Can I have never seen you? For my heart
feels you like some too-burdensome beginning
one still defers. Oh, could I but begin
to tell of you, dead that you are, you gladly,
you passionately dead. And was it so
alleviating as you supposed, or was
no-more-alive still far from being-dead?
You thought you could possess things better there
where none care for possessions. You supposed
that over there you’d be inside the landscape
that here closed up before you like a picture,
would enter the beloved from within
and penetrate through all things, strong and wheeling.
Oh, that you may not have too long had cause
to tax your boyish error with deception!
Loosened within that rush of melancholy,
ecstatically and only half-aware,
may you, in motion round the distant stars,
have found the happiness that you transposed
from here into that being-dead you dreamt of.
How near you were to it, dear friend, even here.
How much it was at home here, what you purposed,
the earnest joy of your so strenuous longing.
When, tired of being happy and unhappy,
you mined into yourself and painfully
climbed with an insight, almost breaking down
under the weight of dark discovery:
you carried what you never recognized,
you carried joy, you carried through your blood
your little saviour’s burden to the shore.
Why did you not wait till the difficult
gets quite unbearable: until it turns,
and is so difficult because so real?
That was perhaps your next allotted moment;
it may perhaps have been already trimming
its garland at the door you slammed for ever.
Oh that percussion, how it penetrates,
when somewhere, through impatience’s sharp draught,
something wide open shuts and locks itself!
Who can deny on oath that in the earth
a crack goes springing through the healthy seeds?
Who has investigated if tame beasts
are not convulsed with sudden lust for killing
when that jerk shoots like lightning through their brains?
Who can deduce the influence leaping out
from actions to some near-by terminal?
Who can conduct where everything’s conductive?
The fact that you destroyed. That this must be
related of you till the end of time.
Even if a hero’s coming, who shall tear
meaning we take to be the face of things
off like a mask and in a restless rage
reveal us faces whose mute eyes have long
been gazing at us through dissembling holes:
this is sheer face and will not be transfigured:
that you destroyed. For blocks were lying there,
and in the air already was the rhythm
of some now scarce repressible construction.
You walked around and did not see their order,
one hid the other from you; each of them
seemed to be rooted, when in passing by
you tried at it, with no real confidence
that you could lift it. And in desperation
you lifted every one of them, but only
to sling them back into the gaping quarry
wherein, being so distended by your heart,
they would no longer fit. Had but a woman
laid her light hand on the still mild beginning
of this dark rage; had someone occupied,
occupied in the inmost of his being,
but quietly met you on your dumb departure
to do this deed; had even something led you
to take your journey past some wakeful workshop
where men were hammering and day achieving
simple reality; had there been room
enough in your full gaze to let the image
even of a toiling beetle find admittance:
then, in a sudden flash of intuition,
you would have read that script whose characters
you’d slowly graved into yourself since childhood,
trying from time to time whether a sentence
might not be formed: alas, it seemed unmeaning.
I know; I know: you lay in front and thumbed
away the grooves, like someone feeling out
the inscription on a grave-stone. Anything
that seemed to give a light you held as lamp
before those letters; but the flame went out
before you’d understood – your breath, perhaps,
perhaps the trembling of your hand; perhaps
just of its own accord, as flames will do.
You never read it. And we do not dare
to read through all the sorrow and the distance.
We only watch the poems that still climb,
still cross, the inclination of your feeling,
carrying the words that you had chosen. No,
you did not choose all; often a beginning
was given you in full, and you’d repeat it
like some commission. And you thought it sad.
Ah, would you had never heard it from yourself!
Your angel sounds on, uttering the same
text with a different accent, and rejoicing
breaks out in me to hear his recitation,
rejoicing over you: for this was yours:
that from you every proffered love fell back,
that you had recognized renunciation
as price of seeing and in death your progress.
This was what you possessed, you artist, these
three open moulds. Look, here is the casting
from the first: space for your feeling; and look, there,
from the second I’ll strike out for you the gaze
that craves for nothing, the great artist’s gaze;
and in the third, which you yourself broke up
too soon, and which as yet the first outrushing
of quivering feed from the white-heated heart
had scarce had time to reach, a death was moulded,
deepened by genuine labour, that own death
which has such need of us because we live it,
and which we’re nowhere nearer to than here.
All this was your possession and your friendship;
as you yourself often divined; but then
the hollowness of those moulds frightened you,
you groped within and drew up emptiness
and mourned your lot. – O ancient curse of poets!
Being sorry for themselves instead of saying,
for ever passing judgement on their feeling
instead of shaping it; for ever thinking
that what is sad or joyful in themselves
is what they know and what in poems may fitly
be mourned or celebrated. Invalids,
using a language full of woefulness
to tell us where it hurts, instead of sternly
transmuting into words those selves of theirs,
as imperturbable cathedral carvers
transposed themselves into the constant stone.
That would have been salvation. Had you once
perceived how fate may pass into a verse
and not come back, how, once in, it turns image,
nothing but image, but an ancestor,
who sometimes, when you watch him in his frame,
seems to be like you and again not like you: –
you would have persevered.
But this is petty,
thinking of what was not. And some appearance
of undeserved reproach in these comparings.
Whatever happens has had such a start
of our supposing that we never catch it,
never experience what it really looked like.
Don’t be ashamed, when the dead brush against you,
those other dead, who held out to the end.
(What, after all, does end mean?) Exchange glances
peacefully with them, as is customary,
and have no fear of being conspicuous
through carrying the burden of our grief.
The big words from those ages when as yet
happening was visible are not for us.
Who talks of victory? To endure is all.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Dismissiveness is the armour plating we use to keep out challenging alternatives to our dominant beliefs. Some dismissiveness is rude, but most of it consists of a polite brush-off or excuse for not engaging with something. There are plenty of rationalisations for being dismissive: we don’t have time for that, and we just want to get on with it (whatever ‘it’ is). When trying to discuss Middle Way Philosophy, I’ve met such responses many times. Of course, our time, attention, and capacity to engage with new ideas really is limited, so is dismissiveness unavoidable? As always, I think there is a Middle Way that respects those conditions, and is not afraid to make a practical judgement not to engage with something that is unlikely to be fruitful, but is nevertheless more open to new ideas than we often are.
Too often, instead of trying to strike a balance in their judgement, with clarity about their reasons for not engaging with something, people seem to rely on conventional credibility. This often comes down to how many other people are listening, but there are also conventional markers of academic credibility (has she published in peer reviewed journals etc?) or professional credibility (does she have a senior post?). Those who despair at the mass of ‘equally valid’ opinion on the internet and desperately want some certainty to hold onto are all too likely to rely completely on such criteria. But academics and professionals are likely to be highly specialised – which often means that they can provide accurate detailed information, but that their wider judgements will be skewed towards the assumptions of their narrow discipline. For that reason, many academics have off-hand dismissiveness down to a fine art. One of the encouraging aspects of the avalanche of views and ideas that is the internet is that – amongst the conspiracy theories and other rubbish based on narrow assumptions – the voices of synthesis are sometimes able to break through with wider perspectives than the specialists can offer us. Wikipedia is a wonderful example of this: generally more reliable on average than the specialist paid-for encyclopedias, because it is the product of a continuing exchange of views, rather than one view of a specialist who thinks he knows it all and never questions his wider assumptions.
The realistic, discriminating alternative to dismissiveness, I think, particularly involves two key criteria. I’ve developed these from thinking about the philosophy of science more than anything else:
- Considering the purpose of a theory in its context
- Comparing it to alternative theories rather than absolute criteria
All too often people seem to think of theories as ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as embodied beings with very limited perspectives we are usually in no position to assess theories as true or false. An implicit assumption that a theory must be false just because it is new to you seems to often be at the root of dismissiveness. Instead of thinking of it as true or false, we need to ask what function the theory fulfils. For example, a new theory about beetles has a very specific function within entomology, and probably few implications beyond it. One of the main problems I encounter with people’s dismissals of Middle Way Philosophy is that they make hasty assumptions about its purpose, often depending on where they encountered it. For example, if they encounter it in a debate about science they assume it’s a scientific theory, in a debate about ethics an ethical theory etc. But its purpose is actually to synthesise these approaches, not just to fulfil the more restricted purposes of one or the other. It thus needs to be judged on how well it addresses the conditions of science, ethics, religion, art, spiritual practice etc, in relation to each other, rather than of one more narrowly conceived.
If I don’t think a particular idea looks set to fulfil the purpose it aims to fulfil (usually because of the assumptions it makes) then I feel justified in devoting no further time to it and starting to look elsewhere. For example, conspiracy-theory based approaches to politics, which concentrate on blaming particular groups (bankers, conservatives, reptilians) for all our ills, are not fulfilling the purpose of political theory as I understand it, which is to help provide practical solutions on which sufficient agreement could be reached to start addressing our social and political problems.
The other element of dismissiveness is based on selective scepticism. It’s always possible to come up with some element of a theory that is insufficiently justified, since no theory created by humans is ever likely to be perfectly justified. But dismissiveness often involves picking on one particular problem with a theory and using it as an excuse to dismiss it, even though that problem hasn’t been looked at in context and the theory hasn’t been compared to alternatives. The nirvana fallacy is the tendency to implicitly compare a given theory to an absolutely perfect model of a kind that doesn’t exist in experience. Instead, to be realistic every judgement needs to be a comparative judgement. If you don’t like this theory, do you have a better one that addresses the same purposes better? Iain McGilchrist’s theory of brain lateralisation seems to be a constant target of dismissiveness due to the nirvana fallacy. People object that its account of such a complex matter as the brain must be over-simplified, but the only established alternative to the language of left and right hemispheres is the assumption of the unified self, which is hugely inadequate by comparison. Brain lateralisation is incredibly fruitful in synthetically explaining a wide range of phenomena in relation to each other, from cultural changes to mental illnesses, as well as potentially supporting an ethical model. The unified self theory has had many centuries to explain these things and failed to do so adequately.
Again, I do think it is justifiable not to give further time and attention to ideas that may be entirely coherent in themselves, but address conditions that can be much better addressed elsewhere. For example, I appreciate the positive motives behind Christian theology, and I have studied it to some extent (in fact my first degree subject has ‘theology’ in the title, despite the fact that it wasn’t central to my interests even then), but I give little attention to it these days, because I have concluded that an approach to issues of spirituality, ethics etc. that starts with the revelatory authority of God is likely to be less effective at actually bringing about ethical and spiritual development than one that starts with an integration model. But one needs to have some idea what the better alternative is and why, rather than only relying on conventional answers.
So, of course we need to make judgements about where to bestow our attention. However, dismissiveness is not inevitable. Avoiding dismissiveness whilst moving on is not simply a matter of being gentle and kindly about it (though that obviously helps too), but of having good reasons for doing so that relate to experience, rather than implicitly appealing to some absolutely right model that you instantly assume you have and the other person doesn’t have. If you get chance to explain your reasons in terms of the purposes of the theory concerned and in terms of having better alternatives, that offers no guarantee that the other person won’t take offence at your lack of attention to their ideas, but it does raise the probabilities of everyone being able to move on in a helpful direction.
Picture: ‘You aren’t listening’ CCSA 2.0 by Jesslee Cuizon (Wikimedia Commons)
My guest today is Sir Harry Burns, who is the professor of global public health at the University of Strathclyde and a former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland. He begins by talking to us about why poor people take longer to recover from illness, the causes of inequality in health and the causes of wellness. He then goes on to talk about some solutions that he has implemented alongside other potential ideas and how this all might relate to the Middle Way.
My friend, Willie Grieve first brought the work of Sir Harry to my attention and you can find a very interesting and helpful article by him which gives an overview of the subject here.
MWS Podcast 41: Sir Harry Burns as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_41_Sir_Harry_Burns
Death is stalking you
Following you like a shadow
And has you in its grip
But you are resisting
You will not succumb
Next year even?
I do not know when it will win
I only know you won’t give in
You will fight and stay
Until you have no say
(c) L Sykes 20 Nov 2014
Image courtesy of webring.org