Tag Archives: Eliot

Expressing conviction

the-gospel-according-to-st-matthew4

In an earlier piece (‘For us, there is only the trying‘) I observed that one of the insights that come with being a writer is the tentative nature of all writing, that it is always an attempt, and to that degree, never certain of success.

I have been considering the implications of this insight since. One way of looking at it is that whatever you may read has originated in the same way as what you are reading now – that is to say, at some point, someone has engaged in what Eliot terms ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’ in order to express some thought, idea, insight, revelation or vision.

In other words, whatever extraordinary experience may have led up to it, and however singular the mind seeking to express itself, the piece itself – the text, the writing that others read – passes through the same door, as it were, as every other text, however humble or exalted, to come into existence.

This has a particular bearing on what we call sacred texts, not least because a different account is often given of their authorship – they are said to have been ‘written by no human hand’ to emanate directly from God or from angels. It is important to see that such attributions are not descriptions but part of the attempt to express the fundamental importance that these texts are held to have: to put it succinctly, we do not value texts because they are sacred, we call them sacred because we value them.

That might seem at first sight no more than a playing with words, but it makes a crucial distinction which I will try to elucidate in the remainder of this piece – briefly, that sacredness is not an inherent quality, but a judgement we make by relating the thing in question to a wider narrative, fitting it into a story we already know.

Let us consider two scenarios. In the first, we are asked to represent (for a film, say) the creation of some sacred text. To avoid controversy, we can make it a fictional sacred text: let us suppose that it is a book said to have been written ‘without human agency’ and held to contain the guiding wisdom of a particular people or culture.

How this is represented will vary according to the skill and imagination of the film-maker: the end result might be ludicrous or awe-inspiring: we can picture shining figures or disembodied fiery hands that inscribe the text with a finger, or we might have the text appear letter by letter on the blank page, with or without an attendant laser-like ray of light; doubtless there will be sound effects or music to accompany the process.

All this, as I say, may be more or less well done: a real artist might have even unbelievers saying that they found the representation persuasive – ‘I don’t believe it, but if I did, I could picture it like this.’ (In this connection, we could consider Pasolini’s ‘Gospel According to St Matthew’ the work of a (presumed) atheist, yet praised by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano as ‘the best film on Christ ever made’).

The second scenario is a real-life encounter with an incident such as the one discussed above: one day, by chance, we enter a room, let us say – or better still, come on a stone table in open moorland under a clear sky (so no scope for any concealed mechanism) and there (with others) we witness a text appearing in a mysterious way that seems to involve no human agency.

What are the similarities here, and what the differences? We have the same sort of event, but crucially there is a context for the first: it is part of a story we are already familiar with, and we are also familiar with the notion of sacred texts and divine messages (regardless of whether we actually accept the verity of them). By way of illumination, we can imagine someone without that background (from a non-literate culture, say) and ask how much (or how little) they would take from the same scene.

The fact that it is a fictional sacred text does not matter, either: we understand it as a sacred text in the story, because we know about actual texts that are regarded as sacred; we are familiar with the concept. If we did not have that concept, it would probably be puzzling, though we might gather that a marvel of some sort was intended (and the role of marvels, a staple of stories yet (by definition) seldom encountered in life, should be borne in mind here). In any case, as the film proceeded, we could see the role played by the text, and make inferences from that, though again they would draw on our familiarity with human culture and religious practices. In short, we would read the creation of the text as part of a story, one we were already familiar with: we would know where it fitted in.

In all of this, the content of the text would be taken for granted: we could suppose the kind of thing it might say, not least because the major human religions have a similar core, centred on compassion, seeing oneself in the other.

Now consider the ‘real-life’ incident. What inferences would we be prepared to draw solely from the manner of the text’s appearance? Certainly, our curiosity would be piqued: we had witnessed something marvellous, not easy to explain; doubtless we would be very keen to read the text and see what it contained.

However (and this is the crucial point) I think that whether we were sceptical or inclined to believe, we would agree that the actual content of the text was what mattered, rather than the manner of its appearing – its content is what we would use to form a judgement and reach a conclusion.

Now add a further refinement – let us suppose that the text is a bald and unequivocal instruction to slaughter all the members of some rival sect or group with which we have had uneasy relations in the past, occasionally spilling over into violence.

How would that be received?

Doubtless there would be the enthusiasts who are always keen to be licensed to do something terrible – that, I fear, is a strong streak in human nature. However, I like to think they would be in the minority, not least because this is not the sort of thing that sacred texts typically enjoin: it does not fit the familiar narrative. Interestingly, there is a ready-made counter, available from within the familiar narrative itself, to those who point to the marvellous circumstances of the text’s appearance as evidence of its divine origin – might it not be diabolical in origin instead?

And here, if you like, the devil comes into his own, or rather, we see the genuine usefulness of the concept of an enemy (which is all that ‘Satan’ means), a contriver of snares to lead us astray, one always seeking to turn our good to ill – within the narrative where God might speak to us directly through signs and marvels, it allows an escape clause; ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ as Shakespeare reminds us – not every voice that impresses us as supernatural is divine.

My point is this: the marvellous circumstances, though they might impress us and incline us to a particular view, are not in themselves conclusive: no certain inference can be drawn from them – and that goes for any signs and wonders. Taken in themselves, they prove nothing; it is only as part of a greater narrative that they have meaning.

(Consider here Jesus’s response to the disciples of John (Luke Chapter 7, Matthew 11) who ask him, ‘are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ Jesus answers, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’.

Though this might seem a mere catalogue of marvels – ‘look at the amazing things I have done! Is that not proof enough?’ that is not the point of it at all: rather, it is Jesus placing himself in context, connecting his actions to the earlier scriptural narrative, chiefly Isaiah, which would be well-known to John’s disciples and the whole community, in which the signs that will herald the messiah are described; it is not the marvels in themselves, but their connection to the story that matters, the fact that they can be seen as the fulfilment of scripture.)

The point is not ‘I am the messiah because I do miracles’ but ‘I am the messiah because I fit into the story’ – and implied in that, of course, is an acceptance of the story. It is similar to the two scenarios discussed above: the film representation is one that we can readily contextualise – even if it is presented as fiction – because we know the kind of thing it is, we are familiar with that sort of story; without that knowledge we are at a loss how to interpret it.

Another angle that might occur to us in the second ‘real-life’ scenario brings us back to my central point. We witness, on the open moorland under a clear sky, the mysterious writing of the text without human agency. A question that might reasonably be asked, once we have overcome our initial amazement, is why God would choose to communicate with us in this way. It seems a very human bit of stage-setting – like something out of a story, indeed. If God truly spoke to us, why not simply evince in us a firm conviction that something is the case?

Might I not – in a variant of the second scenario – go walking with a group of friends on a fine day and at a particular spot – an old stone table, say, on open moorland under a clear sky – be suddenly overwhelmed with a conviction of the unity and goodness of all things, that we are all united by a common humanity, that each of us is as the other, that you are me and I am you, and that all are part of the great scheme of things that we call Nature, the World or the Universe?

And all I would have to do then is cast about for suitable words or images to express this conviction, to convey what I feel to be its fundamental importance.

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Repentance, or, embracing Subjective Reality

The sun moon and planets are unwitting actors that we have cast in a drama of our own contriving.

Wagner’s Lied an den Abendstern (‘O Star of Eve’ – here intriguingly rendered on the musical saw) is not addressed to the second planet from the sun, inhospitably wrapped in clouds of sulphuric acid, but the brilliant and beautiful light that appears at times in the evening sky, which we have made the symbol of the goddess of love.

And what could be more dramatic than Coleridge’s line

The sun’s rim dips, the stars rush out, at one stride comes the dark ?

The sun may be a ball of burning gas 93 million miles away, but as far as our life is concerned, we know him as an actor in the daily drama that starts with his rising and ends with his setting, often in scenes of spectacular beauty, which have inspired much in the way of poetry, art and music. Between times he wears different aspects:

‘sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines

and often is his gold complexion dimmed’

and likewise at particular times of the year:

‘Midwinter spring is its own season

Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,

Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,

The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,

In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,

Reflecting in a watery mirror

A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.’

Dante famously ends each volume of his Divine Comedy with a reference to the stars:

e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle

(‘and whence we emerged to see again the stars’ – Inferno )

puro e disposto a salire alle stelle 

(‘pure and ready to mount to the stars’ – Purgatorio )

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle

(‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’ – Paradiso )

But the stars Dante refers to are not the marvellous balls of burning gas, stupendously distant, that were probably the origins of life here on Earth; the stars he means are the ones that come out at night, the stars as they appear to us from our viewpoint here on earth. I think we could avoid a great deal of needless difficulty and strife if people would only learn to  separate the two, and treat them with equal respect. They belong to different orders.

In saying this, I speak with the zeal of a repentant sinner.

For a long time – since I was 14, in fact, when I first read the Republic while on holiday in Barra (there was no television; I also learned to play cribbage) – I have been in thrall to Plato, in particular the notion that the world has two aspects: ‘appearance’, made known to us by the senses, which is of no value – being deceptive, ephemeral, mutable and relative – and ‘reality’, apprehended by the intellect, which is equated with truth itself, being eternal, unchanging and absolute.

This is a potent notion, and I am not the first to have been seduced by the marvellous simile of the Cave, with its vision of the seeker striving to escape the darkness of ignorance to gaze at last upon the pure sun of Truth*; indeed I think that lay behind my decision, at the end of my first year at Edinburgh University, to switch my field of study from English Language and Literature to Philosophy and Literature.

So it was something of an epiphany when I realised, a few years ago, that this vision of the world had lost its hold on me. One day, I had an idea for a story which imagined a family living in the innards of a clock – either they were very small or it was very large – on some part of the mechanism which they took to be stationary while all the rest moved around them in highly complex and quite marvellous evolutions. One member of the family – a rebellious teenager, without doubt – somehow gets out of the clock and is able to share the viewpoint of the owner of the house in which it stands, and sees that the place where his family lives is a moving part of the mechanism, while the bits he had thought in motion are fixed in place.

So far, so Platonic: the teenager could stand for the prisoner who escapes the Cave and comes at last to see how things ‘really’ are; however, that was not how the story turned out. Although the boy fully grasps that the world his family experiences is an accident of their position within the clock, and appears as it does only because they assume their viewpoint to be stationary – which could be supposed an error – he is not prepared to concede that it is any less real, and in fact he thinks it more beautiful and marvellous than the view from outside, which strikes him as dull and prosaic; for him, the house-owner is the one missing out, the one who does not appreciate ‘how the world really is’.

I think now (beating my breast in repentance) that in an adult lifetime spent in philosophical reflection of various sorts, I have, like King Lear, ‘ta’en too little care of this’: I hereby cast aside my Platonic blinkers, and proclaim that the world of so-called ‘appearance’ – the world of our everyday experience – which I might term ‘subjective reality’ – is no less real and of no less worth for being ephemeral, accidental, mutable and relative.

Awa’ wi absolutes!

*though I should, perhaps, have paid more heed to the fact that it relies on concrete imagery to persuade us to the reality of the world of Forms.

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Not waving…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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