Sunday, September 25, 2011
Richard Dawkins has brought out a new book, The Magic of Reality, mainly aimed at children. I turned over a few of its pages in the bookshop. You can check out his promotional video here. One of his chapters is “What is the Sun?” He retells some of the ancient myths, then answers the question in his own scientific terms. He is confident that the reader will agree with him as to which is the more magical, myth or science. One is tempted to remark that Dawkins relishes the role of arch-priest, having as he thinks kicked out the incumbent, by exposing non-scientific ideas as “unreality”. In the days of Gilgamesh, as I reported in an earlier post, everyone believed that the sun passes through a tunnel under the earth’s surface, in time to rise again in the east the next morning. But that was no tale told by priests! It was the vivid imagination of the people, full of relevant meaning about rebirth, replenishment and diurnal rhythms; faithful to direct perception, surely the very essence of reality, with no recourse to abstraction. Both God and Science depend on abstract concepts not seen in daily life. As David Abram says in the concluding chapter of Becoming Animal:
Commonly reckoned to be at odds with one another, conventional over-reductive science and most new-age spiritualities actually fortify one another in their detachment from the earth, one of them reducing sensible nature to an object with scant room for sentience and creativity, the other projecting all creativity into a supernatural dimension beyond all bodily ken.
Reality is what floods my senses when I step out of the house. I don’t always perceive it as magical but ten days ago it certainly was. I’ve been trying to write it down ever since. I started out from home when the streets were still busy with the tail-end of the morning’s rush hour, following a blind impulse. I think the bright round moon must have exerted her influence when I saw her above the chimney-pot just after dawn. I was impatient to roam, but not till I stepped out did I understand my need to bathe in the cosmic rays, to be gilded by the September sun, to accept the blessings poured down on everyone, that special day. The feeling of blessedness burst into flower on a familiar street which leads to the town centre, nothing pretty about it, the old buildings carved up to enable modern traffic flow, the gaps filled piecemeal by successive generations of mediocre architects. Lorries and cars exuded noise and fumes. A sprinkling of fellow-pedestrians hurried late to their offices. A chill breeze tempered the Autumn sunbeams. But I felt a magic in the air. “All is well,” I thought, “everything is happening in its proper orbit and propriety”. I wanted to describe it but didn’t know how.
On a bend of that street, there’s a scruffy patch of shrubs and mown grass, with a public bench. Behind is a rushing stream which cascades into a culvert. To reach this point, the stream has flowed through the overgrown spaces behind factories. But when it reaches the busier town centre it has to go underground, reappearing at the other end between two stations: police and fire. Then it meanders round the Council Offices before it finally reaches the series of grassy open spaces and playing fields that go all the way to Loudwater. Standing at the culvert, I stopped to watch the water cascade and disappear down a sturdy grating whose teeth had been carefully spaced by engineers to prevent small children from being lost in a scary underworld. If the teeth were any closer together, the stream would get too easily dammed with debris, and cause a flood. In this way, every well-ordered street on earth is built on the work of trustworthy engineers. After bombs and wars, they arrive like surgeons to tend the wounds—patching, sewing back severed arteries, maintaining those flows which never bother us till they are interrupted: water, drainage, electricity, telephones. Fortunate is this valley town, my home, never to have been ripped apart by violence! There are places where the reliability of piped supplies matters more to the residents than democracy, or even the downfall of a tyrant. For there can be no civilisation without infrastructure.
I’ve written about my Valley Path, which follows the flow of that stream, here, in “Valley Reverie” and here, in “Beginnings”. But my favourite part, photographed and described in those two posts, has been closed for the past two years. Public footpaths are sacred in this country, —protected by law anyway—so an official Order had to be obtained and posted at the spot, explaining the closure was temporary for the construction of a bridge. This has now been built. It leads to a new housing development of several acres. Today, such paths are used mostly by dog-walkers, but to me they’re a blessing preserved from the ancient days; a counterpoint to the madness of modernity; conduits of wilderness that slice through the town. The Order said the bridgeworks were to be completed by April 2010. Countless times I’ve been been to look since then, and been disappointed.
So I took a different route, and had various absurd adventures, resulting in a direction for my walk determined by necessity rather than choice. I ended up, almost against my will, on the Valley Path going west, back towards home. The closed section was not far ahead. So be it. A footpath sign directed me through an alley, one of those which weaves between the backyards of houses, one which I’d somehow never encountered before. I noticed the sun shining on the blind side wall of a small Victorian house. It was at this precise moment that I found myself saying: “Infinite are the depths”. I said it out loud, because I keep a voice recorder handy when out walking. Sometimes when a fragment like that suddenly comes into your mind, you think it is from the Bible or a poem. Later, I checked it on Google. There was but one trivial occurrence, a fragment of chatter. So where did these words come from? They described my feeling at that moment. I meant “Infinite are the depths in matter”—as if everything is alive and conscious; and especially that thought is not an abstraction in something called the human mind, but every activity which takes place in physical space. It even felt as though this alley I walked was a corridor slicing through time, to offer dim glimpses of the past, adding an extra dimension to perceived reality. But that was just a momentary perception. The “infinite depth” was something else, an inwardness present in this physical creation, or an awareness which goes beyond individual consciousness of the human “I”. It felt like a kind of immortality, though not of the self. In a single moment I saw an eternal Here, as if this alley itself, or my own self in this alley at this moment, were enough to contemplate forever.
And then, later, I recalled a sentence of Abram which I had copied down:
No matter how long I linger with any being, I cannot exhaust the dynamic enigma of its presence.
When Abram says “being” he means any animal, plant, mineral, cloud—or even the wind. Normally, when we speak of being immortal, we refer to the notion of the “I” not dying when the body dies. But I saw, in that moment, that the “I” is nothing more than the body’s mechanism for looking out for itself. It dies and unravels, but consciousness is all-pervasive, in all beings, in all matter. Call it awareness, call it an indwelling intelligence in everything, if you like.
The experience itself cannot really have lasted more than a second. For I went back to the place another day, out of curiosity to see again what I saw when I said “Infinite are the depths”. I knew I had been looking at a blank white wall as I walked down the alley, without stopping, and imagined there must have been at least twenty yards of white wall. But the length was more like fifteen feet. So it was a one-second moment and by capturing it in words,I can retrieve its meaning forever.
I walked on till the point where, round the next corner, I’d discover whether the closed section of the path has been reopened. I confess to you dear reader that I said a little prayer first. Then I went round the bend. Yes! It has been reopened, as you can see from the photographs below.
It is not easy to convey what the words of the title meant to me, but today, ten days later, I’ve now finished that book by David Abram, Becoming Animal. It contains a great deal of words. Sometimes I felt there were too many. So I shall try, in too few words, to sum up his book; or what I have so far understood of it:
Infinite are the depths to be explored in this place of wonder, our earthly home.
Posted by Vincent at 7:18 pm
Sunday, September 18, 2011
The definition of falling is surrender to gravity. It’s easy to fall into traps. By definition, they are the things which are easier to fall into than climb out of. To attain skill in getting out of traps you need to fall into them in the first place. Talking about skill in getting out of traps, this could turn into a review of the excellent film The Prestige as recently recommended by Bryan. (In which you see how a performer falls into a trap from which escape is impossible. You see it, but the audience doesn’t. They don’t care what happens out of sight to the caged bird or person who vanishes. They wait only for “the Prestige”, where order is restored to everyday reality—where the disappeared miraculously reappears.) Yes, a film review might flow naturally, but nature must be tamed, and this little stream of words meandering down the mountainside by gravitational force must keep within its ordained banks for now.
Which brings me again to David Abram, mentioned in my last. I finally received his latest book in the mail, sent over from the States: Becoming Animal. It’s not yet time to review it, for I’m not halfway through. But I’ve read enough to abandon plans for any book on the same subject, or indeed any subject. Abram is a proper writer, to whom this scribbler of brief notes is honoured to yield. He has youth, energy and genius for the task. Me, I’ll go on doing what comes naturally. Part of this will be to publish a little volume on Kindle, comprising a selection of relevant posts spanning five years, entitled “On being an animal”.
It will be one of a series: a dozen or more volumes on different topics, each available on Amazon at a dollar. (People talk with affection of the physical experience of paper books. But there are good and bad. What physical pleasure can a book give you, when you can’t hold it flat open at the page? Similarly, what’s the pleasure of a Kindle book that’s hastily converted, and not custom-designed for the medium? I shall take pains that all illustrations, hyperlinks, formatting and text are exactly right, however long it takes.)
It’s not that I think the contents of this blog have any literary merit as a whole or even in any particular part. I just think of it as a handful of seeds to broadcast for another generation, weeds and all, in case some part of it gives an idea to someone some day. This is what I must do, when must is what comes naturally, not burdensomely. Abram is a true pioneer. I rejoice that he is alive.
Another influence helping things fall into place is my younger daughter. I discovered the other day that she’s five times faster than I at web design, despite not having studied it. She has wanted to become a web designer for years now, but now suddenly we both realize that I can teach her, where “teaching” is merely pointing in a certain direction and helping inspire. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t even teach, do what comes naturally.
PS After drafting the above, I went back to Abram’s book, from where I left off. This man has gone further than I dreamed possible, down the trails I most want to follow. I wonder who or what has been his guide? He will be one of mine forever now. I just came upon this:
But I was now beginning to realize another possibility: that ideas had their own lives independent of mine. That indeed some vital ideas were like creatures wholly unaccustomed to human contact, wild notions whose robust elegance and vigor required that they keep their distance from those who might strive to define or domesticate them, twisting them from their native habitat.
One such fugitive idea, timid like a deer encountered unexpectedly, will be the subject of my next.
Posted by Vincent at 8:35 pm
Saturday, September 10, 2011
On 29th July—seven weeks ago—I posted an entry, “A glimpse of Paradox”, about a sense of mission.
It finished with these words:
Disputatious as ever, I question the reasonableness of reasonableness.
We make ourselves blind to the fact that our lives are not actually ruled by reason. They are ruled by pursuing whatever makes us feel all right. We then apply reason to tell ourselves that what makes us feel all right is “the truth”.
Within the comments to that post, a mission or project was mentioned, which I said would take me away from blogging to some extent, in order to write something bigger: a book. Putting it in context, I’ve probably been talking this way for the last fifty years. The first hints of a possible collaboration emerged. I asked John Myste if he wanted to be more intimately involved but he “wasn’t sure about the intimacy”. None of us is. It’s the human condition. (He might also have recalled I was educated in a British boys’ boarding school. This might have given him some erroneous ideas about the implications.)
In a comment to the following post, Life-Illusion, Bryan M. White took the risk of intimacy and made an offer which I did not refuse:
If you’re ever interested in making this project of yours a joint endeavor, you know like a point/counter-point type of thing, I’d be more than happy to provide the counter-point.
To facilitate our collaboration, we started a private blog, initially called I’m a Stranger in Paradox with the following subtitle, taken from the lyrics to a well-known song:
Won’t you answer the fervent prayer / Of a stranger in paradise / Don’t send me in dark despair / From all that I hunger for / But open your angel’s arms / To the stranger in paradise / And tell him / That he need be / A stranger no more
This lasted for three weeks in August, with each of us writing short essays as blog posts, then discussing them in comments. It was a stimulating rivalry, but our mutual misunderstanding was often frustrating. Bryan had the additional frustration of not knowing where I wanted to go and what I expected of him. Additional? I didn’t know how to answer those questions either, but it didn’t cause me frustration, merely guilt. So we fell out and abandoned the thing. Then, as one does with a failing retail enterprise, I reopened the site under a new name: The Possible Phoenix, subtitled “The ashes are not yet cold. Perhaps we shall rise again”. So it rose again on the third day, to demonstrate continued life. Since then, for the last week, it has been quiet.
Our discussions on the private blog have been mainly on two topics: Reason, and Reality. Our views weren’t quite unbridgeable, but most of our effort was focused on our differences, just like the wider world, where differences lead to a vast expense of conflict, both diplomatic and blood-shedding.
Now read on:
The other day I had an idea so simple that I didn’t even consider it worth an essay on its own. I had nibbled around its edges in our private blog, but never seen the simplicity. That place was wonderful all the same: a kind of laboratory in which Bryan and I had identified the ingredients and even mixed them, somewhat dangerously. All we lacked was a simple detonator to ignite the ideas with a suitably big explosion.
(Note to monitoring Security Services: whilst this sounds like a secret bomb factory, it’s purely metaphorical. And I deny any incitement to acts of violence. I’ll explain in full detail when you arrest me.)
In fact a fuse had been laid, in a blog post I wrote five years ago, The nature of Spirit. I had put a link to an interview with David Abram titled “The Ecology of Magic”. Abram, who was once the house magician at Alice’s Restaurant, became interested in traditional forms of magic as practised by shamans for all kinds of healing purposes. So I re-read the interview the other day and was struck by something:
Everyone is hungry for magic!
I remember the shouts of joy and lit-up faces when David Blaine performed astonishing tricks in the streets of US cities. I know the TV programmes were edited to the point where you could call them rigged, but I’m talking about the faces of his audience, not the tricks. I did a Balducci levitation once in a bookshop, prompted by a David Blaine book they had on display. The shop-owner was awed. Then he wanted to talk about it; but I bid him a swift farewell, leaving him to spend the rest of his life wondering.
But now, the fuse has been lit, thanks to David Abram providing the flame. It has fizzed all the way to the explosive mixture that Bryan and I synthesized, a mixture sitting stolid and lumpy, sulking in a corner of Blogger where no one else goes. I realized that:
All religion is magic!
Just four words. No need to write a book about it. Not just religion, but all the irrational things we are so influenced by, or even addicted to. They are all impure forms of magic. Not that there is any pure magic, that I know of.
Belief is magic. Look at the placebo effect, self-belief and its role in achievement, alternative therapies, rituals, prayers. The thing about belief of course is that you have to believe in it. It’s not so effective if you say, “I know it can’t be true but I want to believe it.”
But magic isn’t just belief. (Or shall I say belief is not just belief?) Magic is a transformation that happens within you.
I must have heard a thousand times someone saying, “If it was good enough for my forefathers, and their forefathers before them, it must be good enough for me”—though I suspect that “someone” was mostly me! So what happened? Why is so much of the magic that sustained our forefathers under attack? I have a theory for this. To simplify the argument let us talk about the predominant form of magic in our culture: religion, though the argument does apply equally to other forms of magic.
In past centuries, religion and reason were not separate in the common perception. Religion and kingship (the main form of government) were inextricably linked. The king was divinely ordained to rule. Even to this day the British sovereign is crowned in a special church service. Religion and philosophy even were closely bound together. Ever since St Paul there had been a Platonic element in Christianity, and then in the Middle Ages St Thomas Aquinas reconciled Roman Catholic doctrine with Aristotle.
But scientific knowledge, as formulated by a series of astronomers, then Isaac Newton and finally Darwin, widened a crack that had always been there. Nevertheless, despite millennia of scepticism:
Religion has always striven to show itself reasonable.
It has been most reluctant to relinquish that prestigious territory, even though congregations are educated now. They can think for themselves.
If you simply admit that religion is magic and that it’s part of human nature to hunger for magic, there is no problem any more. Magic is an illusion that works (unless you see through it). To call it illusion obviously spoils the illusion. If you stop trying to claim that it’s reasonable and consistent; or stop attacking it for not being so; then we can live with one another peaceably.
Apart from the attacking and defending, nothing is wrong.
PS My photo shows the Centaur weathervane, atop our Guildhall, undergoing I know not what repairs. I took the photo the other day, for comparison with this site’s emblem, which is based on a photo taken on January 12th, 2007. I like it best when they put the scaffolding up (notice that it’s still the same ladder). It symbolizes work in progress. The Centaur reminds us that we are animals. The N E S W of the weathervane represents Wayfaring. The whole thing represents my spot on the earth's surface, this town in Buckinghamshire, England, which I call Wye Vale, to confound the probing electronics of search engines.
Posted by Vincent at 12:30 pm