Saturday, March 05, 2011

Where is the Soul 1?

Internal versus External
Rubbish washed in on the tide, Sutton, June 2005
To make sense of our lives we have invented many elaborate lesser languages within whatever major or minor language we may speak to communicate with others of our neighborhood or country - those of literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, architecture, engineering, medicine, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy and a veritable legion of other "-ologies." There would seem to be no end to the explosion of knowledge and information, aided and abetted by the speed of communication allowed us by the Internet, satellite communication and so on and so forth.

Much of our modern thinking, both in the natural and human sciences owe much to the thought of the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596 – 1650) who spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been rightly dubbed the "Father of Modern Philosophy," simply because a lot of subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, and these are studied closely to this day. Most important of all is his book entitled Meditations on First Philosophy which continues to be a standard text at most university philosophy departments to this day. Descartes's influence in mathematics is also apparent, for example the Cartesian Coordinate Geometry System - a system that allows geometric shapes to be expressed in algebraic equations - was named after him and he was also one of the key figures in the Scientific Revolution.

However, it is to Descartes' dualism that I wish to direct my attention in this post. Our man was a rationalist who doubted the veracity of the senses and who believed solely in the certainties given by his mind - "cogito ergo sum!" In his books Passions of the Soul and The Description of the Human Body he suggested that the body works like a machine, that it has the material properties of extension and motion, and that it follows the laws of physics. On the other hand the mind (or soul or psyche) was described as a non-material entity that lacks extension and motion, and does not follow these laws of physics. Descartes argued that only humans have minds, and that the mind interacts with the body at the pineal gland which is "the seat of the soul" because the soul is unitary, and unlike many areas of the brain the pineal gland appeared to be unitary (though subsequent microscopic inspection has revealed it is formed of two hemispheres). Now, this form of dualism or duality proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence the otherwise rational mind, such as when people act out of passion. Most of the previous accounts of the relationship between mind and body had been one-directional or uni-directional.


René Descartes
 Even though both humans and animals had pineal glands Descartes strongly believed that only humans can possibly have minds. This led him to the belief that animals cannot feel pain, and we note that his practice of vivisection (the dissection of live animals) became widely used throughout Europe until the Enlightenment. Cartesian dualism set the agenda for philosophical discussion of the mind-body problem for many years after his death.






Over-emphasising the Internal: Legacy of Greco-Christian Philosophy and Cartesian Dualism

Perhaps the above introduction was a little long-winded, but nevertheless it serves as a useful background to our singular preoccupation in Western Thought with the internal as opposed to the external.  The ancient Greek and Early Christian philosophers and theologians had prior to Descartes heralded the primacy of the internal, that is the primacy of the soul which they would have seen as directly created by the Godhead.  In Christian thought the body became more that a mere husk or housing for the spiritual soul.  In fact, for most Christians the body became nothing short of vile, dirty and sinful.  We still suffer from the weight of guilt laid on our contemporary shoulders by these ancient philosophers.  In some contemporary religions the body is still despised.  Descartes built on this Christian duality as we have seen above.  Inner became way more important than outer.  I have argued many times in these pages before that the more holistic way of looking at the human phenomenon is as a Body-Soul, a Both/And rather than an Either/Or.  Our human-ness, our individuality is a Both/And a Body-Soul or a Body-Mind if you will, not a "ghost within a machine" as Descartes would have it, or a spiritual entity or soul animating an uninvolved husk which is the body as many Christian might see it.

In a wonderful book, which is essentially the edited transcript of a dialogue between the archetype psychologist James Hillman (1926 - )and the journalist Michael Ventura (1945-  )called We've had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World's Getting Worse (Harper San Francisco, 1993), the authors deal with roughly the same question as I am dealing with in this post, namely the over-emphasis on things of the mind (soul) - internal - rather than things of the body and of the world (all external).  They give us some wonderful insights in a conversational manner.  This makes this short work an illuminating and quick read (though sections of it can be profitably re-read and digested) that deals with interesting psychological and philosophical points about the goals and aims of contemporary psychotherapy.

In their introductory remarks they maintain that psychotherapy needs a good shake today.  I love the metaphor.  I remember one Catholic Religious Sister, head of her congregation remarking way more than twenty years ago now that the Roman Catholic Church needed a very good shake to knock the rotten fruit to the ground.  Now it was the adjective "rotten" not "ripened" that the good lady used, and wasn't she right!

Here are some of the preliminary remarks of Hillman to Ventura on their shared walk or journey, and isn't he right!:

We still locate the psyche  inside the skin.  You go inside to locate the psyche, you examine your feelings and your dreams, they belong to you... but the psyche, the soul, is still only within and between people.  We're working on our relationships constantly, and on our feelings and reflections, but look at what's left out of that. (Hillman makes a wide gesture that includes the oil tanker on the horizon, the gang graffiti on a park sign, and the fat homeless woman with swollen ankles and cracked skin asleep on the grass about fifteen yards away.)  What's left out is the deteriorating world... psychotherapy is only working on the "inside" soul.  By removing the soul from the world and not recognizing that the soul is also in the world, psychotherapy can't do its job anymore.  The buildings are sick, the institutions are sick, the banking system's sick, the schools, the streets - the sickness is out there.  You know the soul is always being discovered through pathology.  In the nineteenth century people didn't talk about psyche, until Freud came along and discovered psychopathology.  Now we are beginning to say, "the furniture has stuff in it that is poisoning us, the microwave gives off dangerous rays."  The world has become toxic. (Op.cit., pp. 4-5)  (Italicization by the authors!)

Ancient Incantation of Amhairghin Glúngheal

Creathlach naomhóige - the wooden frame of the Kerry currach or naomhóg,.
Ireland is wild land and an ancient and misty one at that, too, often befogged both literally and metaphorically.  That literal befogging causes death as is evidenced by the recent air crash at Cork Airport which claimed six lives (Fog claims Six), while the metaphorical befogging refers to her conflicted identity or identities.  She is a land that has both repulsed and embraced her invaders.  She is also a land of mystery and mystique.  She is both beguiling and alluring.  She is a land of contradictions, of unpredictable weather, yet always one where welcome is extended to any stranger - tír an chéad míle fáilte.  She is most especially the land of poem and song, of incantations, most ancient and most new.


Often when I travel to west of Ireland, whether to Galway or Donegal, or Kerry I feel as if the rugged landscape and the powerful seascape are both calling to the ancient Gaelic soul in me, calling to me literally in the sounds or in the song of the very elements.  It is with that firmly in the background that the ancient poem named in my title comes to my mind.


"Amergin" is the word as it has been written most recently in English, but the actual spelling of this name is "Amhairghin". It means "Birth of Song," or as an Dochtúir Daithí Ó hÓgáin puts it: "song-conception." (Myth, Legend and Romance, Prentice Hall Press, 1991, p 23)  According to legend, Amhairghin was one of the leaders of the "Men of Míl", or the Milesians, as they were commonly known to us pupils at school, who battled against the Tuatha Dé Danann (or the Fairy Clan) for possession of Ireland.  This ancient Song of Amergin is a self-claiming by Amergin of this island, as well as a challenge to the Tuatha Dé Danann, who were considered to be the gods. The poet, who sings this song like a priest or druid, invokes the powers of the Land here upon first stepping ashore in Ireland. With the strong incantatory words of this poem, Amergin claims the elements of Ireland. 


Surf at Dún Chaoin, Co. Chiarraí, Samhradh, 2005
Amhairghin Glúngheal literally means Amhairghin the Bright-kneed and he appears in the pseudo-history of Ireland as one of the foremost of Mil's sons and is the one who leads the Gaelic people in their invasion of Ireland.  The role assigned to him makes him the most important of the invaders, for he is the first of them to touch the soil of Ireland.  As Amhairghin first lands, he recites a great mystical rhetoric in which he exults in being a poet, claiming to be at one with the whole environment.  He is wind, sea, bull, hawk, dewdrop, flower, boar, salmon, lake and hill, and he further claims to be the point of a warrior's weapon and "a god who fashions inspiration in the head."  The composition is really an argument, according to Dr. Ó hÓgáin, by the professional poets of medieval Ireland for social primacy, but there is also an echo of ancient ritual concerning the metamorphic power of seer-poets called the Find. (See Ibid., 24)
Gaelic Version
Am gaeth i m-muir
Am tond trethan
Am fuaim mara
Am dam secht ndirend
Am séig i n-aill
Am dér gréne
Am cain lubai
Am torc ar gail
Am he i l-lind
Am loch i m-maig
Am brí a ndai
Am gái i fodb fras feochtu
Am dé delbas do chind codnu
Coiche nod gleith clochur slébe
Cia on co tagair aesa éscai
Cia du i l-laig fuiniud gréne
Cia beir buar o thig tethrach
Cia buar tethrach tibi
Cia dám, cia dé delbas faebru a ndind ailsiu
Cáinte im gai, cainte gaithe.


English Version
I am the wind on the sea
I am the stormy wave
I am the sound of the ocean
I am the bull with seven horns
I am the hawk on the cliff face
I am the sun's tear
I am the beautiful flower
I am the boar on the rampage
I am the salmon in the pool
I am the lake on the plain
I am the defiant word
I am the spear charging into battle
I am the god who put fire in your head
Who made the trails through stone mountains
Who knows the age of the moon
Who knows where the setting sun rests
Who took the cattle from the house of the war crow
Who pleases the war crow's cattle
What bull, what god created the mountain skyline
The cutting word, the cold word.


The line Am dé delbas do chind codnu appeals to this author here or as it is translated above: I am the god who put fire in your head because it is about the creative inspiration behind any culture worth its salt.  Dr. Daithí Ó hÓgáin presents us with a different, but equally strong rendition of this line in English, "I am a god who fashions inspiration in the head."  While much negativity may be poured on the heads of certain contemporary Irishmen (I use men purposely here, for our leaders are and have been mostly men) for bringing about our economic ruin - and rightly and liberally may such scorn be poured - we still remain a nation of great writers, poets, dramatists, novelists, musicians and artists and indeed we produce them above and beyond the international average.  We may, with both pleasure and a healthy pride bathe in the warmth of this fire in our heads! Am dé delbas do chind codnu!!!! 

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Towards The Still Point 8 - Another Look at T.S. Eliot's Beliefs


Sunset, Howth, September, 2003
 Of the many poets I loved at College in the late 1970s, T.S. Eliot rates with Dylan Thomas and Randal Jarrell as being one of my all-time favourites.  Why these three in particular?  Well, the answer to that question is quite easy indeed.  The late great John Devitt taught and tutored me in the literary oeuvres of these three poets, and it was through his good offices that I began to listen to these three wonderful makers of poems reading their work.  Their living, spoken voices captivated me from the start - their wonderful enunciation, their powerful passion about what they were saying and the sheer ability of each to communicate how they were feeling won my heart immediately.  In short, it was on hearing them read (or even perform) their poems that made me become an addict to good poetry.  I learnt the valuable lesson, too, that poetry is essentially an oral art!

T S Eliot always appealed to me as I was studying theology and philosophy as well as English literature in those days, and this Anglo-American or more correctly American-English poet had a keen interest in both subjects.  American by birth, Eliot was a student at Harvard, and wrote his thesis (Ph.D.) on the nineteenth-century philosopher F. H. Bradley. He also studied in Germany, and at the Sorbonne (Paris) before coming to Merton College, Oxford, where he settled. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

Eliot turned to Christianity in 1927. Specifically, he rejected the Unitarianism of his upbringing, and embraced Anglo-Catholicism, (essentially The Church of England) in a public and controversial conversion. He wrote his best-known conversion poem, Ash Wednesday the following year.

Now, it is important to emphasize that Eliot was far too learned and erudite to confuse the areas of Theology and Literature or to use the latter for the promulgation of the tenets of the former.  In other words, as even the most unread students in English Literature, or in any literature for that matter, will know, didacticism is often far from persuasive, and more often than not destroys good literature, reducing it to mere pamphleteering or propaganda.  So our poet refused to take the high moral ground of didacticism which often might and does smack of hypocrisy.

T.S.Eliot was interested in the writings of previous critics of ethics and commentators on faith, such as Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. As a scholar of English, he was keen not to confuse theology and literature, but he acknowledged that the two approaches need not conflict with each other. Indeed, he believed that writing was a way of approaching the great mysteries of human life, and if this meant showing the human being in all his colours, "warts and all" as the cliché has it, in his confusion as well as his certainty, at his best and at his worst or somewhere in between, then so be it.

Eliot was a well-known celebrity and cultural commentator during his own lifetime.  He posited that culture was, in fact, simply the expression of a nation's religion, in various diverse forms. (This seems somewhat cracked to me, or rather more correctly, in the wrong order, as most of us today would see religion as a part of culture and not the other way around!) Because of his interest in civilization and society, much of his study was concentrated on the ritual, rubric, iconography, and cult of religion, be it pagan simplicity, Christian hierarchy or Buddhist philosophy of life. 

Pope's Cross, Phoenix Park, September 2003
However, once again T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) was a man of his era, who had lived through the human and consequent cultural devastation of two major World Wars.  These were two realities that simply could not be ignored.  Consequently, it's not hard to understand why he also believed that a lot of the most remarkable achievements of culture had arisen out of discord and disunity. He thought that society in his own age had broken down to a large extent, as expressed in his great modernist poem The Waste Land to which I referred in my last post on this modernist poet.  Writing after The Great War, he felt that modern life was rife with futility and anarchy. It was his interest in the institutions of society that led him to see the importance of communal worship, and the significance of religious practice for entire nations, as well as for individual souls.  It is also important to point out that The Waste Land (1922) bears the hall mark of a man who had undergone a fairly recent nervous breakdown and a devastating divorce from his first wife.  In other words the cultural devastation mirrored to a great extent his own inner one. The poem is also known for its obscure nature - its rather confusing slippage between satire and prophecy and back again and also its abrupt changes of speaker, location, and time. Despite this, it has become a touchstone of modern literature, a poetic counterpart to a novel published in the same year, James Joyce's Ulysses. Among its best-known phrases are "April is the cruellest month", "I will show you fear in a handful of dust"; and "Shantih shantih shantih," the Sanskrit mantra that ends the poem. Shanti, Santhi, Shanthi or Shantih as Eliot personally spells it means peace, rest, calmness, tranquility, or bliss.  Eliot, here in this poem translated it as "The Peace which passeth understanding."  (The Shanti Mantras are Hindu prayers, not Buddhist!)

Eliot was always interested in (i) the potentials and (ii) the limitations of other religions, as well as those of Christianity.  Buddhism is a particular interest of the author of this blog, and it exercised a great influence on this great modernist poet of the English language. It attracted him for everything it has to say about the pain of human life and desire and most especially for its prescriptions as to how to learn to avoid such pain and such desire.  He was also very interested in the concept of sunyata (divine emptiness). In Buddhism, emptiness is a characteristic of phenomena arising from the Buddha's observation that nothing possesses an essential or enduring identity (anattā). In the Buddha's spiritual teachings, the realization of the emptiness of phenomena is an aspect of the cultivation of insight that leads to wisdom and inner peace. The importance of this insight is especially emphasized in Mahāyāna Buddhism, and is explicated in the tathāgatagarbha sutras.


He had a great interest in the Bhagavad-Gita (one of the Hindu Scriptures) and a fascination with the occult and with the mysticism of all Eastern Religions. Yet he advocated the need for systematic belief structures, and did not fully embrace the Confucianism of his friend and fellow modernist poet Ezra Pound. Eliot was also very interested in mysticism, but felt the need to commit vivid sensations of mystical moments to paper, some of which are the most profound pieces of Christian creativity of the last century.

The force and insight of Eliot's work often arose from his personal experience. However, it is important to point out, and totally understandable, that his personal life was not without its periods of doubt as well as faith. He often suffered financial difficulties, was of an anxious disposition, and his marriage to his first wife, Vivien, broke down partially as a result of nervous illnesses from which both of them suffered.

Eliot wrote poetry partly as a means of escaping from the trials of his life, but he also died saying that his creativity had caused him great personal suffering. He wrote several plays: Murder in the Cathedral , The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party.  His greatest poem, which overshadows The Waste Land, and which was the poet's own preferred work, was The Four Quartets. These all dealt with the religious aspects of time and redemption. Even when writing about the suffering of individual people, Eliot maintained a sense of hope, and he was not given over to despair.

The fourth section of The Four Quartets is called Little Gidding (which highlights the element of fire) is the most anthologized of the Quartets.   It is also instructive to realize that Eliot's experiences as an air raid warden in The Blitz power the poem (unsurprisingly).   It is a small step, then, for such a highly strung and deeply imaginative and learned man to make when he imagines in this quartet meeting Dante during the German bombing. (Dante's Inferno etc).  The beginning of the Quartets ("Houses .../Are removed, destroyed") had become a violent everyday experience during The Blitz of London.  This creates an animation, a background scene, a veritable film running there in his mind and ours against which for the first time he talks of Love as the driving force behind all experience.  And in a drive or blitz of Love towards The Still Point, if I may be so bold as to mix metaphors as well as religions, the Quartets end with an affirmation of the medieval English Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416): "all shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well".  This surely is the Christian Still Point.