Monday, March 30, 2015

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

It is the way and the Waygoer. It is the eternal road along which walk all beings, but no being made it, for itself is being. It is everything and nothing. From it all things spring, all things conform to it, and to it at last all things return. It is a square without angles, a sound which ears cannot hear, and an image without form. It is a vast net and though its meshes are as wide as the sea it lets nothing through. It is the sanctuary where all things find refuge. It is nowhere, but without looking out of the window you may see it. Desire not to desire, it teaches, and leave all things to take their course. He that humbles himself shall be preserved entire. He that bends shall be made straight. Failure is the foundation of success and success is the lurking-place of failure; but who can tell when the turning point will come? Who strives after tenderness can become even as a little child. Gentleness brings victory to him who attacks and safety to him who defends. Mighty is he who conquers himself.

I finally realized the long-held intention to read a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. The Painted Veil proved an excellent introduction. It is a novel about a vain young British woman in the 1920s, Kitty, who whimsically marries an intense, introverted physician, Walter. She follows him to Hong Kong, where she becomes embroiled in an affair. After discovering the affair, Walter takes Kitty to the interior of China where he works to defeat a cholera epidemic. The novel focuses on the education of Kitty through her relationships and through her observations of alien worlds.

Maugham is an older contemporary of Graham Greene, with whom he may be compared. Maugham began his writing career before the advent of the First World War and published his most acclaimed work, Of Human Bondage, in 1915. He continued publish well past the Second World War. Thus, The Painted Veil is a mid-career work for him. Like Greene and many British writers of their time, Maugham traveled a great deal and used his travels as settings for his novels (as well as writing travel books). In this work, set in Hong Kong and the Chinese interior, China becomes more of a stage prop than I would hope or expect, at least if written today. No Chinese characters receive any depth of portraiture. But since the story centers on Kitty and placement of her in the Chinese interior serves to isolate and alienate her from the much more Anglicized setting of Hong Kong. Indeed, the significant others for Kitty when she travels to the interior are Walter, a fellow Englishman, Waddington, and a group of French nuns, of whom the Mother Superior becomes an important figure for Kitty.

The novel grabbed my attention because it focused on Kitty, a vain young woman, who undergoes a variety of trials. It amazed me how well Maugham portrayed Kitty in her vanity and her struggles to come to terms with herself and her world. The men in this novel are enigmatic, as is the aloof and challenging Mother Superior of the local convent. But this allows us to share the perspective of Kitty, who must deal with these complicated Others.

I enjoyed this novel a good deal. While I would've liked to of seeing more of the China drawn into the story, that was not Maugham's primary intent, nor was it necessary to tell Kitty's story.

Above, I've included a quote delivered by Kitty's friend, Waddington, about the Tao. I find it an interesting quote, but this is about as deeply as Maugham ventures into Chinese culture.

Maugham once described himself as among the front row of second-tier writers. He's not among the avant-garde of the 20th century, and I think that Graham Greene has a greater, richer body of work. However, Maugham’s work, at least based on this sample, deserves recognition. Based on The Painted Veil, I look forward to reading other works by Maugham.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Words of Insight from Montaigne

The author & his essays
Others form man; I describe him, and portray a particular, very ill-made one, who, if I had to fashion him anew, should indeed be very different from what he is. But now it is done. Now the features of my painting do not err, although they change and vary. The world is but a perennial see-saw. All things in it are incessantly on the swing, the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the Egyptian pyramids, both with the common movement and their own particular movement. Even fixedness is nothing but a more sluggish motion. I cannot fix my object; it is befogged, and reels with a natural intoxication. I seize it at this point, as it is at the moment when I beguile myself with it. I do not portray the thing in itself. I portray the passage; not a passing from one age to another, or, as the people put it, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must adapt my history to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention. It is a record of diverse and changeable events, of undecided, and, when the occasion arises, contradictory ideas ; whether it be that I am another self, or that I grasp a subject in different circumstances and see it from a different point of view. So it may be that I contradict myself, but, as Demades said, the truth I never contradict. If my mind could find a firm footing, I should not speak tentatively, I should decide; it is always in a state of apprenticeship, and on trial. 

I am holding up to view a humble and lustreless life; that is all one. Moral philosophy, in any degree, may apply to an ordinary and secluded life as well as to one of richer stuff; every man carries within him the entire form of the human constitution. Authors communicate themselves to the world by some special and extrinsic mark; I am the first to do so by my general being, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian or a poet or a lawyer. If the world finds fault with me for speaking too much of myself, I find fault with the world for not even thinking of itself. But is it reasonable that I, who am so retired in actual life, should aspire to make myself known to the public? And is it reasonable that I should show up to the world, where artifice and ceremony enjoy so much credit and authority, the crude and simple results of nature, and of a nature besides very feeble? Is it not like making a wall without stone or a similar material, thus to build a book without learning or art? The ideas of music are guided by art, mine by chance. This I have at least in conformity with rules, that no man ever treated of a subject that he knew and understood better than I do this that I have taken up; and that in this I am the most learned man alive. Secondly, that no man ever penetrated more deeply into his matter, nor more minutely analyzed its parts and consequences, nor more fully and exactly reached the goal he had made it his business to set up. To accomplish it I need only bring fidelity to it; and that is here, as pure and sincere as may be found. I speak the truth, not enough to satisfy myself, but as much as I dare to speak. And I become a little more daring as I grow older; for it would seem that custom allows this age more freedom to prate, and more indiscretion in speaking of oneself. It cannot be the case here, as I often see elsewhere, that the craftsman and his work contradict each other. … A learned man is not learned in all things; but the accomplished man is accomplished in all things, even in ignorance. Here, my book and I go hand in hand together, and keep one pace. In other cases we may commend or censure the work apart from the workman; not so here. Who touches the one touches the other.

The Essays of Montaigne. Translated by E. J. Trechmann, Oxford University Press, 1927, cited in Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton Classics) (pp. 286-288). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Secret History of Consciousness by Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman: rocker turned serious author

I enjoy reading Gary Lachman. There are several reasons that I think explain this. First, were born only a few years apart so we grew up in the same general cultural milieu of the United States in the 60’s and 70’s, although he grew up in New Jersey as opposed my more culturally conservative small-town Iowa. He was brought up as a Catholic, although he walked away from the Church as a teenager. Finally, despite a very successful career as a Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame member of the band Blondie, he became interested in spiritual, esoteric, and metaphysical writings. Finally, after a lucky browse at a used bookstore in Berkley when I had some extra time there after a deposition, I, too, discovered Colin Wilson (Religion & the Rebel), whom Lachman admires. Since developing his interest in these topics, Lachman has transformed himself from a rocker into a formidable author on the subject of human consciousness and culture. I believe that he wears the mantel of successor to Colin Wilson, with whom he developed a friendship and from whom he received a forward to his book, A Secret History of Consciousness.

In this work, Lachman details the history of mystical, esoteric, and occult thought from the beginning of the 20th-century up to the near present. Not all of it the figures he discusses are by any means fringe. Early in the book, he addresses the works of Henri Bergson and William James, to name the most prominent philosophers in France and the US respectively at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition, Alfred North Whitehead, although not receiving a full separate treatment, receives consideration.

But he mostly addresses those persons who remain on the fringe of accepted intellectual discourse and that provide the most interesting and perplexing examples. Among these characters are Gurdjieff, Ouspensky,  Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield, and Jean Gebser, to name the most prominent. In addition, Lachman examines the work of various psychologists and lesser-known philosophers who delve into the farther reaches of the human mind and the more speculative aspects of reality. The common thread running through Lachman's work is his concern with consciousness. What is it? And how does it relate to matter? Perhaps the biggest distinction between those thinkers that Lachman discusses and those who are considered more mainstream is that Lachman's group maintains that consciousness receives primacy over matter.

One of the challenges in addressing a topic of this sort is to distinguish what appears to be delusional, fantastic, or absurd and what is deeply insightful. For instance, Gurdjieff (whom I've read a bit of and about) can at times seem deeply insightful. On the other hand, he has a theory of planetary influences that leaves me and many others baffled, if not disdainful. Similarly, Rudolf Steiner was, among other things, a Goethe scholar and a scientist, but he, too, promoted a theory of planetary influences and the existence of spiritual beings and records. Whether to consider these reports as the rantings of a madman or the symbols of the deeply creative artist, is hard to discern. But throughout the book, Lachman displays a wonderfully practical common sense and open-mindedness. In this work, Lachman serves as an accurate guide and reporter, and he sets aside some of these perplexing issues to report on what is most vital in these thinkers.

In addition to those I've already mentioned, Lachman reports at length on the work of Owen Barfield and Jean Gebser. I'm currently reading and thinking a lot about Barfield's work in and how it relates to (somewhat) more mainstream thinkers like philosopher R.G. Colllingwood and historian John Lukacs. I therefore appreciate Lachman’s concise and lucid exposition of Barfield’s main ideas. Gebser is a future project, but I know already that he has received accolades from the likes of William Irwin Thompson and Ken Wilber (as Lachman mentions). Both of these thinkers  have incorporated Gebser’s insights into their groundbreaking works. Again, Lachman serves as a reliable reporter on what is to be mined and valued in these works.

Lachman explores these thinkers as a man on a mission, attempting to develop his intuition that human consciousness is of the greatest importance in the universe and that we need to better understand it and use it for the benefit of all creation. Again, I keep coming back how impressed I am with his down-to-earth attitude in addressing these often ethereal topics. He doesn't go easily of for trendiness. For instance, I found myself in a complete agreement in his rather dim view of much of contemporary visual art. He also recognizes where people are likely to get hung up when delving into these thinkers.

I mentioned earlier, he is probably the rightful successor to the late Colin Wilson. Lachman devotes a couple of chapters in his book to Wilson's intellectual projects. Wilson was a chronicler of the fringe of acceptable thought and of bizarre (and often evil) human behavior, but he also formed theories and a philosophy that gave shape to these fringe ideas and events, which Lachman appreciates. In many ways,  Lachman's works further that enterprise.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry by Owen Barfield

In the early 1920s, Owen Barfield published two books, History in English Words (1926) and Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928), which provided significant insights into the way humans think. Enthusiasts of his work include T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and later Saul Bellow, Howard Nemerov, James Hillman, and Harold Bloom, to name some of the more prominent. These early publications could have foretold a successful academic career, but Barfield was called instead to participate in the family of legal business in London. Accordingly, from 1934 until 1959, Barfield lived and worked in London as a solicitor while continuing his literary and cultural studies on the side (including his participation in "The Inklings"). During this period, he continued to publish journal articles and a collection of those articles were published as Romanticism Comes of Age (1944), but otherwise Barfield was not a position to turn out a full work developing his ideas. Happily, shortly before his retirement from the law practice, his hiatus came to an end in 1957 when Barfield published Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. The reward was worth the wait.

Saving the Appearances is a work that ranges across a variety of disciplines: anthropology, philosophy, literary criticism, science, and religion. Barfield's overall aim is to explore and understand what he terms “the evolution of consciousness”, which it goes beyond the history of ideas, to understand the ways in which humanity has changed the way we experience the world. Early in the book, drawing especially on anthropology and the work of Levy-Bruhl, Barfield posits that early humans engaged in the world by “original participation". In this period of human culture, the division between subject and object is blurred, and spirits, sprites, and gods animate the natural world. This way of seeing the world continued more or less intact up until the Scientific Revolution— with one significant exception. Barfield notes that the Hebrew Bible reflects a significant withdrawal away from ideas of “original participation” to draw a sharp line between humanity and the natural world. Of course, this cultural tradition mixes with the Greco-Roman and eventually Christian tradition and on into the Scientific Revolution.

With the advent of the Scientific Revolution, humankind began to disengage its consciousness from the natural world. This became the age of increasing abstraction and alienation from the natural world. It became a world of “idolatry”; that is, of giving precedence to empty images and abstractions. Barfield is quick to identify the many benefits that this new form of scientific knowledge bestowed on humankind. Scientific and technological advances have improved the well-being of humanity immensely. But this new knowledge and attendant power came at a cost. Barfield hopes that the disengagement from nature and the attendant idolatry reached its zenith in the 19th century and that we can move on to something new that he deems “final participation", which incorporates the role of human consciousness in forming the natural world. Barfield acknowledges we can't return to Eden, but he believes that we can combine both a scientific and a participatory perspective into our consciousness.

Owen Barfield 1898-1997
Barfield's ideas are certainly his own, although he placed himself within a tradition established by Rudolf Steiner (labeled by Steiner as “Anthroposophy”). Barfield came to his ideas independently of any knowledge of Steiner, but after encountering Steiner in the 1924, Barfield aligned himself with the Anthroposophy movement. Steiner is one of those persons from the esoteric tradition who can seem from one perspective brilliant and insightful and from another perspective outright crazy. But whatever the merits or demerits of Steiner, Barfield's arguments can sail or sink on their own.

A short review like this can't begin to do justice to the depth and complexity Barfield's work. Barfield erudition across disciplines of knowledge and across history is staggering and makes significant demands on the reader. However, it's worth the effort. Understanding how humans have changed over the course of time is no small undertaking. We all sense how differently we perceive the world today then did our forebears of even 100 years ago, not to mention 500, 1,000, or 5000 years ago. To understand this change is to understand a great deal of what it means to be human. Barfield’s project is to understand and further grasp the evolution of consciousness as a movement from original participation to final participation.

Barfield project is encompassing, and he’s one of those thinkers that can’t be grasped in a single are reading or a single work. In some writers, the perplexity left after a single reading of a single work reflects the confusion of the author and a dead-end for the reader. But in some, like Barfield, it marks a profound journey of insight into humanity and how we can better understand ourselves.

Words of Wisdom from Dante

And let this weigh as lead to slow your steps, 
to make you move as would a weary man
to yes or no when you do not see clearly:

whether he would affirm or would deny,
he who decides without distinguishing
must be among the most obtuse of men;

opinion—hasty—often can incline
to the wrong side, and then affection for
one’s own opinion binds, confines the mind.

Far worse than uselessly he leaves the shore
(more full of error than he was before)
who fishes for the truth but lacks the art.

. . . .
So, too, let men not be too confident
in judging—witness those who, in the field,
would count the ears before the corn is ripe;

for I have seen, all winter through, the brier
display itself as stiff and obstinate,
and later, on its summit, bear the rose;

and once I saw a ship sail straight and swift
through all its voyaging across the sea,
then perish at the end, at harbor entry.

Let not Dame Bertha or Master Martin think
that they have shared God’s Counsel when they see
one rob and see another who donates:

the last may fall, the other may be saved.

Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto XIII (Mandelbaum translation)