Friday, September 24, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 12

Of the seven or so senses we possess as human animals perhaps the auditory or aural one is one of the more significant, though indeed we are handicapped by a diminution in or lack of any of those senses.  In the last post I referred to what Dr Anthony Storr calls the "third period" or "third phase" in the life of more creative muicians or composers.  This on-going development in their creative output mirrors to a great extent the personal development of  the human person.  The works of these composers, Storr argues, are (i) less concerned with communicating than their preceding works, (ii) more unconventional and seek to find a new unity between disparate elements, (iii) show an absence of rhetoric or any need to persuade others and (iv) seem to be exploring remoter and perhaps deeper areas of human experience - "intrapersonal or suprapersonal rather than interpersonal." (See Solitude, p. 174)

S.T. Coleridge
Storr's final chapter is essentially a finale to quite a wonderful and almost musically well-balanced book.  Its title is somewhat wieldy, though its import is weighty indeed.  It runs: "The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole."  I remember years ago reading Richard Holmes' first volume of his wonderful biography of S.T. Coleridge.  Therein I learned how as a young boy this poet-philosopher's father used bring him out for walks to view the expanse of the night sky and how Coleridge later remarked that it from from these noctural walks that his mind "had become habituated to the vast."  This "habituation" adverted to by the poet-philosopher is nothing short of the desire for and indeed pursuit of the whole.  There would seem to be something within us that desires to be unified with whatever reality is, or even with whatever "exists" or might exist beneath the surface of that reality.  Philosophers, most especially Kant and Schopenhauer, have long sought to answer this big question.  I have written about both these philosophers and their theories in these pages before.  Others, too, needless to say, seek to answer the same questions from religious people to theologians to poets and writers of all persuasions and none.

John Henry Cardinal Newman
Another famous writer and theologian preoccupied with the desire for and pursuit of the whole, which could also be described as essentially Platonic and Neoplatonic in tenor, was none other than the famous John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) who was so recently beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.   I had occasion in 1994 to present a Master's thesis on the work of this learned and erudite theologian at Milltown Institute here in Dublin.  During the years I had spent reading the works this learned genius and most extraordinarily talented prose writer, the greatest stylist of his age, one is constantly gripped by this author's preoccupation with the theme of the pursuit of the whole.  This is essential to every mystic and theologian of every age worth their salt.

Such a pursuit of the whole or of the unity of things is shown in the mystical writings of all the great religious traditions, and indeed of other non-denominational mystical souls over the course of the millennia humankind has lived in civilization.  It can, of course, be said that this mystical desire, which is expressed in more religious terms above, mirrors a inner process within the psyche of the human animal, that is, the development of the Self (the psychological analogue to the notion of God), the process of Individuation (Jung), self-realization (Eastern religions and Popular Psychology), Self-Actualization (Abraham Maslow and others), and the process of Self-Integration (Storr and R.D. Laing).  There are, of course, other expressions for this spiritual-psychological quest, which, for me, is metaphorically exressed as the desire for God.

Plato on the left and Aristotle on the right 
Once again, Anthony Storr begins with a myth.  Myth, legend and folktale are all categories of traditional stories and all served - and continue to serve in a somewhat lesser wa today - different functions within the evolution of various cultures.  One of my favourite interpreters of myth is the late Joseph Campbell who defined myths as having four basic functions:  (i) the Mystical Function - the experience the awe of the universe, (ii) the Cosmological Function that attempts to explain the shape of the universe, (iii) the Sociological Function which supports and validates a certain social order and finally (iv) the Pedagogical Function that is a way of showing mere humans how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.  There were others like the great philosopher of culture and Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade whom we studied years ago at college who argued the mythology provided models for behaviour and that various myths may also provide a religious experience.

Anyway the myth with which Storr begins is again from from Plato.  This time it is taken from The Symposium, and therein we read the following quotation in the mouth of one of the characters called Aristophanes "Love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole" which Plato had illustrated by the myth of creation of human beings, who were so arrogant after their fornation that the king of the gods, Zeus, decided to split them in two.  Thereafter these creatures were incomplete and were consequently destined to search for their completion or fulfilment or wholeness in their natural "other half."


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