Sunday, February 28, 2021

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Seven: Arrival

Last week the first crocuses appeared: two clumps of light purple, dark purple, and white flowers in the muddy far corner of a neighbor's front yard, next to the sidewalk.  This week they have arrived in earnest, blooming everywhere, increasing in number by the day.  More tentatively, a few daffodils with small yellow flowers have emerged here and there.  The tulips still bide their time.

All of this can be explained perfectly well by science, of course.  Or perhaps not.

            The Year's Awakening

How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes' bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth's apparelling;
        O vespering bird, how do you know,
                How do you know?

How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction's strength,
And day put on some moments' length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;
        O crocus root, how do you know,
                How do you know?

Thomas Hardy, Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries, with Miscellaneous Pieces (Macmillan 1914).

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James is coy.  One senses that he has a certain sympathy with mysticism (which, for me, is the heart of the book), but he generally remains circumspect with respect to his own feelings until he reaches his "Conclusions."  Then, in the final paragraph, he writes:

"The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in.  By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true."

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Longmans, Green, and Co. 1902), page 519.

There are those who will think that James does not go far enough. Others will think that he goes too far.  I am simply grateful for this thoughtful articulation of a reasonable way to look at, and live in, the World.  I might quibble with "consciousness" as being too intellectual, abstract, or psychological.  On the other hand, James' philosophy and writings are grounded in psychology (or so it seems to me), so I can understand why he would use the word.  I would lean more toward the presence of "other worlds" of "existence" or "being," rather than "consciousness."  Using either of those words brings immanence into consideration.  But I am far out of my depth at this point.  To wit: please don't ask me what "existence," "being," or "immanence" mean.  I will have no answer.  I have only inarticulable inklings about these things.

Edward Salter (1835-1934), "Dolerw House and Gardens" (1876)

There is one fine phrase of James' that I have no quibble with whatsoever: "higher energies filter in."  As a Wordsworthian pantheist, I find this thought to be wholly congenial, and true.  For instance: spring is here, regardless of the date on the calendar. Higher energies filter in, bearing messages.  We only need to step out the door to receive them.

          A Contemplation upon Flowers

Brave flowers -- that I could gallant it like you,
          And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless shew,
          And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud:  you know your birth:
For your embroidered garments are from earth.

You do obey your months and times, but I
          Would have it ever spring:
My fate would know no winter, never die,
          Nor think of such a thing.
Oh, that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

Oh, teach me to see death and not to fear,
          But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
          And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers, then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.

Henry King (1592-1669), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics from the Original Texts (William Sloane 1950).

William James continues the paragraph quoted above as follows:

"I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist's attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all.  But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word 'bosh!'  Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow 'scientific' bounds.  Assuredly, the real world is of a different temperament, -- more intricately built than physical science allows."

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, page 519 (italics in original text).

John Knight (1842-1908), "English Landscape"

James ends the final paragraph of his "Conclusions" with these words (which immediately follow the quotation above):

"So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express.  Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?"

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, p. 519.

The last sentence is absolutely wonderful.  It is revealing (and moving) to see James speak of "faithfulness" in the context of the intellectually distancing term "over-belief."  And the sudden appearance of "God" is startling.  The sentence is beautiful, extraordinary. 

                              In the Fields

Lord, when I look at lovely things which pass,
     Under old trees the shadows of young leaves
Dancing to please the wind along the grass,
     Or the gold stillness of the August sun on the August sheaves,
Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?
     And if there is
Will the strange heart of any everlasting thing
     Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?
They come at evening with the home-flying rooks and the scent of hay,
     Over the fields.  They come in Spring.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000).

Alfred East (1844-1913), "A Bend in the River"

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Noted In Passing

The Saturday before last was a changeable day.  Lines of dark rain squalls moved from the southwest to the northeast across Puget Sound, followed by intervals of open skies and sunlight.  Lovely.  Not unusual in this part of the world at this time of year.  Ah, but then came the denouement.

At around 4:50 (I looked at my watch), the sun emerged from beneath the last line of white (no longer grey-hearted) clouds over the waters of the Sound.  I happened to be out on my walk, so I stopped beneath a tall, leafless maple to watch the sunset.  However, it was the sky, not the sun, that caught my eye.  Pale blue-yellow at the horizon (just above the Olympic Mountains), it proceeded upward through changing shades of blue.  I followed the deepening progression: powder blue, cornflower blue, azure.  But, at the zenith  -- my head tilted back, the tangled lattice of empty branches overhead set against the depth of the sky -- the names of colors no longer held any meaning.  The eloquent blueness of that patch of sky was beyond the reach of words.  At such times, the only appropriate response is to pay attention, to not turn away.  There is nothing to be said.

A thought by Philippe Jaccottet which appeared in my last post comes to mind: "A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Blazon in Green and White," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.)  A thought by Ludwig Wittgenstein which has appeared here on numerous occasions comes to mind as well: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 7 (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).)  An alternative translation: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." (Translated by C. K. Ogden.)  Yet, here I am, dear readers, providing you with a ten-day old, useless weather report, ending with an inadequate paean to the blue sky.  

Perhaps it is best to approach the beautiful particulars of the World aslant, lest we betray them.

                      The Nest

Four blue stones in this thrush's nest
I leave, content to make the best
Of turquoise, lapis lazuli
Or for that matter of the whole blue sky.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (Jonathan Cape 1936).

James Craig (1877-1944), "The Kerry Coast" (c. 1928)

"There is a glass bowl with ten goldfish in it on my desk.  I am gazing at it from my bed, as the pain assaults me.  I feel the pain and see the beauty."  Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) wrote this journal entry on April 15, 1901.  It appears in A Drop of Ink, a journal he wrote from January 24 through May 21, 1901.  His entries over this period were published in the Tokyo daily newspaper Nihon as he wrote them. (Janine Beichman-Yamamoto, "Masaoka Shiki's A Drop of Ink," Monumenta Nipponica, Volume 30, Number 3 (1975), pages 291-315.)  Shiki had been suffering from tuberculosis since 1889, and had been essentially bedridden since 1897.  He died on September 19, 1902, at the age of 34 -- one year and five months after writing this entry.

The poets remind us again and again: Pay attention.  Do not turn away.

               A Dead Mole

Strong-shouldered mole,
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?

Andrew Young, Collected Poems.

Where would we be without the blue sky, come what may?

"A certain hermit once said, 'There is one thing that even I, who have no worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up, the beauty of the sky.'  I can understand why he should have felt that way."

Kenkō (1283-1350), Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 20, in Donald Keene (translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), page 22.

John William Inchbold (1830-1888)
"A Study, in March" (c. 1855)

Between Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon eight or so inches of snow fell.  A warming spell began on Sunday, and on Monday the back garden was alive with birds.  Robins and sparrows, of course. But I also saw a dove beside a bare rose bush, pecking the snowy ground, and a woodpecker atop a post, watching the activity.  They may have been surprised into shelter and silence by the snow, but now -- darting back and forth in brief flight, chattering -- they had no air of winter about them.

Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?

William Wordsworth, seventh stanza of "Expostulation and Reply," in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Four (Oxford University Press 1947).

And so we make our way through the World.  Beneath an ever-changing sky, blue at times.

     Butterflies a-flutter,
The lullaby changes again and again
     As she walks along.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume Two (Hokuseido Press 1964), page 88.

David Murray (1849-1933), "The Tithe Barns" (1905)