Posts Tagged ‘William Butler Yeats’

Let those who hear our voices be aware
That night now reigns on earth. Nocturnal listeners,
The time you hear me in is one of darkness,
And round us, as within us, battle rages.

(David Gascoyne, from Night Thoughts in Collected Poems, page 135)

David Gascoyne

Till now, I probably hadn’t read my way through Gascoyne’s work in its entirety since 1982 when I purchased Robin Skelton’s edition of his collected poems, sometime before I found my way to the Bahá’í Faith.

For the first time in heaven knows how many years I’m listening to Beethoven as I work at my laptop on this post – his Pathétique, First Movement.

And why is that?

What is the reason for these changes? Perhaps even more importantly why do they seem so important to me? I’ll take the first of those questions right away, leaving the second for the next post.

Regular readers of this blog will find some repetition of earlier posts here, but I need to repeat the main ideas briefly in order to make sense of what has happened.

Basically, the reading of The Forty Rules of Love. It is the equivalent of my Dancing Flames dream in its impact.

Dancing Flames Dream

Let’s take the dream first, which I had in 1980 towards the end of my first degree in psychology, when I was doing a full time job as Deputy Manager of a Day Centre for people with mental health problems as well as studying for the BSc part-time. I’ve blogged about it at some length before so I will cut to the chase here.

The key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. It seemed like a routine breakdown. When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. I didn’t recognize what it was at first— then I saw it was a golden horn. I mean the instrument, by the way, not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros. The engine was underneath the horn. When I removed the horn I could see the engine was burning.

A chain of associations, many of them involving Yeats’ A Prayer for my Daughter, explained that the golden horn represented the arts, and most especially poetry and song. The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I was working too hard in the wrong way, and had sold out poetry/song for prose, heart for intellect, and intuition for reason and most of all the dream was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car, a symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Further reflection led me to feel that the spirit (petrol in terms of the dream) fuels (gives life to) my body (the engine of the dream). When I channel the flames of life appropriately there is no danger. However, if we, as I clearly felt I had, allow the patterns of work and relationships to become inauthentic and detached from our life force, we have bartered the ‘Horn of Plenty’ and

. . . every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellow full of angry wind.

(Yeats in A Prayer for my Daughter – stanza 8).

I shifted the focus then to art in general stating that art is an external representation of an inner state which is sufficiently expressive to communicate to other human beings an intimation of someone’s else’s experience of the world. Art not only conveys the artist’s experience but also lifts the understanding of both poet and reader to a higher level.

In a way poetry at that time was my substitute for religion. In 1980, I wrote:

Poetry is my transcendent value or position. It gives me a perspective from which I can view the ‘complexities’ of my ‘mire and blood’ with less distress.

When I found a religion, which gave me a sense that seemed to offer some hope of walking the spiritual path with practical feet, thereby balancing intuition and reason, efficiency and love, I ceased to monitor carefully the way I was treading the path. To extend the metaphor by imagining that my heart was my left foot and my head the right, each governed by the opposite side of the brain, I lost sight of whether I was using both feet. I didn’t notice that I had begun to limp. My left foot was growing weaker.

A rag rug

The Dream of the Hearth

My dream of the hearth, which I have also explored at length on this blog, helped me redress this imbalance.

This was the dream:

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

The emphasis which it placed on the idea of the heart and the earth being connected, and as a place where the peat of spirit could be burned safely to warm the body’s home and energise me for constructive action, was critical. Even so I still found it hard not to let my left brain leanings tilt me out of kilter.

The Forty Rules of Love

And here I am again with another reminder, which I have recently described, and which I see as yet again telling me I must give more attention to my heart.

During a conversation high above the plains of India, in Panghgani, as I recently described, one of my companions mentioned a book I’d never heard of: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I wrote the title and the author down, but didn’t think much more of it at the time.

It was only later that a synchronicity occurred that suggested that the conversation in Panchgani might have had more to it than I thought.

I was lamenting to my wife that I should have brought more books. I had finished the two massive tomes I’d brought with me. I thought they’d last the whole trip and possibly beyond. Three weeks, with not much other work to do, can gobble up more pages than I realized.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door.

‘It’s a parcel for you,’ my sister shouted.

‘For me?’

‘Yes, for you.’

I went to the door and signed for the package the postman handed over.

I looked at the label. It was from the person who had recommended the book by Shafak. I could tell immediately the parcel contained a book. And it

It resonated strongly with me as I read it on the plane home.

The book was clearly a labour of love, and the ‘rules,’ even though not to be found in that form in the words of Shams of Tabriz or Rumi, feel authentic in the sense that their original roots are in the ground of Rumi’s writing even if they have now been transplanted into a modern soil. And to be honest the rules don’t really read as rules most of the time: they are more like attempts to pin down some eternal truths about spiritual reality which we can use to guide our conduct if we wish.

A story with a different version in the book can be found in Wikipedia:

One day Rumi was reading next to a large stack of books. Shams Tabriz, passing by, asked him, “What are you doing?” Rumi scoffingly replied, “Something you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the unlearned.) On hearing this, Shams threw the stack of books into a nearby pool of water. Rumi hastily rescued the books and to his surprise they were all dry. Rumi then asked Shams, “What is this?” To which Shams replied, “Mowlana, this is what you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the learned.)

This again at least to some extent relates to the right (heart) and left (head) brain issue. Even more importantly though is the fact that the book illustrates powerfully the impact on Rumi of this encounter. It is confirmed by all the stories that have come down through time. It catapulted Rumi from scholar to poet.

I have finally twigged one of the main causes of the strong impact on me of this book, which initially puzzled me more than  a little. It wasn’t just to do with its spirituality. Reading it has forcefully catapulted me back to the consideration of poetry, and a particular kind of poetry at that.

More of that and David Gascoyne next time.


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Van Gogh decided to concentrate on portraits . . . . In this field, he resolved to surpass photography, which, he felt, remained lifeless at all times, while ‘painted portraits have a life of their own, which springs straight from the painter’s soul and which no machine can approach.’

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh pages 311-12)

At the end of the previous post, I flagged up Julia Brigg’s book on Virginia Woolf, a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within it there are a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

I indicated that before plunging deep into Woolf’s approach to consciousness I was going to take a look at some paintings. They’re easier to use as an initial illustration of what I will be exploring.

Capturing Consciousness in Paint

I’ve blogged already about how the portraits painted by Alice Neel captivated me some time back, and how at roughly the same time I was reacquainting myself with David Jones, the poet, and discovering that he was also a painter.

Between them they illustrate clearly what I want to explore in more detail in a moment, mainly in terms of Virginia Woolf as novelist.

When we look at one of Alice Neel’s collection of souls (she termed herself a ‘collector of souls’) what am I seeing? Does she paint the appearance of the person or is she trying to capture her awareness, her impression of the person? There is a difference. I am aware that no painting could exclude some degree of subjectivity. What I am trying to tease out is whether some artists are more concerned to convey the contents of their consciousness, rather than to simply capture a faithful and exact likeness of the subject, and that this tendency can vary along a spectrum.

Rhoda Myers 1930 by Alice Neel (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

Rhoda Myers 1929 (scanned from Belcher and Belcher)

Rhoda Myers

If we look at a portrait she painted of a close friend at the time, alongside a photograph taken of the same friend within twelve months, it might give us some clues. I have cropped the portrait at just below shoulder level, as the almost skeletal body of the figure would load the dice too far when we come to compare a cosy coat in the photograph with the exposed nude in the painting.

Even so the painting is darker. To be honest, if I didn’t know, I wouldn’t realise they are pictures of the same person.The accompanying text in the book of paintings suggests that Rhoda Myers is somehow resisting the painter and this is what is being picked up (Lewison: page 76). My sense is that, because Neel knew that Myers was drifting inexorably towards marriage and hated the idea of someone choosing domesticity over art as well as leaving her coterie in the process, this is what we see projected into the image as well. The question that the Belchers raise in their biographies of Rhoda and Alice seems more to the point (page 128): ‘Did her own turbulent emotions distort Rhoda’s face?’ If so, do we feel that this was to a significant extent, so that what we are doing when we look at the picture is entering Neel’s mind rather than the objective world. I suspect the painting has crossed this line.

I’m not discussing here whether what Neel conveys of her inscape adds to the value of the portrait: I’m simply saying that some mapping of her mind is taking place. The question of quality will come up later.

Lady Prudence Pelham 1930 by David Jones (scanned from The Art of David Jones: vision and memory by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills)

Prudence Pelham 1935 (scanned from David Jones: engraver, soldier, painter, poet by Thomas Dilworth)

Prudence Pelham

Similarly is David Jones not trying to paint reality but to paint his consciousness of reality which includes pulling items into his picture from his activated associative map?

When, early in his career, his portraits are relatively close in appearance to the subject, this may not be a major issue as we see when we compare his painting of Lady Prudence Pelham above with a reasonably contemporary photograph. Even so, the person in the photo lacks the aura the painting lends her, and not because she’s five years older: the aura is a projection of what is in Jones’ mind. As Bankes and Hills explain (page 86-88), ‘He fell in love with her spirit, wit and originality. . . He was . . . in awe of her courage, for she suffered from incurable and encroaching sclerosis, which gave her constant pain and prevented her sculpting; . . . [her] portrait . . . conveys fragility and radiance in equal measure. . . We are in no doubt about the strength of spirit that underlies Prudence’s frail physical beauty, and which touched Jones so profoundly.’ They point out she dominates her surroundings ‘that are rendered with a sketchiness that make all subservient to her.’

I have to add one more comment of my own into the mix. I do not know if Jones had read Yeats’ A Prayer for my Daughter. I suspect not. Even though Yeats met him on one occasion, Jones did not seem well-disposed to his work. Even so, the presence of a bellows in the bottom right hand corner of the picture rang bells for me.

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

I am assuming that, if he had read the poem, Prudence would be on display as an example of the exact opposite of the type Yeats disdainfully describes in the poem. Either way, my picking up on what might have been an incidental detail and using it to read Jones’ mind is an approach his later pictures require if they are to be properly understood, in my view.

Female Warden during the Blitz (scanned from Bankes and Hills again)

Female Warden during the Blitz

To illustrate this possibility I have chosen a fairly straightforward picture of the Female Warden during the Blitz (Bankes and Hills – page 130), straightforward in the sense that it is very obvious where the Warden is standing and that she is in uniform, but there are all sorts of anomalies as well that bring other associations with them. Bankes and Hills link it thematically to a picture too complex to bring in here, Aphrodite in Aulis. They comment (page 130):

Whereas Aphrodite relates Greek myth to the present, the small drawing Female Warden during the Blitz . . . is a more private fantasy triggered by London in wartime. . . . The carpentering of the image is strong: ‘W’ stands out in bold on her helmet; three chevrons on her sleeve and an arrow on the wall behind point downwards to the low doorway to her right. Cigarette and torch in hand, like a sexy usherette she wards the entry both to pleasure and to the underworld.

They equate the cat to the soldiers near to the chained Aphrodite in his other picture.

For me they leave too many important question unanswered.

Why is she falling asleep? Is this simply an accurate depiction of a sleep-deprived warden he saw on the street, or does it have some other connotation meaningful to him, to do perhaps with our sleep-walking into war at the expense of women?

Why is the uniformed leg so grossly enlarged? Does it evoke a sense of male soldiers in uniform with all that this implies about war as being prosecuted mainly by the men it also kills? He was traumatised by his experiences of the First World War and I feel such thoughts could not have been too far from his mind.

Does it go further than that? The ‘W’ could simply stand for ‘Warden,’ but might it not also signify ‘Woman’? The significance of the cat notwithstanding, Bankes and Hills seem to ignore the obvious point that the female air-raid warden embodies both soldier in combat and captured Aphrodite. She therefore, for me, embodies the all-too-frequent grotesque and unequal conflict between feminine sexuality and male aggression, female nurturing and male destruction.

And we are invited to speculate more than they do, I feel, about where the door leads. The underworld, yes. Maybe even hell, in more Christian terms that would make sense to the Catholic in Jones. May be even simply being underground, in the sense of dead and buried, something many must have been uncomfortably aware of as they fled the bombs down tube station steps? Certainly not just some nightclub, as we all seem to agree.

And if Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty and procreation, not just of pleasure, are not all these positives scarred and disfigured if not destroyed by war, and might this be in part what the image is representing in terms of what is in Jones’ mind?

It may be worth explicitly acknowledging at this point that, while Jones’ conscious intention may have been the driving force behind the allusive nature of his painting, even he would have agreed that he may have ended up communicating more than he consciously intended. From experience I have learned that my poems are often saying more than I realise at the moment of composition. Unconscious responses leak whatever our avowed intentions. That doesn’t, though, in my view, detract from the main thrust of my argument here: it simply extends it.

Where next?

I needn’t labour it any more, I think. This is a picture of his mind, not of the world outside, and it is impossible to take it as a literal representation of the world out there. His many other more complex paintings for me testify to how his experience as a cartographer in the First World War equipped him in a way to paint maps of his mind, and the associative networks within it, as it reacted to experience, myth and art.

So, are Neel and Jones therefore closer than they seem even though we appear to see a person first and foremost in her paintings and in his we see something more like a map? They may be both trying to do the same thing in different ways, to capture consciousness at the moment it is triggered by the world. They may only be differing in the lengths to which they are prepared to go in pursuit of the elusive goal of rendering consciousness visible in line and colour. Neel was notoriously hostile to abstraction in art: Jones’ position was more nuanced.

Mapping consciousness to this degree is perhaps a logical extension of an aspect of Impressionism in art and free indirect speech in the novel, so therefore not entirely unique to the Twentieth Century, though its manifestations were more extreme in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m not contending that this is the sole criterion for judging a work of art but it is a key one for my purposes as a student of consciousness.

Which brings us to Woolf’s amazing ability to make consciousness accessible in words on a page. More, much more of that next time including some key quotes from her diaries.

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Sow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of thy heart.

(Persian Hidden Words, No. 33: Bahá’u’lláh)

Rings of Self Intuition

In the past I have made various attempts to articulate what I mean by reflection and why it matters. This is one that seems worth re-publishing at this point. This is the final one of the weekend, and the last will come out on Tuesday.

In the previous post I had come to the conclusion that some problems cannot be solved by reason alone even when we saturate our mind in the available information. It is then, I felt, that we need to become aware that intense thought, marinating the mind as it does in the details of a complex situation, is also doing something else. The contents of surface consciousness are seeping down to deeper levels of awareness with access to other powerful but essentially non-verbal methods of problem solving and decision-making.

We are not yet required to invoke any kind of spiritual concept. There’s plenty of evidence to support the notion that many creative and problem-solving processes are at work beneath the surface of ordinary consciousness. They deliver the fruits of their labours in dreams or else in unexpected flashes of insight when we are walking, cooking, meditating or simply day-dreaming.

This makes it seem legitimate to see the processes of effortful thought as a form of seed sowing. Most of the time most of us don’t realise that this is what we are doing. This is partly because we’ve never been told that this is what can happen. Also there can be such a lapse of time between rumination and insight we don’t really connect the two, rather like a gardener who forgets what he planted last year when it flowers this spring.

This makes it clear that accessing intuition takes time. It also requires us to be alert for the subtle and often whispered promptings of the subliminal mind. We do not by and large pay attention to our dreams and we are often too distracted by the treadmill of our daily tasks and routines to notice the signs of the fleeting presence of a preconscious insight. We haven’t even learned to expect it or value its wisdom. I have dealt with this in more detail elsewhere. For present purposes it is enough to say that slowing down, silencing the distracting contents of my mind and catching the butterflies of insight in the net of consciousness are vital skills to practice everyday. Once an insight comes I find it necessary to use the notebook I carry with me all the time to write it down: I have learned that if I do not, that butterfly of wisdom is usually gone for ever.

The evidence for the existence of this kind of process is well documented. The authors, Edward Kelly and Michael Grosso, in the brilliant, exhaustive but for some possibly exhausting book Irreducible Mind, adduce examples of this before explaining that inspiration (page 441):

. . . is essentially the intrusion into supraliminal consciousness of some novel form of order that has gestated somewhere beyond its customary margins. The content of such inspirations can vary widely in character, scope, completeness, but psychologically the process is fundamentally the same throughout its range.


What’s my take on this?

In the meditation evening experience I posted about recently, I spoke of the discussion we had about how we should react when creative and problem-solving ideas come to us in meditation. It’s a dilemma for me but it illustrates the main point I am making in this post.

I meditate every morning for at least 20 minutes. Typically the first few minutes go well. My mind settles and I have little or no trouble focusing on my mantram or my breath, whichever is the centre of my attention at the time. Then, as my mind quietens down more completely, it happens. If I have been agonising over what to do about some problem or other, a possible and plausible solution comes to mind. Or if I am stuck in my drafting of a post for this blog, the possibly perfect development comes to mind.

Big dilemma!

What do I do?

If I steer my mind back to my breathing or my mantram for the next ten minutes or whatever is left of my meditation period, you can bet your life I will have forgotten what the idea was. If I distract myself from the breath or the mantram by reminding myself regularly of what I had thought I’m not really meditating anymore. My mind it split. And even though someone suggested it is fine to do this, I cannot reconcile myself to focusing on the idea rather than the mantram or breath for the rest of the time.

So, right or wrong, what I do is thank my subliminal self for the inspiration, pause the timer and jot down the ideas in the notebook I keep at my side during meditation. It just doesn’t feel right to reject the gift, especially when, in a sense, I have asked for guidance by sweating over the problem or the draft for ages already. Once the idea is captured I restart the timer and go back to my meditation.

For me this is a regular occurrence and usually the ideas I receive stand the test of implementation and are better than I had been able to create by conscious effort alone. There is no doubt in my mind at all that my intuitive, creative or subliminal self is a lot smarter in many ways than my conscious self. It may even be more authentically who I truly am, or at least far closer to that core of being if it exists, as I have come to believe it does.

For my own purposes I have developed a mock equation as a mnemonic for my preferred approach to deepening my understanding of an issue. This approach, in interaction with experience, involves using meditation as a means of accessing the products of my subliminal thought processes in combination with reading and writing. So, I move in and out of active/passive  engagement with experience through reading, writing and reflection, my three Rs.

Reflection is a term that cuts both ways: it can be used to describe the workings of the intellect – labeled deliberation, in the previous post, to avoid confusion –  or the process of meditation, in which we pull back from identifying with the usual contents of our consciousness. Both processes of reflection and their product are very different from the knee-jerk reactions of instinct described in the first post of this sequence.

So, E + 3R = I, where I = Insight and E stands for Experience. This is one of the roles the writing of this blog is meant to execute.

Where next?

If we add spirituality into the mix, then we would also be considering two other possible aspects of this process.

First we could potentiate our chances of being inspired with the best possible solution if we prayed and reflected upon Scriptures relevant to our dilemma or problem.

Secondly, we would be prepared to consider the possibility that there is a part of our nature that is not reducible to our brain and body, something that is more like a transceiver than a calculator, that has access to a universal mind, an Anima Mundi, a repository at the very least of all the accumulated wisdom of preceding ages, and possibly beyond that of all ages past and yet to come. This was very much the position that the poet William Butler Yeats espoused. The introduction to Albright’s Everyman edition of Yeats’s poems puts it succinctly (page xxi):

He came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s general soul.

But more of the spiritual side next time.

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Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he 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.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

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

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.


Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)


In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan



Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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I didn’t explain when I wrote this sequence of posts where the second-hand book shop was located. Given that I am showering posts this week about books bought in Hay-on-Wye there are no prizes for guessing right. This is the last in the sequence: the first was posted on Thursday, the second was posted yesterday.

Having explained some of the probable origins of my default position of uncertainty and explored Croce’s explanation of James’s version of that state of mind in his book Science & Religion in the Era of William James, only one thing remains to be done, I think.

And as for me?

Now, I want to briefly explore how my faith and my doubt can so tranquilly coexist, and perhaps why I found Croce’s exploration of William James’s uncertainty so congenial.

Just to repeat, I am chronically sceptical. I even doubt myself most of the time (for the background to some of this see previous posts). I exasperate people by checking up on anything important that they tell me if it does not gel with what I already know. When they express their legitimate irritation, I reply: ‘I don’t trust my own judgement. Why should I trust anyone else’s?’ Even when I obtain current confirmation, I regard my understanding of the point at issue as very much provisional.

Before I look at two particulars in the Bahá’í teachings perhaps I should also quote something that, to my mind. supports my checking script. Almost at the start of a core text by Bahá’u’lláh He writes:

O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

Now for the key points.

There are two main threads in Bahá’í belief, as I understand it, that make my default mode so easily tolerable.

First is the concept of progressive revelation with its connected idea that what changes are the social teachings of a religion, not its spiritual core. A brief but clear explanation comes from a Bahá’í website:

The Messenger of God reveals both spiritual truths, which are eternal, and laws belonging to a particular age. The spiritual truths are revealed according to the spiritual development of the men of that time. Thus Moses said: “Love thy neighbour as thyself,”  (4) but only the rarer spirits in His dispensation realised that Gentiles also were their neighbours. Jesus stressed that love should extend beyond the Jewish race, but still His followers were unable to grasp fully the oneness of mankind. Only recently have men progressed enough to regard the whole human race as one family, without division of colour, class or creed. Bahá’u’lláh, coming to a world prepared by the long line of earlier Messengers of God, could make this a central feature of His Teaching. All three Messengers were aware of the truth taught by Bahá’u’lláh, but until now man has not been ready to receive its full force.

Secondly, is the clear indication that Bahá’u’lláh gives that what he is explaining to us is pitched at the level of our current understanding and is not an undiluted and complete exposition of reality as He apprehends it.

O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favour! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

Both these quotations suggest that humanity’s understanding of the truth will always be incomplete, even incorrect sometimes, though it can evolve under the influence of science and revelation. Perhaps my lack of certainty is neither irrational nor irreligious.

In Bahá’í terms scripture is the City of Certitude: there is no one living now who can justifiably claim to dwell there. All any of us can now hope to do is inch a little closer to the gates. That’s why, for me, hearing a person state ‘I became a Bahá’í’ would be a declaration of intent rather than a statement of fact, no matter who said it.

Not only is scepticism about one’s own understanding healthy; as I understand it from the teachings of my faith, it’s essential. It not only makes fanaticism less likely, but it also serves to make consultation possible between people whose views and opinions differ widely. Without consultation, which is an essentially spiritual process dependent upon participants having sufficient detachment from their own views to listen effectively to the views of others, there would be no progress, or at least progress would be immeasurably retarded. A Bahá’í document entitled The Prosperity of Human Kind captures a key point:

. . . .  consultation is the operating expression of justice in human affairs. So vital is it to the success of collective endeavor that it must constitute a basic feature of a viable strategy of social and economic development. Indeed, the participation of the people on whose commitment and efforts the success of such a strategy depends becomes effective only as consultation is made the organizing principle of every project. “No man can attain his true station”, is Bahá’u’lláh’s counsel, “except through his justice. No power can exist except through unity. No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.”

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

All this might just suggest that my state of mind, far from being an unhealthy and condemnable dithering bordering on disbelief, may well be both more realistic and more constructive than the kind of certainty so conducive to the  ‘arrogance and hatred . . . peddled in the thoroughfares,’ which Yeats prayed that his daughter would be protected from. If I were certain this was true, I would not then be true to my belief in the value of uncertainty – a bit of a bind that one. As I explained earlier, I have recently republished a sequence of posts about the danger of high levels of certainty about our beliefs.

My best hope is fairly clear, even so. I can always look to refine my imperfect understanding, bringing it ever closer to what I hope is the truth but never knowing whether I have got there yet or not.

Interestingly that completely coincides with what Lamberth reports as William James’s point of view, reinforcing further my feeling that he was indeed a kindred spirit and explaining satisfactorily why I got such a buzz out of finding this second book after reading these words in the first one I had read (page 222):

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

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Yesterday I republished a post from the early days of this blog which states that I could not remember the details of the car break down dream. All these years later, as this post from February indicates, I found my original notes on the dream. It seems only fair to put the two posts together in this way. 

I was breviting through a drawer in my desk the other day, looking for an old diary to check something out, when I glimpsed at the bottom of a pile of notebooks a clump of papers with these words scribbled on the front: Dancing Flames Dream 21/04/80. I was amazed. I had no recollection of writing it. I never remembered seeing it before even though I go into this drawer quite often.

Yet it was something so important.

Why though?

Well, not least because I have always remembered the core of the dream and its main implications. These concerned how my life was getting out of balance at the time with too much emphasis on left-brain grunt work and too little on the arts, and poetry in particular. I’ve been frustrated in the past because I couldn’t recall the full details of the dream and the work I did on it. I just knew that the dream had told me that I needed to make space for poetry in my life or else.

I even blogged about it in 2009.

I explained there that 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.

I couldn’t recall all the details when I wrote the post, but the key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I described how I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. It seemed like a routine breakdown. When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. Above the engine there was golden funnel. I didn’t recognize what it was at first— then I saw it was a golden horn. I mean the instrument, by the way, not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros.

When I woke I knew that something needed explaining here. What on earth was a golden horn doing under the bonnet of my car above the engine?

William Butler YeatsHorn of Plenty

To cut a long story short, the chain of associations led me from music, creativity and song through the horn of plenty as a pun to Yeats‘ moving poem A Prayer for my Daughter.

It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

(lines 33-32)

(Before dismissing this as sexist, it’s important to take into account that there is a particular emphasis on the word ‘fine’ here which, in the context about his worries concerning his daughter’s future, is partly to do with being made proud by beauty and unconcerned about defects of character.)

There is more, fuelled by his experiences with Maude Gonne who was a bit of a political fanatic:

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind.

(lines 60-65)

There were obvious surface implications here, which I had to consider and weren’t excluded by the main message I finally took away from the dream. It was asking me how I might have undone the Horn of Plenty in some way, perhaps by disowning something important to me that the dream was trying to remind me of. What might an ‘opinionated mind’ have to do with it? What were the good things understood by ‘quiet natures’? And what, if anything, was my ‘old bellows full of angry wind’?

The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I had sold out poetry (‘song’) for prose, heart for intellect (‘the opinionated mind’), and intuition for reason and most of all was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car (an ‘old bellows’?), symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Discounting, in existential therapy, cuts both ways. You don’t solve the kind of discount I was making by throwing away the car of prosaic mechanical psychology and picking up the horn of poetry and blowing it for all your worth in everybody’s ears. You find a way of balancing both, of integrating them at a higher level of understanding, which dissolves their apparent incompatibility. You can’t drive a horn to work or play a haunting melody with an engine but you might need to find the right place for both of these in a complete life.

The dream might also have implied that I was driving myself too hard.


Detail from the mosaic floor of a Byzantine church. For source of image see link.

Dancing Flames 

Why it was so good to find these lost notes was for the more exact insights they gave into the meaning of poetry for me. They also added one crucial detail to the content of the dream that enriched my understanding further. The engine was underneath the horn. When I removed the horn I could see the engine was burning.

This had given me another key association, as my rediscovered notes explored.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

(W. B. Yeats Sailing to Byzantium – 4th stanza)

Some Valuable Insights

I don’t plan to be so boring as to regurgitate the whole undigested 13 pages of scribble about the dream, as much of it is of purely autobiographical interest. However, there are interesting flashes of insight into what I understood about poetry at the time which seem to be still relevant to my recent exploration of the nature and purpose of the poem towards the end of the Shelley sequence.

I’ll blend these insights into an expression of my current understanding.

At the start of my reflections in 1980, after spotting the Byzantium association and triggered by the connection with a car, I played with the idea of poetry as one of the possible ‘vehicles’ through which to use the fuel of my spirit for some useful purpose. Psychology alone had begun to feel inadequate for this purpose.

I speculated whether a failure to channel the passions life creates in us into some viable form risks sparking off a fire of the spirit in an explosive way. I admitted, though, that the flames in the car ‘looked beautiful dancing as they did.’

The flames came to seem like the burning of the petrol of the spirit, which is only dangerous if improperly channelled. I saw that human relationships were important to me, as they are to almost everyone, but I also saw that they are not the appropriate channel for all the ‘fury and the mire of human veins.’

I tested out the metaphor further a few lines later. The spirit (petrol in terms of the dream) fuels (gives life to) my body (the engine of the dream). When I channel the flames of life appropriately there is no danger. However, if we, as I clearly felt I had, allow the patterns of our work and our relationships to become inauthentic[1] and detached from our life force, we have bartered the ‘Horn of Plenty’ and

. . . every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellow full of angry wind.

(Yeats in A Prayer for my Daughter – stanza 8).

I shifted the focus then to art in general stating that art is an external representation of an inner state which is sufficiently expressive to communicate to other human beings an intimation of someone’s else’s experience of the world. If art, at this interface between mind and life, is successful, it distils the essential truth of the artist’s particular experiences and enables it to be transmitted to other minds. I didn’t close in, as I would now, on the possibility that art not only conveys the artist’s experience but also lifts the understanding of both poet and reader to a higher level.

I mentioned in my Shelley sequence that poetry was my substitute for religion. I have now found the evidence for this. In 1980, I wrote:

Poetry is my transcendent value or position. It gives me a perspective from which I can view the ‘complexities’ of my ‘mire and blood’ with less distress.

I went on then to explain to myself that poetry is an endorsement of my humanity. Pain, violence and lies have been inescapable aspects of human experience from the very beginning, and when seen through poetry, which offers a point of view that accepts all experience as rich in meaning, they become less agonising. Poetry and art, I tried to persuade myself, offer the possibility of incorporating the unacceptable into a pattern of grace. It welcomes raw experience of any kind as a means of achieving a more comprehensive understanding and expression of life, a greater degree of humanity.

I don’t think I placed enough emphasis on the need for achieving the best possible balance in the poem, painting or piece of music, between dark and light, though I did develop the idea to some extent. I wrote that poetry is courage, the courage to face horrors and accept them into a pattern which acknowledges pity, terror, violence, hope, joy, love and creativity. Poetry does not run away from pain, nor does it court it masochistically. Poetry faces what is there and, like all art, puts it into some kind of perspective.

Art/poetry is hope. There is no need to try and run away from hurt if hurt is there to be felt. Beauty is in the whole of life and poetry reminds you of harmony and rest even in the midst of pain and torment. Poetry reminds you of the best even in the midst of the worst. It can accept and express despair, but the very act of writing a poem somehow transcends or counteracts it. The act of writing (or committed reading) implies the hope of resolution and of the existence of other values, of understanding, of reaching out and touching, if not another mind, and at least an unperturbed and accepting part of yourself. Poetry endorses life, accepts death and always affirms.

Art which coarsens sensibility and sets people against another, or makes them more indifferent to their fellow human beings, is counter-productive. Art which draws attention to what humanity has in common, which draws us closer to each other, which is committed to life and love rather than death and hate, is the only art with any kind of value. True art loves life and abhors death and destruction. True art derives its power and meaning from the creative impulses of humanity and is a constant reminder of them.

Attempts to prostitute art for life-hating purposes and petty propaganda are abhorrent violations of art’s true purpose and nature, and should be withstood intransigently at all times. Art is humane, life enhancing, or else it is not art.

On the whole, I was glad to find these notes again and felt some of the insights were worth sharing here. I hope I was not mistaken in that and carried too much away by my own rhetoric!


[1] I was already intrigued by existential philosophy at this stage, though I was to dig much deeper in that field nearly two years later. It’s perhaps also worth saying that I was intellectually still a convinced atheist at this point, which makes the language I was choosing to use in my consideration of the poetic perhaps an indication that my heart and my head were not quite in alignment.

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In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

(MaitreyabandhuThe Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with last Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post, like the last one, constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake.

N.B. now we’re back on track after the two posts out of sequence! To read 5a now see link.

In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.

Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’

In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):

For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.

Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):

With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.

Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:

He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):

For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Psychology’s Angle

There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.

Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes).[6] There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).

The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.

The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[131]

A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:

Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.”[161] As cited by von Franz,[162] according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”[163]

I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.

The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.[178]

OatleyWhat Art can Achieve – The Novel & Consciousness-Raising:

Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.

The general point can be summarised by Geoffrey Nash’s view (from Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.

Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.

So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.

He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

In a previous sequence of posts I looked in depth at the nature of poetry, focusing in particular on the thinking of Maitreyabandhu, who has a rich and subtle take on this whole issue.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.)

We’ll come back to that quote later.

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. I want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. . . . . illuminat[ing] meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. . . . .

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative – beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert HaydenFrom the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):

. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].

If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.

I’ll follow up on that in the next post.

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