Mahler and the Meaning of Life

This first blog of the New Year may come out as a bit crazy as I’m writing off the top of my head without any plan. Even for those of you who don’t listen to a lot of symphonies I urge you, just this once, to listen to the first 15 minutes of this! (Eschenbach and his orchestra are superlative by the way. I can’t imagine a better performance.)

Last year I wrote a long poem inspired by Mahler’s 3rd symphony, his longest. Early on in that symphony there is a trombone solo and he plays a haunting melody throughout the movement. I find something inexplicably moving about such musical devices; the solo instrument seems to stand for the individual struggling against fate, society, conditioning karma or what you will. Here in the 5th I find the trumpet solo almost unbearably moving in the same way.

Probably because of early-life trauma I have been looking for a kind of ‘perfection’ most of my life. After reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider when I was 21 I decided that ‘ordinary life’ was banal and boring and there had to be something else! (I have too many reservations about Wilson now and see his many flaws.) This has led me on a long search which has included investigating religion and spirituality (too much to itemise here), literature, poetry, wring poetry and short stories, art, practising as an artist, various hobbies and of course, relationships. On the psychological level I might term all of this seeking, ‘compensation activity.’ I can accept that I have been trying to ‘fill’ a sort of emotional ‘lack’ but does that negate the seeking after perfection? I am asking these questions as a 74 year old.

A spanner was well and truly thrown in the works when I started following the Zen Buddhist path in 1985. There is a saying in the tradition I follow, ‘to live by Zen is the same as to live an ordinary daily life.’ (Actually it is part of Dogen’s advice for meditation) Yikes; did that mean I’d spent decades wasting time and floundering about? Well, yes and no. It did mean in practical terms that I questioned my assumptions more and more and could no longer take refuge in seeing myself as an outsider or elavating art as the main purpose in life. (Schopenhauer famously believed the Arts were literally the only compensation for being born a human, such was his pessimistic view.)

As a Buddhist I try not to divide things as being inferior or superior. Walking into a shopping centre or supermarket use to throw up all sorts of judgemental thoughts such as, ‘this is mindless, what a consumer society we live in.’ Nowadays because of being more mindful I just do the shopping. ( The thoughts will still arise but I don’t dwell on them.) It may not be as enjoyable an experience as listening to Mahler but that is the Buddhist view. We don’t see reality as it is because of all our personal preferences and opinions. I’m a slow learner when it comes to Buddhist practice.

This slight change in my ‘outlook’ has been very gradual since 1985 I’d say and it actually makes the best of both outlooks. The music, works of art etc. seem more amazing and the little steps of life such as walking in a park or doing the dishes are also amazing. Don’t get me wrong. Depression is ongoing and most days I tread water to keep my chin above the surface. However, even the depression (not a good term as it is not a noun, not a ‘thing’) takes on a slighly different context. A Buddhist monk recently came out with the wonderful throwaway statement that ‘there is more to life than life.’ This gives me hope and confidence that there is a bigger picture than what my own petty preferences show me. I suppose it is similar to the line in Shakespeare that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ It is a lot more nuanced than Shakespeare though; it points to the soap opera quality of ordinary life. (Oh dear, we are back to ordinary life being banal and boring! I told you this could turn out to be crazy.) It is said that there are the circumstances we each find ourselves in and at the same time an underlying ‘life-force’ for lack of a better word. (‘Buddha nature’ to be exact but I am not writing this for confirmed Buddhists.) I cannot describe here what it precisely means but can throw out a few pointers. How about the Christian ‘to be IN the world but not OF the world? And one for the Buddhists among you; Samsara and Nirvana are not seperate.

What has all of this rambling to do with Mahler? Here is another thought. One of the aspects I like about Mahler is the length of his symphonies; most are over an hour long. In this time of the sound bite and low attention span I revel in something which both demands prolonged attention and is compex. Why? Umm, maybe because it’s just the joy of music. Maybe because life is difficult and complex and therefore the music runs in parallel to life. I suspect one of the reasons why Mahler is popular today is exactly because his music reflects the complexity of life we all recognise. That multi-layered complexity is what I was getting at in my poem.

So, finally what of perfection? There is another saying that all people have an intuitive sense of an ultimate goodness or an ultimate ‘reality’ above and beyond their own personal lives. It is not something that can be logically argued about. I believe that is behind my own seeking after perfection – dare I say it: that we have to believe we are okay (perfect?) as we are! (Wabi sabi in our own lives.) That means for me I can still enjoy Mahler but also can accept when I feel grumpy, depressed and irritable. I can still gaze at a Van Gogh in awe but still appreciate the hot water running out of my tap.

My imaginary interlocutor may ask why is washing the dishes ‘amazing.’? Imagine being on your deathbed. Can you wash the dishes then? Will you be at peace then? Now that you can wash the dishes, can you reflect on the incredible compexity of the action. The co-ordination! Above all, can you ‘just wash the dishes’ without following a train of thoughts about the past or the future?

John Clare’s Nightingale

Nightingales have a special significance for me; when I first saw and heard one in France I had an experience of the ‘numinous.’ I describe this briefly in another post titled, Keats’ Nightingale.

I even coined the term, ‘the nightingale effect’ to describe any time and instance when we see the world anew, with child-like eyes, completely devoid of pain or disharmony.

John Clare (1793-1864) used to be described as a ‘peasant poet’ because he had not had much of a formal education, if any. However we must remember Bernard Shaw’s quip about his own education, that ‘the only time my education was interrupted was when I went to school.’ The education Clare received from Nature, like Wordsworth, was life-long and deep. Maybe his vision was kept pure because he hadn’t been ‘corrupted’ by the stultifying educational system of his day.?

It’s strange how we have books on our shelves unread or unremembered. I have a 1966 anthology of Clare’s poetry and prose and I certainly have read it. However, I can’t remember this poem, The Nightingale’s Nest, having such an effect on me as when I read it today. It works on a number of levels as all good poetry does. It parallels my own experience of searching for this ‘wonder-bird.’ I wasn’t looking for its nest but simply looking and listening to see if I could find the bird. People who are not birders (to use the American term which has been adopted here in the UK) may wonder what all the fuss is about. This would require an article of its own but for me it combines many things including a sense of the chase, making a list, a sense of achievement, furthering the trait of curiosity, aesthetic pleasure and self-transcendence, if that latter is not too pretentious a term. (Actually, readers now can appreciate this, as witnessed by so many in this unprecedented lockdown situation. Presenters on TV, such as Chris Packham, have talked of the healing power of nature.)

To get back to Clare, the lines, I’ve nestled down/And watched her while she sung – and her renown/Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird/

Should have no better dress than russet brown. . . exactly parallels my response when I first saw one singing. (I’ll add my short poem at the end just to show this similar response.)

The genius of Clare is that he writes of the particular but in so doing he uses the specific as a jumping of platform into a spiritual dimension. (Strictly speaking there are not two things here; the experiences he writes of are all of a whole; the specific and spiritual are two sides of the coin.) Of course, he has this in common with Blake, Wordsworth and many other poets. But, perhaps he is the more consistent in his adherence to his ‘local patch’. Wordsworth travelled a lot in comparison. Anyway, I’ll leave the poem to speak for itself.

The Nightingale’s Nest

Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove,
And list the nightingale – she dwells just here.
Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year –
At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day,
As though she lived on song. This very spot,
Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way –
And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails –
There have I hunted like a very boy,
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn
To find her nest, and see her feed her young.
And vainly did I many hours employ :
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down,
And watched her while she sung ; and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,
And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy,
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part
Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ;
But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred,
All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain:
The timid bird had left the hazel bush,
And at a distance hid to sing again.
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves,
Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain,
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs;
For while of half the year Care him bereaves,
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast;
The nightingale to summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs,
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide –
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way,
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs,
For we will have another search to day,
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ;
And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows,
We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook :
In such like spots, and often on the ground,
They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look –
Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here,
Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about
For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by –
Nay, trample on its branches and get near.
How subtle is the bird ! she started out,
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh,
Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near
Her nest, she sudden stops – as choking fear,
That might betray her home. So even now
We’ll leave it as we found it : safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard
Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall
Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives.
We will not plunder music of its dower,
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall;
For melody seems hid in every flower,
That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all
Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ;
And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves,
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest ; no other bird
Uses such loose materials, or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves
Are placed without, and velvet moss within,
And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair;
For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win.
Yet Nature is the builder, and contrives
Homes for her children’s comfort, even here;
Where Solitude’s disciples spend their lives
Unseen, save when a wanderer passes near
That loves such pleasant places. Deep a down,
The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lie her curious eggs in number five,
Of deadened green, or rather olive brown;
And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well.
So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong,
As the old woodland’s legacy of song.

* * *

Nightingale Farewell

Last day in France – binoculars at the ready –
after sudden rain I walk along
steaming tarmac into pine forest shade,
pulled by bright sobbing and glissando glide –
I know you’re there by your jazzy come-on;
I’ve tuned my ears to see round corners!
My first glance upwards towards the telephone cable
over-shoots – the bird on the wire looks so plain –
I don’t catch on to your whispered tones. When I catch up,
you’re magnified in a circle – I marvel
at your modest plumage, warm brown tail
and throbbing throat. A little brown jizz!
Your bel canto leaps, your triplets and tremolos
are a high wire cabaletta – heard only by me.

Maybe tomorrow you’ll fly south, silently tracking
the fine line between light and dark, between
seeing and not seeing, while I fly north towards grey skies,
terraced houses and blackbirds in the park.

*

The Clare anthology I have is Clare, New Oxford Series, Edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield. (1966) It has a wide selection of poems and prose so you can read the prose description and the subsequent poem.

In the Shadow of Covid 19

My monthly post is inevitably topical.

Falling Apart

In the garden

daffodils wilt; blossom falls.

Some may see each day

endlessly repeating

like a wind-up toy, while

what may seem hum drum,

the hum of the fridge,

a ticking clock,

the science fiction silence outside,

is the world renewing itself

in each dying moment. . .

And we too, while honouring

the bitter taste

of each remembered mistake

can fall apart again and again.

*

Ageing

Seventy three years

cultivating karma

yet there is no self in each breath

*

Surprised By Joy

Sitting alone

sudden birdsong

extinguishes dreams.

A Vision

earth

I first came across this description by J.B. Priestley in a wonderful book of his called, Man and Time. It is an exploration of time from different points of view; scientific, literary and religious. It is beautifully illustrated in colour. He was fascinated with phenomena such as pre-cognition and dreams and wrote his famous ‘time-plays’ such as Dangerous Corner to dramatise various anomalies and theories. The poem is based on one of Priestley’s own dreams.

A Vision1

I am on top of a high tower, looking down. I see thousands of birds

flying in separate flocks; one flock is a cloud of curlews,

one is a murmeration of starlings, one is a squadron of swans.

Gradually as I watch, the flocks fuse and become a vast aerial river

of birds; a river in the sky, a river of multicoloured feathers and wings,

a pulsating river, now spiralling, now circling, now cascading.

I hear a gentle honking, cooing and twittering as the river draws nearer;

I feel a cool draught of air on my cheeks.

*

I see generations of birds; watch them break their shells as they are born,

watch them flutter into life, mate, weaken, falter and die. Wings grow

only to crumble into dust, bodies are sleek and then bleed and shrivel.

Thousands upon thousands of flickering bodies flap wings and moult

feathers in heaps until the heaps form multicoloured hillocks of down.

Scrawny heads crack open fragile shells and the naked birds quickly grow

feathers, quickly fly and mate again and again only to bleed, shrivel and die.

I feel sick in my throat. What is the use of all this struggle to exist?

It would have been better if not one of them, if not one of us, had been born.

I stand on the tower; a man alone and in despair.

*

Now the thousands of birds become one multicoloured mass spread out

like a never-ending flower-bed on a desert sand. Time is running so fast

that the mass of birds is motionless. The desert seems an oasis of all

colours; blues, reds, yellows, purples and greens; the desert is a plain

sown with bird-bone-flesh-and-feathers. And along this plain, flickering

through the bodies themselves, there passes a tiny white flame, trembling,

dancing, then hurrying on, flickering through every particle of coloured

bird-bone-flesh-and-feather. Now it comes to me in a rocket-burst

of ecstasy that this flame is life itself and that nothing else matters;

nothing else could matter because, compared to this flame, everything else

is a shadow.

*

I am still in the tower and now I see a river of people.

Some are swimming, some are drowning and some are losing

their heads; and arms and legs. I see the water is thick with excrement

and blood. Bits of buildings, decapitated trees, vehicles and boulders

hurtle along with people and body-parts.

Time speeds up and the river flows faster; the bodies, boulders,

trees and buildings merge into a new mysterious form, gigantic,

like a whale, and the river convulses and surges like a tsunami.

Time goes even faster and I see the Earth

as if from the moon. And I hear a voice roaring like a lion:

“Who shall inherit the Earth?”

I am looking down from my moon-tower.

The Earth still looks beautiful; mottled, like a guillemot’s egg.

*

1Part-found poem: source; J.B. Priestley’s, Rain Upon Godshill, p304 William Heinmann Ltd, 1941.

Old-Fashioned Art?

Yesterday, while on a local history walk I asked the historian if he had seen the current exhibition of the Treasures From the Shipley Collection at the Shipley Gallery, Gateshead. He hadn’t so I told him there were a number of seventeenth century Dutch Mannerist paintings on show. I expressed my admiration for them and he replied. “People aren’t interested in those kinds of paintings nowadays.”

At the time I thought I was out on a limb, but afterwards I tended to agree with him. His response got me to question my own reasons for liking the paintings. Was I enamoured because the paintings were centuries old and had been cleaned to show bright and shiny colours? Was I harking back to pre-modernist times when all paintings were representational rather than abstract or conceptual? Was there even a hint of snobbery in my admiration? (I am aware that many people do not even step inside a gallery.) After all such paintings, along with the huge and impressive Tintoretto in the gallery, are examples of ‘high art’ and, that the distinction between ‘high and low art’ is anathema to art critics today. There may be some truth in this latter claim as I do believe in a kind of ‘gold standard’ in art. No amount of pleading will convince me that Andy Warhol’s Marilyn prints are qualitatively on a par with Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet, this is what post-modernist critics claim!

However, I’d like to make clear I am not a reactionary or debunker of modern art in the tradition of Brian Sewell. There is much I enjoy in contemporary art: Anthony Gormley, Andy Goldsworthy and Robert Smithson to name but three which come to mind.

I’ll choose David and Abigail as one of the paintings to discuss. It was thought to be by the Dutch artist, Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), but now is designated as ‘after’ the artist.

Wtewael, Joachim Anthonisz., 1566-1638; The Meeting of David and Abigail

When I first saw it I had no idea what was going on in the picture. I had a vague idea it referenced a bible story. Even so, I admired the skill of the painter to depict people, horses, trees and buildings in harmonious colour and tone and I noted the convincing perspective. I had to wait until I got home to look up the story – those visitors with smartphones can do this while looking at the painting!

Now, here is our first hurdle. Not many of us today see the relevance of bible stories. However, I was prepared to put that to one side. Art Aestheticians often talk about the principle of ‘disinterestedness’ when looking at art. They ask us to step into the artist’s shoes and not make snap judgements based solely on personal preferences.

So, in a nutshell the story is as follows:

Nabal, married to Abigail, is a rich landowner with many cattle and crops. He is proud and selfish. David has allowed Nabal’s men to graze cattle on his land and yet when David asks for food and shelter one day, Nabal refuses. David is offended and arms his 400 men who are under orders to kill Nabal’s men. Abigail hears about the plan and sets out with friends with food and drink to meet David. They meet and Abigail says her husband is an arrogant fool and she implores forgiveness. That’s David on horseback on the right with Abigail kneeling. Miraculously, her intervention does the trick as David is moved by Abigail’s determination, compassion and generosity. (Later, poor Nabal is ‘smitten by the Lord’ and dies – oh dear, this sounds like the old Old Testament ‘eye for and eye’ justice! David then marries Abigail).

The figures on the left are Abigail’s men carrying supplies and food, and those on the right are David’s soldiers. There is hence, a perfect symbolism in the composition with Abigail ( the force for compassion) in the centre of opposing forces. The two main tree trunks form a kind of arch which frame the crucial meeting of the protagonists.

If we are to take any spiritual teaching from this archaic story today, surely we can agree that reconciliation is superior to vengeance and war. In our own time we only need to think of Northern Ireland. And, on an individual level, forgiveness is a wonderful gift. Taking a leaf out of Alain de Botton’s book, Art As Therapy, I always try and relate art works (whether paintings, novels, plays, or music) to my own life; they can add to self-understanding. (The book, Art As Therapy,  is co-written with John Armstrong. Published by Phaidon, paperback 2016.)

To my eye, such paintings are not so much ‘old fashioned’ but timeless. They may not give up their magic straight away but with a little patience and, above all, leisure and time to look in a sustained manner, they can provide so much aesthetic pleasure.

Skylark Between Generations

I listened to, and watched, skylarks at Corbridge on Sunday. Along by the River Tyne.

 

I set off with a sack of cares upon my back;

though the sunshine bathed my face with warmth;

and after spotting goosanders in the river

ended walking an inch above a sandy track.

*

I started out in bright sunshine

my mirror-mind besmirched with black.

My mood began to lift when I heard a tune:

a skylark singing a song I knew was mine.

*

My distant uncle heard the self-same sacred word

cut down in youth along with many men;

he answered another’s call but to his cost;

a soldier who sang about a wonder bird.

*

As I watched the dark envoy soar

I made a vow to John there and then:

to live my life in homage to his memory,

and to aspire to reach the other shore.

 

 

 

 

Aliens Have Landed – Really?

Alien-Pyramids-940347

This is a longer version of something I wrote for an online astronomy course I’m doing.

Ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, Chacon Canyon and Chichen Itza were clearly built with astronomical functions in mind. There are many alignments in these structures which, when used, predict solstices, equinoxes, moon positions, star positions and even eclipses! Those who argue that they are evidence of alien intervention underestimate the knowledge-base of ancient civilisations.

Knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies was of vital importance. There were so many practical reasons for this knowledge. Firstly, the people needed a calendar in order to carry out activities such as crop planting and hunting in different seasons– the sun was a convenient object which determined the length of daylight in latitudes away from the equator. The moon was also a convenient ‘clock’ which went through phases in a predictable way and formed the time-interval of the month.

Knowledge of how the constellations changed throughout the year would consolidate understanding of time-intervals. Hence, in Ancient Rome, the year was divided up – first of all into ten months and later into the more familiar twelve months. We can see how much the religion of the Romans was incorporated into sky observations by noting the names of the months and days of the week.

Knowledge of the sun’s, moon’s and star’s movements was also important for navigation. The Ancient Greeks used instruments such as the astrolabe which enabled them to predict when a star would rise.

In the northern hemisphere the star named Polaris appears to be stationary and the other stars rotate round it. This would have been observed by prehistoric people and would have been a reliable means of navigation at night. The Great Bear constellation appears to rotate during the night and would also have been used for navigation and time-keeping before the advent of clocks.

Finally we should remember that religious beliefs were part and parcel of astronomical knowledge in ancient times. The structures I mentioned at the beginning were most likely overseen by priest-astrologers. For example, the Aztecs carved a Megalithic calendar stone known as Montezuma’s Watch which is 12 feet in diameter and intricately carved with astronomical details and life-cycles which are concerned with ceremonial ritual as well as astronomical alignments. According to Aztec religion the world passes through five ages and Quetzalcoatl – one of their gods – was the ruler of the second era. The priest-astrologers had to know when was the appropriate time for a human sacrifice!

Recent research has established that Stonehenge was a meeting place for thousands of people who came from as far away as Scotland.1 It was not only an observatory but a social centre for ceremony and feasting.

We may never know the details of our ancestor’s beliefs but we can be sure they included veneration of the sun, moon, stars and planets. There are many puzzles remaining as to the exact function of many of these structures but there is no need to invoke aliens to explain them. Indigenous people were very knowledgeable and there were vast numbers of people with the skills to build these wonders.

What is Real?

quantum Gormley

This is longer version of an essay I wrote for an online course about Modern Art. The artists I contrast Gormley with are ones included in the course.

Quantum Cloud (1999) by Anthony Gormley

Anthony Gormley came to fame with his Angel of the North which stands a few miles from where I live!

Anthony Gormley uses his own body in many of his works, such as the Angel, but he is insistent that his work is not about individual identity. Unlike artists such as Shahzia Sikander or Faith Ringgold, he is not interested in ethnicity or nationality. His concerns are more universal and even metaphysical. In an interview he even refers to himself in this way:

It hasn’t got anything to do with autobiography. I am a metaphysician. In other words, I’m trying to read the physical or find ways of reading the physical in order to find something hidden.

[From an interview quoted in Art Now, 2002, Continuum.]

Gormley was educated by Catholic monks and although he is not a practising Christian he recognises a spiritual dimension to life – for example he meditates. This ‘something hidden’ which he refers to can be thought of as the spiritual, the ineffable, the numinous, or any aspect of human life which cannot be measured. It also includes the metaphorical/poetic stance in opposition to the literal-minded or what William Blake referred to as Single-Vision.

In the Quantum Cloud series he uses thousands of metal struts in a three-dimensional arrangement. The human forms within the ‘clouds’ are only revealed when the viewer walks round the cloud and different sight-lines suddenly form a figure. The viewer is therefore co-producer of the work of art. As Gormley says:

The act of looking is the act of making the thing that you’re looking at. You actually have to find it.  It’s a process.

Of course, this is how all perception works; inside our skulls a neurological process occurs whereby the brain selects and builds up a picture of ‘reality’ from constant sensory input. What, I believe  Gormley is doing is drawing attention to that fact. He is very much interested in metaphysical questions such as “What is time?” and “What is it like to be a human being?” and “Is knowledge limited to sensory information?” These kinds of questions are apolitical – the idea of Gormley producing an overtly political work, such as those made by Martha Rosler or Jacob Lawrence for example, is unthinkable, if not laughable.

Gormley himself is fully aware of the irony of attempting to suggest the numinous in such a ‘solid’ medium as sculpture. Nevertheless, as we inhabit solid bodies in a seemingly solid world there is not a contradiction in his aims. The Quantum series, especially, more than hints at the atomic-particle reality underlying our usual experience of a solid world.

All of the mystical traditions agree about one thing: that the ‘skin encapsulated ego’ is a kind of self-illusion. In the genuine mystical experience there is no separation between self and the world. Many traditions also talk of an energy body apart from the physical body. Perhaps the clouds of steel bars convey this idea rather well.

Gormley is one of the few artists today who explores the ‘eternal verities’. While other artists pursue political agendas or explore identity and subjective experiences, Gormley seems to return to the very origins of art. Recently, in a television documentary, he is shown looking at hand-prints in a cave. They are some of the first images made by humankind and Gormley is overwhelmed by them. He talks, in hushed tones, about the miracle of spiritual communication stretching from thousands of years ago to the present time. These prehistoric artists used their bodies to make art in a very tactile, direct way; it is little wonder that Gormley was so moved.

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.

Urizen and Single Vision

I had some valuable feedback on my manuscript recently. I was taken to task on my apparent denunciation of reason. Here, I attempt to put my position, and Blake’s, in a more accurate light.

There is nothing wrong with the faculty of reason; many philosophers have singled it out as the defining attribute which makes us human. The only problem occurs when it is elevated or singled out as the only faculty or as the primary faculty whereby we attempt to find meaning in our lives. Many writers have revolted against this dominance of reason; writers such as Rousseau, Nietzsche, the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and, of course, Blake. Blake personified the ‘rationalising faculty’ as Urizen; the word itself is a clever play on ‘your reason’ and ‘your horizon.’ Blake wrote The Book of Urizen in which he shows how Urizen separates himself from the other faculties of Imagination, Sensation, Intuition and Emotion.

One of the characteristics of ‘reasoning’ is that it attempts to create a model of reality and hence there is always a gulf between the model and reality. The model can be very useful, as are maps, but the danger is that we can mistake the model for reality. This abstraction of reality was partly what Blake was getting at, especially in his abhorrence of Locke, Hume and Bacon.

We can more accurately talk of ‘rationalism’ as a paradigm; a way of approaching reality.

Scott Preston, in his brilliant blog, The Chrysalis, talks of perspectivism. When the early Renaissance artists worked out how to represent perspective in two dimensions they also represented a major shift in outlook. The view of reality was now ‘a point of view’ – a view limited to one position in space (and time) and a view presented to the physical eye looking out at the world. Hitherto, in Byzantine art for example, the picture was not a representation of what the eye saw in one time-bound ‘view.’ Painting then was more ‘a composite’ of what the artist knew and felt and was a representation of Christian mythology. Scott Preston uses this analogy of painting to show how linear, logical thinking has dominated western culture for the last 500 years. He relates it to Blake’s Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep.

What, then is the solution; how can we escape from this restricted view? I don’t think there is a single answer to this – Blake’s prophetic books offer a detailed solution where contraries co-exist. On an individual level we can be more self-aware and not believe that we are our thoughts. We can cultivate an aesthetic appreciation of reality and integrate imagination, intuition, feeling, sensation and thought. Meditation is a method whereby the ‘hidden’ rejected parts of the psyche can come into the open; where the Beast can transform into Beauty.

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The image which I have copied in pen is clearly of someone in torment; Blake has different versions; some have the Urizen-figure surrounded by flames. I find this aspect of the suffering Urizen very relevant. Those of us who struggle with mental health issues know how the mind can imprison us with its relentless ‘washing machine’ of churning thoughts. Blake, too, sees us all as being in exile; we have forgotten our original faces. We have fallen into self-division; this manifests in many ways: body-mind dualism, thought-feeling conflicts, individualism-community tensions, right action conundrums and so on.

Looking at this image, say for a few minutes, is itself a way of by-passing, or tricking, our rationalising mind. Its form and colour may speak to you directly – this is the power of art: it is not about words. I invite you do the same with all of Blake’s work which can be found here: http://www.blakearchive.org

Blake’s view of how we use the senses is fundamental. He saw the error of empiricists such as John Locke who thought that truth could be found via the evidence of the senses. This was a too literal and restricted approach. Blake famously wrote that ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed, then everything would appear as it is, infinite.’ This is very similar to the Buddhist idea of observing the contents of the mind and letting the thoughts and feelings settle until the mind becomes like a mirror. Both Blake and Buddhism see our ordinary state of consciousness as being, potentially, problematic. It too readily distorts reality. Both, also, would agree that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our minds, other than the conditioning (mainly) from parents, teachers and institutions. Blake’s solution is complex and subtle but suffice it to say that he sees us as ‘spiritual beings’ and that we need to use what he terms Imagination or the Poetic Genius to free ourselves from the domination of Urizen.

I don’t want to enlarge on Blake’s mythical-psychological world here; I just invite you to gaze on poor Urizen and ask yourselves, ‘How did he get to be like this?’ and ‘Do I ever feel like this?’