Force of Habit

‘Mind-forged manacles’, as well as being one of Blake’s most resonant phrases, also shows how well (and succinctly) poetry (and art in general) can express a complex idea that it is difficult to express by standard reasoning.

At the heart of Blake’s phrase is a contradiction, something that is anathema to conventional reason: ‘forging’ is the working of metal by force and, generally, heat; ‘manacles’ are metal shackles used for physical restraint; yet ‘mind’ is immaterial; mental, not physical.

It is precisely in that contradiction that the power of Blake’s metaphor resides: he wants to emphasise the simultaneous strength and weakness of convention, man-made rules, which can bind us as strongly as steel shackles yet are self-imposed and entirely insubstantial – they are discarded not by physical strength but an effort of will, through recognising them for what they are (though that recognition is not enough in itself: it takes a conscious effort of will to break conventions).

(It is important to understand that by ‘convention’ I mean rather more than the trivial, like dressing or speaking in a particular way; I mean the whole vast hinterland of ‘agreed ways of thinking about things’)

The power of the mind is, I  think, generally underestimated and misunderstood, largely because we equate ‘power’ with physical force – so that proof of ‘mental power’ would be something like telekinesis, moving objects at a distance simply by thinking about it.That in turn stems from a narrow view of the world itself, which supposes it to consist only of what is physical: that is the ‘real world’ in which we are so often told we must live – yet the reality is quite the opposite.

Our world consists, to a very great degree, of mental constructs – it is, in other words, mind-forged. Our way of perceiving the world is an ingrained habit of thought more than anything: it is not simply a matter of opening our senses and letting the outside world flood in; our interaction with our surroundings is a continuous act of interpretation, along lines that have largely become instinctive; but as various ingenious experiments show, our minds can be deceived.

For instance, if we watch a mouth making a ‘b’ sound (technically termed a labial plosive: the lips are pressed together then blown apart) then see instead the mouth making a ‘v’ sound (a labio-dental fricative, where the lower lip is first caught behind the top teeth) we will hear a ‘v’ sound, even if the actual sound remains the same; and if the image switches back to the appropriate lip formation, we will hear the sound as a ‘b’ again; this will happen invariably – as long as we attend to the visual cue, it will override and alter the information our ears give us. This is called the McGurk effect – you can try it yourself here.

This also shows how important faces are to us, and how minutely we examine them for information – so it is no surprise that we have the knack of seeing them in chance arrangements (pareidolia is the term, I believe) and also that we interpret things such as cars (with headlights like eyes and radiator-grilles like mouths) as having ‘faces’ (some amusing instances here). We can play with this tendency too: if we take the inverse mould of a face (such as the inside of a mask) we tend to see it as a positive face, which leads to weird effects if it is rotated – we continue to interpret the image as positive, and this causes us to see the rotation happening in the opposite direction to the actual movement (illustrated here).

This is something that has long troubled philosophers – in essence, it is the same thing as the bent stick in water that exercised Plato: what we see (that the stick appears bent where it enters the water) is contradicted by what we know (that the stick is actually straight). This led Plato – and all who followed him – down the path of distrusting the senses, and maintaining a distinction between Appearance (deemed to be deceptive) and Reality (capable of being apprehended only by the intellect). Having spent much of my adult life in thrall to Plato, I now consider that a wrong direction, as I discussed elsewhere.

To be fair, my repudiation of Plato is as much about a change in my own temperament as anything else: when we are young, we are eager that mysteries should be solved; where there is doubt, we yearn for certainty. Now, in age, I find the mystery itself exciting and engagement with it more satisfying than any solution; the one thing sure about certainty is that it is not to be relied on – the best it can offer is a temporary reassurance which allows us to turn to other things. But the real pleasure lies in engagement: as Eliot puts it,

‘For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’

I used to find it distressing that, shortly before his death, Thomas Aquinas – one of the most formidable intellects of his (or any other) age, a man who thought hard about God all his life and wrote deeply on the matter – had a vision that prompted him to say “All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” Now, I find that reassuring, and it reminds me of Wittgenstein, at the end of the Tractatus:

‘6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands
me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out
through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw
away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world

7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

Wittgenstein got that right, I think: language is not the best medium for engaging with the mystery, at least not the language of philosophy and rational discourse; poetry will get you closer – like the Blake quotation we started with, or Eliot’s Four Quartets – though my own instinct is that music or art are better tools of expression; but ultimately, perhaps, it is silent contemplation that will bring us closest to understanding.

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.