Thursday, 17 August 2017

John J. Kelly and Matthew Arnold on Thomas Gray


It has been said that the whole piece is so “inevitable” that it is interesting to know it caused Gray immense trouble. Many lines and phrases have become household expressions. It has made and still makes a personal and direct appeal because of the truth, the sincerity, and the dignity of the poet’s matter and the expression of the matter. Gray was a born poet, a man of immense learning. His style is graceful, vivid, harmonious.

In a much owned copy of The English Parnassus this is written across the fold of pages separating Gray’s Elegy and his The Progress of Poesy. Going by the names of the previous owners and its writing in headline copy cursive with a fine nib dip pen in the unmistakable ink that was used in National Schools back in the time of the Barmecides I take it to be the reflection of John J. Kelly, Boys N. School, Mohill, Co. Leitrim. I can still smell it. Whether there was gall in its concocting or gall only in its use it remains with me. “That was the queer smell”. Sit down Joyce.

Like the plays of Shakespeare the poem has been mined:

“The short and simple annals of the poor”
“The Paths of glory lead but to the grave”. (great film)
“Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood”.
“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”
Said to those daytime nappers:
“His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.”

True for you J.J.

Matthew Arnold in his essay on Grey (Second Series of Essays in Criticism writes:

We will begin with his acquirements. "Mr. Gray was," writes his friend Temple, "perhaps the most learned man in Europe. He knew every branch of history both natural and civil; had read all the original historians of England, France, and Italy; and was a great antiquarian. Criticism, metaphysics, morals, politics, made a principal part of his study. Voyages and travels of all sorts were his favourite amusements; and he had a fine taste in painting, prints, architecture and gardening." The notes in his interleaved copy of Linnaeus remained to show the extent and accuracy of his knowledge in the natural sciences, particularly its botany, zoology, and entomology. Entomologists testified that his account of English insects was more perfect than any that had then appeared. His notes and papers, of which some have been published, others remain still in manuscript, give evidence, besides, of his knowledge of literature ancient and modern, geography and topography, painting, architecture and antiquities, and of his curious researches in heraldry. He was an excellent musician. Sir James Mackintosh reminds us, moreover, that to all the other accomplishments and merits of Gray we are to add this: "that he was the first discoverer of the beauties of nature in England, and has marked out the course of every picturesque journey that can be made in it."
find it at:
Thomas Gray



Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Famous Mental Modifications (Vritti)


The teacher said to him, "I told you the right thing. The very fact that you know simultaneously all the mental modifications was adduced by me as the reason why you are eternally immutable".

This has been the subject of much reflection for me manana (reflecting) and nidhidhyasana (meditation). What I mean by this is the holding in the mind or making the context of my ruminations the immediacy of consciousness. Is the assertion that mental modifications are immediately known otiose or not informative. Mental modifications are those states of awareness that we are immediately aware of by definition. Daniel Dennett speaks of fame in the brain. Those states (vritti) are merely the most salient of our brains function. Information is being processed in an unconscious way and what we become conscious of is merely the last stage that wins out so to speak. They are famous i.e. well known. Only when the activity that is beneath this level goes wrong do we come to know of it.

I feel that there is an important insight in Dennett's view and it moreover does not contradict the advaitin view of mental activity. Recall that in the preamble to the B.S.B. (Brahma Sutra Bhasya) Sankara does not concern himself with the psychological theory of how superimposition (snake/rope adhyasa) takes place. It is the end result i.e. the mental modification/confusion, that is important. There are routines that are 'beneath' consciousness but that is not the point. Fame is the thing.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The World of Yesterday: an autobiography by Stefan Zweig


Yes, I’m all Hitlered up, suas go ruball (up to my tail). Reading and abandoning A Small Circus by Hans Fallada, and The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. The last mentioned I finished last night and it is possibly the most unsatisfactory memoir ever written. His parents and their origin are not mentioned. How did they make their money? Did he have any siblings? Growing up, what was his attitude to Judaism in a religious sense? He married but who and how did they meet? Not revealed but a great deal of information on his manuscript collecting, Goethe’s laundry list amongst them. There is much about his connection with famous men, writers, artists and composers. His snobbery is vast and comprehensive. How, with Romaine Rolland, I tried to save Europe from itself. During the Kaiser war he met James Joyce in Zurich:

The people in this circle who affected me most deeply —perhaps by way of premonition of my own future fate— were the ones without a country or, worse still, who instead of one had two or three fatherlands and were inwardly uncertain to which they belonged. A young man with a little brown beard, with keen eyes behind strikingly thick lenses sat, usually alone, in a corner of the Cafe Odeon; they told me that he was a highly gifted English author. When I became acquainted with James Joyce a few days after that, he harshly rejected all association with England. He was Irish. True, he wrote in the English language but did not think in English and didn't want to think in English. 'Td like a language," he said, "which is above all languages, a language to which all will do service. I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition." This was not quite clear to me; I did not know of his Ulysses, on which he was then working; he had merely lent me A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his only copy, and his little drama Exiles which I had thought to translate in order to be of use to him. The better I knew him the more his incredible knowledge of languages astonished me; his round firmly sculptured brow, which shone smooth like porcelain in the electric light, stored every vocable of every idiom and he was brilliantly able to toss and keep them balanced in the air. Once when he asked how I would reproduce a difficult sentence in the Portrait of an Artist in German, we attempted it first in French and then in Italian; for every word he was prepared with four or five in each idiom, even those in dialect, and he knew their value and weight to the finest nuance. He was inclined to be testy, and I believe that just that irritation produced the power for his inner turmoil and productivity. His resentment against Dublin, against England, against particular persons became converted into dynamic energy and actually found release only in literary creation. But he seemed fond of his own asperity; I never saw him laugh or show high spirits. He always made the impression of a compact, somber force and when I saw him on the street, his thin lips pressed tightly together, always walking rapidly as if heading for a definite objective, I sensed the defensive, the inner isolation of his being even more positively than in our talks. It failed to astonish me when I later learned that just this man had written the most solitary, the least affined work—meteor-like in its introduction to the world of our time.

Exile, Silence and Zweig. We share that asperity Stefan. Actually no, but in the end his complaints that the rich and well connected, famous people who were Jews, people like me, me, me, could not get out of Germany and Austria is wearing. He got out in the early 30‘s and lived in England. He met H.G. Wells and G.B. Shaw. Of course he did. Zweig was an international best seller. His short stories are quite good and some were made into films - Letter from an Unknown Woman is one. He reminds me of Somerset Maugham and Louis Couperous.

Read not as a self-styled autobiography; there is much to enjoy.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Pradhana and Intelligent Design


The discussion about the pradhana of the Samkhyas starts out with a rejection of its identification with the Existence mentioned in the Chandogya Upanishad (Ch.VI.ii.1):
O amiable one, before its creation, the universe was but Existence (Brahman), one without a second.

Pradhana (primal matter) has as its constituents sattva, rajas and tamas or the pure, the active and the inert. There is extensive coverage of the influence of these as regards the human character in the Bhagavad Gita. As one or the other predominates so do certain traits. When sattva is in the ascendant as with the perfect yogi then omniscience is the result. As an implication of this belief the Samkhyas identify the Upanisad primal Existence and its creative power with Pradhana. Sankara rejects this though he admits that sattva is predominant in the case of the all knowing yogi.
Besides so long as Sattva is not illumined by the consciousness of the witnessing soul, no change in Sattva can be called knowledge; and insentient Pradhana has no power to illumine. Therefore the omniscience of Pradhana is not justifiable. The all-knowingness of the Yogins cannot be quoted as an example, for they are conscious beings, so that they can become all-knowing through a perfection of their Sattva.
(from Sankara's commentary: B.S.B. I.i.5)

This rejection of the identification of primal Existence as per the Ch. Up. with Pradhana is important for the establishment of coherence and consistency with the scriptures. Further on Sankara adds an objection to creative Pradhana from the perspective of design. This occurs in B.S.B. II.ii.1:
....then it is not seen in this world that any independent insentient thing that is not guided by some sentient being can produce modifications to serve some special purpose of a man; for what is not noticed in the world is that houses, palaces, beds, seats, recreation grounds, etc., are made by the intelligent engineers and others at the proper time and in a way suitable for ensuring or avoiding comfort or discomfort. So how can the inconscient Pradhana create this universe, which cannot even be mentally conceived of by the intelligent (i.e. skilful) and most far-famed architects, which is seen in the external context to consist of the earth etc. that are fit places for experiencing the results of various works, and in the context of the individual person, of the body and other things having different castes etc., in which the limbs are arranged according to a regular design, and which are seen as the seats for experiencing various fruits of actions?

Design, order and arrangement are the result of intelligent guidance which is more complex than what even highly intelligent and capable people can comprehend. Therefore insentient Pradhana cannot be the cause of the universe. This is not an Argument from Design per se only an argument against Pradhana being able to supply it. Pradhana is not an actor.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Neo-Anything


“In language as in politics the conservative runs into the fact that the old is only what used to be new.” *(Bernard Williams)
This is one of these observations that has a specious air of correctness. Much of what conservatives hold was never newly fangled but is natural. There are truths which are held to be self-evident and in that sense atemporal. Their implementation politically may happen at a certain point in history.
This neo-conservative (neo-con) business. Obviously pejorative. Put neo to anything and you have suggested that it is only trotting after a foolish doctrine which had at least the merit of being original in its day.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Continuous Immediacy (Upadesa Sahasri)


75. The teacher said to him, Your doubt is not justifiable. For you, the Self, are proved to be free from change and therefore perpetually the same on the ground that all the modifications of the mind without a single exception are (simultaneously) known by you. You regard this knowledge of all the modifications which is the reason for the above inference as that for your doubt. If you were changeful like the mind or the senses (which pervade their objects one after another), you would not simultaneously know all the mental modifications, the objects of your knowledge. Nor are you aware of a portion only of the objects of your knowledge (at a time). You are, therefore, absolutely changeless.

The response to this can take a number of forms, two of which are ready to hand. One is that ‘mental modification’ linked with immediate awareness is no more than a dormitive definition so named after the doctor who said that opium cause sleepiness because of its dormitive power. A mental modification is an awareness by virtue of being a mental modification.

The second rebuttal which is identified with Buddhism within the Vedic tradition suggests that knowledge is constantly changing. Apprehension is a progressive affair. As we go on perceiving we come to know more and more. Knowledge is then an active business and is therefore not changeless. This is the line taken by the Disciple.

The Teacher in his reply does not deny that there is an experience of change. What he wants to stress or the insight that he wishes to induce is the immediate nature of the consciousness that accompanies any sensible state. This is a reflection of the nature of the Self. In an image used elsewhere in the book the Self is likened to a mirror that is not changed by the reflections that occur in it.

May I offer the idea of continuous immediacy paradoxical as that sounds. It has I maintain a connection with the Bergsonian concept of duration. Eliot in The Four Quartets wrote about the ‘still centre of the turning world’.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
(Four Quartets Section 5: Burnt Norton)