Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Louis MacNeice and Henri Bergson

This is a republication of an earlier post with an addition and proper tags:

Louis MacNeice


The shutter of time darkening ceaselessly
Has whisked away the foam of may and elder
And I realise how now, as every year before,
Once again the gay months have eluded me.

For the mind by nature stagey, welds its frame
Tomb-like around each little world of a day;
We jump from picture to picture and cannot follow
The living curve that is breathlessly the same.

While the lawn-mower sings moving up and down
Spirting its little fountain of vivid green,
I, like Poussin, make a still-bound fete of us
Suspending every noise, of insect or machine.

Garlands at a set angle that do not slip,
Theatrically (and as if for ever) grace
You and me and the stone god in the garden
And Time who also is shown with a stone face

But all this is a dilettante’s lie,
Time’s face is not stone nor still his wings
Our mind, being dead, wishes to have time, die,
For we being ghosts cannot catch hold of things.

Was Louis MacNeice a Bergsonian? In Creative Evolution I find:

“Such is the contrivance of the cinematograph. And such is also that of our knowledge. Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially. We take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality, as these are characteristic of the reality, we have only to string them on a becoming, abstract, uniform and invisible, situated at the back of the apparatus of knowledge, in order to imitate what there is that is characteristic in this becoming itself. Perception, intellection, language so proceed in general.”
(pg.332, Mod.Library edn.)

Poems enact duration in such a way as to bring us into the reality of what makes knowledge possible, what Aquinas called connaturality. We find our way into the being of things through such artefacts.

Addiition: The spatialization of time, its mathematization, is an example of a useful fiction that becomes taken for reality. (cf.Matter and Memory) We ‘catch hold of things’ by freezing the flow. In an interesting speculation that has mythic dimensions Bergson envisages godlike duration:

And would not the whole of history be contained in a very short time for a consciousness at a higher degree of tension than our own, which should watch the development of humanity while contracting it, so to speak, into the great phases of its evolution? In short, then, to perceive consists in condensing enormous periods of an infinitely diluted existence into a few more differentiated moments of an intenser life, and in thus summing up a very long history. To perceive means to immobilize.
(from Matter and Memory)

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Red Nose Award

I'm the eldest of twelve children. My mother's name wasn't Jenny nor my father's Jack. I don't want to punch Pope Francis on the nose.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Passionate Friends by H.G. Wells

Wells like the Sufi Ahmed Ibn Khazruya engaged in doubting interrogations of his soul and found her a sly creature devious and many veiled particularly when most frank. In The Passionate Friends he takes both parts of Animus and Anima and sets them against each other. The Animus is the prig element in himself taken by Stephen Stratton who is a man with a plan for the betterment of the world and the Anima is Lady Mary Christine proponent of the woman question with her own answer to Freud’s - what does woman want.

Most people read Wells for his science fiction and don’t bother with the social stuff. That’s a mistake. Nabokov is a fan and his designation of ‘Friends’ as an overlooked masterpiece sent me to it. One can see how he would like it whereas many contemporaries of Wells found it tiresome. Stratton does not know himself and does not know his femme fatale. . Does that remind you of Pale Fire,Lolita and the bewildered cunning of their characters

The novel is a sort of memoir or account of Stratton’s relationship with Lady Mary written for his young son. He wants to record it before the taciturnity of old age that he experienced in his own father overtakes him. His father was an Anglican priest and the rectory was next door the the demesne of a Lord. Coming within the definition of respectable association he was allowed to regularly visit the Christian family. He is fascinated by those languorous aristocrats particularly Mary who is the same age as himself. All very Brideshead now that I think of it. Lady Mary even has a slight lisp:

My attention is constantly being distracted to note how prettily she moves, to wonder why it is I never noticed the sweet fall, the faint delightful whisper of a lisp in her voice before.

To the dream of service to the Empire is joined service to milady but even a gauche youth must know that this cannot be though she also loves him.

I put all sorts of constructions upon the freedom I was given with her, but I perceive now that we still seemed scarcely more than children to Lady Ladislaw, and that the idea of our marriage was as inconceivable to her as if we had been brother and sister. Matrimonially I was as impossible as one of the stable boys. All the money I could hope to earn for years to come would not have sufficed even to buy Mary clothes. But as yet we thought little of matters so remote, glad in our wonderful new discovery of love, and when at last I went off to Oxford, albeit the parting moved us to much tenderness and vows and embraces, I had no suspicion that never more in all our lives would Mary and I meet freely and gladly without restriction. Yet so it was. From that day came restraints and difficulties; the shadow of furtiveness fell between us; our correspondence had to be concealed.

The great critical heresy is liking only books and authors that reflect one’s own political and ethical outlook. A.R. Orage editor of the influential New Age was repelled by the Empire ideology and conservatism of this book not recognising that the hollowing out of the lives of decent people by ideology occurs amongst the left as well as the right. Lady Mary refuses the love of her life for the vanity of being a personage creating an ambience supported by the plutocrat Justin. This conceit she also justifies by a version of feminism which is still current.

"Dear Stephen," she explained, "if I were to come away with you and marry you, in just a little time I should cease to be your lover, I should be your squaw. I should have to share your worries and make your coffee—and disappoint you, disappoint you and fail you in a hundred ways. Think! Should I be any good as a squaw? How can one love when one knows the coffee isn't what it should be, and one is giving one's lover indigestion? And I don'want to be your squaw. I don't want that at all. It isn't how I feel for you. I don't to be your servant and your possession.

This book was published in 1913. In 1912 he had begun a 10 year long affair with Rebecca West a 20 year old feminist who gave herself the nickname ‘panther’. In the book Stephen Stratton is mauled by a panther in India during a hunt. The great cat had tried to pull him from the tree which he thought a safe vantage point. Clinging to a branch he saved himself from the wounded beast who dragged a claw through his leg as it fell.

I went again to Ceylon to look into the conditions of Coolie importation, and then I was going back into Assam once more, still in the wake of indentured labor, when I chanced upon a misadventure. I had my first and only experience of big game shooting in the Garo Hills, I was clawed out of a tree by a wounded panther, he missed his hold and I got back to my branch, but my shoulder was put out, my thigh was badly torn, and my blood was poisoned by the wound.

Wells described this book as one of his prig novels. The protagonist has a plan for a new world order with a World State government. The passage to this Utopia will be eased by mass education via the enormous publishing firm that he establishes with Gidding an American multi millionaire. Wells could enter into this daft fantasy as it was to a degree his own.

Meanwhile Lady Mary Justin, as she now is, lurks in the ‘shrubbery’ waiting to pounce Stratton as narrator does not twig the arrangement of their meetings by the vain schemer who will have it all if she can. This layered writing would appeal to a deep reader such as Nabokov.

Thank you Vladimir old chum.. I will return to Lolita soon. Ah, the ‘bright elusive butterfly of love’.


*For a long time I had repressed my carnal soul. Then one day a party set out for the wars, and a great desire to accompany them arose within me. My soul reminded me of a number of Traditions concerning the rewards in Heaven for fighting in the cause of God. I was amazed.

“My soul is not always so eager to obey,” I said. “Perhaps this is because I always keep my soul fasting. My soul cannot endure hunger any longer and wishes to break its fast.” So I said.” I do not break my fast on a journey.”
“I quite agree,” replied my soul.
(from Muslim Saints and Mystics by Farid Al-Din Attar)

He goes on thus with his soul continuing to agree to greater asceticism as the Sufi wishes to rob it of some secret benefit. Ahmad is puzzled and has recourse to God.

Reduced to impotence, I had resort to humble petition to God, praying that he might disclose to me the cunning machinations of my soul, or make my soul confess. Then my soul spoke.
“Every day you slay me a hundred times by opposing my desires and other men are not aware. There at least in the wars I shall be killed once and for all and get deliverance, and the report will be noised through all the world, “Bravo,, Ahmad-e-Khazruya! They killed him, and he achieved the martyr’s crown.’”

“Glory to Him,” I cried, “who created a soul to be a hypocrite while alive, and a hypocrite still after death. It will never be a true Muslim, either in this world or the next. I thought you were seeking to obey God, I did not realize you were tying the girdle.”
Thereafter I redoubled my struggle against my soul.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Upamana and Bergson

Upamana (comparison) is a King Charles’s head with me. Like Mr. Dick with the latter (David Copperfield) I am fascinated by it to the extent that I believe that even those who accept it as a pramana aren’t aware of its decisive role in the problem of universals. Nobody understands upamana ! That way lies madness.

When re-reading Matter and Memory I find that Bergson with his sense of the foundational nature of comparison/resemblance takes a similar view:

It would seem, then, that we start neither from the perception of the individual nor from the conception of the genus, but from an intermediate knowledge, from a confused sense of the striking quality or of resemblance: this sense, (pg 206) equally remote from generality fully conceived and from individuality clearly perceived, begets them both by a process of dissociation. Reflective analysis clarifies it into the general idea; discriminative memory solidifies it into a perception of the individual.

Sankara with his theory of vedic words proposes a notion of universals along the same lines as Plato’s. Pramana for Sankara then might be restricted to a way of going from the innately known genus to the unknown particular - from cow to gavaya as per the standard example. Bergson would deny ideas and accept comparison (upamana) which he would term the “striking quality”. Upamana on its own could generate a world of universals and particulars.

Bergson’s statement of the classic problem is succinct:

individual objects. The whiteness of a lily is not the whiteness of a snow-field; they remain, even as isolated from the snow and the lily, snow-white or lily-white. They only forego their individuality if we consider their likeness in order to give them a common name; then, applying this name to an unlimited number of similar objects, we throw
back upon the quality, by a sort of ricochet, the generality which the word went out to seek in its application to things. But, reasoning in this way, do we not return to the point of view of extension, which we just now abandoned? We are then, in truth, revolving in a circle, nominalism leading us to conceptualism, and conceptualism bringing us back to nominalism.
Generalization can only be effected by extracting common qualities; but, that qualities should appear common, they must have already been subjected to a process of generalization.

Moreover what Bergson says about this power of discerning resemblance namely that it is of the nature of a primal force that does not have to be set into motion by a psychological effort, has the true flavour of pramana as irreducible.

But we relegate nothing to the unconscious, for the very simple reason that it is not, in our opinion, an effort of a psychological nature which here disengages similarity; this similarity acts objectively like a force, and provokes reactions that are identical in virtue of the purely physical law which requires that the same general effects should follow the same profound causes.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Homo Habilis: Improved Saw Stool

That looks like the classic Irish carpenter’s saw stool and general all purpose form put together with 3“ nails. Due to the periodic shrinking an swelling of seasonal movement around the nails it will work loose. My upgrading of the joinery is as far I can discern from a review of similar Shaker types, unique. As can be seen from the kit below the ends are housed into the top and the side cheeks housed for the ends. This makes for an extremely rack proof construction. Nails and glue were used to fix all parts. The long rebate at the top of the cheeks can be made by running a saw alongside a tacked on lath and chopping to depth. I cleaned up the rebate with a wooden skew rebate plane. This was the standard way prior to power routers and dado heads.

The long rebate in which the top sits brings an added stiffness to the top and I would be quite confident that a 5‘ form would resist flexing even using 1“ nominal deal. The timber I used for this stool was 9x1 treated (tanalised) left over from a shed job. It’s an ugly brown colour so I gave it a rough sanding and a lick of gloss paint (Buckingham). I would have preferred an ivy green but they didn’t have it in small tins. A previous one I made and painted red I bartered for a few bags of hardwood logs. I like barter, it enlivens relationships. Money is a cold transaction. My best barter was two hand-carved spoons for a portabale manual typewriter (Olivetti, Lettera D.L. with accents and umlaut).
Dimensions of Stool: Top: 26x9.75“, Ht. 17.5“, Cheeks: 4.25“

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Pre-Sankara Schools Corrected as to Means of Realisation (Swami Satchidanandendra)

The Self is not a Witness (saksin) in itself; it is a Witness only in relation to the (illusory objects that come before its light to be) witnessed. Being nothing but the inmost vision, it is not accessible to thought or speech.... Even though this inmost Self is thus immediately knowable, because it is self-luminous, and though it is the Witness of all metaphysical Ignorance and its effects, nevertheless it remains unknown until the advent of some definite increment in knowledge has been sought and obtained. Therefore it is only from hearing Vedic texts like 'That thou art', and not from any other source ( such as obedience to injunctions or halting of impressions) that unshakable knowledge of reality as the one Self results. (Sambhanda Vartika of Sureshvara)
(from The Method of the Vedanta by Swami Satchidanandendra pg. 205)

This excerpt is from Chapter IV: Pre-Sankara Schools. None of those schools are mentioned as such just their general purport. What is being impugned is the idea that following through on the ritual injunctions of the Vedas will bring realisation. Doing so will bring only merit. Likewise the well known aim of Yoga – citta vriti nirodha (elimination of mental impressions) – will not cause realisation. Swami Satchidanandendra writes re the apparent redundancy of tat tvam asi:

Nor is it correct to think that if the Self is self-established, the texts which give knowledge of it are inauthoritative because they only repeat what is already known from some other source. For we know from experience that things that are at first not known become known only when some definite increment in knowledge has been sought and obtained , and what is a matter of common experience cannot be questioned.

The Vedas are a pramana or valid means of knowledge and for the Vedantin add surety to what might be construed as mere metaphysical speculation. The message is simple – only knowledge banishes ignorance.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Rack by A.E. Ellis (pub.1958)

The village of Brisset where the inaction takes place appears to be a fictional location of sanitoria of a type which abounded in the Haute Savoie area of France . In their heyday before the new drugs particularly streptomycin proved effective T.B. patients flocked to fill them to take advantage of the high south facing plateau. The fresh air cure which those who could afford a stay of perhaps years had a degree of efficacy. If you were forced to stay in the aerosol climate of Ireland death was a likely outcome. My good friend, whom the Savoyards would term un ancien thoracé spent a few years as a child in St.Ultan’s in Dublin which backed on to a canal. He was saved by the new drugs, his brother died.

The 4 Volume set of The Practical Woodworker(pub.between the wars) ed. by Bernard Jones has a section dedicated to Garden Rooms or Bungalows.

The illustration (Fig. 1) shows how a modern type of summerhouse can be adapted to the cult of the open-air life. In its arrangement it has been made as far removed as possible from the haunts for spiders so often encountered and it is capable of being kept in a perfectly hygienic condition. It consists of a room 15ft. by 10 ft. 6 in., with glass doors opening on to a small veranda enclosed by treillage, and it should be so placed as to command the sunniest outlook available, and in a fairly dry situation.

If we only had Davos over here. Notice how the dreaded acronym is never mentioned and the discreet trellisage to hide the lungers lounger where the patient lay out hawking into a sputum cup. I

To get back to the novel which is really a fictionalised memoir of A.E. Ellis’s (Derek Lindsay) time in a Sanatorium. His late diagnosis means that he arrives at Les Alpes in Brisset rather far gone. Luckily for him because he is student at Cambridge on a grant from the army after his war service the International Students’ Organisation have given free treatment. He is 27 the oldest member of the group of British students and the sickest. Thus begins the torment of what is essentially mechanical treatment, all described in detail. Air is pumped into the chest cavity to depress the lungs and restrict their action. Cannulae are introduced to pump out pus. Various disinfectant mixtures are dripped in to contain purulance. In the latter stages creosote which I know as a preservative for non-durable wood is suggested as just the thing. Three months is the unit of treatment, years are dismissed as mere conditioning. The doctors are often anciennes malades themselves condemned to a half life in the mountains. By the way there is no magic in this mountain, we move from crisis to resolution to new crisis. Then there occurs a note of hope in the liturgy of doom. Paul Davenant falls in love with a young Belgian girl, another bad case. Radical thoroscopy must be attempted. She is only 17.

An acronyn that appears on the chart is B.K. (Bacillus de Koch) indicated by a little red cross:

Now he met young men and women who had been ill for several years, who had undergone whole series of operations, who had witnessed the passing of their youth from a bed in a hospital ward and whose case-histories, biographies, and autobiographies were summed up, concisely, synonymously, on any one of the multifarious leaves of their temperature chart by the sinister Damoclean, marking; B.K. +.

The interweaving of hope, despair, love, endless treatments is tortuous but absorbing. A superb book and the only one that the writer published though he lived to be a truly ancien malade. He died at the age of 80. There must be lots of second hand copies, my original Penguin was €2.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Talks of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Satsang or the company of the seekers of the truth is a central recommendation of spiritual practice. There can be no greater satsang than the presence of a master, a satguru. According to those adepts who are sensitive to auras, a master’s extends for hundreds of feet all around him or her. When you sit at the feet of a Master then you are sitting inside their aura. Naturally the falsity within you is made manifest by this. Nisargadatta in his talks and dialogue demonstrates how the sun scatters the fog of specious attainment.

In I AM THAT no. 28: All Suffering is Born of Desire a questioner introduces himself :

Questioner: I come from a far off country. I had some inner experiences on my own and I would like to compare notes. Maharaj: By all means. Do you know yourself?
Q: I know that I am not the body. Nor am I the mind.
M: What makes you say so?
Q: I do not feel I am in the body. I seem to be all over the place everywhere. As to the mind, I can switch it on and off, so to say. This makes me feel I am not the mind.
M: When you feel yourself everywhere in the world, do you remain separate from the world? Or, are you the world?
Q: Both. Sometimes I feel myself to be neither mind nor body, but one single all-seeing eye. When I go deeper into it, I find myself to be all I see and the world and myself become one.
M: Very well. What about desires? Do you have any?
Q: Yes, they come, short and superficial.

Comparing notes with the Maharaj is bumptious. It is instructive how the questioner’s continued attention to Nisargadatta dissolves this facade, a spray on vedanta. Its origins are made clear by:
M: How did you come to your present state?
Q: Sri Ramana Maharshi's teachings have put me on my way. Then I met one Douglas Harding who helped me by showing me how to work on the 'Who am I ?'

Douglas Harding’s Headless teaching seems the perfect reductio of subjective idealism. The central tenet is that because you can’t see your own head you are in effect headless or your visual awareness is headless. It is breathtakingly simple and obvious.

As the interview proceeds real questions emerge:
Q. How does self-identification happen?
M: The self by its nature knows itself only. For lack of experience whatever it perceives it takes to be itself. Battered, it learns to look out ( viveka) and to live alone ( vairagya). When right behaviour ( uparati), becomes normal, a powerful inner urge ( mukmukshutva) makes it seek its source. The candle of the body is lighted and all becomes clear and bright.
Q: What is the real cause of suffering?
M: Self-identification with the limited ( vyaktitva). Sensations as such, however strong, do not cause suffering. It is the mind bewildered by wrong ideas, addicted to thinking: 'I am this' 'I am that', that fears loss and craves gain and suffers when frustrated.
Q: A friend of mine used to have horrible dreams night after night. Going to sleep would terrorise him. Nothing could help him.
M: Company of the truly good ( satsang) would help him.
Q: Life itself is a nightmare.
M: Noble friendship ( satsang) is the supreme remedy for all ills, physical and mental.
Q: Generally one cannot find such friendship.
M: Seek within. Your own self is your best friend.
Q: Why is life so full of contradictions?
M: It serves to break down mental pride. We must realise how poor and powerless we are. As long as we delude ourselves by what we imagine ourselves to be, to know, to have, to do, we are in a sad plight indeed. Only in complete self-negation there is a chance to discover our real being.

That last answer is not a harsh reproof only a simple statement that probably all his listeners could apply to themselves. At a remove from this darshan the reader’s abnegation must be diluted by the comforting props of everyday life. We need to become strange to ourselves not just by tricks of psychological dissociation.