A Byzantine Epiphany

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The other day, I was composing a poem in the basilica of Sent Antuan in Istanbul, just before mass (you must forgive this opening: it’s so rarely I get the chance to make such a statement truthfully that I feel I must take the opportunity when it presents itself – and it is relevant, as a matter of fact).

The gist of the poem was that there were dangers in building in stone, as its permanence meant that what you were trying to express might outlast the capacity of people to understand it. This was prompted by a conversation we had been having the day before – about Sent Antuan (St Anthony’s) in fact – but also by thoughts that had occurred to me some time before in a different church, Holy Cross in Crosshill, Glasgow.

Holy Cross, designed by Pugin and built in 1911 (about the same time as Sent Antuan) has an interior that is very much an expression of nineteenth-century piety: carved stone angels abound. It could be called, in many repects, beautiful; the community that built it put a great deal of effort into it and must have been very proud of it, but to me it spoke a language I no longer understood – and that is the danger of building in stone: the stone stays the same, but the people (and their way of looking at things) change.

This thought came back to me later as I sprawled sultan-like on my divan (such behaviour is obligatory in Istanbul; besides, it was rather a wet and windy afternoon). By this time I was thinking about language and in particular the concept of what I will call ‘Literal Rationalism’.

That term calls for some explanation: what I mean by it is the way of thinking about things that arises after speech acquires a written or literal form. (It is worth noting and storing away the fact that, whereas speech is as old as humanity, letters and writing are a relatively recent invention – the oldest that we know just now is between five and six thousand years old; compare that with the wonderful cave paintings in France, Spain and Indonesia, which are between thirty and forty thousand years old – and it seems to have taken about a thousand years before anyone thought to use letters to write what we would call literature. The relevance of that will become apparent later, I hope)

What happens after speech acquires a written form – a long time after, since the process is gradual and ongoing – is that language develops a dual character, with the two aspects being not complementary but antithetical.

What is the nature of this antithesis? Not so long ago, my answer would have been to quote this latin maxim:

vox audita perit; littera scripta manet

(the voice heard perishes; the written word remains)

In other words, speech is fleeting; writing lasts.

That, after all, is surely what makes writing such a brilliant invention – it allows learning to be captured and transmitted from one generation to the next; it is, arguably, what makes the modern world possible, a necessary though not a sufficient condition for the industrial and technological revolutions that have shaped the way we live now.

Yet there on that wet and windy Sunday afternoon in Istanbul (following, as it happens, by the wonders of technology, my football team’s agonising defeat in the Scottish Cup semi-final, via computer links to the BBC and – of all places – Shetland) I recalled what I had been thinking about that morning, and I had an epiphany, a sudden and dazzling insight –

that Latin maxim was, quite simply, not true; it was little more than propaganda for the Literal Rationalist outlook

– on the one hand, the vaunted permanence of the written word was the same as those stone angels in Glasgow: the mere capacity for its form to survive was no guarantee that its content remained comprehensible (a notion neatly embodied in the Phaestos disc which is written in a language no-one now can read)

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while on the other hand, the assertion that speech is ephemeral – ‘vox audita perit’ – might be true in a trivial sense, as a description of the behaviour of sound-waves, but in the larger sense it was utter nonsense, the very opposite of the truth.

My father, who was an English teacher before becoming a headmaster, was a great reciter of verse: driving us to school of a dark morning he would declaim

Tis morn, but scarce yon level sun

can pierce the war-clouds rolling dun

where furious Frank and fiery Hun

fight in their sulphurous canopy!

or, as an alternative,

On Linden when the sun was low

all bloodless lay the untrodden snow

and dark as winter was the flow

of Iser, rolling rapidly

If it was a better morning he might say

Awake! for morning in the bowl of night

has cast the stone that put the stars to flight

and Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught

the Sultan’s turret in a noose of light!

While in April (as it is now) he could be depended on to give us

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Housman was the poet of his youth – he was born in 1913, on Easter Day – and another favourite recital came on the last night of November, at the back door (and indeed at other times when the weather was appropriate)

The night is freezing fast;

tomorrow comes December

and winter falls of old

are with me from the past;

and chiefly I remember

how Dick would hate the cold…

It was many years before I ever saw the text of any of those poems, and I have not had to look them up now (apart from the second line of ‘Loveliest of trees’); my point being that, as my recollection of my father’s recitations clearly demonstrates, the word heard does not perish: on the contrary, it lodges in the mind and stays there, as these lines (and many others) have for the better part of half a century.

And that is nothing to do with any unusual capacity on my part; rather it is an inherent quality of poetry in particular, and ‘sounding’ speech generally – because the utterance of speech, the pattern of sound waves, is ephemeral, it must use all the available resources – rhythm, rhyme, striking imagery, pleasing patterns – to make itself memorable; it is only the written form that need not make that effort.

So, to conclude for the present – for there is much more to be said here, believe me – the anithesis is not

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but rather

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and do not protest that writing can be all the things on the left, too – indeed it can, but these are but the clothes it borrows from speech to conceal its true nature, as delineated on the right.

I will look at this in more detail shortly.

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Pity or Terror? MR James and Jonathan Miller

Screenshot 2015-04-01 09.53.02Since MR James is our most noted writer of ghost stories, Michael Hordern one of our finest actors, and the many-faceted Jonathan Miller among our most celebrated directors, it should be no surprise that a production combining the talents of all three should acquire ‘classic’ status; but that should not stop us looking at it with a critical eye.

I am speaking, of course, of the 1968 BBC production of James’s tale ‘O whistle and I’ll come to you my lad’ which – not for the first time – has been the subject of some discussion on the MR James Appreciation Society Facebook page: one strand was initiated by a question about the ending, and whether it might not be more conclusive and in line with James; another asked who from the present crop of acting talent might play Professor Parkins, who has always been portrayed on TV as an older man (Hordern in 1968 was 57; John Hurt, in the recent remake, was around 70) despite being termed ‘young’ in the original.

This prompted me to go back and look again at the Miller version, which is available in full on YouTube (click here). It is frequently quoted as a classic adaptation of James’s tale (full text here) : does it deserve that accolade?

The Miller production – including the introduction, a curious feature we must return to – comes in at a little over 40’ long. In my edition, the original story runs to 30 pages of rather large type and takes about as long to read as the film does to watch; so there is not the usual need for paring-down of substance, character and incident.

Yet pared-down this production undoubtedly is: it centres almost exclusively on Hordern (he is seldom out of shot and generally alone) and considerable portions of the original tale are jettisoned, notably the university scene at the start, the encounter with the small boy outside ‘The Globe’ and the final stage of the encounter with the ghost (and what happens afterwards). In addition, the role of the colonel is considerably reduced, some events are conflated (the original has two whistleblowings and two rumpled bed incidents, the Miller version one of each) and the order of events is revised.

Now all that may be justified in terms of the change of medium, to bring the main storyline out more clearly; but James is a careful craftsman and seldom writes without purpose.

The TV story proper starts with a bed. It is in the foreground of the shot, viewed from an angle, a little from above. Two maids in frilly caps are in the process of making it; there is another bed, already made-up, in the background. The camera lingers on the bed as the maid smooths down the counterpane and satisfies herself that it is ready for whoever is coming.

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This is good dramatic technique: under the guise of every-day activity, our attention is drawn to the bed as something significant in the story; in our minds, we are already forming the question that is explicitly articulated later in the tale: ‘who is this who is coming?’

The question seems to be answered in the next scene: the maid’s exit through one door blends into the opening of another, in the cab that collects Michael Hordern from the station. The vintage of the cab – a Morris 25, I think – and the maids’ uniform suggest a time between the wars, the twenties rather than the thirties. The original story was written in 1903 and its setting is clearly contemporary, even though candles and rats in bedrooms are taken for granted as features of a provincial hotel. It is interesting that Miller has opted to set his story in the past, though given that 1968 was a time of great social and cultural upheaval, he probably thought a contemporary setting impossible.

Economy of storytelling in a TV production is often allied to drive and urgency, but that is not the case here: the pace is remarkably leisurely and the focus for a good ten minutes is entirely on establishing Hordern’s character: a man almost childlike in his lack of self-awareness and preoccupation with his own thoughts; he is, from the outset, an isolated figure – sitting at a separate table, put out of countenance by the overtures of an attractive single woman (later glimpsed with another, younger gentleman in tow), declining the offer of a round of golf, going for a solitary ramble.

Not till we are more than a third of the way in does Parkins, quite by chance and out of the blue, commit the act that precipitates the main action of the tale.

It is worth contrasting this with what James does. His Professor Parkins is first encountered in the hospitable surroundings of the College Hall, with the dons at table and looking forward to the break from academic teaching – it is the end of Full Term, and is either early December or early March (I incline to March because of the golf; but there is a reference to hotels being ‘closed for the winter’ which could be read either way).

In the first five pages (a sixth of the total) we establish not only Parkins’s character, but an important foundation for the rest of the story. Parkins is, like the character Hordern portrays, a recognisable type (and one does wonder if James had anyone specific in mind) but he is more subtly drawn than Miller’s and of quite a different sort. Far from being isolated, he is gregarious enough (‘my friends have been making me take up golf this term’) though his colleagues find him a bit of a pain: he is evidently one of those people who, having arrived at their own position on a matter and found it at odds with what is generally believed, feel compelled at every opportunity to ‘correct’ the popular notion. In Parkins’s case, the matter is the supernatural; he not only disbelieves in it, he actively deprecates it, and any mention of ghosts is guaranteed to get him up on his high horse, a propensity that some colleagues take advantage of for sport.

(there is some suggestion that his zeal is that of the convert – there is a reference later to his ‘unenlightened days’)

But alongside this character, Parkins is also given a motivation for his later actions. Rather like the bedmaking at the start of the Miller piece, it is introduced under the guise of everyday detail – a colleague asks him to look at the remains of a Templar Preceptory near where he is staying; but as with the bedmaking, the reader senses that this is something that will prove of greater significance in due course. The Templars, of course, had a reputation long before Dan Brown ever got hold of them, and James’s stories generally feature antiquarian things as key elements. (‘Oh Whistle’ first featured in ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ and the question about the preceptory is asked ‘by a person of antiquarian pursuits’).

So while the Miller character is still ambling about, absorbed in his own little world, we already know who the James character is, where he is going, and what he plans to do there.

At this point it is worth looking in detail at the introduction Miller provides. I have to say I find it rather odd, from its opening declaration ‘this is a tale of the supernatural’ – why is that necessary? – to the curious (and somehat disparaging) reference to James’s ghost-story writing as ‘a sideline’; (and is it accurate to describe James as ‘an archaeologist’?) but the bit I take real issue with is what follows, every part of which I think is questionable.

James’s tales, we are told, ‘have a peculiar atmosphere of cranky scholarship’ – do they, really? What follows deals with a cranky scholar, certainly, but he seems much more Miller’s invention than James’s; and I cannot really think ‘cranky scholarship’ is a significant factor in any of James’s tales.

And what are we to make of the claim that ‘O Whistle’ is ‘the darkest’ of James’s tales? The opposite is surely the case – for all its undoubted terror, it is conspicuously light, in several respects – the tone throughout is humorous, from the observation of the colonel’s ‘pronouncedly protestant’ views, the author’s self-depreciation of his knowledge of golf, to the touch of schadenfreude in the closing line; more importantly, the penalty suffered by Professor Parkins is light in comparison with those other James characters who are unwisely inquisitive, Mr Wraxall in ‘Count Magnus’ and the unfortunate Paxton in ‘A Warning to the Curious’; their ending is certainly dark.

And is it a tale of ‘solitude and terror’? again, that seems a better description of the tale Miller tells than of James’s: Hordern is very much alone throughout; the original Professor Parkins is not.

And does it have a moral? If the original has, it is lightly drawn – there is some suggestion (the reference to a surplice at the end) that Parkins has resumed the practice of his faith, but the main point of the story is a familiar one in James, that some things are best not meddled with; Parkins’s reason is not overthrown, but his rational certainties which were such an irritant to his colleagues have been considerably undermined. We are left with the feeling, in James’s tale, that Parkins is the better for his experience, at least in the sense that his colleagues will find him more tolerable company.

In short, then, Miller’s introduction is a piece of agenda-setting, which prepares the way for a tale quite different from James’s; but it also serves to disguise or distract from the weaknesses that arise in Miller’s version as a result of his deviation from the original.

As I have suggested, you tamper with a James tale at your peril: you will find little there that does not have some clear purpose. Miller’s omission of the Templar Preceptory is, to my mind, a blunder. As noted above, it is in many respects parallel to the focus on the bed at the start of the TV production: both prepare the ground for what comes later; but there is an important difference. James’s Professor sets out with a clear motivation.

The Templars are an odd lot and it would be no surprise if an object found in the ruins of one of their churches – in its own special place in the altar, mind – proved to be something out of the common run; and given that Parkins has undertaken to take a look at the preceptory, it is entirely credible that he would appropriate such an object out of legitimate antiquarian curiosity.

By contrast, some 13’ in to the TV version, the Hordern character is sketching out the itinerary for the ‘trudge’ he proposes in preference to a round of golf with the colonel: ‘take a packed lunch… take a look at the dunes… the beach… the cemetery.’ Why this rather clumsy addition? It seems an odd place to specify. Indeed, the main purpose seems to be to elicit from the colonel an equally improbable response: ‘oo-er – a bit too spooky for me!’ which Hordern echoes sceptically: ‘spooky? is it? (hmmm) spooky.’ In terms of subtlety, this is on a par with an elbow in the ribs; it also comes out of nowhere.

When he does come on the cemetery, he shows no more than passing, slightly scornful interest, tramping across graves and throwing out a quotation from Gray’s Elegy; emerging onto the crest of the dune, he finds a grave in the process of erosion: a bone is protruding. Again, he is unsubtly disrespectful: ‘give the dog a bone!’ and for a moment it looks as if he is actually going to desecrate the remains (but why would he do that?). Instead, he reaches over the edge and roots around – again, why? – and finds an object which he puts in his pocket, saying ‘finders keepers!’

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Evidently, this is meant to be his transgression – he has robbed a tomb – though why he does so is unclear (he is not an archaeologist – his discipline appears to be philosophy, and unlike James’s character, he is not acting on anyone else’s behalf). Further, instead of clarifying what follows, this act obscures it. If we are now embarked on a course that leads to the sheeted figure rising from the bed, what is the cause? It would appear to be the theft from the grave; what, then, of the blowing of the whistle, which comes later? is that merely incidental? And why, it might well be asked, is such a whistle in a grave in the first place?

The James character is an unwise meddler, but neither an arbitrary nor ill-disposed one; Miller’s character, by contrast, does something improbable, finds something unlikely, and suffers inexplicable consequences: why should taking an object from a grave cause bedsheets to rise up from an empty bed? – for that is as far as the Miller version goes: Hordern regresses to infancy at the mere sight of it; there is no direct assault on his person, no threat to life as there is in the original, where Parkins is almost forced out of the window.

And here, I think, we come to the crux of the matter: for all its superficial resemblance, Miller’s tale is quite different from James’s and not, I think, as good: where the original gives us a genuine thrill of terror – we can feel with Parkins – Miller’s version shows us somethng that moves us to pity only.

Something that James is particularly good at is crescendo: in his own words,
‘Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage’

In many of his best tales this dictum is enacted by a steady convergence, as the threat, at first vaguely discerned and barely recognised, draws steadily nearer till it is in intimate and terrifying proximity (consider the ‘irish yew’ in Mr Humphreys, the progression from tram advert, man in the street with fliers, through removal of servants to the horror under the pillow in Casting the Runes; or the steady pursuit of Mr Wraxall across Europe to the terrible climax at Belchamp St Paul in Count Magnus).

And, as James observes, it is an important part of the effect that the protagonist is ‘undisturbed by forebodings’ – those are for the reader to feel. Thus, when Parkins spies a distant figure hurrying to catch up, it does not disturb his equanimity as it does ours; the moaning of the wind after he blows the whistle does not affect him as readily as ‘it might have… fanciful people’; and importantly the figure in his ‘waking dream’ of the lonely beach is a man whose pursuit he observes with some degree of horror but nonetheless the detachment of a spectator – he sees no cause to identify it with himself, though we do.

Likewise, the witness of the small boy the next day – ‘it wived at me out the winder’ – ratchets up the tension for us, but not for the pragmatic Parkins, who is more concerned that his room has been entered and his things interfered with. Likewise the recurrence of the curious rumpling of the other bed impresses us, but not him. When he does at last ‘see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed’ it may be a complete shock to him, but we have been expecting something of the sort (with pleasurable dread) for quite some time.

By contrast, the Michael Hordern character feels apprehensions that we do not, because they arise, not from his circumstances, but the kind of man he is. Miller sets out to show (as he somewhat portentously puts it) ‘the dangers of intellectual pride and how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge those forces within himself which he simply cannot understand’. It could be argued that he succeeds, but the upshot is that the climax affects Hordern’s character much more than it affects us, and in a way that we may understand but do not share.

From the start, Hordern’s character strikes us as vulnerable, even childlike – everyday life could easily take him by surprise, let alone any supernatural manifestation. He is an unworldly man, wrapped in a cocoon of scholarship, quite out of touch with day-to-day reality, with little empathy for his fellow humans and no perception of how he appears to them, but at the same time completely assured in his learning – in short, he is something of a stereotype, the general public’s idea of an Oxbridge don, and by comparison to James’s version (intended, of course, for a university audience) the portrayal, though well-acted, is rather crudely drawn.

His intellectual collapse is not a crescendo but rather a slow appearance of stealthy cracks. We are shown him at his most secure in his breakfast-table lecture to the colonel on the matter of ghosts (though why, pray, has the colonel raised that topic with him at breakfast, a propos of nothing? the equivalent conversation in the original tale – about raising the wind – arises much more plausibly). The professor concludes the conversation by wittily inverting the Hamlet quotation that the colonel offers him: ‘there are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth’ – but derives rather too much amusement from his own jest. This, then, is the eminence from which he is set to fall.

His first inkling of doubt comes on the dunes, where the recollection of his witticism comes back to him, but then reverts to its original form. As he settles down to read that night, the camera lingers on the empty bed and for some reason Parkins recalls the words on the whistle: ‘who is this who is coming?’ It is only now – almost half an hour into the forty minutes – that the waking dream of the beach-sequence occurs, but with the crucial difference that Parkins sees himself as the one pursued. At this point, I would say that his anxiety now overtakes our own – whereas in the original we are fearful on his behalf because he is oblivious to the full significance of what he sees, in the Miller version we can see no reason why he should see himself as the object of pursuit by the rather abstract flapping thing in the middle distance. We do not feel, in James’s words, that ‘something of the kind may happen to me.’

The next morning, Hordern’s Parkins moves still further beyond our sympathetic range. In the original tale, there are two incidents of bed-rumpling, the first after his troubled night with the beach sequence, which occurs much earlier than in the TV version, and the second after the incident with the little boy, which Miller omits altogether. In both cases, Parkins is able to rationalise it; it is the reader who is disturbed. Now, Hordern’s Parkins is deeply disturbed by the sight of the rumpled bed because he cannot rationalise it. He is driven to seek solace and reassurance in FH Bradley’s essay on Spiritualism – not, I would suggest, a course that many of us would take in the circumstances. Having regained something of his equanimity, he reads and then dozes by the fire, only to be roused by a second repetition (for no apparent cause) of the line ‘who is this who is coming?’ At this point we do begin to feel that we are watching a man’s reason in the process of being overthrown, but the terror is personal to him: we do not share it.

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After bathing, Parkins retires for the night only to be wakened by noises close at hand. In a prolonged reaction shot – lasting nearly thirty seconds – he gazes at something in growing horror; then we are shown the stirring bedclothes. As they rise up, Parkins inexplicably gets out of bed and goes across to the washstand by the window, which takes him nearer the thing on the bed, though not by the most direct route – he is neither confronting nor fleeing it but sidling past it at an angle. In the James version, there is a reason for this movement – he is going for his stick, to use as a weapon (it has been used to prop up a makeshift blind to keep the moonlight out); in the Miller version, there is no reason for it at all.

In the James version, this move is a mistake, as it allows the thing to get between him and the door; what follows is a genuinely nightmarish sequence, a sort of macabre dance in which Parkins realise his opponent is blind and might be evaded if only he could find a way past; but the sight of its ‘intensely horrible face of crumpled linen’ roots him to the spot, then the accidental touch of its draperies forces a cry of disgust from him and the creature pounces in the direction of the sound, driving him backward though the window ‘uttering cry after cry at the utmost pitch of his voice’ – it is this that brings the colonel (who has earlier indicated that he fears something might occur) to the rescue: he is just in time to see the dreadful group at the window, though the sheet-thing collapses to nothing as he closes on it.

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In the Miller version, the mere sight of the rearing bedclothes – with no threat to his person – so unmans the Professor that he regresses to infancy and sticks his thumb in his mouth and begins to utter muffled sobs, which somehow are loud enough to attract the attention of the colonel who (despite having no reason to think Parkins in any danger) bursts into his bedroom and switches on the light; all he sees is Parkins, whose sobs have now evolved into repeated denials: ‘O, no! O, no!’ These continue for nine repetitions as the colonel folds the sheet in the background and the titles roll over Hordern’s disbelieving face.

And we, the audience, feel pity at most, but hardly (I would argue) terror.

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The Exploration of Inner Space III: What Plato’s got to do with it

chimborazo-3Chimborazo, Ecuador

WHEN I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

Turner’s poem is called ‘Romance’ and it records an experience most of us have felt at some point in childhood, the enchantment that arises from the potent combination of exotic names and far-off places, usually the result of reading books. I first heard it (my father was a great reciter of verse and lodged many poems in my head long before I ever read them, though I think it may have been my brother made me aware of this one) when I was still at primary school and I remember being perturbed by the second verse:

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams,
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

How could that happen and he not notice? I wondered. The fourth verse resonated with me: in those far-off days, we thought nothing of walking considerable distances to school, and being the youngest, I was often on my own, my brothers having moved on to the Big School, and I was certainly a dreamer:

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school—
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

volcano-popocatepetl-by-jakub-hejtmanek-wallpaperShining Popocatapetl, Mexico – photo by Jakub Hejtmanek

This poem came to mind on my morning walk when I was trying to recall when I first read Plato. I was about fourteen; it was a summer holiday in Barra, with no television. We learned to play cribbage and I read Plato’s Republic. So, not the misty heights of the South American volcanoes but a golden land of a different sort, the bright morning sunshine of the Mediterranean and ancient Greece, ‘when all the world was young’ – and not Romance, but Philosophy.

I say it was not Romance, and yet I wonder. For all his stern strictures on the ‘deception’ of art and poetry (which he would banish from his ideal state, unless it could be used for propaganda purposes) Plato is at his most persuasive when he is at his most poetic: the Simile of the Cave, where the prisoner starts out shackled in darkness, watching the play of shadows on the wall, but escapes to the upper world and gazes at last on the Sun of Truth, remains one of the most potent invitations to the study of philosophy.

Central to Plato’s thought is his Theory of Forms (or Ideas). This posits a world of immutable Forms which are what really exists – that is Reality; the world we perceive with our senses is deceptive Appearance, a mere shadow, whose contents stand to the World of Forms as the copy to the original. Thus, there are many tables, but each is an instance or expression of the single Idea or Form, ‘Table’.

As a teenager I found this beguiling, but I think an ambivalence was always there: although Plato plainly states that this World of Forms can be apprehended only by the intellect and not by the senses, his own presentation of it is so vivid (The Simile of the Cave and the Myth of Ur, which is an account of metempsychosis, following the journey of the soul after death into the timeless world of Forms thence to rebirth in another body, where its ‘acquisition’ of knowledge is actually ‘anamnesis’ or remembering its sojourn between death and birth) that it lends it the quality of concrete reality; to my teenage mind it was super-real: it had all the the vividness of the sensible world, only more so; as such it was a continuation by other means of fairyland and all the mysterious realms that had succeeded it in the stories of my childhood – it was the secret realm that lies hidden behind everyday reality, attainable only to the fortunate few.

(Another strand that was important to me was the compatibility of Plato’s thought with my religious beliefs – which should be no surprise, given that Platonism was the first big philosophical influence on Catholic thought, long before Aquinas assimilated Aristotle)

It has taken a good four decades and more for my perspective on Plato to shift. I think his way of looking at things retains a great deal of potency but is mistaken (or rather misleading) in two key particulars. The first of these is the elevation of the intellect with a concomitant denigration of the senses. I am beginning to think that this may have been a major wrong turning in Western thought and that its effects have been almost wholly pernicious. Plato may not be the first but he is certainly the foremost in establishing the antithesis between Appearance and Reality, effectively relegating the senses (and with them the emotions) to an insignificant and untrustworthy sideshow: the senses cannot be trusted; the intellect alone apprehends Truth. That is something that has bedevilled Western thought ever since; it could be summed up as the triumph of Head over Heart.

The second fault is not in his description but his labelling of it. There is a world that is apprehended by the intellect and a world apprehended by the senses, but it is the latter that is Real and Original, the former that is artifical and derivative.

(At this point, a curious things happened. Casting about for a suitable image to convey that Plato’s way of looking at things was a complete inversion of how they actually are, I recalled a particular optical illusion, where a hollow mask is rotated and we see it as a positive, convex face whichever side we see, and to accommodate this, we reverse the direction of its rotation. I recalled that I had used it in a previous piece I had written (Force of Habit) but when I checked, the link was broken. Searching for another version I came on this but what really excited me was the note at the end:

‘this illusion often fails to work on people suffering with schizophrenia; they are able to see the hollow mask for what it is. In this case the raw visual information (bottom-up processing) is not over-ridden by higher cognitive processes (top-down processing). Some psychologists believe that this dominance of bottom-up processing over top-down processing contributes to the sense of dissociation from reality.’

Top-down processing suggests that we form our perceptions starting with a larger object, concept, or idea before working our way toward more detailed information. In other words, top-down processing happens when we work from the general to the specific; the big picture to the tiny details.’

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This, couched in different language, is just what Plato proposes in his Theory of Forms: the Form or Idea is general, and specific instances are derived from it (interestingly, it was Plato’s pupil Aristotle who devised the system of classification using Genus and Species, where things are grouped together according to their common or general characteristics, and subdivided according to their specific or detailed differences – a way of looking at things that seems so ‘natural’ that we forget that it was an invention).

Biological-Taxonomy

However, what excited me even more than this unexpected sidelight on Plato was how well the idea that the ‘dominance of bottom-up processing over top-down processing contributes to the sense of dissociation from reality’ fitted with the notion I floated in my last piece  namely that some (perhaps much) ‘mental illness’ has its roots in an inability to learn the conventional way of seeing the world that most of us have adopted. Of course, from my point of view, I would insist on the inverted commas round ‘reality’ here, and I would resist the superiority implied in describing ‘top-down processing’ as ‘higher cognitive processes’.

In other words, Plato’s Theory of Forms – or ‘top-down processing’ if you prefer – is the very ‘carapace’ that we interpose between ourselves and reality, as discussed in my previous articles [here and here]. It is worth exploring this idea further.

The first thing to say is that we must remember, first and foremeost, that what we are discussing here are not actual things but ways of seeing – what Plato (and all who have followed) are offering is a way of looking at the world, a way of thinking about it – ‘seeing it as’ .

In saying this, I do not mean that before Plato no-one saw it this way and that since then everyone has learned consciously to do so. What Plato has made explicit and others (principally Aristotle) have refined is a technique, a way of dealing with the world, of operating in it, that was doubtless already implicit in much of our behaviour (though it would be interesting to know to what extent).

At the heart of this technique is abstraction, or the power to generalise, the trick of ignoring (superficial) difference and homing in on (underlying) similarity. This is certainly a very powerful tool: it enables us to use general terms, group things under the same head: ‘tree’ for all and any tree, ‘car’ ‘man’ ‘insect’ and so on. We can imagine that without it our mental processes might be very cumbersome; certainly our language would be. (I have discussed an aspect of this before, in relation to number, here).

I remember as a youth having an interesting discussion with an elderly Australian jesuit, Fr. John Flynn, an eminent islamic scholar among other things. His brother was a man of the same cut and had compiled one of the first dictionaries of the Australian Aboriginal tongue. One point that has stuck in my mind was that (apparently) they had no single verb ‘to wash’ but used a different word depending on what was being washed – the feet, the hands, the head, some article*. Fr Flynn cited this as evidence of ‘primitive’ thinking and I remember arguing that it might rather have been that, for them, more significance attached to the difference between the specific acts than to the similarity of the action, so that to suppose that washing the feet was like washing the face might strike them as ludicrous or possibly indecent.

This calls to mind what is said in the excerpt quoted above about one set of cognitive processes ‘over-riding’ another and the attitude this implies. We could say that the Aboriginal Australian (in the instance cited) has not developed the ‘higher’ cognitive processes that enable him to see that all acts of washing are essentially the same, share the same general form; but equally the Aboriginal Australian could retort that our debased ‘Western’ way of looking at things is a bit like having bad eyesight – we can no longer distinguish critical details. It is we who are deficient: we have forgotten how to see.

I find that idea exciting. It resonates with other things that I feel are bound up with this whole area of discussion, the question of what constitutes Reality and how best to perceive it. One is the celebrated ability of the Aboriginal Australian to ‘read’ the landscape and navigate without any of the aids that ‘Westerners’ require; when it comes to reading our surroundings, it is we who are illiterate. (When we lost this ability is an interesting matter to consider. There has recently been something of a revival in Britain of the idea of reading a landscape in this way (as here, for instance) and it is a commonplace that those who work close to nature and depend on it for their livelihood – shepherds, farmers, fishermen, say – are much more skilled in gleaning information from their surroundings.)

Another point of resonance is the experience of learning to draw, and developing skill in art generally; one of the first things you have to be aware of is the extent to which we allow concepts to interpose between us and the thing we are looking at. The simple exercise of drawing a familiar object – a cup, say – soon brings this home. We know what a cup is – we have the idea of it ‘in our head’: it seems superfluous to provide an example; we could draw one from our imagination. And to begin with, that is what we do. We fail to see the specific cup that is in front of us and draw our idea of it instead; we need to learn various techniques for seeing past the concept to the actual object, which is a pattern of light, shade and colour. (One such is the technique of ‘negative space’ where instead of attending to the object, you look at the space round about it (see some interesting applications here)).

Here I think we are approaching the heart of the matter, which is the possibility that we have evolved a way of seeing the world that has proved so useful and beneficial in so many respects that we have become blind to its shortcomings (it is, in fact, a form of elective indispensability, an idea I discuss in an earlier piece). The consequence is that when we experience difficulty as a result of these shortcomings – as I think is increasingly the case – we fail to recognise the source. We resemble, if you like, people who have become increasingly wearied and burdened by a heavy back-pack and try every method to make it easier to carry – walking sticks, different diet, improved fitness – save the obvious one of taking it off.

 

*I am open to correction here, as I am recalling something from forty years ago.

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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.

fredwcat1909

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).

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The Exploration of Inner Space, I : Facing up to reality

Scott_Gives_Salute_-_GPN-2000-001114From time to time, you come across ingenious arguments that purport to show that the moon-landings were an elaborate hoax, which I think say more about those who advance them than they do about the veracity of lunar exploration; yet there is a sense in which man has not experienced ‘being on the moon’ any more than he has experienced being in the depths of the ocean.

What Neil Armstrong and others experienced was being in a space suit on the moon, just as deep-sea explorers experience being in a submarine vessel at great depths: they are not in immediate contact with their surroundings, as the denizens of the deep are, or as we would be, exploring somewhere on the surface of the earth – they cannot smell or touch or taste or hear, and though they see, it is only through a window of sorts.

Do not think I say this to disparage these achievements, which are admirable, but rather to point out something that has troubled me since I was a child, transported in my imagination to the depths of space or the sea – the sense that the suit or the submarine would seem claustrophobic, that the inability to reach out and actually touch would be infuriating (in an odd way, an extension of the same frustration caused by a glass case in a museum); the feeling that, though I had gone all that way, I still had not actually ‘got there’ – rather as if I had walked many days to see a famous palace or cathedral but had been barred from entering it.

WCS_Beebe_Barton_600“WCS Beebe Barton 600″ by U.S. Federal Government (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Of course it will be objected that such an experience as I envisage would be, not impossible – since one could discard the suit, venture out of the submarine – but certainly ill-advised, since we could not hope to survive it, and that is perfectly true; but there is something very potent in this image of going places yet remaining fortified by our own portable version of home (a variant on the comical tourist who goes abroad with tins of baked beans in his luggage and insists on eating only British food)

This notion of the protective suit or carapace (whether mental or physical) called to mind Eliot’s line, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’ (which is worth reading in its (second*) context, the opening of ‘Burnt Norton’, here ).

It is a commonplace of sociology that ‘reality is a construct’ by which is meant, I suppose, that a great deal of what we call ‘real’ is actually mere convention – we agree to see the world in such a way and this is expressed in the way we talk about it and act in it (an example would be the elaborate edifice of time that we have erected, with its minutes, hours, days and years (and its adjuncts of clocks and calendars and diaries and year-planners) that enables us to order the past and envisage the future). The corollary is that what is real – the reality humankind cannot bear very much of – is something quite other, against which our constructed ‘reality’ acts as a screen or a protection – much as the space-suit for the astronaut or the submarine for the deep-sea explorer.

Doubtless there are good reasons for that protective construct, just as there are for the space-suit or the submarine – it might well be that direct exposure to reality would indeed ‘blow our mind’ (a phrase that recalls the sixties’ fashion for using psychotropic substances to gain acess to an altered vision of reality). On the other hand, we can conceive of an alternative route, not the single step of a mind-altering substance, but rather some process of acclimatisation, as pearl-divers train themselves to go deeper and deeper, and climbers to go higher and higher without supplementary oxygen.

Not that there is anything new here: the ancient practice of meditation, particularly in the East, is surely just such a kind of ‘acclimatisation’ – ‘detachment from self and from things and from persons’ to quote Eliot, again.

The renunciation of self is central to much religious teaching, and it is interesting to consider that the price of experiencing reality (of the kind that humankind cannot bear very much) might well be a loss of identity, of our sense of who and what we are (and consider here the expressions we use: ‘ecstasy’ (literally ‘standing outside (oneself)’ ‘transports of delight’ and being ‘carried away’).

I had a curious insight soon after writing the previous paragraph when I went out for a walk in our crowded, busy town. I tried to ‘unthink’ the social construct, the agreed convention – i.e. that I am such and such a person in such and such a place on a particular day at a certain date and time in a certain country with a particular history, and indeed I have my personal history which is documented both officially – birth and marriage certificates, passports, various qualifications – state exams, degree, driving licence – and privately, by things I have written, pictures and so on. All these things are, if you will, like the surrounding pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which define the unique space into which I fit: so what happens when you ‘think away’ these arbitrary things – what are you left with?

The interesting thing was that I could not do it, and I fell to wondering why. My first thought was that it must be the traffic, which seemed unusually busy, so that the constant noise and movement – to say nothing of the need to watch where I was going – was distracting me from my line of thought. Then it struck me that that was only partly true, on the surface, as it were – the real deep distraction was not just the cars, but the roads and the buildings; it was the town itself, the physical embodiment – in fact, the realisation, in a precise sense – of the very ideas I was trying to unthink.

780px-Ferrara-1600We are inclined to overlook this necessary link between the man-made object and the idea: the object is present and actual, a tangible thing, and it arrests our attention: we do not go beyond it, to see that it is an end product [cp Plato’s Theory of Forms, which sees each actual instance of something – a table, say – as the embodiment of the ‘ideal form’ (or ‘idea’) ‘table’; or from a slightly different angle, Aristotle, whose ‘final cause’ is ‘the end to which something is directed’ – in plain words, ‘how it is meant to end up’ – which equally gives priority to the idea or concept as the starting point – you can have the idea without its realisation, but not vice versa]

In this way, every city is a witness to the idea of civilisation, not just in the narrow sense of living in cities, but all that goes with it – the idea of a settled community, of imposing control on nature, cultivating crops, harnessing rivers and all the rest – indeed, beyond the city (backing it up, as it were) is the convention of government, law and order, nations; so it is no surprise that those who wish to escape the construct and come closer to reality start by escaping the city – they seek the wilderness, the desert, the mountains or the sea – wherever man has not interposed the protective suit we have constructed to enable us to survive day-to-day contact with reality.

*interestingly, it is a line he uses twice – the first time is in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’

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For the Ferryman

fearie-tales-logo-1

(This year’s entry for the Fearie Tales competition at Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Winter Words festival, but no hat-trick for me, alas, as it didn’t make the cut – a shame, as I think I like it as well as any of my successful entries. But judge for yourself:)

‘Well, I’ll be damned! Is this place inhabited at all? and is there any chance of a drink?’

‘Can I help you, sir?’

‘Why’d’you keep it so infernally dark? I can barely see a thing!’

‘You’ll find your eyes adjust, sir, as you become accustomed to your change of circumstances.’

‘Change of circumstances? O, I suppose you mean after the daylight outside – not that it’s exactly bright out there! I swear I never saw such weather. ‘Dreek’ – isn’t that what you call it in these parts?’

‘Aye, dreich sir – you could say that.’

‘And hadn’t you thought of getting a decent footpath made?’

‘Across the moor, d’ye mean sir? Did you find it hard going, then?’

‘If you call slogging several miles through the plant equivalent of razor wire ‘hard going’ well yes, I’ll say it was.’

‘Och, the whins do you mean, sir? They can be a bit jaggy. But no if you’re properly equipped, mind.’

‘Well if I’d been able to find a stout pair of walking boots and some thick woolly socks be assured I’d have sat right down and put them on, but there’s rather a shortage of retail outlets hereabouts – in case you hadn’t noticed – and they’re not the sort of article you’ll find just lying by the wayside, are they?’

‘It seems not, sir. Tsk! No proper boots or socks! that would have made for harsh going right enough.’

‘I’ll say it did! I’m damned if those devil-plants haven’t pricked me to the bare bone, a hundred times over!’

‘Just as you say, sir. Now, what can I do for you?’

‘Well I take it – and I have to say I’m just guessing here, on account of the complete lack of any signage – but am I right in supposing that this is an inn of some sort?’

‘Just so, sir. The Ferryman’s, some folk call it, or else The Crossing – on account of the old ferry.’

‘And you, I take it, are the proprietor?’

‘Mr Carron, at your service.’

‘Well then, Mr Carron, I’d like a room, if you please, and before that, a decent dinner – I’m famished! – and before that – well, something to drink wouldn’t go amiss.’

‘hem.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘I do not wish to be rude, sir – but are you sure you have the means to pay?’

‘Now look here! I’ll have you know that I – that I, um, appear to have come away without my wallet… now isn’t that the damnedest thing? I’ll swear that I – maybe in another pocket? must have slipped out on that hellish moor – wait a bit, here’s something! O, that won’t get me far! It would appear, Mr Carron, that all I have is this coin – though where I picked that up I have no idea. It looks like an old penny, but it’s so worn it’s hard to tell.’
‘I should hang onto that, if I were you, sir. You may have need of it, later.’
‘Ha ha, very droll, I’m sure. Now look here, Mr – er – Carron: as I’m sure you can tell, I am a man in very good standing with the bank – in fact (and you’ll just have to take my word for this, of course) I used to be a banker. So you can be assured, my credit’s good – you needn’t worry about that. Payment is guaranteed – it may just take a little time.’

‘Indeed, as you say, sir – I don’t doubt that you will pay, one way or another.’

‘Well, I’m glad that’s sorted! How about that drink – should have a whisky, I suppose – wine of the country, eh?’

‘There you are, sir. Might I ask how you come to be here? Given that you’re so ill-prepared for the journey?’

‘Ah, yes – the ‘no luggage’, you mean? and the – um- the unsuitable, so to speak, footwear? Well, that’s a bit of an odd story – if you have time?’

‘O, I have all the time in the world, sir.’

‘Mm – good! Tell you the truth, I’d like to try and piece it together myself – make a comprehensive narrative of it, if you will. There’s something there I can’t quite put my finger on. I know when it started – it was when I began taking walks – for my health, you know – they say it’s as good as going to the gym.’

‘Are you sure about that, sir?’

‘Well, it’s what they say, anyway – brisk thirty minute walk -’

‘O, I wasn’t querying the efficacy of a good walk, sir – I know that well enough. I meant, ‘are you sure that’s where it started?’ – your story, I mean.’

‘What the devil -!? Of course I’m sure! It’s my story. isn’t it? It starts where I say it does – I’m damned if I start it anywhere else, for you or anyone!’

‘Just as you say, sir. It was just that it seemed to me you were starting quite close to the end.’

‘Look, do you want to hear this story or not?’

‘By all means, sir.’

‘Well – as I said – it started when I began to take a daily walk. To understand what I’m talking about, I need to tell you that where I live now – I’ve only recently moved there, never mind why – anyway, it’s very much in town, and to be quite honest, the prospect of tramping the streets did not fill me with the greatest enthusiasm. Too much a reminder of my old work, I suppose – all that property. That’s what I specialised in, you know – I’m retired now – repossessing property, foreclosures – all these feckless people who couldn’t keep up their mortgage payments for some reason but still seemed to think they could go on living in the same house. Ridiculous! ‘Take a look at the small print there, matey – does that say ‘your house may be in danger if you fail to keep up your repayments’ or does it say ‘if you break your promise and stop repaying all that money we loaned you we’ll just let you and your family go on living here out of the goodness of our hearts’? That’s not how the world works!’

‘A poor way to make a living, if you ask me, turning folk out of their homes.’

‘Well, I didn’t ask you, and it wasn’t poor by any means, I can tell you! It set me up very nicely, thank you! retired at fifty-five with a handsome bonus and a tidy pension – not to be sniffed at! And anyway, isn’t that rather a sentimental way to describe it? I prefer to think I restored to the bank the security that was its proper due when people broke the terms on which they had originally borrowed money. I didn’t turn them out – it was their own folly did that. I just brought home to them the consequences of their actions. And in any case, that has nothing to do with the story.’

‘Does it not, now?’

‘No, it doesn’t. As I was telling you, I didn’t much relish walking through town, though I was determined to do my thirty minutes, so the first few times I just went at it hard and fast, kept my head down, maintained a brisk pace. Then one day, just along the road from where I stay, I noticed a sort of lane between two houses – I suppose I’d always taken it for the entrance to one or the other of them, but in fact it was neither – it was a narrow, twisting lane that ran between two hedges at first, then two high walls, and eventually came to a set of winding steps leading downwards.

‘When I came to the foot, I was surprised to find myself in a wood, with the sound of running water near by. There was a path of sorts – not very clearly marked out – that I followed to an ornamental bridge. The stream ran underneath, clear brown water, and up ahead the path twisted away among the trees. I went on till I came to a fork in the way. I chose the right hand-path – it led uphill, you see, so I thought that was better for my health.

‘Some way up the hill I came to another fork: the left hand path plunged down into the dell – back to the stream, I judged – but I wanted to keep going upwards. But just as I reached the top…’

‘As you reached the top?’

‘…There was a man – at least, I think it was a man – standing with his back to me. He wore dark clothing from head to foot with one of those – what do you call them? – hooded jackets, with the hood up – so I could not be entirely sure – that it was a man, I mean. The path was narrow and he was straddling it, so I would have been unable to get past unless he moved… and, well, it occurred to me that I’d probably come as far as I needed and that if I retraced my steps it would mean I’d get home having done the half-hour I set out to do, so I turned back.

‘All the same, it irked me, that man standing where he was. I felt sure there must be another way out of the dell so that I could make a circular walk without doubling back, and I resolved to come back the next day. You will think me foolish, I know, but for some reason that encounter on the path unnerved me, so this time I took a different route – that is, I started out the same way uphill, then took the left hand branch down towards the stream.

‘It’s silly, I know – what reason had I to suppose I’d meet him there again? In any case, the downward path was no good – it fetched up beside the stream just where it formed a deep pool at the foot of a vertical cascade and there was no bridge, so short of wading across – and it looked too deep for that – or clambering up the waterfall, I’d have to go back. Then I spotted a very narrow path that went up the bank to my right – hardly more than a line in the grass, really, and very steep and overgrown, but it headed the way I wanted to go, so I clambered up. It was steep! By the end, I had to use the young saplings as poles to keep myself upright, and my feet kept slipping on the wet slope, but I reckoned I could see the lip of the main path not far above my head.

‘I had to scramble pretty well through a bush to get to it, but I made it – and guess what?’

‘Tell me.’

‘There it was again – the same dark figure, with its back to me, barring the way ahead.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I know it sounds stupid, but you weren’t there in that overgrown dell with the light starting to fail and that figure on the path, standing dead still with its back turned – it felt, well, ominous is the only word that springs to mind. Not for love nor money would I have tried to pass him: I just couldn’t bring myself to do it; instead, I did what I had the day before, and went back the way I’d come.’

‘When was that?’

‘Two, maybe three days ago? That’s the part I’d like to get clear – I seem to be missing a piece somewhere. I do remember not feeling so well when I got back home and drinking rather a lot of whisky. The next day I felt pretty cheap so I decided not to go out at all. The thing was, that second encounter had jarred me quite badly, and I began to dread the possibility of any further meeting – for some reason I felt that a third encounter would be significant in some way – rather as it is in the stories one reads as a child: don’t things always happen in threes in them?

‘So the next day – or was it the next again? I steeled myself to go out but I’d already made up my mind that I’d stay well clear of that damned dell so when I came up to the entrance to the narrow lane I just walked smartly past. Today I was going to stick to the pavements and the quiet suburban streets.

‘And they were quiet! I don’t think I saw a soul all the time I was out – and the fact it was a pleasant day made that all the stranger: not a mother out with a push-chair, or a woman hanging out washing, or a pensioner taking a turn up to the shops to fetch his newspaper – it began to feel like one of those scenes in a film, where the stranger comes into what looks like a prosperous ordinary town and gradually realises the whole place is deserted. That idea took such a grip on me that by the time I had turned for home, I was scrutinising every house and garden that I passed, just in the hope of seeing some sign of life – but there wasn’t so much as a cat or dog; and by that time I’d have been grateful to see – or even hear – a single bird; but there didn’t seem to be any of them, either.

‘Then I turned into my street and I did see someone.

‘A dark figure was standing with its back to me, just outside my house. He was so positioned that I could not reach my gate without passing him.

‘I suppose I panicked. I mean, talking about it now, what could be easier than going up to my own front gate and in through my own front door? So what if some fellow – who might not even have been the same person, for heaven’s sake! – happened to be standing in the street? What was that to me?

‘But all I know is that I turned tail and ran. The one idea I had in my head was to get as far away from that place as possible, so I went to the station and bought myself a ticket to Inverness – not that I intended to go there; it was just the farthest away place I could think of that I could reach that day. I had some foolish notion of covering my tracks, so I meant to get off at one of the little stations in between. And then what? I’d have a little holiday, I told myself, let my frayed nerves settle, get things in perspective.

Once I was on the train, the idea began to grow on me – it was still a beautiful day, and we were passing through some spectacular countryside. Why had I never thought of this before, I asked myself – if exercise was what I was after, I could go walking in the hills, with an apple and some sandwiches in my rucksack, drink out of mountain streams and not come home till evening, stay at some small hotel or guest house where I could have a hot bath and come down to a pleasant, well-cooked meal…’

‘You make it sound heavenly, sir. So that is what brought you here, then?’

‘Well… not entirely. You see, even before I got off the train, I had already earmarked the place I wanted to stay – we were up near the top of the pass now, and I could see it a good way off from the curve of the line, against a backdrop of tawny folded hills and hazy purple peaks, with here and there a glint of water from some stream or lochan – one of those four-square Highland hotels in whitewashed stone with the westering sun glinting on its windows. That’s the place for me, I thought – paradise! I could see myself walking up to it in the evening sunshine, and the friendly landlady in her apron waiting on the step to greet me and welcome me in…

‘But when I stepped down onto the platform, I saw that there was someone ahead of me. At the far end – the way I must go, if I wanted to reach the white hotel – a figure was standing, with its back to me. It was clad from head to foot in dark clothing and wore a hood.

I stood there a long time waiting for it to move, but it just stayed there, stock still, barring my way. After a bit I slipped off at the other end of the platform, crossed the line, and soon found myself on that infernal moor, with my clothes cut to ribbons – and here I am, with nothing but a single penny in my pocket.’

‘And you best hang onto that, sir – you’ll be needing it soon. For the ferryman.’

FIN

Commentary: Doubtless many will recognise the references to the traditional Lyke-wake Dirge at the outset – the whinny muir, the opportunity to puy on ‘hosen and shoon’ and what it depends on, and the sharpness of the whins in consequence; these combine with the opening words ‘well, I’ll be damned’ to suggest that this is no ordinary journey and no common hostelry. It is a device I have used before, at the start of my third book, City of Desolation, and in both cases it was partly suggested by an excellent George Mackay Brown short story (whose title eludes me) that uses the same idea, though his character is rather more deserving than mine and makes a happier passage. There is (or used to be) an inn near Pitlochry Festival Theatre called The Ferryman’s so I thought that a suitable reference for a Fearie Tale to be read there, but again there is a deeper significance, echoed in the landlord’s name, Carron, which recalls Charon, the infernal ferryman whose task is to take the souls of the damned across the river Acheron or Styx (depending which version you prefer). Traditionally, Charon required a small fee – an Obol, in Greek, I believe, which was a little coin with an owl on it; this is usually translated as a penny. It is notable that the main character never dares to challenge the dark figure who repeatedly bars his way: so no-one compels him to take the path he does; it is his own fear and guilt that drives him, and ultimately his lack of courage that damns hims. He first meets the stranger having taken the right-hand path, which is traditionally more auspicious; it also leads upwards. A second time, it is the narrow path he takes, only to be baulked once more – and traditionally and scripturally, the path to heaven is a narrow one, as expressed in Thomas the Rhymer:

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,

So thick beset wi’ thorns an briers?

That is the Path of Righteousness

Though after it but few enquires.’

The final time that he is baulked it is at the station, having just had an uplifting vision of walking among the hills – ‘you make it sound heavenly, sir’ – but though he can see the hotel in the distance and feels sure he will be welcomed there, his own fear turns him back.  We must assume that at some point in the story the main character has passed from life to death, though there is no precise indication when; but the eerie quietness of the suburban streets (something I have always found disquieting) sounds an ominous note, and perhaps his inability to reenter his own home signals the final transition – that is what prompts the journey that ends at the inn.

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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.

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