Thinking about what I believe, I’m reading Unbelievable: why we believe and why we don’t by Graham Ward (2014). It’s a work of philosophy (mainly) and the sort of book (extended abstract argument) I’m not good at reading, but I thought it might have some moments of interest for me, despite the difficulties. And there have been. In yesterday’s reading, my unfinished thoughts about Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality were in my head, and I was hoping to find some way of making connections between the two sets of thoughts. I don’t think that quite happened but there were other moments of connection.
Ward, describing the migration of early humans from Africa to Australasia and Eurasia, writes;
I imagined these early people, crossing the as yet unknown planet. Their task was a deeply material one: survive, find food, find shelter. (I was thinking as I read of the wonderful William Golding novel, The Inheritors) On the one hand you have a very specific material challenge – survival under difficult conditions – and on the other, a set of non-material survival tools, (‘not just gods, mythic animals, magic forces and inscrutable cosmic powers, but also the immateriality of ideas, stories, images and icons’).
Somehow this cast a light on our world, where a strong body of thought and assertion (e.g. from the Richard Dawkins school) would say, there is only the material world. I do not believe that the two (material, immaterial) are separate. Perhaps that’s why I was interested in the passage quoted above. That our minds would begin to generate non-physical means of adaptation and survival seems of a piece with my actual experience. It is easier to see in those early people, but it still remains the case with us, here, now. (I’m remembering reading Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which I wrote about last summer here on this blog.) What we believe about a person, a situation, a possible future, is not immaterial: it matters. That seems to connect to Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode which I’ve been reading each day here for the last week or so. Wordsworth’s problem in the Ode is one of his stance towards loss. What we believe matters, turning the aspect of our mind, or feeling, into outlook, thus changing what we see or experience.
I’m nearly at the end but won’t finish today – there is still a lot to think about in those last lines!
You can read the whole poem here. Read it aloud if you can.
Yesterday I had come to the point where Wordsworth realised that if he noticed ‘falls from us, vanishings’ and felt them as clues rather than losses, he could go back to those first feelings of glory at any point, and be transported;
Now the final stanza takes us back to the beginning and we see and hear – as if no time had passed at all – the same reality we experienced at the opening of the poem – same birds, same lambs, shame shepherd boys piping, same renewal of Spring;
But now Wordsworth has a strengthened resolve about his sense of loss:
Key here is ‘we will grieve not, rather find/strength in what remains behind’. How did we move from the feeling of loss in stanza two? when we first encountered it seemed fixed, immutable;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
‘Past’ was permanent. It was absolutely gone. But staying in the same place, feeling its feelings, thinking the thoughts of this impasse, being here, has brought about a change of mind. It came about through thinking, contemplation, meditation. As we read in stanza 3 (though it was hard to understand at that point)
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:
The ‘timely utterance’ is the clue to the change. He put the nameless loss feeling, the loss of glory, into words. Those words ‘gave that thought relief’. That’s an interesting way to put it, as if when it was unspoken the thought was there, unrelieved, hurtful. uttering it relieves the thought of its power to hurt or weaken Wordsworth; having got it into words ‘ I again am strong.’ Wordsworth can pick up from the point of loss and continue:
He can find ‘strength’ (same word as in stanza 3) in what is now left him. These things are fourfold: (i) primal sympathy (ii) soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering (iii) faith that looks through death (iv) years that bring the philosophic mind.
‘Primal sympathy’ is straightforward, isn’t it? The basic feeling of connection to life, always there as an under-note. But why would we get ‘soothing thoughts’ out of ‘human suffering’? Unless it is as in the action of the poem itself – for surely Wordsworth was suffering when he had the original sense of loss – from that loss, comes this ‘philosophic’ mind…’ the faith that looks through death’ is also hard for me to read, because I haven’t been aware of death in the poem, only pre-birth. If ‘the soul’ in the poem exists before birth, I assume it also exists after death. Is the ‘philosophic mind’ the mind of experience – something that can grow in place of innocence? If the ‘glory and the dream’ of childhood, of innocence (by which do I mean lack of consciousness?) are recognised as gone forever, then the arrival of ‘soothing thoughts’ from the ‘philosophic mind’ are welcome. Thinking practically – as someone having a life, I wouldn’t have chosen trauma, but I got it. Did I get something else from that ‘human suffering’? Yes, I did. Is it the same as childhood innocence? Nope. Is it worth having, is it strengthening? Yes, it surely is.
These very thoughts, to go back to today’s beginning, are immaterial, are pieces of non-material equipment. I believe in the value of such non-material tools.