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"


Esther said...

I am of the belief that EVERYTHING can't be wrong in a world that contains daffodils. A pessimist might delight in pointing out that they are toxic to pets (and to humans when consumed in vast quantities), but I am strangely cheered when I remember that the same is true of another of my own "poor over-beliefs": Christmas tinsel.

Great post!

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and for sharing your thoughts on daffodils and Christmas tinsel. That particular combination was certainly surprising and delightful!

With respect to daffodils, apart from enjoying them as they are, poems by Herrick and Wordsworth always come to mind. I've been revisiting Herrick recently, and "To Daffadills" ("Fair daffadills, we weep to see/You haste away so soon . . .") and "Divination by a Daffadill" ("When a daffadill I see/Hanging down his head t'wards me . . .") are old favorites. (The 17th century spelling "daffadill" is charming.) But, as you know, he has many other lovely flower poems as well: daisies, violets, primroses, roses, fruit tree blossoms, etc.

As for Christmas tinsel: that certainly brings back wonderful memories! The final touch in decorating the Christmas tree, "back in the old days." I can still see the cardboard packages, with the long silver strands. I wonder: is it still available? In any event, I will never lose my memories of those dark, but bright, long ago Minnesota winter nights, hanging tinsel. Another vanished world. Thank you for the reminder. I share your "poor over-belief."

As always, thank you very much for visiting. I hope that all is well. Take care.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, last week crocuses bloomed on our allotment, primroses too, that only a week or so before had looked quite dead. Leaf buds are fattening on the tips of branches. I try not think too much about this, rather accept and celebrate that it has happened again.

Broad beans planted in late November have survived a cold and wet winter and are now two or three inches high, and looking robust. If we are fortunate, this happens every year and I’m never less than amazed when it does. Spring is here, and the softer days of summer will follow with perhaps more abundance; tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, aubergine, peppers and more.
If our ears and eyes are open then “energies filter in, bearing messages”, Messages beyond articulation because, I’m certain world is more miraculous and complex than we imagine. Science explains, but there’s more, always more that cannot be explained. As you say, we need only step out of the door and stand, or walk, and always look and listen. Thank you for another wonderful post. I may not always comment, pressures of time and work, but I always look forward to reading your posts.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for your kind words. It's good to hear from you again. Please know that I always appreciate the time you take to share your thoughts, whenever you can find the chance to do so.

Thank you as well for the late winter-early spring report on how things look in your allotment. I feel that my experiences of the World's beauty are quite passive in comparison with your deeper awareness of how the beautiful particulars change throughout the seasons, and the rhythms of those changes: recurring, yet never the same, ever-surprising. Your phrase "messages beyond articulation" is a fine one, and complements James' thoughts quite well, as well as the poems. As you say, the World "is more miraculous and complex than we imagine." It is best for us to be humble about these things, isn't it?

I hope that all is well with you and your loved ones. I wish you the best in the coming spring. Take care.