Catherine Pozzi a modern mystic

Catherine Pozzi is one of those rare individuals who inhabit the strange hinterland between sensual and ‘spiritual’ ecstasy and steadfastly refuse to renounce either territory for the sake of the other. In a letter to Valéry she speaks of “seeing in my mind’s eye a sort of non-human paradise, made of a kind of transcendent material…. absolute solitude; the only possible inhabitants you and I”.
Descartes kick-started modern philosophy with his famous formula, Cogito ergo sum, ‘I think, therefore I am’. There has never really been a philosophical movement that takes first-hand physical sensation as its starting point ― empiricism only concerns itself with ‘sense-data’ and dismisses personal experience as ‘anecdotal’. In her more extravagant moments, Catherine Pozzi ― or Karin as she liked to be called ― viewed herself as a prophet ushering in an era when the life of the senses, science and religion would fuse. This is the theme of Peau d’Ame (‘Skin of the Soul’), a rambling would-be manifesto based on the premiss “JE-SENS-DONC-JE-SUIS” (‘I feel, therefore I am’). She adds the curious comment, “Ce n’est pas la pensée, c’est le sentir qui a besoin de JE” (‘It is not thought but feeling that requires an ‘I’).
In her later years, Karin undertook serious biological and physical studies in an attempt to formulate a new theory of sensation in part based on the ideas of Weber. As she herself admits, she failed in this but one nonetheless finds striking anticipations of Dr. Sheldrake’s contemporary theory of ‘morphic resonance’. For, according to Karin, a single sensation, while being unique, somehow recapitulates all previous sensations of the same type and makes possible further repetitions in the future ― exactly Sheldrake’s idea.
What of that sequence of sensations, her life? Catherine Pozzi (1882 ― 1934) was the daughter of a Parisian surgeon, Samuel Pozzi, while her mother maintained a salon frequented by Sarah Bernardt, Colette and Proust. Karin started writing a Journal at the age of ten and kept this up for most of her life. She was a proto-feminist and adolescent ‘rebel without a cause’ a long time before this became fashionable: indeed she would have been much more at home in California in the Sixties than in Paris during the Belle Époque.
The big question was how to put into practice her philosophy of mystical sensualism without prostrating herself before a man. One possibility was to seek a ‘kindred spirit’ rather than a lover; her adolescent Journal celebrates her passionate friendship with a young American girl who died a year after their first meeting on the ‘Day of the Holy Spirit’ (Passover?), a timing that Catherine found significant. Love, kindred spirit, illness, death, these four strands were henceforth to be forever intertwined.  ventual marriage to a stockbroker with some literary pretensions barely survived the honeymoon though it did produce a son. Three years later Karin was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent much of the rest of her life undergoing cures and abusing prescribed mood-changing drugs. During WWI she met a young aviator, André Fernet, who firmly believed that ‘true love’ should be strictly Platonic. His death in action in 1916 (which Catherine claimed to have foreseen in a dream) was as much a fitting consummation to their love as it was an interruption.
In 1920 Karin embarked on a tempestuous affair with Paul Valéry, a married man with a family and a poet much less gifted than herself. She eventually disclosed the relation to Valéry’s wife, and henceforth the doors of Parisian society were firmly closed to this latter-day Anna Karenina. But she no longer cared.
Karin in her lifetime only published one or two short articles in magazines and (under the name C.K.) Agnès, a fictionalized account of her own adolescent crises. It is thus on the Six Poems that her reputation must rest and it is to be regretted that the NRF Gallimard edition of her works has them in the wrong order. Karin wrote in her Journal on 6 November 1934,“J’ai écrit VALE, AVE, MAYA, NOVA, SCOPOLAMINE, NYX. Je voudrais qu’on en fasse une plaquette”.

These intense, concise poems remind one of the ‘Stations of the Cross’, marking as they do the stages in an agonising spiritual journey, or perhaps resting points on the pathway that candidates for initiation followed at Eleusis. They could also be viewed as snapshots of a substance undergoing successive changes of state, the substance being, as it happens, a human being — and I fancy that Karin would have approved of this analogy. According to Karin’s ‘chemistry of the soul’, the essential elements of her current personality have already existed in previous reincarnations (‘MAYA’), will somehow persist after death albeit momentarily dissociated from each other (‘AVE’) and will eventually all come together again in a future time (‘NOVA’).
VALE (‘Farewell’) shows the pilgrim looking back at the old life she is now leaving for ever. She starts by lamenting her lover’s betrayal not so much of herself as of their shared life. But she turns the tables on him, as it were, by absorbing the high points of the experience into her body (not mind), so all has not been lost after all:
Il [cet amour] est mon corps et sera mon partage/ Apres mourir”
(‘This love is my body and will remain my portion after death’).
In this way, what is worth remembering remains with her for ever duly integrated into her inner self.
AVE (‘Hail’) begins the sequence proper. It is a passionate invocation not to a real person but to a higher being — one can imagine Psyche writing such a poem between visits from the god Eros, while the tone also recalls Saint Theresa of Avila addressing Christ. For the being is at once beloved, guide and controller of her destiny : he will be responsible for her rebirth even though she will first be broken entirely into pieces (‘You will remake my name and image out of the thousand bodies dispersed by time’). The author intimates that, for a while, she will cease to exist as an individual, will be “sans nom et sans visage” (‘nameless and faceless’), but will be given a new ‘name and face’ which is yet the same, since underlying these transformations is a “vive unité” (‘living unity’).
The tone of this poem is rapt, ecstatic, and it ends by invoking “Cœur de l’esprit, O centre du mirage“(‘Heart of my spirit, centre of the mirage’). ‘Mirage‘ is the world of the senses which Buddhism teaches is ‘maya’, illusion ― but, for Karin, the ‘centre’ of the mirage is not illusory.
In MAYA, the speaker returns to a previous idyllic life amongst the Mayans which she views as a recovery of her cosmic childhood ― ‘I retrace my steps into childhood’s abyss’. Indeed, the voyager hesitates, vainly wishing the process could stop here, in this lost paradise refound, “Que s’arrete le temps, que s’affaisse la trame” (‘If only time would stand still and the weft [of destiny] grow slack’).
After MAYA, NOVA comes as something of a shock. Instead of greeting with rapture a being from another realm, this time the spiritual traveller recoils with horror from a being (at once herself and another) that is canniballistically sucking the speaker’s vitality: its birth is the present speaker’s death. She desperately pleads with it not to be born at all:
‘Undo ! Unmake yourself, dissolve, refuse to be
Denounce what was desired but not chosen by me’

After anticipations of the future and a reliving of the past, SCOPOLAMINE and NYX return us to the present. (Scopolamine is incidentally not a hallucinatory drug but a ‘truth drug’ used by the Nazis on prisoners of war but prescribed to Karin by her doctor.) This time there is no holding back: on the contrary the spiritual voyage is imaged as the launching of a spacecraft with (what we would now call) an astronaut aboard it. Whatever it is that survives physical decomposition is already detaching itself from its earthly frame
        ‘My heart has left my life behind,
        The world of Shape and Form I’ve crossed,
        I am saved, I am lost
        Into the unknown am tossed
        A name without a past to find’ 

NYX was written in a single jet on Karin’s deathbed and brings us even closer to the moment of metamorphosis. The tone is a mixture of awe, regret, rapture and incomprehension:
‘O deep desire amazement spread abroad
O splendid journey of the spellstruck mind
O worst mishap O grace descended from above
O open door through which not one has passed

I know not why I sink, expire
Before the eternal place is mine
I know not who made me his prey
Nor who it was made me his love’

Note:  The full text of the Six Poems in both the original French and my translation  can be found on the website www.catherinepozzi.org  or, if this expires, directly from the author.

SH 29/09/2016

 

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What is time?

What is time? Time is succession. Succession of what? Of events, occurrences, states. As someone put it, time is Nature’s way of stopping everything happening at once.

In a famous thought experiment, Descartes asked himself what it was not possible to disbelieve in. He imagined himself alone in a quiet room cut off from the bustle of the world and decided he could, momentarily at least, disbelieve in the existence of France, the Earth, even other people. But one thing he absolutely could not disbelieve in was that there was a thinking person, cogito ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am’).
Those of us who have practiced meditation, and many who have not, know that it is quite possible to momentarily disbelieve in the existence of a thinking/feeling person. But what one absolutely cannot disbelieve in is that thoughts and bodily sensations of some sort are occurring and, not only that, that these sensations (most of them anyway) occur one after the other. One outbreath follows an inbreath, one thought leads on to another and so on and so on until death or nirvana intervenes. Thus the grand conclusion: There are sensations, and there is succession.  Can anyone seriously doubt this? 

Succession and the Block Universe

That we, as humans, have a very vivid, and more often than not  acutely painful, sense of the ‘passage of time’ is obvious. A considerable body of the world’s literature  is devoted to  bewailing the transience of life, while one of the world’s four or five major religions, Buddhism, has been well described as an extended meditation on the subject. Cathedrals, temples, marble statues and so on are attempts to defy the passage of time, aars long vita brevis.
However, contemporary scientific doctrine, as manifested in the so-called ‘Block Universe’ theory of General Relativity, tells us that everything that occurs happens in an ‘eternal present’, the universe ‘just is’. In his latter years, Einstein took the idea seriously enough to mention it in a letter of consolation to the son of his lifelong friend, Besso, on the occasion of the latter’s death. “In quitting this strange world he [Michel Besso] has once again preceded me by a little. That doesn’t mean anything. For those of us who believe in physics, this separation between past, present and future is an illusion, however tenacious.”
Never mind the mathematics, such a theory does not make sense. For, even supposing that everything that can happen during what is left of my life has in some sense already happened, this is not how I perceive things. I live my life day to day, moment to moment, not ‘all at once’. Just possibly, I am quite mistaken about the real state of affairs but it would seem nonetheless that there is something not covered by the ‘eternal present’ theory, namely my successive perception of, and participation in, these supposedly already existent moments (Note 1). Perhaps, in a universe completely devoid of consciousness,  ‘eternalism’ might be true but not otherwise.
Barbour, the author of The End of Time, argues that we do not ever actually experience ‘time passing’. Maybe not, but this is only because the intervals between different moments, and the duration of the moments themselves, are so brief that we run everything together like movie stills. According to Barbour, there exists just a huge stack of moments, some of which are interconnected, some not, but this stack has no inherent temporal order. But even if it were true that all that can happen is already ‘out there’ in Barbour’s Platonia (his term), picking a pathway through this dense undergrowth of discrete ‘nows’ would still be a successive procedure.
I do not think time can be disposed of so easily. Our impressions of the world, and conclusions drawn by the brain, can be factually incorrect ― we see the sun moving around the Earth for example ― but to deny either that there are sense impressions and that they appear successively, not simultaneously, strikes me as going one step too far. As I see it, succession is an absolutely essential component  of lived reality and either there is succession or there is just an eternal now, I see no third possibility.
What Einstein’s Special Relativity does demonstrate is that there is seemingly no absolute ‘present moment’ applicable right across the universe (because of the speed of light barrier). But in Special Relativity at least succession and causality still very much exist within any particular local section, i.e. inside a particular event’s light cone. One can only surmise that the universe as a whole must have a complicated mosaic successiveness made up of interlocking pieces (tesserae).

Irreversibility
In various areas of physics, especially thermo-dynamics, there is much discussion of whether certain sequences of events are reversible or not, i.e. could take place other than in the usual observed order. This is an important issue but is a quite different question from whether time (in the sense of succession) exists. Were it possible for pieces of broken glass to spontaneously reform themselves into a wine glass, this process would still occur successively and that is the point at issue.

Time as duration

‘Duration’ is a measure of how long something lasts. If time “is what the clock says” as Einstein is reported to have once said, duration is measured by what the clock says at two successive moments (‘times’). The trick is to have, or rather construct, a set of successive events that we take as our standard set and relate all other sets to this one. The events of the standard set need to be punctual and brief, the briefer the better, and the interval between successive events must be both noticeable and regular. The tick-tock of a pendulum clock provided such a standard set for centuries though today we have the much more regular expansion and contraction of quartz crystals or the changing magnetic moments of electrons around a caesium nucleus.

Continuous or discontinuous?

 A pendulum clock records and measures time in a discontinuous fashion: you can actually see, or hear, the minute or second hand flicking from one position to another. And if we have an oscillating mechanism such as a quartz crystal, we take the extreme positions of the cycle which comes to the same thing.
However, this schema is not so evident if we consider ‘natural’ clocks such as sundials which are based on the apparent continuous movement of the sun. Hence the familiar image of time as a river which never stops flowing. Newton viewed time in this way which is why he analysed motion in terms of ‘fluxions’, or ‘flowings’. Because of Calculus, which Newton invented, it is the continuous approach which has overwhelmingly prevailed in the West. But a perpetually moving object, or one perceived as such, is useless for timekeeping: we always have to home in on specific recurring configurations such as the longest or shortest shadow cast. We have to freeze time, as it were, if we wish to measure temporal intervals.

Event time

The view of time as something flowing and indivisible is at odds with our intuition that our lives consist of a succession  of moments with a unique orientation, past to future, actual to hypothetical. Science disapproves of the latter common sense schema but is powerless to erase it from our thoughts and feelings: clearly the past/present/future schema is hard-wired and will not go away.

If we dispense with continuity, we can also get rid of  ‘infinite divisibility’ and so we arrive at the notion, found in certain early Buddhist thinkers, that there is a minimum temporal (and spatial) interval, the ksana. It is only recently that physicists have even considered the possibility that time  is ‘grainy’, that there might be ‘atoms of time’, sometimes called chronons. Now, within a minimal temporal interval, there would be no possible change of state and, on this view, physical reality decomposes into a succession of ‘ultimate events’ occupying  minimal locations in space/time with gaps between these locations. In effect, the world becomes a large (but not infinite) collection of interconnected cinema shows proceeding at different rates.

Joining forces with time

 The so-called ‘arrow of time’ is simply the replacement of one localized moment by another and the procedure is one-way because, once a given event has occurred, there is no way that it can be ‘de-occurred’. Awareness of this gives rise to anxiety ― “the moving finger writes, and having writ/ Moves on, nor all thy piety or wit/Can lure it back to cancel half a line….”  Most religious, philosophic and even scientific systems attempt to allay this anxiety by proposing a domain that is not subject to succession, is ‘beyond time’. Thus Plato and Christianity, the West’s favoured religion. And even if we leave aside General Relativity, practically all contemporary scientists have a fervent belief in the “laws of physics” which are changeless and in effect wholly transcendent.
Eastern systems of thought tend to take a different approach. Instead of trying desperately to hold on to things such as this moment, this person, this self, Buddhism invites us to  ‘let go’ and cease to cling to anything. Taoism goes even further, encouraging us to find fulfilment and happiness by identifying completely with the flux of time-bound existence and its inherent aimlessness. The problem with this approach is, however, that it is not clear how to avoid simply becoming a helpless victim of circumstance. The essentially passive approach to life seemingly needs to be combined with close attention and discrimination ― in Taoist terms, Not-Doing must be combined with Doing.

Note 1 And if we start playing with the idea that  not only the events but my perception of them as successive is already ‘out there’, we soon get involved in infinite regress.

Note 2 I have attempted to develop this schema on the website www.ultimateeventtheory.com

Even and Odd

Animals and so-called primitive peoples do not bother to make nice distinctions between entities on the basis of number and even today, when  deprived of technological aids, we are not at all good at it (Note 1).  What people do ‘naturally’ is to make distinctions of type not number and the favourite principle of division by type is the two-valued either/or principle.  Plato thought that this principle, dichotomy, was so fundamental that all knowledge was based on it — the reason for this being because the brain works in this way, the nerve synapsis is either ‘on’ or ‘off’. Psychologically human beings have a very strong inclination to proceed by straight two-valued distinctions, light/dark, this/that, on/off, sacred/profane, Greek/Barbarian, Jew/Gentile, good/evil and so on — more complex gradations are only introduced later and usually with great reluctance Science has eventually recognized the complexity of nature and apart from gender there are not many true scientific dichotomies left though we still have the classification of animals into  vertebrates and invertebrates.

Numbers themselves very early on got classified into even and odd , the most fundamental numerical distinction after the classification one and many which is even more basic.

The classification even/odd is radical: it provides what modern mathematicians call a partition of the whole set. That is, the classification principle is exhaustive : with the possible exception of the unit, all  numbers fall into one or other of the two categories. Moreover, the two classes are mutually exclusive: no number appearing in the list of evens will appear in thelist of odds. This is by no means true of all classification principles for numbers as one might perhaps at first assume. Numbers can be classified, for example, as triangular and as rectangular according to whether they can be (literally) made into rectangles or equilateral triangles. But ΟΟΟΟΟΟ turns out to be both since it can be formed either into a triangle or a rectangle:

ΟΟΟ                                         ΟΟΟ
ΟΟΟ                                         ΟΟ
Ο
The Greeks, like practically all cultures in the ancient world, viewed the odd and even numbers as male and female respectively — presumably because a woman has ‘two’ breasts and a male only one penis. And, since oddness, though in Greek the term did not have the same associations as in English, was nonetheless defined with respect to evenness and not the reverse, this made an odd number a sort of female manqué. This must have posed a problem for their strongly patriarchal society but the Greek philosophers and mathematicians got round this by arguing that ‘one’  (and not ‘two’) was the basis of the number system while ‘one’ was the ‘father of all numbers’.

On the other hand a matriarchal society or a species where females were dominant would almost certainly, and with better reasoning, have made ‘one’ a female number, the primeval egg from which the whole numerical progeny emerged. Those who consider that mathematics is in some sense ‘eternally true’ should reflect on the question of how mathematics would  have developed within a hermaphroditic species, or in a world where there were three and not two humanoid genders as in Ian Banks’s science-fiction novel  The Player of Games.

Evenness is not easy to define — nor for that matter to recognize as I have just realized since, coming across an earlier version of this section, I found I was momentarily incapable of deciding which of the rows of balls pictured at the head of this chapter represented odd or even numbers. We have to appeal to some very basic feeling for ‘symmetry’ — what is on one side of a dividing line is exactly matched by what is on the other side of it. A definition could thus be

If you can pair off a collection within itself and nothing remains over, then the collection is called even, if you cannot do this the collection is termed odd.

This makes oddness anomalous and less basic than evenness which intuitively one feels to be right —  we would not, I think, ever dream of defining oddness and then say “If a collection is not odd, it is even”. And although it is only in English and a few other languages that ‘odd’ also means ‘strange’, the pejorative sense that the word odd has picked up suggests that we expect and desire things to match up, i.e. we expect, or at least desire, them  to be ‘even’ —  the figure of Justice holds a pair of evenly balanced scales.

The sense of even as ‘level’ may well be the original one. If we have two collections of objects which, individually,  are more or less identical, then a pair of scales remains level if the collections are placed on each arm of the lever (at the same distance).  One could define even and odd thus pragmatically:

“If a collection of identical standard objects can be divided up in a way which keeps the arms of a balance level, then the collection is termed even. If this is not possible it is termed odd.”

This definition avoids using the word two which is preferable since the sense of things being ‘even’ is much more fundamental than a feeling for ‘twoness’  — for this reason the distinction even/odd, like the even more fundamental ‘one/many’ , belongs to the stage of pre-numbering rather than that of numbering.

Early man would not have had a pair of scales, of course, but he would have been familiar with the procedure of ‘equal division’, and the simplest way of dividing up a collection of objects is to separate it into two equal parts. If there was an item left over it could simply be thrown away. Evenness is thus not only the simplest way of dividing up a set of objects but the principle of division which makes the remainder a minimum: any other method of division  runs the risk of having more objects left over.

Euclid’s definition is that of equal division. He says “An even number is that which is divisible into two equal parts” (Elements Definition 6. Book VII)  and “An odd number is that which is not divisible into two equal parts, or that which differs by  a unit from an even number”  (Elements  Definition 7. Book VII). Incidentally, in Euclid ‘number’ not only always has the sense ‘positive integer but has a concrete sense — he defines ‘number‘ as a “multitude composed of units”.

Note that Euclid defines odd first privatively (by what it is not) and then as something deficient with reference to an even number. The second definition is still with us today: algebraically the formula for the odd numbers is (2n-1) where n is given the successive values 1, 2, 3…. or sometimes (in order to leave 1 out of it) by giving n the successive values 2, 3, 4….  In concrete terms,  we have the sequence

Ο     ΟΟ     ΟΟΟ  ……..                 …..

Duplicating them gives us the ‘doubles’ or even numbers

Ο     ΟΟ     ΟΟΟ  ..….
Ο     ΟΟ     ΟΟΟ  ……

and  removing a unit each time gives us the ‘deficient’ odd numbers.

The unit itself is something out on its own and was traditionally regarded as  neither even nor odd. It is certainly not even according to the ‘equal division’ definition since it cannot be divided at all (within the context of whole number theory) and it cannot be put on the scales without disturbing equilibrium. In practice it is often convenient to treat the unit as if it were odd, just as it is to consider it a square number, cube number and so forth, otherwise many theorems would have to be stated twice over. Context usually makes it clear whether the term ‘number’ includes the unit or not.

Note that distinguishing between even and odd has nothing to do with counting or even with distinguishing between greater or less – knowing that a number is even tells you nothing about its size. And vice-versa, associating a number word or symbol with a collection of objects will not inform you as to  whether the quantity is even or odd — there are no ‘even’ or ‘odd’ endings to the spoken word like those showing whether something is singular or plural,  masculine or feminine.

It is significant that we do not have words for numbers which, for example, are multiples of four or which leave a remainder of one unit when divided into three. (The Greek mathematicians did, however, speak of ‘even-even’ numbers.) If our species had three genders instead of two, as in the world described in The Player of Games, we would maybe tend to divide things into threes and classify all numbers according to whether they could be divided into three parts exactly, were a counter short or a counter over. This, however, would have made things so much more complicated that such a species would most likely have taken even longer to develop numbering and arithmetic than in our own case.

The distinction even/odd is the first and simplest case of what is today called a congruence. The integers can be separated out into so-called equivalence classes according to the remainder left when they are divided by a given number termed the modulus. All numbers are in the same class (modulus 1) since when they are separated out into ones there is only one possible remainder : nothing at all. In Gauss’s notation the even numbers are the numbers which leave a remainder of zero when divided by 2, or are ‘0 (mod 2)’ where mod is short for modulus. And the odd numbers are all 1 (mod 2) i.e. leave a unit when separated into twos. What is striking is that although the distinction between even and odd, i.e. distinction between numbers that are 0 or 1 (mod 2) is prehistoric, congruence arithmetic as such was invented by Gauss a mere couple of centuries ago.

In concrete terms we can set up equivalence classes relative to a given modulus by arranging collections of counters (in fact or in imagination) between parallel lines of set width starting with unit width, then a width which allows two counters only, then three and so on. This image enables us to see at once that the sum of any two or more even numbers is always even.

And since an odd number has an extra  Ο  this means a pair of odd numbers have each an extra unit and so, if we fit them together to make the units face each other we have an even result. Thus    Even plus even equals even” and “Odd plus odd equals even” are not just jingles we have to learn at school but correspond to what actually happens if we try to arrange actual counters or squares so that they match up.

We end up with the following two tables which may well have been the earliest ones ever to have been drawn up by mathematicians.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­          +       odd      even                        ×     odd    even  

       odd      even    odd                     odd    odd    even

       even    odd    even                     even  even  even

 

All this may seem so obvious that it is hardly worth stating but simply by appealing to these tables many results can be deduced that are far from being self-evident. For example, we find by experience that certain concrete  numbers can be arranged as rectangles and that, amongst these rectangular numbers, there are ones that can be separated into two smaller rectangles and those that cannot be. However if I am told that a certain collection can be arranged as a rectangle with one side just a unit greater than the other, then I can immediately deduce that it can be separated into two smaller rectangles. Why am I so sure of this? Because, referring to the tables above,

1.) the ‘product’ of an even and an odd number is even;
2.) an even number can by definition always be separated into two equal parts.

           I could deduce this even if I was a member of a society which had no written number system and no more than a handful of number words.

This is only the beginning: the banal distinction between even and odd and reference to the entries in the tables above crops up in a surprising amount of proofs in number theory. The famous proof that the square root of 2 is not a rational number — as we would put it — is based on the fact that no quantity made up of so many equal bits can be at once even and odd.                                                                       SH 5/03/15

 

Note 1  This fact (that human beings are not naturally very good at assessing numerical quantity) is paradoxical since mankind is the numerical animal par excellence. Mathematics is the classic case of the weakling who makes himself into Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is because we are so bad at quantitative assessment that playing cards are obliged to show the number words in the corner of the card and why the dots on a dice are arranged in set patterns to avoid confusion.

 

Poetry and Contemporary Attitudes towards Death

Poetry and Contemporary Attitudes towards Death

Note: On the brink of undergoing my first major surgical intervention, I came across the following piece amongst my papers. It was apparently written two years after the death of my father, which event took place at least twelve to fifteen years ago. There are plenty of things I could add but I thought it best to leave the piece unchanged. SH

Increasingly people today are arranging their own funeral services or those of their family and partners whether the service is a standard cremation or a woodland burial. Instead of, or in association with, passages from the Bible or other sacred books there is an increasing demand for readings from contemporary or at least relatively modern authors. Unfortunately, loafing through late twentieth century literature one finds very little indeed on the subject of death and that little is generally of extremely poor quality. Why is this? The present society, whatever its other merits, seems incapable of facing up to death and by and large we sweep it under the carpet and pretend it isn’t really there. For most of my life death was something that happened in the past or to other people  and I saw my first actual dead body (my father’s) only a couple of years ago when I was in my late fifties. Confronted with death, one tends to be flummoxed, embarrassed, at a loss. Although I suppose one could write a good poem saying exactly this ─ that one doesn’t really know what to feel ─ I don’t think a funeral service would be the place to read it out loud.

What exactly do most people require from readings at a funeral service? I think most people require something solemn. Since the language of the King James Bible and the Prayer Book is solemn in an absolutely magnificent way, a lot of people who don’t believe a word of it, are quite happy for extracts to be read at funerals ─ they ‘sound right’ and up to a point that is all that really matters. Death can be treated as a joke but a funeral service is not, one feels, the place for fooling around. I have been to a funeral where supposedly funny pieces were read : practically everyone present including myself found this tasteless and objectionable. (Irish Catholics have their wakes, of course, but they have a full-blown funeral service first.) And as it happens, modern poetry ─ I mean poetry from the nineteen-twenties onwards ─ has very largely been against solemnity, against anything high-sounding, has become deliberately prosaic and matter of fact. That is all very well but goes some way to explaining why few people today can write well about death, for the theme of death somehow does require one to pull the stops out.

Also, people generally desire to have something consoling if possible read out at a funeral service. Once again, the traditional religions score heavily here since they do offer serious consolations, in particular the consolation that, contrary to appearances, death is not the end. Humanism finds it hard to compete here.

`What is indubitable when confronted with a corpse is that something has gone, has ended. How can one attempt to console oneself for this? One solution is to argue that the ‘true self’ does not reside in the body and so does not die with the body. It may surprize some people to learn that this was not originally a Christian doctrine ─ Christianity still officially affirms the ‘resurrection of the body’ ─ but a Greek idea which some historians trace even further back to the ‘out-of-the-body’ experiences of Siberian shamans (see Note). Today, however, science has considerably weakened belief in the reality of this incorporeal entity, the soul; also, we are not too keen today on a system of belief which implicitly or explicitly downgrades the body. The ‘soul’ option is losing ground fast.

This more or less only leaves two broad options: belief in reincarnation and pantheism. Most people today who consider themselves pagans seem to believe in reincarnation or pantheism or both combined: certainly I myself am attracted to both. The difficulty with reincarnation as a ‘solution’ to the problem of death is that, either you believe in an immaterial ‘something’ which keeps on persisting, in which case you are driven back to the ‘soul option’, or, as in traditional Buddhism, you deny that there is anything that persists, in which case the whole system ceases to be so consoling. Hinduism, or certain forms of it, affirms that the ‘individual soul’ (atman) eventually gets merged completely in the Absolute (Brahman) from which it came.

Although Plato and some Greeks and Romans believed in reincarnation, the idea is basically Indian and, if one is looking for passages in the English language affirming reincarnation there is not a lot available.

Pantheism has the great advantage that it is actually in some sense true ! We do end up merged into ‘Nature’ and modern science in affirming that “energy cannot be destroyed but only changed in form” (1st Law of Thermo-dynamics) has actually reinforced pantheistic belief. The difficulties are of a different order. The Romantics identified ‘Nature’ with everything admirable and good, but since Darwin, and even worse since Dawkins, it seems we have to believe that Nature demonstrates the fascist principle of ‘survival of the fittest’. Also, since Nature obviously cares nothing for the individual, it is debatable to what extent pantheism can provide consolation when confronted with the death of an individual.

Finally, one should perhaps mention a sort of paradoxically ‘consoling’ solution to the problem of death, namely the belief that there is, and can be, no consolation. This option can at least claim to look things squarely in the face ─ or does it?

Sebastian Hayes

Notes : E.R. Dodds takes this view in chapter V of his remarkable book “The Greeks and the Irrational” .

"War and Peace" Chapter 2 Three Novels of Love and War : War and Peace

Nature in Western Painting


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Nature in Western Painting

 

“oriental art is not concerned with Nature, but with the nature of Nature”, Ananda Coomaraswamy, the Sri Lankan philosopher once said.

            But does Nature have a ‘nature’ ? For the two dominant Western world-views, those of Judaeo-Christianity and of modern scientific rationalism, ‘Nature’ is not much more than a handy term and has no intrinsic existence, let alone a ‘character’ or nature. God created the universe but is not directly manifest within it : the natural world, though it may show evidence of its designer to those who know what they are looking for, is not divine and Man, who is a little higher up the ladder than trees and animals, is specifically given dominion over the rest of creation because the latter does not, and cannot, know God whereas mankind can. To believe otherwise was always been dangerous while the Church was in command, though a very different, essentially ‘pagan’, attitude to Nature subsisted nonetheless as an undercurrent, emerging into the light of day spasmodically in such phenomena as Courtly Love and Mariolatry (the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary), or in the teachings of Saint Francis.    

            For Western scientists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the presence of God in the natural world could be detected by way of the physical and mathematical principles that, allegedly, in the last resort governed everything — everything physical at any rate. But these traces could not be seen or heard directly : only people trained in higher mathematics had any chance of identifying them, and even then with considerable difficulty.  And in the eyes of modern science Nature is nothing but a complicated play of atoms and molecules which are ‘governed’ by a mixture of statistical laws and chance (the latter because of random mutations and the Uncertainty Principle). Nature is no longer subject to supernatural interference but has not gained much in the exchange : she, or rather it, remains essentially inert, has no purpose, no will, no intelligence, no consciousness, no emotions, no inner life. And, as in medieval times, to believe otherwise remains dangerous, at any rate if you are a professional scientist. Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis (that the Earth is a giant organism) caused an uproar and he, rather regrettably, watered down his thesis in subsequent publications and interviews. And the editor of Nature  went so far as to hail  Dr. Sheldrake’s (to laymen) innocuous little book, A New Science of Life, as “the best candidate for burning we have seen for many a year” (!!!) 

            The most ancient ‘theory of everything’ is animism, and it has proved to be an extremely tenacious theory since it is not completely dead yet even in this most rationalistic and technological of all eras. Despite centuries of Christian, and more recently, scientific disapproval, we remain, most of us, animists at heart. And with good reason. It is ‘only natural’ to believe that if a plant or animal does something, there is something ‘animating’ it and moreover something that is not entirely physical. Piaget, the child psychologist, claimed that all children are ‘natural animists’ though whether this is still true today in the computer age I am not so sure.

            Moreover, we readily believe — or many of us do at any rate — that there is ultimately only one force doing the animating, what the Polynesians called mana, the Amerindians wakanda, the ancient Chinese ch’i , the Romantics Anima Mundi (World-Soul) and the twentieth century French philosopher, Bergson, élan vital (‘vital impulse’). 

            Coomaraswamy, as a representative of what is undoubtedly the most animistic of all the major world religions, Hinduism, was well placed to note the  absence of such a belief in Western art, painting especially.

            My recollection of the art works of the Italian Renaissance is that the  most we ever get of Nature is a neat Florentine garden or a backdrop of distant hills across a dusty plain. The whole attention of the painter is focussed on people, on urban life, or on religious scenes which usually have an underlying  didactic aim — paintings put on display in Churches as altarpieces or painted directly on ceilings were in effect books for Christendom’s illiterate. The painters themselves, of course, had little choice since they worked on command and, clearly, their aristocratic and clerical patrons were not interested in botany and lepidoptery. However, one would expect at least sketches of plants and insects in artists’ notebooks, but, with the exception of Leonardo, an insatiable observer and admirer of the natural world who specifically hailed Nature as “my true teacher”, there seems to have been surprisingly little.

            Wanting to test this general impression, I decided to look at the first history book of Western painting that came to hand, From Giotto to Cézanne, by Michael Levey. There are 549 plates starting with the late thirteenth century. Of the first 145 plates, only four have a natural backdrop which is of any significance at all, and the most conspicuous one is precisely the charming St Francis preaching to the birds (attributed to Giotto). We have to wait for Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538) to come across the first painting where nature, in this case, the forest, dwarfs the human figures and their actions, so much so that at first sight you do not even notice Saint George slaying the dragon in the dark undergrowth. Danube Landscape by the same painter is, according to Levey, “perhaps the first picture [in Western art] simply of scenery”. There is a little more nature in Giorgione and Titian but out of the first 300 plates I would say there are scarcely twenty-five where natural objects and landscape are both important to the conception of the painting and realistic. When we do get ‘Nature’ it seems to be all rocks, scrub and the occasional spindly tree — Italy cannot have been quite so bare as this everywhere. And there are no paintings of rivers either.

            Dutch painters were, as far as I know, the first to consider ordinary fruits and flowers of interest in themselves, as opposed to being a detail in an interior scene. Thus the new genre of the ‘still life’. But still is the word : the fruit look too perfect, as if made of wax which conceivably some of them actually were. A little later on, though, there are some vivid and lifelike Dutch paintings of natural scenes, waterfalls and rivers in particular. The first plate where a landscape has real personality, in this case a sullen, brooding one, is Ruisdael’s Extensive Landscape (a ludicrous title). And the painting would have been even more effective to my mind if it had not had a church steeple (a human artefact) in the distance  — I covered it over with my thumb to see the difference. Ruisdael’s landscapes are the first I know of in Western painting to present Nature as essentially changing and dynamic, not frozen and static as Italian  painters made her. Another plate by the unknown (to me) Nicolaes Berchem is a highly realistic representation of a storm brewing. As far as I know, no earlier painter considered a storm in itself worthy of being the subject of a painting. There is Giorgione’s Tempest, a powerful and evocative painting but, despite tht title, the subject is certainly not Nature’s might and savagery. The fashionably dressed youth  who stands to one side as a sort of sentinel and the half-naked woman suckling a child are completely detached from the dark brooding  background as if they belong to a different  plane of reality — perhaps the impression Giorgione wanted to give. But Berchem’s ploughmen, who are small figures even though they hold the foreground, look puny and helpless against the menacing sky and the trees really look as if they are being blown about by a real wind.      


            In French seventeenth century painting landscape for the first time consistently takes up much more space than human figures who are often reduced to tiny shapes whose actual features we cannot recognize as in Claude Lorraine. But the figures are still there to give ‘human interest’, and there is usually a title with a classical reference to direct your imagination to a far off Graeco-Roman never-never-land. There is an enchanting but completely unnatural calm in the paintings of Poussin and Claude Lorraine : one feels that the waves are not wet  and one cannot imagine the foliage of  the trees being battered by the wind or indeed being anything other than how they are depicted to the end of time. Wonderful though many of these paintings are, they are essentially outdoor ‘still lives’ and it would not be unfair to describe them  as escapist: nothing wrong with that in itself, since doubtless most people then as now needed to escape, but one obtains no enlightenment as to what the ‘nature of Nature’ is in such works.

            With the Romantics we finally have Nature elevated to a divine principle,  especially in the writings of poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge :

 

                                     “And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts ; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

(…) A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.”

 

                                    Wordsworth, Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey

 

            This is the Romantic answer to Coomaraswamy’s query about the ‘nature’ of Nature, and it is paralleled in the writings of other Nature mystics in this era such as Richard Jeffereys.  

            But one finds much less than one might expect of  the Romantic Anima Mundi in the works of the great painters of the time. Blake was not an observer of Nature, preferring to explore the inner world, the ‘unconscious’ as we would put it, while Turner eventually got more interested in purely abstract effects of light and colour than what caused them —“Nature has largely retired, defeated” as Levey puts it most aptly. The painter who most completely conveys the Wordsworthian vision of the countryside is Samuel Palmer. His paintings have a mystical quality but it is not an otherworldly mysticism. Plants, hills, houses, human beings, are as it were all of a piece, all expressions of a vital force whose origin lies elsewhere but which is not separated from the physical world by artificial barriers. He perfectly exemplifies the Chinese principle that is supposed to be the key to all successful landscape painting “ch’i  yuen”, which one might translate as “rhythmic vitality”, or perhaps “elective affinity” [between painter and landscape].    

            Before going any further it might be as well to pause and say something about what I understand by ‘Nature’, and list a few obvious features. I don’t intend to try to define Nature : I think we understand pretty well what the concept implies. It is to be opposed to what is man-made, also to what is invisible, completely beyond the reach of the senses, transcendent. More prosaically, when we speak of ‘nature’, at least in the West, we think of trees and hills rather than rocks or stars in the sky.

            So what features are typical of nature and which I would expect a painter to capture and communicate if he wants to do a ‘nature painting’ ?  First of all, Nature exhibits patterns, has a certain regularity, but the patterns are never exact. Think of  the ripples on a beach or the way branches project from the trunk of a tree. Secondly, natural objects change : without change there is no growth and without growth no life. Except when a plant or tree is blown about by a strong wind, we do not actually see them move, but we are aware that they are capable of movement. This is an extremely important point if we want to produce a life-like drawing or painting. Many flowers open and close according to the daylight, trees change more slowly according to the seasons, rocks and hills change slowest of all but they are not static for all time — think of continental drift.

            Thirdly, organic nature is powerful, it contains a force that drives the sap upwards against gravity, that makes eggs burst open, occasionally overwhelms whole countries. But this force is not directly in evidence, it is hidden, latent. No one disputes it is there (except perhaps some physicists) but it cannot be seen or shown directly. A drawing or painting of a plant is only ‘lifelike’ if it gives this impression of latent force, which is precisely why the careful and beautifully coloured drawings in old botanical books are not convincing : their function is to show the shape and form of plants but not their ‘living’ quality.

            It follows from all this that a landscape painting which has been very much worked on, especially if it is painted in oils, is unlikely to give an impression of vitality. (A portrait is different, for reasons that are not too clear.) A painting or other representation which is executed rapidly in a manner that doesn’t allow retouching, is much more likely to succeed — always supposing the artist has some talent, of course. This is exactly what we find. Even with the best intentions, the artists of the Romantic period do not invariably succeed : Constable, the most highly regarded English painter of landscapes apart from Turner, has always struck me as being too heavy, too ponderous. But if we turn to Constable’s casual sketches, the more casual the better, and especially his water colours, we find the most exquisite paintings which look more like Corot or Monet (though better than the latter) than the Constable we know.

            Constable understood that Nature was not static — “Remember light and shade never stand still” — and his output would have probably been more impressive than it actually was, had he possessed private means like Turner and not been obliged to paint what his customers wanted. He did not go in the direction of subjectivism like so many other Romantics — “Imagination can never produce works that are to stand by a comparison with realities”. The imagination in effect diverts attention inwards away from what is actually there, and what is there is amply sufficient. If we wish to penetrate to, and convey, the ‘nature of Nature’ we should focus exclusively on what is in front of us, though at the same time peering through it as it were.   

            Similarly, Delacroix’ Moroccan Sketchbook contains all sorts of casual water colours which are full of life and charm. I only know this, incidentally, because I happened to pick up for £5 a second-hand book  “Sketchbooks of the Romantics”, one of  the most wonderful art books I have ever come across. The author quotes Diderot, the French Encyclopaedist, writing in the Salon Review in 1765

A sketch is generally more spirited than a picture. It is the artist’s work when he is full of inspiration and ardour, when reflection has toned down nothing; it is the artist’s soul expressing itself freely.”

 

            This, of course, does not mean that anyone at all can do a good sketch : one might, with some exaggeration, reverse the accepted wisdom and say that painting large scale ambitious oil paintings is a good preparation for turning out the brilliant offhand drawing or sketch. This is the point of Whistler’s celebrated riposte to the barrister who asked him how he had the gall to demand such a large sum for a painting which, on his own admission, took him half an hour to execute — “No, for the experience of a lifetime”. 

            Part of the trouble — if trouble it is — lies with the principal medium in Western painting, oil. Since you can go over and over an oil painting ad infinitum, the tendency has always been to overwork paintings, to try to produce a ‘masterpiece’. With water colours, you have to seize the moment and if you want to give an impression of vitality,  this is an advantage. For portraits, group scenes, allegories, religious paintings, portraits, fantasies and so on, essentially everything that is timeless or static, oil is doubtless far superior but if  you are above all interested in capturing the mood of the moment as I am, you are better off with pen and ink, charcoal, water colours, pastels and suchlike media. And if the painting doesn’t work, tear it up and start again, don’t try to improve it.  

            The term ‘impression’ was originally derogatory, implying that the painting was ‘unfinished’, not a proper work of art. Precisely for this reason the best Impressionist works do have vitality and fluency, but they capture only the surface shimmer of nature — all that interested the artists. In Van Gogh we have the opposite, someone who was obsessed by the latent potency in nature, an ‘animist’ painter if ever there was one. The posthumous vast success of van Gogh can really only be attributed to him being so out on his own in his vision and aims, it certainly has no relation to his skill which is hopelessly inadequate compared to his aspirations. He is like a giant with limbs the size of matchsticks. For once there is too much life-force rather than too little, his landscapes seem always to be on the verge of exploding like gigantic firework displays. But this is in fact not at all typical of Nature, is not the ‘nature’ of Nature : the structures and organisms we encounter in the natural world, though very occasionally they do blow up into tycoons and tsunamis, are stable structures, otherwise, for mechanical reasons, they wouldn’t be there at all. Van Gogh’s ‘nature’  is unstable, chronically so, like his temperament.

            The twentieth century has turned away from Nature in painting more decisively than any other century. Abstract art dominates the first half of the century, and if there is one thing Nature is not, it is abstract. Even dead stretches of Nature, rocks, tundra, the desert, are never truly abstract : there is always the feeling that they can suddenly spring into life, as indeed they occasionally do when there are landslides and earthquakes. Alternatively, we have the chaotic paintings of ‘action painters’ like Jackson Pollock : once again, if there is one thing Nature is not, it is disorganized. The final insult to Nature, and for that matter to human beings, is making people  into ‘live paintings’ as is currently being done by a winner of the grotesquely named ‘Turner’ prize.


            All this, of course, parallels the demise of Nature in official biology itself. Instead of the creative, inventive force beloved of nineteenth century artists and scientists alike, we now have an empty abstraction and what little ‘life’ biologists allow to the natural world is wholly distasteful — no artists or poet  is ever going to be inspired by Dawkins’ theory of selfish genes. The principle of functionalism rules even in cases where there is manifestly very little obvious utilitarian advantage involved, if any. I discovered recently, to my surprise, that the novelist Nabokov (the author of Lolita) was at one time Curator of Harvard’s Museum of Zoology and published  several articles in learned journals about butterflies. He denied that the wonderful mimicry of many insects could be solely explained by appealing to the ‘struggle for existence’ since the “mimetic subtlety, exuberance and luxury [is] far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art” (quoted Philip Ball, Shapes, p. 191). But such statements only got Nabokov into trouble with the establishment.

 

            What of the East?  Although there may well be something in this East/West divide theory — there has even been an article in the New Scientist recently which takes seriously the idea that Easterners, or the Chinese at any rate, do seem to have a somewhat different mindset to Westerners — the same sort of problems that I have mentioned did crop up in the history of Chinese painting, despite what Coomaraswamy writes. For much of the first thousand years of Chinese imperial civilization a very mannered style of courtly painting was in vogue, and this was anything but nature orientated — indeed landscape painting was regarded as inferior. But during the Sung and Yüan (Mongol) dynasties, especially the later, many talented painters spurned the Court ambiance and ‘went back to Nature’, exchanging the rationalism of the official Confucian creed for nature-orientated Taoism and mystical forms of Buddhism.

            The Tao cannot be painted since it is the source and end of everything. What can, however, be painted is the Tao manifesting itself  “yuen ch’i”, and it is precisely this that the Chinese landscape painter of a certain epoch attempted to paint, with considerable success. The Tao manifests itself in the object under consideration, mountain, kitten, bamboo stalk, but it also manifests itself in the act of painting. The challenge is to get the two manifestations exactly in harmony — an excruciatingly difficult but seemingly worthwhile task. When this happens, “there appears no trace of human effort, hands spontaneously produce natural form” (Ching Hao, Note on Brushwork  tr. S. Sakanishi). 

            Since the Tao is not a person, there can be no question of the marvels of Nature being some sort of self glorification on the part of the Creator. From the Taoist point of view, the creative act, whether it be found in nature or in art, is inherently gratuitous, purposeless, and requires no justification.

            The above considerations are not modern philosophic justifications of ancient artistic practice : the Chinese landscape painters of this era really did see painting, likewise calligraphy which was not really distinct from painting, as an attempt to capture the elusive mystery of the universe.  “Brushstrokes were not merely a depiction of an object’s external appearance, but were an abstraction of its essential vitality” (Dawson, The Chinese Experience).  

            Even more exciting, though also more treacherous, was the message of Ch’an Buddhism, more commonly known under the Japanese term Zen. For, according to Ch’an Buddhism the nature of the entire universe “was contained in each single fruit or bamboo stem” (Josef Hejzlar, Chinese Watercolours). Whatever the merits of this rather fantastical, holographic take on reality, there can be no doubt that, as Hejzlar says, “What a liberating conception this was for a painter!” 

            One consequence of this Zen attitude to art was the marked ‘unfinished’ state of so many Chinese scrolls — they really are ‘sketches’, but not sketches intended to lead on to something else. This makeshift aspect can be offputting at first but it is really a mark of the Zen artist’s intuitive understanding of Nature’s processes. Nothing in the natural world is finished and complete : there are always subtle interactions between natural objects and the environment and even whole species and solar systems come and go. In the West, largely because of the legacy of Platonism, we tend to see Nature as striving helplessly towards the perfection of timeless ideal forms — or, in the modern era, as striving towards the bloodless perfection of mathematical formulae. If we are to anthropomorphise Nature, a better analogy would be that of an inventor trying out endless arrangements of parts or a talented amateur painter who tosses off drawings on the spur of the moment ‘for the fun of it’ (even if his drawing is still constrained by physical principles relating to his own movements and  that of the pencil).  

            One doubts very much whether the Italian Renaissance painters would really have spent so much time and energy painting  crucifixions and emaciated saints starving in the wilderness if they had not been paid handsomely to do so. Michelangelo was lucky in being given a commission (the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) which allowed his sensual temperament some considerable leeway.  The very idea of a painter who totally rejects nature is a contradiction in terms : Islam was more consistent in banning representations of the natural world altogether as a form of blasphemy. The dominant world-view of all three of the great Middle Eastern religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam offers relatively little purchase for strictly painterly conceptions. The two great periods of Western painting are the Romantic era and the Renaissance — in the latter, despite what I have said about the penury of Nature paintings, we do witness an enthusiastic rediscovery and a very unchristian glorification of the human body and  the pleasures of the flesh provided they have a certain refinement. But it is not surprising that it was above all in sculpture and architecture rather than painting that the Renaissance excelled. 


                                                                                    Sebastian Hayes