‘These great concurrences of things’

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One of the main ideas I pursue here is that the invention of writing has radically altered the way we think, not immediately, but eventually, through its impact on speech, which it transforms from one mode of expression among many into our main instrument of thought, which we call Language, in which the spoken form is dominated by the written and meaning is no longer seen as embedded in human activity but rather as a property of words, which appear to have an independent, objective existence. (This notion is examined in the form of a fable here)

This means in effect that the Modern world begins in Classical Greece, about two and a half thousand years ago, and is built on foundations laid by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; though much that we think of as marking modernity is a lot more recent (some would choose the Industrial Revolution, some the Enlightenment, some the Renaissance) the precondition for all of these – the way of seeing ourselves in the world which they imply – is, I would argue, the change in our thinking outlined above.

This naturally gives rise to the question of how we thought before, which is not a matter of merely historical interest, since we are not talking here about one way of thinking replacing another, but rather a new mode displacing and dominating the existing one, which nevertheless continues alongside, albeit in a low estate, a situation closely analogous to an independent nation that is invaded and colonised by an imperial power.

What interests me particularly is that this ancient mode of thought, being ancient – indeed, primeval – is instinctive and ‘natural’ in the way that speech is (and Language, as defined above, is not). Unlike modern ‘intellectual’ thought, which marks us off from the rest of the animal kingdom (something on which we have always rather plumed ourselves, perhaps mistakenly, as I suggested recently) this instinctive mode occupies much the same ground, and reminds us that what we achieve by great ingenuity and contrivance (remarkable feats of construction, heroic feats of navigation over great distances, to name but two) is done naturally and instinctively by ants, bees, wasps, spiders, swifts, salmon, whales and many others, as a matter of course.

So how does this supposed ‘ancient mode’ of thought work? I am pretty sure that metaphor is at the heart of it. Metaphor consists in seeing one thing in terms of another, or, if you like, in seeing something in the world as expressing or embodying your thought; as such, it is the basic mechanism of most of what we term Art: poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, dance, music, all have this transformative quality in which different things are united and seen as aspects of one another, or one is seen as the expression of the other – they become effectively interchangeable.

(a key difference between metaphorical thinking and analytic thinking – our modern mode – is that it unites and identifies where the other separates and makes distinctions – which is why metaphor always appears illogical or paradoxical when described analytically: ‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars’ as Aristotle puts it, or ‘saying that one thing is another’)

This long preamble was prompted by an odd insight I gained the other day when, by a curious concatenation of circumstances, I found myself rereading, for the first time in many years, John Buchan’s The Island of Sheep.

Now Buchan is easy to mock – the values and attitudes of many of his characters are very much ‘of their time’ and may strike us as preposterous, if not worse – but he knows how to spin a yarn, and there are few writers better at evoking the feelings aroused by nature and landscape at various times and seasons. He was also widely and deeply read, a classical scholar, and his popular fiction (which never pretended to be more than entertainment and generally succeeded) has a depth and subtlety not found in his contemporaries.

What struck me in The Island of Sheep were two incidents, both involving the younger Haraldsen. Haraldsen is a Dane from the ‘Norlands‘ – Buchan’s name for the Faeroes. He is a gentle, scholarly recluse who has been raised by his father – a world-bestriding colossus of a man, a great adventurer – to play some leading part in an envisaged great revival of the ‘Northern Race’, a role for which he is entirely unfitted. He inherits from his father an immense fortune, in which he is not interested, and a vendetta or blood-feud which brings him into conflict with some ruthless and unscrupulous men.

Early in the book, before we know who he is, he encounters Richard Hannay and his son Peter John (another pair of opposites). They are out wildfowling and Peter John flies his falcon at an incoming skein of geese; it separates a goose from the flight and pursues it in a thrilling high-speed chase, but the goose escapes by flying low and eventually gaining the safety of a wood. ‘Smith’ (as Haraldsen is then known) is moved to tears, and exclaims
‘It is safe because it was humble. It flew near the ground. It was humble and lowly, as I am. It is a message from Heaven.’
He sees this as an endorsement of the course he has chosen to evade his enemies, by lying low and disguising himself.

Later, however, he takes refuge on Lord Clanroyden’s estate, along with Richard Hannay and his friends, who in their youth in Africa had sworn an oath to old Haraldsen to look after his son, when they were in a tight spot. They attend a shepherd’s wedding and after the festivities there is a great set-to among the various sheepdogs, with the young pretenders ganging up to overthrow the old top-dog, Yarrow, who rather lords it over them. The old dog fights his corner manfully but is hopelessly outnumbered, then just as all seems lost, he turns from defence to attack and sallies out against his opponents with great suddenness and ferocity, scattering them and winning the day.

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Again, Haraldsen is deeply moved:

‘It is a message to me,’ he croaked. ‘That dog is like Samr, who died with Gunnar of Lithend. He reminds me of what I had forgotten.’

He abandons his scheme of running and hiding and resolves to return to his home, the eponymous Island of Sheep, and face down his enemies, thus setting up the climax of the book (it’s not giving too much away to reveal that good triumphs in the end, though of course it’s ‘a dam’ close-run thing’).

Both these incidents have for me an authentic ring: I can well believe that just such ‘seeing as’ played a key role in the way our ancestors thought about the world and their place in it.

It is, of course, just the kind of thing that modern thinking labels ‘mere superstition’ but I think it should not be dismissed so lightly.

The modern objection might be phrased like this: ‘the primitive mind posits a ruling intelligence, an invisible force that controls the world and communicates through signs – bolts of lightning, volcanic eruptions, comets and other lesser but in some way striking events. The coincidence of some unusual or striking occurrence in nature with a human crisis is seen as a comment on it, and may be viewed (if preceded by imploration) as the answer to prayer. We know better: these are natural events with no connection to human action beyond fortuitous coincidence.’

The way I have chosen to phrase this illustrates a classic problem that arises when modern thinking seeks to give an account of ancient or traditional thinking – ‘primitive’ thinking, if you like, since I see nothing pejorative in being first and original. The notion of cause and effect is key to any modern explanation, so we often find that ‘primitive’ thinking is characterised by erroneous notions of causality – basically, a causal connection is supposed where there is none.

For instance, in a talk I heard by the the philosopher John Haldane, he cited a particular behaviour known as ‘tree binding’ in which trees were wounded and bound as a way of treating human wounds – a form of what is called ‘sympathetic magic’, where another object acts as a surrogate for the person or thing we wish to affect (or, to be more precise, ‘wish to be affected’). An account of such behavior in causal terms will always show it to be mistaken and apparently foolish – typical ‘primitive superstition’: ‘They suppose a causal connection between binding the tree’s wound and binding the man’s, and that by healing the one, they will somehow heal the other (which we know cannot work).’

But I would suggest that the tree-binding is not a mistaken scientific process, based on inadequate knowledge – it is not a scientific process at all, and it is an error to describe it in those terms. It is, I would suggest, much more akin to both prayer and poetry. The ritual element – the play-acting – is of central importance.

The tree-binders, I would suggest, are well aware of their ignorance in matters of medicine: they do not know how to heal wounds, but they know that wounds do heal; and they consider that the same power (call it what you will) that heals the wound in a tree also heals the wound in man’s body. They fear that the man may die but hope that he will live, and they know that only time will reveal the outcome.

Wounding then binding the tree seems to me a ritual akin to prayer rather than a misguided attempt at medicine. First and foremost, it is an expression of hope, like the words of reassurance we utter in such cases – ‘I’m sure he’ll get better’. The tree’s wound will heal (observation tells them this) – so, too, might the man’s.

But the real power of the ritual, for me, lies in its flexibility, its openness to interpretation. It is a very pragmatic approach, one that can be tailored to suit any outcome. If the man lives, well and good; that is what everyone hoped would happen. Should the man die, the tree (now identified with him in some sense) remains (with its scar, which does heal). The tree helps reconcile them to the man’s death by showing it in a new perspective: though all they have now is his corpse, the tree is a reminder that this man was more than he seems now: he had a life, spread over time. Also, the continued survival of the tree suggests that in some sense the man, too, or something of him that they cannot see (the life or soul which the tree embodies) may survive the death of his body. The tree can also be seen as saying something about the man’s family (we have the same image ourselves in ‘family tree’, though buried some layers deeper) and how it survives without him, scarred but continuing; and by extension, the same applies to the tribe, which will continue to flourish as the tree does, despite the loss of an individual member.

And the tree ‘says’ all these things because we give it tongue – we make it tell a story, or rather we weave it into one that is ongoing (there are some parallels here to the notion of ‘Elective Causality’ that I discuss elsewhere). As I have argued elsewhere [‘For us, there is only the trying‘] we can only find a sign, or see something as a sign, if we are already looking for one and already think in those terms. Haraldsen, in The Island of Sheep, is troubled about whether he has chosen the right course, and finds justification for it in the stirring sight of the goose evading the falcon; later, still troubled about the rightness of his course, he opts to change it, stirred by the sight of the dog Yarrow turning the tables on his opponents.

His being stirred, I think, is actually the key here. It would be an error to suppose that he is stirred because he sees the goose’s flight and the dog’s bold sally as ‘messages from heaven’; the reverse is actually the case – he calls these ‘messages from heaven’ to express the way in which they stir him. There is a moment when he identifies, first with the fleeing goose, then with the bold dog. What unites him with them in each case is what he feels. But this is not cause and effect, which is always a sequence; rather, this is parallel or simultaneous – the inner feeling and the outward action are counterparts, aspects of the same thing. A much closer analogy is resonance, where a plucked string or a struck bell sets up sympathetic vibration in another.

This is why I prefer Vita Sackville West’s definition of metaphor to Aristotle’s: for him, metaphor is the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things; for her, (the quote is from her book on Marvell)

‘The metaphysical poets were intoxicated—if one may apply so excitable a word to writers so severely and deliberately intellectual—by the potentialities of metaphor. They saw in it an opportunity for expressing their intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute in terms of the known concrete, whether those intimations related to philosophic, mystical, or intellectual experience, to religion, or to love. They were ‘struck with these great concurrences of things’’

A subject to which I shall return.

Where to Find Talking Bears, or The Needless Suspension of Disbelief

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Something I have been struggling to pin down is a clear expression of my thoughts on the oft-quoted dictum of Coleridge, shown in its original context here:

‘it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.’

This strikes me as a curious instance of something that has become a commonplace – you can almost guarantee to come across it in critical discussion of certain things, chiefly film and theatre – despite the fact that it completely fails to stand up to any rigorous scrutiny. It is, in a word, nonsense.

But there is another strand here, which may be part of my difficulty. This dictum, and its popularity, strike me as a further instance of something I have grown increasingly aware of in my recent thinking, namely the subjugation of Art to Reason. By this I mean the insistence that Art is not only capable of, but requires rational explanation – that its meaning can and should be clarified by writing and talking about it in a certain way (and note the crucial assumption that involves, namely that art has meaning).

This seems to me much like insisting that everyone say what they have to say in English, rather than accepting that there are languages other than our own which are different but equally good.

But back to Coleridge. If the ‘willing suspension of disbelief for the moment’ is what ‘constitutes poetic faith,’ then all I can say is that it must be an odd sort of faith that consists not in believing something – or indeed anything – but rather in putting aside one’s incredulity on a temporary basis: ‘when I say I believe in poetry, what I mean is that I actually find it incredible, but I am willing to pretend I don’t in order to read it.’

That is the pernicious link – that this suspension of disbelief is a necessary prerequisite of engaging with poetry, fiction or indeed Art as a whole; we see it repeated (as gospel) in these quotations, culled at random from the internet:

‘Any creative endeavor, certainly any written creative endeavor, is only successful to the extent that the audience offers this willing suspension as they read, listen, or watch. It’s part of an unspoken contract: The writer provides the reader/viewer/player with a good story, and in return, they accept the reality of the story as presented, and accept that characters in the fictional universe act on their own accord.’

(‘Any creative endeavour’ ? ‘is only successful’ ? Come on!)

‘In the world of fiction you are often required to believe a premise which you would never accept in the real world. Especially in genres such as fantasy and science fiction, things happen in the story which you would not believe if they were presented in a newspaper as fact. Even in more real-world genres such as action movies, the action routinely goes beyond the boundaries of what you think could really happen.

In order to enjoy such stories, the audience engages in a phenomenon known as “suspension of disbelief”. This is a semi-conscious decision in which you put aside your disbelief and accept the premise as being real for the duration of the story.’
(‘required to believe’ ? ‘in order to enjoy’? Really?)

The implication is that we spend our waking lives in some sort of active scepticism, measuring everything we encounter against certain criteria before giving it our consideration; and when we come on any work of art – or at least one that deals with ‘persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic’ – we immediately find it wanting, measured against reality, and so must give ourselves a temporary special dispensation to look at it at all.

This is rather as if, on entering a theatre, we said to ourselves ‘these fellows are trying to convince me that I’m in Denmark, but actually it’s just a stage set and they are actors in costumes pretending to be other people – Hamlet, Claudius, Horatio, Gertrude; of course it doesn’t help that instead of Danish they speak a strange sort of English that is quite unlike the way people really talk.’

The roots of this confusion go back what seems a long way, to classical Greece (about twenty-five centuries) though in saying that we should remember that artistic expression is a great deal older (four hundred centuries at least; probably much, much more). I have quoted the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius before:

…when they had produced their respective pieces, the birds came to pick with the greatest avidity the grapes which Zeuxis had painted. Immediately Parrhasius exhibited his piece, and Zeuxis said, ‘Remove your curtain that we may see the painting.’ The painting was the curtain, and Zeuxis acknowledged himself conquered, by exclaiming ‘Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself.’

– Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary

This is the epitome of the pernicious notion that art is a lie, at its most successful where it is most deceptive: thus Plato banishes it from his ideal state, because in his world it is at two removes from Reality. Plato’s Reality (which he also identifies with Truth) is the World of Forms or Ideas, apprehended by the intellect; the world apprehended by the senses is Appearance, and consists of inferior copies of Ideas; so that Art, which imitates Appearance, is but a copy of a copy, and so doubly inferior and untrustworthy.

Aristotle takes a different line on Appearance and Reality (he is willing to accept the world of the sense as Reality) but continues the same error with his theory of Mimesis, that all art is imitation – which, to use Aristotle’s own terminology, is to mistake the accident for the substance, the contingent for the necessary.

To be sure, some art does offer a representation of reality, and often with great technical skill; and indeed there are works in the tradition of Parrhasius that are expressly intended to deceive – trompe l’oeil paintings, which in the modern era can achieve astonishing effects

but far from being the pinnacle of art (though they are demonstrations of great technical skill) these are a specialist subset of it, and in truth a rather minor one, a sort of visual joke.

Insofar as any work of art resembles reality there will always be the temptation to measure it against reality and judge it accordingly, and this is particularly so of the visual arts, especially cinema, though people will apply the same criterion to fiction and poetry.

They are unlikely to do so in the case of music, however, and this exception is instructive. Even where music sets out to be specifically representative (technically what is termed ‘program(me) music’, I believe) and depict some scene or action – for instance Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’ –it still does not look like the thing it depicts (for the simple reason that it has no visual element). Music is so far removed in character from what it depicts that we do not know where to start in making a comparison – we see at once that it is a different language, if you like.

The Sea Interludes are extraordinarily evocative, yet we would not call them ‘realistic’, something we might be tempted to say of a photo-realistic depiction of a seascape compared to one by Turner, say:

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(original source here)  Tom Nielsen – ‘First light surf’

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(JMW Turner, ‘Seascape with storm coming on’ 1840)

Of all the different forms of Art, it is cinema that has gone furthest down this erroneous path – with the rise of CGI, almost anything can be ‘realised’ in the sense of presenting it in fully rounded, fully detailed form, and the revival of 3D imagery in its latest version and various other tricks are all geared to the same end of making it seem as if you were actually there in the action, as if that were the ultimate goal.

Yet even with the addition of scent and taste – the only senses yet to be catered for in film – the illusion is only temporary and never complete: we are always aware at some level that it is an illusion, and indeed the more it strives to be a perfect illusion the more aware we are of its illusory nature (we catch ourselves thinking ‘these special effects are amazing!’).

On the other hand, a black and white film from decades ago can so enrapture us that we are completely engaged with it to the exclusion of all else – we grip the arms of our seat and bite our lip when the hero is in peril, we shed tears at the denouement, we feel hugely uplifted at the joyous conclusion – but none of this is because we mistake what we are seeing for reality; it has to do with the engagement of our feelings.

In marked contrast to the cinema, the theatre now rarely aims at a realistic presentation; on the contrary, the wit with which a minimum of props can be used for a variety of purposes (as the excellent Blue Raincoat production of The Poor Mouth did with four chairs and some pig masks) can be part of the pleasure we experience, just as the different voices and facial expressions used by a storyteller can. It is not the main pleasure, of course, but it helps clarify the nature of the error that Coleridge makes.

How a story is told – the technique with which it is presented, whether it be on stage, screen or page – is a separate thing from the story itself. Take, for instance, these two fine books by Jackie Morris

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East of the Sun, West of the Moon‘ and ‘The Wild Swans‘ are traditional tales; in retelling them, Jackie Morris puts her own stamp on them, not only with her own words and beautiful illustrations, but also with some changes of detail and action (for more about the writing of East of the Sun, see here).

The nature of these changes is interesting. It is like retuning a musical instrument: certain notes that jarred before now ring true; the tales are refreshed – their spirit is not altered but enhanced.

This ‘ringing true’ is an important concept in storytelling and in Art generally (I have discussed it before, in this fable). On the face of it, both these tales are prime candidates for Coleridge’s pusillanimous ‘suspension of disbelief’: in one, a talking bear makes a pact with a girl which she violates, thus failing to free him from the enchantment laid on him (he is actually a handsome prince); in consequence, the girl must find her way to the castle East of the Sun, West of the Moon, an enterprise in which she is aided by several wise women and the four winds; there she must outwit a troll-maiden. In the other, a sister finds her eleven brothers enchanted into swans by the malice of their stepmother, and can only free them by taking a vow of silence and knitting each of them shirts of stinging nettles.

After all, it will be said, you don’t meet with talking bears, any more than you do with boys enchanted into swans, in the Real World, do you?

Hm. I have to say that I view the expression ‘Real World’ and those who use it with deep suspicion: it is invariably employed to exclude from consideration something which the speaker does not like and fears to confront. As might be shown in a Venn diagram, what people mean by the ‘Real World’ is actually a subset of the World, one that is expressly defined to rule out the possibility of whatever its proponents wish to exclude:

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In other words, all they are saying is ‘you will not find talking bears or enchanted swans if you look in a place where you don’t find such things.’

Cue howls of protest: ‘you don’t meet talking bears walking down the street, do you?’ Well, it depends where you look: if you look at the start of East of the Sun, you will meet a talking bear walking through the streets of a city. Further howls: ‘But that’s just a story!’

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(Some people met this bear on the London underground but I don’t think it spoke )

Well, no – it isn’t just a story; it’s a story – and stories and what is in them are as much part of the world as belisha beacons, horse-blankets and the Retail Price Index. The World, after all, must include the totality of human experience. The fact that we do not meet with talking bears in the greengrocer’s (and has anyone ever said we might?) does not preclude the possibility of meeting them in stories, which is just where you’d expect to find them (for a similar point, see Paxman and the Angels).

For us, there is only the trying

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One thing that being a writer brings home to you is the tentative nature of all writing: it is always an attempt to say something – one that can be more or less successful – and it is always a struggle. And the more difficult the matter, the greater the struggle, because we are conscious of how imperfect our expression is, how far short it falls of what we are trying to say. And what is it that we are trying to express? That is a form of every author’s favourite question, the one that is sure to be asked: ‘where do you get your ideas from?’

The best answer is a vague one: our ideas, our Art – by which I mean stories, music, poetry, painting, dance, whatever we use as modes of expression – are our response to being human, to finding ourselves here and wondering at it. Art arises from what I think of as an ‘internal pressure’ : from time to time there is something ‘inside’ that we want ‘to get out there’ in the sense of giving it a public form that we and others can consider.

But we should not be misled into thinking that we have privileged or prior access to what we express; that is a version of what Wittgenstein calls the ‘private language argument’ where we suppose that we know what we mean ‘in our heads’ and then translate it into words, as if it existed in two forms, a private internal one to which we alone have access, and a public form that we give it. What Wittgenstein contends is that there is only public language, an unruly body of material that we hold in common (and master only in part), which is the only available stuff we have for verbal expression; we have to make the best of it, hence the tentative nature of all utterance and the struggle it involves.

This notion of the struggle to express is a central theme of TS Eliot’s East Coker the second of his Four Quartets.

Eliot speaks of ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’ and observes that
‘every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure’
and that
‘each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating’
Furthermore,
‘what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate’
and he concludes,
‘For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’
– which should, I think, be every writer’s (and artists’s) motto.

Eliot’s words connect in my mind with something I heard the estimable David Almond say recently on the radio: ‘Every time a story’s told, it’s for the first time; every time that Orpheus goes down into the Underworld, it’s the first time’. (Almond’s latest book, ‘A Song for Ella Grey’ is inspired by the Orpheus myth (the original title, I believe, was ‘Eurydice Grey’) and of course Orpheus’ descent to the underworld is a potent image of the artistic enterprise, a dangerous delving into the dark mine of the imagination – cp. the ‘Door into the Dark’ in Heaney’s poem ‘The Forge‘)

For me, this notion of the tentative nature of all writing and the perennial nature of storytelling combine to shed light on an area where there is much misunderstanding today: the idea of the sacred text.

To say that all writing is tentative is to assert that there are no privileged texts: none is exempt from this character of being a struggle to say something. So what of texts that are said to be ‘the word of God’ or to have been ‘dictated by angels’? Such expressions must be seen as part of that struggle: they are attempts to express the sacredness of the text, to convey its importance in the scheme of things. One way of putting this is to say that we do not call a text sacred because it is the word of God or was spoken by angels, we call it the word of God (or say it was spoken by angels) because we consider it sacred.

This is a point worth untangling because it can help dispel a great deal of misunderstanding and arid controversy in the matter of religion and belief.

To avoid controversy, let us take a remark that is variously attributed to the theologian Karl Barth and the musicologist and Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein (not to be confused with Albert) : ‘In Heaven, when the angels play for God, they play Bach; when they play for themselves, it is Mozart.’

Now, we might imagine a would-be plain-speaking, blunt common-sense fellow in the style of the Today programme’s John Humphrys butting in at this point to demand, ‘And was this man ever in Heaven? Has he heard the angels playing for God? Was he there when they played for themselves?’ In saying this, he might fancy that he is demolishing the credibility of the statement, but a more reflective listener would incline to think he was missing the point.

For of course this is not a statement about heaven, the angels or God, and does not require a belief in those things for its understanding; it is a statement about the music of Bach and Mozart, and how they stand to one another and to all other music (it is saying that both are paramount, but that while Bach is the more glorious, Mozart is more joyous – or something like that; – for of course that is just my own attempt, my own struggle to convey what is meant here). You cannot controvert it by saying ‘But there is no God! there is no Heaven! There is no such thing as angels!’ but you might challenge it by pressing the claims of some other composer, such as Arvo Part, Josquin des Prez or Hildegard of Bingen.

Sacredness is not an intrinsic quality of anything, be it object or text; rather it is a status we confer on it, a place we give it in a ‘form of life’. (‘Form of life’ is one of the terms that Wittgenstein uses in his discussion of meaning, in particular the meaning of words – the other is ‘language game’. A ‘form of life’ is the context or activity in which a word or expression is used, the place where it has meaning. Religious worship is one instance of a ‘form of life’ – the words and gestures of the Mass, for instance, have a meaning there which they would not have in other circumstances)

By way of illustration, imagine that some explorers come on a curious stone deep in the forest. Subsequent examination shows it to be of extra-terrestrial origin, the remains of a meterorite. A great deal might be determined about its chemical composition and even its place of origin but you could discover nothing that showed it to be sacred.

Then, some time later, the site where it was found is cleared and the remains of ancient buildings discovered. These resemble other buildings known to be associated with religious ceremonies and this is borne out by the discovery of wall-paintings and scrolls which depict an object much like the meteorite at the centre of a cult: it is carried in procession, elevated on a pillar, enclosed in a special building, has sacrifices offered to it and so on.

At this point you might feel confident in asserting that the meteorite was a sacred object, and indeed this could be corroborated by natives of the country, who produce a traditional tale that speaks of a time when the people were in great trouble and saw a brilliant light fall to earth from heaven and so discovered the sacred stone, which then became the object of veneration and the centre of a religious cult.

Some people might conclude that this offers a paradigm for our religious belief: that although we couch it in terms of the sacred and supernatural, it can be shown to have its origin in natural phenomena. ‘These primitive folk had no understanding of what a meteorite was and were profoundly impressed and frightened by it, so they thought it was a sign from God. Of course we know better now.’

But do we? I think conclusions of that sort are flawed and arise from a misplaced application of causality: ‘the spectacle of the meteorite and the awe it induces are the cause; their subsequent religious practice can be seen as the effect.’

To reason thus is to overlook the fact that the story does not start with the meteorite: it starts with the people’s being ‘in great trouble.’ Of course I have just invented that by way of illustration, but the point is valid: we can imagine that there were plenty meteorites shot across the skies before this, but this one came at an opportune time. In other words, it came into a story that was already going on; it was incorporated into a pre-existing ‘form of life’, to use Wittgenstein’s term: what made it a sign was the fact that the people were looking for one; they felt the need of it.

In other words, unlike the mammoths (say) which we can imagine grazing placidly, oblivious, as meteorites blaze across the sky, these people already had the habit of storytelling, of making things up to explain their situation to themselves. It is important to see that, fundamentally, they are in control: it is the people who choose to make the object sacred, to see it as a sign – they confer its status on it by incorporating it in a story. There is no necessity of the kind we normally look for in cause and effect, like the explosion that follows the lighting of a match in a gas-filled room; this is more an instance of what I have elsewhere called ‘elective causality’ where we choose to make something the ground or cause of our subsequent actions.

So am I saying that religion (of whatever kind) is ‘just a story we made up’?

Well, yes and no. When that assertion is made nowadays – as it often is – it is generally by people who mean to dismiss religion as something unnecessary, that has no place in modern society; something we have grown out of. And when that assertion is vehemently denied (as it also is), it is by people who insist on the central importance and continuing relevance of religious belief and practice. Yet in this particular argument both are mistaken, I think.

Let us start by dispensing with that word ‘just’: to say that something is ‘just a story’ or ‘just made up’ is to prejudge the issue; you are signalling from the outset that you consider stories and making things up to be trivial activities, unworthy of serious consideration. That is not the case.

The next thing to consider is whether by saying that something is a story or is made up we devalue it or detract from its credibility. I would say, emphatically, that we do not. Storytelling, and making things up generally – which I take to encompass everything we call Art – is an important human activity, perhaps the most important; and certainly the most characteristic.

Yet it is the case that the same terms we use for these praiseworthy and admirable activities – ‘telling stories’ ‘making things up’ and indeed the whole vocabulary of fabrication – are also used in a pejorative sense to mean ‘telling lies’, a confusing ambivalence I have remarked on before, here.

The fact that it is possible to make false allegations or give a false account of something – to represent the facts as being other than they are – should not mislead us into supposing that the paradigm for storytelling is the news report, the veracity of which is judged by measuring it against external circumstances – if its content corresponds to those circumstances, then it is true and accurate.

Far from being a paradigm, the news report is a special case, a relatively recent development in which the age-old techniques of storytelling – which are as old as humankind – are applied to the particular (and peculiarly modern) activity of news-gathering and journalism (which is why news-editors always want to know ‘what is the story?’ )

The majority of stories are not of this sort. Though the temptation is to suppose that they are stories ‘about something’ (or paintings and photographs ‘of something’) and so must be judged in relation to that ‘something’, they should in fact be judged on their own merits: it is what is in them that makes them good, not how they stand in relation to something else. (We find this easier to grasp in relation to music, which we do not expect to be ‘about something’: the form of stories and pictures misleads us into looking for correspondence with external circumstances).

‘Truth’, when we apply it to art, is something that we ‘get’ and we respond by drawing others’ attention to it: ‘read this, look at that, listen to this’, we say, because we expect them to ‘get it’ too; and when they do, they smile and nod in agreement. No words need be spoken; explanation is superfluous, and indeed largely impossible: if the person does not ‘get it’ then you will not persuade him by reason: the best you can do is ask him to look or listen or read again.

(And of course this ‘truth’ can be faked, too, as happens when someone copies what someone else does, usually for gain (though we can also copy in order to learn). In this case the story (or painting, or piece of music) is ‘unoriginal’ in a very precise sense: it does not originate, or have its source, in the person who created it: it is not the expression of what they think or feel; it did not result from the ‘internal pressure’ I spoke about above; the ‘struggle’ that we started out discussing is absent.

Of course we all copy, and quite legitimately, when we are learning – ‘playing the sedulous ape’, as R L Stevenson called it – but we hope to arrive at a point where our own voice emerges, and our work ceases to be purely derivative and has something of ourselves in it, bears our stamp, has its own character, not someone else’s.)

So when I say that religion is a story, something we have made up, I do not mean to demean or disparage it, but rather to say: this is how it works (and how we, as human beings, work); if you want to understand it better, you need to think about stories and storytelling, how they work, how they express meaning. Read the stories; don’t go looking for the remains of the Ark (or indeed of the True Cross). These are not ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’ any more than a photo of the baby Jesus in the manger would be evidence of the Incarnation. If you want to understand the Incarnation, you have to ask, ‘what on earth could someone mean by that, ‘God became Man’? What were they trying to say?’

The tentative nature of every utterance must always be the starting point: ‘this was written (or painted, or composed) by someone like me, another human being, so I should be able to arrive (though not without effort) at some understanding of what it was they were trying to express, what internal pressure caused this outpouring.’

That is why, as we grow older and our life experience – of both good and ill – becomes richer and more varied, that we find ourselves understanding what eluded us before; why we can suddenly say ‘now I see it!’ with absolute conviction; it is also why some things that impressed us in our salad days, when we were green in judgement, no longer satisfy – we see through them; they no longer ring true. And the big, mysterious things – the ineffable – if we engage with them honestly (and don’t start by thinking we already know), then we will be drawn to what has been said and done by those who have engaged in the same struggle – and may find comfort there.

Head and Heart (1)

A thought about therapy in relation to art and music struck me after listening to James Rhodes in a TV programme, Notes from the Inside, in which he – a classical pianist and former psychiatric patient – takes a grand piano into a psychiatric hospital to play pieces he hopes will resonate with patients:

calling art and music ‘therapy’ gets it the wrong way round – that is medicine, psychiatry, trying to ride on the back of art and subordinate it. Art works because it is art. It would work anyway, if the person happened on it in a museum or on the radio at home or in a book. It is a way that people can break out of the toils in which they have become ensnared and glimpse (as Rhodes himself said) a way out, the possibility of going to another place. It is not part of a ‘programme’; it does not work in conjunction with drugs or some other treatment; it works because it reaches people – regardless of their state of mental health – in a way that other means cannot. When other things do not make sense or seem crazy or pointless, art and music tell us something different – especially when they reconcile the terrible things, make us see that it is still possible to go on living in spite of everything.

If something is worthwhile, it stands on its own merits: it does not need to disparage potential ‘rivals’. You do not establish the worth of association football by disparaging golf or cricket; you do not establish the worth of classical music by disparaging popular music, or vice versa; and you do not establish the value of reason and science by relegating intuition and all other forms of thought to a sideshow, a sort of childish whimsy, pretty but not to be taken seriously.

Art, poetry, music are modes of thought – or at least, I am compelled to call them that to draw attention to their equal worth to reason. I would prefer to say that they are responses to life – to the fact of finding ourselves alive and engaging with that – but that is beyond the narrow pale we have drawn round ourselves, centred on reason and the head, and denying the heart.

The very dichotomy, ‘head and heart’ is suspect, and like so many of its kind, it is made from one side only – it is an instance of what I have referred to above, the error of thinking that you establish your cause the better by disparaging what you see as its rivals, instead of on its own merits. The head fears the heart and is always concerned to keep it in its place, but the heart has no such misgivings. Doubt and scepticism, distrust of the senses, are the very foundation of Reason in the West; trust and faith are the concern of the heart.

It had not struck me how strongly my introduction to philosophy – which was chiefly through Plato – began with this determination to discredit the senses, which is the same as discrediting intuition and one’s natural bent. The senses are not to be trusted – it is hammered home: there is the famous bent stick in water, which the mind (or head) knows is straight, but the foolish senses can only see as bent. Things are not as they seem; appearances are deceptive – that is what Western philosophy is built on (consider Descartes, in his determination to arrive at something of which he can be certain, his conviction that everything his senses tell him might be a lie).

And what do we arrive at? Man, the rational animal, the one creature whose head rules his heart, who can subordinate the passions to reason, who can remain cool and detached – it is our supreme piece of idolatry to imagine that it is in this that we are the image and likeness of God (think of Blake’s image of the Ancient of Days: Blake's Ancient of Days).

There is nothing wrong with reason – I am not going to fall into the trap of disparaging it – I hold with Aquinas that there can be no incompatibility between faith and reason, just as there is no true dichotomy between head and heart; but I do think we have got ourselves into a false position where we have, as it were, elected Reason as our dictator, and subordinated things to Reason which rightfully stand alongside it, equal in value – perhaps even greater – but quite different in operation.

As I have suggested elsewhere, much of this is reflected in our attitude to language and the way we teach it. When I was young and studying philosophy the thing that impressed me about language was that it was rule-governed – and if only we could spend a bit more time and exercise our reason on the matter, we could clarify those rules, make them truly effective, eliminate the idiosyncrasies that have arisen from generations of unreflecting use and arrive at a language that is purified, efficient, rational, and clear – the ideal instrument for thought.

Now, however, I see that as a mistaken perspective – what strikes me as important about language is not that it has rules and a structure but that it is intuitive – we acquire it instinctively: if every book was burned, every school demolished, our capacity to learn language would not be diminished one jot – because schools and books were established as a means of extending the use we make of language – they are not the primary means of instruction, they are secondary.

Now I am not for a moment advocating a Taliban-like reversal of education: I only want to remind you of its place in the order of things. Language is ancient, instinctive, coeval with our humanity* – it is part of the expression of our humanity, and in its ‘natural’ form – speech** – it is bound up with art and music: any separation we make is artificial – these are colours on a spectrum, different aspects of the same thing, different sort of human behaviour in response to life. Literacy is a good thing, books are a good thing, schools are a good thing – but they are not the only good thing, and we should be careful what we teach our children.

*I have modified my view since I wrote this, and now believe that what we think of as language is of relatively recent origin – about 2,500 years ago – and that it was preceded by a much more holistic mode of expression, which integrated expression, gesture, movement, rhythm, song, music and art
** speech, I now think, is not the ‘natural’ form of language, but simply a facet of the holistic mode of expression described above: its current importance arises with the emergence of Language (as we now think of it) which results from the impact of writing on human expression.

A Way of Thinking

rotting apple

Poetry is a way of thinking.

By ‘poetry’ I mean not just poetry but everything that works in a similar fashion – by imagination and instinct – such as music and art generally (it’s handy to remember that ‘poetry’ just means ‘making’) – and by ‘thinking’ I mean rather more than the narrow sense in which we usually employ that word – thinking is the totality of what we do inside our head, of which ‘rational thought’ is only a subset.

An instance: this morning, I had an idea for a book. It came as it usually does, out of nothing, and then all at once began to burgeon (the best image I have of this is cells under a microscope dividing and multiplying with great rapidity) which is always exciting – you think, ‘there could be this – and then this – and this -’ it comes in a torrent, yet all seems to hang together; you feel the connections branching out all over the place, you sense how it would all work, without having to examine it too closely.

By the time I got back to the house, the excitement had subsided and a reaction had set in – again, this is familiar: a bit like the seed that falls on stony ground, some ideas spring up but do not have the soil to sustain them, so they wither as quickly as they came. And that thought – that this might be yet another disappointment, something of seeming promise from which nothing comes – brought to mind a poem by Seamus Heaney, Blackberry-Picking.

The first section, of sixteen lines, deals with the exuberant wild untrammelled joy of picking a great glut of blackberries; but the second part, only half as long, reads:

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
a rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Now Heaney of course when he wrote that poem had no notion of me standing on the doorstep reflecting on how ideas can suddenly fail of their promise, nor need he have had any specific notion of what the poem ‘meant’ or was ‘about’; the concrete experience of the blackberry picking, that mad joy followed by disappointment and disgust (and the fact of its being a familiar sequence) was what he sought to capture.

Nonetheless, the poem illustrates perfectly what I was thinking about the failure of promise, so it does ‘mean’ that; that is what it is ‘about’. Nor do I need to add ‘that is what it means to me’ because the whole point is that we are dealing with universals here – by which I mean experiences of a kind that every human being has had, or has the potential to have. What Heaney as a boy experienced with the blackberries is something that many of us have found elsewhere in life; so the poem is not exclusively about any one of those experiences, it is an expression of each of them and it unites everyone who has ever felt anything like that, regardless of whether he ever picked a blackberry in his life.

We can imagine that two such people might meet, and on reading the poem, would nod and exchange looks, as much as to say, ‘I see what he means’ or even just, ‘that’s true.’ And they might do the same on hearing a particular passage of music, or seeing a painting – they would recognise, if you like, that here is a concrete expression of a human experience, an experience they themselves have had; and the poem (or the music, or the painting) would connect them.

That is the kind of thinking that goes on in stories, in music, in poetry, in art – this instinctive grasping of human experience, which our fellow-humans recognise and relate to when they see it. Reason, which does not like instinct and abhors jumping to conclusions, cannot explain it very well and tends to disparage and dismiss it or find some way to marginalise and subjugate it, but in fact it is central.

(And my book idea? it hasn’t withered yet: we shall see what comes of it)

But is it REAL? Is Art a Joke? – Five Funny Things

I have been thinking about abstraction recently, particularly the relation of what is abstracted to what it has been abstracted from, since it seems to me to have a bearing on things that are of interest to me, such as philosophy, metaphor and art. So I was amused to run across a couple of things on Facebook and Google Plus which seemed to have a bearing on the ideas I was trying to develop, and which in turn reminded me of a couple of other things. Here they are, in the order they occurred:

First, from Google Plus:

miracles photoshop graph

next, from Facebook:

F OFF Harriers

The picture was accompanied by this (rather earnest) commentary:

Look at this carefully. It is a brilliant example of British humour! 

The British government has scrapped the Harrier fleet and on their farewell formation fly-past over the Houses of Parliament they gave the government a message.

Lean back a bit from your computer monitor and squint. Seriously … push your chair back a couple of feet.

My hat is off to the man who was leading this Squadron. (Shorty)

On Facebook, the discussion turns very rapidly to the question of whether or not the picture is genuine, in the sense of recording an actual event (as the commentary suggests). Some people are not bothered at all, pointing out that it is funny in any case; but others get quite angry and exercised on the point – evidently, for them, the picture only makes them laugh if it depicts an actual event; if it is ‘faked’ it just makes them angry (perhaps because they feel they have been taken in).

This called to mind something from Flann O’Brien’s celebrated ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column in the Irish Times, which he wrote under the name of Myles na gCopaleen:

WANTED, WIFE, copper-faced, any length, capable of being bent. Box – ‘

This is an advertisement that appeared recently in an evening paper. It is obvious, of course, that ‘wife’ is a misprint for ‘wire’.

To be honest for a change, I invented this advertisement out of my own head. It did not appear in any paper. But, if any reader thinks that any special merit attaches to notices of this kind because they have actually appeared in print, what is to stop me having them inserted and then quoting them?

Nothing, except the prohibitive cost.

 -The Best of Myles, p114

And I was also reminded of a famous incident from classical antiquity – some 25 centuries ago – the contest between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius:

…when they had produced their respective pieces, the birds came to pick with the greatest avidity the grapes which Zeuxis had painted. Immediately Parrhenius exhibited his piece, and Zeuxis said, ‘Remove your curtain that we may see the painting.’ The painting was the curtain, and Zeuxis acknowledged himself conquered, by exclaiming ‘Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself.’

– Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary

and finally, to round it off nicely and tie the last piece to the first, that camera & photoshop graph, there is this,

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-22278106

the news that one of the four Turner Prize finalists this year is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, ‘a portrait painter, whose subjects are imaginary.’

These five things seem to me to combine so happily, and to be so pregnant with meaning concerning the things I discuss in this blog, that rather than comment at length, I shall leave them for you to savour and make your own inferences.