Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Panpsychism in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Q: What’s the story of To the Lighthouse?
A: In the first major section they don’t go to the lighthouse. After an interval during which some people die, offstage; they do go.

Most of all it is a portrait of Mr. Ramsey and Mrs. Ramsey who are based on Woolf’s parents. From my reading of Leslie Stephen, who was enthusiastic agnostic reared in an evangelical hothouse with a suggestion of having been forced in it but not hardened off to withstand the cold air of Cambridge rationalism, I find this introduction to him true.

Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgment. What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all of his own children, who, sprung from his loins, should be aware from childhood that life is difficult; facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness (here Mr. Ramsay would straighten his back and narrow his little blue eyes upon the horizon), one that needs, above all, courage, truth, and the power to endure.

Here it is worth noting that both Leslie Stephen and his father James suffered from serious depression. Ramsey/Stephen was a very high maintenance individual constantly seeking reassurance from the women around him. I will leave out the parallels which may be heightened by the retrospective imagination of the author who was 15 when her father died.

If not much happens what sustains the beautiful flow of the novel? The story is not wrenched on by incident as though the characters were stuck in the slough of facticity and needed a brisk shove. Above all it is a world in which as we move from mind to mind are always aware of where all the other bodies are. Mr. Ramsey is walking up and down the terrace declaiming fragments of poetry and worrying about his reputation, Mrs.Ramsey is knitting on the steps of the drawing room and here we are given the feel of French windows but not stated, on the lawn Lily Briscoe is making tentative marks on her painting afraid that it may already be spoiled, Mr.Carmichael is reading a French novel, the ‘little atheist’ Tansley is muttering ‘can’ paint, can’t write’ about women. We never loose sight of them all, they never loose sight or mind of each other. The children brood and fume over the tyrant whose wrath can shift to blessing in a trice. There are no defined edges to each mind or person, they flow together, the house broods over all and its lares and penates are mediated by the hosts Mr. and Mrs.Ramsey. The Boeuf en Daube triumph is one of the great dinners of literature. I am moved by such sustained skill. Will Ramsey spoil it by his anger at Carmichael asking for more soup? That passes over. But what has happened to Roger Rayley and Minta Doyle? They should marry Mrs.R. has decreed, William Bankes should marry Lily Briscoe. The world should marry and mothers will read stories and it all will process down a broad avenue which is also called life.

Here is an example of the permeability of minds and the panpsychism of the alert hedge:

Shabby and worn out, and not presumably (her cheeks were hollow, her hair was white) any longer a sight that filled the eyes with joy, she had better devote her mind to the story of the Fisherman and his Wife and so pacify that bundle of sensitiveness (none of her children was as sensitive as he was), her son James.
“The man’s heart grew heavy,” she read aloud, “and he would not go. He said to himself, ‘It is not right,’ and yet he went. And when he came to the sea the water was quite purple and dark blue, and grey and thick, and no longer so green and yellow, but it was still quiet. And he stood there and said —”
Mrs. Ramsay could have wished that her husband had not chosen that moment to stop. Why had he not gone as he said to watch the children playing cricket? But he did not speak; he looked; he nodded; he approved; he went on. He slipped, seeing before him that hedge which had over and over again rounded some pause, signified some conclusion, seeing his wife and child, seeing again the urns with the trailing of red geraniums which had so often decorated processes of thought, and bore, written up among their leaves, as if they were scraps of paper on which one scribbles notes in the rush of reading — he slipped, seeing all this, smoothly into speculation suggested by an article in THE TIMES about the number of Americans who visit Shakespeare’s house every year. If Shakespeare had never existed, he asked, would the world have differed much from what it is today? Does the progress of civilization depend upon great men? Is the lot of the average human being better now than in the time of the Pharaohs? Is the lot of the average human being, however, he asked himself, the criterion by which we judge the measure of civilization? Possibly not. Possibly the greatest good requires the existence of a slave class. The liftman in the Tube is an eternal necessity.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Richard Whately: I respectfully demur Professor James

Whately on the suppression of the use of reason

Many people are led into the error of fancying that an irrational faith is even firmer than a rational one, by mistaking for a firm belief, a firm resolution of the will to believe. They seem to imagine that faith can be made firm only by a sort of brute force upon the understanding, and by brow-beating, as it were, their own minds, and those of others, into implicit submission. Now you never see traces of this kind of violence in the case of other truths which men really believe most firmly. You never hear a man protesting with great vehemence, that he is convinced that the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, or that the earth is round like a ball, and not fiat, like a platter; and denouncing all who cannot see the proof. Good proof satisfies the mind of itself, and excludes reasonable doubt without any violent effort. When you are sure that the door is strong enough to keep out the intruder, you sit quietly by your fireside, and let him kick his heels against it till he is tired. But if you rushed over and clapped your back and shoulders to the bolt, that would imply that the door is really weak, or, at least that your faith in it is weak that is, that you had not full confidence in its strength.
(from Thoughts and apophthegms from the writings of Archbishop Whately)

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Carlyle, Stephen, Wilberforce Triangle.

Readers of the previous post may have been puzzled by the apparent acceptance by Sir Leslie Stephen of Carlyle’s proposal to force the pumpkin growing freed slaves into useful employment. It all goes back to the Clapham Sect and their founding of the Sierra Leone Company. William Wilberforce and Sir James Stephen, Sir Leslie’s father were leading lights in this venture which became a centre for the ‘retraining’ of recaptured slaves taken from pirates probably supplying the American trade after it was declared illegal by Britain and subject to confiscation on the high seas. However when the captives were delivered to Sierra Leone they were forced either to accept indenture for a fixed term at a cost of 20$ to their ‘employer’ or join the navy or army. Women were given away. No one was paid and only food, shelter and clothing provided. If an ‘apprentice’ ran off he was re-rescued in chains. This they had to suffer for I think fourteen years at first and later after agitation it was down to four.

Given that background Stephen was in no position to chide Carlyle if indeed he might wish to. Though expressed in brutal terms was Carlyle that far from what Wilberforce was obliged to accept in Sierra Leone? A sketch of that tangled history from a source likely to offer a charitable reading:
Sierra Leone Company

A Guardian review of a book on the Clapham Sect by Stephen Tomkins is, guess what, harsher:
wiberforce condoned slavery

William Wilberforce was influenced by the same escape clause which colonizers often offer as an excuse - ‘We are in principle in favour of independence/freedom for X, Y, Z countries but we feel that they are not ready for it yet. Our duty of care does not permit us to simply throw them into an unfamiliar state of freedom. It would lead to chaos.
Later in the same year (1816) he began publicly to denounce slavery itself, though he did not demand immediate emancipation, as "They had always thought the slaves incapable of liberty at present, but hoped that by degrees a change might take place as the natural result of the abolition."

(from Wikipedia Entry on William Wilberforce:wilberforce

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Thomas Carlyle and the Negro Question

My previous post on this topic is
negro question
Carlyle's Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.

Today I was reading in the blog of a Carlyle scholar who criticises the use of the term 'nigger' in the work of Thomas Carlyle. He is aware that there is a certain anachronism involved, but he insists that by the start of the 19th. century things were changing and polite society represented by such as John Stuart Mill used the term 'negro'. There is an irony there in that Mill and his father worked in India House the H.Q. of the colonial plunder and the swag that was the white man's burden. One recalls too that Mill fils took a dim view of helping the Irish during the Famine. Offering this whited sepulchre as an example of probity is ironic.

However the fierceness of Carlyle's scorn in his Discourse on the Negro Question and his apparent support of slavery as superior to anarchic idleness has an unlikely supporter in Leslie Stephen. Writing on Carlyle's Ethics.

It shocks one to find an open advocacy of slavery for black Quashee. But we must admit, and admit for the reasons given by Carlyle, that even slavery may be better than sheer anarchy and barbarism; that, historically speaking, the system of slavery represents a necessary stage in civilisation ; and therefore that the simple abolition of slavery—a recognition of unconditional " right" without reference to the possession of the instincts necessary for higher kinds of society—might be disguised cruelty. The error was in the hasty assumption that his Quashee was, in fact, in this degraded state; and the haste to accept this disheartening belief was but too characteristic. That liberty might mean barbarism was true; that it actually did mean it in certain given cases was a rash assumption too much in harmony with his ordinary aversion to the theorists of his time.

Stephen's father Sir Joseph was the Colonial Undersecretary of State and a noted abolitionist. More irony there. A brother was a legal aide to the Council of State in Delhi. Compartments were hermetically sealed, one from the other.

Text for the Day:
Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.

May i add that I understand perfectly that a young academic would want to draw a cordon sanitaire around Carlyle on this question

Leslie Stephen - Hours in a Library

There is something very modern about the note of plangent sadness which Leslie Stephen sounds as he regrets the seeking of signs and wonders by the devotee who is looking for confirmation of the truth of his faith. One might read this gentle lament in an essay by Gary Gutting in the Opininator of the New York Times.

You are seeking for outwards signs and wonders when you should be impressed by the profound and all pervading mysteries of the universe; and therefore falling into the hands of mere charlatans, and taking the morbid hysterics of over excited women for the revelation conveyed by all nature to those who have ears to hear. Has not the word 'spiritual' till now expressive of the highest emotions possible to human beings, got itself somehow stained and debased by association with the loathsome tricks practiced by importers aided by the prurient curiosity of their dupes?

Stephen is writing about Carlyle's Ethics and mentioning in passing the sad decline into what he could only see as charlatanry of Edward Irving, Carlyle's friend.

This point is made as it were in passing but from other of his writings I feel that he went out of his way. You see Sir Leslie Stephen was a Victorian freethinker and therefore somewhat at bay and inclined to growl. The portrait of him in To The Lighthouse as Mr. Ramsey does not shed a kindly light. The Calvin Carlyle which he offers us was probably influential. More on that perhaps.

Find the essay on Carlyle's Ethics in Bk.III of Hours in a Library
Hours in a library

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Knowledge and Awareness

If knowledge is identified with mental ideas of objects, then, in the case of shell-silver and the like, there will be no true cognition or real object. But if knowledge be taken as identical with awareness, then the cause is different. There is no falsity in awareness. For awareness is real and still present at the time of correcting the error, when it takes the form 'Although I was aware of silver, it was in fact shell that was at time misperceived'. Awareness then apprehends the silver and the mental cognition of it as false. The knowledge at the time of the correction was real as awareness; but it does not follow that the silver on which it bore was real too.
(Sri S.S.S. Method of Vedanta

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Anatole France's Library of Babel

Endowed with business-like energy and dogged patience, Monsieur Sariette himself classified all the members of this vast body. The system he invented and put into practice was so complicated, the labels he put on the books were made up of so many capital letters and small letters, both Latin and Greek, so many Arabic and Roman numerals, asterisks, double asterisks, triple asterisks, and those signs which in arithmetic express powers and roots, that the mere study of it would have involved more time and labour than would have been required for the complete mastery of algebra, and as no one could be found who would give the hours, that might be more profitably employed in discovering the law of numbers, to the solving of these cryptic symbols, Monsieur Sariette remained the only one capable of finding his way among the intricacies of his system, and without his help it had become an utter impossibility to discover, among the three hundred and sixty thousand volumes confided to his care, the particular volume one happened to require. Such was the result of his labours. Far from complaining about it, he experienced on the contrary a lively satisfaction.
(from Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France)

The Library of Babel according to Anatole France. I can sympathise with his taxomania being forced as I am to build a large bookpress for the overspill and the very explicable congeries which had their logic at some point but now have achieved a declension into chaos. (or is it it's as congeries is singular. Where's Fowler?) The press will be 8' x 5' with glazed upper section and drawers and cupboards below. It is after the plan of the bookcase of the Director General of Railroads from Rodale's Desks and Bookcases. I built one in white oak years ago which looked well. I will make some visual and constructional changes to the plan as shown: a solid plinth, a fancy cornice, lighter glazed doors. Bails or knobs turned in a contrasting wood. So many decisions knowing that at a certain point when you do too much you pass over into fussiness.