The Exploration of Inner Space II : by way of metaphor

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In a recent piece, prompted by Eliot’s line
‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’
I suggested that we have constructed a carapace that protects us from Reality much as a spacesuit protects an astronaut or a bathysphere a deep-sea explorer.

This in itself is an instance of how metaphor works as a tool of thought and I think it is worth examining. There is, as I have discussed elsewhere  a certain hostility to metaphor and this should not surprise us, since metaphor – ‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars’ as Aristotle defines it – effectively violates at least two of the three so-called ‘Laws of Thought’ that underpin rational argument:

Identity – ‘A is A’ (metaphor asserts that A is B)
Contradiction – ‘A is not not-A’ (again, metaphor asserts that ‘something is what it is not’)
(The third law, Excluded Middle, states that where there are only two choices, there is no third possibility (so ‘A or not-A’) That may also be violated, but let’s not go into that now.)

Yet despite that – in fact, I would assert, because of it – metaphor is a key tool for thinking about the world and how we are situated in it.

There is no mystery to its mechanism, as I think can be illustrated from the particular case we are discussing. The essence of metaphor is ‘seeing as’ – considering the thing we are trying to understand in terms of something we already understand. In most cases, what we are invited to see is a set of relations – ‘x stands to y much as a stands to b.’ So, in this case, I say that we should think of ourselves standing in relation to Reality as someone who is protected by a carapace or intervening layer that comes between them and their surroundings.

This, of course, is to do no more than unpack what is already implied in Eliot’s line and to reinforce it by concrete imagery: we understand the importance of the spacesuit and the bathysphere, so we are being invited to see our experience (by which I mean ‘what it is like to be alive and conscious’) in terms of being surrounded by an environment from which we must protect ourselves by interposing some mediating layer since we cannot cope with prolonged exposure to it.

There will be people who view this sort of talk with some degree of hostility and scepticism, and it was to forestall them that I modified my earlier expression ‘thinking about the world and how we are situated in it’ to ‘our experience’ as a signal to step back from conventional terms which could be misleading. This is because we are not looking down a microscope here, at something (e.g. plant cells) whose place in a particular scheme of things is already agreed; we are taking a step back to where the ‘schemes of things’ are dreamed up in the first place, namely ‘inside the head’ (or inner space, if you like): we are operating in the realm of the imagination, attempting to disentangle problems of thought.

This highlights a difficulty inherent in philosophy, which someone once described as ‘a kind of thinking about thinking’: how do you get back to the starting point and avoid being ensnared by preconceived ideas? How do you use an existing way of thought to think about a different way of thinking? It is a kind of paradox. Wittgenstein touches on it in the Tractatus (6.54):
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

Descartes was trying to do the same thing in his Discourse, where he aimed to get back to some bedrock of which he could be certain, to use as a foundation on which to build a system of thought, and came up with his ‘cogito ergo sum’ (some thousand years after Augustine had said the same thing). It is in that wanting to be certain that Descartes goes wrong – in the territory where we are operating, nothing is certain, everything is provisional; the question is not ‘what can I be sure of?’ but rather ‘how can I see this?’

Thus (to return to the matter in hand, our metaphorical carapace) we proceed obliquely, by suggesting ‘ways of seeing it’ that coincide or seem complementary. It should be no surprise that the first is yet again drawn from poetry, since that is where metaphorical thinking is at home:

detail of Averkamp's Winter Landscape(Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape (detail))

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

That is WB Yeats’s poem, The Cold Heaven. As Seamus Heaney observes (in his brilliant essay ‘Joy or Night’ in The Redress of Poetry)

‘This is an extraordinarily vivid rendering of a spasm of consciousness, a moment of exposure to the total dimensions of what Wallace Stevens once called our ‘spiritual height and depth.’ The turbulence of the lines dramatizes a sudden apprehension that there is no hiding place, that the individual human life cannot be sheltered from the galactic cold. The spirit’s vulnerability, the mind’s awe at the infinite spaces and its bewilderment at the implacable inquisition which they represent – all of this is simultaneously present.’

I was strongly reminded of Yeats’s poem, particularly the lines

I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light.

when I came across a deeply moving account by a mother of life with her daughter. This is an extract – I urge you to read the whole piece here – a terrific piece of writing.

‘I have had to learn to do these things quietly because my daughter needs me to.  She is seven; bright, super funny, articulate, thoughtful and loving.  She also has autism spectrum disorder.  If you saw her on a good day, you’d maybe think she was a little shy and kooky.  You’d maybe wonder why I am letting her wear flip-flops in the winter rain.  You’ll never see her on a bad day as she can’t leave the house*.

She has severe sensory processing difficulties.  A normal day exhausts her and when she feels overwhelmed, even a gentle voice trying to soothe her with loving words can be too much to process, making her feel crazy.  She describes walking into a room of people as “like staring at the sun”. She’s incredibly empathetic but you may not realise as she feels her own and others’ emotions so deeply she can’t bear it, and so sometimes she has to just shut down. ‘

(that asterisk, by the way, links to this footnote:
‘*3 months of non-stop bad days and counting, not left the house since December 3rd 2014’ – the blog was written on 3 March)

I apologise for appropriating another person’s anguish to use as an illustration but I hope I do not do so lightly. I have my own experience of the pain that results when someone you love cannot cope with the world and I am increasingly convinced that a great deal of what we term ‘mental illness’ – particularly in the young – has to do with their difficulty in reconciling Reality (or Life, if you like) as they experience it with the version that those around them seem to accept – it is a learning difficulty or impairment; they just cannot get the hang of how they are ‘supposed to’ see things.

In fact, ‘supposed to’ is just the right idiom here, for the subtle nuances it has in English:

‘that’s not supposed to happen’
‘you’re not supposed to do that’
‘it’s supposed to do this’
‘because that’s what you’re supposed to do!’

– it conveys not only a divergence between how things are and how they are meant to be – the infinite capacity of life to surprise us, the inherent tendency of all plans to miscarry (‘the best laid schemes o mice an men gang aft agley’) – but also the tension between social constraint and the individual will: ‘you’re not supposed to do that!’ is what the child who has bought into the conventions early on (that would be me, I fear) squeals when his bolder companion transgresses (and that squeal is followed by an expectant hush during which the sky is supposed to fall in, but doesn’t).

The world is not as we suppose – or perhaps it would be better to say that it is ‘not as we pretend,’ since that brings out the puzzlement that many – perhaps all – children experience at some point, that the adult world is an elaborate pretence, a denial of the reality that is in front of their noses.

Here is Eliot again, from Murder in the Cathedral:

Man’s Life is a cheat and a disappointment;
All things are unreal,
Unreal or disappointing:
The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,
The prizes given at the children’s party,
The prize awarded for the English essay,
The scholar’s degree, the statesman’s decoration,
All things become less real.

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the hollowness of achievement and the emptiness of success is a commonplace of adult writing, and it complements a central theme of much children’s writing, that the world is a marvellous and enchanting place full of magic and wonder (and terror) – but adults, as a general rule, cannot see it (which has just this instant reminded me of a favourite and curious book of my childhood, The Hick-boo**. about a creature only children could see – the adult exception being an artist).

And that is a hopeful note to end on, for now: that there may be a better way to mediate Reality than the conventional carapace, namely Art (in its most inclusive sense – painting, sculpture, poetry, storytelling, music, dance). That is something I shall come back to.

**to be exact, ‘The Hick-boo, a tale of a tailless transparent goblin’ by MH Stephen Smith (Hutchinson 1948).

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.

Autumn circular with brambles, hips & haws

(The map for this route can be found here)

Well, after a dull morning, the sun came out and so did I. Early on it had shown all the promise of a classic Autumn day – bright sun, a nip in the air, trailers of mist on the hills – but then it all went grey and I thought I wouldn’t bother. Then in the afternoon the clouds dispersed and I though it was too good a day to waste indoors. I found with shame that both my serviceable mounts – the Dream Roadster and the 1934 Royal Sunbeam – needed air in their tyres. Was it so long since I had been out?

After a brief consideration I chose the Sunbeam: it suited the day better, somehow. Before setting out a buzzing made me look up and there was a microlight enjoying what must have been a beautiful view. You need good eyes to see the microlight, but I like the accidental saltire made by the wires – and what a fine sky!

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What route to choose? I decided to take the old road to the West out of Perth which starts with a long climb called Necessity Brae. This makes a fine pairing with the splendidly-named Needless Road, which runs off the Glasgow Road into Craigie. To get there, I decided to take the route round Craigie Hill – it being the especial pleasure of the cyclist to go by secret ways and strange, where motor cars cannot.

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This path swoops around the base of Craigie Hill under a leafy canopy for much of the way:

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Necessity Brae is a strenuous climb in low gear but a merciful bend hides the upper section and keeps you going. This is the view looking back to Perth

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at the top, you are rewarded with brambles, or blackberries, if you prefer.

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They never tasted better: solar-powered Blackberries.

And here we see that great rarity, a Sunbeam recumbent:

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It’s a good viewing point – you can look North East, across to Strathmore, with Kinnoull Hill on the right,

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or North to the Grampians

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The Brae takes you up out of Strathtay, the valley of the Tay, and over a shoulder of land to Strathearn, the broad and splendid valley of the Earn.

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There is a fine descent into Strathearn,  but age brings caution: I enjoy going down hills, but no longer at full-tilt as I did in my youth.  I find the conviction that I am immortal has weakened with the years.

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Once down, I swung back  Eastward towards Craigend and so to Perth.

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There are a couple of handsome railway bridges over the Earn, where the lines out of Perth branch South to Edinburgh and West to Glasgow. This is the Westward route:

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and this is the Southern route, marching away across fields of gold, while the Western route runs across the middle ground:

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A fine bush of red berries made me think of Seamus Heaney and The Haw Lantern, though these I think were hips.

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Further on I found what I think were haws, but I am open to correction. My father told us often on country walks, but alas! I did not heed him well enough.

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Approaching Craigend I was surprised by a stiff ascent and exercised the first rule of cycling, ‘it’s all right to walk’.

Remounting, I joined the main road from Edinburgh to Perth, a short climb over the same shoulder I had crossed earlier in the opposite direction. I passed a fellow-cyclist enjoying his share of brambles and really should have been sociable and stopped but I was eager to be home (why? there was no rush) so made do with an exchange of greetings. I caught a glimpse of the classic view of Perth coming from the South East but I fear the picture does not do it justice:

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And so home again, feeling as always much the better for having been out on my bicycle. What better way to spend a fine September afternoon?

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A Way of Thinking

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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)

A true likeness?

If you are not familiar with art history, a painting titled ‘nude descending a staircase’ probably conjures an image of a naked person halfway down a stair, poised in the act of moving from one step to another; but what Marcel Duchamp gives us is this:

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Here, by way of contrast, are two decently-clad Irishmen, my maternal grandfather and his brother:

Goulding006

If we were asked ‘which is the more natural or realistic portrait?’ most people, myself included, would (I suppose) choose the second – after all, it shows two men whom we would recognise were we to meet them in the street (an unlikely eventuality, I grant you, since both are long dead), whereas it is arguable whether or not Duchamp’s picture even shows a recognisably human figure; and yet –

Is there not more truth in Duchamp’s picture than if it showed a naked figure as I have described above, poised on a particular step? And is there not a great deal more convention and a great deal less realism in the photograph than we at first suppose? After all, a nude descending a staircase starts at the top and passes over every step till it reaches the bottom; and if we want to insist on ‘descending’ as the key word rather than ‘nude’ then there is a great deal more of the descent in Duchamp’s picture than the conventional version I have described.

There is descent of a different sort in the photograph, but we don’t see much of that, either: just as I am descended directly from one of these men, both of them have a line of descent stretching back through their parents to time immemorial, a descent which has, in a variety of senses, made them the men they are; and then of course there are the more immediate forces that have shaped them: all that they have done and been, the sum of their experiences, their memories, all the connections they have made up to the point that picture was taken – rather like the structuralist model I have described here they are defined by what surrounds them and what has gone before them as well as by what they are in themselves; yet we see none of that – only the particular pattern of light they made at one instant in time. Is that a just representation of these men?

Is this, wonderful though it is, truly ‘a self-portrait, aged 63’ of Rembrandt van Rijn?

Rembrandt-self-portrait-age-63-NG221-c-face-half

It was painted in the last year of his life and it is marvellously expressive, for not only is Rembrandt a great artist, but we are skilled readers of faces – so we can certainly see much of the man’s character and outlook there; but his self? the near-totality of all that he was from birth?

Could we not envisage another kind of portraiture altogether, one that showed (to stay with the structuralist idea) everything apart from the actual person that shaped or influenced or was part of him? Thus we might have his childhood home, his school, and a host of people – parents, grandparents, siblings, children, friends, lovers, enemies even, along with significant events and experiences. (For an example of a similar sort of alternative portraiture – and much else of interest in that line – see here)

To be sure, this would be no less of a convention – an agreed way doing something – but would it be any less valid or truthful?

(Strangely, this brings to mind a poem by Seamus Heaney, the last line of which can still move me almost to tears: From the Republic of Conscience – perhaps it is because in writing this piece originally, I mused on the fact that in signing a photograph for a passport application, we attest that it is ‘a true likeness’ of the person shown)

But there now – I have come all this way and not arrived at the thing I really wanted to discuss, which was space, time and Immanuel Kant – another day, perhaps.