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."


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 11

A Preliminary Musical Note

There is something unique in music.  It gives us solace in times of desperation, lifts our spirits when we are down, brings us relief from our worries - at least momentarily - and all this in a language without word, yet a mysterious language which heals us with its cadences which are somehow bearers of meaning.  Working with austistic children for the past three years, I am even more convinced than ever of the significance of music in the lives of us human animals.  My autistic charges need musical cadences in their ears to block out the noises of a threatening world.

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827
I have mentioned before in these posts how Dr Anthony Storr begins each of his chapters in his short classic on solitude with a suitable and often profound epigraph, and a pondering of those epigraphs would be a wonderful exercise for any meditator.  He begins this chapter which he calls "The Third Period," with a quotation on the efficacy or meaning of music.  Indeed Storr has written a small, equally wonderful classic, on music which I will review later in these pages.  The epigraph I mention runs thus:

In our novels, it is music among all the arts, that isolates the individual from the society of his contemporaries, makes him aware of his separateness and, finally, provides a personal significance to his life regardless of his social or even personal loyalties.  It is the one measure of survival which never fails...  (Alex Aronson, quoted Solitude, p. 168)
Music is the one "measure of survival which never fails" - no wonder, then, that one of our erstwhile school principals used to lock himself in his office after school hours, play music for healing his soul or relieving his stress before reflecting on the day and preparing his work for the ensuing day.  This chapter is all about what is termed "the third period" in a composer's life where the creative genius enters into a more profound and less emotionally dependent period.  Unfortunately the musical references and the significance thereof were lost on me as I am not a classical music buff, however the significance of his observations about the musical development of these great composers has parallel meaning within the psychological development of all human beings.  Here let me quote somewhat at length from Storr's words, and this point will become clearer:

At the begin ning of life survival depends upon "object-relationships."  The human infant cannot care for itself, and is dependent upon the care of others throughout many long years of childhood.  Towards the end of life, the opposite condition obtains... emotional dependence tends to decline.  The old often show less interest in interpersonal relationships, are more content to be alone, and become more preoccupied with their own, internal concerns... This change in intensity of involvement is partly determined by a decline in the insistence of the sexual impulse which, until middle age or later, compels most men and women to engage in intimacy.  It may also be a merciful provision of Nature, designed to lessen the pain of the inevitable parting from loved ones which death brings in its train.  Man is the only creature who can see his own death coming; and when he does, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.  He prepares for death by freeing himself from mundane goals and attachments, and turns instead to the cultivation of his own interior garden.  (Ibid., 168-169)
In short, what Storr is on about in this chapter is that the third or late period in a composer's life is relevant because it is the time when communication with others tends to be replaced by work depending more upon solitary meditation.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Note on the Inertia of Institutions in the light of the Papal Visit to Great Britain

I am no sociologist, but can make justifiable claims to being an erstwhile theologian of the STL variety, a budding philosopher, a writer and a teacher who has left theology long behind him in favour of a philosophy and a psychology of religion which firmly roots everything cultural, that is religion, spirituality and all the more or less shared values cherished by various societies within the ambit of the human search for meaning.  I have long stopped believing in a revealed religion.  I am a meaning-making creature who shapes my own meaning in relationship with other meaning-making creatures in my society.  Fair enough, some of my fellow creatures make their meaning by engaging in relgious practices and in holding religious beliefs.  I respect them for this - quite simply, that is their way of making sense of what life is for them.  Psychotherapy, psychology, meditation and philosophy are what make my life meaningful, and I would define my stance towards life as being that of an agnostic Buddhist who embraces all within this latter tradition, bar its belief in reincarnation and various gods.  These latter beliefs I see as being highly metaphorical, but no less true on that account.

So much for this declaration of my stance towards life.  As I reflect on my engagement with the various institutions with which I have been engaged in the course of the last fifty two years of my life I list the follwing as being some of the more important: my family, my social class, the system of education, the church and the health system.  One of the things that has struck me about all of them is their seeming resistance to chance, and oftentimes their reluctance to move one whit, if not their sheer inertia holding them in the one place.  It would seem that now - in the wake of the colossal universal collapse in financial and fiscal affairs - the present moment, is the right time to reflect on this reluctance to budge an inch or to change at all.

I have been involved in education since 1980 as a secondary teacher and have often remarked on my own inability to bring about change within a system which at times can be nothing short of dehumanizing for certain unfortunate individuals.  I think of those students who drop out of school early to invariably end up either on the streets, taking drugs or in prison.  Thankfully, their numberrs are not huge, but these poor lost souls do make up a sizable enough minority.  I readily admit the rights to education of those whom they prevent from learning when they did or do come to school.  However, I bemoan the paucity of supports that these poor souls have.  As one of their fellow students said to me recently: "Tom and John (not their real names) have it rough."  Have I ever spoken out about the injustices in the education system?  Have I ever taken the side of the weak and vulnerable?  Or do I just go about my business and have an easy a life as possible?  There has been a considerable amount of decisions which I did not personally agree with, but with which I went along because the majority of my colleagues thought them right.  I did not want to rock the boat or appear to be a crank or whatever.

The same thing applies within the greater monolithic structures of organized religions of whatever denomination.  I was a practising Catholic until I was 40 years of age, but have not practised it for the last 12 years.  I was also a member of a religious order between the ages of 25 and 28 and learned much about humanity and much about spirituality - and certainly a lot about myself - when a member.  I also completed a post-graduate degree in theology during that time.  So, I believe I can certainly comment on the institution that is the Roman Catholic Church.  The instutional church is certainly one that is set in its ways and presents to the world a monolith which is frozen in medievalism.  It has never embraced modernism, never mind post-modernism.  Even the spirit, never mind the letter, of Vatican II, which sought to dialogue with the modern world and whose documents are very fresh even when read today, was never really implemented.  Women in the Roman Catholic Church are second class citizens and that cannot be gainsaid at all.  Likewise its tenets on certain areas of sexuality - say, homosexuality for one - are highly suspect and do not really take modern psychology into account at all.  Its take on celibacy is also suspect.  Why can't priests marry?  There is absolutely no sound theological reason that can explain the forbidding of marriage to ordained clerics.  Then, its handling of the clerical abuse and rape of children by renegade and paedophilic priests - albeit small in numbers, though roughly the same percentage as in lay society - has been atrocious to say the least.  The refusal of the institutional church to "come out with both hands up" and proclaim that there was always a policy of transferring these renegades from parish to parish from the very beginning.  This blatant cover-up added to the proliferation of these dreadful crimes by allowing these criminals free range.  In a sense the Pope should admit this policy.  Of course, the only result of such an admission is immediate resignation of all who conspired in these cover ups icluding the Pope himself, of course.  Now, the institution and its preservation are placed ahead of the sufferings and rights of the ordinary innocent child or indeed ahead of the rights of any Catholic, be he or she religious or lay. 

Bishop James Moriarty is an outstanding man of the cloth - whom it was my great pleasure to meet on many occasions  - resigned his position as Bishop of Kildare and Loughlin almost immediately and he declared that he regretted that he did not stand up against the prevailing culture of silence that reigned in the church during his tenure as an assistant bishop in Dublin.  However, the good Bishop I believe was far too hard on himself - as the others involved did not even deem themselves in anyway culpable - insofar as it is very hard indeed to stand out against a prevailing culture and be that one lone voice calling in the wilderness.  It takes great courage to do so because then one becomes the traitor, the outcast.  There have been films made about whistle-blowers and how hard it is for them to take a stand.  When they do so they are stripped of all the trappings of office etc.  Of course, this means that society must make it relatively easy for whistle-blowers to release the stinking truth.

Of course, one can also see the inertia in other institutions of the State - Politics, Banking and indeed Health.  The last one of these institutions has also covered up much "stinking truth" as well as the all the other institutions, the Church included.  For example The Lourdes Hospital Inquiry - An Inquiry into peripartum hysterectomy at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda - showed the level of collusion among the higher echelons of the medical profession, while a mere lowly midwife was either dismissed, demoted or severely rebuked for attempting to bring the medical malpractice to public light, if my memory serves me well.  It is beyond the scope of these thoughts to say anything about the malpractices of either politicians or bankers, a subject which has been covered ad nauseam in the public media of late.  It is we the ordinary citizens of this country who are footing the disastrously astronomical debts accumulated by what can only be called the reckless gambling of these trwo feckless and corrupt professions or institutions.  Once again, here I am arguing that there is a rotten and stinking inertia within institutions to change, to move on, to have any in-built checks and balances.  There must be in-built checks alright, but there also needs to be checks from without, from outside these institutions.  Also there must be some kind of "whistle-blowing" clauses written into the very fabric of our institutions if they are not to become festering and stinking monolithic structures.

Within all these structures there are the power-brokers who seek to hold on to power above all.  Just look around you at your place of work.  Who are the power brokers?  Who are the ones who defend the institution at all costs?  Who are the ones who are "feathering their own nests" as the cliché rightly puts it? Are there prophets or mavericks anywhere who might blow the whistle on corrupt practices?  It is so easy to point the finger at this or that politician, at this or that bishop, at this or that banker, at this or that surgeon, at this or that speculator.  Maybe we would do the same?  Are you really sure that you have the courage to be a whistle-blower?  Are you not prey to rapacious desires and ingrained greed as are/were all these above mentioned professionals in their various institutions?  What in the end is the price we pay for inertia, dear reader?  Is it our very soul?