Review of Existentialists and Mystics

Murdoch says, in a revised conversation with Magee, ‘any artist must be at least half in love with his unconscious mind which after all provides his motive force and does a great deal of his work.’ Mine was behind Sketch of a Just Man, An instance from which telepathy can be proved..., the poems, The Man Who Stopped Time, where it took over my writing hand to achieve exactly the effect it wanted, CORRESPONDENCE of John Cairns with Betty Clark (Joan Ure), Phoenixflower, Dark Side of the Moon, the lot. Murdoch didn’t want to be obviously present in her artistic work. ‘Literature could be called a disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions. If nothing sensuous is present no art is present. Art is close with unconscious forces. Art is mimesis and good art is... anamnesis, memory of what we did not know we knew.’ That about sums up ‘the book’, lived by unconscious direction and realised at unconscious instigation from its intact memory. ‘The unconscious mind is not a philosopher,’ she says. It’s not a mind either but a spirit informing the mind, both the unconscious and conscious mind. Art, she thinks, is a battle with obsessive unconscious forces... although the unconscious... is also the source of art. Mine liked I didn’t let consciousness get in his way whereas Betty Clark inhibited his and her unconscious’s expression. Art goes deeper than philosophy, she writes. Formalists want to cure us of the realistic fallacy of imagining we look through language into a separate world beyond, like taking what the writer is imagining in words as depicting what’s there, I suppose. When Johnson kicked the stone to refute Berkeley he was protesting against the latter’s metaphysical attempt to remove a necessary distinction between self and the world. She thinks words should be seen as a medium through which one relates to the world, whatever that world is, including that of works of art. The world of people, and things, is more malleable than she thinks. Art is truth as well as form, she says, representational as well as autonomous, suggesting a relative truth, true to something other. Art has got to have form, she avers, life need not. It may. Mine did.

I was interested in what she had to say about truth in art. She says literature is often criticised for being in some sense untruthful, using words like sentimental, pretentious, self-indulgent, trivial, vulgar, banal but primarily fantasy, to impute some kind of falsehood. The Greeks exonerated fiction from being a lie but she’s defining truth in art from what falsifies it. I’m no clearer knowing how it can be true except to a writer’s unalloyed imagination recognized as true by an appreciative reader, a not very convincing criterion. She later writes the good artist is a vehicle of truth in that he formulates ideas which otherwise would remain vague and focuses attention on facts which can then no longer be ignored, without exemplifying this contention. The artist must tell the truth about something he has understood. The paradox of art is that the work itself may have to invent the methods by which we verify it, to erect its own interior standards of truthfulness. Hmm.

Modern writing is more ironical and less confident than that of the nineteenth century, the story more narrowly connected with the consciousness of the author who narrates through the consciousness of a character, without direct judging or description by the author as an external authoritative intelligence. To write like a nineteenth century novelist now would seem like a literary device. In a novel the conflict between the representational and formal may appear as that between characters and plot. A bad writer gives way to personal obsession, exalting some characters, demeaning others, without concern for truth or justice ie without a suitable aesthetic explanation.

In paraphrasing Ayer on the mind she refers to overt public conventions she defines as what govern the inward utterance of words which is all that ‘thinking’ can properly consist of, as if all thinking is conscious and uses language. The Turk didn’t speak English nor I Turkish yet... I stopped and turned to look back to see how far we’d come down the slipway all the while fluently communicating without vocalising. The slipway, of course, would be physical symbol of what we’d been doing and I wouldn’t have been thinking ‘fluently communicating’ or ‘vocalising’, more likely ‘talking’ and ‘without speaking’ ie communicating without verbalising. In that mode of communicating he asked if I wanted to go back to my friends, so interpreting my stopping and looking back. No. What I was unconsciously doing was raising a buoy to the surface so that on looking back I’d see something there, look at it more closely and pull on the line, bringing memory after attached memory up into consciousness until I’d realised the incident from unconscious memory. I’ve put it metaphorically. At the time I realised we hadn’t been actually talking, stopped and looked back, measuring how far we’d come while communicating without using language. I’d avoided using the word ‘realised’ before because it’d convey consciousness and I’d still be unconscious but perhaps nearing the interface of the unconscious with consciousness. The young Turk probably got the gist at the time or later forgot it entirely because unconscious then. The means to an end wouldn’t interest him anyway. I can’t myself be that interested in a conscious thinking which excludes that of the unconscious and presumes therefore that all thinking is done linguistically, in English, French, Turkish or whatever.

Morality is pictured without any transcendent background because there are no metaphysical entities, though will is. In our society we believe in judging a man by his conduct, she says. He’s not fully conscious of what he is. The current view is his moral life is a series of overt choices and acts. She holds it’s not only his choices but his vision that constitutes his morality. Marxists, Xians, Moslems believe we are immersed in a reality which transcends us and moral progress consists in awareness of this reality and submission to its purpose.

She defines Sartre’s idea of consciousness, that it’s for itself ie nothing although the source of all meaning. Its nothingness is freedom that it has to realise in contention with things that exist in themselves and with other selves making an object, a thing, of it. Sartre refuses to accept that emotion consciousness is aware of has a meaning of which it is unconscious. It is that we are not reflectively aware of the configuration we have consciously framed to achieve the purpose of the emotion. No wonder she thinks Sartre stupid. If freedom founds all values why, she asks, ought she to will it for herself and others? If it’s to be defined in terms of what she chooses, does not that imply making a distinction between true and false values which can’t be derived from free choice? Sartre’s man inhabits a universe which contains no transcendent objective truth. Man is an emptiness between two inaccessible totalities, of an impenetrable world of objects and an unattainable world of intelligible being. He wants to be a living transparent consciousness and simultaneously a stable opaque being, impossibly contradictory. It’s an aspiration to be god but no project satisfies him, all tending to fall dead into the region of the reified, thus all projects are equally vain: ‘ça revient au meme de s’enivrer solitairement ou de conduire les peuples.’ Nothing from the outside confers sense on one’s actions. Bad faith, the illusion one can be something in a thinglike manner, comes from consciousness’s wish to be in-itself, rendering sincerity impossible.

Murdoch says Hampshire argues will is dependent on desires, some of which are dependent on beliefs, in turn dependent on thinking. It’s true mother and I could think ourselves into emotion but not I don’t think into beliefs – belief a form of thinking – and on to will. In any case, if from thinking, all this is to do with consciousness as if because one is aware of emotion it is attributable to consciousness, engendered by it. It’s only if an unconscious, trapped inside and only able to act through consciousness, is reinforcing conscious will that the latter has any emotional heft eg I had the intimation of a Greek looking over his shoulder at his unconscious, protesting he was heterosexual when she wanted him to take an interest in me. He went along with it because any direction from within was also of his self and therefore acceptable. I received this intimation from my man, my unconscious will, who put it pictorially to my inner eye. I was imagining it. Unconscious thinking uses the same ways as imagination. It’s an exercise of will. The unconscious will comes first and puts on desire, love or emotion to make one focus and do what it wants, bait on the hook, and it is transcendent.

Jim took me to Lawrence’s trial at Richmond magistrates’. I cowered beside Jim until I realised Lawrence didn’t know me. I wanted nothing to do with him! My man told me, ‘It’s your job.’ Whereupon I wouldn’t mind the odd buffet or two since I didn’t see how I could treat him with policemen on either side restraining his arms. My man assured me I wouldn’t be hurt. Jim brought a reluctant Lawrence to me after stealing booze from Marks. Within twenty minutes Lawrence wanted me. That desire would alter his will but it was my transcendent will preceded and brought that situation about.

Love, she says, is the imaginative recognition of ie respect for the otherness of an irreducibly dissimilar individual. I’d go further: it’s the acceptance of an alternative criterion for oneself always provided the other decides for one.

Goodness, she says Moore says, is a function of the will. Mine is. The psychopath’s badness was a function of his in taking being good at menace as good though it hurt his soul and made for an unhappiness he didn’t know how to mitigate. She thinks goodness is connected to knowledge,... a refined and honest perception of what is really the case. That would be quite beyond the psychopath who was dim and drunk all the time so his unconscious might be out causing havoc. It wasn’t necessarily beyond me in dealing with his case. He liked me because I wasn’t afraid of him. “I am,” I said, giving hostage to fortune. The fear had to be suppressed for me to function, as I may also very well have told him. Angst she would describe as a kind of fright which the conscious will feels when it apprehends the strength and direction of the personality not under its immediate control. She actually believes the will is conscious and that’s it. Even if her unconscious will were acting on and through consciousness she wouldn’t know it was but take it as conscious because conscious of it though not enough to know a difference in her willing when her unconscious will was engaged. It may be when she attends properly and has no choices, the ultimate condition she aimed for. Freedom’s not having multiple possibilities of action; the ideal situation is represented as a kind of necessity, that would be when there’s only the one. Good she thinks is indefinable because of the infinite difficulty of apprehending a magnetic and inexhaustible reality. No magnetic good for the psychopath unless mine. Good, not will, is transcendent, she emphasises, but then she only knows of conscious will which can’t be. As far as she can see there is no metaphysical unity in life, which is subject to chance. I have a metaphysical unity, that of my unconscious will, and if I do, so must you, from yours, like the psychopath had unhappily from his and, less unhappily, after I and mine had effected a correction to it. Patently that metaphysical unity need not be good. When true good is loved, the quality of love is refined, she says. It wasn’t my active unconscious will the psychopath loved but my receptive will, let’s say my soul or that half of my soul, and his love was refined by love; he wouldn’t hit me in my room because I felt safe there and only lightly because he didn’t think I could take too much. What was most for his good was his irretrievable loss of me.

Steiner gives biographical details. She exemplifies her philosophy not from life but art, a procedure she defends as valid. She analyses Plato and her philosophy is summed up in her two Platonic dialogues.

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the official website for the appreciation of Scottish playwright and poet Betty Clark (Joan Ure)


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