PLATO’S CAVE

Look carefully at the above image ( with thanks for this to WikkiMedia) which presents a picture illustrating Plato’s allegory of the cave. Note the hunched figures bound so they look in one direction. They see, point to and talk about reflections on the back wall of a cave. The light reflected is caused by a fire behind a wall. Actors bearing images of, say, animals, a soldier pass in front of the fire but behind the wall so that only the artefacts they are holding are seen. Nearer the front of the cave a prisoner who has escaped from the back of the cave has difficulty adjusting his eyesight to the brighter light of the sun and to the outside world. However, an escaped prisoner further advanced into the sunlight is taking in the reality of the world unfolded to him.

In the allegory the prisoners are presented with shadowy pictures they assume must represent reality. It is of course a false impression; but even if one escapes it is difficult for him to adjust his seeing to the new reality. However, if he is able to advance beyond this stage the possibility of full awareness is open to him. The light of the fire has been replaced by the sun. The surrounding world is seen in its animated fullness.

Were the two escapees to return to the cave to their former colleagues, they would have difficulty with the lack of light and appear to the prisoners confused. Therefore should they claim a superior reality lies beyond if only the prisoners could escape their word might well be doubted.

What do you make of this story? Does it accord with anything in your life or in our world that makes it an allegory of continuing significance for our time?

Note. Allegory: “A story or visual image with a distinct second meaning behind its literal or visible meaning. An allegory may be conceived of as a metaphor that is extended into a structure system. In written narrative, allegory involves a continuous parallel between two (or more) levels of meaning in a story, so that its persons or events correspond to their equivalents in a system of ideas or a chain of events external to the tale.” (From The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms Chris Baldick. OUP 1990)

“THE TOWER OF BABEL: AN UP-TO-DATE VERSION”

(According to Wikipedia the Millenium Dome was designed by Richard Rogers and constructed to celebrate that date. It was described by Prime Minister Tony Blair as “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity”. It is fair to say that the response given in the Conservative Manifesto- “banal, anonymous and rootless” and “lacking a sense of Britain’s history and culture” seems more in accordance with the general public and educated reaction at the time. The satire I here reproduced written nearer the time reflects a similar feeling.)

And the most powerful rulers on earth gathered together and said: let us now speak one language. For now that we know the laws of Science and the power of Technology we shall defer to neither God nor Nature. And we shall make the poor peoples of the world give up their traditional agriculture and make them grow what we want them to grow and make what we want them to make. We shall teach all peoples to worship money and we shall be guided by economic experts who inform us how to control economies to our best advantage. And within these guidelines we shall pretend to allow people freedom, equality and democracy. And we shall teach people to mock the past, to despise tradition and to regard as superstition religious beliefs. And we shall educate them to believe only in progress and we shall encourage them always to want more than they can buy and we shall devise great entertainment industries using the resources of technology to keep them permanently amused, or at least distracted, when they are not working. And people the world over will forget religion and glorify Man. So let us build a great Dome where we can celebrate the progress and lordship of Man where the people will rejoice in our great secular and materialistic society.

And the Lord came down to the city and looked at the Dome which the children of men built. And the Lord said: Behold the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.

And the Lord continued: They worship their own productions and defer neither to Nature nor to me. They have despoiled and ravaged Nature and made growing places deserts. They have proclaimed freedom and they have created docility. They have promoted democracy and get themselves elected as sharp practitioners or media stars who care for the interests of their people when they have neither wisdom derived from the past nor concern for the future. They have claimed to grant equality but only when people have been taught to say “Materialism is all” .

They have advanced education but only an education designed towards the service of Mammon. This is a generation that does not know the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.

And because of this, Nature will rebel because it can no longer sustain Man in his greed and arrogance. And because they do not regard the poor of the earth, those from traditional cultures and religions will resist the powerful and there will be war and rumours of war and there will be terror and rumours of terror. And there will be anarchy and to deal with anarchy more dictatorial rule and in reaction to dictatorial rule there will be rebellion and then to repress rebellion there will be more cruel dictatorships and Man and his works will be confounded.

Then came the Son unto the Father as he watched the building of the Dome and said: All that you say is just and yet there is still the Church which can still do good and there are still those who sing the old songs and dance the old dances and learn from poetry, who read the Scriptures and glorify Thee and seek to advance Thy Kingdom. Before you completely condemn Man give those who love and tend and nurture that which is good within their traditions yet another opportunity to recreate the Garden you designed for humanity where different traditions and cultures and languages might flourish on the good soil you have laid for them ; then these may yet grow to honour Thee as the creative source of all that is good.

And the Lord said: What you say is still my desire.

NOTE

Picture: Millenium_Dome_zakgollop

LIFE BECOME LESS THAN LIFE.

I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.

Gospel of St. John 10.10

Last October I began a new series of blog “Old Stories That Tell Us Where We Are Now” . The chosen stories were The Tower of Babel myth in Genesis, Plato’s well-known story of the Cave and Coleridge’s long poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Unfortunately going through the Coleridge poem the series lost its initial thrust , meandering rather as I found other subjects to take on at the same time. As a result many new followers will be unaware of the original design as will more occasional blog readers. I have therefore decided to re-run the series over a short period so that readers can follow the developing idea from beginning to end with the original posts being re-edited and re-blogged. This post can act either as a postscript to the series or an introduction as suits the reader.

POSTSCRIPT OR INTRODUCTION

To what extent can we survive without a proper relationship with creation. Science has given us the power to exceed limits of what was long thought possible. Explainers of science have suggested that science alone shows us true knowledge and tells us who we are.

An ancient story from early on in the Bible challenges this idea. It shows us there are limits to what we can do and there should be limits. God as Creator is not to be mocked.

God’s creation is to be respected and indeed loved. Does it not come from God? But humanity is wilful, seeking over-weeningly to impose his power on the Nature. As a consequence the balance of our relationship with the Nature on which we are dependent is distorted. Coleridge’s poem tells a tale in which a mariner loses his connection

Retired from the action of the world as it were comfortably seated in my study-chair as I write this, it is nevertheless easy to be dismayed by what the screen unfolds of the world around me. A recent Climate Change report by the United Nations paints a dire picture of our future based on humanity’s insufficient awareness of the interdependence of our lives with that of Nature. Humanity does not simply belong to itself. Both Coleridge’s poem and the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel remind us of this.

But the human world also clamours for our attention. Is our hold on life, on life in its fullness reduced? T.S. Eliot reminded us “Humankind cannot bear too much reality”. The Plato story, with its mythic dimension, seems to confirm this. For the dwellers in the cave, conditioned to a type of life they think normal, reject the urgings of one escaped from their midst who tells them of a better life elsewhere in the open sunlight.

Meantime those who live in the open sunlight know life is beautiful. We need to get our thinking right and join them.

(Tomorrow see “The Tower of Babel”)

FACING GRIEF THROUGH POETRY

Isaiah’s “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief” could well be applied to William Wordsworth in 1812 . For that year saw the death of two of William’s children: Catherine aged three and three quarters in June and Tommy of measles in December at the tender age of six. He wrote this poem as an epitaph.

 Surprised by joy-impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport-Oh! with whom 
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, 
That spot which no vicissitude can find? 
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind- 
But how could I forget thee? Through what power, 
Even for the least division of an hour, 
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind 
To my most grievous loss!-That thought's return 
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, 
Save one-one only, when I stood forlorn, 
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn 
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore. 

With Dorothy, grief perhaps was moderated by her frailty. She had never been a well child” (Bate J. Radical Wordsworth P363). Suffering convulsions when she was eighteen months, she was paralysed on the left side and at three and three-quarters she developed the brain fever that finished her.

With Tommy a great future was hoped for. “His sixth birthday came a few days after Dorothy’s death.” He was everyone’s comfort. The other children quarelled with each other but never with him. He was beginning to show a love of books and learning. His father loved him with what Dorothy (Wordsworth’s sister) called a “peculiar tenderness”. Wordsworth was hoping that this would be the son who would follow in his poetic footsteps. He would describe his boy of ” heavenly disposition,……… passionately fond of knowledge, ardent in the discharge of his duty but in everything else mild and peaceful.”(ibid. P. 365).

While not naming Tommy the poem seems suited to the child but its lack of specificity means that for every reader who has experienced grief a particular force of shared feeling.

FOLLOWING THE POEM.

Transported by delight you turn to share the emotion and the actuality of separation comes back to you with renewed force. The one with whom you are accustomed to share is no longer there. The renewal of the shock brings guilt-how could you ever forget?- and a vivid re-living of the first realisation of the death and the reconfirmed sense of the unalterability of what has happened.

The poem is a looking within at the emotions. We do not see out there. Until the final lines there is only the one central image of the tomb. We are not drawn to what looks striking about the scene that brings the joy; we are not invited to distinguish the one now dead, until with a summing-up epithet in the last line. And also we are not expected to commiserate with the poet, one William Wordsworth- he is not looking for our sympathy: he is too concentrated on attending to the grief working within him .

The poem is packed with a range of feelings which the poet has to work to understand. We as readers undistracted by images follow the confused to and fro of the poet’s emotions as they are worked into a fuller kind of understanding: and then, later, going over the poem in our minds we are given the freedom to relate these to ourselves and our own experience.

On first reading the last thing we expect on reading the first line and a half is a poem of mourning. The first phrase appears to promise a scene of wonder. When this is broken into by the next phrase “Impatient as the wind” we are probably confused. Then “I turned to share the transport” possibly more for us than Wordsworth’s contemporary readership puzzles us with “transport” until we recognise the appropriate meaning:

“the state of being affected by strong (now esp. pleasurable) emotion; exaltation, rapture, ecstasy. M17”. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

The external scene that has conjured up that “transport” ,that has roused the poet is brought down to the central reality of loss:

                                    Oh with whom 
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, 
That spot which no viccisitude can find? 
Love, faithful love recalled thee to my mind-
But how could I forget thee?

 

“Vicissitude” is another surprising word. Checking the S.O.E.D. the meaning that seems most fitting is “change or mutability regarded as a natural process or tendency in human affairs”. Note how the poet, changeable “impatient as the wind” with that word negated, is brought to the recognition of the unalterable, against himself ,as it were. The power of the poem-the emotion driving the series of broken phrases brings the poet to this point of self- accusation: “But how could I forget thee?”

The rhetorical question leads to an expression of guilt- common in the grieving-a feeling that one has let the mourned one down.

The reflection takes the poet back to the original feeling; here, alone, the poet pictures himself “when I stood forlorn”. The phrase “heart’s best treasure” inevitably in a Bible-steeped culture reminds the reader of the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: “For where your treasure is there will be your heart also”(St Matthew 6:21). This passage from the gospel also connects with the phrase “heavenly face” in the poem. Notably Wordsworth has also, in the letter telling of the child’s death quoted above used the epithet “heavenly” there. In the gospel passage Jesus speaks of the need to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”(Matthew 6.20).

This consolation is not however in Wordsworth’s poem

That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
 

While the implication of “heavenly” is potentially one of reconciliation with the grief that is a stage which has not yet been reached. The fact of separation is too brutal and something which the poet has to continue to face stoically.

What the poem encourages then is not so much transcending grief but facing it with stoical courage. What is notable about the poem is the rhythmic power that carries the poem through its sequence of intense feelings to its final agonised recognition.

REFERENCE.

Jonathan Bate Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who changed the World. William Collins 2020

“ON THE FARM”: R.S.THOMAS -NATURE AND REDEMPTION.

           On the Farm

There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.

There was Llew Puw, and he was no good.
Every evening after ploughing
With the big tractor he would sit in  his chair,
And stare into the tangled fire garden,
Opening his slow lips like a snail

There was Huw Puw, too. What shall I say?
I have heard him whistling in the hedges
On and on, as though winter
Would never again leave these fields, 
And all the trees deformed.

And lastly there was the girl:
Beauty under some spell of beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life's dark book
The shrill sentence: God is love.

R.S. Thomas.

 

Early June with the sun shining, trees, blossoms , birds’ nest and song how easy it is to see Nature as genial and a blessing. “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here” went the Max Ehrmann poem ” Desiderata”. Popular in the sixties it sounded ever so romantic!

Wordsworth in a poem like “Tintern Abbey” treats Nature as a blessed power which when contemplated can have a redemptive effect on us. In his famous “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” he states his aim to “use language such as men do use” particularly those whose speech has been shaped in rural settings such as the Lake District. It would be simplistic to say that Wordsworth’s attitude to the rural enviromnent is idealistic. He shows the reality of rural poverty and suffering unforgettably in poems like The Ruined Cottage, Michael The Thorn and rural stoicism in a poem like “Resolution and Independence”; yet there is nothing in Wordworth I can think of that presents the rural character so bleakly as the poetry of the Welsh priest R.S. Thomas, featuring the lives of the Welsh peasantry and small farmers living in the Welsh uplands representative of the endurance and fortitude of people who have lived there for generations.

This is the stark environment in which Thomas worked as a priest, serving from 1936 to 1978 in six different Welsh parishes. What ever Thomas is as a poet he is not romantic.

“On the Farm” presents (we presume) three brothers and one sister. Two brothers are “no good” and the third worse even than that. There is nothing attractive about any of them or their lives. The poem exposes their blatant mental vacancy: two of them with little or no ability to do productive work, one debilitated by the work he does do so he is unfit for anything else.

In the final stanza we are made aware what Thomas is doing. The sister as “lantern” gives a light which rescues the brothers from darkness. In her they could read what otherwise they would be incapable of understanding. For “life’s dark book” is unreadable to them, only she can represent it in person:

And lastly there was the girl:
Beauty under some spell of the beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life's dark book
The shrill sentence "God is love".


    

What she represents is the meaning of the book otherwise “dark” to them: ” God is love”. The phrase is shrill because to make sense to them, to get through to them, her voice has no doubt become shrill to overcome thir obdurate emptiness but nevertheless she gives the love they need.

It reminds me- on a small scale- of Dickens’ great novel Little Dorrit -possibly the greatest novel in the language -in which Amy Dorrit alone brings to her father incarcerated in prison and her empty-headed brother and her vain sister, both with their “mind -forg’d manacles”- the love without which they would be as nothing.

Thomas is right: you cannot romanticise the peasant life he shows. Nature of itself cannot redeem the empty mind, the universe does not save them; what alone has the possibility to get through and give them lives to live is signified by a sister who shows them by action and “shrill voice”the love, which is the love of God.

” CAN SOCIALISTS BE HAPPY?”: WHY DOES UTOPIA NOT WORK?

I have just been reading Orwell’s essay entitled “Can Socialists Be Happy”?” it sounds a challenging title, particularly from a writer of the Left who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. Interestingly Orwelll was encouraged to ask the question by comparing the writings of Charles Dickens with a number of more recent writers who had tried to make Utopia convincing. He discusses H.G. Wells who wrote among other things science fiction including Utopian novels (eg. A Modern Utopia, The Time-Machine, War of the Worlds, Men Like Gods).

Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries that we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear. overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that it is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things that Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia?

Well perhaps Wells is the wrong writer to read to make Utopia appealing. So Orwell looks wider. He tries the early Fabian Socialist William Morris. But Morris’ News from Nowhere is as unattracive as it sounds : “It is a sort of goody-goody version of a Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty’s, but the impression left behind is of a kind of watery melancholy.”

What about the further-back past? Orwell turns to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The early parts are ” “probably among the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written”

claims Orwell- a judgement to ponder- but he goes on:

In the last part, in contrast with the disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the heroes of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, “reasonable ” lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from “passion”, including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic priciples, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the early parts of the book Swift has shown where man’s folly and the scoundrelism lead him, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.

Against these Utopias Orwell points to Huxley’s Brave New World as actually reflecting the fear we might have of these organised Utopias: A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which is within his power to create.

Huxley’s “rationalised hedonistic society” is a society in which sex is so readily available that it has become vacuous; in which promiscuous relationships have taken the place of marriage and the requirement of raising a family is state- provided. The living connections between what Burke pointed to as the unborn, the living and the dead have become severed. Meaningful living is unavailable to a generation uprooted from the past dwelling in such a society.

Readers can make up their minds how close we are to this whether we desire it and the kinds of alternative to it.

But to get back to the title. In showing imagined Utopias as undesirable Orwell. asks where in literature we find a living sense of happiness to pose against these failed Utopias. It is Dickens he points to: the Dickens of Pickwick and the concluding scenes of Christmas Carol where the Cratchit family are shown enjoying their Christmas dinner.

the Cratchit family do give the impression of enjoying themselves. They sound happy as, for instance,the citizens of William Morris’s News From Nowhere don’t sound happy. Moreover -and Dickens’ understanding of this is one of the secrets of his power- their happiness derives mainly from contrast. They are in high spirits because for once in a way they have enough to eat…. The steam of Christmas pudding drifts across a background of pawnshops and sweated labour…

Dickens is master of showing human enjoyment and happiness. This may surprise readers who also know his novels -the later ones- as dark. But as Orwell points out the two go together. He prizes the creative enjoyment and revelry of the poor because he knows how hard won it is.

So if Utopias are to be desired but yet fail where does this leave us?. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Judaeo- Christian narrative begins with a kind of perfect world- the Garden of Eden which cannot last. Ever since humankind has had to take account of sin and death and also the difficulties of earning bread (“In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread” Genesis 3:19).

The Bible suggests however the struggle is not mainly socio-economic (which does not stop the prophets speaking out about exploitation and justice to the poor is a preoccupation) but to do with our relationship with God; so to imagine a society- Socialist or whatever- in which our social problems are resolved is unrealistic. The struggle for meaning and meaningful living is central to our human search; and that search cannot be resolved by a Utopia- socialist or otherwise- that attempts to take the struggle away.

GEORGE ORWELL: ON WRITING GOOD ENGLISH.

All aspiring writers can learn from Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” on writing good English as opposed to bad. Written in 1945 it remains an essay that is very much up-to date. Although the title suggests a political aspect to the discussion this is limited and does not affect the essay’s relevance. It continues to offer good advice on how to avoid bad writing.

Orwell’s starting point is the state of the language, English in general. Many bemoaned its state and thought the language was in decline .

Orwell agrees with the charge but he denies the language is beyond rescue:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilisation is decadent, and our language -so the argument runs- must inevitably share in the general collapse. …… Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument we can shape for our purposes.

Perhaps we hear less these days about the state of the language in general but we certainly tend, I think, to the idea there is not much we can do about it anyway. There is plenty of protest about individual uses of bad practice,

( For instance I get irked by the generality of the use of “Awesome” for what arouses admiration but certainly not awe, the tendency to introduce unnecessay prepositions -why do we need to say ” Let’s meet up for a coffee !” when meaning “Let’s meet for a coffee”; the tendency to answer questions as if they have not been asked, beginning “So…”)

but we, perhaps more than in Orwell’s time think it rather democratic to see language as a natural growth so there is not much you can do about and should not indeed wish to. It might be called a populist view of language use. (There are also some activist groups in opposition who see language as inherently biassed against their position and needs to be changed: hence the recent debate on personal pronouns. But that I shall leave for another day.)

But to get back to Orwell: he has some very pointed challenges to a just-let-be attitude:

The language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

( Those of you who have any experience of social media debates will see justice in this in this on our present -day English.).

Nevertheless:

The point is the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think more clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Orwell then takes some contemporary examples of English prose which are badly expressed and discusses the main weaknesses. These include the use of:

dying metaphors ie. one-time metaphors repeated so often they have lost freshness(eg toe the line, ride roughshod over,stand shoulder to shoulder, grist to the mill,no axe to grind)

Phrasal verbs or verbal false limbsthese are often unnecessary verb extensions eg,render inoperative, prove unacceptable,be subjected to, give rise to,take effect. Phrases like this often take the place of a single simple verb.

Pretensious diction.The choice of vocabulary that is meant to sound impressive: expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, clandestine.

Meaningless words. Such will depend on the subject but in-group jargon words might be an example or specialised vocabulary not adequately explained.

ORWELL’S ADVICE

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are use to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short word would do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an every day English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

By following such rules Orwell does not claim you will become a good writer but you should become a clearer one. So when drafting your next blog remember his six rules.

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose the worst thing you can do with words is surrender to them.

(Let me know, dear reader, of any laguage use you cannot abide. Also I am very aware writing on this subject I put my own writing up for inspection. Let me know with this- or any other blog post- if you find the prose is not as good as it ought to be. When it comes to writing we are all learners, as T.S. Eliot once memorably said:

So here am I, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres-
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt 
Is a wholly new start
T.S.Eliot East Coker Four Quartets )
   

“COMPUTERS CAN WRITE POETRY”: “YES THEY CAN”; “NO THEY CAN’T”.

THis is how the powerful critic F.R. Leavis described the possibility back in 1970 in his essay “Literarism” versus “scientism”“.

I was, I confess, a little amused when, sitting at a formal lunch next to the director of a City Art Gallery, I was told by him, in the tone of saying something very impressive: ” A computer can write a poem”. I replied, very naturally, that I couldn’t accept that, adding that it was one of the things I knew to be impossible. When he responded by being angry , fierce and authoritative, I reflected he was a German, if an emigre, and that in any case his business was Kunst and he hadn’t said a computer could paint a work of art. The other occasion on which I was confronted, point-blank, with the preposterous and ominous claim, which by then I had discovered to be pretty current, it made a profound impression on me. The testifier was a philosopher, a lady and cultivated; her place and conditions of residence gave her access to a friendly computer laboratory. She had taken advantage of the opportunity, I gathered, to develop an intense experimental interest: “It’s incredible” she said, ” what a computer can do; it’s awfully fascinating; you know a poem can write a poem.” I couldn’t let that pass; with the appropriate urbanity I said: ” Well, “poem” means different things” there was no Teutonic anger this time. There was a sudden descent, a heightened nuance of pink, a concessive philosophic laugh, and then “O well, yes; but it’s great fun”.

Leavis is a very fine writer. As criticism this works in a novelistic way. The two characters encountered are made vividly alive (we are perhaps less happy with asserting national cultural characteristics so boldly, as Leavis does with the art director, but in 1970 our kind of political correctness in these matters was less common ) and the types of contrasting ways of defending the idea are very effectively presented. On the one hand, there is what one might call dogmatic materialist fundamentalism that does not brook dissent; on the other, a kind of philosophical playfulness, subject to embarrassment when it senses opposition, while resting on a self- indulgent sense of fun. Both kinds of response , one might add, remain characteristic of our modern Britisn intelligentsia.

You might read the passage and say however, “Well this was fifty years ago, in a different world in which people had not adjusted to the new reality computers were to bring”. Leavis, however, goes on to ask the fundamental question and to demonstrate the danger of letting go the meanings of our most important words.

That any cultivated person should want to believe that a computer can write a poem!-the significance of the episode, it seemed to me, lay there. For the intention had been naive and unqualified. It could be that because of the confusion of different forces of the word “poem”. And yet the difference is an essential one; the computerial force of “poem” eliminates the essentially human- eliminates human creativity.

We can , of course, choose to “want” to believe a computer can write a poem. The technology is far advanced from its rudimentary 1970 stage and computer addicts can develop programmes in which an Emily Dickenson poem, say, is broken up into individual words which when fed into a programme can be so managed as to produce a combination of words and phrases put together in short lines which can give it the look of a quizzical Emily Dickenson style composition-until, that is, you begin to read it. Or you can organise rhythmic and rhyme pattern that present a ballad-form. You can even-for I have checked You Tube- organise events in which you get people to choose between two “poems”- one written by a human the other by a computer, and find the audiences, by immediate reaction with a show of hands can mistake one for the other. “Great fun!” as the philosopher in the story said.

Or is it? The value we put on the word ” poem” and the creativity it manifests is made a mockery of if it can also mean it is “created” by a computer programme being designed to follow the human brain’s linguistic patterning. Because poems are not cerebral constructs, they are not merely or mainly brain-work but creations of the whole person, body, mind and spirit working together.

To pretend a computer can write a poem is to reduce the significance of the word and the wondrous power of the creative imagination as it expresses itself in language.

But in an era, dazzled by technology, in which science and technology are made the central agents of progress it is vitally important to insist what it is science within its limitations can do and what it cannot and what computers can do and what they cannot.

So let us be grateful for well-designed and programmed computers; but for the sake of what is precious in our humanity don’t become over-impressed.

FROM TOWER OF BABEL TO PENTECOST

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language;and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence

(Genesis 11; 6-8a KJV)

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they {ie. the disciples} were all, with one accord in one place.

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared to them unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

Acts 2:1-6

In the Tower of Babel story human beings use their collective knowledge and speech to seek to arrogate their status to become gods. God shows this is the way that leads to disintegration. Their collective knowledge and speech is lost and they are scattered abroad speaking many tongues.

In the second story God sends the Holy Spirit to his chosen disciples who carry the knowledge of the resurrection in their hearts. They now have one message to speak to the hearts of people of all tongues.

In our own language we are made aware God speaks to us of love of Him and love of all. We are to bring that assurance to our own culture and participate in its sharing with all cultures.

WILLIAM BLAKE : “JESUS WAS AN ARTIST”

Verily , verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the earth and die it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.”

GoSPEL OF ST. JOHN 12.24

Curiously, although brought up on the Bible, I never noticed this saying until I read Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov where it is used as an epigraph. The power of the saying acting with the creative insight of poetry immediately struck me.

The saying relates, of course, to Jesus preparing his disciples for his death and its consequences. The single grain of corn if left on the surface is unfulfilled. The buried seed is as dead, but contains new life bringing forth new seeds of growth.

If this sounds like great poetry bringing out the deepest meaning, is this what Blake meant when he distinguished Jesus as an artist? For Blake this did not mean that Jesus expressed himself through the arts. Like Socrates, Jesus produced no written work. Blake sees, however, in Jesus a power of creative imagination central to being an artist or a poet. The Imagination is the quality which Blake, rather like Coleridge, appears to see as the supreme gift.

For creative imagination we might single out his “sayings” or his power of vivid speech. He speaks creatively not by presenting rules or flat statements or simple directions but by utterances that involve us in seeking to puzzle out what he means. Whether it is by direct teaching or by telling stories, as parables, he leads us into re-thinking. His sayings are ever memorable: think of a few of dozens:

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man hath not where to lay his head”,

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,

Ye are the salt of the earth but if the salt hath lost its savour wherewith shall it be salted”,

He is an artist as shown by his pervasive story-telling. (But without a parable spake he not unto them. Mark 4.34). Think of the parable of the prodigal son, called the most perfect short story ever told. How he gets us to enter into the state of mind of both sons! with the younger: And he fain would have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat and also with the elder But as soon as this thy son was come which devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf . But he also takes us into the mind of the Father, not directly by thought, but by action: But when he was yet a great way off his father saw him and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him. At the end the Father sums up the reason for joy which the elder brother has to decide if he is going to come to terms with : This thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found. In the shortest compass we have been invited to use our imaginations to access three minds and work out our own feelings.

Or think of the parable of the of the Good Samaritan ever an inspiring tale, exposing bigotry, of a person of rejected background acting with charity as against those with official religious duties who passed by on the other side. It is a tale that runs so deep in our culture that we use the phrase, to be a good Samaritan.

The imaginative power that enables Jesus to create such tales also enables him, with supreme quickness, to see into the minds of those seeking to bring him down. Think how he deals with the challenging questions of those seeking to trap him: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not? and Jesus’ answer ” “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. Always he seems equipped through his imaginative understanding of the questioner and what is at issue to answer in a way that, instead of falling into the trap, he puts the questioner on the spot.

But it is not only his speech and parables that show creative imagination. He also acts creatively on those who need healing. He is sensitive to the touch of the woman, who, afraid to speak to him, touches his robe. He brings her forward, in fear, but having “made her whole” he reassures her beautifully: Daughter be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. To those whose illness or mental disturbance is caused by awareness of sin he is again reassuring: Son thy sins be forgiven thee

His imaginative capacity to see beyond limits means he refuses dogmatism. Brought up in the Jewish tradition he naturally respects the Law but is also daring enough to challenge its whenit limits thinking.”Ye have heard it said “Thou shalt love thy enemy and hate thine enemy”, But I say unto you, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” To those who would condemn the stoning of the woman taken in adultery he challenges” Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone”.

With creative power and highly developed critical understanding, he challenges conventional attitudes both towards sinners , and exposes the self-righteous. Once heard who can forget the story of the Pharisee and the publican?: The pharisee thanked God he was not as other men are. and he is contrasted with the publican who stood afar off and would not so much as lift his eyes to heaven but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me , a sinner

Creative people prize spontaneity and have a natural love of the openness of children. Jesus held up children :

Unless ye become as little children ye shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven”.

And also he held up those devalued by society : much to her amazement, St John has him in long conversation with the ostracised Samaritan woman at the well:”Give me to drink” and then proceeds to tell her what she needs to know:

Whosoever shall drink of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give them shall never thirst; but the water I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.

His imaginative action is also declared in his life purpose, his journey carrying his sense of God’s calling. We might pick out particular actions of dramatic power: the Palm Sunday parade on a donkey, the cleansing of the Temple protest, the passover meal, the washing of his disciples’ feet . These are all acts of a man who understands the power of dramatic teaching pointing us to understanding of the meaning of what he is doing.

Wondrously he sees himself not only as a prophet but also the point, God-guided, towards which the Jewish tradition is leading him. On tradition T.S.Eliot is helpful here: by understanding the way in which he, in his art, has been shaped by tradition he develops the awareness of the way in which he can extend the tradition. Jesus steeped in the Scriptures- in the Psalms ( quoted on the cross), in the prophetic understanding of Isaiah and Daniel and Zechariah-understands in what direction he must go, even though that direction leads to the Cross.

To call Jesus an artist is not to delimit him but to point to the nature of his creative power.