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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.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Dear Rob A good Latin teacher and a fascinating book I wonder if anyone ever read our book on leadership in literature, white your excellent chapter? Shame if not! Best wishes Peter

    December 29, 2020

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