Reminiscences: Early Days


Memories. Why do we remember what we do remember? Memories are scenes we can easily recall, as opposed to the countless events we have witnessed and whose traces are most likely still locked away somewhere in the deepest recesses of the brain. Are the experiences that we can most readily bring up to the surface necessarily the most important? Perhaps not, and certainly we now know (because of psycho-analysis) that many particularly painful experiences are forcibly repressed, though not completely eliminated. Nonetheless, it is perverse to believe that what we cannot easily access is more significant than what we can, and anyway what is important to the child may seem of little interest to the adult, and vice-versa.


My very first memory is of being on a ship passing through the Suez Canal. I must have been three, or at most four, at the time. I can see the colours of the dawn and they are not pink and orange but shades of sandy-yellow and brown. I am fascinated by how slowly the immense ship 1 is moving ― if not quite at a snail’s pace, then certainly that of a tortoise. The ‘banks’ are right there at eye-level; for I am looking through a port-hole of the cabin while my mother is still asleep.
Then the veranda of a small one storey ‘house’, hardly more than a shack; the rickety veranda is cool, deliciously cool, because of the dense overhanging trees. I am cycling up and down on a red tricycle while my mother is having a Swahili lesson. The teacher is a dignified elderly African dressed in a cast-off dark European suit complete with a hat and an umbrella, or at any rate a cane. My mother, a pretty and well-dressed young white woman, is making heavy weather of her Swahili lesson, and I shout out the answers to many of the questions as I tricycle to and fro. I am not sure what the local word for ‘Madame’ was, but apparently the teacher, when reporting on progress to my father, said something like “Memsahib not too good, little boy very good.”
The same veranda but on a very different occasion. I am being held down while an African on his knees is digging out with a wooden spatula horrible things called ‘jiggers’ which get in under your toenails. Presumably, this was a very painful procedure but I don’t remember screaming, only the extreme care of the African. I notice with surprise how much paler the skin of the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet is.

This is Africa, the planet of insects. At night we often heard hyenas howling in the darkness and coming quite close to the Mission settlement, but one gets used to this and no one seems to have actually been molested by one, or by any other wild animal. Insects, however, you cannot avoid. My mother wears thigh-length leather boots in the evenings and we all sleep under mosquito nets, take Palidrome pills at every meal but still usually end up getting malaria anyway. Insects are everywhere, some wonderfully beautiful like the moths that beat against the (probably polythene) window panes and smaller ones that circle endlessly around the kerosene lamps until they drop with exhaustion. Millipedes and centipedes crawl all over the floor, but ants are the worst: every table and chair has bowls of water around the legs and ants still manage to get onto the table and into the sugar and bread.
Third memory. An irate peasant woman with a coloured kerchief is haranguing my mother because the Mission donkey has got into her vegetable plot2. My Swahili isn’t up to this and she probably doesn’t speak it anyway;  my father is away, or at school teaching, thus mutual incomprehension. I watch apprehensively held tight in my mother’s arms. Eventually the local chief arrives to try and smooth things over, maybe compensation is paid.                                                                                   To be continued

  1 The ship was The Franconia, a troop-ship taking African soldiers back to their native lands after the end of WWII, and which also had a few civilian passengers including my mother and myself going out to join my father who was already in Kenya on a Methodist Mission station.
2 Agriculture was at the time, and still is in some parts of Africa, entirely carried out by women.




He who examines things in their first growth and origins will obtain the clearest view of them” (Aristotle).

 Origin. Origin of what? In the past people were very much concerned about their own personal or extended-personal, i.e.  tribal, origins. But, because of Nazism, all this has become suspect, at any rate for contemporary Westerners (though approved of and even encouraged in ethnic minorities). With some exceptions (e.g. Mormons) we in the West are today interested exclusively in the origin of (1) humanity, (2) ‘life’ and (3) the universe. §

Origins can be distinguished as (1) deliberate, i.e. the result of a definite decision, or (2) non-deliberate ─ what happened just happened. Contemporary science emphatically considers all three origins (of humanity, life and the universe) to have been non-deliberate. This is not just informed opinion but scientific dogma.
Most scientists today  believe that intelligent life evolved ‘by accident’, because of certain fortuitous circumstances and  mutations that are random by definition. As for the universe, one popular theory has it that it started because of a runaway ripple in the quantum vacuum.
Such a schema marks a decisive break with Western cultural traditions: it fits much better with certain Eastern world-views, e.g. that of Buddhism which sees the physical universe as a cosmic accident, or Taoism which views the emergence of the physical world as an entirely ‘natural’ process. And this at the very moment when the East is frantically trying to catch up and outdo the West at their own game (physics-based technology). §

All theories of cosmic origin inevitably go beyond what can be directly tested, though that does not mean they lack evidence or rational support. But fashions change and typically swerve to the opposite; where once intelligent design (by God) was de rigueur and the idea of ‘spontaneous generation’ was ridiculed, today ‘emergence’ has become respectable and any notion of intent or purpose is heresy. From Paley to Dawkins via Darwin.
One unexpected result is that Chance has become a very big player indeed on the world scene. Whereas science was typically    defined as ‘applied determinism’ (by Claude Bernard), today indeterminism is enshrined at the heart of the most successful physical theory we have, Quantum Mechanics. §

But in certain respects the discussion, though mathematically much more abstruse, has not advanced that much from Aristotle or Aquinas. ‘Why bother with a beginning at all?’ one might ask. Because a causal world where one event gives rise to another seemingly requires it, cries out for it. If causality exists ─ which few in practice doubt ─ there must be an end to the backwards chain of cause and effect. And, moreover, this ‘universal origin’ must itself not require an origin if we are to avoid infinite regress.
In practice, extremely few cosmologies have adopted a schema of ‘more of the same’ going backwards (and forwards) indefinitely. The Stoics preached something along these lines and, reasonably enough, posited eternal recurrence. For the only way to avoid beginnings altogether is to make the ends of a line segment join up to form a circle: the ‘no-beginning’ theory of Hawkins-Hartle is a contemporary version of the same schema.
And, against all odds, orthodox science has returned to belief in an origin ‘in time’ ─ at least for our universe. Positing a multiverse with universes popping into existence all the time (sic) merely pushes the problem further back: either this multi-verse is the Origin or it requires one. §

Essentially the problem is this: there are things that require an origin and things that don’t, and almost everyone is now agreed that our physical universe falls into the first category.
If, then, the present physical world falls into the first category, it seemingly requires the existence of something radically dissimilar to itself. The idea that this ‘original something’ was in any sense a person, with a will and purpose of its own, seems to have outlived its usefulness. But this is not the important point. What is the important point? That the universe, and us within it, require something radically ‘other’ from which it and we derive.
Being so different from what we can observe, anything said about this ‘other thing’ tends to sound weird or absurd. Since the physical world is palpably material (or so we like to think) this ‘other thing’ must be in some sense non-material. The more sophisticated versions of Buddhism posit an original ‘Emptiness’ (Sunyata), while today we have the quantum vacuum, a ‘nothing’ seething with energy and ceaselessly spewing forth ‘virtual particles’. §

There is an order of things of an entirely different kind lying at the foundation of the physical order”, wrote Schopenhauer.
For many clever people this ‘hidden order’ is mathematical. Pure mathematicians have always been secret Platonists but today, 2,600 years or so after Plato, a well-known theoretical physicist, Tegmark, has actually gone so far as to identify physical reality with mathematical reality. This is in some ways an appealing option (at least to mathematicians), but one feels it may simply be a matter of projecting onto the beyond one’s own preoccupations and capacities. A musician would most likely prefer the Vedic doctrine, “In the beginning was the sound”.
Lao Tse lived at a time when the spoken word was the dominant communication system. Today, he would probably phrase the first line of the Tao Te Ching thus:
“The tao that can be mathematized is not the original Tao”. §

All contemporary physical theories of ultimate origin, with very few exceptions, make the ‘laws of physics’ transcendent : they somehow exist prior to, and independently of, the actual universe. Philosophically, this is a very difficult position to defend.
In Newton’s time such a viewpoint made a lot of sense. All the early classical scientists were firm believers in God (not necessarily Christ) and God was, amongst other things, the supreme mathematician. He was also, thanks to the Judeo-Christian tradition, a Lawgiver. Needham has suggested that one reason why China, at one time centuries ahead of the West technologically, did not give birth to the scientific revolution was that it lacked this vital notion of ‘physical law’. Moreover, the idea of an all-powerful God laying down rules that matter must obey was a far better theory than Plato’s idea of perfect (but totally inert) ‘Forms’ that actual objects and beings strive to emulate.
Eventually, God was dispensed with, of course, partly because many of the leading scientists became anti-clerical for political reasons, and partly because successive generations had so refined Newton’s schema that there was no need for any further tinkering on the part of the Almighty (which Newton himself had envisaged in extreme cases). Laplace famously said to Napoleon, “I did not need that hypothesis”, meaning God. But Laplace needed the ‘laws of physics’ more than ever. The latter, bereft of their divine ancestry, became omnipotent in their own right and by and large remain so. §

What we, the public, the ‘ordinary people’, want is some sort of explanation of why things are as they apparently are. And we want an explanation that is not simply ‘correct’ (in the sense that it is not logically flawed or contradicted by the evidence) but one that is believable. But contemporary science, though apparently ‘correct’ (as far as we can judge) is not believable !
The editor of the New Scientist a few years ago made the astonishing admission that he didn’t really believe in Quantum Mechanics because it was so different from the world he (thought he) lived in. Einstein himself, of all people, was sometimes troubled by doubts about the real-life implications of his own theories, remarking notably that “scientific descriptions cannot possibly satisfy our human needs” (quoted Smolin, Time Reborn). The thoughtful student ─ not the same thing as the intelligent student ─ is in fact more likely to be repulsed by, than attracted to, modern physics (as I was myself).
One or two physicists recognize that there is a problem here. But generally, they trot out the sort of reply d’Alembert gave to a student who confessed he had misgivings about the Calculus, namely “Allez à l’avant, la foi vous viendra” (“Keep going, faith will come to you”). Again, if challenged, physicists simply pass the buck, arguing  that it is not the job of science to answer the ‘why’ questions but only the ‘how’ questions. This is both cowardly and dishonest ─ dishonest because they know very well that people without advanced mathematical training feel themselves to be unable to pronounce on the matter. §

Bizarre though it is, Quantum Mechanics is not the least believable theory of modern science: that prize must be given to the ‘block universe’ version of General Relativity. Such a theory, which is currently supported by the majority of physicists, is at once very difficult to dismiss and even more difficult to take seriously.
The argument may, very roughly, be presented thus. All first year mathematics undergraduates and even most ‘A’ level students know that it is fairly easy to show mathematically (given the postulates of SR) that whereas for me events A and B occur in a given order, for another ‘observer’ somewhere in the universe the temporal order of events is reversed. Now, this does not mean that this, usually  distant, observer knows what is going to happen to me before it happens as it were, nor that he or she can in any way give me a warning (since this would break the speed of light barrier). Practically speaking, the alleged time reversal is not of the slightest significance ─ but conceptually it is. My perception of the order of events is true for me but a ‘reverse-order’ sequence of events is just as true for the other ‘observer’. According to GR, every possible observer’s version of events is equally valid and there is, in Einstein’s world-view (as opposed to Newton’s) no ‘absolute’, i.e. universally true order of events.
Considerations such as this have led some contemporary physicists to declare that time is an illusion, and a noted theorist, Julian Barbour, has written a book whose title says it all, The End of Time. For Barbour past, present and future have no universally valid, objective existence or, as I would put it, everything that can have occurrence, already has in a very real sense, occurred. This completely rules out the possibility of ‘free’ individual action! In Barbour’s schema, ‘my’ death (and his) is already what he calls a ‘Now’ time-capsule in Platonia, and there is certainly nothing that either I or Julian Barbour can do about this. (Maybe Julian Barbour can live with this but I certainly can’t.)
The only possible objection I can see to this argument is logical, not mathematical. Supposing for a moment that it is true that all events in ‘my’ future have in some sense already happened, it remains the case that I am not aware of their having happened ― since in my blinkered, deluded state  I become aware of these future events successively, one by one. However, this step by step awareness of what (for me) is yet to happen  is not out there in Platonia, or, if it is, I am not aware of it &c. &c.  Thus we either get something that goes contradicts the hypothesis or infinite regress. I nonetheless don’t feel entirely satisfied by this line of argument.   §

It should be emphasized that Einstein himself was very much aware of this problem and, to some degree, faced up to it. Smolin quotes a significant passage from Carnap’s autobioigraphy:

“Once, Einstein said to me that the problem of the Now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the Now means something essentially different from the past and future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation.” Carnap, Intellectual Autobiography quoted Smolin, Time Reborn
Interestingly, Einstein was not satisfied by Carnap’s glib assertion that physics would one day prove equal to the task (of dealing with the problem of Now). He (Einstein) said, “There is something in the Now that is outside the realm of science”. Quite.
In the end though Einstein’s attitude of resignation got the better of his dissatisfaction since, on the occasion of the death of his lifelong friend, Michele Besso, he wrote to Besso’s widow:
“In quitting this strange world, he 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 only an illusion, however tenacious”. §

We have thus a situation where what science says is, for many of us, literally unbelievable ─ without it being apparently wrong. Has this situation occurred before? Yes, and the outcome is instructive.
Newton’s Principia, got a mixed reception on the continent. The general feeling was that Newton’s mechanical explanations were entirely convincing when he was dealing with contact forces and the dynamics of moving terrestrial bodies. However, very few people were prepared to take on board Newton’s celestial mechanics since they viewed the hypothesis of ‘universal attraction’ as fantastic, indeed the very sort of ‘occult force’ that they were trying to expel from physics. Newton himself admitted in private that he had no mechanical explanation of the workings of gravity and even went so far, in a letter to Bentley, to suppose it had something to do with “God’s presence in the universe”.
Nonetheless, the theory of gravity worked whereas Descartes’ rival vortex theory didn’t and eventually even Newton’s continental opponents adopted it, stifling their rational scruples. It is interesting to note, however, that it was precisely this aspect of Newtonian mechanics that Einstein attacked head on and, as most people today would say, did succeed in eliminating from physics. Although we still talk in Newtonian terms, there is strictly speaking no ‘force of gravity’ in Einstein’s universe, the alleged force being replaced by the ‘warping of Space-Time’, a very different concept. So, the tiny chink in Newton’s plate armour let in the poisoned dart that felled him.
I would certainly hope that the weak point in the theory of Relativity has something to do with time, i.e. that pace General Relativity,  time, i.e. succession, really does exist since, without it, life loses its savour. Maybe, one day, this chink will be decisively exploited by someone ─ Smolin himself has written a book entitled Time Reborn. For the Block Universe version of General  Relativity is not a psychologically acceptable theory, it is not liveable. Do contemporary physicists ever actually console themselves, when a loved one dies, with the thought that “in physics there is no past, present and future”? §

It is notable that ‘Will’ is something science does not recognize or ever take into account ― because it is not an empirically testable attribute or phenomenon. Contrast this with Schopenhauer’s view, that the universe is at bottom nothing but will (and therefore hateful) or Nietzsche’s, that the mainspring of human action is the Will to Power and that, perhaps with one or two minor reservations, we should wholeheartedly embrace such a fact. Both these philosophers emphasize and throw an intense light on the biological origins of human psychology. §

The consensus at present seems to be that both ‘life’ and the universe itself came about ‘by chance’. What is meant is that neither the origin of the universe nor the development of life within it was the result of a deliberate act. There was no entity that said “Let there be light”, there simply ‘was light’ (i.e. radiation).
But the explanation according to ‘chance’ has its own problems. Firstly, ‘chance’ is a treacherous word that needs close examination. We commonly use it in the loose sense as the opposite of ‘intentional’  ─  ‘I met him by chance’ ─ or as the opposite of predictable ─ ‘The chance movements of a leaf blown by the wind’. Scientifically speaking, my meeting with a friend or the leaf’s movements are not in the least random: I met so-and-so because our trajectories happened to coincide, the leaf moved to the right because the wind took it in that direction. The true sense of ‘chance’ is, or should be, ‘without cause’ and, prior to the advent of Quantum Mechanics, no physical events were considered to be causeless ─ if an event did not have a cause, how on earth could it have come about? Only since QM do we find science stating categorically that certain events, the radio-active decay of an atom for example, are ‘chance events’ in  the strong sense, i.e. no previous event brought them into being. This is not the sort of assumption that can possibly be proved or disproved.
Is there any other possibility besides belief in determinism and belief in chance? Perhaps. One can evade the chance/determinism dilemma to some extent by the concept of the ‘potential’, a term that is sparingly used in science (except in a narrow mechanical sense). The universe has given rise to intelligent life, this we know ─ at any rate if we class ourselves as intelligent creatures. Therefore, within the universe, even at its inception when it, the future universe,  was nothing but a ripple on the quantum vacuum, it held this potentiality within itself, was pregnant with the potentiality of life, as it were.
Now such a line of thought stops well short of attributing ‘intent’ or ‘aim’ to the universe (or to what preceded it) but nonetheless goes further in its emphasis than a ‘chance’ theory does. Moreover, and here we are getting a little closer to dangerous territory, the combination of ‘potential’ with ‘randomness’ turns out to be a very effective ‘strategy’, always provided one has plenty of time (which the universe has). If only one possibility out of trillions, leads to a deterministic route and on to the advent of intelligent life, then endless random experimentation will (probably) eventually lead to this one pathway. And, once embarked on this trajectory, the ‘universe’ ceases to be random ─ the cosmic fruit-machine always pays out if you stand in the casino long enough. So, given a broad and deep enough ‘potential’, ‘chance’ can lead to its own negation, i.e. to determinism. But the reverse is not true: it is hard to see how causality could ever ‘naturally’ lead to randomness. A deterministic chain of events must seemingly either lead to more determinism or, just conceivably, to the total collapse of the system. §

Curiously, there exists a persistent religious tradition concerning a catastrophic ‘falling away’ from an original state of completeness, purity, unity. (That this is not a uniquely Christian concept is shown by Eliade who shows that many native Amerindian cultures had a similar tradition.) There was, then, abstractly speaking, a prior state which was unitary, continuous, immeasurable and which somehow broke down or, rather, ‘broke apart’, ‘exploded’,  leaving the fragmented world we know and live in. This ‘fallen world’ is alma de-peruda, the ‘world of separation’ as the Zohar puts it. If the mystics are to be believed, we nonetheless retain a confused memory of this prior blessed state, it is embedded within us not just as a ‘human memory’, a ‘species memory’ but even perhaps as a ‘world-memory’. §

In QM we have the “collapse of the wave function” and in cosmology the Big Bang, a collapse of pre-existence into existence. These are catastrophic events, not peaceful ones. The wave function describes a state/object which, unlike the massy particles of Newtonian physics, is ‘all over the place’, radically ‘delocalized’. Once again we have the double schema of a continuous, undifferentiated state which somehow gives rise to a specific, isolated, physical state. In some versions, this ‘collapse’ is attributed to human intervention (i.e. meddling) ─ this is the modern physics equivalent of Adam’s responsibility for the Fall. Interestingly, we talk about the ‘measurement’ problem of QM rather than the ‘intervention problem’, as if measuring, quantifying, something on which all science is based (and which art generally disdains) was the cause of the collapse, i.e. the cause of the fall into materiality, the ‘original sin’. §

What hopefully will eventually emerge from the confused and confusing welter of cosmological and mathematical speculation is the paradigm of a ‘universe’ pre-existing in a more compact and  rarefied form which then ‘unfolds’ to give rise to the familiar physical/intellectual one. This is what Bohm is getting at with his theory of the Explicate and Implicit Order though the terms are not very enlightening. §

Although Hoyle never developed his theory into a proper philosophy, the very title of one of his books, The Intelligent Universe, is a give away. According to this view, the Universe contains intelligence which is currently manifested in carbon-based life here on Earth but will perhaps in the future manifest itself otherwise.
“This point of view suggests that in the future the Universe may evolve so that carbon-based life becomes impossible, which in turn suggests that throughout the Universe intelligence is struggling to survive against changing physical laws, and that the history of life on Earth has been only a minor skirmish in this contest.”
The Intelligent Universe p. 222

Hoyle has very  little evidence for this appealing theory though probably rather more than most String theorists for their cosmic theory of everything. Hoyle’s strongest argument is that bacterial life on Earth developed almost as soon as climatic conditions made it possible ― something that has been a serious problem for biology. Hoyle’s explanation is that the building blocks of life (though not life itself) arrived pre-formed: they were seeds sent out by an advanced life-form elsewhere in the galaxy and which fell fortuitously on fertile ground. The point is that life is an extremely unlikely development but, in Hoyle’s scheme, it only needs to take place once in a galaxy ─ since he has given us the details of a supposed galactic dispersal system of the ‘seeds of life’ via comets and meteorites. And, as it happens, Hoyle has been shown to be right at least to the extent that comets do contain chemically complex substances such as formaldehyde ─ but not as far as we know proteins.
Interestingly, during the declining years of the Roman Empire, the Gnostics in North Africa advanced the strange theory that human beings came from ‘somewhere else’ that was very far away and that they retained a vague memory of their distant origin. Humans were thus ‘strangers in a strange world’ and what the Gnostics (‘knowers’) knew was simply this, that the Earth was not their home. Many of them drew the conclusion that they owed no allegiance to earthly authorities, secular or religious, but only to the ‘good God’ of their ancient, infinitely distant  homeland. Initiation into the cult prepared them for the long and dangerous journey back to their place of origin. The strange thing is that, if there is any truth in Hoyle’s theory, the Gnostics were not entirely mistaken! (Hoyle, as far as I am aware, knew nothing about the Gnostics’ cosmological theories.)
What the theory of man’s distant origin would explain is humankind’s deep sense of alienation ― something that material progress seems powerless to eradicate. This sense of being cut off from one’s origins is notably expressed in a Gnostic-type  hymn sung by a future religious sect known as ‘The Remembrancers’ :

    Hymn of Remembrance

“We have forgotten who we are
We have forgotten our distant origins,
We have forgotten the tranquil plains of light,
We have forgotten Zoarr¹ ,
We have forgotten our deepest natures,
Lost as we are within the Web of Sarwhirlia2.
But the hidden self that breathes within us,
Buried beneath the debris of the world,
Caged by these ribs of bone,
Smothered by these cells of flesh,
Deafened by the screams of sense,
Diminished by our thoughts and words,
Submerged, defeated, trampled on,
The everlasting seed of light
Remembers all.

Together we shall leave this ancient prison,
We shall break free from our captivity,
We shall set out across the empty skies,
Fearless, we shall traverse the great Abyss,
A thousand perils we shall undergo,
Our only guide the distant gleams of Zoarr,
And we shall reach the tranquil plains of light,
We shall return to our lost home,
Never to depart again.”

1 Zoarr is the name given to the infinitely distant ‘good God’ of the Remembrancers.
2 Sarwhirlia is the Remembrancers’ name for the Earth. see





Persephone (Roman Proserpine) is the Greek goddess associated with the seasonal death and rebirth of Nature. Daughter of Demeter (Roman Ceres) she was abducted by Hades (Roman Dis), the god of the Underworld, while gathering flowers as immortalised in Milton’s beautiful lines                                         .nor that fair field
                                   Of Enna, where Proserpine gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered…”                                                                                                                                                             (Paradise Lost, Book IV, v.207-272)    
Demeter wandered about distraught looking for her vanished daughter with the result that the  flowers faded, the plants  stopped growing and humanity was in danger of  extinction from famine. Eventually, Persephone was traced to the Underworld and a modus vivendi  was reached : Persephone  was to stay for four months of the year in the Underworld and return to Earth for Spring and Summer — the Greeks do not seem to have bothered with autumn. In some versions of the legend, Persephone is tricked into remaining at least part of the year in the Underworld, because she accepts some pomegranate seeds at the hands of Hades and is thus doomed by the decree that everyone who partakes of food in the Underworld must stay there. The pomegranate thus gained its reputation of being a “dangerous fruit”  and as such is celebrated in the song (music by John Baird, CD Aquarius) which appears in my play The Pomegranate Seeds (Samuel French,  2000)

“You the fruit of Dis have taken
You have eaten of the dangerous tree,
Of the pomegranate taken, taken, Y
our mother calls, your mother weeps Persephone.

Not for you the blaze of summertime,
Sunlit meadows you will never see’
Nevermore the blaze of summertime, summertime,
All that is gone, all that is gone, Persephone.

Now you have crossed to the land of despair,
To this shadowy realm,
Never to return.

You the fruit of Dis have taken,
In these regions you must always stay,

In the twilight of the Underworld, Underworld,
Those that you love, those that you love are far away.”  

Persephone, or Proserpine, has been a frequent subject in Western poetry and paintings, though, somewhat surprisingly, as far as I know no opera has ever been written about her — I could easily imagine Mozart or Glück writing one.

The figure of Persephone was so central to the poetess Anna de Noailles (see website that Catherine Perry entitled her recent interpretation of this remarkable Belle Époque French poet, Persephone Unbound. The figure of Persephone doubtless resonated with Anna de Noailles because of its ambivalence : on the one hand Persephone’s association with flowers, youth and a carefree existence and, on the other, with violence, sorrow, separation, darkness and death. Persephone belonged to two worlds, to the light and to the dark and may thus be seen to symbolize the “willingness… to encounter the fateful aspects of existence” (Catherine Perry) : this aspect of the myth would have appealed far more to Anna de Noailles, as a follower of Nietzsche, than the more traditional fertility goddess persona.    Like Orpheus, Persephone has a shamanic role as ‘crosser of boundaries’ , since, like all humans she crosses the fateful river of Lethe but, unlike ordinary mortals, she is eventually granted the power to return to Earth at will.  There is, interestingly, a late version of the Greek myth in which Persephone, having belatedly fallen in love with her kidnapper, Dis (a strange anticipation of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome) declines to return to Earth and only accepts to do so most reluctantly by order of Zeus.

The positive side of the myth of Persephone as personifying the rebirth of Nature and return of Spring has largely been obscured in Romantic and post-Romantic literature  by her role as Queen of the Underworld.  As such she is a formidable figure since, along with her husband Dis, she is Judge of  Souls, deciding impartially whether they deserve reward or punishment. Rimbaud alludes to her in Une Saison en Enfer “Elle ne finira donc point cette goule reine de millions d’ames et de corps morts et qui seront juges! » which, given the mention of “le port de la misere, la cite enorme” two lines earlier suggests that the poet identifies Persephone with Queen Victoria presiding over the hideous ‘City of Night’ that is nineteenth-century London in Rimbaud’s eyes !

George Gomori sees her as the inevitable figure of destiny that awaits us at the end of the line                         “There are no saving miracles — Nor can remorse win you grace.
                                 There’s no one to deflect the track
Of the knives whistling straight for you.
                                 Persephone, standing at your back,
Proffers her hand. Hold yours out too.”

However, for Swinburne, a vastly underrated poet incidentally, she represents not so much Justice or Destiny as the (welcome) negation of everything vital :

“She waits for each and other,    She waits for all men born; Forgets the earth her mother, The life of fruits and corn; And spring and seed and swallow Take wing for her and follow where summer song rings hollow    And flowers are put to scorn.”

Swinburne makes it quite clear what he is promoting : a Buddhistic total negation of the entire life-process in favour of the permanent quiescence of Nirvana.

“From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

The star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light:
Not sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight;
Not wintry leaves nor vernal,
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal    In an eternal night.”

Vyvian Grey takes a more nuanced position in her charming Proserpine since although she presents the Underworld in a surprisingly light and asks her mother not to ‘weep for me’, she  does not entirely exclude the idea of eventual return.


Here there are no days,
Only a night —
A sort of shimmering half-light
That no sun ever dazzles through;
And the sky — not blue,
No, never blue,
As in the world that once I knew,
But something like a skein of softest grey;
A blossom of white.  

Still are the rivers, are the lakes
Of this quiet land,
Whose silver waters offer up no sound,
Where I have never seen
The summer-coloured sails of mighty ships,
Or their distant gleam;
Only shrouded barges
Gliding soundlessly along through silent mists,
Each like a dream
And by lone oarsmen manned.

 Yet flowers grow here,
For I have plucked such quantities
Of sleepy-headed poppies,
Swarthy hellebores
While this weird countryside I roam.
True, they are not the primroses,
The violets of home,
They are not the roses:
Even so, they have their beauty,
A loveliness all of their own.

 And do not think that music never plays
Where I have come,
For music plays always its hum
Is heard, not in raucous revelries,
But between the cypress trees
Where souls of those departed sit and chant
Their melodies
In voices like a sigh,
So tenderly that I must dwell to hear them
Whenever I pass by.

 O mother, do not weep for me,
Though in this world I must abide:
Within the year I shall be yours again
And earth will gladden at the sight;
Until then, grieve not for me,
For here I shall remain
With my dark husband by my side,
Although the night is long;
Mother, it is a pleasant night.

Roger Hunt Carroll for his part , in the Envoi of his Hymns for Persephone considers that mankind has ‘lost’ not Persephone herself, but the ‘vision’ of Persephone

You are not lost, no, not you;
never could you be robbed from the orchard of earth,
not from flowers in the fields, the high grasses,
no, nor from soft shrubs that sway along the riverside.

It is we who have misplaced you,
dear and most-loved daughter of the world.
We loosened the cords of your summer gown,
and in our vision you fell in the evening light,
your hair shaded by leaves, your face behind a mask, hidden from our careless sight.

Sebastian Hayes


Benjamin Lee Whorf, seems to have been the first person to point out how much English, and other European languages, are ‘thing-languages’, ‘object-languages’. By far the most important part of speech is the noun and though it is now accepted that not all sentences are of the subject-predicate form, once regarded as universal, quite a lot are. We have a person or thing, the grammatical subject, and the rest of the sentence tells us something about this thing, for example localizes it (‘The cat was sitting on the mat’), or enumerates some property possessed by the ‘thing’ in question (‘The cover of the book is red’). And if we have an active verb, we normally have an agent doing the acting, a person or thing.
There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with such a linguistic structure, of course, but we are so used to it we tend to assume it’s perfectly  reasonable and irreplaceable by any other basic structure. However, as Whorf points out, it is not just applied to sentences of the type ‘A is such-and-such’, where it is appropriate, but also to sentences where it makes little sense. “We are constantly reading into nature fictional acting entities, simply because our verbs must have substantives. We have to say “It flashed” or “A light flashed”, setting up an actor to perform what we call an action, “to flash”. Yet the flashing and the light are one and the same!” (from Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality p. 242, M.I.T. edition).
The quantum physicist and philosopher, David Bohm,  seemingly unaware of Whorf’s prior work, makes exactly the same point.  “Consider the sentence ‘It is raining.’ Where is the ‘It’ that would, according to the sentence, be ‘the rainer that is doing the raining’? Clearly, it is more accurate to say: ‘Rain is going on’ (from Bohm, Wholeness and the Inplicate Order p. 29 ).

Whorf and Bohm clearly have a point here and the general hostility of the academic world to Whorf’s ‘Theory of Linguistic Relativity’ is doubtless in part due to their irritation at an outsider ─ Whorf trained as a chemical engineer ─ pointing out the obvious. Moreover, one would expect the syntax and vocabulary of languages to tell you something about the general conceptions, day to day concerns and modes of thought of the people whose language it is. After all, people talk about what interests them, and languages typically evolve to make communication about common interests more efficient (Note 1).
Even if this is granted for the sake of argument, one might still object that the subject-predicate structure and the role of nouns in English simply reflects ‘how things are’ ─ and there is only ‘one way for things to be’. Since ‘reality’ consists essentially of ‘things’, and relations between these things, isn’t it inevitable that nouns should have pride of place? Well, maybe, but maybe not. And Whorf, one of the very first ‘Westerners’ to actually speak various languages of American Indians, was in a good position to question what practically everyone else had so far taken for granted. Amerindian native languages certainly are very different from any European or even Indo-European language. For a start, “Nearly all American Indian languages are either distinctly ‘polysynthetic’ or have a tendency to be so. At the risk of oversimplification, polysynthetic languages can be thought of as consisting of words that in European languages would occupy whole sentences” (from Lord, Comparative Linguistics). Out and out literal  translations from other European languages into English may sound clunky but are perfectly comprehensible, but literal translations from Shawnee or Nitinat sound, not just awkward, but half crazy. Whorf writes, “We might ape such a compound sentence in English thus: ‘There is one who is a man who is yonder who does running which traverses-it which is a street which elongates’ …... the proper translation [being] ‘A man yonder is running down the long street’.” Whorf adds, “Of such a polysynthetic tongue it is sometimes said that all the words are verbs, or again that all the words are nouns with verb-forming elements added. Actually the terms verb and noun in such a language [as Nitinat] are meaningless.”
Secondly, approaching things from the physical/conceptual side, there can be no doubt that native American tribal societies, untouched as they were by Christianity or Newtonian physics, really did have very different conceptions about the world from those of the incoming European settlers, which is one reason why this meeting of the cultures was so catastrophic. Sapir (Whorf’s first teacher) and Whorf believed that this double dissimilarity was not an accident and that the structure of native American languages indeed reflected a very different ‘view of the world’.
So what, in a nutshell, were these linguistic and ‘metaphysical’ differences? According to Whorf, most Amerindian languages are ‘verb-based’ rather than ‘noun-based’ ─ “Most metaphysical words in Hopi are verbs, not nouns as in European languages”. Worse still, “When we come to Nootka, the sentence without subject or predicate is the only type….Nootka has no parts of speech”. Why were they ‘verb-based’, or at any rate not ‘noun-based’? Because, Whorf argues, the Amerindian world-view was not ‘thing-based’ or ‘object-based’ but ‘event-based’. “The SAE (Standard Average European) microcosm has analysed reality largely in terms of what it calls ‘things’ (bodies and quasibodies) plus modes of extensional but formless existence that it calls ’substances’ or ‘matter’. The Hopi microcosm seems to have analysed reality largely in terms of EVENTS” (Whorf, op. cit. p. 147).
        Again, there seems little to quarrel with in Whorf’s  claim that the SAE world-view, which we can trace right back to Greek atomism for its physics, really was ‘thing-based’ ─ “Nothing exists except atoms and void” as Democritus put it. The subsequent, more sophisticated Newtonian world-view nonetheless reduces to a world consisting of ‘hard, massy’, indestructible atoms colliding with each other and influencing each other from afar through universal attraction. Whether, the world of native American Indians really was ‘event-based’ in the way Whorf imagined it to be, few of us today are qualified to say ─ since hardly anyone speaks Hopi any more and even the most remote Amerindian tribes have long since ceased to be independent cultural entities. In any case, the complex metaphysics/physics of the Hopi as interpreted by Whorf is in itself interesting and original enough to be well worth investigating further.
To return to language. Assuming for the moment there is some truth in the Sapir-Whorf theory that language structure reflects underlying physical and metaphysical preconceptions,  what sort of structures would one expect an ‘event-language’ to have?  Bohm asked himself this but sensibly concluded  that “to invent a whole new language  implying a radically different structure of thought is….not practicable”. I asked myself a similar question when,  in my unfinished SF novel The Web of Aoullnnia,  I tried to rough out the principles underlying ‘Lenwhil Katylin’, a future language invented by the Sarlang, the first of the  Parthenogenic types that dominate Sarwhirlia (the future Earth).
For his part, Bohm proposes to introduce, “provisionally and experimentally”, a new mode into English that he calls the rheomode (‘rheo’ comes from the Greek ‘to flow’). This mode is meant to signal and reflect the “movement of growth, development and evolution of living things” in accordance with Bohm’s ‘holistic’ philosophy. Whorf, for his part, finds most of what Bohm is looking for already present in the Hopi language which typically emphasizes ‘process’ and continuity rather than focusing on specific objects and/or moments of time. Although both these thinkers were looking for  a ‘verb-based’ language, they were also firm believers in continuity and the ‘field’ concept in physics (as opposed to the particle concept). My preferences, or prejudices if you like, take me in the opposite direction, towards a physics and a language that reflect and represent  a ‘universe’ made up of staccato events that never last long enough to become ‘things’ and never overlap enough with their successor events to become bona fide processes.
Thus, in Lenwhil Katylin, a language deliberately concocted to reflect the Sarlang world-view, the verb (for want of a better term) is the pivot of every communication and refers to an event of some kind. In many cases there is no need for  a grammatical subject at all ─ events simply happen, or rather ‘become occurrent’, like the ‘lightning flash’ mentioned by Whorf ─ in the Sarlang world-view, all events are, at bottom,  ‘lightning flashes’. The rest of a typical LK sentence provides the ‘environment’ or ‘localization’ of the central event, e.g. for a ‘lightning-flash’ the equivalent of our ‘sky’, and also gives the causal origin of the event (if one exists). We have thus a basic structure Event/Localization/Origin ─ although in many cases the ‘localization’ and ‘origin’ might well be what for us is one and the same entity.
As to the central events themselves, the Katylin language applies an  inflection to show whether the event is ‘occurrent’ or, alternatively, ‘non-occurrent’. One might compare the inflection with Bohm’s ‘is going on’ in his formulation “Rain is going on” ― in LK we just get Irhil~ where ~ signifies “is occurrent”. Being ‘occurrent’ means that an event occupies a definite location on the Event Locality and has demonstrable physical consequences, i.e. brings into existence at least one other event. Such an event is what we would perhaps call an ‘objective’ event such as a blow with a hammer, as opposed to a subjective one like a wish to be somewhere else (which does not get you there). But the category ‘non-occurrent’ is much larger than our ‘subjective’ since it covers all ‘general’ entities, indeed everything that is not specific and precisely localized in space and time (as we would put it). On the other hand, the Sarlang consider a mental event that is infused with deep emotion, such as a flash of hatred or empathy, to be ‘occurrent’ even if it is completely private since, they would argue, such events can have observable physical consequences. This is somewhat similar to the Buddhist distinction between ‘karmic’ and ‘non-karmic’ events: the first have consequences (‘karma’ means ‘action’ or ‘activity’) while the second do not.
After the ‘occurrent/non-occurrent’ dichotomy, the most important category in Lenwhil Katylin is discontinuity/continuity. Although the Sarlang believe that, in the last analysis, all events are a succession of point-like ‘ultimate events’ (the dharma(s) of Hinayana Buddhism), they nonetheless distinguish between ‘strike-events’ such as a blow and ‘extend-events’ such as a ‘walk’, a ‘run’ and so on. Suffixes or inflections make it clear, for example, whether the equivalent of the verb ‘to look’ means a single glance or an extended survey. And the suffix –y or –yia turns a ‘strike-event’ into an ‘extend-event’  when both cases are possible. Moreover, ‘spread-out’ verbs themselves fall into two classes, those that are repetitions of a selfsame ‘strike-event’ and those that contain dissimilar ‘strike-events’. The monotonous beating of a drum is, for example, a ‘strike spread-event’ while even a single note played on a violin is classed as a ‘spread strike-event’ because of the overtones that are immediately brought into play.
A further linguistic category distinguishes between events which are caused by events of the same type and events brought about by events of an altogether different type. In particular, a physical event brought about by a physical event is sharply distinguished from a physical event brought about by a mental or emotional event: the latter case exhibits ‘cause-effect-dissimilarity’ and is usually, though not invariably, signalled by the suffix -ez. This linguistic distinction has its origin in the division of perceived reality into what is termed ‘the Manifest Occurrent’, very roughly the equivalent of our objective physical universe, and the Manifest Non-Occurrent which consists of wishes, dreams, desires, myths, legends, archetypes, indeed the whole gamut of mental and internal emotional occurrences. Nonetheless, these two domains are not absolutely independent and the Sarlang themselves claimed to have developed a technique (known as witr-conseil) that transferred whole complexes of events from the Manifest Non-Occurrent into the Manifest Occurrent and, more rarely, in the opposite direction. Whatever the truth of this claim, the technique, supposing it ever existed, was lost for ever when the Sarlang, reaching the end of their term, committed mass extinction.                                               SH 13/1/18


Note 1 The standard argument against the ‘Linguistic Relativity Theory’ is that, if it were correct, translation would be impossible which is not the case. This argument carries some weight but we must remember that almost all books successfully translated into English come from societies which share the same general religious and philosophic background and whose languages employ similar grammatical structures. Few books have been translated from so-called ‘primitive’ societies because such societies had a predominantly oral culture, while Biblical translators ‘going the other way’ have typically found it extremely difficult to get their message across when communicating with  animists.
There may be something in Whorf’s claim that the Hopi world-view was closer to the modern ‘energy field’ paradigm than to the ‘force and particle’ paradigm of classical physics. ‘Energy’ (a term never used by Newton) is essentially a ‘potential’ entity since it refers to what an object ‘possesses  within itself’, not what it is actually doing at any particular moment. Generally speaking, primitive societies were quite happy with ‘potential’ concepts, with the idea of a ‘latent force locked up within an object but which was not accessible to the five senses directly. It is in fact possible to formulate mechanics strictly in energy terms (via the Hamiltonian) rather than on the basis of Newton’s laws of motion, but no one ever learned mechanics this way, and doubtless never will, because it requires such complicated  mathematics. It is hard to imagine a society committed from the start to an ‘energy’ viewpoint on the world ever being able to develop an adequate symbolic system to flesh out such an intuition.  SH

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  or, if this expires, directly from the author.

SH 29/09/2016


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).

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

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
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