Emerson, Woolf and The Ordinary

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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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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?’

Rousseau & Kant

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Both Kant and Rousseau were important and influential Enlightenment thinkers. They both believed in the primacy of free thinking and in progress (although Rousseau had doubts about the latter). Kant would, no doubt, have gone along with Rousseau’s “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.” and Rousseau would no doubt, have agreed with Kant’s “Dare to know. Have the courage to use your own reason.” Here, though, the similarities end. In the remainder of this essay, I hope to show that Rousseau was writing from a predominantly visceral, emotional position and that Kant from a more restrained, abstract intellectual position. Moreover, Rousseau was anti-Enlightenment in many respects. I also think Rousseau’s legacy is more relevant to us today.

In A Discourse on the Arts & Sciences, Rousseau writes:

“What is philosophy? What is contained in the writings of the most celebrated philosophers? To hear them, should we not take them for so many mountebanks, exhibiting themselves in public and crying out, Here, Here, come to me, I am the only true doctor? One of them teaches that there is no such thing as matter. . . Another declares that there is no other substance than matter, and no other God than the world itself.”

Clearly, he has a low opinion of philosophers who sit in ivory towers and debate about abstract concepts unrelated to real life. He would surely have applauded Marx’s dictum:

“Philosophers have only given different interpretations of the world; the important thing is to make it different.”

Unlike Kant, who believed in a kind of benevolent despotism, Rousseau saw the very institutions of society as rotten and corrupting. We can be sceptical today about his ‘noble savage’ but his belief in the essential goodness of humanity can be upheld. He wrote about a kind of Edenic life: the ‘state of nature’, where we were innocent and honest and before artificial self-love compelled us to compare ourselves with others. This belief of his was exemplified in his Emile and his criticism of state education. Far ahead of his times, he believed that the child was naturally curious and seeks to know about the world on its own terms. However, it must be pointed out, he farmed out his own children into a foundling institution; gross hypocrisy, I’m afraid!

Rousseau ends his essay with these words:

“Virtue! Sublime science of simple minds, are such industry and preparation needed if we are to know you? Are not your principles graven on every heart? Need we do more, to learn your laws, than examine ourselves and listen to the voice of conscience, when the passions are silent? This is the true philosophy.” Clearly, his self-awareness had not gone deep enough in regard to his fatherhood but he is, nevertheless, aligning himself with Socrates’, ‘know thyself’ and eschewing abstract philosophy.

Rousseau’s default position, that our original virtue is corrupted by society, means that he is at odds with the Enlightenment programme with its absolute belief in rationality and progress. Kant is more representative in this respect. He believed in free thinking and challenging institutional thinking, but he also ‘made room for faith.’ He wanted the institutions to become more enlightened and believed this could come about through reason alone.

Kant wanted to steer a middle way between science and religion, between the phenomenal world and the noumenal world and also wanted a synthesis of empiricism and reason. His famous ‘categorical imperative’ said that a law should only be accepted if the people could have imposed that law on themselves. However, he was clearly still talking about the elite; at this time much of the population was still semi-literate. Unlike today, with the likes of Trump’s tweets and instant social media, ideas could only circulate amongst the intellectual elite. Therefore, they would have a limited effect. Although he advocated the emancipation of the people, he thought, for example, women and the masses lacked courage to manage their own affairs. His conservatism in this respect was reassuring to the church and crown. He said that The Enlightenment was about gradual progress and not revolution; again this was reassuring to the establishment. He made a distinction between private and public use of free thought. For example, in his private role of clergyman the man of God should obey the church doctrines whereas in his public sphere he could debate and criticise doctrines. Today, we would understand this as ‘academic freedom.’ Nowadays, ideas first explored in academic papers are often taken up by journalists. Think for example about how ‘mindfulness’ has become widespread, or how the devastation of plastic in the environment has filtered down to some supermarkets taking action. In the 1700s ideas would filter down into the public arena more slowly. Of course, revolutions would speed the process up but Kant was eager to disengage himself from such radicalism.

I think, in conclusion, that the legacy of Rousseau can be seen today in such disparate areas as child-centred education, alternative life-styles, responses to the environmental crisis, spirituality and holistic living. Kant’s legacy is more general and circumscribed but can be seen in the move to the democratisation of societies and the spread of freedom of speech.

Bronowski’s Blake

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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.