Imaginative, not imaginary

I have been thinking about the place that a poem makes in the world, the place that a poem is in the world. My recent reading on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series (see the tail end of this previous post) has led me back to a few of his essays. He felt that good stories–whether fantasy, mythology, allegory, science fiction, or epic narrative–take the reader to threshold spaces that are imaginative, not imaginary.

I think that poetry offers what Plato calls psychagogia— “an enlargement of the soul” in C.S. Lewis’ definition, or see John Joseph Jasso’s dissertation chronicling it as “the idea that rhetoric can lead souls to their own betterment; that is, guide them in an ascent along a metaphysical hierarchy through beauty, goodness, and truth to a fuller participation in being.” Poetry provides such enlargement by permitting the reader to imaginatively undergo transformation via images and places the poem offers, to experience the turn in the poem’s rhetoric, to feel ‘along with’ the poem’s nature. The poem is a threshold at which the reader stands and makes the choice of whether or not to enter.

Granted, that seems a rather allegorical way to think of poetry, but not, I think, an unwarranted perspective.

~

Lewis, by training a medievalist, believed that we need to read “the canon” or, essentially, any and all great literature of the past, in order to have “something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.” (This is from his 1939 sermon “Learning in War-Time.”) I love reading modern and contemporary literature; but I agree with him that through reading the work of the past, we cross a threshold into a new (to us) perspective. I do not know what the past knows; I have to explore, read carefully, infer, and take nothing for granted. I must take the role of observer before donning the garb of critic. For me, it’s as important to approach literature with beginner’s mind as it is to approach the garden with beginner’s mind. Perhaps this is one reason I have always enjoyed reading history: The past is a place I do not know well and therefore have to find a way to enter into anew.

Lewis continues by noting that the person who reads literature of the past “has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” Given the times in which we live and the nonsense pouring from the microphones of our age (which are legion), it takes a good deal of sorting to find the beautiful and the good–which do exist–amid the resounding chaos. I do not recommend a full retreat into reading Beowulf, the Illiad, or Tolstoy, but tempering my intake of current media with poems and stories reminds me that I ought to question my basic assumptions and the basic assumptions and perspectives of others, including people who lived long ago in eras and cultures about which I know very little.

A good read inclines me toward the imaginative. Whatever arts it may take to get me there, past the imaginary and into imagination, whatever aesthetic form it takes, I am grateful.

baynesNarniaPauline Baynes’ illustration: Narnia’s lamppost in snow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Today’s eft

muscariSometimes, winter feels long. When the weather fails to provide chances to get into the garden, I feel “antsy.” Something in my operating scheme malfunctions, and I lose focus–even my writing process suffers. I keep thinking of how my mother tells me she likes to get her hands in the earth, dig in the crumbly soil, plant things; and she has never been much of a gardener in the classic sense. Not the way my mother-in-law was: a perfectionist, an expert, a person who liked to plan a symphony of colors and leaf shapes, a progression of bloom times.

My mother just needs to get her hands dirty.

~

Today, the weather turned unseasonably warm, a brief window on a weekend that permitted me my garden escape. So I found myself thinking of these two Beloveds while I dug in the dirt, sowed some carrot and beet seeds, and evaluated the progress of the early lettuce. When I work in the garden, my mind wanders, then empties. It’s good for my writing and good for my soul. I suppose there’s merit in it for my physical body as well, as long as I remember not to overdo things and put out my back! Then, too, I am accompanied by these two women, so many gardening memories and instruction, so much that I’ve learned in the process of growing vegetables and plants.

~

Some of my friends consider me an expert in the garden, but I am merely modestly educated, mostly in the School of Experience. Expertise? I considered enrolling in the Master Gardener certification program; but frankly, I prefer to garden with beginner’s mind. I love what experts have to teach me and, being bookwormish by nature, I learn a great deal by reading books by experts.

Mostly, though, I learn from the garden–or from the hedgerow, the woodlot, the fields, the meadow, the wetlands. I’ve discovered that sometimes, the experts’ methods are not replicable in my yard; but a series of trial-and-error experiments of my own may produce the desired result. I have learned to let go of some of my “desired outcomes,” because the plant world and the weather control my stewardship of the soil more than anything I can attempt to do.

Letting go…well, that is the Zen of landscaping and raising vegetables and putting in a perennial bed. Also there is the constant, tedious maintenance–the tending and nurturing–that requires discipline. The discipline can be mindful, and it can also foster empty mind.

~

And there is, awaiting at every moment, discovery.

Today’s discovery in the garden was an eft. This one was hiding, next to an earthworm (which it resembles when its feet are tucked close), under a slab of slate I’d left out near the strawberry patch.

newt-eft2

Hello! And may you shortly find a body of water in which to live out your amphibian days. And may no predator consume you before you mate and create further newts. And may this fine, warm-soiled spring provide us all many opportunities to dig in the soil and get our hands dirty.

~

[This newt is a salamander in the subfamily Pleurodelinae, and the wiki commons info for the photo, which I have altered slightly, is here].

 

Circle Game

Mandala: मण्डल

ann e michael

Sanskrit for circle. Symbolic of completeness, unifying principles. The container that holds the center. The cosmic center and the spiritual center, including the void (being able to recognize that the “self” is also a void, a construct).

This deep practice–the emptying of self and the entering into completeness and unity with everything (becoming One)–intrigues me but seems very far beyond my grasp. If consciousness can be envisioned as a set of experiential layerings that the mind braids into a narrating self, illusory but convincing, I can imagine feeling One with them. But that’s theory, not genuine practice.

“You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.” ~Alan Watts

I am a physical being in the universe; this, too, I understand. Somehow, that doesn’t make meditation easier for me–even though I have always been a highly reflective person.

Trying too hard to empty the mind defeats the purpose, of course. The practice of compassion as meditation (see Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön)  seems a more effective way for me to enter into a sense of oneness and completeness. I am definitely experiencing beginner’s mind, perhaps complicated by my interests in philosophy, psychology, neurology, and art.

So I turn, constantly, to nature for an immersion in something other than the human self: completion of the cycle evident in every plant and creature. See the mandala of the sunflower above. Contemplate the circle–what it contains, in this case, pollen, seeds, a tiny bee; what encircles the circle: the petals that fade so rapidly, the sun, the air.

And then I turn to my reading again. Hungry mind (appetite). But I found this wonderful column by Kate Murphy in the recent New York Times:No Time to Think.” Quite fitting, given these recent ruminations!

~

And thank you, Joni Mitchell, for the title and this song:

Phenomenology: a beginner’s understanding

“Phenomenology is the attempt to discover the origin of the object at the very centre of our experience…[to] describe the emergence of being and…how, paradoxically, there is for us an in-itself.”

             Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The philosopher argues that while empiricism, psychology, and neurology (brain science was still in its infancy in 1951, and I think Merleau-Ponty would have been fascinated by current medical science involving brain studies) are valuable and offer insights into philosophy, they fail to uncover the origin of being. He also argued that philosophy could become less relevant if philosophers continued to ignore phenomena. Granted, many of us could not care less about the origin of being; but this philosopher claims there is no way to truth if the questioner does not recognize the limits of his or her own perspective first, including physiological limitations that earlier philosophers ignored. Because of radical, rapid developments in science and medicine during the 20th century, and the impact on medical and environmental ethics, Merleau-Ponty’s writing is significant today.

That for us in the quote above means within each individual’s perspective; that in-itself, derived from the Kantian ding an sich, means we possess the ability to ken that the other is unknowable even as we treat the other as an object empirically, physically, intellectually–hence the paradox. Those readers familiar with Kant will recognize similarities with noumenon.

One of Merleau-Ponty’s analogies involves a house. We name it: house. We perceive only one aspect of it in time: what is visible with our human eyes or our other senses. We see the front of the house while knowing the house has a back, sides, a foundation, and interior–none of which are visible to us simultaneously, given our physiology. Yet we are capable of believing (not merely assuming) that there are hidden facets to the house, the pipes, the insulation, electrical wiring for example. And we can believe in a world that embraces all of these facets, even what we cannot see, hear, touch but all of which we can “know.” The house can be a physical phenomenon, one I encounter with my physiological senses; and it can also be imagined by me (intellectually) whole or in part–the house for-me as opposed to the house in-itself–and the person next to me will experience the house for-her and even the house in-itself in a different way due to a whole spectrum of physiological, psychological, and intellectual perspectives. Are any of these perspectives “true”? Are any of them “false”? The facts of empiricism do not explain the mystery of our knowing what we cannot empirically know through induction. The hypotheses of intellectual philosophy do not acknowledge the being-here of the physical experience and the complex psycho-socio-neurological goings-on that make up cognition.

What appeals to me about phenomenology is its awareness that we are limited by our perspectives to the fields of our physical, physiological, psychological, and intellectual points of view–including the empirical, science and its “facts.” And yet, this philosophy admits of our ability to imagine beyond these limits, to speculate; we function amid apparent paradoxes such as the simultaneous existence of unity and monadic separateness, perspectives that overlap, interconnect, communicate with and relate to those other than our own perspectives (or phenomenological fields). Phenomenology accepts that the philosopher’s thinking must be conditioned by situation. Thus, if I understand it aright–and I may not–phenomenology admits of us being in the world-as-itself.

Hence:

“Be here now,” as Ram Dass famously advocated in a book all of my friends had in their libraries in the 1970s.

Ram Dass' Be Here Now

Ram Dass’ Be Here Now

I’m over-simplifying. Yet I see a correspondence between the phenomenological approach and some aspects of (so-called) Eastern knowledge-practices/philosophies. The idea of consciousness as a network of intentions. The statement that “consciousness does not admit of degree.” The notion that actions and observations matter.

And now I am like the Zen practitioner…as far as phenomenology goes, I have “beginner’s mind.”