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States of mind

Ever since my Latin teacher gave me a copy of Carl Jung’s ‘Memories, dreams, reflections’ the study of our different modes of consciousness has intrigued me. That same Latin master sometimes used the term ‘a brown study’ to refer to that state of being in which one or more of his pupils had seemingly departed from any obvious sensory contact with the world and had entered a mood of rather vague contemplation. On the other hand, he highlighted those moments when his same pupils evidenced something of a poet’s sensibility during which they marvelled and even extolled the beauties of the world around them.

There is, I think, an enjoyable difference between a form of deep contemplation and a kind of spiritual openness and its allied fulfilment. The former is determined by an almost mysterious stillness of thought; it is not a rumination, nor an activation of logic; it is more like a kind of quiet dreamy wonderment in which idea and image reside on the very edges of consciousness; it is as if the soul temporarily leaves the body. By contrast, the mood of spiritual openness (the poet’s sensibility) remains touched by the phenomena of the world itself; to that extent it is image-laden and more or less connected to sense experience.

The mood of deep contemplation is highlighted by Dostoyevsky in his ‘The Brothers Karamazov’; he provides us with its description in relation to an enigmatic character named Smerdyakov; we learn that ‘on occasion’ Smerdyakov, notwithstanding whatever he had hitherto been engaged upon, would come to a halt and remain standing ‘quite still’ for a few minutes. A study of his features would suggest that he was engaged in ‘some form of contemplation’ and Dostoyevsky continues:

There is by the artist Kramskoy a certain remarkable painting that goes under the title, ‘The contemplator’: depicted is a forest in winter, and there, all alone, on a roadway, in a ragged old kaftan and bast shoes, stands a wretched little muzhik (a Russian peasant ) who has wandered there in deepest solitude, who stands seemingly in reflection, yet is not thinking but is apparently ‘contemplating.’ Were you to jog his elbow he would start and look at you as though he had just awoken … To be sure he would at once recover his wits, but were you to ask him what he had been standing there thinking about, he would doubtless be unable to remember any of it …

However, it is not a state without ‘content’: some residue of this experience would remain for Dostoyevsky adds that whatever it is that has taken place, the ‘impressions’ that may have arisen during this mood of contemplation ‘are dear to him’ and may re-surface at some point in the future.

There is an almost perfect description of spiritual openness and a kind of accompanying ecstasy – that is partly associated with the beauty of the world as it presents itself – in Dostoyevsky’s same novel: The young Aloysha Karamazov has just paid his last respects to his guide and mentor, the revered head of a monastery, and has suddenly left the dead man’s monastic cell; we are told that:

He did not even stop in the porch-way but swiftly went down the steps. His soul, filled with ecstasy, thirsted for freedom, space, latitude. Above him wide and boundless, keeled the cupola of the heavens, full of quiet brilliant stars. Doubled from zenith to horizon ran the Milky Way, as yet unclear. The cool night, quiet to the point of fixity, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral sparkled in the sapphire sky. In the flowerbeds the luxuriant autumn flowers had fallen asleep until morning. The earth’s silence seemed to fuse with that of the heavens, the earth’s mystery came into contact with that of the stars …

These beautiful descriptions nicely exemplify the pleasures that might freely be yielded through such contrasting aspects of our mental lives. They appear on pages 144 and 417 respectively of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Penguin Classic edition of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, a novel first published in 1880.

Montaigne – on living and dying

Michel de Montaigne begins a relatively long essay entitled, ‘To philosophise is to learn how to die’ by adhering closely to Cicero’s ‘Tuscan Disputations’ and observes without further delay that: ‘… philosophising is nothing other than getting ready to die.’ (Montaigne 1991: 89) Immediately he develops his subject by conjecturing that: ‘… all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion which is teach us not to be afraid of dying.

He then proceeds to discuss the inevitability of death and, somewhat in the tradition of Cicero, to propose that we should face up to this inevitability and prepare ourselves for a life in which death is omnipresent. Montaigne though is never depressing nor gloomy. He studied carefully the great classical writers (both Greek and Roman) and applied their counsel to understanding more fully both those around him and himself; he based his self-understanding on the unswerving details of his own lived experience.

He recognises that the ‘end’ to which a life aims is that of happiness or pleasure – and that it would be faintly absurd to imagine that this was not the case; for example, our ‘reason’ would scarcely tell us to aim towards pain and misery – and if it did, then we would surely wish to reject this ‘mood’ or expression of reason itself! Montaigne then reflects on the nature of virtue – which is not something oppressive and life-constraining: it, too, takes as its ultimate aim, ‘pleasure’. He has a vigorous and life-enhancing concept of virtue and adds that one of its ‘main gifts is contempt for death’.

However, he finds that, by and large people, are afraid of death, fail to accommodate it in their lives and are more inclined to deny it than to bring into full consciousness the fact that ‘the end of our course is death’. Montaigne, in the light of his acquired knowledge and the inescapable data of his personal experience, acknowledges that since we do not know ‘where death awaits us, let us wait for death everywhere’. And he thinks that if we do this, if we prepare ourselves in this way, we liberate our mind and body: he asserts that:

To practice death is to practice freedom.

In essence, he means that we should not constrain ourselves and avoid the fullness of living because we fear death but should embrace life to the full – precisely because we have, as it were, made ‘friends’ with death – and, co-extensive with this, we should not allow our psychology to deny death and therefore to feel overwhelmed when someone close to us dies.

In this way, Montaigne finds a close relationship between the practical philosophy of the ancients, who advocated a life orientated towards happiness, the practice of virtue (as the expression of vigour for and in life), and freedom, a state which would truly emerge once a person had fully integrated the fact that death was intrinsic to their very being:

Your death,’ he notes ‘is a part of the order of the universe, it is part of the life of the world’ and he adds that ‘From the day you were born your path leads to death as well as to life.’

He concludes his essay with a series of reflections on various aspects of a life in which death is an existential given and advises his readers not to resist the approach of death but to prepare to leave this life since ‘all days lead to death’ but ‘the last one gets you there.

Montaigne was a great liberal humanist who preferred to base his practical philosophy of life on the foundations established by Plato and Aristotle as well as the great Roman thinkers – such as Seneca and the happy eclecticism of Cicero. He applied their precepts to his own experience and is sometimes credited as a forerunner of the enlightenment. I certainly have enjoyed, through reading his wonderful essays, some very good and sympathetic and insightful company.

The cherry blossom and the rose – On reading Dostoyevsky

Individuals and collectives – words and pictures

Little by little, bit by bit, I have been patiently reading Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’; the book was published in 1880 and certain critics and academics refer to it as his ‘major accomplishment’. As I have been reading this very long work I have been reminded of Iris Murdoch’s remark that authors no longer write in this style. There is a feverish, pyretic, and sometimes delirious tone which often distinguishes the mood and conduct of the various people we meet in his absorbing text. Heightened passion and moments of hysteria are not uncommon as the narrative unfolds. After a while, and once one has become accustomed to this, the effect is compelling! (I think she, Iris Murdoch, also suggested that no one now can really achieve the kind of literary and intellectual heights that writers such as Dostoyevsky once attained.)

Apart from elucidating the existential challenges facing his characters, treating us to the brilliance with which which he depicts their personalities, and, the detailed discourses he elaborates on the meaning of the Christian religion, he also identifies a ‘spirit of the age’ that he discerns in Russia and beyond; his observations are particular interesting because they appear to foreshadow, by way of contrast, the mood and hopes of the subsequent revolution in Russia – but they also, in certain respects, apply to our own times. I have selected a particular passage which appears on page 349 of my ‘Penguin classics’ edition. The remarks are made by Zosima, the elder of a monastery; the discourse he gives occurs a few hours before he dies. As he speaks he refers to the words of a ‘mysterious and earnest man’ – a man who carries with him an unconscionable secret.

Zosima tells us that:

‘In order for the world to be transformed into a new mould it is necessary that human beings themselves shall psychically turn on to another path. Until you really make yourself the brother to all, brotherhood will not arrive. Never, prompted by science or self-interest alone, will human beings be able to share their property, their privileges in harmless fashion. None will consider that he has enough, and all will grumble, envying and destroying one another.

You ask when what I describe will come true. It will come true, but first there must be a period of human solitariness. ‘What kind of solitariness do you mean?’ I asked him. ‘The kind that reigns everywhere now, particularly in our own time, though it has not yet established itself universally, and its hour has not yet come. For each now strives to isolate his person as much as possible from the others, wishing to experience within himself life’s completeness, yet from all his efforts there result’s not life’s completeness, but a complete suicide, for instead of discovering the true nature of their being they lapse into total solitariness. For in our era all are isolated into individuals, each retires solitary within his burrow, each withdraws from the other, conceals himself and that which he possesses, and ends being rejected of men and by rejecting them. He amasses wealth in solitariness, thinking: how strong I am now and how secure, yet he does not know, the witless one, that the more he amasses, the further he will sink into suicidal impotence. For he has become accustomed to relying upon himself alone and has isolated himself from the whole as an individual, has trained his soul not to trust in help from others, in human beings and mankind, and is fearful only of losing his money and the privileges he has acquired.

In every place today the human mind is mockingly starting to lose its awareness of the fact that a person’s true security consists not in his personal, solitary effort but in the common integrity of human kind. But it will certainly be the case that this terrible solitariness will come to an end, and all will comprehend at once how unnaturally they have divided themselves one from the other. Such will be the spirit of the age, and they will be astonished that they have sat in darkness for so long without seeing the light.’

Well, I think it’s a striking piece of writing. Plainly it stands in contrast to what appears to be the prevailing spirit of our time. History also seems to tell us that the ‘common integrity’ of ‘human kind’ is a chimera. Or is it?