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)

Not waving…

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

I first read Stevie Smith’s poem at school and could make neither head nor tail of it, yet this morning, lying in the dark, the lines above came to me and resonated. They seem to me to capture perfectly that sense of being trapped in a despair that is impossible to communicate. It is a commonplace now to observe that we say ‘I’m fine’ when the opposite is true, and yet the psychology of it is complex – it is not that we could just say instead ‘actually, I’m not fine’ and make all well – because one aspect of the despair is that you cannot say how you feel; you cannot in fact act to save yourself at all – you can only wave as you drown.

I was going to add  ‘ – and hope that your conventional gesture is understood as a cry for help’ but the point is that you do not hope for anything – that is what despair consists of. You hold two thoughts in parallel but can do nothing to bring them about: you think, ‘if only someone would come and rescue me, say kind words, simply touch me, all would be well’ yet at the same time it seems quite impossible for you to initiate such an act: you cannot say, ‘hold me, touch me’ – because somehow the asking would alter it, turn it from a gesture of love to – what? – one of pity, perhaps, or indulgence – ‘You are only doing this because I asked, not because you feel like it.’

How puritanical and ungenerous despair makes us! ‘What I want is a spontaneous gesture of affection which I have done nothing to elicit.’ And not only do you not hope, you almost relish the fact that you know the gesture will not be forthcoming, because that will prove that you were right to despair in the first place, that you are not loved, that no-one cares that you are drowning. It is easy to see the strong link that exists between pride and despair.

(At the back of my mind I wonder if there is not also a link between reason and despair: it seems to me that when I am at my bleakest, I also feel that I am being at my most rational: it is reason that persuades me there is no way out, reason that persuades me that action is futile – yet I do not say this to condemn reason (which seems to me a most valuable thing) but only perhaps to be wary of the use we can make of it – it is the perversity of despair that it uses our strongest tools against us, a point I will come back to).

It is little wonder that I did not understand Stevie Smith’s poem as a boy, though I was accounted good at English, and I’m sure I grasped intellectually whatever explanation we were given, at least sufficiently to reproduce it for an examiner (one of the great exercises in futility that we have allowed ourselves to mistake for education – by all means encourage young people to read poetry and make of it what they will and can, but don’t examine them on it; just let it do its work. Literature, Art, Music need no supporting structure: exposure and opportunity is the thing. Then, when people are enthralled, they will learn about it because they want to).

As a boy, I simply lacked the experience of life to – do what? – I am conscious of avoiding what seems the obvious choice of words, ‘to know what that poem meant’, because I am wary of ascribing meaning to something as if that was definitive (though, as a matter of fact, it is exactly that clarity we seek when we are young – ‘but what does it mean? How can he be dead yet still moaning?’).

When we are young our feelings are enormously powerful but without any subtlety (which is hardly to be wondered at): we really do feel we might die of a broken heart, and equally that we might soar to the heavens if only the right person would look at us the right way; in the same way, we want all our causes to be black and white – we are impatient with any suggestion of shading, any hint that there might be something to be said on both sides of the argument. We want to know the right answer (and not hear there isn’t one, or that perhaps there is more than one).

It is only with the unfolding of life that our feeling, like our palate, becomes more refined and we acquire a taste for the subtle rather than the strong (ask a young man to make you a curry if you have any doubt on this). But this is scarcely news. However, what interests me about my experience with the Stevie Smith example is the mechanism involved, because it strikes me as one that is of fundamental importance.

Rather than say ‘I knew exactly what Stevie Smith meant’ I would sooner say ‘that line resonated with me’. Now, this is no mere pretentious dressing-up of a plain concept in fancy language to make it (or the writer) sound more impressive – rather it has to do with that difference alluded to above, between the youthful desire for clarity and the more mature realisation that there is a lot to be said for vagueness, for being open to interpretation (Wittgenstein somewhere speaks of the error of ‘making the vague precise’ which is something else I shall return to).

When I say ‘resonated’ I am trying to pin down the feeling it gave me – a sense of recognition (what someone else of my acquaintance terms an ‘aha!’ – meaning the moment when something comes to you and makes you exclaim). What interests me particularly is what it is that you are recognising –  and it is notable that another exclamation we use in these circumstances is ‘that’s right!’ We sense a rightness, an aptness, in whatever it is – it rings true.

That ‘ringing true’ is, I think, our sharing in the artist’s intuition – it is the instant of seeing or sensing something like she did when she made the line – whether it is a line of poetry or music or in a drawing. (and it resonates rather than means because this is something the artist did and felt rather than set out to say) In similar circumstances we speak of  ‘seeing the truth of something’ and it is generally accompanied by a desire, not to explain whatever it is (which is often impossible), but to draw others’ attention to it – ‘just look at/read/listen to that’ we say, with the firm conviction that the same thing that has become apparent to us will become apparent to others (it doesn’t always work, of course – some people ‘get it’ while others don’t).

(In this connection, consider Eliot’s response on being asked what he meant by the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree” –  ‘I meant, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree”.’)

It seems to me that I am approaching, by a circuitous route, something I spoke of the other day, namely St Patrick and the shamrock, and the mystery of what it is we understand when we grasp an explanation that is couched in metaphorical terms – but that is matter for another day.