep in the implicate order. Consciousness is present in various degrees of enfoldment and unfoldment in all matter, which is perhaps why plasmas possess some of the traits of living things.’

. . . Furthermore, Bohm’s concept of ‘unbroken wholeness,’ is consistent with the Bahá’í understanding of the oneness of the universe. . . Sounding like a Bahá’í himself, Bohm even states, “Deep down the consciousness of mankind is one.’

As we have already discussed on this blog, these ideas are strongly linked to our motivation to change this for the better (page 52):

People will probably not feel an urgency to transform the current disordered world into a spiritually enlightened global civilisation unless they gain an appreciation for the true nature of reality.

I won’t dwell further on that here. For my more detailed thoughts see the links.

Defective Spiritualities

Medina goes onto unpack what for him at least are the limitations of ‘secular spirituality’ which (page 94) ‘do not necessarily promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’ He includes ‘religious fundamentalism’ (page 95-96) under this umbrella ‘because it represents an attempt to use religion as a vehicle to fulfil worldly desires for leadership or power or as a justification for ungodly acts such as forced conversion of pagans or warfare against infidels.’

My own views on this have been explored at length elsewhere on this blog so I won’t repeat them in full here, but I regard an inclusion of extremist fundamentalism as spirituality of any kind, let alone secular, as too far a stretch: ideologies that are invested in too narrowly and too strongly, whether they are nominally religious or apparently secular, fall into a different category for me, where delusion and fanaticism masquerade as a high-minded idealism, whose ends justify any kinds of means, no matter how barbaric, as long as it believes these methods will achieve them. Fundamentalisms give their so-called parents, whether theist or atheist, a very bad name indeed and have nothing whatsoever to do with spirituality in a true sense.

He adduces in support of his critique (page 112), in terms which will be more fully explored in a subsequent post, ‘the fact that many Enlightenment philosophers spoke eloquently about justice, equality, and liberty, and yet in the end, supported slavery, racism, classism, sexism, and genocide against American Indians.’ Throughout history, religious traditions, not just these deist and atheist ones, have displayed a similar empathic tunnel-vision, as Medina goes on to show, so his case that secular spirituality is somehow uniquely deficient in its ability to realise this kind of potential is not quite proven by this line of argument.

My feeling, as I explained in two posts last week, is that non-transcendent world-views may lack the long-term strength of commitment and belief in its possibility to do all that is necessary to avert the catastrophe humanity is currently facing, but they can certainly ‘promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’

He goes on to state that our version of Christianity has contributed to the problems the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview creates (page 129) as a result of its concept of ‘an all-transcendent God Who is essentially divorced from the cursed natural world.’ He concludes (pages 129-30):

It is my belief that an extremist form of Christian theism actually worked hand-in-hand with the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview to promulgate a false sense of separation between the spiritual and the material and between the sacred and the secular.

It is important to stress that he is not criticising the true essence of Christianity here, simply some of its more extreme distortions with their destructive consequences. I will unpack more of that next week.

Footnote:

[1] For those interested in a more mainstream Christian take on the matter see God, Humanity & the Cosmos (Southgate et al: pages 95-98): they too conclude that a mechanical view of the world prevailed as a result of the success of this Descartes/Newton fusion, and this then negatively affected economics and political theory as well as religion and our view of ourselves. 

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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William BlakeSongs of Experience Additional Poem

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the first: the second will come out on Thursday and the last on Friday.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

 

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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Deaths of the Poets

Deaths of the Poets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding Two Horses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the Right Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Poetry For?

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

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

We are back in the London of Blake here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trigger was similar for both poets (ibid):

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

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

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

img_3397

The Poetry Archive vividly captures this dynamic:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_3398Writing on Behalf of his People

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

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

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

Drowning

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

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

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

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

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

As the Wikipedia article on Thomas puts it:

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

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

My sense is that he succeeded.

Last Words

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

 

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