Shooting from the gut

Yes, of course, the answer to my last post about the dominance of the rational is ‘Well, what about the late pernicious rise of the irrational? What about the growing power (indeed real political power) of a mentality that rejects scientific method and consensus, and the authority of evidence or even of logic? What about the multitudes who indulge in magical thinking about economics or science or healthcare or national security? Who don’t believe in climate change or vaccinating their kids; who don't see a link between guns and gun violence; who are probably about to vote for Donald Trump?’ The prospect of America’s ‘id’ as president is alarming, as is the prospect of rising oceans and unbreathable air, the return of typhoid and polio, unending war in the name of freedom. A world like this would truly represent the triumph of the irrational. 

To all of this I might answer that the irrationalist insurgence is not a sign of rationalism's decline but a result of its dominance. It's a revolt against authority, based on a suspicion (sometimes justified) that authority is both dishonest and self-interested, and an intuition that rationalism doesn't cover the waterfront of human life. And it might have been mitigated if the rationalists had been more tempered by their counterparts, the humanists. If rationalism had given more ground to the holistic, poetic aspects of human being, it might not have lost so much ground in the war against populism. The repression of ego left id and superego to battle it out. In other words, relegating the heart made room for the gut to mount a challenge against the mind. And gut is winning. 


Broken creatures


“When I first saw her - clumsy, uncouth, all-of-a-fumble - I saw her merely, or wholly, as a casualty, a broken creature, whose neurological impairments I could pick out and dissect with precision.”

This is Oliver Sacks, who died last year, writing in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat about a patient called Rebecca. In his clinic, she was simply “a multitude of apraxias and agnosias, a mass of sensorimotor impairments and breakdowns.” She fell apart in problem-solving and pattern-seeing tests. She seemed utterly conceptually inept. But then Sacks describes a new scene. He is in the garden, and notices Rebecca sitting quietly by herself. Suddenly she seems whole and harmonious: “composed by a natural scene, a scene with an organic, aesthetic, and dramatic unity.” Pursuing this intuition, he comes to see in Rebecca an ability that the tests could never reveal: an ability to see the world as a coherent, poetic whole. Poetry and stories were “a deep need or hunger for Rebecca - a necessary form of nourishment, of reality, for her mind.”  

This showed Sacks for the first time two distinct modes of being, that he called “paradigmatic” and “narrative.” The first is the intellectual architecture that Rebecca clearly lacked, but the other is the way we first begin to make sense of the world, and the way we always intuitively exist in it. Children understand complexities in stories, long before they can understand complex abstractions. (Sacks himself must have been seeing in this mode to perceive Rebecca's gift in the first place.) But although the narrative has what Sacks calls “spiritual priority,” it’s always ranked below the paradigmatic mode. Irrational is lower or less than rational. Left brain beats right; maths pull rank on poetry. Unlike Keats - or Shakespeare - we are incapable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, instead we irritably reach after fact and reason. The intuitive, aesthetic unities of being fall apart in testing, and test results are the only thing we value now as truth.

For Sacks this anomaly about Rebecca revealed the shortfall of the clinical approach, where tests show only deficits, not powers. To me it illustrates the greater shortfall of our disenchanted, rationalist culture: we’ve privileged the paradigmatic, and radically undervalued our need for poetic thinking, our hunger for stories. We are the broken ones, like birds with one wing limp and folded. We can pass all kinds of tests, but we've forgotten how to sit in the garden: composed, attentive, and whole.  



He has put on the garment of the world


A god has chosen to be shaped in flesh.
He has put on the garment of the world.
A blind and sucking fish, a huddled worm,
he crouches here until his time shall come,
all the dimensions of his glory furled
into the blood and clay of the night’s womb.
Eternity is locked in time and form.

Within those mole-dark corridors of earth
how can his love be born and how unfold?
Eternal knowledge in an atom’s span
is bound by its own strength with its own chain.
The nerve is dull, the eyes are stopped with mould,
the flesh is slave of accident or pain.
Sunk in his brittle prison-cell of mud,
the god who once chose to become a man
is now a man who must become a god.


(Judith Wright: “Myth”)




This is the child

This is the child. He has not yet put out leaves.
His bare skin tastes the air; his naked eyes
know nothing but strange shapes. Nothing is named;
nothing is ago, nothing not yet. Death is that which dies,
and grief has yet no meaning and no size.
Where the wild harebell grows to a blue cave
and the climbing ant is a monster of green light
the child clings to his grassblade. The mountain range
lies like a pillow for his head at night,
the moon swings from his ceiling. He is a wave
that timeless moves through time, imperishably bright.

(From Judith Wright's “The World and the Child”)


Death and a maiden

About this day two years ago, I posted Judith Wright's poem “Woman to Child.” Pregnant myself, I found it fit for remembering Christ's birth and conjecturing what Mary's meditations on the subject might have been. This Christmas, three more Wright poems seem to me to resonate with the grand and tender mystery of the Incarnation. Here's the first one: “Woman's Song”, which precedes “Woman to Child” in the original sequence. It speaks to that dark and intimate bond a mother has with her unborn child, and the wonder tinged with fear that attends her expectation of birth. All births are both a losing and a finding, a looking forward to life as well as death, but especially this one; especially this day, this sunrise.

O move in me, my darling,
for now the sun must rise;
the sun that will draw open
the lids upon your eyes. 

O wake in me, my darling.
The knife of day is bright
to cut the thread that binds you
within the flesh of night. 

Today I lose and find you
whom yet my blood would keep —
would weave and sing around you
the spells and songs of sleep.  

None but I shall know you
as none but I have known;
yet there's a death and a maiden
who wait for you alone;
so move in me, my darling,
whose debt I cannot pay.
Pain and the dark must claim you,
and passion and the day.