Sunday, 4 December 2011

Dusty Answer

We live surrounded by walls.  Occasionally we try to break through them; their immaculately sealed bricks and cement.  Strange aren’t they?  These walls that we do not see, although they are high and impenetrable.  Indeed, most of our lives we’re unaware that they even exist; some may never see them.  How odd and unsettling…  Everywhere there are walls and everywhere we avoid them, so easily; we live as if in the open air, walk as if through wild meadows, run across the wide sands of an endless beach as if the high waves were our only companion…  Many believe that this is so: there are no walls here, you silly man.  What nonsense are you talking now!

One day the path we know so well is blocked by obstacles.  How odd.  How disconcerting…

We live in a big house with large gardens, we can see for miles from our terrace steps.  The grounds are so large we can lose ourselves and others; once nanny was reduced to frantic tears when we stayed out late at night.  But on this day, as we walk down our favourite path, we meet a high brick wall.  It is decorated beautifully with ivy and wisteria; and whose full skirts have ruffles of violets and yellow crocuses; and a trim of black pansies.  They sway lightly on the ground before it.  We are astonished.  Slowly we adjust our view.  Until seeing more, we see more clearly, and we glimpse an obscured gate.  It is locked.  Its rails and ugly spikes look out of place next to the exuberant dress with its wild colour, its corset and crinolines.  We try this gate.  We walk to the end of the wall… to find the wall has no end.  We try to wrench the gate open; to climb over the wall, even to walk through it: surely it cannot really exist?  We tap our heads, and we laugh, knowing this is madness; but still the gate remains unopened, the wall unclimbed.  Again you try to climb it.  Again you fail, although you tear a large hole in its bodice.  Yet only yesterday I could see the old beech tree and daddy’s oak from here…

Love wants so much.  It wants to know everything about the object of its affections.  In its spring freshness it would, if it could, completely absorb the other person; our senses an unsoiled sponge soaking up every bit of the woman we love.  Pasternak, although writing about poetry, captures the feeling perfectly:

Poetic Art! Become a sponge,
Sucker festooned. I'll spread you
Mid gluey foliage on green
Garden's bench's sodden plank.

Sprout florid ruffs and farthingales,
Ingest yon clouds and canyons.
And nightly, poetry, I'll wring you out
For thirsty paper's good.[i]

Opening ourselves up to receive the other person we also give ourselves away; we would let everything out if we could.  So desperate are we to merge two beings into a single entity.  Everything!  We must know everything about the loved one.  So all our fences and all boundary walls we smash down; nothing must obstruct their progress into our estate…  And how lovely it all is!  There are no obstacles between us; our body is full of bubbling life; so lively we cannot contain all its energy; bursting out into hugs and kisses and wordy extravagance - we even write poetry...  Every orifice (or almost!) tries to let out this exuberant life; our bodies too weak to contain it.  Each of our senses refurbished!  Brand new and childlike they pick up astonishing signals from landscapes we have not seen illuminated before…  So our clothes off, we swim naked in the summer sea; feeling every ripple and wave, the light breeze on each hair of our body’s limbs.  We giggle at our innocence.

When we return to the beach we find Jennifer dressed.  She looks so elegant, and a little aloof, in her long purple skirt and violet blouse, with beads scattered around her neck.  She smiles at us, strokes our cheek, kisses us on our wet hair; but she will not join us in the sea.  It is a moment of crisis; of lightening in a summer sky; and suddenly we feel defenceless and alone, we are conscious of our nakedness before her… attracted to her long sleeved blouse; it’s the light wind ruffling the pleats on her breasts.  She is suddenly a stranger.  Yet she looks the same.  She hasn’t changed, with that same smile and friendly openness; her words tuned in to loving tones.  No, she has not changed; have we?

We can only know people through the medium of ourselves; by a refraction of their personality within our own minds; their presence a picture we paint on a canvas of our own making.  A lot is direct apprehension, but so much is inference and guesswork.  The result?  The other person always remains at a distance, with so much either not seen or misunderstood; no matter how close they come to us; although individuals’ sensibilities vary – acute understanding is possible.  In truth we hardly know even our best friends and partners: there will always be peninsulas and islands we can barely see and some we will never visit.  But habit helps us, and slowly we believe we know all about our wives and mistresses; our friends and work colleagues.  Everything is so simple and transparent, they display themselves quite openly each time we meet; for haven’t we seen it all so many times before?  We know them, we think, intimately; sometimes in every detail.[ii]

Love proves we do not.  How much we want to know!  And there is much we get to know… But although we learn a great deal about the loved one it is never enough: always there is a wall we cannot climb, a gate that will not open.  Always there are times when they remain a stranger.  This is the sadness of love. That deep longing of the senses, so desperate to adhere themselves to one particular person; the mind often frantic, too aware of its inability to penetrate her thoughts, to truly understand her feelings: what are you thinking?  Do you still love me?  Why won’t you join me in the sea….  Never can we directly know another human being.  It is love’s ultimate failure; of which we are only too aware; at least for a short time, when our feelings are at their most vital.  We do, of course, have fragments and flashes of insight.  Glorious times!  When we think we have finally captured the citadel.  Later, the routines of friendship and marriage become a substitute for such knowledge.  We have succumbed to habit to our mind’s relief.

It is only in the late spring and early summer of a love affair that we realise this unsettling truth; for it is the only time that we want so desperately to know another person; our own life seeming to depend on our ability to understand them.  And so for a short while we become poets and philosophers; celebrating everything, we doubt everything; and we must know all about her…. But always the other body gets in the way; and so we find we know very little.  So gradually our inspiration dies, the search for truth vanishes, and we become humble clerks and receptionists: we leave the unanswered questions, the doubts, that quest for understanding, to the students and professors in the universities we have now left behind; probably for good.

Slowly they opened books, dreamed through a page, forgot it at once, laid books aside; turned to smile at each other, to talk as if there could never be enough of talking; with excitement, with anxiety, as if tomorrow might part them and leave them for ever burdened with the weight of all they had had to tell each other.

Judith crept closer, warming every sense at her, silent and entirely peaceful.  She was the part of you which you never had been able to untie and set free, the part that wanted to dance and run and sing, taking strong draughts of wind and sunlight; and was, instead, done up in intricate knots and overcast with shadows; the part that longed to look outward and laugh, accepting life as an easy exciting thing; and yet was checked by a voice that said doubtfully that there were dark ideas behind it all, tangling the web; and turned you inward to grope among the roots of thought and feeling for the threads.

You could not do without Jennifer now.

They are on the mountain peak of their love.  Soon they will leave it.  Parted due to the holidays Jennifer will at first write only briefly, then hardly ever, until she will write no more… Be here!  Talk to me, write to me: be here!  But she sends no letters, does not communicate at all, leaving Judith with uncertainty and pain, and an endless yearning.  During term time they were fused into one being, now they are individuals again: does Jennifer not recognise my pain, does she not feel it too; are her senses not an open wound, the distance between us poking and picking at it…  Judith wants to understand this silence, she wants to know why she does not write; she needs to penetrate this indifference; which creates the inevitable foreboding…  For always there are changes!  Each subsequent day dulls ever so subtly the first bloom of roseate love, where life seems gloriously eternal; and when the days are forever lit up in primary colours; and when you go swimming naked in the sea to look at the stars…

Judith returns to Cambridge to find Jennifer in love with Geraldine.  The separation is complete.  During the holidays the builders have been building a wall, and she has glimpsed it now and then.  Back at college she confronts its existence; exposes herself fully to its concrete reality: Geraldine.  Geraldine is a more powerful personality, a sexual being; and dominating Jennifer’s senses she has pushed aside the more platonic love of Judith.[iii]  It is a time when the university life, at least for women, was less sexualised than it is today, and thus strong emotional attachments could exist without physical confirmation; or at least the pressures to sexually consummate them were less.  Judith, more conventional, and with a weaker personality, conforms to the social pressures of the time; and thus loses Jennifer’s love.  Four decades later they might have reached a climacteric: their love temporarily secured between cotton sheets.  Instead their affair never quite reaches its fulfilment… and fades out in longer pain?  They met in the wrong decade.

Late adolescent love, as Rosamond Lehmann shows in her first book, can be very fluid, easily moving between the sexes.  Judith loves both Jennifer and Roddy, and has soft spots for Julian and Mariella.  It is only later that these emotions settle down; fixing themselves onto one sex or the other.

Judith lives alone with her parents in a big house.  One day the neighbouring mansion is re-opened, and four older children come to live there; for a short while.  A friendship develops between all five children, and which dominates Judith’s adolescent memories.  Years later Mariella returns to live at the house with her child, the son of her cousin Charlie (the handsomest and most charming of all the children and who died in the war).  Inevitably Martin, Roddy and Julian visit the house; and once again the friendship with Judith resumes; whose love for Roddy deepens and intensifies…  He has a quality that she cannot articulate, but whose presence permeates her whole being; there is an atmosphere around him that somehow forces itself upon her; like mist collecting under trees.  The gradual realisation of this love within Judith is a marvellous development; so subtly do we see these more intense emotions, which have a vague but clearly different quality, emerge and separate from her feelings for her other friends.

The fireworks became more and more splendid.  Long crystal-white cascades broke and streamed down to the grass.  Things went off in the air with a soft delicious explosion and blossomed in great blazing coloured drops that lingered downwards like a drift of slow petals.

‘Oh Roddy, if only -!  They’re so brief.  I wish they were never quenched but went on falling and falling, so lovely, for ever.  Would you be content to burst into life and be a ten seconds marvel and then vanish?’

But Roddy only smiled.  On his face was the mask behind which he guarded his personal pleasures and savoured them in secret.

Suddenly the willow-trees were revealed cloudily in a crude red light, - and an aching green one, - then one like the concentrated essence of a hundred moonlights.  The three men on the lawn were outlined in its glare, motionless, with their heads up.  She heard Martin cursing.  Something was a complete failure: it spat twice, threw a thin spark or so and went out….

This is a wonderful passage within a much larger, and very evocative scene – Lehmann is very good at describing people out at night and by water.[iv]  And like much of her best writing these paragraphs are both description and metaphor; the firework display an analogue both of her evening’s encounter with Roddy and her reactions to it. 

Such love brings uncertainty.  Compared to her relationship to Jennifer her doubts here are much greater.  The relationship being longer, she has lived with these ideas for years, and more physical, they have had sex, and more fragile, unlike with Jennifer they have not openly declared their love for one another, her sense of uncertainty is more intense, and thus more desperate - she has to know for definite if Roddy reciprocates her feelings.  Her world has opened up into new colours, which excites her, but scares her too: thus her return home to mundane fact, where she attempts to live again on secure foundations; ideally returning to a world of habit and unconscious experience.  Except she can’t, for certainty is replaced by her search for certainty; habit by her new need for truth; and experience by ratiocination…  Her mental universe is an anarchic firework display.  Built on doubt her world has become unstable:

As she went towards the solitary light burning for her in the hall she thought with a sudden fear that he had implored her for assurance just as she mutely implored Roddy every time he left her; and she had answered – not, surely not, as Roddy would have answered?

‘Roddy, come out of your dark maze and make me certain!’

She must warm herself with the remembrance of the first part of the evening, ignore the little chill of those few last minutes. What were his eyes telling her when he bade her good night?  Surely they were whispering: ‘Take no notice.  We know what has passed between us, we know what must come.  Though we must keep our secret before others, we do not deceive each other.’

Yes, that was it.

It is a wonderful passage for it shows how in moments of crisis (and what in love is not a crisis – of faith, of security, of one’s own identity) we manufacture our own certainties; being unable to elicit them from the other person, who cannot provide them.  It is the moment we realise the truth that every sign can have more than one meaning; that facts can be different from the values we place on them; and that people are separated from us by a barrier we cannot cross.  With such existential doubts the only solution is to be the other person; which of course is impossible…  This inability to merge with our lover only multiplies our anxieties, as we try, inevitably, to do the impossible; and fail; again and again.

Her one moment of clarity is when she thinks of Martin.  In that moment she has returned to direct and concrete experience, which creates reflexive thought.  It is a moment of insight about herself, when both the facts and their connection to her feelings resonate with an all too similar experience with Roddy: the similarities are too powerful to ignore.  The truth of her relationship to Roddy is in that experience with Martin; but which she rejects for her own desires; her need for him to return her love.  In a less heightened state she may have read those signs more carefully (that is, she may have understood him better).  This creates a curious situation.  When in love our excited senses see things more intensely, and often more clearly (we tend to purify an object or an event, a word or a look, of all its surrounding context; we isolate it, and look at it as through a microscope), which in turn leads us to misinterpret them; overloading gestures and words with a meaning they do not have.  We thus come to know these particular things better, certainly in much greater detail, but we also misunderstand them more; loading them with a significance they cannot sustain – we put too much of ourselves into a smile and friendly hug, which if we were not in love would be yet another parting from just another friend.  Our indifference, and thus our independence from the event, would allow us to read the signs correctly; our response would equate with its value.  That is, our own indifference would correspond to the insignificance of the gesture.  It is the asymmetry of our infatuated response to the act that produces the misunderstandings; and yet makes it richer and more interesting – we do see it more clearly.  A parable of knowledge?  The more we know about some one thing the greater our ignorance about it; not just because of all the other stuff we must ignore to concentrate our study (and which impacts upon it, and gives it a meaning), but also the too high value we inevitably place on it – we will often overlook its insignificance.  Placing the correct value on an event or human gesture is usually the most important part of our understanding of it.  The rest is often mere, but interesting, detail.[v]

But this may be a wrong way of describing what has happened to Judith.  It is her love that has made these signs significant; so that in one sense at least it is her love that has created them.  Without this love she would have ignored them; or seeing them she would have quickly passed them by; like streetlights on the pavement.  If Roddy was a stranger his words and facial features would have no meaning at all for her; it would be just one more face amongst thousands of other meaningless faces seen in a lifetime.  It is only because her love, so desperate for truth and validation, needs to understand these signs that she gives them a special significance; constructing her own theories to explicate gestures that are ambiguous and unclear.  That is, she projects her own meaning onto Roddy’s facial and bodily movements and hopes that these facts and her own theories correspond exactly.  They don’t, of course; thus her doubts are renewed, and her need becomes ever greater to construct an ever more stable theory... Reason begins to slide into faith… But too much is hidden and unknown; and she is confronted by that gap between the other person and her own ideas about him.  A distinction she refuses to recognise!  So she resolves her uncertainties with some tortuous reasoning: the very fact that she doesn’t know him becomes a sign that she does.

Though we must keep our secret before others, we do not deceive each other.

Her love has become belief.  For now it is precisely what she can’t see that she believes is real.  The truth hidden behind a mask only she can read; because of her special insight: her love for Roddy.  This is the moment we no longer see the other person; for now they live entirely within forms of our own devising…  (This is the instability of the greatest love affairs, where people exist within creations that cannot live for very long: too much energy and imagination is needed to sustain them).  Faced with uncertainty there is the gradual slide into habit or the quick jump into faith.  In either case our unease comes to an end.  Our uncertainty over we return once again to our humble and homely pursuits – the walls rebuilt, the gates closed and locked.  Once more we are comfortable in our own private garden…

Her friendship with Martin represents another theme in the book.  How the relationships between the separate individuals reverberate within a group of friends; where love and friendship merge and overlap; and where crosscurrents of emotion ebb and flow between them; with some people in love with others, who never requite it.   What Judith sees in Martin she soon experiences for herself: in a marvellous scene the day after the fireworks she discovers Roddy has no feeling for her at all.  For him she is simply an attractive and available woman.  All her memories - he has lived inside her head for many years - and all her analysis, all those theories and certainties, have been wrong!  We see it, of course, in the above passage: instinctively she knows there is something lacking in his reaction (her jealousy of Tony is another sign), but she tries to hide it, erasing what she doesn’t like by honing in, like a fighter pilot on his victim, only onto those aspects that confirm her faith.  This is the tension of a love affair.  Those ceaseless waves of doubt and certainty, where signs float in and out of a mind which tries endlessly to capture them; but which never quite can: some are always slipping out of the net. 

She could be right, of course!  Immense relief, if this is true…  However, it is only when you cross the threshold that can you be sure the other person loves you; but what a risk that is!  And it takes something more than our own knowledge to confirm it: the hard facts of a scarcely known entity - the observed actions of another person; in Judith’s case Geraldine and Tony relieve the tension.  Now she can begin to concentrate on other things; although the pain will take months (years?) to leave her….

Love, like the search for truth and knowledge, demonstrates the uncanny nature of our world, the strangeness of reality, in large part because it focuses all our attention onto a tiny piece of the universe that is accustomed to being ignored.  Only habit saves us from such heartache.

Martin asks Judith to marry him.  Feeling lost after losing Roddy she agrees, only to refuse the following day.  Yet another devastating failure.  This is another theme that pervades the novel: youth a sea of misery with islands of happiness.  There are so many people we could love; and yet only Jennifer will do; but she no longer loves us….  We have left home, the cocoon of parental care with its implicit adoration, and have entered a world convinced of our rightful place in it; although there are initial doubts – Judith sitting in the wrong place in the college refectory on her first evening.  But such feelings do not last long.  After some adjustments we are once again safe in this world.  Then a woman comes towards us.  She is beautiful and charming, full of wit and sexual fire; her eyes brown pools we swim in obsessively…  We stroke her long black hair; we kiss her red lips; our hands rest on her purple thighs, stroke the violet lace around her blue slip…  We give her our most secret secrets… But she seems not to listen… She walks away from us…  Soon she is out of reach…  We are alone.  More than alone.  And we need more than ever some other person to take away this pain; to fill up the empty space Jennifer has left inside us.  However, we cannot find anyone suitable, and people seem to care little about us (their sympathy and understanding is never enough – they do not understand me).  No longer master of our surroundings we become dependent on those around us; servants in a now cold and distant world.

Farewell to Cambridge, to whom she was less than nothing.  She had been deluded into imagining that it bore her some affection.  Under its politeness, it had disliked and distrusted her and all other females; and now it ignored her… 

She was going home again to be alone….

She was rid at last of the weakness, the futile obsession of dependence on other people.  She had nobody now except herself, and that was best.

Judith has learned a lot at Cambridge; but as with any good education much of what she has learnt has been useless; as the women in Rosamond Lehmann’s other books will tell her, when she meets them in later years.  But she is young, and she is recovering from the pain of two love affairs; so we will be kind, and leave her to live contented inside her fantasies.




[i] From Spring, translated in Ronald Hingley’s Pasternak.
[ii] For a while there was a very fashionable philosophy which thought that these habits, that is our illusion of knowledge, that is our ignorance, was the source of our real understanding about the world.
In 1949 a book appeared which influenced a generation of philosophers – The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle.  If the central arguments of that book are correct, then this novel, and its insights into human behaviour, are not only not true, but are also meaningless.  It is fiction in the most literal sense.  However, I think we can turn the argument around, and argue that Dusty Answer refutes this once fashionable thesis; a thesis that only works, I would argue, if you indulge our ordinary mental habits; which simply reflect, but do not analyse (or at least analyse to any great depth), our day to day experiences.  Habits that dull our sensitivity to the world around us; although make us generally happy and productive.  Ryle’s philosophy, one could argue, perhaps polemically, is really about our body, its action in our workaday world, but the one thing it is not about is our mental life…
This is a curious argument, I know, for it is applied not only to a book of philosophy, the sort of book you would expect to undermine our conventional pictures of nature and social life, but to a book that seeks to explain our mental processes.  However, this assertion is, I think, an accurate one, in part because the intellectual background behind the book was a philosophy, what became known as linguistic philosophy, which elevated common sense to a sort of divine wisdom – that, and very precise linguistic analysis (to tidy up the language) was all you needed, it was believed, to understand reality.  A reality that for humans meant a kind of utility: our existence is what we do and not what we are:
“The doctrine [of The Concept of Mind] is, roughly, that the human mind is not an entity or process or class of events or receptacle radically distinct from corporeal events or things, but on the contrary that, very generally speaking, mind is the way we do things… it maintains that its discoveries are simply the making explicit of what is in fact contained in our concepts, in our ways of using words which refer to thought, etc.  So the account claims not really to be denying the existence of something, but merely to give a correct interpretation of what its existence amounts to, of how the expressions referring to it are related to others (notably those referring to bodies and behaviours).  So Ryle’s Behaviourism is intended to be an explication, which leaves everything as it is, excluding only philosophical misinterpretations of the situation.” (Ernest Gellner, Words and Things)
The point Gellner makes is that Ryle wasn’t so much interested in reality as philosophy; and realizing there was a discrepancy between them tried to purge the former of the latter; the latter using a particular kind of language for the wrong purposes, what Ryle would coin a “category mistake”.  The examples he uses at the beginning of the book are interesting; partly because they are beside the point: how many people whilst visiting Oxford make the error of asking where the university is after visiting a few colleges and the library?  What has to be explained is not the mistake but how we come to understand the term Oxford University, and how this term incorporates all its parts, and yet can be independent from each one of them.  Or to put it into his idiom, the interesting question is not to correct the mistake by assigning each of the different terms into the right categories, but rather, it is to understand how we can relate two different categories to each other.  Ryle is like a mechanic we employ to fix our car when it breaks down.  Don’t worry about anything else just get the concepts right!  Don’t worry it’s a Ford Cortina, providing it goes!  Thus Gellner’s last allusion to Wittgenstein – philosophy leaves everything as it is. For Ryle, it appears, life was uncomplicated, and he seems, as we shall see, to have not been particularly interested or insightful about it.  Thus he leaves it relatively unanalysed.  Instead, he concentrates on thinking; on our ideas about the world. For he believes philosophy and parts of our ordinary language have confused our thoughts about the mind.  Clarify our thoughts, think correctly, and the idea of the mind as a separate identity will vanish.  Get those concepts right!
But is the mind really just rational thought and doing….
Part of his failure is that he is not a novelist of the class of Rosamond Lehmann, who has the insight and talent to accurately describe the world of human behaviour; which to a large degree requires an unconscious clarity about the workings of one’s own mental processes (I explain this phrase in a coming piece).  Lehmann one of the supreme masters of writing about emotions easily surpasses the philosophy professor who can only think in concepts; for she is able to get underneath them; and express a texture of thought and behaviour they find hard to articulate.  That is, Ryle is applying the wrong kind of analysis to our psychology; in so doing misses the real nature of the reality he wishes to capture; and thus falsifies it.  Something of this failure can be seen in a rather comical exchange in Modern British Philosophy between him and Bryan Magee.  So wedded to the idea that humans have no “inner life” Ryle is adamant that all our essential characteristics can be understood from our words and actions (at one point he even tells Magee off for using the words “inner life”).  Everything that defines us, he says, appears on the surface: it is classic behaviourism, and reveals, and quite starkly, the limitations of this theory (Bertrand Russell had years earlier rejected Behaviourism as a theory, although he considered it useful as a method – it would allow us to get more accurate descriptions of individual behaviours, he thought).  So our sense of an inner life, all the stuff that Lehmann describes in this and her other books, and most of which is not visible to anyone else, Ryle rejects.  He has to, if his ideas are to make sense.
How does he ignore something so obvious?  Difficult to know precisely (Ryle’s work and life would have to be studied in great depth and with much subtlety to give us at least some understanding).  However, we can speculate.  His views do suggest a particular kind of intelligence: too much mechanical reason, where everything (or at least everything that we regard as important) is articulated in plain or conceptual prose; the result of a mind too conscious and too rational, too quick to chop phenomena up into little pieces so as to analyse them.  A very clever person like Ryle is like a woman in love…  The difference between Judith and Gilbert is that for her most of what goes on happens inside her mind and body; while he can only see the effects on her facial expressions, through her movements and in her words.  It is also the worldview of the technician or the engineer; a highly rational world, where thought involves arranging existing objects into new shapes; rather than creating anything radically (paradigmatically?) new – it is here in the creative aspect of the mind that the problems of this type of analysis arise (for an extended discussion see my Russian Climate). Bryan Magee captures something of this in his Confessions of a Philosopher:
“… only a small proportion of our thinking or living is done in words.  Yet if that is the case, how is it possible for so many undoubtedly clever people to assert, and believe in all sincerity, the opposite?  This was my first reaction when, as an undergraduate, I first encountered language-orientated philosophers.  How can they possibly believe what they say?  What must their inner lives be like?  What must they be like?  Here, I think, is the key to the only possible explanation.  Taking them to be sincere, which I do, they must be unlike most of the rest of us in the nature of their inner life and the way they experience it.  Anyone would finds at all plausible such propositions as that we think in language, or that the world and our experience of it are amenable to adequate description in language, or that the very categories of our experience are linguistic, must either be someone whose direct experience is such as to render those propositions plausible, in which case he must be a quite abnormally language-limited person with no inner life that they contradict, or he must be someone who has never paid sufficiently close attention to his own direct experience to notice that these propositions contradict it.  I think I have met examples of both types.  And it goes without saying that they can have IQs as high as anyone wants to stipulate.  It is not differences of intellectual ability that we are talking about here.  Gilbert Ryle was a person of life-enhancing intellectual brilliance, but he had no inner life worth speaking of.  (I say this from personal knowledge…).”
             Magee’s discussion with Ryle brings out some of these traits.  When you read the interview it sounds like he is deliberately misrepresenting what the interviewer says (that was my first impression).  But I think Magee is right: he just doesn’t see the non-linguistic nature of our mental life.  Thus when discussing Bertrand Russell’s rejection of his views, in particular his argument that something quite specific must happen in the mind when we switch from thinking about a horse to thinking about a hippopotamus, he misunderstands the objection, and almost completely:      
            “What we have here is a perfectly special, but quite little point about imagining, that is, for example, seeing things in the mind’s eye, about which I said a lot in the chapter on Imagination.  I think it’s a very special little subject.  We wouldn’t deny a person this, that or the other quality of wits or character if we heard that he was very bad at seeing things in his mind’s eye – as a lot of people are, indeed as most persons of my age are, compared with what they were like when they were much younger.  But now take the important point.  You said that something different happens when you see in your mind’s eye a hippopotamus from what you see in your mind’s eye when you see the other thing, whatever it was – oh yes, a horse.  I perfectly agree.  But similarly, if you’re scribbling on the blotting paper during a committee meeting, something very different is happening if you scribble a picture of a hippopotamus on the blotting paper from what is happening if you scribble a picture of a horse on the blotting paper.  For example, if I ask you, pointing to one, ‘What is that meant to be?’, you’ll say without hesitation ‘A horse.’  Or if I point to the other, you’ll say without hesitation ‘A hippopotamus.  If I now ask ‘How do you know?’ surely you’re not going to say that you have scanned something in your mysterious ‘insides’?  What you’ll say, quite rightly, is “Well, who drew the damn thing?”” (My emphasis.  It is only fair to write that Ryle says that we can only take this analogy so far, for it has got a hole in it; although that hole is “unimportant”.)
                        Of course, when we draw different animals on a piece of paper we don’t usually say who did it; because we know we did it (although creative work is a different matter – there we can be surprised at our productions; partly because of their scale and complexity; and partly because they have a quality that is different from the rest of our mental life.  A forthcoming piece will discuss this).  The thesis of Ryle’s book wants to remove this conventional understanding: our minds do not exist as some special substance, he believes; perhaps they don’t exist at all – they are made up of a series of discrete events, most of which are prompted from the outside (a caricature of the classic empiricism of Hume and Locke; which in effect is exactly what Behavourism is.  Interestingly, thinking of Gellner’s reference to Wittgenstein, Hume also took much of the mind for granted; not because he assumed he knew it, but because he thought it was too complicated to understand – he would only concentrate on those aspects he believed he could reasonably explicate.  See in particular his A Treatise on Human Nature.  This is a significant difference, that tends to be overlooked.). 
However, if we want to understand the mind that is precisely what we need to know: why do we think a unified entity, which we call our mind, exists.  That is the central problem. We cannot wish it away by calling it a wrong use of language. Likewise with Russell’s argument above, what shift takes place within the mind that allows it to change the picture, and what is the effect on the mind of this shift.  All Ryle can answer is we cannot scan our insides!  This is to mis-conceptualise the problem.  It mistakes the process of cognition with our understanding of it.  As Russell knew, the latter requires more than a common sense investigation.  It requires scientific exploration (something which Ryle was not interested in – because he didn’t have the expertise, he says. A good example of both the power and myth of specialisation during the 1950s and 60s.  Why myth?  Look at Russell himself: a wide and deep knowledge of a vast number of fields; although his specialism was mathematical logic).  Russell makes this analogy with vision:
                        “The question, ‘How do we see robins?’ is one to which physics and physiology, combined, have given an answer which is interesting and important, and has somewhat curious consequences.  It appears that certain processes in the optic nerve will cause you to ‘see a robin’ even if these processes have not been caused, as they usually are, by something outside the body of the percipient.” (My Philosophical Development)
Most of the world is unknown to us.  When reading Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding it was a shock to discover just how little he knew.  Science was still in its infancy; and had only just penetrated into the structure of the natural world.  Most of what many scientists now take for granted Locke believed impossible to know…!  So it is with the mind.  Our workaday understanding is in no way sufficient to investigate and comprehend the mechanisms that make our mind’s work.  However, our reason, that great sceptical beast, can easily deny it, providing it has some suitable theory to prove it does not exist.  Linguistic philosophy was perfect for such a task; though strangely paradoxical.  As Russell himself had noted at least parts of language make no reference to the world of facts.  That is, at least part of language is intrinsic to the human mind.  Ryle’s solution to the mind-body problem, to tidy up our language and our conceptual categories, is actually a particular feature of the mind itself!  His method of analysis, rather than erasing the mind, confirms it, and absolutely.
But also note his literalism.  The complex processes that Russell assumes take place in the mind, and which we cannot see, Ryle visualises concretely: thus his reference to the mind’s eye, and his need to switch the example from the inside to the outside of the brain; to a piece of paper.  This is both the strength and weakness of reason: it cannot get beyond the surface of things; it needs some insight, some creative genius, intuition if you like, in order to see (to create) new theories and find new mental landscapes.  It is the difference between an imperial civil servant and an explorer who finds new kingdoms for him to administer.  The latter can sometimes also be the former; but a civil servant, alas, can never leave his office. 
One result is that Ryle never seriously engages with the complexity of such experiences (novels, I assume, are also outside his expertise: just about all of Judith’s life goes on in her own mind; and are experiences that she rarely communicates to other people; and of which they are completely unaware), instead he reduces them to a simple formula, to “seeing things in the mind’s eyes”.  That is, he trivialises the issue; by reducing most of what goes on in our minds, and which is neither verbal or pictorial, to an insignificant phenomenon: to the imagining of some conscious mental picture.  The whole discussion is extraordinarily interesting in showing how he tries to get round real difficulties by denying them (either they don’t exist or are trivial), by redefining them; or blatantly misinterpreting them, as here:
            “The sort of mind, i.e. the sort of wits and character a person has got, has got very little to do with things that he does not see, or fails to see, in his mind’s eye.  His exercises of his qualities of wits and character only very incidentally take the shape of his visualizing things or hearing ‘voices’, say, in his mind’s ear.”
            This was in reply to Magee’s assertion that there are events in the mind that are not discernible in the external world.  Russell’s My Philosophical Development has a devastating review of Ryle’s The Concept of Mind.  He accuses him of being a slapdash amateur; and has arguments to prove it!
[iii] Or at least that is what the novel seems to imply.
[iv] There is another great scene where she is swimming in the river when her friends come out of the house; and she hears fragments of their conversation.  Later Roddy passes her in a canoe, and she hopes he does not see her…
[v] A good example is the Kennedy assassination. An insignificant president and an insignificant event (American presidents had been killed before; while an aborted attempt on Kennedy’s own life took place just after he was elected), and yet people lose large parts of their lives to it.  The obsession leads to the accumulation of an enormous amount of detail (look at the Lobster site), which is utterly pointless if you are interested in trying to understand the world.  Too harsh?  Even assuming there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and the obsession to prove it reads often like some infatuated love affair, it has little wider resonance: Kennedy was not going to demolish the CIA or take American troops out of Vietnam without victory.  The most puzzling thing about this president’s murder is its rarity – the fact that it doesn’t happen more often is what needs to be explained.  To study the Kennedy assassination is of an equal value to studying the death of Dr Kelly, which in turn is little different from devoting your life to the murder of James Bulger or the child murderer Mary Bell.  Such an investigation may have intrinsic value (the great journalist Gitta Sereny certainly thought so for Mary Bell), but their wider significance is almost nil.  Oliver Stone’s brilliant JFK is a fantastic example.  Historically complete nonsense but an extraordinary insight into the mind of a fanatic.
            9/11, that other over-analysed event, is another good example.  The populist conspiracy theorists a mirror image of the establishment critics they so despise, both sharing the same judgement about its value – it is very important; and even, for some, epoch changing. Nadeem Aslam puts it into proper perspective:
            “After 9/11 happened… many writers in Britain and America said that they felt their work was meaningless because it was so disconnected from the event.  I felt I had been writing about 9/11 all my life.”
            The interviewer, Pankaj Mishra, then goes on to say,
            “Other Pakistani writers, too, seem aware that private lives in their quasi-artificial nation cannot be contemplated in isolation from many overlapping regional and global histories.”
            It is by isolating this one attack on America that it loses its insignificance, and yet this event is an effect of a number of historical causes, that go back at least twenty five years.  Consider those, and 9/11 becomes just one among a long line of similar incidents, standing next to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre, the Kenyan embassy attack, the Beirut Embassy bombing of 1983….
            

2 comments:

  1. I thought this was all right. It does three things I consider essential in a critical interpretation: it enters the truth of the book, what's really being said; it does so by taking on a similar idiom; and it makes comment from a different perspective without being high-handed or (as I mostly see) irrelevant to the nature and point of the piece. BUT I still think you have this book wrong. Just less wrong that everything else I've read so far. As I've wanted to write about this book awhile, I think I will shortly, and then you can be rude about what I say, too. I was pleased to read this, in fact.

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  2. Of course, I can’t accept just being told my piece is wrong! However, if you could show me, I might agree… I’ll be intrigued by what you write. You must let me know when you have done it.

    Are you being rude? After all the hard work, to then be informed “this was all right” is, I must admit, deflating. That said, the rest of what you say, I don’t accept that wrong (not until you to prove it to me), seems actually quite flattering. And to write something that someone is pleased to have read… isn’t that what it’s all about?

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