The Distant Past

Eyes from the distant past have looked perhaps with more understanding than we are able to muster on the artefacts of a still more distant past. Even so, when I consider the pottery, jewellery, images and sculpture of long ago, I am not unmoved. What I feel is a mixture of tenderness and awe. Tenderness at the fragility of what has come down to us, on some rare occasions almost intact; awe at the connection these objects give us to a past whose concerns and customs must bear some relationship to our own, if only that they are a record of human striving.
I am reminded of the feeling I have when I rescue a small creature from the claws of our cat, a feeling of being disturbed and touched at the sheer improbability of the survival of such fluttering and palpitating vulnerability. But the strangeness of a sparrow or mouse is greater by far than that of our distant ancestors as revealed by what they have left behind. We do not know but can imagine, as novelists often have, what concerns were current in an ancient society, even a pre-literate one. Unsurprisingly, and probably quite justly, the picture of daily life presented in such fictional works, the keeping of body and soul together, the furthering of self-interest through work and trade, the imperiousness of the sex drive (as Freud put it), and the enjoyment of leisure, has many points of contact with our own, but the metaphysical or religious belief systems which bind the peoples into communities and larger entities are more or less opaque. It is here that the novelist’s art is apt to founder.
It has taken a twentieth century philosopher, Heidegger, to draw attention to a fact, now obvious, that we are thrown (Geworfenheit) into a world, which is already familiar when we begin to try and understand it. But the world of human beings emerging from the stone age, establishing larger settlements, developing agriculture, domesticating animals, smelting metals, trading and fighting with other peoples, exploiting slaves, was in general vastly more precarious than our own, and though their shared mental life was to them a given, it is to us utterly strange. Their story telling and myth making, when we can decipher them, are no longer felt to illuminate the wider world, only their own particular world. And yet, as both Freud and Jung came to feel, those motifs of struggle, atrocity, guilt and propitiation still haunt our modern consciousness. And T.S.Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is in large part a response to the destruction of life and human values on an unprecedented scale by the Great War, and inspired by Eliot’s awareness of the bloody horrors implied in vegetation myths and their more sophisticated treatment in the Grail legends and the broken figure of the Fisher King. It seems to me that Eliot had a degree of bad faith about the poem in later life, because he felt his diagnosis of a wasted land, came out of a very particular personal misery, his catastrophic first marriage. But the poem’s origins were complex, and trying to trace them is as self-defeating as trying to trace the source of a great river. More than any other English language poem of the last century it marked a new beginning.

Mardi Gras

I went to a school where Shrove Tuesday was marked with an odd ceremony called The Greaze. The head cook tossed a super thick pancake over a bar which stretched across the school assembly hall, and a representative from each class waited underneath to fight for the largest share. One year our class won it through someone who was soon to become well known, Gordon Waller. Gordon together with Peter Asher had a number one hit, World Without Love, written by Lennon / McCartney, about three years after he won The Greaze.

But it is the Brazilians who do it best, and the Mardi Gras Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is the world’s biggest party. A riot of colour, noise and music, and held together by the unceasing and unceasingly changing rhythms of the samba. A heaving ocean of sound.

Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova compositions, based on the samba, and popularised in the US by Stan Getz, Joao and Astrud Gilberto, still haunt the popular imagination. Their dreamy arrangements are very different from the flamboyance of the Carnival, but they too are interwoven with the samba beat. My personal favourite is One Note Samba. It uses the idea that one is not only the first number, but the undivided one that precedes all number. Repetition becomes sincerity becomes love. Wonderful! Here follows my own small tribute to the vitality of Brazil. Let us hope the full brilliance of the festival returns in 2022, after its cancellation in 2021.

(Remembering Tom Jobim’s One Note Samba)

now a crimson note is sounding 
petal falling through the breeze

remembrance of a single plucked note - 
other notes will swiftly follow

dancers touch and sway together 
steady themselves against the one note -

passionate energetic couples 
spinning in each other's orbit 

electric through the hours past midnight
caressing as the dawn approaches

leave the dance still slowly dancing
night and day poured into one note -
essence of the unending samba 
love distilled in just one note

Physics and poetry

Paul Dirac, one of the twentieth century’s greatest physicists, spent his childhood in Bristol. His father, with whom he had a poor relationship, taught French at Colston’s School. ( Yes, it is he, Edward Colston.) The former Dirac family house is in Horfield, North Bristol near the city’s prison, and I used to pass it sometimes on my way to interview a prisoner to prepare a psychiatric report at the request of his solicitor.

A much quoted remark of Dirac’s is about poetry – ‘ The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simple way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.’ This is absurd, but even great men have their blind spots. His deep and almost exclusive interest in studying the physical world, did not leave him time to consider the world of human relationships and feelings. And perhaps he had a definite aversion, not only his unhappy childhood but the suicide of his brother in his twenties. There is another anecdote about Dirac talking with Georges Lemaitre, the Belgian priest, physicist and mathematician, who has been credited with first suggesting the origin of the universe with a big bang. After an intense conversation Dirac concluded that if anything were to provide support for theology it would be cosmology. Lemaitre disagreed, and said it would be psychology. I find the word ‘God’ difficult to the point of unhelpfulness, but I do like the emphasis of St. John of the Cross on inwardness, ‘ Those who know God most perfectly, perceive most clearly that he is perfectly incomprehensible.’

On the question of obscurity, Ruskin sounded a different note to Dirac. In Sesame and Lilies he points out that if an author is worth anything, you will not get his meaning all at once. ‘Not that he does not say what he means. . . but he cannot say it all; and what is more strange, will not, except in a hidden way or parable, in order that he may be sure you want it. I cannot quite see his reason for this, nor analyse that cruel reticence in the breasts of wise men which makes them hide their deeper thought.’ Proust in his essay, ‘ On Reading’ intended as an introduction to his translation of Sesame and Lilies, comments on this passage ‘. . . if to understand is, in some way, to be equal to, then to understand a profound thought, is at that moment to have a profound thought oneself.’

There are difficult poets, some wilfully, some arbitrarliy, but others necessarily so. And there is the special case of poets writng in a totalitarian state where self-censorship is a pre-condition of survival. This stanza from Mandelstam’s Octets records the tragic fate of Russia under Stalin through a metamorphosis from innocence to state terror which, despite ellipsis, was not published in his lifetime, and was scarcely written down at all. I have wondered whether Mandelstam had in mind the death’s head moth, but if so, there is no clue in the text. That too could be self-censorship.

O butterfly, o Muslim girl, 
peeping through a split shroud - 
so fragile the little life interred, 
see though how this one thrives!
Biter with moustache-like wings, 
vanished the nymph in a burnous.
O winding sheet unfurled to be our flag - 
fold back your wings I'm afraid!

What is life?

In 1943 the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, gave some lectures in Dublin where he was living in exile. He converted them into a short book, What Is Life?, the following year. He coined the term aperiodic crystal to describe the then unknown macromolecule which he hypothesised must carry genetic material. Watson and Crick later acknowledged the stimulus provided by the physicist to their work on DNA. Schrodinger also discussed the thermodynamic issues raised by living things, and how they carried order into the next generation without its dissipation. In the final and most speculative part of the book he considered consciousness and free will. He recorded his admiration for the Eastern religious tradition as recorded in the Upanishads. He felt that despite our experience of individual identity, the deeper truth was of one undivided unity of mind and spirit.

Are we now better placed to identify what are the essential characteristics of life? The modern temper resists essentialism, in effect Platonism or the priority of Platonic ideas over empirical data. Wittgenstein’s family resemblances seem less ambitious and perhaps a more productive way of enquiring. It is not difficult to find generalisations which distinguish inanimate matter from plant and animal life. As regards plant and animal life, mobility or its lack, a nervous system or its absence, asexual reproduction or its absence, are points of divergence. There are exceptions and borderline cases, most strikingly in protozoa. The presence of intentional behaviour is one of the most characteristic features of animal life. Though plants grow towards light and their roots towards water, these tropisms seem to be without experiential content. Some intentional behaviours seem innate and elicited as soon as a suitable stimulus is encountered by the organism for the first time. Is such a response inflexible or invariable, or does the organism sometimes offer an unobtrusive assent or refusal? I don’t think the latter possibility should be excluded, in the interests of insisting on a difference between mechanism and organism. Learned behaviour is of course more complex and unpredictable.

The force of Thomas Nagel’s phrase ‘ There is something it is like to be a bat’ is that animals, even lowly ones, encounter the world with an intentional stance, and this gives them a sense of identity through time. At its simplest disposition is embodied memory unless it is inflexibly determined by the genes. Memory, perceiving the present environment and judging how the future might unfold are all intrinsic to the decision making of purposive behaviour. But purposive behaviour need not have a definite purpose in view. It may be exploratory, playful, opportunistic. Above all it always moves the organism into the boundless and uncertain open. It seeks to improve the way the organism feels about itself. And there is something holistic about it. This wonderful stanza, with its homely simile in the last two lines, from Octets by Osip Mandelstam, expresses something of that mystery.

Vestigial presence of a sixth sense, 
lizard's sincipital third eye,
the monasteries of snails and bivalves,
rustle of shimmering cilia.
Impossible to grasp what's very near,
look into it minutely or see it whole -
as if a letter were thrust into one's hand
and one had to give an answer straightaway.

Space, Time and Space-time

Does the economy and mathematical elegance of collapsing space and time into space-time represent a deepening of our understanding of nature or does the gain in simplicity come at a price? I ask this as a retired psychiatrist, who wonders at the inconvenient and almost imperceptible presence of consciousness in physics. As an indifferent mathematician, I have to approach this question from the side of experience, and with the prejudice that explaining consciousness by science is likely to be an explaining away, because you can’t get colour from the visible wavelengths or warmth from the infra red. And Matisse and Turkish baths present further and possibly more difficult challenges for materialists.
Firstly I will consider space. I can return to the place from where I set out, not just once but repeatedly over long periods of time. Or can I? Heraclitus told us we could not jump into the same river twice, but he was exploiting the fact that the river flowed and the water was constantly replacing itself. He did not say we could not return to the agora as often as we chose to do so. If all is flux, perhaps it is true that the place revisited is subtly different from what it once was. But it is also much more obviously the same and the fact is so unremarkable that I can arrange to meet you at the agora/supermarket tomorrow, next week or next year.
Secondly time. The time of physics is one of pure succession, a now followed by another now and so on. How does one instant follow a previous one? There is no known connecting principle between one instant and the next. We do not know how time passes: it is the most inescapable and elusive fact of our existence. There is nothing, other than empty mathematical conjectures, to support theories that suggest anything travels backwards in time. Although relativity shattered the Newtonian view that time and space were absolutes, it nowhere implies that time ever moves backwards. It does imply that at speeds approaching the speed of light, time passes more slowly for objects thus travelling. Since the mass of objects increases enormously and progressively as they approach such speeds, it is impossible to give any meaning to the notion that there might be any living thing enduring, much less experiencing a slowing of time. Life, like vision, is possible only between very limited physical parameters.
Is it not right to conclude that a place changes, if and only if time passes? And that space-time obscures that massively important difference between space and time?
Of course the time of physics is unlike experienced time, in which the past is remembered and the future anticipated or imagined differently, the two held together in an experiencing ego.
As Hamlet reflects:-
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

The Past

The poem which follows is, I consider, the best I have written in the last four years. It is dedicated to Robert Beavis, an archaeologist who organised a visit of the Lansdown poets to a dig in Berkeley, which was the starting point for the poem. ( see our website In certain moods it is difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the weight of misery contained in human history. C.S. Lewis’s remark that there is no sum total of human suffering is a partial corrective, although it does, no doubt intentionally, lead on to thoughts about the most that could be suffered by any one person. This lies behind the line, ‘What was suffered is not transmitted’, but the following phrase ‘Dear absence’ records an ambivalence, ‘dear’ meaning blessed or merciful but also costly. Here is the poem.

 We know so little.
 A stone cries in the night.

Obstinate specks of clay 
eclipse the glitter of brooch and ring.
A clasp no longer gathers unto itself.

We dig, we dig deeper,
touching the subtle fabric
of ancient ties.

A riot of unholy feeling prevented
the cracked vessel from ever being full -
or so we tentatively suggest.

The past hurts and our recourse 
is to firm ground where
business employs and engrosses.

In snatches, letting go daily effort,
we feel both guilt and terror
for crimes which may also be ours.

Mistaken to picture our seed
running through lived lives,
a twist of exempted gold.

Were we taught
or do we know in our bones
the violent history of our kind?

What was suffered 
is not transmitted. Dear 
absence. Distant crucifixion.

Wild. Beyond calculation.
Luminous passion. More life.

The Mind Waiting

We wonder if we are through the worst of the pandemic, but the news of the vaccine was accompanied by news of mutated variants of the covid virus. The times we are living through are difficult, and feel unpredictable and hazardous.

We think of the scope of life, the lives of those who have gone before us, the lives of the young who have almost everything invested in the future. Meaning is what no amount of knowledge is able to provide. There can be, in reaching maturity, a sense of exhilaration, the sense of being self-sufficient, of untold possibilities. Added years can only diminish that sense, so that love and connectedness to others grows in importance. Humour, seems to me, to bridge the gap where understanding fails.

About ten days before my father died, some twenty years ago, I visited him in hospital and left there to have lunch with a friend. As I parked my car the phrase ‘Perhaps it happens like this, the death of the body before the death of the mind’ came into my head unbidden. Over lunch I said to my friend that I felt a poem coming on, and as I drove home I felt as if I was going down with ‘flu. Back at home I wrote the poem in about forty minutes. The final image of a bolt of cloth being unrolled and cut is a childhood memory of my mother buying fabric to make curtains on the top floor of a department store in Richmond, Surrey. I can still picture the brass rule running along the edge of the wide counter, although that didn’t find a place in the poem. Months later I saw that the image contained something elemental, a part of our collective unconscious, if you will. The three fates, one who spins the thread, one who measures its length, and one, Atropos, who cuts it. Here is the poem:-

Perhaps it happens like this: 
the death of the body before the death of the mind
and the mind waiting,

the mind as it were in suspense,
an in-held breath
or longed for meeting postponed,

nothing new -
just the past piling into the present,
a feeling of change which deepens

without change of feeling,
like peering for landmarks in fog
and coming on nothing,

or tunnel vision
where sight doesn't know of itself
its diminishing scope

and only a jolt from outside,
from the world of touch, 
reveals that something is different,

except that there's nothing outside, 
all the tracks lead back to the self
and simplification,

a murmuration of starlings
plunging this way and that towards home
until gathered by dusk,

or an unrolled bolt of cloth
smoothed flat by the sweep of a hand
before being cut.

‘It’s in her DNA’ !?

This current cliche means no more than that family tradition and nurturing environment from an early age foster the development of skills through which someone displays exceptional aptitude and ability. Thus it is often said of young sporting personalities and musicians. However, taken literally, it would suggest there is something of the doctrine of Lamarckism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics), present in the popular mind.
There has been a similar stubborn hardiness with teleological phrases when describing the anatomical attributes or behaviour of animals by naturalists. J.B.S.Haldane said that for the biologist, teleology is like a mistress who cannot be publicly acknowledged but also cannot be completely renounced. The problem is that teleological reasoning appeals to a principle of purposive causation which differs from the blind causation of natural science. For example, if eyes are to function in the dark depths of the ocean, we might expect to find large apertures to admit the scarce amount of available light and such indeed can be found in some vertebrate and invertebrate species. And so one is apt to say the eyes have large pupils in order to permit vision in near darkness. Or if you examine the limb patterns of mammals, the basic plan is modified for swift propulsion in horses, or aquatic manoeuvrability in whales and dolphins. The majority, but by no means all evolutionary biologists, feel that such reasoning can be replaced by strictly causal reasoning. Dawkins phrase and title of his book, The Blind Watchmaker, captures this reductionist outlook. Another of his books, Climbing Mount Improbable, also looks at examples of the growing complexity of organisms over time and offers explanations in terms of random mutation and natural selection. This, of course, is in line with Darwin’s considered view that there is no evidence for progressive development in evolution. Against this are various versions of the argument from design, or in the absence of a designer, the self-organising properties of macromolecules. I have written of these matters in an earlier post, Some Thoughts on Neo-Darwinism. D’Arcy Thompson was among many who remained puzzled by how evolution could be reconciled with the Second Law of Thermodynamics which stated that less probable configurations ( ie more complex ones) would tend to pass to more probable ones (ie less organised ones). Human history, as well as natural history, at least in its happier periods, offers a counterweight to the imperiousness of the Second Law.
Shaw in his preface to Back to Methusalah records that August Waismann cut off the tails of mice for some generations and finding that all descendants had normal tails, adduced this as evidence against the inheritance of acquired characteristics. I found Shaw’s remark that what was needed was a stimulus to each mouse which was so traumatic that the tail broke off in reaction, both amusing and pertinent. One thinks of lizards, not that they afford any direct evidence of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Waismann’s most well known idea is the independence of germ cells (spermatozoa and ova) and soma (tissues and organs), but it is possible that they are not as absolutely independent as he insisted. Such at any rate is what I would want to suggest, on the grounds that living things find ways of greater integration both individually and over the generations.
I have to acknowledge considerable sympathy for Jung’s hypothesis that there is a collective unconscious. He noted similarities in the themes of myths and fairy tales from all over the world, and suggested there was a racial memory if not for specific events, then in a general disposition to make sense of human experience in terms of these recurring mythical themes. It seems to me Freud had similar views, for example in his book, Moses and Monotheism, in which he identifies usurping kings as bolstering their legitimacy by producing or having produced for them, fictitious genealogies. He concludes that Moses was an Egyptian not a Jew, a surprising and untestable hypothesis but not by any means wholly implausible.
My next two posts will be poems which contain illustrations of some of these themes with a few clarifying notes.

A Big Lie

I suppose the point about ‘ the big lie’ is that the vast majority of people start out knowing in their hearts that it is a lie. Then for reasons of expediency, personal gain and perhaps above all because the lie is more comfortable than the truth, they join the power brokers and their acolytes who started the lie. The phrase is particularly associated with Hitler and Goebbels, but their original claim was that their political enemies used it as a way of influencing public opinion before going on to use it themselves with murderous effect. Hitler in Mein Kampf accused Marxists and Jews of perpetrating the lie that Germany had lost the War, and more than a decade later Goebbels used the phrase to make the claim that Churchill systematically deceived the British people.

Trump, of course, is associated with the phrase ‘Fake News’ but it can now be seen that he has been an unusually habitual instigator of falsehood. I thought the most blatant demonstration of this was when, in the presence of Putin, he said he preferred the Russian account of their lack of involvement in the 2016 Presidential election to the contrary opinion of his own security forces. When he was back on US soil, he said ‘I mis-spoke’, which demonstrated his casual relationship with truth.

Trump’s big lie has been to say he won the Presidential election without providing any evidence for the claim. For all one knows he believes it, incantation has its hypnotic power. Thank God for an independent judiciary, although Trump did what he could to compromise its integrity. The Republican Party has been reprehensibly slow to condemn this lie, which has to be a stain on US democracy. Bullies should not be indulged, because if they are they become stronger. In Germany in the twenties it was still possible to speak out about anti-semitism. In the thirties to do so would result in arrest, disappearance, death.

Happily, the time is fast approaching, when the emperor Trump, will be acknowledged to have no clothes. But how fragile democracy seems in 2021.

Nothing Imagined*

  • This is to note that because of a technical difficulty, the previous post which had this name was re-named The Edge of Immanence. That phrase was intentionally paradoxical, just as paradox is implicit in Rilke’s untitled poem, beginning ‘Durch den sich Vogel werfen’… ‘Birds launch themselves but not through space that’s shared’. Here is the poem.
The words of the poet are beautiful 
flowers by the side of the road, 
they have deepened the silence
were unguessed at:

where did they come from?

And if they weren't there 
would something else take their place?

No, nothing.

There'd be nothing imagined
and no gap where words needed to be.

The world's full of chance and necessity, 
heads or tails
heads and tails

and  nothing  imagined.