Emerson, Woolf and The Ordinary

lighthouse

Another of my essays for the MOOC course on Modernism. Title: Compare the approach to the ordinary in Emerson and Woolf.

The word ‘ordinary’ is somewhat Janus-faced. It can stand for the conventional, which Ralph Waldo Emerson (born 1803) raved against, and it can suggest the ‘unspoilt’ and ‘the unexceptional’ which Virginia Woolf took as her raw material. In this essay, I explore how Emerson and Woolf encompass some of these meanings.

The very title of one of Emerson’s essays, Self-Reliance, signals his revolt against convention. He writes,

Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times. . .

A paragraph later he wonders why we attach so much importance to royalty and the aristocracy. This is the familiar Enlightenment denunciation of privilege which came to a head in the American and French Revolutions.

Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day’s work; but the things of life are the same to both. Why all this deference to Alfred and Scanderberg and Gustavus?

In other words we are all subject to birth, disease and death on the one hand and moments of happiness on the other hand. It makes little difference whether we are kings or commoners. (Although historians often point out that those born in poverty have had a huge handicap. Anyway, Emerson was attacking the upper end of the social strata in this paragraph.)

Emerson’s view of the innate goodness of humankind can also remind us of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage.’ He writes:

What is the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded? [. . .] We note this primary wisdom as intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.

In calling upon us to be self-reliant Emerson is pointing to the opposite state of affairs; that we are mostly slaves of convention and the ideas of others. He describes us as weak figures in contrast to what exists in nature:

Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say ‘I think, I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage […] These roses under my window make no reference to former roses. . . there is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.

Along with Kant, Hegel, Diderot and Voltaire, he recognises the challenge of thinking for oneself. Remember Kant’s Sapere aude! – ‘Dare to find out.’ In this sense, the ‘ordinary’ is conflated with consensus thinking; with the dead weight of historicism. Like Rousseau he wants us to have the courage to be ‘ahistorical’ – to act from the ‘divine spark’ within. (Yes, Emerson believed in God; albeit his was a pantheistic belief.)

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motive of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a task-master.

He downgraded the tendency to seek virtue from past exemplars:

Whenever a mind is simple and receives divine wisdom, then old things pass away – means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now and absorbs past and future into the present hour. [. . .] The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul.

Virginia Woolf not only embraced ‘the ordinary’ but, like a Zen Master, elevated it to ‘the extraordinary.’ In one of her last diary entries, written in 1941, she more than hints at her technique of writing fiction:

I mark Henry James’ sentence – observe perpetually. Observe the outcome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. I find that it’s seven and I must cook dinner, haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.

Other lexical relatives of the word, ‘ordinary’ include, mundane, humdrum and routine. The repetitive, oppressive nature of life has been humorously portrayed in the film, Groundhog Day and more chillingly in Albert Camus’s essay, Sisyphus. Woolf’s evocation of the extraordinary amongst mundane, transient phenomena can be regarded as her revolt against the temporal and the tendency to ‘package’ experience as ‘this’ or ‘that.’ Woolf often achieves this expansive view of life by describing details in a decidedly mystical tone. Here in The Waves:

You hear me breathe. You see the beetle too carrying off a leaf on its back. It runs this way, then that way, so even your desire while you watch the beetle, to possess one single thing must waver, like the light in and out of the beach leaves. . .

One of the chief characteristics of modernism is its abandonment of religious faith and moral certainties. Lily, in To the Lighthouse, expresses it well:

The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

In the novel Lily’s painting is symbolic of the aesthetic outlook; to make something permanent within the impermanent:

In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability.

To bring some of these themes up to date: to live without a ‘comfort blanket’ belief in God is not difficult today. But to live a life of self-reliance and scepticism towards all consensus thinking requires inner resolution and courage. To resist rampant consumerism and negotiate a path through fake news and outright lies tests one’s faith in humankind. What can we rely on, apart from our own moral compass amidst today’s cultural convulsions? In the ordinary course of life we too easily think that what we have is permanent; status, health, possessions, relationships and so on. It can come as a shock that nothing we have is permanent. Woolf portrays this aspect of contemporary life vividly in her novels.

Emerson had a bulkhead against modernist angst – he had a religious faith. Woolf, on the other hand is more representative of modernism’s uncertainties and shifting sands. Her ‘despondency’ ended in suicide.

The etymological roots of the word ‘ordinary’ include the verb ‘to order’ in the sense of to arrange. Woolf’s existential/secular independence resulted in a modest, limited solution to the challenges of existence. She selected and ‘ordered’ words in paragraphs to create a fictional world which reflected the fragmentary, subjective world revealed by science, psychology and politics in the twentieth century.

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Virginia Woolf Versus Sigmund Freud

Virginia-Woolf-dog

Another essay for my MOOC course on Modernism. The title is: Freud wrote that art was a ‘palliative measure’ that helped people cope with suffering. Discuss his view and how it compares with the views of art and aesthetics of Virginia Woolf.

Sigmund Freud’s and Virginia Woolf’s views about art are diametrically opposed. Freud views art as ‘escapism’ or ‘sublimation’ whereas Woolf sees art as a means of shedding light on the human condition. If we go to see a production of Hamlet, we don’t feel we have been merely entertained; we feel that the play has delved beneath the surface of experience and revealed complex truths about life. Yet, Freud would not elevate the experience in this way. He relegates art to being a soporific prophylactic; a mere diversion from suffering. His psychoanalytical ‘science’ alone is the means by which truth is revealed.

Freud had read Darwin and he, therefore, positioned human beings alongside the rest of the animal kingdom in primarily seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. In Civilisation and its Discontents he explicitly writes that art is a sublimation of the libido:

Another method of guarding against pain is by using the libido-displacements. . . This kind of satisfaction, such as the artist’s joy in creation in embodying his fantasies. . . has a special quality which one day we shall be able to define.

He sees the artist as expressing feelings in the form of fantasies and the recipient (viewer, reader, listener) merely tunes into those same fantasies! As consumers of art he says this:

Those who are sensitive to the influence of art do not know how to rate it high enough as a source of happiness and consolation in life. Yet art affects us but as a mild narcotic and can provide no more than a temporary refuge for us from the hardships of life; its influence is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.

We may concur with the very last phrase but the overall tone is reductionist. This devaluation of art has a long history (Plato banned poets from his Republic!) and can be noted today in various examples of ‘escapism’ – listening to background music, reading detective novels, watching ‘reality television’ and soap operas. Even ‘serious art’ is often regarded as ‘the icing on the cake’ – not to be compared to the pioneering advances in science and technology.

It is not that Freud dismisses art; he just takes a biographical, psychotherapeutic approach to artistic creations. Hence, he analyses Shakespeare and Leonardo in terms of neuroses and defence mechanisms. He admires Dostoevsky but has nothing to say about landscape or abstract art. He is seemingly indifferent to the value or quality of the art-as-object itself. He does, however, see the compensatory value of art as positive as it acts as a safety valve for unconscious desires which otherwise would be expressed in violence or other anti-social acts. (Is this view tenable today?)

Where one can agree with Freud is in his view of the palliative effect of appreciating art – an engagement with art provides considerable pleasure – Schopenhauer even went so far as to say art was the only thing which mitigated against the misery of life! Unfortunately, Freud allowed his psychoanalytical work to obscure the many other attributes of art; there is a whole philosophy of aesthetics which would have left Freud floundering had he been exposed to a fraction of these ideas. (see, for example, Aesthetics by Colin Lyas.)

In To the Lighthouse, Lily would seem to portray Woolf’s position regarding art. Throughout the novel, she is intent on finishing her painting and at the very end of the novel she ‘draws a line there.’ in a moment of intensity and says, ‘It was done; it was finished. . . I have had my vision.’

It is a small epiphany and parallels Woolf’s completion of her novel. Earlier, Lily shows she is aware of the difficulties of authentic expression in art, talking of the imagination:

It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on. . . let it come, she thought, if it will come.

Yet, she also seems to have done what William Blake did; see the world anew, if not in each moment, occasionally:

One wanted to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.

Visual artists are practised in seeing the world in this way; they notice subtle tones of colour and textures. They use their eyes with great intention and deliberation. Lily at one point is ‘screwing up her eyes and standing back as if to look at her picture, which she was not touching.’ Woolf’s writing is quite visual; there are the descriptions of close up details and of far distant views. This switching of viewpoint is a method of portraying the complexity of life. Lily muses: ‘So much depends on distance; whether people are near us or far from us.’ And James says about the lighthouse when it looks different from a previous view, ‘For nothing was simply one thing. The other was the Lighthouse too.’

Woolf, along with many artists, sees the creative process as mysterious:

[…] here I am sitting, crammed with ideas, and visions, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now, this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it [. .]

R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) argued that making art comes before having concrete ideas or feelings. In this view, making art is an exploration and the artist does not know in advance what the outcome will be. The motivation is not the discharge of a neurosis; it is an attempt to make a representation of experience; to say something about the human condition and society. The means of saying this is as important as the content.

Woolf uses the ‘stream of consciousness’ to suggest the transitory, the numinous and a spiritual dimension to life. Freud dismisses religious experience as infantile and has a reductionist agenda regarding all spiritual experience. In contrast, Virginia Woolf sees her task as ‘cleansing the doors of perception’ (in William Blake’s words) so that everything might appear infinite. Hers is an expansive vision; Freud’s is claustrophobic.

Additional References:

R. G. Collingwood, Quoted in Art Theory; A Very Short Introduction, Cynthia Freeland, Oxford University Press, 2001

Colin Lyas, Aesthetics, Routledge, 1997.

Bronowski’s Blake

bronowski book image

Some people & not a few Artists have asserted that the Painter of this Picture would not have done so well if he had been properly Encourag’d. Let those who think so, reflect on the State of Nations under Poverty & their incapability of Art; tho’ Art is Above Either, the Argument is better for Affluence than Poverty; & tho’ he would not have been a greater Artist, yet he would have produc’d Greater works of Art in proportion to his means.

In this quote from Blake he is talking of himself in the third person! However, it also brings to the fore the relationship of all artists to society and vice versa. How important are the Arts in society? How much value does the public attach to writers, artists and musicians in the UK for instance? Some commentators think of the English as philistines! The Irish in contrast are lovers of literature. How much can the state support and encourage the Arts is a perennial question. Be that as it may I leave the question open as I am simply ‘thinking aloud’ in this post and have not any particular thesis to advance!

What prompted me to post is that I have been reading Jacob Bronowski’s William Blake. When it was first published in 1944 it got the reputation of being a Marxist analysis. He puts Blake fairly and squarely in the industrial and economic conditions of his time. This is why I find it a revealing read. In my book I am focusing on Blake’s spiritual message and it is useful to have a historical counterpart. Bronowski wasn’t the first to highlight the social and economic conditions of Blake’s world, but perhaps he painted Blake as a man of his time much more than as a visionary poet/artist.

In the first chapter he states his aim:

The Life of Blake and his thought. . . are there in the history of the time; in the names of Pitt, of Paine, and of Napoleon; in the hopes of rationalists, and in the despair of craftsmen. Unless we know these, we shall not understand Blake’s poems, we shall not understand his thought, because we shall not speak his language.

And here, just one example, showing how property had become more important than human beings:

When Locke wrote in 1690 there were fewer than 50 hanging crimes. By the time Blake was a boy (1767) there were 150. Most of the new hanging crimes were crimes against wealth. Men were hanged for stealing a few shillings from a shop.

He does however, see Blake as a revolutionary thinker. The question of how much we can change society for the better and how much any change in society can change us as individuals is analysed in these nicely nuanced paragraphs:

There must be an end to wilful famine. Man must be set free, to make his good. But he must make his good, himself. It is not a grace given to him, even by revolutions. They can give him the means to be good. . . Revolutions can free him from self-interest. . . but they have not then remade man; they have freed him to remake himself.

For Blake, who knew that the French Revolution had made a better society, knew also that it had not made a good society. He did not believe that societies can be good. They can be means to good: as means they can be better or worse: they can be good for an end, and for a time; but, because they are means, they cannot be good in themselves. Blake did not shirk the contraries, from his society to a better society. He did not lack the fire raging against content, and raging to remake society. . .But Blake did not shirk the heavier knowledge, that a society remade will remain a society to be remade. The society remade will take on the same rigour of death, unless in turn it submits to progress through its new contrary. The contraries of thesis and antithesis do not end.

I have always been suspicious of political activists for this reason; they too often seek to change society before changing themselves. If we remain at the mercy of inner hatred, envy and greed how can we expect society to be free of these destructive elements? Krishnamurti almost made this point his battle-cry! And it is, clearly, the position of all spiritual traditions. My thesis, in my book, is also founded on this position. It is not a question of ignoring society or withdrawing from it. Blake was pretty much engaged in society most of his life although he had his moments of isolation and despair. The Buddhist position is that once a person no longer acts from selfish desires (hatred, greed and delusion) they will be in a better position to contribute to the common good.

Anyone interested in Blake will enjoy Bronowski’s book – those interested in social history especially so. He goes into much detail about working conditions, commerce and vested interests.

We no longer send children up chimneys, we no longer employ children in factories in the UK but I wonder, have we made all that much progress? How much ‘work’ is enhancing? Isn’t the majority of ‘work’ wage-slavery? I’m lucky because I am retired and can pursue interests which are life-enhancing. I try and do my bit to care for the environment such as re-cycling and being in Friends of the Earth. We now know that there has been a huge environmental price to pay for our consumer life-styles. Something has to change if we want a world fit for our children to live fulfilling lives in.

Nietzsche, Part Two: Who am I?

ecce homo pic

In this Part Two I explore Nietzsche’s view of the self and compare it to the Buddhist view. I also examine what Nietzsche meant by freedom and what existential freedom can be for us today.

I should emphasise that Nietzsche is never prescriptive although his aphoristic style gives the impression that he is. I don’t have the same qualms about being non-prescriptive!

When I was a teenager – and perhaps being unsociable – my mother would often say to me, “Be yourself, Eric.” Needless to say this irritated me because I sensed an ulterior message of ‘be who I want you to be.’

Of course adolescence is the prime time to explore who we are. However, the question is far from straight-forward. Some people seem to arrive at their ‘identity’ as if there were a ready-made mould simply to be filled. They then spend the remainder of their lives reasonably content with their roles: teacher, lawyer, bus driver, builder, wife, husband and so on. Their role and the people they meet contribute to a ‘hardening’ of their character. No doubt many continue to grow psychologically and spiritually, but many others live out their lives ‘being someone else.’ (That is, living The Looking Glass Self – Charles Horton Cooley coined this term to express how the self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us.)

Eric Berne was among the first to describe how assigned roles can suffocate us and in the last 50yrs or so the burgeoning market of self-awareness courses and books has encouraged us to examine our identities and question our very thoughts and feelings in order to find out ‘who we are.’

Is it possible that Nietzsche was thinking along these lines? The sub-title of his Ecce Homo is the wonderfully pregnant aphoristic, Becoming Who You Are! And in Untimely Meditations this aphorism is even more to the point:

All that you are now, doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself. (my emphasise)

As we saw in Part One Nietzsche denies that there is a permanent, unchanging self – he seems to confirm David Hume’s insight that thoughts and feelings come and go independently of any agent. Buddhism has the same idea or rather, insight, with its anatta – here is a definition taken from a Buddhist Dictionary:

As applied to man it states that there is no permanent ego or self. . . which make up the personality. The Buddha, however, nowhere denied the existence of an ego, but taught that no permanent entity. . . can be found in any of the human faculties.

Here, for comparison is a longer quote from Nietzsche:

Owing to the phenomenon ‘thought’, the ego is taken for granted; but up to the present everybody believed. . . that there was something unconditionally certain in the notion ‘I think’, and that by analogy with our understanding of all other causal reactions this ‘I’ was the given cause of the thinking. However customary and indispensable this fiction may have become now, this fact proves nothing against the imaginary nature of its origin; it might be a life-preserving belief and still be false.

Will to Power; 483

And it is obvious that Nietzsche sees the individual as a ‘ community of selves,’ – and that the free spirit is aware of the multiplicity and harmonises the community. I think his ”will to power’ is the harmonising factor. Just one quote:

The highest man would have the highest multiplicity of drives in the relatively greatest strength that can be endured. Indeed, where the plant ‘human being’ shows itself strongest one finds instincts that conflict powerfully but are controlled.

Will to Power, 966

Some people, when they first come across this idea of ‘no-self’ (or the notion that they don’t originate their thoughts) begin to experience panic, as if they are going to somehow disappear or disintegrate. Of course it can be unsettling and that is all to the good. However, Buddhism is not saying the self is a complete illusion or that we should not act as if we were individual agents with free will. It is rather like the physicists’ description of reality consisting of indeterminate sub atomic particles in an endless energetic flux. We don’t go around (unless you are a quantum physicist!) visualising this sub atomic world; tables and trees are still solid to all intents and purposes. By analogy the self is separate and acting-on-the-world – but, there is a deeper reality also there once we question appearances.

It was Heraclitus who said we never step in the same river twice. Nietzsche too sees everything in a state of flux or ‘becoming.’ He also echoes Eckhart Tolle’s insistence that the ‘present moment’ is the only reality:

the present must not under any circumstances be justified by a future nor must the past be justified for the sake of the present. . . Strictly speaking nothing of the nature of Being must be allowed to remain – because in that case Becoming loses its value. .

Will to Power 708

And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

But the best parables should speak of time and becoming: they should be a eulogy and a justification of all transitoriness.

If we think of present-moment moments when we were, say transfixed by the beauty of a bird’s song, or moved by a painting, we can clearly see that we are much more than our thoughts and feelings or even our memories. In that moment consciousness is heightened and the ‘small self’ transcended. We are not aware of ourselves as a ‘particular person’ or as ‘someone’ carrying out a particular role.

As I stated in Part One, we today have a tremendous advantage over Nietzsche; many of us are incorporating meditational practices into our lives. For example the Buddhist anatta is not mere philosophy or metaphysics – it can be a real aid for us in letting thoughts and feelings pass though consciousness. I’m thinking of the problematic or painful thoughts of course, but it applies to all thoughts really. If I keep having the thought that ‘so and so ignores my emails because he isn’t interested in my ideas’ I may slip into a whole narrative of judgemental thoughts and end up in self-loathing. We may be able to accept the idea, ‘don’t believe everything you think,’ but ‘don’t believe everything you feel,’ is much more difficult. Most of the time we invest our identity in what we think and especially what we feel. Buddhism says this is delusive and I think Nietzsche is saying something similar. Getting to know how our minds work and the tricks they play on us is all part of what today is called mindfulness. I know of no other method other than some sort of mind-awareness practice such as mindfulness – which can enable us to respond in freedom to circumstances. If we are not self-aware in this respect we will be reactive to life, always acting from conditioning, rather than proactive. Where Nietzsche isn’t prescriptive, we can be prescriptive. (Even a book like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talks of changing the obsolete scripts we were handed out in childhood/during our education etc.)

Another area where there is a huge overlap between Buddhism and Nietzsche is in the acknowledgement of suffering as part of life and how to incorporate it positively into our lives. As we saw in Part One Nietzsche’s solution is in his amor fati – to praise in spite of. Buddhism sees the cause of suffering (secondary suffering that is, as explained in Part One) as ‘grasping’ at things which we think will be advantageous to us and rejecting what we think will be disadvantageous.

Ahjan Chah emphasises that mindfulness of our likes and dislikes is a constant effort, not for the faint-hearted!

The Dhamma (Teaching) of the Buddha is profound and refined. It isn’t easy to comprehend.. If true wisdom has not yet arisen you can’t see it. . . When you experience happiness you think there will be only happiness. Whenever there is suffering you think there will only be suffering. You see only one side and thus it’s never-ending. There are two sides to everything; you must see both. Then when happiness arises, you don’t get lost; when suffering arises, you don’t get lost.. .. you see that they are interdependent.

Food For the Heart.

I am afraid if we want to be really free existentially and spiritually we will have to go against the current of accepted values and opinions. Nietzsche of course exemplifies this alone-ness. Here he is writing about the pioneer, ‘we free spirits’.

Solitude, that dread goddess. . . encircles him . . who today knows what solitude is? . . .If once he hardly dared to ask ‘Why so apart, so alone, renouncing all I loved? Already hearing the answer.

You had to become master over yourself. . of your own good qualities. Formerly they were your masters. You had to acquire power over your Yes and No and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims.” (my emphasis)

Human, All too Human

If we can become more all-embracing in our attitude to life and less self-concerned we will find our sense of self changing; I have had to incorporate my experience of depression into the context of Buddhist training and it has meant going into some very dark places. Once the journey has been started it is likely painful memories and feelings will surface. We use right effort and patient endurance to convert the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion into generosity, compassion and wisdom. Likewise, Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ is a good antidote to akrasia ( the inability to act according to our good judgement) and helps us to keep our minds receptive to new experiences and to grow in self-knowledge.

Although Nietzsche is all too often associated with wilfulness, and Dionysian abandon, one of his last acts before insanity overtook his last years, was to throw his arms around an ill-treated horse in an act of empathy. And who said he never wrote about love?

To have travelled the whole circumference of the modern soul, and to have sat in all its corners – my ambition, my torment, and my happiness. (sounds like becoming friends with hatred, greed and delusion to me!) Veritably to have overcome pessimism, and, as the result thereof, to have acquired the eyes of Goethe – full of love and goodwill.

The Will to Power, 1031

Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

penguin nietzsche reader

Dipping into Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

Part One

Nietzsche is both a heroic and tragic figure. He epitomises the individualist; the person who finds the ordinary conventions and values of life trivial and stultifying. Who cannot be moved by the picture of him striding over the mountain tops, ‘6000 feet beyond man and time’, when ‘the abysmal thought’ came unannounced into his mind.

Nietzsche’s master- stroke is his much misunderstood Eternal Recurrence. The relevant passage is from The Gay Science/The Joyful Wisdom:

The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life
to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann, translator

Buddhist metaphysical ideas about karma are too complex to go into detail here but suffice it to say that everything we have thought or done in the past determines the sort of person we are in the present. One saying which has become common currency is – what we think today determines who we are tomorrow, which suggest it is widely understood outside of Buddhism. Here is a simple example of how we could create negative karma: if we are nasty to people habitually, one of the consequences is likely to be a lack of friends. If we are always criticising others we will suffer consequences; probably again people will avoid us. Why bother? (some might say!) The whole point of Buddhist training for me from the beginning was that I was sick of myself; I wanted to do something about myself. I wanted to change! (Keep this in mind as you will come across the same idea in Ivan Osokin’s story.) Any genuine spiritual training addresses these questions, ‘is it possible to change for the better? Is it possible to find lasting peace of mind?’ Surely everyone of us, if we are honest and have enough courage for self-reflection, has regrets about our past? (Not that many of us are like Edith Piaf with her Je ne Regrette – although perhaps she was only putting Nietzsche’s philosophy into practice?)

I wrote the above before I’d read the relevant chapter in Alexander Nahamas’, Nietzsche, Life as Literature. He dismisses a cosmological view of eternal recurrence preferring to interpret Nietzsche’s idea in psychological terms. His chapter devoted to Nietzsche’s idea is of considerable subtlety so I will merely pick out a few of the peaks and ‘free-associate’ a little.

It is vital to grasp that although Nietzsche describes his insight as ‘that abysmal thought’ – he paradoxically sees it as the ultimate spiritual test wherein we either succumb to life’s ills and challenges or completely accept them (how Buddhist is that!). This is how he puts it:

My formula for greatness for a human being is amor fati (love of one’s fate): that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary – but love it.

Ecce Homo

Nehamas describes how all actions, situations and circumstances are interconnected in ways which sound to me very similar to the Buddhist idea of Indra’s Net; here is a typical description:

In the realm of the god Indra a vast net stretches infinitely in all directions. In each “eye” of the net there is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever effects one jewel effects them all. The metaphor illustrates the interpenetration of all phenomena. Everything contains everything else. At the same time, each individual thing is not hindered by or confused with all the other individual things.

At the same time Nehamas wonders why Nietzsche’s demon does not offer an opportunity for us to put right the mistakes we made in our previous life/lives, instead of mechanically repeating the life as if it were fixed. (Remember Nietzsche is thinking hypothetically.) The answer is related to Nietzsche’s view of the self being non-substantive (more Buddhist parallels):

There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything. . . our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language. . (This ‘no self’ in Buddhism is referred to as ‘anatta’)

The Genealogy of Morals

and

our bad habit of taking a mnemonic, an abbreviated formula, to be an entity, finally as a cause, eg. to say of lightening ‘it flashes.’ Or the little word ‘I’.

Will to Power, 548

Nietzsche believes that everything is so interconnected that if one detail in an event of the past were hypothetically changed the whole event would be different. Therefore – ‘there is no thing without other things.’ We need to accept good and evil as we imagine them to be; the warp and woof of existence.

Zarathustra asks:

Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamoured; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, “You please me, happiness! Abide moment!” then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamoured.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Nehamas continues: a life that was different in any way would simply not be our life: it would be the life of a different person. To want to be different in any way is for Nietzsche to want to be different in every way; it is to want, impossible as that is, to be someone else.. . if we were to have another life it would necessarily have to be, if it were to be our life at all, the very same life we have already had.

Now, you are probably thinking that this is all very theoretical and that it doesn’t have much practical relevance for our actual lives. I personally have found that if you use Nietzsche’s idea as a ‘thought experiment’, it sheds considerable light on how we regard such things as regret, shame and contrition. One of Nietzsche’s enduring ideas is that interpretation and re-interpretation are essential approaches to experience; this is a very optimistic standpoint which may alleviate the possible pessimistic reaction to the idea of his eternal recurrence.

Other thinkers have wrestled with the problem. Consider the Russian writer, P. D. Ouspensky’s novella, The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. (Ground Hog Day uses the same idea of eternal recurrence to great effect.) Ivan – in the novella – goes to a magician and asks to be sent back to his childhood in order to live his life over again and avoid all the mistakes he’s made. As we reflect on our past mistakes, naturally shame and regret will arise and it takes courage even to look; many people will not even acknowledge they’ve made mistakes. The question Nietzsche poses is; can we embrace all of it; the joys, woes and shame together; could we go back to our childhood and welcome the magician’s deal on condition that everything would occur exactly as the first time?

If you are wondering what happened to Ivan Osokin, he goes back to his childhood and repeats his life and makes exactly the same decisions as before, because he could not remain ‘present’ to the present. In Ouspensky’s terminology he was too identified with the situations he found himself in. (This aspect of mindfulness in the present moment is not something that Nietzsche discusses (and probably isn’t familiar with?) and could be considered to be the one factor missing from his account.) It is quite moving towards the end when he has glimpses of deeper realities when he is more alert; more present. This is the magician speaking when Ivan returns to him after re-living his life:

You know that everything repeats again and again. There have been other people who made the same discovery but they could make nothing more of it. If you could change something in yourself you could use this knowledge for your own advantage. You say you have nothing. Not quite. You have your life. So you can sacrifice your life. (my emphasis)

In the story, Ouspensky could have had Ivan become aware of his habitual reactive responses to life, and hence show him able to change. (Change often happens if we acknowledge our mistakes and vow not to repeat them, and then live in the ‘Now’. ) However, to show Ivan repeating the same mistakes drives the message home, that he is pinioned to the ‘wheel of life.’ Ouspensky’s view is somewhat pessimistic compared to Nietzsche’s.

To sum up: Osokin illustrates our common experience of regret and wanting to change the past. If this regret leads to us re-orientating our lives, becoming less self-concerned then all the better. This is where Buddhism, or any genuine spiritual practice, scores over Nietzsche! Ouspensky’s story is the antithesis of Nietzsche’s view as Osokin certainly cannot accept his past. He is ultimately a ‘nay-sayer.

As I’ve tried to argue, Nietzsche does not intend the idea of Eternal Recurrence to be taken literally. It is a thought experiment to focus our attention on the will, past events, self forgiveness and a celebration of life, ‘in spite of’. No amount of thinking will enable most of us to shout a resounding ‘Yes’ to the question, ‘Would you be prepared to live your life again exactly as before?’ But it may be possible to forgive ourselves and live in the present.

This is a good place to end Part One. Part Two will be posted some time in May. For anyone new to Nietzsche I’d recommend the ‘Penguin Classic’, A Nietzsche Reader (Translation by R. J. Hollindale) in which extracts from Nietzsche’s books are arranged chronologically. There is also a humorous and accurate short video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti9zdpLlXf0

Job’s Dark Night

jobs-charity

The story of Job is at first read puzzling for Christians and open-minded atheists alike. Why would God punish a man who lived an unblemished life? As is usual with Blake, things are never as simple as on first sight!

Lets dismiss all ideas of an anthropormorphic God to start with. In any case such depictions of God in Blake are always used as symbols (and personifications) of the state of mind of the interior person, in other words they are psychological and spiritual. Blake did not believe in a transcendent God, (which he called, Nobodaddy)!

Before looking at number 5 plate ( there are 21 altogether in Blake’s Job) how about thinking about contingency in present day life. How about the person – you may be that person – who suddenly gets a diagnosis of cancer? What if your husband leaves you for a younger woman? What if your son gets addicted to heroin? What if you spend a lonely Christmas day because of mental illness? I am not being over-dramatic I hope; all these scenarios happen to millions of us! This is what the Buddha calls, Dukkha. It’s life!

So, looked at in these terms Job isn’t getting punished; he is being brought up sharp against the facts of life afer living what he thought was a ‘good’ Christian life. In fact complacency and self-righteousness is his main ‘sin.’

The flying figure in the middle of the picture is Satan or Job’s corporeal self – the self who thinks being a good husband and father is all there is to life. Forget about your childhood exposure to horned devils – in Blake’s system Satan is (among other things) any thought or feeling which sparates you from  ‘Heaven’ – or in more worldly terms – peace of mind. Remember those moments in childhood when all was well with the world – don’t dismiss those moments as childish, they were a taste of reality. As Joseph Wicksteed writes in his commentary on Job, ‘. . in Blake’s system falsity of thought can turn any act however noble to his (satan’s) ends. If we think wrong we are wrong, for Mental things are alone real, and the devil can make a virtue as damning as a vice.’ How like the Buddhist system of the Eightfold path where right thought precedes appropriate action or the Dammapada where in the beginning it says; ‘ What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday. . . our life is the creation of our mind.’

In the picture Job is giving a loaf of bread to a beggar. Very altruistic you may think. But Blake is showing us that outward acts carried out self-righteously are missing the mark. None of Blake’s system is straightforward; especially in the Book of Job he is going way beyond our humanistic, materialistic understanding. All I can do here by isolating this one picture (which in itself is a disservice to Blake!) is to point to his profundity and suggest that his system is relevant to today.

The belief that in performing works of mercy in any shape whatever we are doing something meritorious poisons every act of humanity, making it a subtly selfish  attempt to save our souls in the name of love and religion; it is, after all, the worship of Satan in the belief that it is a tribute to God. Job’s thought makes him divide his meal indeed but not something of greater worth. ” (Joseph Wicksteed.)

Harsh words indeed and probably not what most people want to hear at Christmas time! And what of the gift ‘of greater worth’? Well you will have to study the Book of Job yourself (the peak experience is plate 18) if you want to find out!

Plate 5 is early on in Job’s story. To summarise what happens, he is inflicted with boils, loses his sons and daughters, his house and his reputation. Apart from the boils, does this remind you of anyone? It is a case of pride before the fall; Job loses all his material wealth and therefore has to ask, why? and ‘what is real?’ Rather like Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich he looks back on his life and reviews it. He has to face his ‘dark night’ and salvage something of a different order to his previous material existence.

In plate 11 Job is completely alone; this is surely the bleakest point of his Dark Night of the Soul. It is a magnificent image and as Kathleen Raine says in Golgonooza – City of Imagination, ‘he is alone; as we are each alone in the darkest hour.’ Remember Satan is the self-centred ego and if we allow it dominance over our lives we will eventually end up ‘burned up’ and alone. Apparently Blake used to address his satan (remember; not the biblical devil!) as, ‘my Satan, thou art but a dunce!’ How like the advice we are given nowadays not to believe our inner self-talk.

All of Blake’s work can be applied to our self-inquiry and self-knowledge in this manner.

As I have already said, to see how Job is transformed you will have to investigate (I use the word deliberately) the Book of Job yourself. I have not said much about the incredible quality of the drawings in themselves; they are masterpieces of composition. Who can forget, once seen, the image of Behemoth and Leviathan – illustration 15?

The best way into Blake’s supremely relevant and visionary Book of Job is with the detailed dissection by Joseph Wicksteed in his Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job. Also Kathleen Raine’s book has a chapter which is brilliant.