Poetry and Contemporary Attitudes towards Death
Note: On the brink of undergoing my first major surgical intervention, I came across the following piece amongst my papers. It was apparently written two years after the death of my father, which event took place at least twelve to fifteen years ago. There are plenty of things I could add but I thought it best to leave the piece unchanged. SH
Increasingly people today are arranging their own funeral services or those of their family and partners whether the service is a standard cremation or a woodland burial. Instead of, or in association with, passages from the Bible or other sacred books there is an increasing demand for readings from contemporary or at least relatively modern authors. Unfortunately, loafing through late twentieth century literature one finds very little indeed on the subject of death and that little is generally of extremely poor quality. Why is this? The present society, whatever its other merits, seems incapable of facing up to death and by and large we sweep it under the carpet and pretend it isn’t really there. For most of my life death was something that happened in the past or to other people and I saw my first actual dead body (my father’s) only a couple of years ago when I was in my late fifties. Confronted with death, one tends to be flummoxed, embarrassed, at a loss. Although I suppose one could write a good poem saying exactly this ─ that one doesn’t really know what to feel ─ I don’t think a funeral service would be the place to read it out loud.
What exactly do most people require from readings at a funeral service? I think most people require something solemn. Since the language of the King James Bible and the Prayer Book is solemn in an absolutely magnificent way, a lot of people who don’t believe a word of it, are quite happy for extracts to be read at funerals ─ they ‘sound right’ and up to a point that is all that really matters. Death can be treated as a joke but a funeral service is not, one feels, the place for fooling around. I have been to a funeral where supposedly funny pieces were read : practically everyone present including myself found this tasteless and objectionable. (Irish Catholics have their wakes, of course, but they have a full-blown funeral service first.) And as it happens, modern poetry ─ I mean poetry from the nineteen-twenties onwards ─ has very largely been against solemnity, against anything high-sounding, has become deliberately prosaic and matter of fact. That is all very well but goes some way to explaining why few people today can write well about death, for the theme of death somehow does require one to pull the stops out.
Also, people generally desire to have something consoling if possible read out at a funeral service. Once again, the traditional religions score heavily here since they do offer serious consolations, in particular the consolation that, contrary to appearances, death is not the end. Humanism finds it hard to compete here.
`What is indubitable when confronted with a corpse is that something has gone, has ended. How can one attempt to console oneself for this? One solution is to argue that the ‘true self’ does not reside in the body and so does not die with the body. It may surprize some people to learn that this was not originally a Christian doctrine ─ Christianity still officially affirms the ‘resurrection of the body’ ─ but a Greek idea which some historians trace even further back to the ‘out-of-the-body’ experiences of Siberian shamans (see Note). Today, however, science has considerably weakened belief in the reality of this incorporeal entity, the soul; also, we are not too keen today on a system of belief which implicitly or explicitly downgrades the body. The ‘soul’ option is losing ground fast.
This more or less only leaves two broad options: belief in reincarnation and pantheism. Most people today who consider themselves pagans seem to believe in reincarnation or pantheism or both combined: certainly I myself am attracted to both. The difficulty with reincarnation as a ‘solution’ to the problem of death is that, either you believe in an immaterial ‘something’ which keeps on persisting, in which case you are driven back to the ‘soul option’, or, as in traditional Buddhism, you deny that there is anything that persists, in which case the whole system ceases to be so consoling. Hinduism, or certain forms of it, affirms that the ‘individual soul’ (atman) eventually gets merged completely in the Absolute (Brahman) from which it came.
Although Plato and some Greeks and Romans believed in reincarnation, the idea is basically Indian and, if one is looking for passages in the English language affirming reincarnation there is not a lot available.
Pantheism has the great advantage that it is actually in some sense true ! We do end up merged into ‘Nature’ and modern science in affirming that “energy cannot be destroyed but only changed in form” (1st Law of Thermo-dynamics) has actually reinforced pantheistic belief. The difficulties are of a different order. The Romantics identified ‘Nature’ with everything admirable and good, but since Darwin, and even worse since Dawkins, it seems we have to believe that Nature demonstrates the fascist principle of ‘survival of the fittest’. Also, since Nature obviously cares nothing for the individual, it is debatable to what extent pantheism can provide consolation when confronted with the death of an individual.
Finally, one should perhaps mention a sort of paradoxically ‘consoling’ solution to the problem of death, namely the belief that there is, and can be, no consolation. This option can at least claim to look things squarely in the face ─ or does it?
Notes : E.R. Dodds takes this view in chapter V of his remarkable book “The Greeks and the Irrational” .
“There are more things in earth and heaven, Horatio,
Than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”
Hamlet, I. 2
“Like everyone else I am part of a play whose script is being written as I live it.”
John Conyngham, The Arrowing of the Cane
In the Beginning…..Jung
Jung did not invent the German term Synchronizität that is translated as ‘synchronicity’ but, on his own admission, he did give it a special meaning, and it is certainly Jung who aroused widespread interest in the topic, an interest which has continued unabated right up to the present day. So it is only fitting to start with him.
Jung is anxious to distinguish a ‘synchronicity’ from a ‘synchronism’ “which simply means the simultaneous occurrence of two events”. In “Synchronicity : An Acausal Connecting Principle” (Note 1) Jung writes :
“Synchronicity therefore means the simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with one or more external events which appear as meaningful parallels to the momentary state.” (p. 36)
Thus we have (1) a ‘psychic state’; (2) an objective event; (3) a parallelism between the two and (4) a ‘meaning’ attributed to the association.
But what makes an incident ‘meaningful’? As a psycho-analyst who was also intensely interested in the occult, Jung tended to regard an occurrence as ‘meaningful’ if (1) it gave him a supposed deeper insight into the character of the patient and (2) had ‘mythic’ associations of which the patient was more often than not unaware.
Jung leaves out from this formal definition a crucial element : that the ‘meaningful coincidence’ is what he calls ‘acausal’ (non-causal). He does, however, say this a few lines earlier :
“I am using the general concept of synchronicity in the special sense of a coincidence in time of two or more causally unrelated events which have the same or similar meaning.”
The most famous example of a Jungian synchronicity is the ‘scarab beetle incident’. In Jung’s own words
“A young woman I was treating had at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me her dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly, I heard a noise behind me, a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into the dark room at this particular moment.” Jung, Synchronicity p. 31
Note that the beetle was not a figment of the imagination since Jung caught it in his hand. Jung adds later that the young woman in question “was an extraordinarily difficult case to treat” and, appropriately enough, according to Jung, one of her chief problems was that she was ‘over-rational’.
Now, this anecdote does fulfil all the requirements of the definition : there is simultaneity, there is mental/physical parallelism and there is archetypal meaning (since the scarab was extremely important in Egyptian religion). Whether it is sufficiently remarkable to be considered other than a curiosity depends on how likely we consider it to be for a ‘common’ beetle to arrive at this particular moment ─ and I leave you to decide on this.
An ‘Acausal’ Principle
How does Jung ‘explain’ the incident? He does so by suggesting that there exists in Nature, alongside causality, an ‘acausal’ principle which connects certain events to others in a manner that causality does not permit. For causality, as normally interpreted, is subject to various quite stringent constraints. The two events must not be strictly simultaneous, there must be a possible physical link, the two systems must have something in common and so on. In particular, there is no known causal mechanism that can link a mental or psychological event directly to an objective physical one. But the ‘acausal’ principle can override all these constraints since ‘synchronistic’ events “prove to be relatively independent of space and time in so far as space in principle presents no obstacle to their passage and the sequence of events in time is [sometimes] inverted, so that it looks as if an event which has not yet occurred were causing a perception in the present” (Synchronicity , p. 144).
Jung does not consider the possibility that his disturbed patient in some way caused the cockchafer beetle to materialize or, alternatively, ‘attracted’ one that already existed to the window. This would save causality but at the cost of accepting the possibility of ‘mind over matter’, at least in certain exceptional circumstances. Seemingly, Jung, acting for once like a straightforward rationalist, thought the cost was too high. So he had to invent a new and different force.
Jung also recounts the case of a woman who has a (correct) premonition of her husband’s collapse and eventual death when she sees a flock of birds settling on the roof of her house. Apparently, flocks of birds had gathered outside the window at the death of the woman’s mother and grandmother. Jung admits that people in the Romantic era would have spoken of “some ‘sympathy’ or ‘magnetism’ which had attracted the birds to the scene of death but concludes that “such phenomena cannot be explained causally unless one permits oneself the most fantastic ad hoc hypotheses”.
Jung was interested in divinatory procedures and was probably the first academic to take the Y Ching seriously. He interprets ‘mantic procedures’ including ‘horary astrology’ (where you ask a question and interpret the horoscope of the moment) as examples of synchronicity ─ “the psychic and the physical event (namely the subject’s problems and choice of horoscope) correspond, it would seem, to the nature of the archetype in the background and could therefore represent a synchronistic phenomenon” (p. 80). One fails to see what the ‘archetype in the background’ is doing here : a more natural explanation would be that the subject simply ‘objectifies’ an internal state which shows up in the symbolic system used, in this case astrology.
In conclusion, then, Jung regularly prefers to advance his own complicated ‘acausal’ explanation rather than to relax the rules for the lawful operation of causality to allow for ‘mind over matter’. I am not sure that this is the right choice since his ‘acausal’ explanation is just as far-fetched as the alternative ‘psychic-projection theory’, while it is certainly more difficult to comprehend. Still, Jung may have been on to something for all that.
Do synchronicities necessarily have anything to do with myths and archetypes as Jung suggests? To judge by the ‘synchronicities’ that have happened to me, been recounted to me by friends or are listed in books such as Coincidence by Brian Inglis, the answer is no. Nor do they necessarily reveal anything particular about a person’s character or mental state except perhaps that he or she is highly impressionable. More often than not synchronicities don’t have any ‘meaning’ at all, archetypal or otherwise, nor do they tell you anything you did not already know. They remain nonetheless perplexing. Take the following example.
During my formative hippie years of drifting aimlessly around Europe, I was temporarily lodged by a woman in a Parisian suburb, Juvisy. This woman had a partner from whom she was separated and who did not live there but visited occasionally. She also had a daughter by a previous marriage, Madeleine by name, who sometimes stayed at the flat. The woman‘s partner was an interesting but somewhat dodgy character who had twice been in prison and he ended up wanting to get me out of the flat because of a developing relation with the daughter. On one occasion he threatened me with a kitchen knife and I fled from the flat in fear (though probably nothing much would have happened had I stayed.) Running through the streets I was brought up short by an enormous white sheet stretched all the way across a railway bridge with large painted letters in bold red “JOURNEE DE SANG” (‘Day of blood’). This didn’t look a very promising omen and, somewhat unnerved, a few streets on I took refuge in a second-hand shop. I idly took up a battered paperback and opened it at random. The first sentence I saw was the fragment of a conversation “‘Tu dois partir’” (‘You must leave’). The name of the heroine in the novel was Madeleine (the name of the young woman).
The banner ‘Journée de Sang’ turned out to be for a Blood Transfusion Event ─ I don’t take this as a ‘synchronicity’ though it’s a rather amusing detail in retrospect. But the chances of coming across by chance, at that precise moment, a novel with that particular sentence and a heroine of exactly the right name must be trillions to one. And moreover it seems reasonable to suppose that my emotional state had something to do with this.
Excited states do indeed seem to make coincidences of this kind more likely. A woman who eventually became a priest told me that, in her youth, she had had a relation with a married man about which she had always felt uneasy. One day, pondering this, she opened the Bible at random and at once fell on the verse “What God has joined, let no man rent asunder” from Saint Paul. What to conclude? The convinced sceptic dismisses this as pure chance. A believer would see this as the ‘voice of God’ speaking. As far as I am concerned, the woman’s unconscious had directed her to this text (since she was already anxious about the situation). This is, I would claim, by far the most natural explanation. But one fails to see what mechanism could possibly have led the woman to the ‘right’ page and the ‘right’ verse.
Note that I did not gain any new information by opening the novel in the second-hand shop since I had already more or less decided not to return to the flat except to pick up my things, nor did the woman glean any new information. The only possible ‘explanations’ of the Madeleine incident are (1) not to attempt to explain it at all but simply dismiss it as an oddity; or (2) to conclude that my emotional state somehow ‘caused’ me to pick up this particular book, open it at precisely that page and read that particular sentence. But how on earth could I know that this sentence was in this particular book in this shop? Brian Inglis’s book Coincidence is choc-a-bloc with even stranger coincidences.
Objective Synchronicities : Plum Pudding and M. de Fontgibu
Apart from the scarab beetle case, the most famous synchronicity is the M. de Fontgibu plum pudding story. This is a completely different type of synchronicity since the emotional state of the persons involved has no bearing at all on what happened.
“As a schoolboy in Orleans, Emile Deschamps was given a taste of plum pudding ─ then hardly known in France ─ by M. de Fontgibu, one of the emigrés who had fled to England during the Revolution and had returned. Some ten years later, walking along the Boulevard Poissonnière in Paris, Deschamps noticed a plum pudding in a restaurant window, and went to ask if he could have a slice. ‘M. de Fontgibu,’ the dame du comptoircalled out to a customer, ‘would you have the goodness to share your plum pudding with this gentleman?’ (…)
Many years after the restaurant encounter, Deschamps was invited to dine in a Paris apartment and his hostess told him he would be having plum pudding. Jokingly, he said that he was sure M. de Fontgibu would be one of the party. When the pudding was served, and the guests were enjoying the dinner, the door opened and a servant announced: ‘M. de Fontgibu’.
At first Deschamps thought his hostess must be playing a joke on him. He saw it really was Fontgibu when the old man, by this time enfeebled, tottered round the table, looking bemused. It turned out that he had been invited to dinner in the same house, but had come to the wrong apartment.” Inglis, Coincidence p. 1
The story was told by Deschamps himself to the French astronomer Flammarion who published it in his book L’Inconnu (1901).
There is no means of checking its authenticity but it sounds perfectly feasible to me since one could hardly imagine someone making up such a preposterous story. I shall comment on it in a moment.
In 1919, somewhat before Jung wrote his own article, the Austrian zoologist Kammerer published a book called Das Gesetz der Serie where he puts forward the idea that certain events relating to a particular theme ‘repeat’ rather in the way that a main wave creates subsidiary ripples. He gives various examples of this, such as the exact same numbers appearing on tram and cloakroom tickets within a single day, a proper name cropping up in all sorts of unrelated contexts, a tune played on the radio just when you are thinking about it and so on. Note that these phenomena differ from the Jungian scheme since the events are sequential rather than simultaneous (though occurring within a fairly circumscribed time interval such as a day). Also, the mental state of the observer, or ‘experiencer’, does not seem to matter so much ─ but people prone to serial coincidences, in my experience, do tend to be highly strung.
It is open to debate whether there really is a ‘law of series’ as Kammerer believed and the reader must decide for himself on the basis of his own experience. But, for what it is worth ─ and it is worth something ─ folk wisdom throughout the world tells us that “It never rains but it pours”, that “Misfortunes never come singly” and so on and so forth. Gamblers, sportsmen, entrepreneurs, people who live by their wits and adventurers generally almost to a man (or woman) firmly believe in the reality of ‘runs’ and lucky or unlucky breaks, as indeed I do myself. Statisticians despair of ever being able to uproot this irrational prejudice and are reduced to ascribing it to wish fulfilment.
There is another explanation, however : that this is what the data is actually telling you. Scientists and philosophers today are well insulated against the uncertainties of ‘real life’ : they are armchair military theorists who have never been under fire. What they say is not necessarily wrong, but should be treated with some caution. Active people tend to believe in luck, bad or good, and learn to cope with uncertainty rather than try to eliminate it. Nor is this necessarily a matter of believing in guardian angels because this makes you feel good : ‘runs’ are also things to be wary of. My experience tells me that there is something distinctly non-random about random events ─ and the more random, i.e. uncontrolled, the events, the more likely they are to show signs of an intermittent and elusive order lurking in the background. Jung was right at least in this : what order there is, is not the usual sort of clear-cut cause and effect.
Kammerer, who led an unusual life for a career scientist (Note 2), noticed that there was something ‘not quite right’ with the way events evolve into each other, occasionally forming distinct repetitive patterns : it is as if events had a life of their own, or were being manipulated by an external intelligence for her or its amusement. A delusion? Maybe, but maybe not. Einstein, in this respect so much more broad-minded than your normal rationalist/scientist, read Kammerer’s book with interest and pronounced it ‘by no means absurd’.
The Viewpoint of Eventrics
The theory of Eventrics, of which Ultimate Event Theory is, as it were, the ‘nuclear’ or atomic part, is just as ‘mechanistic’ as Newtonian Mechanics ─ indeed rather more so since Newton at least assumed the existence of a cosmic designer whereas Ultimate Event Theory holds that the universe came about spontaneously, is self-sustaining and up to a point self-correcting.
So what does Eventrics have to say about the sort of ‘synchronicities’ or ‘meaningful coincidences’ mentioned?
Eventrics ─ which is based on the premise that “the world is made up of events and not of things” ─ undoubtedly offers much more leeway for the occurrence of such things (sic) as meaningful coincidences and synchronicities. If Space and Time are continuous, which is the official view, it is difficult to see how particular streams of events could abruptly change course or be brought under any kind of selective control. But if physical reality is more like a mosaic where there are definite gaps between event-blocks, then it becomes perfectly conceivable that such blocks might sometimes become disarranged, giving rise to apparent causal anomalies. Also, it might not be completely impossible to, as it were, swap one event-block for another.
‘Objective Coincidences’ such as the Fontgibu ‘plum pudding’ synchronicity make perfect sense within the world-view of Eventrics : they are ‘mismatches’ of pairs of (macroscopic) events, comparable to DNA transcription errors that give rise to mutations. In the M. de Fontgibu saga, two originally unrelated macro-events for some reason got paired off with each other. Event A, the eating of plum pudding in France in Deschamps’ lifetime became systematically connected to event B, the presence of M. de Fontgibu on the scene. Such ‘event mismatches’ might turn out to have a silver lining and give rise to ‘lucky breaks’, but the chances are that they will have no particular importance. Nonetheless, the very existence of such anomalies implies that the functioning of the colossal event-machine we call the physical universe does not proceed without the occasional glitch ─ though generally extremely reliable, Nature does occasionally mess up. It would be like a skilful mechanic who, on an off day, puts the wrong nut on a screw.
What about Jung’s cases of ‘psycho-physical parallelism’? There is in Eventrics little or no difference between ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ events ─ both are events and are subject to similar or identical ‘laws’ of attraction and association. In consequence, the notion that someone can bring about changes in the material world by projecting out, consciously or unconsciously, a mental state, i.e. by connecting up an emotional event-block to an external one, is not ruled out a priori. But I do not see the need to drag in a supposed ‘acausal principle’ : causality by itself suffices. The emotionally disturbed person brings about, by a form of event sequencing we do not at present understand, an objective occurrence that otherwise would not take place, that is all. This is surprising but not particularly shocking.
Jung’s simultaneous ‘acausally related’ events, and alleged time-reversals, can be accommodated by broadening the conditions for the operation of causal forces. In earlier versions of Eventrics, where I spoke of ‘Dominance’ rather than Causality, I introduced the notion of the ‘Equal Dominance’ where each of a pair of events is just as ‘dominant’ as the other ─ in effect an inseparable dual system suddenly comes into existence. So simultanaous events can still be causally related. This idea does the same work as Jung acausal principle. However, I am no longer sure that this treatment is any better than Jung’s since something other than the events themselves must cause the double-event to appear ─ maybe, after all, there is a universal principle that lies somewhere in between causality and pure chance as Jung surmised.
As for apparent time reversals, they can be accommodated within the framework of Eventrics by supposing that in some cases entire event-blocks, which would normally be composed of separate ‘cause and effect’, get produced ‘at one fell swoop’. In such cases, the order of occurrence of the constituent events ceases to matter, and the apparent ‘effect’ can precede the ‘cause’. But this is not a true time-reversal since the flow of causality is still uni-directional, from past to future. I consider the idea that a future event can influence a present or past one to be ridiculous : either you have everything happening in an eternal present as Einstein believed towards the end of his life, or you have a single time direction. Nonetheless, because reality is a mosaic, different pieces can get ‘out of step’ as it were and have different time schemes. It seems that we have to accept that there is no single ‘Now’ which applies right across the universe but, certainly, within a particular region there is only one direction for the arrow of time. (Time, of course, in Ultimate Event Theory is not an arrow but a sequence of stills which gives the illusion of continuity.)
So, arguably, Eventrics can cope slightly better than contemporary physical theories with some types of synchronicity and meaningful coincidence. Nonetheless, there remains a large class of phenomena that does not fit into the underlying ‘world-view’ of Eventrics any more than it fits into the various scientific paradigms on offer, classical or modern. This class consists precisely of the most interesting synchronicities and coincidences, those where the ‘chance’ association of two or more events strongly suggests that there is a (usually benevolent) organizing intelligence at work, either ‘in here’ (in the unconscious) or ‘out there’ (in the universe). In many ways the most puzzling (though the least alarming) synchronicities are those of the ‘Library Angel’ type. Someone is searching for the name of something, a quotation, a particular book : he or she ic opens a book ‘by chance’ and voilà there is what he or she was searching for. Take the well-known de Morgan case, which is almost certainly authentic since de Morgan, a leading Victorian mathematician and logician did not believe in the paranormal.
The exact details need not concern us but the gist is that de Morgan was anxious to trace a paper the physicist Fresnel had sent to England some years previously for translation in the European Review. In de Morgan’s words :
“The question was what had become of the paper. I examined the Review at the Museum, found no trace of the paper, and wrote to that effect at the Museum, adding that everything now depended on ascertaining the name of the editor, and tracing his papers: of this I thought there was no chance. I posted this letter on my way home, at a Post Office in the Hampstead Road at the junction with Edward Street, on the opposite side of which is a bookstall. Lounging for a moment over the exposed books, I saw, within a few minutes of the posting of the letter, a little catch-penny book of anecdotes of Macaulay, which I bought, and ran over for a minute. My eye was soon caught by this sentence: ‘One of the young fellows immediately wrote to the editor (Mr. Walker) of the European Review’. I thus got the clue by which I ascertained that there was no chance of recovering Fresnel’s paper. Of the mention of current reviews, not one in a thousand names the editor.” de Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes recounted Inglis, p. 34
Note that this is a Jungian synchronicity: there is (1) near simultaneity between the writing and posting of the letter and coming across the book; (2) a direct connection between a mental state, concern to find the paper, and a physical act, buying and reading the book; (3) ‘meaning’ ─ since de Morgan obtained what was, to him, very valuable in formation.
What is striking about such synchronicities is, firstly, that a ‘random’ act is always involved (“Lounging for a moment over the exposed books… ”) but that this casually unrelated act proves to be far more effective than a systematic search (“Of this [discovering he name of the editor] I thought there was no chance”).
“What is to be done?”
Basically, when confronted with synchronicities and ‘meaningful coincidences’, there are only two options : either you dismiss them or you take them seriously. If you take them seriously, this means that there is a genuine rather than an apparent causal process at work ─ or, for Jung, an equally important ‘acausal’ principle.
So what can/should be done with such things? Can this principle be put to good/bad use?
There is certainly potential here. What synchronicities and meaningful coincidences imply is that human beings can (1) do a lot more than they think they can; (2) know a lot more than they think they know and/or (3) that there are entities of some kind ‘out there’ ready and willing to provide assistance, or alternatively to lead people astray. For scientific rationalists, all three possibilities are unthinkable, therefore all such phenomena must be ascribed to chance Q.E.D..
For Jungian ‘psycho-physical’ synchronicities imply that human beings have the power to project outward mental states and turn them into objective realities, as it is claimed Tibetan monks can, or at least could, do. It might thus be desirable to make oneself more prone to synchronicities and the like. Since many (but not all) of such occurrences happen when people are in heightened emotional states (fear, guilt, intense desire, curiosity &c.), one method would simply consist in exposing oneself deliberately to extreme situations. This is what Rimbaud had in mind when he talked of a “systematic derangement of the senses” and plenty of contemporary cults and the exotic self-help therapies aim to do just this. The method is, however, for obvious reasons, hazardous. The difficult part is dosing the derangement so that it is kept within certain bounds ─ which means part of oneself has to remain unaffected. There is also the question of what you are going to do with all the synchronicities when and if they do start occurring nineteen to the dozen.
On a different tack, if one takes the ‘Library Angel’ cases seriously, this means that human beings in principle have access to a much vaster store of information than we think we have : we don’t just have Google but something like the Jungian collective unconscious or the Akashic Records to click onto. Most brain activity consists of sorting out the vast amounts of data streaming in and only keeping near the top for easy access the bits rightly or wrongly deemed important. We know a lot more than what we think we know but we usually don’t know how to access it : the value of extreme situations is that, when it is a matter of survival, the mind overrides the normal barriers and so has a better chance of reaching the less accessible areas. This is why there is so much importance given to ‘changing awareness’ in mystic cults. As Strogatz said (in a completely different context) “There are things that are staring us in the face, but we can’t see them because we haven’t developed the conceptual tools to handle them”.
At the end of the day, when considering such matters, one has to tackle the question of what it is ‘in here’ or ‘out there’ that is directing, or at least influencing to some degree, the synchronous current that sweeps one along. Is there a ‘Hidden Hand’? Inhabitants of previous eras had no trouble at this level ─ no conceptual trouble that is ─ since almost everyone believed in “thrones, dominations and powers” as Saint Paul put it. Today, we don’t much believe in these things which means that there are no agents available to do any pushing or redirecting. Worse still, there aren’t really any human wills capable of doing any pushing either. The whole trend of scientific thought and rationalism in the last one hundred and fifty years in the West has been towards a drastic reduction of the scope and range of the human individual : he or she has become a helpless subject of impersonal deterministic forces that not only he has no hope of controlling, but precious little hope of even remotely understanding unless he has studied (very) advanced mathematics. Nor is Quantum Indeterminacy of the slightest use here, since there is ─ so we are endlessly assured ─ no way to get a handle on the uncertainties and exercise control over them (Note 3).
Synchronicities and meaningful coincidences are chinks in the seemingly impregnable armour of contemporary scientific rationalism and these chinks are inevitably going to be opened. The violent reaction of the scientific establishment towards any straying from the beaten track into paranormal territory only goes to show how threatened at a deep level orthodoxy feels. “Embarrassing questions tend to remain unasked, or if asked, to be answered rudely” writes Medawar in The Future of Man. Yes, quite.
Electricity started off as a fairground amusement : in the eighteenth-century people queued up to be given an electric shock and no one at the time had the faintest idea that this amusing phenomenon would one day become the principal energy source for a whole country. Maybe something of the sort will happen in this century on a mental level.
Postscript: I do not comment on the recent book on Synchronicity by Kirby Surprise because I have not read it yet, but there is an insightful review on the website of EllisNelson that revived my interest in the subject and prompted me to write this post
Note 1 All references are to the Ark Paperback C.G. Jung Synchronicity, an Acausal Connecting Principle which is a translation by R.F.C. Hull of part of Volume 8 of Jung’s Collected Works. This is itself an expansion of the original brief article Über Synchronizität published in Eranos Jahrbuch 1951.
Note 2 Kammerer eventually committed suicide but not for reasons that had anything to do with a ‘law of series’ as far as we know. He had the temerity to oppose neo-Darwinian orthodoxy and was accused of fudging his results, see Koestler’s book The case of the Midwife Toad. It has been suggested that a female student or colleague of Kammerer, infatuated with Kammerer, tampered with the evidence in oestler Today, a m isguided attempt to help him. His biological theories, dismissed because of their alleged Lamarckism, have resurfaced in epigenetics and a Peruvian team has gone so far as to say he was on the right lines.
Note 3 One or two psychoanalysts familiar with quantum theory, notably Ninian Marshall, have attempted to put telepathy on a quantum footing.
“Marshall’s theory recalls that a sub-atomic system is always, at any given time, a mixture of possibility and actuality, the one tending to give way to the other over a range of probabilities. (..) Each virtual transition is precisely a dip into the future, a future from which the particle ‘comes back’ to live out whichever actual state it has chosen to settle into. The premise on which Marshall based his theory was that precognition could be explained if there was a way that the brain could ‘tune into’ these virtual dips into the future…..” Danah Zohar, Through the Time Barrier
The next step from the idea that one can become aware of these ‘virtual futures’ is the notion that one can intervene and make the more attractive options the ones that get realized. If this general schema is correct (which I believe it is), this could give rise to a new form of technology. Instead of breaking down and rebuilding actual substances — which is essentially what manufacturing does — one would operate on ‘things’ that are nearly, but not quite, actual.
”There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken in the flood, leads on to fortune”
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Not-Doing is often confused with ‘doing nothing’ and though it can indeed be effective to abstain from doing something if and when your opponent expects you to do something (the ancient Chinese manual “The Art of War” recommends such behaviour), this is not the usual meaning of the Taoist term ‘Not-Doing’. As I understand it, the principle goes like this.
A man can lift vast weights by setting up some sort of system of gears and pulleys which get natural forces, far stronger than human muscles, to ‘do the work’ for him or her. People knew about leverage long before it was studied systematically: nonetheless it is worthwhile understanding the principles for then they can be extended much further and applied in unlikely situations. The central tenet of the ‘science’ I am constructing, Ultimate Event Theory, is that reality is not made up of things but of events and these events are usually bound together in chains and clusters. The power of event-chains is immense : indeed nuclear or gravitational forces are no more and no less than examples of physical event-chains which have stabilised and become persistent, i.e. the same sort of behaviour repeats endlessly. There is no essential difference between biological or human event-chains and physical event-chains : the chief difference is that physical ones are so stable and predictable that they are considered to obey ‘laws of Nature’.
The technique of ‘Not-Doing’ consists in adroitly interfering in certain event-chains to achieve specific goals : human beings already know how to do this in physical matters, hence the explosion of science and technology. However, their attitude towards the patterns of their own existences is usually passive and defeatist: they do not believe it to be possible to manipulate their own life-sequences to their advantage except in completely trivial ways (if that). But by inserting oneself into a particular situation or configuration at the appropriate place and moment (and only at the appropriate place and moment), one can “get events to work for you” so to speak – though in fact they are not working for you, simply continuing to function ‘normally’. This is generally thought to be impossible because reality is viewed either as strictly deterministic, or, alternatively, as totally unpredictable and haphazard. So either way you lose because you are powerless, or feel yourself to be.
I sometimes think of ‘life’ as being like loggers travelling downstream on log-rafts : they are carried along at breakneck speed by forces far greater than themselves. If they are being taken into a backwater, they have the possibility of jumping onto another log-raft and, in so doing, not only can they use the momentum of the other log-raft but, by jumping across, they impart a slight deviation to the course of the second log which may be enough to initiate vast changes. They can be taken much farther than would be possible by ‘Doing’, i.e. by deliberate action, since they are using to their advantage natural forces. The person who is able to manipulate events to his or her advantage will be successful (whether famous or not, that depends on whether he wants it), the person who has no feel for or control over events will be consigned to mediocrity and, probably, dissatisfaction also. In the past people talked of ‘Providence’ (as Cromwell did) but ‘Providence’ is in reality something just as ‘mechanical’ as atmospheric pressure or the behaviour of liquids. ‘Event-control’ has nothing necessarily to do with morality or religion : it is a technique that can be developed and rests on certain theoretical principles. These principles include but go beyond the ‘gut instincts’ and ‘rules of thumb’ of successful businessmen and in particular imply a very different sort of physics to the present one.
The technique, however, is both dangerous and tricky. Dangerous because one can all too easily be swept away by forces beyond one’s control; tricky because it is necessary to initially ‘do’ something, show will, but then ‘take oneself out of the picture’, let abstract forces do the work for you. The Tao Te Ching is always going on about “not interfering”, “going with the flow” and so forth – but this book, perhaps deliberately, does not stress that initially will and decision are required : passivity by itself is not enough. Very few people are able to combine determination and fluidity, able to work with determination for a goal but be ready to seize chance opportunities. But this is what I need to do to demonstrate the truth of my own theories, or rather of the Tao Te Ching as I interpret them!
Note : People who are interested in these ideas can read more on my website www.ultimateeventtheory.com
Keith Walton adds:
A canoeist friend tells me that, when a canoe is being carried downstream, the canoeist is only in control if he is paddling so that it is travelling faster than the stream. If he is just being carried along, he’s not in control, and can’t direct the craft. So his paddling creates the ‘continuous moment’ in which he can, at any time, intervene, and direct the canoe.
This seems analogous to (or the same as?) the martial arts’ practitioner’s constant work, even when apparently ‘doing nothing’, to be always and continuously ‘in the moment’, so that when the ‘gap in the action’ appears, into which he can insert his action, that minimal action can produce devastating results. His work is not in the action, but in a) his history of learning and practice, so he knows ‘instinctively’ what action is appropriate, and b) in being constantly ready to act.
Sebastian Hayes adds:
This is an extremely important point which is something of a revelation to me. I had previously seen event strategies as being either/or, either you use force and impose yourself to get results, or you make yourself directionless and ‘go with the flow’. This what the Tao Te Ching would call the methods of Doing and Not-Doing and the Tao Te Ching is emphatic that the superior strategy is ‘Not-Doing’. There are, however, dangers in just drifting and seeing where it takes you : the method is too passive. Sun Tzu, the Taoist author of The Art of War states “Skilful warriors are able to allow the force of momentum to seize victory for them without exerting their strength”. Yes, many commanders have indeed conducted successful campaigns where they systematically avoided pitched battles : this is how Fabius managed to wear down the great Hannibal. Also, Mao Tse Tung always avoided outright confrontation with Chiang-kai-chek’s Nationalist armies and spent most of his time apparently ‘running away’. However, if a military commander is never prepared to fight, especially if this gets known (which it will do), he will lose. The canoeist analogy seems extremely apt here. Most of the work is being done by the current but, if the canoeist is not exerting a certain amount of force, enough to just keep ahead, his craft will perhaps capsize or he will be taken onto the rapids.
The path of systematic ‘Not-Doing’ is thus only to be recommended to persons who are already involved in an active life-style and who cannot afford to be completely passive. Don Juan is always repeating to his pupil Castaneda that ‘seeing’ is no good unless one also “has the mood of a warrior’. Why so? Because the warrior is in a profession where he simply cannot afford to be completely passive. It is noteworthy that the man credited with the ultimate ‘passive’ statement of strategy, “No man rises so high as he who does not know where he is going” was a cavalry officer, namely Oliver Cromwell. Probably the reason the Tao Te Ching emphasizes the ‘passive’ aspect of successful strategy was because China was going through a period of upheaval at the time, the ‘Warring States Period’.
Keith added that this point explains why and how the Sixties ‘cultural revolution’ in the West went wrong : people simply drifted with the current, “ Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” as Timothy Leary, the LSD guru put it. They omitted to make sure they were slightly ahead of the current with eventually disastrous consequences.
I added that ‘seizing the occasion’ may well correspond to suddenly ceasing to exert this slight extra force — a sort of ‘Not-Doing of Not-Doing’. In such a case you really do ‘drop out’ for the current speeds on without you. If where you find yourself is where you want to be, this is exactly right : you only have to swim to the side and climb up the bank.
This remark by Keith was a revelation to me, since it goes some way to explaining where I myself have gone wrong, i.e. in being too passive and not making sure I was slightly ahead of the current. Being ‘in the flow’ is, then, dangerous unless you keep very slightly ahead of the flow, and remain on the qui vive, ready to seize the propitious moment.
What makes a Good Poem?
‘What features does a good poem have?’ “What makes a poem good?”
For a start one would expect a successful poem to be doing what poetry is good at — so one way of approaching this question is to ask what a poem can do that other literary forms cannot. Well, a poem is, or at any rate was originally, vocal, intended to be heard, and, whether heard or not, it differs from prose by having a discernible repeating rhythm. One would thus expect a good poem to be musical — Aristotle does not even bother to discuss lyric poetry in his Poetics since he considers it to be part of music (the lyrics).
Apart from being agreeable in itself, rhythm helps the reciter to learn a poem off by heart and helps the listener, or silent reader, to recall lines and passages without having ever made any conscious attempt to memorise them. Poetry — at any rate poetry that scans — is memorable: apart from proverbs and extracts from the Bible, most of the literary snips we carry around with us are in verse, and not in free verse either.
Despite Aristotle and Pater, a poem is not a piece of music nor does it generally aspire to be so: poetry is not music manqué. A poem uses words and words mean something in a way sounds do not — Oxford does not publish a dictionary of sounds. Many celebrated poets very much had a message to get across to the world, Dante, the Romantics, the World War I poets, Auden &c. &c. So why didn’t these people write reports or philosophic treatises? The answer is that for certain kinds of truth a poem is a very effective, indeed nearly ideal, vehicle. Truths of human experience, it would seem, as opposed to, for example, mathematical or physical truths. This, of course, applies to other art forms also such as theatre, but poetry holds an advantageous middle position: it is compelling enough to give you an ‘inside’ view, yet has enough distancing to encourage reflection. This is what Wordsworth was getting at with his famous phrase about “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. A good poem has intensity but also a certain objectivity: the visual image is usually too intense to make one reflect, the bare philosophic idea too dry.
A (good) poem, if read silently rather than listened to, needs to be read slowly – and this is an important point. It would be intolerable to be forced to read a book of (good) poems at the same pace as one reads a newspaper. But why is this the case? Basically, because a good poem has content that is worth dwelling on, coming back to again and again. One could say that a good poem should have depth but this is not quite the right word, since it is not exactly depth in the philosophic sense that is important. Often the points being made in certain very memorable poems are obvious, unsubtle, yet somehow well worth making, as when, for example, Housman writes
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Instead of ‘depth’, to describe what I have in mind, I prefer the term pithy, though it is not perhaps ideal either. An author who has this quality to a remarkable degree is Thomas Hardy. This is why we read him, not for his sound or imagery.
A poem should attempt to make a definitive statement on a particular theme. I shouldn’t think many people who have read and enjoyed The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Fitzgerald’s translation are much tempted to want to try their hand at expressing this particular brand of melancholy hedonism in their own words — Fitzgerald has pre-empted them.
On the other hand a poem does not need to be read quite so carefully as a mathematical proof or philosophic treatise.
There is the question of limits. Poetry has constraints that prose does not — one might go so far as to define poetry as rhythmically constrained prose. (In the exceptional case of Haiku there are no metrical constraints, but there are, on the other hand, very rigorous constraints as to the number of syllables in each line and also, traditionally at any rate, with regard to subject matter.) If our aim is ‘truth’ in a narrow sense formal constraints are thoroughly undesirable which is why no contemporary scientist, journalist or historian writes in verse. Coleridge in his Essays and Lectures on Shakespeare says exactly this, “Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. (…) The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement, or communication of, truth; the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure.” The latter point is surely worth making: published poetry should be in some sense enjoyable and enjoyable by the reader or listener, should not simply be a personal outpouring that makes you feel good.
One might think that the question of enjoyment is too obvious to be worth mentioning. But this is not so : a large number of books and articles are written to instruct, not to give pleasure, and many journalistic articles are deliberately intended to shock, horrify or provoke indignation in the reader. Whether such poems can (or should) also be ‘enjoyable’ is an interesting and somewhat difficult question : seemingly some can since otherwise we would not read ‘with pleasure’ the World War I poets.
Poetry is not a realistic art form : it involves artifice because of its very form and the emotions it portrays, or seeks to evoke, are highly selective, and rightly so. The world of poetry is rooted in life but is not an imitation of it (nor should not be) : this is precisely why we say that someone’s life lacks ‘poetry’ and everyone understands what is meant. The aim of poetry is, if not to replace experience, at least to distil it, ‘improve’ on it. One doubts if even those who listened to Homer really believed that Odysseus had undergone all his adventures, or even could have done : in this respect poetry is closer to the theatre or to film than to the novel.
A poem should, on the basis of my selection, be (not in order of importance)
Of course, not every poem in my personal anthology exhibits 1 – 9 inclusive but they all score on at least five or six counts (though I repeat I did not choose them with my criteria at hand). I take two examples at random.
Dylan Thomas’s And Death Shall Have No Dominion is in my file (of favourite poems). I immediately give it a tick for 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, i.e. it is brief, musical, intense, definitive and memorable. And maybe it deserves a double tick for 3 (musiciality) — it sounds magnificent read out loud whether it means anything or not. No one, I think, would call Dylan Thomas pithy so he does not make 5. It is not certain that the poem is concise (2.). One can be brief without being concise — it all depends how much you are saying, or wanting to say, and with Dylan Thomas this is often difficult to gauge. It is debatable whether the poem is accessible since although no foreign or erudite words are used, as with all Thomas there is an uncertainty about his wild mixing of metaphors and how literally we are to take them. Still, I feel in this case he does carry it off : most ‘men-and-women-in-the-street’ hearing this poem recited at a funeral would get the broadly pantheistic message — and Dylan Thomas’s messages are never more than broad.
R.S. Thomas’s The Coming, a very different style of poem, makes it to my collection and scores at once 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 . It rates double ticks for 2 conciseness and 5 pithiness. Though not disagreeable in sound, it is hardly in the Dylan Thomas class for reading aloud and so doesn’t make 3 (Musicality). Whether it rates 9 Accessibility depends on whether we believe a poet has the right to assume a working knowledge of Christian theology on the part of the reader. Certainly, this limits the accessibility as compared, say, to taking a more universal theme such as love or the coming of spring. And so on.
“Emotion recollected in tranquillity” (Wordsworth) — is this useful? Yes. Two parts: intense experience, emotion but not just churned out, ‘recollected’. Achieved by distancing but based on experience. Subjective, then objective. 4 and 6 perhaps.
“Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. Poetry is opposed to science and prose to metre. The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement, or communication of, truth; the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure.” (Coleridge, Essays and Lectures on Shakespeare)
“A poem is a species of composition opposed to science, as having intellectual pleasure for its object, and as attaining its end by the use of language natural to us in a state of excitement...” [my italics] (Coleridge, Ib. p. 10)
This latter point seems to be my ( 4.) — intense . The language of poetry should not be the language of everyday speech: it always needs to be heightened if only slightly. (This applies even to dramatic monologues.)
Coleridge cites Milton as saying somewhere that a poem should be “simple, sensuous, passionate”. I take this as covering three of my qualities, 9, 3 and 4 — accessibility, musicality and intensity. ‘Simple’ is not quite the right word, for it might suggest that the thought behind the poem is straightforward — which it need not be — or that the attitude taken is predictable — which it ought not to be.
As for ‘sensuous’ it may be as well to recall that a poem, at least if read aloud, only affects directly the ear — we do not see the images. And ‘intense’, being rather more extensive, is a better word than ‘passion’. Milton himself is defective in the first of these qualities ! But he sounds magnificent.
It will be perhaps not have escaped notice that I do not mention images in my list. And there are entirely successful and memorable poems that contain no images or similes or metaphors — for example most of Cavafy and a fair amount of R.S. Thomas. The image has in fact been overrated — and curiously enough overrated thanks to the efforts of a man who was not that strong visually (Pound). Pope is a great poet to my mind but he doesn’t use a lot of images, not at any rate in Essay on Man or even Heloise and Abelard.
Today practically “every poem tells a story” — why shouldn’t it? My answer is, “Why should it?” Narrative potential is not poetry’s strong point, so why take the risk? Epic, which is narrative poetry, was composed in verse mainly because it was much easier to memorise — a very important point in an oral culture. Also, it was more agreeable to listen to — because of the rhythm. But when poetry is read in complete silence, as is now almost universally the case, these considerations don’t apply — the novel, history book, biography have replaced epic and to a large extent narrative poetry as well.
P.S. Of course, it is up to you, reader or writer, to prove me wrong and one of my friends, Gavin Bantock, did write an epic Christ, shortly to be republished — though it is not my preferred work of this notable contemporary poet.
And death shall have no dominion
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and feet;
Though the go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.
And God held up his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There, crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.