Sunday, 29 May 2016

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

I didn’t like Levels of Life. At a suitable distance from grief the warped perspective of close up suffering should have been corrected. He did not do so and some friends will have been hurt by his insisting that they said the wrong thing if they chose to mention the death of his wife and if they would not join in his attempts to talk about her they shirked a sacred duty to her memory. From a man who has confessed his fear of death to be a constant presence (cf: nothing to be frightened of this reticence and general windiness in the face of it must have been clear.

The format of the book joining an essay on early balloonists to one on his bereavement seemed tendentious. Any writer can connect anything with anything. The death of a wife and the requirements of the book trade ought to repel each other. It’s well written of course, Barnes never does less.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Mallock meets Carlyle

William Hurrell Mallock as I mentioned was the nephew of James Froude, the friend of Thomas Carlyle. In his memoirs he recounts his meeting with the great man.

My acquaintance with Mr. Bevan, however, and even that with Lord Houghton, were but minor experiences as compared with another meeting of a similar yet contrasted kind. At the time of which I speak there was one British author whose influence as a philosophic moralist eclipsed that of any of his contemporaries. This writer was Carlyle. His fame was then at its highest, and the moral consciousness of ultrapolite drawing rooms was being stirred to its well-dressed depths by his attack on "the dandies" in his book, Sartor Resartus, which many earnest and ornamental persons were accepting as a new revelation. I was myself sufficiently familiar with its pages, and, though some of them roused my antagonism, I could not deny their genius. One morning, during a brief visit to London, I received a note from Mr. Froude the historian, asking me to come to luncheon, and I duly arrived at his house, not knowing what awaited me. I presently learned that he was going to introduce me to Carlyle, and, as soon as luncheon was over, he walked me off to Chelsea. In a fitting state of awe I found myself at last in the great philosopher's presence. When we entered his drawing room he was stooping over a writing table in the window, and at first I saw nothing but his back, which was covered with a long, shapeless, and extravagantly dirty dressing gown. When he rose to meet us his manners were as rough as his integument. His welcome to myself was an inarticulate grunt, unmistakably Scotch in its intonation; and his first act was to move across the room to the fireplace and light a "churchwarden" pipe by sticking its head between the bars. As I watched him perform this rite, I noticed that close to the fender was a pair of very dirty slippers. To me these things and proceedings were so many separate shocks, the result of my reflections being this: If you represent fame, let me represent obscurity. But worse was still to come. It was presently proposed that we should all go out for a walk, and as soon as we were in the open air, the philosopher blew his nose in a pair of old woolen gloves. I here saw at once an illustration of the chapter in Sartor Resartus in which the author denounced what he christened "The Sect of the Dandies," as described and glorified by Bulwer Lytton in Pelham. Illustration could go no farther.
(from Memoirs)

The exquisite aesthetic shudder of those details - the gloves of Carlyle and the socks of Swinburne drying on the fender after his walk on the common. (cf. Dinner at the Pines )

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Tapas (Concentration) in the Taittiriya Upanishad

The Upanishad teachers realise that all aspirants seeking the absolute truth begin with an initial set or orientation and have to focus on that, analyse it, discover its shortcomings and move to a new state. The heat that they bring to their analysis is called tapah (tapas) or concentration. This is what evokes insight. Bhrigu approached his father Varuna:

O, revered sir, teach me Brahman. To him he (Varuna) said: “Crave to know Brahman through concentration; concentration is Brahman. He practised concentration. He having practised concentration, he knew the vital force as Brahman.

Moving through all the koshas (cosas) Bhrigu does not become settled in any one of them, never just accepting that it’s all just matter etc. The progress is from the immediately evident to the subtle:

To him he (Varuna) said this: “Food, vital force, eye, ear, mind, speech - these are the aids to knowledge of Brahman.” To him he (Varuna) said: “Crave to know that from which all these being take birth, that by which they live after being born, that towards which they move and into which they merge. That is Brahman.” He (Bhrigu) practised concentration.

The guiding ontological intuition is that Brahman must be uncaused. That is how they express the difference between the contingent and the necessary. Bhrigu’s natural first stop is to see the vital force that is sustained by food or organic life as being the nature of reality. He comes to doubt this: Shankara remarks in his commentary:

Objection: What was, again, the occasion for his doubt?
The answer is: Because food is seen to have an origin.
Concentration is repeatedly inculcated in order to emphasise the fact of its being the best discipline. The idea is this: “Concentration alone is your discipline till the description of Brahman can be pushed no further and till your desire to know becomes quietened. Through concentration alone, you crave to know Brahman.” The rest is easy.

One thinks here of Bernard Lonergan’s Insight and his elevation of the unrestricted desire to know. Skholiast in his post
truth both ways
quotes Thomas Nagle:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. (p 130)
(from: The Last Word)

Nagle wants to settle in a nice neighbourhood away from mad mullahs, glittering eyed Swamis and Darwin deniers. His earnest hope indicates his doubt. He is perhaps in that leafy suburb that Bhrigu dwelt in for a while:

he knew knowledge as Brahman; for from knowledge, indeed, spring all these beings; having been born, they are sustained by knowledge; they move towards and merge in knowledge.

Yes we all have a plan, a goal. But is that it? Back he goes to his father Varuna.

(Varuna) said: “Crave to know Brahman through concentration; concentration is Brahman.” He (Bhrighu) practised concentration. He having practised concentration...........

Friday, 20 May 2016

Boon Friends fall out. Wells and James, it would seem, and in this.....

Wells in Boon had fun but lost a friend. Henry James was not amused. The chapter in which he ‘slags’ him has the Mallockian conceit of a number of literary gents foregathering in a country house for a state of literature congress. They do so under their own names. Orage of the New Age arrives too late and is locked out:

Mr. Orage, the gifted editor of the New Age, arriving last, is refused admission. The sounds of the conflict at the gates do but faintly perturb the conference within, which is now really getting to business, but afterwards Mr. Orage, slightly wounded in the face by a dexterously plied rake and incurably embittered, makes his existence felt by a number of unpleasant missiles discharged from over the wall in the direction of any audible voices. Ultimately Mr. Orage gets into a point of vantage in a small pine-tree overlooking the seaward corner of the premises, and from this he contributes a number of comments that are rarely helpful, always unamiable, and frequently in the worst possible taste.

Boon (the purported author of the Boon papers) has George Moore and Henry James go for a walk. Can you identify the butt of this pastiche?

“Owing it as we do,” he said, “very, very largely to our friend Gosse, to that peculiar, that honest but restless and, as it were, at times almost malignantly ambitious organizing energy of our friend, I cannot altogether—altogether, even if in any case I should have taken so extreme, so devastatingly isolating a step as, to put it violently, stand out; yet I must confess to a considerable anxiety, a kind of distress, an apprehension, the terror, so to speak, of the kerbstone, at all this stream of intellectual trafficking, of going to and fro, in a superb and towering manner enough no doubt, but still essentially going to and fro rather than in any of the completed senses of the word getting there, that does so largely constitute the aggregations and activities we are invited to traverse. My poor head, such as it is and as much as it can and upon such legs—save the mark!—as it can claim, must, I suppose, play its inconsiderable part among the wheels and the rearings and the toots and the whistles and all this uproar, this—Mm, Mm!—let us say, this infernal uproar, of the occasion; and if at times one has one’s doubts before plunging in, whether after all, after the plunging and the dodging and the close shaves and narrow squeaks, one does begin to feel that one is getting through, whether after all one will get through, and whether indeed there is any getting through, whether, to deepen and enlarge and display one’s doubt quite openly, there is in truth any sort of ostensible and recognizable other side attainable and definable at all, whether to put this thing with a lucidity that verges on the brutal, whether our amiable and in most respects our adorable Gosse isn’t indeed preparing here and now, not the gathering together of a conference but the assembling, the meet, so to speak, of a wild-goose chase of an entirely desperate and hopeless description.”

If that wasn’t enough to put a dent in his dickey, Boon in his own voice, and here he has the hearty support of many readers, declares:

“But James begins by taking it for granted that a novel is a work of art that must be judged by its oneness. Judged first by its oneness. Some one gave him that idea in the beginning of things and he has never found it out. He doesn’t find things out. He doesn’t even seem to want to find things out. You can see that in him; he is eager to accept things—elaborately. You can see from his books that he accepts etiquettes, precedences, associations, claims. That is his peculiarity. He accepts very readily and then—elaborates. He has, I am convinced, one of the strongest, most abundant minds alive in the whole world, and he has the smallest penetration. Indeed, he has no penetration. He is the culmination of the Superficial type. Or else he would have gone into philosophy and been greater even than his wonderful brother…. But here he is, spinning about, like the most tremendous of water-boatmen—you know those insects?—kept up by surface tension. As if, when once he pierced the surface, he would drown. It’s incredible. A water-boatman as big as an elephant. I was reading him only yesterday ‘The Golden Bowl’; it’s dazzling how never for a moment does he go through.”

The bridge being blown and their being no hope of a cockleshell pontoon, Wells/Boon finishes:

“The only living human motives left in the novels of Henry James are a certain avidity, and an entirely superficial curiosity. Even when relations are irregular or when sins are hinted at, you feel that these are merely attitudes taken up, gambits before the game of attainment and over-perception begins…. His people nose out suspicions, hint by hint, link by link. Have you ever known living human beings do that? The thing his novel is aboutis always there. It is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string…. Like his ‘Altar of the Dead,’ with nothing to the dead at all…. For if there was they couldn’t all be candles and the effect would vanish…. And the elaborate, copious emptiness of the whole Henry James exploit is only redeemed and made endurable by the elaborate, copious wit. Upon the desert his selection has made Henry James erects palatial metaphors…. The chief fun, the only exercise, in reading Henry James is this clambering over vast metaphors….

One feels, how shall I put it a certain satisfaction that, what was probably James’s assessment of Wells as a common little man and a vulgar futurist, a rotter really, was borne out. Great fun, but.

Thursday, 19 May 2016


There are many fine aspects to Islam but my wife and I agreed that the main thing that lets them down is polygamy. A relation of hers married a Saudi in London and went to live in Saudi Arabia and had some children with the man. On her birthday, out of the clear blue, she was introduced to the woman that her husband had decided to take for another wife. Fortunately she had retained her passport, had her children’s names on it, and was able to make her way back to Britain with them. She now lives under a different identity in another part of the country. The new wife is a common reason for divorce in Islam. She loses the children of course.

It will be said that polygamy is uncommon and strictly regulated but what does it say about a society and a religion in which it is regarded as a right though one may not require or wish it for oneself. The soul of a person who holds this, the way that person lives his world, is atrophied, restricted, constricted, blunted by that attitude. As it stands the potentiality for a full marital relationship can never be activated.

My favourite wife is no wife.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Literary Notes on Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage

The very useful Neglected Books blog
neglected books
was where I first came across Dorothy Richardson. The editor/blogger Brad has posted a dialogue with Kate McDonald another literary blogger who is an academic with the twitch of being her own tipstaff. There’s a lot of that about. Miriam Henderson’s unwinning ways are agreed on by both sans spoilers and a certain amount of chat about how great London is. They don’t get between you and the books and concur on the difficulty for the general reader of the novels or chapters of a single novel that will never seem complete. Notice I avoided ‘finding closure’.

Here are novels which seem truer to the life of the writer than the Diaries of Anais Nin of whom a lady reviewer in the Irish Times wrote ‘me Anais, you ninny’. This was before boxer shorts. I’m still at Honeycomb in which Miriam gets out more.

Note: In 1917 when it was published H.G. Wells, who collected bluestockings, and with whom Dorothy Richardson had an affair, remarked that it was 40 years since Mallock’s The New Republic was written and it was high time for another such review of the state of England. Boon was the result. By God I think I’ll read a bit of it now.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Seductions of our Metaphors/ Bergson and James

Here Bergson and James are resorting to the same metaphors of dust that takes a form, that is given meaning through that form. They also reflect on ‘the sentence’ that has meaning as supervenient.

A philosopher worthy of the name has never said more
than a single thing: and even then it is something he has tried to say, rather than actually said. And he has said only one thing because he has seen only one point: and at that it was not so much a vision as a contact: this contact has furnished an impulse, this impulse a movement, and if this movement, which is as it were a kind of swirling of dust taking a particular form, becomes visible to our eyes only through what it has collected along its way, it is no less true that other bits of dust might as well have been raised and that it would still have been the same whirlwind. Thus a thought which brings something new into the world is of course obliged to manifest itself through the ready-made ideas it comes across and draws into its movement; it seems thus, as it were, relative to the epoch in which the philosopher lived; but that is frequently merely an appearance. The philosopher might have come several
centuries earlier; he would have had to deal with another philosophy and another science; he would have given himself other problems; he would have expressed himself by other formulas; not one chapter perhaps of the books he wrote would have been what it is; and nevertheless he would have said the same thing.
(from Bergson - The Creative Mind Lecture on Philosophical Intuition)

The rude synthetic vocal utterances first used for this effect slowly got stereotyped, and then much later got decomposed into grammatical parts. It is not as if men had first invented letters and made syllables of them, then made words of the syllables and sentences of the words;—they actually followed the reverse order. So, the transcendentalists affirm, the complete absolute thought is the pre-condition of our thoughts, and we finite creatures are only in so far as it owns us as its verbal fragments.
The metaphor is so beautiful, and applies, moreover, so literally to such a multitude of the minor wholes of experience, that by merely hearing it most of us are convinced that it must apply universally. We see that no smallest raindrop can come into being without a whole shower, no single feather without a whole bird, neck and crop, beak and tail, coming into being simultaneously: so we unhesitatingly lay down the law that no part of anything can be except so far as the whole also is. And then, since everything whatever is part of the whole universe, and since (if we are idealists) nothing, whether part or whole, exists except for a witness, we proceed to the conclusion that the unmitigated absolute as witness of the whole is the one sole ground of being of every partial fact, the fact of our own existence included. We think of ourselves as being only a few of the feathers, so to speak, which help to constitute that absolute bird. Extending the analogy of certain wholes, of which we have familiar experience, to the whole of wholes, we easily become absolute idealists.
But if, instead of yielding to the seductions of our metaphor, be it sentence, shower, or bird, we analyze more carefully the notion suggested by it that we are constituent parts of the absolute's eternal field of consciousness, we find grave difficulties arising. First, the difficulty I found with the mind-dust theory.
(from A Pluralistic Universe by William James: Lecture V)

In other times Berkeley would doubtless have formulated other theses; but, the movement being the same, these theses would have been situated in the same way with regard to one another; they would have had the same relationship to one another, like new words of a new sentence through which runs the thread of an old meaning: and it would have been the same philosophy.
(from The Creative Mind Lecture on Philosophical Intuition )

The theory of combination, I was forced to conclude, is thus untenable, being both logically nonsensical and practically unnecessary. Say what you will, twelve thoughts, each of a single word, are not the self-same mental thing as one thought of the whole sentence. The higher thoughts, I insisted, are psychic units, not compounds; but for all that, they may know together as a collective multitude the very same objects which under other conditions are known separately by as many simple thoughts.
(from A Pluralistic Universe by William James: Lecture V)

The philosopher does not take pre-existing ideas in order to recast them into a superior synthesis or combine them with a new idea. One might as well believe that in order to speak we go hunting for words that we string together afterwards by means of a thought. The truth is that above the word and above the sentence there is something much more simple than a sentence or even a word: the meaning, which is less a thing thought than a movement of thought, less a movement than a direction. And just as the impulsion given to the embryonic life determines the division of an original cell into cells which in turn divide until the complete organism is formed, so the characteristic movement of each act of thought leads this thought, by an increasing sub-division of itself, to spread out more and more over the successive planes of the mind until it reaches that of speech. Once there it expresses itself by means of a sentence, that is, by a group of pre-existing elements; but it can almost arbitrarily choose the first elements of the group provided that the others are complementary to them; the same thought is translated just as well into diverse sentences composed of entirely different words, provided these words have the same connection between them. Such is the process of speech.
(from Bergson: The Creative Mind Philosophical Intuition)

Bergson and James were great friends of course and we see them here playing in the same sand box. I’m sorry, I’ll get my coat.

We had the experience but missed the meaning says Eliot. How could cerebral events even coagulate into experience without meaning? The engine of scepticism would not turn over without that spark.