Kant: Consciousness and Physics

Here follows a note on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Thereafter a reflection on the state of contemporary physics. I am under-qualified on both counts, but feel sufficiently strongly to have a go at conceptual clarification anyway.

Kant had a searching question. Given that such and such a state holds, what conditions must be satisfied in order for this to be the case? Directing this question to the external world (Newton, Galileo), he conducted an examination of the human faculties which enable knowledge. After an arduous journey the result was his description of the Transcendental Unity of Apperception. Roughly speaking this is the ‘I think’ which accompanies all contents of consciousness, and serves to identify each person’s thoughts as belonging to that person’s consciousness. Their synthetic unity need not be regarded as perfect, although, as pre-eminently in the case of Kant, it can be laboured over. The ‘I think’ cannot be analysed further, and in this sense is transcendental, or what we would call today ‘a limit concept’. A minimum requirement of having experiences at all is a combining of intuition and concepts (roughly speaking sensibility and thoughts). Intuition is achieved through the senses and fortified by the imagination, both recollective and productive. Concepts are derived from the imaginative reflection on the forms and contents of experience. Objects are given us through sensibility, then thought by the understanding. Sensibility is receptive but nevertheless has a priori elements, namely time and space, without which experience would not be possible at all. (Einstein’s discoveries, confirmed empirically, leave Kant’s theory of the a priori nature of time and space enormously compromised if not refuted.) The deduction of the categories of understanding was achieved by the faculty of judgement, which brought into agreement the representation of things and the a priori concepts of the understanding. Kant’s famous summing up is: ‘Thoughts without content are empty, intuition without concepts are blind.’

A word more about apperception. Empirical apperception is consciousness of self according to determination afforded by our inner state of perception. The sense of self is fairly dim. (Arguably Heidegger exploited this point in his notion of being-in-the-world). The transcendental unity has the faculty of making one’s own representations the objects of one’s thoughts. That is to say that we have the power to reflect and exercise self-criticism.

This, for me, is one of the greatest feats of intellectual enquiry I have ever encountered. It explains with great power why there must be an a priori element in human knowledge. It is, if you like, a reasoned and articulated account of human finitude. The synthesising ability of the ‘I’, the transcendental subject forms the vehicle of every experience.

Here are four words from the vocabulary of modern physics. Relativity, observer, measurement, uncertainty. All these words in ordinary usage have a psychological colouring. This shrinks in their technical usage in physics. For thoroughgoing materialists there is no problem, a bottom-up description of reality will capture everything that can be captured. Consciousness will be neuronal behaviour. However as C.S. Peirce knew, measurement is a triadic relationship. Something is compared with something else and what does the comparing is mental or intentional. Measurement has meaning. In the words of the song ‘ There may be trouble ahead.’ Consciousness has been downgraded in modern physics, but there are signs of the ‘return of the repressed’.

Doors of Perception

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote ‘If the doors of perception could be cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all that is through the narrow chinks of his cavern.’
I have mentioned on this blog that I had a psychotic breakdown in my twenties. It was precipitated by working in a therapeutic community, and resulted in my staying in an inpatient psychiatric unit for four months. Though I was deluded and had a highly unstable mood during the early part of my time in hospital, psychodelic drugs were not implicated in my breakdown, although ironically anti-psychotic drugs in large doses were, I think, helpful in bringing me back. Nevertheless, looking back, I cannot wholly characterise the experiences I had as a manifestation of illness. There remains a stubborn sense of enlarged perception. There are two intense experiences I would like to describe here.
The first was a panic attack which culminated in my seeing a bright light within my head. The light was white and either circular or oval and expanded. It was accompanied by a sense of release from agony. There came a point, after a few seconds, when I said to myself, ‘ My god, it’s going to fill the room.’ At that moment the light vanished and the feeling of calm departed. Momentarily I thought someone was in my room trying to kill me with an axe, although I managed to tell myself that this was not the case. After a period of disturbance for about 48 hours I was admitted, with my consent, to a psychiatric unit in London.
The second experience was of a sense of time passing more slowly. This came and went over a number of days and was highly unpleasant. Subjectively my thoughts were of imminent catastrophes, involving everyone and everything from the intimate to the global. Every time I banished a thought it was replaced by another equally horrible. I thought later that it was the reverse of free association, compulsive dissociation. This profoundly altered my sense of the inter-relatedness of things and people, and led to delusional thinking, passivity feelings, paranoia, and physical prostration. I remember finding personal messages in newspapers, and becoming fascinated by a photograph which didn’t make spatial sense and somehow implied that dematerialisation was a possibility. I never experienced complete despair, but I could see that further down that path one might come to feel overwhelmed and wish for annihilation. ( Hopkins phrase ‘worst there is none’ haunted me). I became hypersensitive, but even now cannot dismiss the impression I was seeing some things as they truly were. I will give one example. A young nurse was sitting in the day room about four chairs away from me along the same wall. She picked up the Evening Standard which happened to have an horrific headline about several children dying in a house fire. She scanned it and a look of horror appeared on her face. It lasted a moment. She then opened the paper and read something inside. After not more than a minute she closed the paper briskly, folded it neatly and got up. She straightened her uniform and left the day room. Looking back, I feel that I witnessed an act of repression as it took place, and feel I would not have perceived it had my sense of time not been slowed by my psychosis. Certainly I have never seen anything comparable since.
Let me return to the experience of seeing the bright light. While I was still in hospital I found two references to such an experience, which is I think is different from near death experiences. The first description is in a rather poor poem by Walter de la Mare called Dreams. One stanza reads:-
And once from agony set free //I scanned within the womb of night//A hollow inwoven orb of light,//Thrilling with beauty no tongue could tell//And knew it for life’s citadel//.
Another description, by Jung, was, to me, more powerful. In his essay Psychological Approaches to the Dogma of the Trinity, he wrote ‘Despite the fact that he is potentially redeemed, the Christian is given over to moral suffering, and in his suffering he needs the comforter, the Paraclete. . . He has to rely on divine comfort and mediation, that is to say on the spontaneous revelation of the spirit, which does not obey man’s will but comes and goes as it wills. This spirit is an autonomous psychic happening, a hush that follows the storm, a reconciling light in the darkness of man’s mind, secretly bringing order into the chaos of his soul.’
While both these descriptions undoubtedly refer to an experience I myself had, there was nothing in my experience which was unmistakably Christian, nor did the agony from which I was released abate for very long. The reason for me describing the experiences from so long ago is because they are not very common, highly destabilising and mark one for ever. I do not repudiate them, but I have never wanted to revisit them. And the most important point I want to make is that consciousness is not only about the brain, but about the attunement of the brain to the external world, and the immense amount of information that exists there unperceived. Using drugs or extreme duress to heighten awareness is dangerous and unpredictable. That there is real substance to the various mystical traditions around the world seems to me indubitable. T.S. Eliot may be right that the two greatest poetical expressions of this are in Dante’s Commedia and the Bhagavad Gita.

Art – ‘Make it new!’

Through considering prosody, the art of metrical composition in words, we encounter perhaps the most general issue concerning artistic creation, the necessary constraints imposed by rules, either adopted or invented, and the temptation occasionally to break them, or more decisively break with them. The challenge to find a way between the rigidity that lawfulness imposes, and the chaos into which freedom is liable to descend if lawlessness predominates. My favourite expression of this dilemma is from a traditional standpoint and comes in Goethe’s Sonnet, Nature and Art, superbly translated here by Michael Hamburger. Art stands for daily effort and nature for freedom. The dialectic is resolved in the concluding sestet.

So too all growth and ripening of the mind: 
To the pure heights of ultimate consummation 
In vain the unbound spirit seeks to flee.
Who seeks great gain leaves easy gain behind.
None proves a master but by limitation
And only law can give us liberty.

Auden, who in later life described himself as a minor trans-Atlantic Goethe, expressed the same thought in prose. ‘ I am thankful that my first master (Hardy) did not write in free verse for I might have been tempted to believe that free verse is easier to write than stricter forms, where as I now know it is far more difficult’. Breaking rules is likely to be self indulgent and a failure. When is it justified? In the gifted young who wish, in the slogan of an impatient Ezra Pound to ‘Make it new.’ The rules of artistic creation are not as binding as the laws of society, but some artistic experimentation produces almost as much outrage as law breaking. And over time in any vital society, laws will change as well as the assumptions of art, usually in connected ways. One of the most radical novels of the twentieth century is Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. The joke is that the State is preparing a vast and pretentious celebration of the reign of Franz Josef, and his indestructible Empire on the eve of the outbreak of the Great War which will sweep it away. Fate played a cruel joke on Musil, the novel was unfinished when he died in 1942 and he was far from reaching the events of 1914 despite the enormous length of his manuscript. One cannot help feeling the novel had become 95% of his reason for living. Perhaps the most successful of the great radical prose masterpieces of the early twentieth century is Joyce’s Ulysses, which superbly illustrates Pound’s imperative that poetry should be at least as good as prose. In this novel the prose is thrillingly superior to much of the poetry being written at that time. Sadly Pound’s Cantos, despite flashes of brilliance, are a sprawling chaos, and the poetry rarely attains the musicality of Joyce’s prose. What I most remember when I first read Ulysses in my twenties was speed, fleetness was the word I told myself, as the narrative careered around Dublin, capturing the exhilaration of being young and alive. Molly Bloom’s monologue is better than the already excellent dramatic monologues of Browning. It led me to feel there was a futility in trying to draw a definite line between prose and poetry, as futile as discussing whether viruses are animate or inanimate. Now free verse is everywhere as are prose poems. Masterpieces are as a rare now as ever, but the poetry scene is vibrant in the UK and indeed here in Bristol where I live.

I would like to draw a parallel with modern jazz. After the death of Charlie Parker, bebop coarsened somewhat into hard bop, more rhythmically insistent and less lyrical. Then in the early sixties there was another flowering, of which one element was the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. I found his music immensely exciting, if uneven. There was a freshness and a lyric gift. Looking back, I don’t think it quite delivered what it promised, wonderful though it was for a few years. And I think the problem was to do with a lack of tension, passages of great beauty but somehow unresolved. As Paul Desmond said when he interviewed Charlie Parker, ‘ You always tell a story.’ It seems I need stories, meanings even in the most abstract of arts, music. ‘Only law can give us liberty.’

One, Two, Three

If we agree with King Lear that nothing can come of nothing, is it true that everything comes from the one? Now, one can be the undifferentiated ground of everything, or it can be regarded as the the smallest whole number, although whether as an atemporal cardinal or as the ordinal, first, feels like it is a problem about choosing a convention from which to develop a line of thought. There are three separate questions here, which are the temporal, logical and psychological origins of one. Because philosophically I favour pragmatism and phenomenology over logical and temporal (or genetic) considerations, let me say something from a psychological point of view.
In trying to get a handle on what we know, the most powerful thinkers have tried to identify the most general features of our world. This requires considerable intellectual effort, because invariably they are part of the background while the vibrant instances of our world do not proclaim their formal properties, unless they have a revelatory impact.
Aristotle produced a list of ten categories, the forms according to which the objects of experience are structured and ordered, eg substance, quality, quantity, place, time. They were criticised as arbitrary and repetitive, but Kant renewed interest in them in his Critique of Pure Reason. Kant regarded their elucidation as one of the most difficult labours of his life, and they were arranged in four groups of three, Quantity (unity, plurality, totality), Quality ( reality, negation, limitation), Relation (substance and accident, cause and effect, reciprocity) and Modality (possibility/impossibility, existence/ non-existence, necessity/contingency). Needless to say these have received plenty of criticism in their turn.
I want to mention the categories of Charles Saunders Peirce, that great but blighted figure, who was a contemporary and friend of William James. In a phrase that has stayed with me, he ended up as isolated as Milton after the restoration. Or perhaps Oedipus, also blind, at Colonus. Perhaps that is hypebole, but it is, at least, easy to imagine Peirce resolute and unbowed, if not raging, at the dying of the light. Peirce (1839-1914) first wrote of his three categories in 1867 and thereafter on many different occasions and with baffling terminological elaboration. Here is the simplest statement of them that I know, from a letter to Lady Welby of 1903. ‘Firstness is the mode of being of that which is, positively and without reference to anything else. Secondness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, with respect to a second but regardless of any third. Thirdness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, in bringing a second and third into relation with each other.’ To reduce it to single words: quality, relation, representation. I now add a vastly oversimple precis of Peirce’s ideas on categories because they seem to me so important. The typical ideas of Firstness are qualities of feeling, e.g. the scarlet of royal liveries, the quality itself, independently of it being perceived or remembered. The type of an idea of Secondness is the experience of effort, prescinded from the idea of purpose. It may be said that there is no such experience, that a purpose is always in view as long as the effort is cognised. This may be open to doubt; for in sustained effort we soon let the purpose drop out of view. The experience of effort cannot exist without the experience of resistance. ( Peirce also gives the example of a feeling of calm upon which a shrill noise breaks. The feeling of calm and the shrillness heard are examples of firstness, but the precedent state of calmness is ego, and the interruption by the noise is non-ego breaking in, and the new destroying of the old feeling is an experience, but a brute experience. i.e. not experienced as law-like.) Peirce comments that the inadequacy of Secondness to cover all that is in our minds is so evident that he scarcely knows where to begin to persuade someone who cannot see it. If you take any ordinary triadic relation, you will always find a mental element in it. Brute action is secondness, any mentality involves thirdness. Consider the relation A gives B to C. This is not two dyadic episodes, A putting B away and C taking up B. In its genuine form, Thirdness is the triadic relationship existing between a sign, its object and the interpretant or interpreting thought. If you say that these two acts constitute a single operation by virtue of the identity of B, you transcend the mere brute facts, you introduce a mental element, intention if you will. It is worth knowing that Peirce worked for years as a part of the US Coastal Survey Department, although much of his energy was directed elsewhere. His category of thirdness which provides an understanding of what measurement truly is, was also the foundation of the science of semiology. I find it astonishing that there are scientists in the field of quantum physics, who write that measurement need not require a person. A geiger counter can count radioactive emissions, they will say. True, and a tin can receive a dent and therefore record the happening, when hit by a missile. But measurement is about meaning, about comparison, about norms. One radioactive element is dangerous, another not. Machines can be programmed to do their programmers’ biddings, possibly left to get on with it, but the meanings or significance of what they record are attended to sooner or later by intentional agents, and policy modified perhaps. Machines can calculate, they cannot think because they cannot feel.
To move into another sphere entirely, the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, is seen as a sign mediating between the Father and the Son, although there is a doctrinal difference between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, marked in the Nicene Creed by the Filioque clause (q.v.) The words of St. John’s Gospel, chapter15, verse26 are: But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father. . . He shall testify of me.
And number mysticism according to some (eg Goethe – Faust part two) shows a hesitation between three and four, which represent perhaps perfection and completeness.

Einstein and the philosophers

Einstein has recorded that in the years before he published his paper on Special Relativity in 1905, he was fortified in his speculations by the sceptical remarks of David Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature, where Hume stated that the idea of a perfect connection of imperfect real measures ‘is a mere fiction of the mind, as well as useless and incomprehensible.’ Hume extended his scrutiny from considerations of spatial measure to notions of the duration of time: ‘… where though it is evident that we have no exact method of determining the proportion of parts, not even so exact as in extension, yet the various corrections of our measures, and their different degrees of exactness, have given us an obscure and implicit notion of a perfect and exact equality.’ And in Ernst Mach, Einstein found a warning against the use of concepts disconnected from their experiential grounding.
Einstein was, I suppose, throwing off the immense prestige of Newton, who had insisted on the priority of space and time in experience, and hence their absolute inviolability. In these reflections about the origins of his theory of Special Relativity, it is perhaps surprising that Einstein does not mention Leibniz, but that is perhaps an historical accident, and relates to the activities of the reading group of which he was a member in Bern during the first years of the twentieth century. Leibniz, after all, was of the opinion that space was an order of co-existing phenomena, and time an order of successive phenomena, and emphasised the relational aspect rather than fixed distances and durations.
Kant’s mature views on space and time are set out in the Transcendental Aesthetic of the Critique of Pure Reason. With extraordinary originality he preserves Newton’s views on the absoluteness of space and time, by regarding them as the forms of outer and inner sense, and therefore pre-conditions of any experience at all. We now know that this won’t do. Einstein’s theoretical considerations predicted that space and time are not absolute, and mirabile dictu, quantitative observational confirmation of his predictions has been found. Unsurprisingly Einstein was not a neo-Kantian. For example he wrote in his essay The Problem of Space: ‘ …concepts have reference to sensible experience, but they are never, in a logical sense, deducible from them. For this reason I have never been able to understand the quest of the a priori, in the Kantian sense. In any ontological question, the only possible procedure is to seek out these characteristics in the complex of sense experience to which these concepts refer.’ Bertrand Russell shared Einstein’s view that Kant was overrated for similar reasons. Personally I think they missed an important insight in Kant, and that there are straws in the wind which suggest the problem of consciousness, so central to him and addressed above all in his profound account of the nature of self, will haunt the philosophy of science in the decades to come.
Let me add a little more about Einstein. If he sounds at times like a realist (a description he rejected as describing him in contrast to other ‘isms) or with an intellectual bias towards empiricism, he had opinions which were not wholly consistent. For instance he said, ‘So far as the theories of mathematics are about reality they are not certain, so far as they are certain they are not about reality’. And yet in the Herbert Spencer Lecture of 1933 he said, ‘But the creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold that pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients dreamed.’ In his address in Berlin on the occasion of Max Planck’s sixtieth birthday in 1918, he said, ‘Nobody who has gone really deeply into the matter will deny that in practice the world of phenomena uniquely determines the theoretical system, in spite of the fact that there is no logical bridge between phenomena and their theoretical principles; this is what Leibniz described so happily as a ‘pre-established harmony.’

Planck and Einstein became close friends in Berlin, so it is perhaps appropriate to conclude with two quotations by Planck which have a Kantian feel. ‘I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing presupposes consciousness.’ (1931). And ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature, and therefore part of the mystery we are trying to solve’. (1932).

Seeing things whole

Gestalt psychology developed in Austria and Germany in the early twentieth century. All three of its founders, Wertheimer, Koffka, and Kohler escaped to the US with the rise of fascism, but Kohler outlived his two colleagues by many years and became its flag bearer. I have always liked Aristotle’s saying ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ Kohler however pointed out that summing parts which are different is meaningless. How in considering an apple do you sum the peel, the stalk and the pips? He preferred ‘ The whole is something else than the totality of its parts.’ More accurate but, alas, not more memorable.
My little granddaughter, like my own daughter, learnt to say Daddy considerably before saying, Mummy and a few weeks later learnt to say two and will, I suspect, learn to say three before she says one. The ground, the environmental norm, sameness requires a much greater effort to notice than change, novelty, difference. The ground is not infinite, but boundless or unlimited, like the visual field. The visual field is boundless, because in order to see a boundary one would have to be able to see the other side of the visual boundary which by definition one cannot. Perhaps the universe is finite but unbounded. What a finite universe expands into is unfathomable. It certainly is true that individual consciousness is finite and unbounded. Perhaps, as Freud seems to suggest against his usual rationalism, the unconscious is not only without temporal organisation but exists timelessly. The unconscious might then be seen as ground zero, that is to say the one from which number arises, counted off in time. As Rilke said we are always moving into the open. Perhaps his most powerful and affecting statement of this theme is in the Fifth Duino Elegy which begins ‘But tell me, who are they really, these travellers, more ephemeral than us even – ’ ( trans. Matthew Barton). The poem was inspired by Picasso’s painting Les Saltimbanques and Rilke’s own memories of seeing circus performers.
Gestalt psychology provided many insights into the nature of perception and also emphasised the role of insight in problem solving. A famous example is of the chimpanzee in the cage with a banana tied out of reach hanging from the bars of the ceiling. There are some crates in the cage as well. Some chimpanzees are able to see or imagine that by putting the crates on top of each other they can climb up and reach the banana.
Kohler also hypothesised the presence of psychophysical isomorphism, a correlation between conscious states and brain states. This is perhaps an unsurprising view, although definitely distinct from materialism. But science is a long way from making any precise sense of it. Decades later, an American philosopher, Donald Davidson developed a more sophisticated theory, Anomalous Monism which resembles materialism in its claim that all events are physical, but rejects the thesis, usually considered essential to materialism, that mental phenomena can be given purely physical explanations. Davidson summed up his view thus: ‘Anomalous monism shows an ontological bias only in that it allows the possibility that not all events are mental, while insisting that all events are physical.’ I must say, I prefer this view to panpsychism which seems to me to silence too completely our puzzlement about consciousness by providing an untestable explanation. Hugh MacDiarmid, in his great poem On A Raised Beach, attributes consciousness to the stones with wonderful rhetorical effect, but we are in no doubt that it is an attitude the poet strikes not the literal truth of the matter. (The gates of a bird are wide open, that is the secret of its song. . .I look at the stones. . . I know their gates are open too, always open, far longer open. . . ).
On the subject of consciousness let me make one personal remark. There is psychotic experience and there is spiritual awakening. They may be far apart or close together in any particular individual, but to use the metaphor of MacDiarmid about the gates being wide open, there is at such moments a dissolving or breaking of psychological defences by an violent upsurge of unconscious feeling. The transformative event which follows is not under the control of the subject, and not experienced as of solely personal significance. That is to say, there is felt to be much more out in the world than had hitherto been realised. It may connect or disconnect the subject from others but it seems, and for all I know is, a deeper apprehension of reality. The reverberations may continue for days, months or years.

Inner and Outer Worlds

It has long seemed to me no less than a logical truth that the nature of the human nervous system, its scope and limitations, are somehow present in all human knowledge. Kant laboured to reveal and expound the details of this in his great work The Critique of Pure Reason, but it is important to understand that he was not an idealist. Kant did not doubt the reality of the external world, although he placed a limitation on what could be known about it by distinguishing the phenomenal world (appearances) from the noumenal world (things in themselves). The most important feature of noumena is that they are not objects of intuition, but problems unavoidably bound up with the limitations of our sensibility.
It is a striking fact that despite the sensory equipment of chimpanzees being not vastly inferior to our own, their capacity for reflection and self-criticism is very limited. Therefore their experience of the world is largely as a stream of needs, drives and impulses. Their society is dominated by the rule that might is right, but because that is well understood, reasonably peaceful co-existence is sustained for long periods. The large expansion of the cerebral cortex in humans is not really explained, at least in my opinion, by Darwinian processes. But a readily available explanation is rather like hot air, it expands to fill the space available. Insofar as the human cerebral cortex enables thought, it might be seen as an organ of inhibition or postponement, but it is difficult to see why indecisiveness gradually acquired over millennia would confer advantage on evolving hominids.
In Freud’s Beyond The Pleasure Principle, he speculates about whether there are instincts beyond those which seek to restore an earlier state of affairs. He writes ‘What appears in a minority of human individuals as an untiring impulsion towards further perfection can easily be understood as a result of instinctual repression upon which is based all that is most precious in human civilisation’. This is fine as far as it goes, but Freud does seem trapped in his own reductive vocabulary. What of imagination, sympathy, empathy, and not least love? And I also want to suggest that the faltering progress of humanity is not entirely a human creation but reflects what is really out there in the world, the unrealised possibilities that are waiting for us like unseen fruit. Imaginative insight, and that rare thing, personal revelation, arise then from some deep harmony between the outer world and inner reflection. Freud remarks in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and The Magic Writing Pad, that the unconscious contrasts with the mode of operation of the perceptual/conscious system. He suggests that sensory organs and their innervation may provide a shield against stimuli, which is an extraordinarily suggestive way of approaching both psychotic and revelatory experience, which overwhelm in their intensity. Freud wonders whether our concept of time depends on a discontinuous method of functioning in which the unconscious extends ‘feelers’ through the perception/consciousness system into the outside world and then hastily and self-protectively withdraws them, leaving the system unaware of its intermittent manner of operation. ( I find this surprising coming from Freud: it is both mysterious and difficult to understand. However it contains an anticipation of what later came to be called by Aldous Huxley, the Doors of Perception.)
I mentioned the crude social arrangements of apes, but who has not been struck by the noble beauty of beasts, a little further removed from us, but often closer to our hearts? Their patience, their stoicism, their self-sufficiency, all admirable. And domesticated animals, how they reflect back to us our treatment of them, returning our kindness and offering affection and loyalty.
Rilke saw deeply into the pathos of animals. Here are some lines from the Eighth Duino Elegy translated superbly by my friend, Matthew Barton.

         Beasts see the open world with their full gaze.
         Our eyes alone look inward and hold back,
         as though reversed, as though they lie in wait
         like traps to catch our freely wandering sight.

                                      . . . Only we see death;
         the animal’s free, its death always behind it, God before.
         It moves within eternity, like springs
         welling up, replenishing.


We seem to be edging forward towards a kind of normality. I had not foreseen that the second lockdown would snuff out the usual winter ‘flu epidemic, so that the NHS has coped much better through January and February than we might have dared to hope.

Here is a poem about learning to play a musical instrument, and about the mystery of creativity. I was thinking about Miles Davis and his masterpiece Kind of Blue, the last word in sophistication, which somehow went on to become the best selling Jazz LP of all time. How and where did that come from? And every musician is playing at the height of his powers. Not a quantum leap. Not quite out of nowhere. A miracle.

(Don't play what's there, play what's not there - Miles Davis)

not exact but tenacious.
The quarrel with noise.
Difficulties with breathing and tone.
Consummations of a sort,
phrases joining together
not quite matched.
Found melody
ear unexpectedly attuned.
that belonging's a temporary thing
like renting a room.
Need to unlearn
start elsewhere.

Exercises, hour after hour,
intervals, semitones, scales;
silver beneath stretched fingers
streaming away from intent.
Finding their way into dreams
from the edge of sleep,
misspoken message 
      of what's not there.

Poetry and Music

In Yeats’ edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, published 1936, (my copy inherited from my father), the opening ‘poem’ is a sentence by Walter Pater, lifted by Yeats from Pater’s long essay The Renaissance, and given the title Mona Lisa. It begins ‘She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave. . .’

Pater was the high priest of aestheticism in the late nineteenth century, and I particularly value his aphorism ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’ Is this true and if so why? Pater was concerned with the especial perfection achieved in music of integration of subject and form. As experienced, I would say that music is the most spiritual of the art forms, because it is unencumbered by physical extension and mass. One would like to say it exists entirely in the dimension of time, but this is not entirely true: sound waves must travel from the instrument to the listener. But it is unstill, and before recordings became possible, it could only be heard in performance. It was an event, something unique which cannot be recaptured. So too a poetry reading or play performed in a theatre.

Behind the uniqueness of the live performance lies the truth that no notation of score, text or script can render singular beauty once and for all. Nevertheless I am thankful to have seen a great performance of King Lear (Timothy West) some fifty years ago, and the Lindsay String Quarter playing late Beethoven in a church in Bath some thirty years ago.

A jazz lover from my teens, I was nevertheless too young to hear Charlie Parker, but I listened to many of his contemporaries in clubs and concerts: Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus, Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. For me their music is the sound of the twentieth century, nothing else has quite that immediacy, nor speaks so directly to my own condition. In poetry, as I struggled to hold on to my sanity, one poem, On a Raised Beach by Hugh Macdiarmid, became important to me, and I made a long journey to see him read only two years before he died. He was still ‘fu’ o’ fechtin’ spirit’ and I am forever glad I made the effort. He reminded me of the need to stand one’s ground, that it is conflict which ‘brings out animal life’s bolder and more brilliant patterns’. And that other great and bloody minded Scottish poet, W.S.Graham: in the advice of the flute teacher to his protege ‘remember when you enter the joy of those quick high archipelagoes, to keep your finger-stops as light as feathers but definite. . . Do not be sentimental in your art… Do not expect applause.’ (Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons)

Oh yes, music, like any calling, demands plenty, and gives back only now and then. My next post will include a poem of mine about music.

Plato and Dante

In Raphael’s Vatican fresco The School of Athens (1509-1511), Plato and Aristotle, walking side by side under magnificent arches, hold centre stage. Plato’s right forearm is held upward, his index finger pointing towards the heavens, Aristotle’s right arm extends forwards, his hand flat, palm towards the ground. The symbolism is clear but wonderfully achieved, pure thought versus experience, or idealism versus realism. All around are other Greek philosophers and it is said that Plato is a portrait of Leonardo. It is certainly the case that Heraclitus is a portrait of Michelangelo, which Raphael added after seeing the first half of the Sistine Chapel ceiling unveiled in 1511. On the extreme right of the fresco a modest Raphael looks out of the composition towards those who stand before his work. It is a picture which sums up human intellectual achievement as known in Renaissance Italy up to that point. Although bare description suggests it might be horribly kitsch, it is, in fact, absolutely breathtaking. But it has spawned a a whole series of crass synoptic visions of human history from the Albert Memorial to various Halls of Fame beloved of magazine editors seeking to boost circulation. But there will always be a wish to rework the history of the human race into an intelligible story. We do not want to believe, like Macbeth, for whom it seems just punishment, that history ‘is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing’.
Although there were great predecessors to Plato and Aristotle, they are the twin founders of modern philosophy. In the Middle Ages Aristotle was better known in Italy than Plato, so that Dante, while referring to Plato and Socrates by name, says of Aristotle ‘vidi il maestro di color che sanno’ (I saw the master of those who know) Canto 4, line 131 Inferno. Some distinguished pagans are located by Dante in limbo, an anteroom to Hell itself. By the time of Raphael, Plato’s works, though they had never been lost, were better known and his mystical vision of profound unity and harmony had considerable appeal, as also his Platonic ideas or forms which reach up through a hierarchy towards a highest form which might be called the One or the Good. It is important to appreciate that this form should not be thought of as an abstraction, but absolutely the reverse, a whole universe organised in a single order. Such a vision is difficult to sustain in our fallen world. I have been intrigued to notice that Eliot described Dante’s final canto of the Paradiso as giving a description of a revelation in what Eliot clearly regarded as the greatest poetry ever written, while Auden in one of his US lectures to undergraduates in the forties described it as a piece worked up from notes gathered from theological and philosophical tracts. I have to say I was taken aback by Auden’s irreverence, and think it may not have been his considered or final opinion. At any rate the pagan Plato and the Christian Dante were both visionaries. The greek noun, idea derives from the verb, idein – to see. But Platonic ideas are not visible but intelligible, not what appears and is changeable but what is timeless and most real.
Dante when he meets St. John and is questioned about love loses his sight, which is later restored to him, preparatory to his final vision. The reason Dante is given by St. John for his losing his sight is that Dante peers too hard into the luminous presence of the beloved disciple in order to see whether he has been raised bodily into heaven as have Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Ultimately this refers back to the final scene in the final chapter of St. John’s Gospel and probably to the contemporary fresco cycle by Giotto in the Peruzzi Chapel at Florence painted in 1320 and including an ascension of St. John into heaven. At this time Dante would already have been exiled from Florence, but would doubtless have had intelligence of this painting possibly from Giotto himself. (Why so much on this strange byway of medieval Christian thought? Because it troubled me in the past to the point of making me ill).
In Plato’s Phaedrus, the soul through its experience of physical beauty begins a quest for illumination which proceeds by way of ascent from physical to spiritual beauty and ultimate reality.
In similar fashion Dante’s encounter with Beatrice leads him after a long journey through the three realms of creation to a vision of the Paradisal Rose. and the Trinity.
All lovers of poetry should acquaint themselves with this extraordinary final Canto of Paradiso (33rd). Chaucer translated a small part of it in the Prologue to the Second Nun’s Tale, about fifty years after Dante’s death. Here is a translation of lines 85-90 of the 145 line Canto.
Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe; substance and accidents and their relations, as though together fused, after such fashion that what I tell of is a simple flame. And Dante’s italian:-
Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna
legato con amore in un volume,
cio che per l’universo si squaderna;
sustanzia ed accidenti, e lor costume,
quasi conflati insieme per tal modo
che cio ch’io dico un semplice lume.