The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist (2009)
Part II. HOW THE BRAIN HAS SHAPED OUR WORLD
Chapter 11. ROMANTICISM AND THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
WHAT IS ROMANTICISM? JUDGING BY THE ATTEMPTS THAT HAVE BEEN MADE TO define it, it is more than a little enigmatic. In fact Isaiah Berlin devotes the whole of the first chapter of The Roots of Romanticism, one of the best explorations of the topic, to the mutually incompatible propositions that have been advanced as constituting its essential nature. If he reaches a conclusion it is that, though the Enlightenment could be summed up in the cognitive content of a relatively small number of beliefs, Romanticism never could, because its concern is with a whole disposition towards the world, which involves the holder of that disposition, as well as what beliefs might be held. Not in other words, with a what, but with a how.
How it came about that the Enlightenment gave place to Romanticism is, too, something of an enigma to historians of ideas, as Berlin goes on to demonstrate. The well-worn phrase ‘the Romantic Revolution’ conjures a picture of something like that contemporaneous political upheaval, the French Revolution; one would therefore expect to see the established squires and landed gentry of the intellect finding the equivalent of revolting masses at their gates – as though the revolutionaries sprang fully armed from the head of Zeus. In fact what one finds is an almost invisible, seamless transition, and I don't think it was even a revolution in the sense that people consciously reacted against a way of looking at the world that they found to be deficient. Instead it was more like a Romantic Evolution than a Revolution – in which the seeds of Romanticism were there in the stuff of Enlightenment. How did this come about?
The answer, it seems to me, is that Romanticism is more inclusive. The best of Enlightenment values were not negated, but aufgehoben, by Romanticism, and persist not only into the coming era, but in fact to this day – along with some of the Enlightenment's more damagingly simplistic notions. Simplicity is a laudable aim, but one must not make things any simpler than they are. As always, it was the clashes of theory with experience that showed up the cracks in the edifice of rationalism. If I am correct in my supposition that the right hemisphere is grappling with experience, which is multiple in nature, in principle unknowable in its totality, changing, infinite, full of individual differences, while the left hemisphere sees only a version or representation of that experience, in which, by contrast, the world is single, knowable, consistent, certain, fixed, therefore ultimately finite, generalised across experience, a world that we can master – the Enlightenment world, in other words – it follows that the left hemisphere is a closed system, ‘bootstrapping’ itself. It cannot, however, shield itself from experience completely – or has not been able to until recently (the subject of the last chapter of this book). Its weakness, therefore, will be exposed when attention is turned to those elements within the system that point to something beyond it.
Since the foundation of Enlightenment thinking is that all truths cohere, are mutually compatible, non-contradictory, ultimately reconcilable, its weak place is where incompatibilities are found; and indeed in general we are, and always have been, liberated into another way of looking at the world wherever irreconcilables are brought into focus. One such point of weakness occurred with the dawning awareness that, as a generalisation, differences are as important as generalities. Montesquieu was aware that the belief that ‘man is everywhere different’ is as important and as true as the assertion that ‘man is everywhere the same’. This perception leads from the premises of the system itself – that generalisation is the route to truth, and that all generalisations should be compatible – straight to a paradox. The idea of individual difference is central to Romanticism, but it is not merely this which makes Montesquieu's point tend towards the Romantic: his very acceptance that a thing and its opposite may be true is in itself a Romantic acceptance. The movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism therefore is not from A to not-A, but from a world where ‘A and not-A cannot both be true’ is necessarily true to one where ‘A and not-A can both hold’ holds (in philosophical terms this becomes Hegel's thesis, antithesis ? synthesis). Thus some elements (a certain kind of idealism, for example) can be found in both Enlightenment and Romanticism, which is how the continuity occurs: to give an example, it is how the French Revolution can be seen itself as a manifestation of the Romantic spirit, while at the same time, as Berlin says, the principles in the name of which it was fought were Enlightenment principles, at odds with the thrust of Romanticism. The progression from Enlightenment to Romanticism can be seen as either seamless (upper arrow) or antithetical (lower arrow), depending on where the emphasis lies:
In this chapter I will develop the view that Romanticism is a manifestation of right-hemisphere dominance in our way of looking at the world. Here I am reminded of the fact that the right hemisphere is more inclusive, and can equally use what the left hemisphere uses as well as its own preferred approach, whereas the left hemisphere does not have this degree of flexibility or reciprocity.
Whereas for the Enlightenment, and for the workings of the logical left hemisphere, opposites result in a battle which must be won by ‘the Truth’, for the Romantics, and for the right hemisphere, it is the coming together of opposites into a fruitful union that forms the basis not only of everything that we find beautiful, but of truth itself. This was perfectly expressed by Hölderlin. He saw that both the essence of beauty and the ground of all philosophy lay in das Eine in sich selber unterschiedne, ‘the one differentiated in itself’. This great insight of Heraclitus’, according to Hölderlin, ‘could occur only to a Greek, for it is the essence of beauty, and, before this was discovered, there was no philosophy.’1
What were the trigger points for needing to move on – the weaknesses in the left-hemisphere system?
It's true there was this matter of a thing and its opposite both being possible. But there were others, many others. For a start, reason itself proclaimed the fact that reason was insufficient. Montesquieu's perception anticipates Blake's saying that ‘to generalise is to be an idiot’, being itself a generalisation. It draws attention, in Gödelian fashion, to the truth that every logical system leads to conclusions that cannot be accommodated within it. An earlier mathematician, Pascal, had reached a similar conclusion, uncongenial as it is to the philosophy of Enlightenment. ‘The ultimate achievement of reason’, he wrote, ‘is to recognize that there are an infinity of things which surpass it. It is indeed feeble if it can't get as far as understanding that.’2 But this had been common knowledge to what Pascal calls ‘esprits fins’, subtle minds, before the Enlightenment.3 ‘Philosophy never seems to me to have a better hand to play’, as Montaigne wrote, ‘than when she battles against our presumption and our vanity; when in good faith she acknowledges her weakness, her ignorance and her inability to reach conclusions.’4
Then there was the fact that theory was just not compatible with experience. In figures such as Rousseau and the painter David I believe one can trace a smooth evolution from the ideals of the Enlightenment to those of Romanticism (the upper arrow in the diagram above). But in many other figures of the transitional era there is simply a disjunction between what they explicitly held to be true and what implicitly they must, from their actions and judgments, have believed. Just as Reynolds, when faced with the unruly genius of Michelangelo, was magnanimous enough to sweep away the precepts he had outlined for years in his lectures, Johnson jettisoned Enlightenment preconceptions, which he referred to as ‘the petty cavils of petty minds’, when faced with the reality of Shakespeare's greatness. How to accommodate Shakespeare's flagrant disregard for the classical unities, his tendency, like life itself, to mix comedy and tragedy, his refusal to produce representative types, but instead to produce individuals of flesh and blood (‘his story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men’)?5 In fact Pope had already come to the conclusion that his ‘Characters are so much Nature herself, that ‘tis a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as Copies of her’ – in other words that they were present, not re-presented. And he continues: ‘every single character in Shakespeare is as much an Individual, as those in Life itself’.6 Johnson paved the way for Carlyle's judgment that Shakespeare's works, like a force of nature, ‘grow up withal unconsciously from the unknown deeps in him; – as the oak-tree grows from the Earth's bosom’. Carlyle refers to the hidden, necessarily implicit meaning of Shakespeare, ‘like roots, like sap and forces working underground … Speech is great; but Silence is greater.’7
As the Renaissance was reinvigorated by its recurrence to the world of Ancient Greece and Rome, so the post-Enlightenment world was reinvigorated by its recursion to the Renaissance, particularly by the rediscovery of Shakespeare, a vital element in the evolution of Romanticism, not just, or even especially, in England, but in Germany and France. It yielded evidence of something so powerful that it simply swept away Enlightenment principles before it, as inauthentic, untenable in the face of experience. It was not just his grandeur, his unpredictability, his faithfulness to nature that commended him. In Shakespeare, tragedy is no longer the result of a fatal flaw or error: time and again it lies in a clash between two ways of being in the world or looking at the world, neither of which has to be mistaken. In Shakespeare tragedy is in fact the result of the coming together of opposites. And Maurice Morgann's brilliant essay of 1777 emphasises the importance, in individuality, of the context dependency of personal characteristics, struggling to express the concept of the Gestalt nearly two hundred years before its time.8
BODY AND SOUL
In case it looks as though I am making a point about art rather than life, let's take an example of life in action. The great Enlightenment philosopher and wit, Nicolas Chamfort, having, with a typically Enlightened superiority to embodied existence, declared that love as it then existed was no more than ‘l'échange de deux fantaisies et le contact de deux épidermes’,9 found himself having to abandon the Court after an unhappy love affair with a very beautiful, but very married, dancer.10 Sadder still, a passionate enthusiast for the Revolution in theory, he became quickly disillusioned with the reality. Persecuted by the Jacobins he had ardently supported, he ended by shooting himself in the face and stabbing himself in the neck, and, having failed to kill himself, living out his last days in agony.
For the Romantic mind, by contrast, theory was not something abstracted from experience and separate from it (based on representation), but present in the act of perception. There was therefore no question of ‘applying’ theory to life, since phenomena themselves were the source of ‘theory’. Fact and theory, like particular and universal, were not opposites. According to Goethe they ‘are not only intimately connected, but … interpenetrate one another … the particular represents the universal, “not as a dream and shadow, but as a momentarily living manifestation of the inscrutable”.’11 The particular metaphorises the universal. Goethe deplored the tendency for us, like children that go round the back of a mirror to see what's there, to try to find a reality behind the particularity of the archetypal phenomenon.12
Chamfort's description of love illustrates another weakness in Enlightenment thinking that paved the way for Romanticism. It was the problem of the explicit, and the things that necessarily fled from it, as if for their lives. Self-knowledge had been the goal of human wisdom since ancient times. Goethe wisely wrote, however, that ‘we are, and ought to be, obscure to ourselves, turned outwards, and working upon the world which surrounds us.’13 We see ourselves, and therefore come to know ourselves, only indirectly, through our engagement with the world at large.14 His observation suggests a consequence of the Enlightenment project which, again in Gödelian fashion, followed from it, but could not be contained within it. The Enlightenment pursuit of certainty and clarity could not be made to stop at the bounds of the self: was not awareness of self the guarantor of rational, intelligent behaviour? As Pope put it, ‘the proper subject of mankind is Man'; and, great poet that he was, he may be said to have succeeded in expressing his personal view on the subject admirably. But the searchlight of objective attention cannot be applied to man himself. It does not result in self-knowledge, because the heightened self-consciousness involved cuts one off from large parts of experience, by crucially altering the nature of what it attends to, and thus subverting its very purpose as an instrument of knowledge. Some things have to remain obscure if they are not to be forced to be untrue to their very nature: they are known, and can be expressed, only indirectly.
One of these is embodied existence. It was not just Chamfort, of course. Philosophers have, for the most part, had an antagonistic and unsympathetic relationship to the body – it goes with the territory. Kant described marriage as an agreement between two people as to the ‘reciprocal use of each others’ sexual organs';15 Kant also, it may be noted, remained single, and died probably a virgin.16 Descartes described laughter as that which
results when the blood coming from the right-hand cavity of the heart through the central arterial vein causes the lungs to swell up suddenly and repeatedly, forcing the air they contain to rush out through the windpipe, where it forms an inarticulate, explosive sound. As the air is expelled, the lungs are swollen so much that they push against all the muscles of the diaphragm, chest and throat, thus causing movement in the facial muscles with which these organs are connected. And it is just this facial expression, together with the inarticulate and explosive sound, that we call ‘laughter’.17
Well, that's not what I call laughter – although it's hard not to laugh. But what's striking here is not just the sense of disgust, the deliberately disengaged, mechanical attitude taken by Descartes in this anatomy of hilarity. It's that his authoritative manner is not in any way inhibited by the fact that actually he had no idea what he was talking about. His anatomy is a complete work of fantasy. But laughter was to be put in its place, because it was spontaneous, intuitive and unwilled, and represented the triumph of the body. I am reminded of the story that Voltaire, when asked if he had ever laughed, responded: ‘je n'ai jamais fait ha! ha!’18
The problem here is not the acknowledgment of the part played in our lives by the flesh – Montaigne and Erasmus had done that with great tact, affection and humour – but the insistence on stopping there, the refusal to see through it. Spinoza's appreciation that ‘the more capable the body is of being affected in many ways, and affecting external bodies in many ways, the more capable of thinking is the mind’,19 sets the body in its proper relationship with our ‘higher parts’, in the way that Wittgenstein later was to do when he wrote that ‘the human body is the best picture of the human soul’.20 Philosophy itself is rooted in the body, after all: according to the authors of Philosophy in the Flesh, ‘real people have embodied minds whose conceptual systems arise from, are shaped by, and are given meaning through living human bodies. The neural structures of our brains produce conceptual systems and linguistic structures that cannot be adequately accounted for by formal systems that only manipulate symbols.’21 There is nothing reductionist here, any more than it is reductionism when Diderot states with marvellous frankness that ‘il y a un peu de testicule au fond de nos sentiments les plus sublimes et de notre tendresse la plus épurée’.22 On the contrary, it is a warning not to get too carried away with the virtues of abstraction.
The fusion of body with mind, or more properly with spirit or soul, was never more keenly felt than by the Romantics. ‘O Human Imagination, O Divine Body’, wrote Blake.23 Wordsworth stretched sense to the limit to express this living union. ‘I know no book or system of moral philosophy written with sufficient power to melt into our affections, to incorporate itself with the blood & vital juices of our minds’, he wrote of the relative weakness of philosophy compared with poetry: ‘these bald & naked reasonings are impotent over our habits, they cannot form them; from the same cause they are equally powerless in regulating our judgments concerning the value of men & things.’24 I cannot imagine that anyone before him would have thought of speaking of the ‘blood and vital juices of the mind’. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, his poetic manifesto, Wordsworth wrote that personifications of abstract ideas, such as were common in Augustan verse, are ‘a mechanical device of style’, a mechanism which ‘writers in metre seem to lay claim to by prescription’. By contrast he wished to keep his reader ‘in the company of flesh and blood’:
Poetry sheds no tears ‘such as angels weep’, but natural and human tears; she can boast of no celestial ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from those of prose; the same human blood circulates through the veins of them both.25
Here there is a contrast with his lifelong companion and fellow poet Coleridge. Carlyle gives an amusing portrait of Coleridge, his guests falling asleep around the dinner table as he theorised about the endlessly fascinating relationship between ‘sum-m-mject’ and ‘om-m-mject'; but possibly because, precisely, of the abstraction of his approach, Coleridge never managed to find a way of transcending this polarity.26 By contrast Wordsworth did not need to talk about it, because he expressed in the very fabric of his poetry the union of subject and object, the incarnation of the world of images in the lived body. This is something to do with the very movement of his phrases, and their effects on our physical frame, even on our breathing and pulse. Sometimes he actually refers to this synthesis in the poetry itself – he speaks of ‘a real solid world / Of images about me';27 it is in both the sense and the movement of some of his most famous lines: ‘felt in the blood, and felt along the heart’, ‘have hung upon the beatings of my heart’, ‘and all that mighty heart is lying still’. And, in the most startling expression of his view that Nature was a living, flesh and blood presence, he states with characteristic straightforwardness that the respirations of Nature were so real to him, its breathings so felt in the frame of his being, that he sometimes mistook them for the panting of his dog.28
Paradoxically an appreciation of the embodied nature of our experience and understanding of the world could also be said to have emerged seamlessly from the Enlightenment. This is because the Enlightenment had looked to the Classical world for its models of reason, order and justice; but one of the side effects of the return to antiquity which characterised neo-Classicism, and of the Grand Tour in which it manifested itself, was not just the revelation of the palpably beautiful forms of Classical sculpture but the rediscovery of the seductively warm South.
Eichendorff said that Romanticism was the nostalgia of Protestants for the Catholic tradition.29 There are many levels at which one can read this remark. At one level it could indicate the nostalgia of a people, self-consciously alienated from their traditional culture, for a world in which the traditional culture unreflectively still persists. Unlike history seen as an intellectual realm, a repository of ideas about socio-cultural issues, tradition is an embodiment of a culture: not an idea of the past, but the past itself embodied. This is no longer available to those who have abandoned the tradition. At another level Eichendorff's remark could be seen as an expression of the love of the cold North for the bodily sensuality of the South. And the past, the South and the body are inextricably linked in Romanticism, as some of Goethe's most famous poems attest, particularly the Römische Elegien (originally entitled Erotica Romana). But, more than all this, one could see Eichendorff's remark about the nostalgia of Protestants for the Catholic tradition as acknowledging a move, which indeed is what I believe the rise of Romanticism to be, to redress the imbalance of the hemispheres, and to curtail the dominion of the left. The left hemisphere is more closely associated with the conscious will, and could be seen as the administrative arm of the frontal lobes in their important achievement of self-awareness. Any such move, therefore, meets a paradox at the outset: how to succeed in a self-conscious attempt to achieve a state of (relative) unselfconsciousness. This is the topic of Kleist's famous and remarkable essay ‘On the Puppet Theatre’, a topic I will return to at the end of this book.
A longing for the innocent unself-consciousness of both the historical and personal past is a central theme of Romanticism, which again points away from the world of the left hemisphere to that of the right. It does so not just because of the association of the left hemisphere with excessive self-consciousness. Personal and emotive memory are preferentially stored in the right hemisphere, and childhood, too, is associated with a greater reliance on the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is particularly important in childhood experience and is preponderant even in language development in early childhood;30 many hand gestures are produced in speech areas of the right hemisphere, which are abandoned in early childhood, as language shifts to the left hemisphere. It is with the right hemisphere that we recall childhood memories,31 and autobiographical memories of all kinds.32 As mentioned in Chapter 2, the right hemisphere is more advanced until the second year of life.33 Given the relatively ‘split brain’ nature of the child, this is also a peculiarly unalloyed right hemisphere, one that is sheltered from being overwhelmed, as it later will be, by the left. The right hemisphere is more active in children up to the age of four years,34 and intelligence across the spectrum of cognitive faculties in children (and probably in adults) is related principally to right-hemisphere function.35 In childhood, experience is relatively unalloyed by re-presentation: experience has ‘the glory and the freshness of a dream’, as Wordsworth expressed it.36 This was not just a Romantic insight, but lay behind the evocations of their own childhood by, for example, Vaughan in The Retreat and Traherne in his Centuries.37 Childhood represents innocence, not in some moral sense, but in the sense of offering what the phenomenologists thought of as the pre-conceptual immediacy of experience (the world before the left hemisphere has deadened it to familiarity). It was this authentic ‘presencing’ of the world that Romantic poetry aimed to recapture.
The Romantic acceptance that there is no simple ‘fact of the matter’ – a reality that exists independently of ourselves and our attitude towards it – brought to the fore the absolutely crucial question of one's disposition towards it, the relationship in which one stands to it. This emphasis on disposition towards whatever it might be, rather than the primacy of the thing itself in isolation or abstraction, explains the otherwise baffling plethora of often contradictory accounts of what Romanticism ‘stood for’ – Berlin's point, the move from what is said or done to the spirit in which it is said or done. How was it that the French Revolution, executed in the name of reason, order, justice, fraternity and liberty, was so unreasonable, disorderly, unjust, unfraternal and illiberal? For the same reason that other grandiose projects originating in the rationalising of the left hemisphere have ended up betraying their ideals. In accordance with the left-hemisphere preoccupation with what a thing is, rather than what manner of thing it is (‘what’ rather than ‘how’), ideas, concepts, acts become neatly reified (the familiar statuesque figures of Reason, Justice, Liberty and so on), and the way in which they are actualised in the messy human context of the lived world gets to be neglected. Ends come to justify means.
‘My thinking is not separate from objects’, wrote Goethe:
the elements of the object, the perception of the object, flow into my thinking and are fully permeated by it … My perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking a perception. Man knows himself only to the extent that he knows the world; he becomes aware of himself only within the world, and aware of the world only within himself. Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us.38
This last, perhaps somewhat cryptic, sentence suggests that for us truly to experience something it has to enter into and alter us, and there must be something in us which specifically responds to it as unique.39 A consequence of this, as Thomas Kuhn recognised, will be that those phenomena with which we have no affinity, and which we are not in some sense ready to see, are often not seen at all.40 Theory, in the conventional sense of the term, can restrict one's capacity to see things, and the only remedy is to be aware of it.
Understanding, then, is not a discursive explanatory process, but a moment of connection, in which we see through our experience – an aperçu or insight.41 All seeing is ‘seeing as'; not that a cognition is added to perception, but that each act of seeing, in the sense of allowing something to ‘presence’ for us, is in itself necessarily an act of understanding.42
An extremely odd demand is often set forth but never met, even by those who make it: i.e., that empirical data should be presented without any theoretical context, leaving the reader, the student, to his own devices in judging it [the classic demand of Enlightenment science]. This demand seems odd because it is useless simply to look at something. Every act of looking turns into observation, every act of observation into reflection, every act of reflection into the making of associations; thus it is evident that we theorise every time we look carefully at the world.43
Theory, in this sense, according to Goethe, is not systematised abstraction after the fact, and separate from experience, but vision that sees something in its context (the ‘making of associations’) and sees through it.
Reality was not, as Goethe and the Romantics came to see, the fixed and unchanging state of affairs that the left hemisphere assumes. ‘The phenomenon must never be thought of as finished or complete’, Goethe wrote, ‘but rather as evolving, growing, and in many ways as something yet to be determined.’44 Interestingly, in the light of the last chapter, he noted that ‘Vernunft [reason] is concerned with what is becoming, Verstand [rationality] with what has already become … [Reason] rejoices in whatever evolves; [rationality] wants to hold everything still, so that it can utilise it’.45 That we take part in a changing world, and that the world evokes faculties, dimensions, and characteristics in us, just as we bring aspects of the world into existence, is perhaps the most profound perception of Romanticism.
This was not an idea or theory, but, for the Romantics, an incarnate reality. One can see it in the paintings and feel it in the poetry of the period. It is related to the sense of depth which is everywhere conveyed in its art.
The great art of the period is landscape art, and the chief influence on landscape art in the period was undoubtedly Claude Lorrain. Despite his having died long before the birth of Romanticism, he appears to have prefigured the vision of the Romantics; one can see in him – and in contrast with his more Cartesian compatriot, contemporary and friend, Nicolas Poussin – a route direct from the Renaissance to Romanticism, a sort of high road of the right hemisphere which the Enlightenment left untouched. A highly skilled intuitive craftsman more than an intellectual, but none the less for that a genius of the imagination, he seems better than anyone to have seen the significance of the relationship between two of the defining preoccupations of the Renaissance: retrospection to a Classical past and observation of nature. In his paintings one experiences the mind as profoundly engaged with the world, the human spirit as drawn out almost limitlessly by the very magnitude of the expanses of space and time. Constable thought him ‘the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw’.46 Turner idolised him and obsessively reinvented his idiom; it was his greatest ambition to paint something worthy of comparison with Claude's Seaport with theEmbarkation of the Queen of Sheba, that might hang beside it in the National Gallery in London – an ambition which, incidentally, he realised.47 Keats was inspired to some of his greatest lines by one of Claude's paintings, the one that came to be called The Enchanted Castle.48
The subjects of Claude's paintings are not the tiny figures whose history forms their pretext, but the depth, spatial and temporal, of our relationship with the world, for which colour, light and texture act as visual metaphors. In Claude's paintings there is a deep perspective, enhanced sometimes by the steeply angled buildings which often form part of the foreground, particularly of his harbour scenes, and by an extraordinary ability to use variations in light and colour to suggest not just distance as such, but a succession, or progression, of distances, each giving place to the next, by which the viewer is inexorably drawn into the imagined scene.
Light is usually transitional, too, not the full, supposedly ‘all-revealing’ light of enlightenment, but the half-light of dawn or dusk. The first Romantic poetry is revealed by its similar settings – William Collins's Ode to Evening, with its ‘hamlets brown, and dim-discover'd spires’, the twilit opening of Gray's Elegy, the sonnets of William Lisle Bowles, or Young's Night Thoughts – but also its transitional seasons, Keats's Ode to Autumn, Shelley's ‘West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being’, and so on. In terms of the hemispheres, half-light and transitional states have a multitude of affinities with complexity, transience, emotional weight, dream states, the implicit and the unconscious, rather than clarity, simplicity, fixity, detachment, the explicit and full consciousness. The temporal perspective is also immense: the buildings of, for example, Claude's Landscape with Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia or the Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (see Plates 7 and 8) already have what seems to be centuries, if not millennia, of wear upon them.
Evocation of depth is both the means by which we are drawn into a felt relationship with something remote (rather than just observing it, which would be the effect of a flat plane), and, at the same time and inseparably, the incontestable evidence of separation from it. Distance in time and place not only expands the soul, but inevitably enters it into a state of awareness of separation and loss – the primal condition of the Romantics.
In this process, space often acts as a metaphor for time. One sees this in the very earliest works of Romanticism, for example in the works of Thomas Gray. His ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’, where he had spent his school days, is not so much a distant prospect in space, but in time, for which it here acts as a metaphor – a view into the past. His elevated standpoint allows him to look down on his former self (‘Lo, in the vale of years beneath’), as he sees the lack of self-awareness in the schoolboys contrasted with his own painful knowledge of what is to come (‘Alas, regardless of their doom the little victims play!’). The elevated position not only represents distance but a higher degree of self-consciousness. Similarly Wordsworth's famous retrospective lines from ‘Tintern Abbey’ – ‘Five years have past; five summers with the length of five long winters …’ – are written from a vantage point in the valley above Tintern from which he can look down on
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
which represent not just personal, but cultural, memories of innocent unself-consciousness, the loss of cultural innocence entailed in his being part of a world that is too self-aware, the loss that Gray had evoked in the ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’.
In the opening of Book VIII of his long autobiographical poem The Prelude, Wordsworth depicts a country fair taking place in the valley below him as he sits on the side of Helvellyn, the voices of the country folk, laughing and talking, coming up to him in snatches. Again his elevated view is an image of self-consciousness, a level of self-awareness that he cannot now lose, forever separated from the simple pleasures of rusticity by his awareness that true pleasure belongs only to those who are not self-aware. The evocation of their voices carrying echoingly up to his seat above conveys perfectly the combination of closeness and distance, of something recaptured, but also forever lost. How to be unself-reflectingly simple down there, and yet in a position to appreciate the simplicity at the same time?
There is an ambiguous condition here, in which one is taken back to another world, as one is in Claude's canvases, and yet from which one is excluded. The same distance that connects sunders. The bitterness and the sweetness are aspects of the same experience, and come into being to the same extent at the same time on the same terms. It is this ambiguous condition that gives rise to the mixed emotions, the ‘pleasurable melancholy’ of the Romantics – not, as seems often to be assumed (shades of Seneca, see above p. 307), a self-indulgent pleasure in pain for its own sake. That error arises from ‘either/or’ thinking (it must be pleasure or it must be pain), coupled with sequential analysis (if both are present, one must give rise to the other, presumably pain to pleasure). The option that both emotions might be caused at the very same moment by the very same phenomenon is excluded.
Something similar appears to lie behind a common misunderstanding of the sublime, another core Romantic phenomenon. Vast distances evoked by visual depth, grand objects and perspectives, become of great significance, because of their metaphoric power to express a sense of ineffability, which is experienced physically and emotionally as much as conceptually. Ten years before Burke wrote his famous Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, his lesser known contemporary John Baillie wrote that ‘every Person upon seeing a grand Object is affected with something which as it were extends his very Being, and expands it to a kind of Immensity.’49 What I would draw attention to here is the clear expression of the fact that, rightly beheld, the sublime expands and extends, not dwarfs, the being of the beholder. But the same depth that unites is also the evidence of separation. To the degree that one is united with something greater than oneself, one feels the expansion of soul that Baillie refers to; to the degree that one is aware of the separation, one feels one's smallness. This is intrinsic to the experience of awe.
The breakthrough in Romantic thinking to the essential connectedness of things enabled them to see that those who are in awe of any great object – whether it be God, or the vastness, beauty and complexity of nature – do not set themselves apart from it; they feel something that is Other, certainly, but also something of which they partake. Because of the empathic connection or betweenness – of which depth here is a metaphor – they both share in the character of the Other and feel their separateness from it. Reverence is no abasement, they understood, but with as much truth an exaltation: a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself, which for the Romantics was the phenomenal world, and what one could see through it.
Depth and height become symbols of profundity: the essential element in the sublime is not merely something large but whose limits, like a mountain top that is lost in cloud, are unknown. ‘The notion of depth’, writes Berlin, ‘is something with which philosophers seldom deal. Nevertheless’, he continues,
it is a concept perfectly susceptible to treatment and indeed one of the most important categories we use. When we say that a work is profound or deep, quite apart from the fact that this is obviously a metaphor, I suppose from wells, which are profound and deep – when one says that someone is a profound writer, or that a picture or a work of music is profound, it is not very clear what we mean, but we certainly do not wish to exchange these descriptions for some other term such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘important’ or ‘construed according to rules’ or even ‘immortal’ … According to the romantics – and this is one of their principal contributions to understanding in general – what I mean by depth, although they do not discuss it under that name, is inexhaustibility, unembraceability … There is no doubt that, although I attempt to describe what … profundity consists in, as soon as I speak it becomes quite clear that, no matter how long I speak, new chasms open. No matter what I say I always have to leave three dots at the end … I am forced in my discussion, forced in description, to use language which is in principle, not only today but for ever, inadequate for its purpose … You have no formula that will by deduction lead you to all [the ‘vistas’ opened by profound sayings].50
In the chapter on the Renaissance I emphasised the broader and deeper perspective on both time and space, that characterised the era. If one looks at the engravings of Ancient Roman architecture in the influential Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (The Mirror of Rome's Magnificence) of the Frenchman Antonio Lafréri, an engraver working in Rome and active in the mid-sixteenth century (see Figure 11.1), one sees there an unbroken line that directly connects them in spirit, not just with Claude's architectural studies in the next century, but to such iconic early Romantic works of 200 years later as Piranesi's Vedute di Roma series, Barbault's Vues des Plus Beaux Restes des Antiquités Romaines, and even the Carceri d'Invenzione, so much in keeping with the spirit of Horace Walpole and de Quincey. 250 years later, Ducros is painting with a remarkably similar eye (see Figure 11.2). And there is a clear link between Claude's landscapes and those of Romantic landscape artists such as Richard Wilson in England or Thomas Cole in America (see Plate 9).
Fig. 11.1 The Coliseum, by Antonio Lafréri, c. 1550 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Fig. 11.2 The Coliseum, by Louis Ducros, late 18th century (private collection/© Agnew's, London/Bridgeman Art Library)
Paradoxically it was not the Enlightenment, but Romanticism, which revealed the beauty and power of light. In Claude the Romantics found their exemplar. Constable's cloud studies, and the shimmering, deliquescent landscapes of Turner, which were so eagerly studied by the Impressionists, are essentially celebrations of light and colour. And yet it is profoundly mistaken, as often happens, to see them as proto-abstracts, abstracts in all but name. Abstracts are by definition disengaged – abstracted – from the world. They do not contain light: light, like depth and texture, exists only in experience, not in the realm of thought. A painting such as Bierstadt's Conflagration makes the point beautifully (see Plate 10). In one sense close to the abstract, it is about as far from abstract as can be imagined, and even achieves a sublimity through light, depth and colour that his more conventional landscapes sometimes miss, by their too explicit designs on the viewer.
It is notable that it is at times when, according to my view, there has been a period of ‘release’ of the right hemisphere – the Renaissance and Romanticism – that there has been an interest in the long view, and the high view, of life: the view that brings distance. This might be related to the right hemisphere's having a generally broader view, which one knows is the case, but it might be more than that. If one is aware of the uniqueness of individual people and things, and at the same time affectively engaged with them, one is inevitably forced to confront separation and loss. This is expressed metaphorically in an evocation of distance in space and time, and therefore with landscapes viewed from above, and from a distance, both in painting and in poetry. An affective relationship with ‘the Other’ over distances of time and space provides the wherewithal to understand ourselves as part of a three-dimensional world – not just three-dimensional in the spatial sense, but with temporal and emotional depth, too, a world in which we move inexorably towards death. The seeing oneself in other places, and other times, and yet still not turning away from the chasm that yawns between, such an important feature of the world of the Romantics, with its ability to fuse separation with connection, is foreseen in Donne's famous image of the compasses, and of the lovers’ souls stretched out between them, like a jeweller's sheet of ‘gold to ayery thinnesse beate’: that poem too was about not just love and lovers’ separations, but the ultimate separation (that according to Donne is not a separation) of death.
MELANCHOLY AND LONGING
In both the Renaissance and Romanticism, there is a captivation by the past, including the classical past (think of Shelley's Ozymandias), in contrast to the Enlightenment accent on the future. Even the elegy for lost youth, which seems so quintessentially Romantic, is there in the Renaissance time and again: as in Sir Walter Ralegh's:
Like truthless dreams, so are my joys expir'd,
And past return are all my dandled days;
My love misled, and fancy quite retir'd,
Of all which pass'd the sorrow only stays …
or in Chidiock Tichborne's ‘Elegy’:
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung,
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves are green,
My youth is gone, and yet I am but young,
I saw the world, and yet I was not seen,
My thread is cut, and yet it was not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
There is similarly an emphasis on the individual or unique, rather than the general, and on the fleeting, rather than the fixed and unchanging. This has seemed to post-Romantic sensibilities culture-bound and perhaps self-indulgent. It is, in fact, however, only in a world where things are interchangeably replaceable or remain unaltered – the realm of Ideas or representations, that of the left hemisphere – that one could afford to take any other point of view.
Just as in the Renaissance the uncaused nature of melancholy seems to have been emphasised, so that it did not risk being confused with, and reduced to, a reaction to specific circumstances, so one finds it again emphasised in Romanticism. ‘Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten, / Daß ich so traurig bin’, begins Heine's Die Lorelei; and so complains Lermontov: ‘Chto zhe mne tak bol'no i tak trudno? / Zhdu l’ chevo? Zhalyeyu li o chyom?’* And in each case the beauty of the expansive natural scene around the poet – in Heine's case the peacefully flowing Rhine and the sunset on the mountain tops, in Lermontov's the solemn wonder of the heavens over the steppe, sleeping in their blue stillness – is contrasted with the sadness that is so hard to fathom. Later Tennyson was to write ‘Tears, idle tears, / I know not what they mean, / Tears from the depth of some divine despair …’ As Tennyson's comments on the composition of this poem make clear, it was not an expression of woe, but of longing.51 It was associated with distance across time and space: ‘it is so always with me now; it is the distance that charms me in the landscape, the picture and the past, and not the immediate to-day in which I move’.52 As a child he was already haunted by what he called the passion of the past.53 Distance produces a something that is neither in the subject nor the object, but in what arises between them, and it is intrinsically melancholic. Hazlitt wrote:
When I was a boy, I lived within sight of a range of lofty hills, whose blue tops blending with the setting sun had often tempted my longing eyes and wandering feet. At last I put my project in execution, and on a nearer approach, instead of glimmering air woven into fantastic shapes, found them huge lumpish heaps of discoloured earth … Distance of time has much the same effect as distance of place … It is not the little, shimmering, almost annihilated speck in the distance, that rivets our attention and ‘hangs upon the beatings of our hearts’: it is the interval that separates us from it, and of which it is the trembling boundary, that excites all this coil and mighty pudder in the breast. Into that great gap in our being ‘come thronging soft desires’ and infinite regrets.54
It is not on the resoundingly obvious fact of Romantic melancholy that I wish to focus, but on the meaning, in hemisphere terms, of the condition. I touched on this in the chapter on the Renaissance – the difference between wanting and longing. The first is an impulsion, the second an attraction. Wanting is a drive, such as the left hemisphere experiences, or possibly embodies, in which one is impelled, as it were ‘from behind’, towards something which is inert, and from which one is isolated, something not participating in the process except through the fact of its existence. In longing, one is drawn ‘from in front’ towards something from which one is already not wholly separate, and which exerts an influence through that ‘division within union’. The first is like a hydraulic force (like Freud's model of drives), a mechanical pressure; the second is more like a magnetic field, an electric attraction (as Jung's model of archetypes would suggest). The first is unidirectional; the second bidirectional – there is a ‘betweenness’. The first is linear; the second, as the concept of a ‘field’ suggests, holistic, round in shape. The first has a clear view of its target; the second intuits its ‘Other’. The first is a simple, in the sense of unmixed, force – one either wants or does not want. Longing, by contrast, is full of mixed emotions. Think of the typical targets of longing: home, sometimes conflated with death, as in Eichendorff's poem ‘Aus der Heimat hinter den Blitzen rot’, so wonderfully set to music by Schumann, which, in its painful ambiguity, demonstrates how bitter-sweet longing is. Or for the loved one, as in almost all of Heine's poems: ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai … Da hab’ ich ihr gestanden / Mein Sehnen und Verlangen’; or for example in Goethe's ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, / weiss was ich leide!’ Or – shades of the early Renaissance – for the eternal ideal of womanhood, ‘das Ewig-Weibliche’, as Goethe described it, which ‘zieht uns hinan’ (‘draws us on and upwards’ – in German the idea of anziehen includes the idea of drawing something ‘home’, as we say). Or for the warm South, as in Goethe's ‘Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?’ Or for childhood, or the past, in practically every poet from Wordsworth to Hardy, and beyond. Ultimately though, it is for something that has no name. It is a movement of faith in a state of uncertainty: as Shelley put it, ‘The devotion to something afar / From the sphere of our sorrow’.
Although the term was coined only in the eighteenth century, nostalgia was not invented then. In Plato's Symposium it is the basis of the fable that Aristophanes tells of the origins of love, of the divided creature that longs to be reunited with its other half. And at the other end of the time spectrum, it is in Bellow's portrait of Allan Bloom, the original of Ravelstein in his novel of that name, who ‘thought – no, he saw – that every soul was looking for its peculiar other, longing for its complement’. It is also the core emotion of Oriental poetry. ‘Nostalgia for the past is a key to the understanding of Japanese poetry,’ writes Donald Keene.55 For over a thousand years, almost all short poems in Japanese consisted of evocation of the seasons,
either directly or as revealed by characteristic phenomena such as mist, haze, fog, and so on … the moon, unless qualified by another seasonal word, was always the moon in autumn … Japanese poets have been unusually sensitive to the changes that accompany the seasons … Summer and winter poems … were accorded only half the space given to spring and autumn poems [cf. English Romanticism] … the mood is more often bittersweet than either tragic or joyous. Rarely is there a suggestion of the happiness of love; the poets wrote most often about the unresponsiveness of the beloved, the failure of the beloved to pay a promised visit, even the acceptance of death as the only resolution of an unhappy affair, as if joy were unseemly.56
It is incidentally not just in eighteenth-century Germany and England that empathy with nature developed – that is in any case clear from Renaissance poetry; it was already an important element in the sensibility of tenth-century Japan, in for example the important anthology of the Kokinshu- poets.57 In other words many of the features of Romanticism are in fact potentially universals, part of the structure of the human mind and brain, not just aspects of a culture-bound syndrome. In other cultures what we label Romantic is seen as the ‘natural’ viewpoint, to which the left-hemisphere world of rationalistic mechanism and materialism appears as the culture-bound syndrome.
Keene draws attention to the place of mist, haze, fog and moonlight in Japanese poetry. The Romantics, too, had a predilection for whatever can be only partly discerned – for unfinished sketches, for the half-light of dawn, for scenes by twilight or moonlight, for music heard afar off, for mountains whose tops are obscured by mist that comes and goes. In Chapter 2 I referred to the consistent finding that whenever an image is either only fleetingly presented, or presented in a degraded form, so that only partial information is available, a right-hemisphere superiority emerges.58 One way of looking at Romanticism is to see it as the wooing, by whatever means can be brought to bear, of the world as delivered by the right hemisphere.
Another way of looking at it is that in the process of completing, or attempting to complete, through imagination the fragmentary impression, one becomes in part the creator of what one perceives. Importantly, only in part: if the thing were either wholly given, so that we played no part at all, or wholly our invention, there would be no betweenness, nothing to be shared. As Wordsworth suggested, we ‘half create’ and half perceive the world we inhabit.59 This reciprocal, evolving process between the world and our minds again suggests the right hemisphere's role here: ‘something evermore about to be’.
Further, one could say that the sublime is more truly present when only partially visible than when explicit, and subject to the full glare of consciousness: it is our re-presentations of natural beauty – as of the erotic, or of the divine – that are limiting, so that, by another ‘paradox’ (as the left hemisphere would see it) limited information is less limiting, more capable of permitting them to presence to us.
However, these are not distinct ‘reasons’ which just coincidentally happen together to mean that such half-perceived images are likely to recruit the right hemisphere: they are all inseparable aspects of one ‘world’, the coherent world of the right hemisphere, just as its opposites – clarity of information, detachment of the observer from the observed, and the triumph of the re-presented over the present – are not unconnected ‘facts’, but all aspects of the coherent world of the left hemisphere.
THE PROBLEM OF CLARITY AND EXPLICITNESS
The light of day is associated with full consciousness, and therefore has an affinity with the more conscious explicit processes of the left hemisphere: hence Diderot's praise of Richardson, that in the psychological subtlety of his novels he ‘lights the depths of the cavern with his torch’,60 through his willingness to explore the less explicit reaches of the affective, unconscious mind. The Romantics perceived that one might learn more from half-light than light. If it is true that wisdom can be approached only by indirect and hidden paths, this may once again have more than a Romantic application: Homer made night the time of the entire creative process,61 Hegel believed that (for more than one reason) the owl of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, flew only at dusk,62 Heidegger was ‘an indefatigable walker in unlit places’.63 Certainly Kant and Bentham, with their daily walks by which you could set your watch, or Fontenelle, who never walked at all if he could help it, would have thought it mighty odd that de Quincey spent months of his life walking at night through the gas-lit streets of London and Edinburgh, or through the moonlit lanes of Dartmoor and the Lake District. Walking in the Quantock hills at night was in fact part of the highly suspect behaviour that led Pitt's Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, to place Wordsworth and Coleridge under surveillance in 1797 (the government agent set to follow them on their walks thought he had been found out when he heard Coleridge refer to a certain ‘Spy Nozy’ – viz., Spinoza).64
‘Vision’, writes the neurobiologist Semir Zeki, ‘just happens to be the most efficient mechanism for acquiring knowledge and it extends our capacity to do so almost infinitely.’65 Quite so: but the very qualities that made that efficient mechanism the instrument of the Enlightenment made it suspect to the Romantics. Herder, in his Sculpture, one of the first important Romantic treatises on art, wrote that ‘the living, embodied truth of the three-dimensional space of angles, of form and volume, is not something we can learn through sight’, for great sculpture is
physically present, tangible truth. The beautiful line that constantly varies its course is never forcefully broken or contorted, but rolls over the body with beauty and splendour; it is never at rest but always moving forward … Sight destroys beautiful sculpture rather than creating it; it transforms it into planes and surfaces, and rarely does it not transform the beautiful fullness, depth, and volume of sculpture into a mere play of mirrors … Consider the lover of art sunk deep in contemplation who circles restlessly around a sculpture. What would he not do to transform his sight into touch, to make his seeing into a form of touching that feels in the dark?66
‘A thousand viewpoints are not sufficient’ to prevent the living form being reduced by sight, when unaided by the other senses, to a two-dimensional diagram, what Herder calls a ‘pitiful polygon’. This fate is avoided only when the viewer's ‘eye becomes his hand’.67 This synaesthesia, whereby the eye, no longer the isolated tool of the intellect, must bring the whole of the viewer's body in contact with the whole of the body viewed, often emerges, in defiance of language, as the sensibility of Romanticism develops, and is memorably expressed by Goethe in his Römische Elegien, when he writes of lying in bed in Rome with his mistress:
Und belehr’ ich mich nicht, indem ich des lieblichen Busens
Formen spähe, die Hand leite die Hüften hinab?
Dann versteh’ ich den Marmor erst recht: ich denk’ und vergleiche,
Sehe mit fühlendem Aug’, fühle mit sehender Hand.*
Art is brought into the most intimate proximity with the living, breathing human form: his mistress a work of art, the work of art his mistress. And the work of art not only becomes itself a living creature, it can be appreciated only by the whole embodied self, by a sort of love which partakes of eros.68 Goethe's eroticism here, though playful, is not misplaced. One of the first and greatest art historians, J. J. Winckelmann, famed for his part in the establishment of neoclassical taste, was nonetheless swept off his feet by his encounters with Greek sculpture, as Reynolds had been by Michelangelo. Confronted by the genius of Greek sculpture, he is impassioned with a rapture somewhere between the erotic and the divine. The Apollo Belvedere becomes for him ‘a beautiful, youthful embodiment of the deity [which] awakened tenderness and love, which could transport the soul into a sweet dream of ecstasy, the state of human bliss sought by all religions …’69 In this ‘image of the most beautiful god’, Winckelmann writes, the ‘muscles are subtle, blown like molten glass into scarcely visible undulations and more apparent to the touch than to sight.’70
As his rapturous description (see n. 69) reaches its climax, Winckelmann's imagination turns to the myth of Pygmalion, the statue that was so much loved that it came to life: ‘My chest seems to expand with veneration and to heave like those I have seen swollen as if by the spirit of prophecy, and I feel myself transported to Delos and to the Lycian groves, places Apollo honoured with his presence – for my figure seems to take on life and movement, like Pygmalion's beauty …’71 In a reversal of the Enlightenment tendency to reduce the living to the inanimate (to regard it under the view afforded by the left hemisphere), here the inanimate is brought to life (returned to the right hemisphere's world). And, significantly, the process is reciprocal, not unidirectional. Winckelmann gives life to the statue, but the statue brings Winckelmann to a renewed sense of life – so much so that his expression here is ambiguous: is ‘my figure’ here Apollo's, or Winckelmann's? He repeatedly refers to the image of Pygmalion, in relation to the ‘great Greek artists’ seeking ‘to overcome the hard objectivity of matter and, if it had been possible, to animate it’.72 Herder's essay is actually entitled Sculpture: Some Observations on Shape and Form from Pygmalion's Creative Dream.
Hegel praised Winckelmann for transcending the narrow concerns of the art world of his time and having ‘managed to open up in the field of art a new medium and whole new way of looking at things for the human spirit’.73 Herder, too, saw Winckelmann's description of the Apollo as a heroic attempt to overcome the dominance of sight, and to enter into a more profound relation to sculptural form, as a lover would with his beloved.74 He praises Winckelmann for making the object of his admiration a living presence through his sensitivity to the movement that is everywhere implied in contour. The essence of sculpture resides in that ‘beautiful elliptical line’ which encircles the entire form, a line which, like Hogarth's line of beauty, cannot be inscribed on a flat surface – something more like ‘a fine wire’ twisting around an object and curving through three dimensional space, so that the object is constituted as an integral whole.75
As Enlightenment thinking begins to recede, there is, as Hall notes, a renewed sense of the special status of the left side. In his justly famous passage describing the antique sculpture of Laocoon, the Trojan priest who, with his two sons, was killed by sea-serpents in an act of divine retribution, Winckelmann wrote: ‘The left side, into which the serpent pours forth its venom with a furious strike, is where, because of its proximity to the heart, Laocoon appears to suffer most intensely, and this part of the body can be called a wonder of art.’76
All the qualities and values that Herder and Winckelmann evoked in their description of sculpture, unknown, of course, to them, rely on the phenomenological world of the right hemisphere. Herder points to the importance of an unbroken continuity, which dismisses as inadequate any mere focus on parts; a never-resting evolution, that defies stasis; an insistence on depth, volume, fullness and the complex curvature of living surfaces, transcending the rectilinear flatness of the single plane of vision; a commitment to the work of art, imaged in the urgent recruitment of Einfühlung (empathy, lit. ‘feeling in’) mediated by the hand, rather than the detached coolness of the eye. Both Herder and Winckelmann, despite his classicism (and Goethe, too, despite his), intuit powerfully that these values lie at the core of our response to the art of the Ancient World. For it is not just a matter of sculpture: with the obvious exception of the issues of hand and eye, these same values could all be applied to, say, the poetry of Homer. And not just to the Ancient World, either: one could say the same of Miltonic verse, or the music of J. S. Bach. Though arising in the context of a Romantic response to sculpture, what is revealed is neither purely sculptural, nor purely Romantic, but obtains wherever art is a living presence. And, later in the Römische Elegien, as if to demonstrate this point, Goethe even manages to bring the composition of poetry – so far, one might think, from the business of sculpture – as close synaesthetically to the business of sculptural eros as it is possible to get, relating how he gently counts out the pulse of the hexameters with his fingers on the back of his beloved, while, overcome with sleep, she lies resting in his arms.77
The problem with sight, as Herder notes, is its tendency to meet our approach with the cool rebuff of a planar surface, an image, a representation, rather than with the palpable immediacy of the thing itself as it ‘presences’ to us – the ‘physically present, tangible truth’. Because of this tendency to sap the life from the embodied original and substitute a product of the mind, Wordsworth spoke of what he called ‘the tyranny of the eye’,
When that which is in every stage of life
The most despotic of our senses gain'd
Such strength in me as often held my mind
In absolute dominion …78
He is here speaking of the loss of what Heidegger calls authenticity: what had once been a source of wonder became part of the everyday. This is also what I believe Blake had in mind when he wrote:
This Life's dim Windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro’, the Eye.79
We need to see through the eye, through the image, past the surface: there is a fatal tendency for the eye to replace the depth of reality – a depth which implies the vitality, the corporeality and the empathic resonance of the world – with a planar re-presentation, that is, a picture. In doing so, the sublime becomes merely the picturesque.
In art there needs to be a certain balance between the facticity of the medium and the something that is seen through the medium, what I have referred to in shorthand as semi-transparency. A too great emphasis on the sound and feel of words as ‘things’ separate from their meaning, or alternatively on the meaning as something separate from the sound and feel of the words in which it exists, destroys poetry. Similarly with painting: but there the tendency for ‘re-presentation’, being dependent on the eye, is greatest. We rush to the ‘meaning’ too quickly in its subject matter (this is not a reason for rejecting representation in art, a quite different issue – just for being on one's guard for the substitution of representation for the whole, form and matter together). Here again distance results in seeing indistinctly, which allows other aspects of the painting – its ‘music’ – to come forward. ‘There is an impression’, wrote Delacroix, ‘which results from a certain arrangement of colours, light effects, shadows, etc. It is what one might call the music of the painting. Before you even know what the picture represents, you enter a cathedral, and you find yourself at too great a distance to know what it represents, and often you are rapt by this magical harmony …’80
The Romantics were constantly aware of the difficulty inherent in remaining with the presence rather than substituting the representation. The truth of this perception, obvious in art, must apply to our apprehension of reality at large, and therefore just as much to the realm of science. Goethe, whose scientific writings are fascinating and too little known today, warned against the tendency immediately to reduce observation to conception, thus losing the power of the object in all its newness to help us break out of the otherwise unbreachable defences of our conceptual systems. He wrote that the student of nature ‘should form to himself a method in accordance with observation, but he should be careful not to reduce observation to a mere concept, to substitute words for this concept, and to proceed to treat these words as if they were objects’.81 In general language is the route by which this conceptualisation occurs: ‘how difficult it is to refrain from replacing the thing with its sign; to keep the object (Wesen) alive before us instead of killing it with the word.’82
Language, a principally left-hemisphere function, tends, as Nietzsche said, to ‘make the uncommon common’: the general currency of vocabulary returns the vibrant multiplicity of experience to the same few, worn coins.83 Poetry, however, by its exploitation of non-literal language and connotation, makes use of the right hemisphere's faculty for metaphor, nuance and a broad, complex field of association to reverse this tendency. ‘Poetry’, in Shelley's famous formulation, ‘lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar … It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.’84
However, poetry, like other manifestations of the imagination, has the typical right hemisphere resistance to explicit approach. Wordsworth speaks movingly, in recollecting the moments of inspiration in his childhood: ‘the hiding-places of my power / Seem open; I approach, and then they close’.85 The right hemisphere has to use subterfuge and indirection to achieve its aims. Berlin's account of why Romanticism relies on what he calls symbols, but I would call metaphors, conveys perfectly the stranglehold that the left hemisphere has on the means of communication of the right:
I wish to convey something immaterial and I have to use material means for it. I have to convey something which is inexpressible and I have to use expression. I have to convey, perhaps, something unconscious and I have to use conscious means. I know in advance that I shall not succeed, and therefore all I can do is to get nearer and nearer in some asymptotic approach; I do my best, but it is an agonising struggle in which, if I am an artist, or indeed for the German romantics any kind of self-conscious thinker, I am engaged for the whole of my life.86
In doing so, they were redeeming the inauthenticity of the familiar.
The deadening effect of the familiar – the inauthentic, in phenomenological terms – is the trap of the left hemisphere. Breaking out of it requires the work of the imagination – not fantasy which makes things novel, but imagination that actually makes them new, alive once more. A defining quality of the artistic process, perhaps its raison d'être, is its implacable opposition to the inauthentic. However, there is an absolute distinction, even an antithesis, here being made between two ways of responding to the experience of the inauthentic. In one, the inauthentic is seen as that which is too familiar, in the left-hemisphere sense, which is to say too often presented, therefore in fact never more than re-presented (in other words, a worn-out resource). In the other, inauthenticity is seen as resulting precisely from a loss of familiarity, in the right-hemisphere sense, which is to say never being present at all – we are no longer ‘at home’ with it, have become in fact alienated from it. In one, the thing itself is perceived as exhausted, and needs to be replaced; in the other, the problem lies not in the thing itself, which we have barely begun to explore, but in our selves and our ability to see it for what it really is. As a result, the responses are different at all levels. In the first case, the solution is seen as lying in a conscious attempt to produce novelty, something never seen before, to invent, to ‘be original’. In the second, the solution, by contrast, is to make the everyday appear to us anew, to be seen again as it is in itself, therefore to discover rather than to invent, to see what was there all along, rather than put something new in its place, original in the sense that it takes us back to the origin, the ground of being. This is the distinction between fantasy, which presents something novel in the place of the too familiar thing, and imagination, which clears away everything between us and the not familiar enough thing so that we see it itself, new, as it is. Wordsworth, the most original of poets, was mocked for the insistent return of his gaze to what had been seen a thousand times before in an attempt to see it for the first time. It is in this context that one can appreciate Steiner's aphorism that ‘originality is antithetical to novelty’.87
WORDSWORTH AND THE REDEMPTIVE POWER OF NATURE
Through his special use of language, particularly linguistic connectors, prepositions and conjunctions, to convey the experience of ‘betweenness’, his use of double negatives to present a thing and its opposite to the mind at once, and, most importantly of all, to allow, painfully, something to come into being out of an almost luminous absence or emptiness, Wordsworth brings about poetic formulations that are often the counterparts of the positions that I believe Heidegger strove laboriously to express in discursive prose.88 (Heidegger gravitated more and more in his later work towards the poetry of Hölderlin to illustrate his meaning: I believe that if he had been familiar with Wordsworth he might have found in him much of value.)
Retrospection towards a realm that is lost is at the centre of Wordsworth's poetry, and yet much of his work is about how this loss can be healed. The whole of The Prelude, the autobiographical tour de forcewhich in my opinion contains much of his greatest work, is in one sense an exercise in retrospection. Like Tennyson after him, Wordsworth appears to have been naturally inclined to a sense of the past: his first few poems as a young man are all about memory. ‘My soul will cast the backward view’, he wrote; another poem dwells on the ‘memory of departed pleasures’, and in a third he wrote: ‘for only then, when memory is hushed, am I at rest’.89 One might be forgiven for thinking these were the thoughts of age, but they all come from poems he wrote before he was even eighteen years old.
However, as he matures, and certainly by the time of the 1805 Prelude, he begins to see memory as no longer inert and unidirectional, but as something that lives, and that at times has the power to revivify us now. In The Prelude he famously refers to such moments as ‘spots of time … Which with distinct pre-eminence retain / A vivifying Virtue’, by which ‘our minds / Are nourished and invisibly repair'd’.90
The extraordinarily restorative quality of the relationship between Wordsworth and nature is in some ways implicitly, and even at times explicitly, related to the sustaining and comforting relationship between mother and child; and it is of more than passing interest that this, like virtually every other aspect of Wordsworth's achievement, depends on the right hemisphere, through the operation of what in psychoanalytic terms is known as the maternal ‘comforting substrate’.91 One of these ‘spots of time’ occurred when, only five years old, and hardly able to hold his horse's bridle, he was riding on the lonely fells. Separated from his companion, he lost his way, and found himself by a hangman's gibbet. His eye having fallen on the place where the name of the murderer was still to be seen carved in the turf:
forthwith I left the spot
And, reascending the bare Common, saw
A naked Pool that lay beneath the hills,
The Beacon on the summit, and more near,
A Girl who bore a Pitcher on her head
And seem'd with difficult steps to force her way
Against the blowing wind. It was, in truth,
An ordinary sight: but I should need
Colours and words that are unknown to man
To paint the visionary dreariness
Which, while I look'd all round for my lost guide,
Did at that time invest the naked Pool,
The Beacon on the lonely Eminence,
The woman, and her garments vex'd and toss'd
By the strong wind …92
He carries on to describe how the memory of this scene has changed, has given a radiance to his subsequent experience of these lonely fells, and continues:
Oh! Mystery of Man, from what a depth
Proceed thy honours! I am lost, but see
In simple childhood something of the base
On which thy greatness stands, but this I feel,
That from thyself it is that thou must give,
Else never canst receive. The days gone by
Come back upon me from the dawn almost
Of life: the hiding-places of my power
Seem open; I approach, and then they close;
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all, and I would give,
While yet I may, as far as words can give,
A substance and a life to what I feel:
I would enshrine the spirit of the past
For future restoration …93
The visionary power, so restorative, is something he cannot control and is not even predictable. Wordsworth is at pains to point out how ordinary, even bleak, the scene is that brings such power. And with age it happens less often.
When it does occur, it is not just that this happens unbidden. It is not even that the attempt to make it happen is counterproductive: ‘I approach, and then they close’. It is that Wordsworth needs to be positively looking away. In the famous passage from Book I of the Prelude when he describes birds-nesting on a crag (‘Oh! When I have hung / Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass / And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock/ But ill sustain'd’), or from Book V, where the ‘Winander boy’ calls to the owls across the lake (‘in that silence, while he hung / Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise / Has carried far into his heart the voice / Of mountain torrents’), the vision happens while Wordsworth is intent on something else – more than that, while his senses are on the stretch, but focussed on something other than the scene that enters into the heart.94 The vision comes as a by-product. De Quincey tells a story of Wordsworth, during the time of the Peninsular War, walking out at night to meet the mail coach from Keswick that would bring eagerly awaited news. Lying full stretch on the road so that he could put his ear to it and pick up the distant rumbling that would indicate the approach of the mail, his eye happened to chance on a bright star glittering between the brow of Seat Sandal and Helvellyn, and struck him suddenly ‘with a pathos and a sense of the infinite, that would not have arrested me under other circumstances’.95 The vision comes because of an effort made and then relaxed. So Wordsworth describes at the opening of Book XII of The Prelude how inspiration requires both the effort by which the mind ‘aspires, grasps, struggles, wishes, craves’ and the stillness of the mind which ‘fits him to receive it, when unsought’ – despite the effort, it still only comes unsought.96 It is a bit like the process of memory itself, whereby we struggle to recapture, say, a name, which only later comes unbidden once we turn away. It is as if the effort opened the windows of the soul, but the explicit intention obscured Wordsworth's sight, as if falling on the blind spot at the centre of the field of vision. It is only when our intentions are fixed on something else that we can see things as they really are.
I believe that what Wordsworth is actually doing here is talking about the relationship between the two hemispheres. Narrowly focussed attention is the province of the left hemisphere, and an increase in stress, fear and excitement actually inhibits the spread of neuronal recruitment in a manner that favours this very closely targeted kind of attention within the left hemisphere. Yet while the left hemisphere is preoccupied with its quarry, like Eliot's dog with its meat (see p. 326 above), the right hemisphere is actually freed, its vigilance also in a state of enhancement, to see the scene afresh, once more authentic, not overlaid by the familiarity that the left hemisphere would normally bring to the scene. The left hemisphere would have pre-digested it, as it were, into another picturesque scene of mountains, lakes or starry skies. The initial effort of close attention is needed, but, its work done, it must give way to an open receptivity, a sort of active passivity.
There is a combination of factors at work that points to the right hemisphere being the mediator of the revivifying power he refers to, apart from the unwilled nature of the experience, its reciprocal nature, and its paradoxical apparent emptiness. The feeling of guilt and awe that hangs over many of the ‘spots of time’ scenes suggests an association with the right hemisphere on which our religious sense appears to depend. Similarly the sense of ultimate meaning which pervades the spots of time is known to occur in some kinds of specifically right-temporal-lobe seizures, and therefore may have an origin in this region of the brain. Other factors that are also suggestive of the association include the importance of large visual masses and forms (‘huge and mighty forms that do not live / Like living men mov'd slowly through my mind / By day and were the trouble of my dreams’), and the fact that these experiences are so much associated with childhood, in which, as I have mentioned, the right hemisphere plays a particularly important role in all forms of understanding.
How to recapture this in adulthood? Wordsworth's answer is given in his entire life's work: in and through poetry, which with its reliance on metaphor and implicit meaning allows the right hemisphere to circumvent the ordinary processes of everyday language which inevitably return us to the familiar, and reduce the numinous to the quotidian. There is always a paradox involved, in that he is trying to reproduce the unself-consciousness that permits experience of the numinous, the condition of such unself-consciousness being that it cannot be consciously reproduced. In revisiting his childhood self and trying to bring him to life he is intently focussed on a being whose essential importance to the poet is that he was completely unself-aware.
In the Tintern Abbey ode, the constant reference to the theme of return, the carefully placed iterations (‘again I hear … Once again / Do I behold … The day is come when I again repose’), the movement of the verse itself, wandering and returning, like the river it images
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!97
all evoke a sense of change within unchangingness, like the river that is always moving but always the same, like Donne's compasses that always circle the same place and return.
SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS AND REPRESENTATION
There is a lack of self-consciousness to Wordsworth that is essential to his genius, and which enabled him to write his greatest as well as his worst lines. This is a characteristic he shares with both Blake and Keats (and later with Hopkins and Hardy). These three Romantic geniuses, very different, highly individual poets as they are, share what John Bayley, in describing Keats, refers to as his ‘unmisgiving’ quality, a point later taken up by Christopher Ricks in Keats and Embarrassment.98 The lack of misgiving explains their combination of greatness and at times insouciant foolishness: they make themselves vulnerable in order to become the conduit of something greater than themselves. The explicit, self-conscious workings of the left hemisphere constantly oppose this condition, and therefore need to be stilled.
The very titles of Blake's major works, Songs of Innocence and Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, allude to the reality that, in the lived world of the right hemisphere, opposites are not ‘in opposition’. Blake's visionary poetry nonetheless dramatises in various forms a battle between two powerful forces that adopt different guises: the single-minded, limiting, measuring, mechanical power of what Blake called Ratio, the God of Newton, and the myriad-minded, liberating power of creative imagination, the God of Milton. This opposition persists despite the right hemisphere's unification of opposites, for the same reason that a tolerant society cannot necessarily secure the co-operation of the intolerant who would undermine it, and may ultimately find itself in the paradoxical situation of having to be intolerant of them. I commented earlier that Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, ‘doing right without knowing it’, displays the mind unwittingly cognizing itself. Unconsciously it gives voice to the right hemisphere's prophecy of where the revolt of the left hemisphere would lead. Blake too voices, without being aware of it, the brain's struggle to ward off domination by the left hemisphere. For instance, in ‘There is No Natural Religion’ he writes:
Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again [to reach outside the known one needs the right hemisphere: the left hemisphere can only repeat the known].
Application. He who sees the Infinite [looks outward to the ever-becoming with the right hemisphere] in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only [looks at the self-defined world brought into being by the left hemisphere] sees himself only [the left hemisphere is self-reflexive].
Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is [through the right hemisphere gives us access to imagination/metaphor, the bridge whereby the divine reaches us, and liberates us from ourselves].
Blake, too, saw himself as inspired by a return to a great figure of the pre-Augustan era, not so much in his case Shakespeare or Michelangelo (though he was undoubtedly indebted to both), but to the spirit of Milton, which, with characteristic specificity and a wonderful refusal to be nonplussed, he believed had entered his body through the instep of his left foot:
Then first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift:
And on my left foot falling on the tarsus, enter'd there …99
– thereby gaining literally direct access to the right hemisphere. And so thunderstruck was he by the experience that fortunately he illustrated the event (see Plate 11).
Romanticism in fact demonstrates, in a multitude of ways, its affinity for everything we know from the neuropsychological literature about the workings of the right hemisphere. This can be seen in its preferences for the individual over the general, for what is unique over what is typical (‘typical’ being the true meaning of the word ‘Classical’), for apprehension of the ‘thisness’ of things – their particular way of being as the ultima realitas entis, the final form of the thing exactly as it, and only it, is, or can be – over the emphasis on the ‘whatness’ of things; in its appreciation of the whole, as something different from the aggregate of the parts into which the left hemisphere analyses it by the time it appears in self-conscious awareness; in its preference for metaphor over simile (evident in the contrast between Romantic and Augustan poetry), and for what is indirectly expressed over the literal; in its emphasis on the body and the senses; in its emphasis on the personal rather than the impersonal; in its passion for whatever is seen to be living, and its perception of the relation between what Wordsworth called the ‘life of the mind’ and the realm of the divine (Blake: ‘all living things are holy’); in its accent on involvement rather than disinterested impartiality; in its preference for the betweenness which is felt across a three-dimensional world, rather than for seeing what is distant as alien, lying in another plane; in its affinity for melancholy and sadness, rather than for optimism and cheerfulness; and in its attraction to whatever is provisional, uncertain, changing, evolving, partly hidden, obscure, dark, implicit and essentially unknowable in preference to what is final, certain, fixed, evolved, evident, clear, light and known.
As the nineteenth century advanced, one sees a mixed picture, a transitional phase. There is a divide between the inspired Tennyson who wrote
I heard no sound where I stood
But the rivulet on from the lawn
Running down to my own dark wood;
Or the voice of the long sea-wave as it swell'd
Now and then in the dim-gray dawn;
But I look'd, and round, all round the house I beheld
The death-white curtain drawn;
Felt a horror over me creep,
Prickle my skin and catch my breath,
Knew that the death-white curtain meant but sleep,
Yet I shudder'd and thought like a fool of the sleep of death …100
and the Tennyson of fairyland. But, with some exceptions, painters were quicker than poets to succumb to fancy or academicism.
Hopkins is a case of particular interest: almost everything about him suggests a right-hemisphere predominance. He was a priest, who suffered from depression. He had a fascination with the thisness of things, what, following Duns Scotus, he called haeccitas (sometimes haeceitas):
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.101
In his ‘Comments on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola’, Hopkins refers to
that taste of myself, of I and me above and in all things, which is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive than the smell of walnutleaf or camphor, and is incommunicable by any means to another man (as when I was a child I used to ask myself: What must it be to be someone else?) … searching nature I taste self at but one tankard, that of my own being.102
This is reminiscent of Heidegger capturing the very ‘essent’ of a thing through the smell.103 Hopkins coined the term inscape to represent this unique quality of a thing, person, place or event, and instress to represent the energy that sustained it, something akin to authentic Dasein. He was a passionate observer of things as they are: ‘moonlight hanging or dropping on treetops like a blue cobweb’, ‘drops of rain hanging on rails etc. seen with only the lower rim lighted like nails (of fingers)’, ‘soft chalky look with more shadowy middles of the globes of cloud on a night with a moon faint or concealed’.104 He was so captivated by the sound and feel of words, their ‘thingness’, clang and touch, that, although he never loses the sense, he sometimes comes close to doing so. He was hyper-alert to the meanings of words according to their etymology, again like Heidegger, and through them revealed important connections.105 He had a love for all that is wild, and untouched by humanity: ‘What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and wildness?’106 He had a highly developed sense of awe, and of guilt (‘poor, tortured, Gerard Manley Hopkins’, as Robert Graves called him, only to dismiss him).107 He realized the importance of the leap of intuition, as opposed to the unbroken line of rationality: ‘it is a happy thing that there is no royal road to poetry’, he wrote, ‘one cannot reach Parnassus except by flying thither’.108 He saw that the ground of beauty was sameness within difference, and difference within sameness; and stressed the importance of the relationship between things over the things themselves.109 And he was subject to sudden inspiration in which many of his greatest poems came to him: ‘I shall shortly have some sonnets to send you, five or more. Four of these came like inspirations unbidden and against my will.’110
Inspiration is something we cannot control, towards which we have to exhibit what Wordsworth called a ‘wise passiveness’.111 As the nineteenth century wore on, this lack of control fitted ill with the confident spirit engendered by the Industrial Revolution, and this lack of predictability with the need, in accord with the Protestant ethic, for ‘results’ as the reward for effort. Imagination was something that could not be relied on: it was transitory, fading from the moment it revealed itself to consciousness (in Shelley's famous phrase, ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’), recalcitrant to the will. In response to this, ‘the Imaginative’, a product of active fantasy, rather than of the receptive imagination, began to encroach on the realm of imagination itself: it's there, for example, in the self-conscious mediaevalising of the Victorians. This ‘re-presentation’ of something which had once been ‘present’ suggests that once more the territory of the right hemisphere is being colonised by the left. One sees it in visual terms, in the extraordinary attention to detail at the expense of the overall composition, a loss of the sense of the whole (the vision of the left hemisphere superseding that of the right), to be seen in the Pre-Raphaelites, and to some extent in Victorian painting in general, and reaching a sort of apotheosis in the obsessively detailed pictures of the schizophrenic Richard Dadd. As Peter Conrad pointed out, Henry James's judgment on Middlemarch, just or not, that it was ‘a treasure house of detail, but … an indifferent whole’, picks up a central feature of Victorian art and literature.112
THE SECOND REFORMATION
In the first part of the book, I referred to the German so-called ‘idealist’ philosophers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and therefore of the Romantic age, and their view that one had to combine reason with imagination, system-building with perception of individuality, consistency with contradiction, analysis with a sense of the whole. What is striking is the degree of enthusiasm for, and active participation in, science that they had exhibited. Goethe is another conspicuous example: in fact he believed his scientific work to be more important than his poetry. With his discovery in 1784 of the intermaxillary bone in the human foetal skull, a vestigial remnant of a bone to be found in the skull of apes and thought to be missing in humans, he demonstrated to his own satisfaction, long before Darwin, that all living things were related and that their forms evolved from the same stem.
Though they were primarily philosophers and poets, they saw the world as a living unity, in which the metaphysical and the material were not to be separated, but where, nonetheless, different contexts demanded appropriately different approaches. In an exploration of the spirit of Goethe's age, one historian writes, in words that echo Nietzsche on Apollo and Dionysus:
For even rationality cannot get by without imagination, but neither can imagination without rationality. The marriage of the two is, however, of such a peculiar kind, that they carry on a life and death struggle, and yet it is only together that they are able to accomplish their greatest feats, such as the higher form of conceptualising that we are accustomed to call reason.113
But this marriage was not to last. A sort of second Reformation was on the way. The Reformation of the sixteenth century could be seen as having involved a shift away from the capacity to understand metaphor, incarnation, the realm that bridges this world and the next, matter and spirit, towards a literalistic way of thinking – a move away from imagination, now seen as treacherous, and towards rationalism. In the middle of the nineteenth century in Germany, there arose a new intellectual movement, which, as one of its protagonists Ludwig Feuerbach indeed acknowledged, had its roots in the Reformation. It too had difficulty with the idea that the realms of matter and spirit interpenetrated one another: if a thing was not to be wholly disembodied, just an idea, it had to be wholly material. Gone was the understanding of the complex, often apparently paradoxical nature of reality, an acceptance of the coniunctio oppositorum: we were back to the realm of ‘either/or’. It too embraced a sort of literalism, and mistrusted imagination. This philosophy, known as materialism, was explicitly based on a view that science is the only foundation for knowing and understanding the world.
The origins of this scientific materialism, or ‘positivism’, lay in the French Enlightenment. Auguste Comte had asserted that science was not only our sole source of genuine knowledge about the world, but that it was the only way to understand humanity's place in the world, and the only credible view of the world as a whole. He saw societies and cultures passing through three stages: a theological phase, where religious perspectives dominate, ceding to a stage of philosophical analysis, inevitably shaped by metaphysical assumptions, which in turn gives way to the ‘positive’, scientific stage, in which these are jettisoned, and we achieve ‘objective’ knowledge. According to Richard Olson, throughout the early years of the nineteenth century, every major tradition of natural science strove to extend its ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to social and political issues of contemporary concern.114 As Aristotle had warned, each kind of knowledge has its proper context: it cannot be assumed that what is rational for the geometer is rational for the physician, or for the politician. But the left hemisphere does not respect context. Comte's wishes came to be realised, and the analytic strategies associated with mechanics generally led to a presumption that society could be treated as an aggregate of individual units – not a society in fact, but the prototype of the ‘masses’ – with the society's well-being reduced to a sum of individual pleasures and pains.
Feuerbach was the foremost of the apostate group known as the young Hegelians. Where Hegel had been at pains to preserve the (right hemisphere's) ultimate unity of spirit and matter, without either simply collapsing into the other, Feuerbach and his fellow materialists saw only the (left hemisphere) alternatives: matter or ideal. In rejecting the ideal as an empty representation, they were compelled to accept only matter. In a striking parallel with the Reformation, however, the first impulse was towards authenticity. The young Hegelians wished to rescue the realm of sensory experience, what can be seen and touched, from what they saw as subjection to the realm of concepts and ideas, and more generally experience from a representation of experience, and religion from mere theology. Experience was not the same as ideas about experience, true enough. But as with the ideologues of the Reformation, they ended by destroying the bridge between the two realms, and reducing the complexity of existence to something simple and clear. Whereas at the Reformation it had been the Word, in this case it was Matter.
Reality was what science could deal with, and only that was real. Karl Vogt proclaimed that thought, the secretion of the brain, could be changed, like other bodily secretions, by diet: ‘since belief is only a property of the body's atoms, a change in beliefs depends only on the way in which the atoms of the body are substituted’.115 He seems not to have noticed that this applies to the belief in materialism, too. How were we to decide which placement of atoms was the one to embrace, assuming that is something one could do to a placement of atoms? But these questions were not answered. By driving a wedge between the realm of sensory experience and the realm of ideas, the whole realm of ideas became suspect. Ideas were what led us to believe that things we could not see with our eyes and touch with our hands – like God – were real, whereas they must, so went the logic, be our own inventions. Worse, endowed with such independent existence, they kept us in a state of indignity and humility.
The denial of the divine was as important to them as the elevation of matter. This was itself, of course, an idea; and, if it could be said to be true, so was the idea of its truth. But there is more than a little of the Promethean about the materialists. When one of their number, Ludwig Büchner, emerged from a period of personal crisis it was with the proclamation: ‘No longer do I acknowledge any human authority over me.’116 No human authority, notice. The unwillingness to acknowledge any authority was, in another parallel with the Reformation, at the very core of materialism: but these reformers, like those before them, had to acknowledge some sort of authority, even if it were the authority of reason (which is something in itself we can only intuit). So the materialists, too, had to have a superhuman authority: and this new divinity was science. Both scientific materialism and the dialectical materialism of Engels and Marx emerged from the view that science was the only authority.
In 1848, revolution spread across Europe, and its reverberations were felt most strongly in France and Germany. ‘For the scientific materialists, and to some extent for Marx as well, opposition to groundless authority was the task and natural science was its justification.’117 Speaking in 1853, Lyon Playfair, one of the keenest evangelists for scientific materialism in nineteenth-century Britain, declared that ‘science is a religion and its philosophers are the priests of nature’: T. H. Huxley, Darwin's ‘bulldog’, described his talks as lay sermons.118 This was part of a broad shift whereby, according to Gaukroger, the West's sense of its own superiority shifted seamlessly in the early nineteenth century from its religion to its science.119 In doing so it swapped one religion for another; but these ‘priests of nature’ did not honour nature herself so much as the human capacity to control nature, and to make it apparently graspable by rationalism alone: the left hemisphere reflecting on itself. It is interesting that Marx called Prometheus, opposed as he was to ‘all divine and earthly Gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity … the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophic calendar’.120 It is an uncomfortable fact that Hitler, too, was later to write that the Aryan is ‘the Prometheus of mankind from whose bright forehead the divine spark of genius has sprung at all times, forever kindling anew that fire of knowledge which illumined the night of silent mysteries and thus caused man to climb the path to mastery over the other beings of this earth.’121 In sweeping away the past, it seems that the concept of hubris, which the Greeks had understood as lying at the heart of all tragedy, was lost.
By contrast, in the ancient world, according to Kerényi, ‘vulnerability was an attribute of the gods, just as it is characteristic of human existence’.122 (The core mythos of Christianity, for that matter, is the vulnerability of the divine, God suffering alongside his creation.) But this admission is not possible to the Promethean left hemisphere. ‘Prometheus, founder of the sacrifice, was a cheat and a thief’, he writes, ‘these traits were at the bottom of all the stories that deal with him.’ Under his tutelage, men became stealers of the divinity that lies round about them, ‘whose temerity brings immeasurable and unforeseen misfortune upon them’.123
The left hemisphere's lack of concern for context leads to two important consequences, each of which makes its version of reality more dangerous and simultaneously more difficult to resist. The appropriateness or otherwise of applying scientism to one field of human experience rather than another – Aristotle's perception – is disregarded, since to understand that would require a sense of context, and of what is reasonable, both of which, from the left-hemisphere point of view, are unnecessary intrusions by the right hemisphere on its absolute, non-contingent nature, the source of its absolute power. At the same time, science preached that it was exempt from the historicisation or contextualisation that was being used to undermine Christianity in the nineteenth century,124 a way of enabling science to criticise all other accounts of the world and of human experience while rendering itself immune to criticism. This doctrine of the infallibility of science is also a result of the Enlightenment failure to understand the contextual nature of all thought, what Dewey called ‘the dogma of immaculate conception of philosophical systems’.125 None of this would have been possible without its development of its own mythos, which in the twentieth century was to become the dominating mythos of our culture. The key features of it are all in place, however, by the mid-nineteenth century.
First there was the myth of the unity of science – the left hemisphere's view that there is one logical path to knowledge, irrespective of context; whereas in reality science is, to quote Gaukroger again, ‘a loose grouping of disciplines with different subject matters and different methods, tied in various ways each of which work for some purposes but not for others’.126 Then there was the myth of the sovereignty of the scientific method – of the left hemisphere's planned, relentless progress following a sequential path to knowledge. In fact we know that, though scientific method plays its part, the greatest advances of science are often the result of chance observations, the obsessions of particular personalities, and intuitions that can be positively inhibited by too rigid a structure, method or world view.127 Technological advances, too, have been less often the foreseen consequences of systematic method than the results of local enthusiasts or skilled artisans attempting empirically to solve a local problem, and many have been frankly serendipitous by-products of an attempt to achieve something quite different. And there are things that are simply beyond scientific knowledge, where it is a category error to suppose that they can be understood in this fashion. The left hemisphere's hubris is affronted by this idea, and when the great German physiologist Emil DuBois-Reymond, the discoverer of the neuronal action potential, drew attention to the proper limits of scientific understanding with his declaration: ignorabimus (‘[there are things which] we shall never know’), its reaction was – and remains – one of indignation.
Then there was the myth of science as above morality, oddly coupled with an uncritical acceptance of the idea that science is the only sure foundation for decency and morality – the left hemisphere in characteristic denial, since we know that despite its many successes in alleviating human suffering, it has a far from unblemished record in this respect, with its methods of research, as well as the perhaps unintended, but nonetheless foreseeable, consequences of its actions, and sometimes its very aims (in collaboration with corrupt regimes) being at times manifestly harmful. And, in further denial, there is the myth of its brave stand against the forces of dogma, usually in the form of the Church, encapsulated in grossly simplified tales, designed to convey the message that science alone is without preconception.128
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
But it is the Industrial Revolution which enabled the left hemisphere to make its most audacious assault yet on the world of the right hemisphere – or perhaps one should say that the left hemisphere's most daring assault was the Industrial Revolution. It goes without saying that this move is of the profoundest consequence for the story of this book, and underwrites the defining characteristics of the modern world, which will form the subject of the next and final chapters.
It is notable that when the left hemisphere takes a step forward it does so – in keeping with its competitive, confident, manner, and its belief in its unassailable rightness (the clarity of Truth) – in a manner which is absolute and intolerant, and sweeps opposition aside: the Reformation, the Cromwellian Revolution, the French Revolution, the rise of scientific materialism (where it met opposition, it did so as much as a consequence of the peculiarly aggressive tone of its proponents as of anything it claimed). The Industrial Revolution, slicing its way through the landscape and sweeping away cultural history, is no exception. The boldness of its move goes beyond even that, however.
If the right hemisphere delivers ‘the Other’ – experience of whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves – this is not the same as the world of concrete entities ‘out there’ (it is certainly more than that), but it does encompass most of what we would think of as actually existing things, at least before we come to think of them at all, as opposed to the concepts of them, the abstractions and constructions we inevitably make from them, in conscious reflection, which forms the contribution of the left hemisphere. But what if the left hemisphere were able to externalise and make concrete its own workings – so that the realm of actually existing things apart from the mind consisted to a large extent of its own projections? Then the ontological primacy of right-hemisphere experience would be outflanked, since it would be delivering – not ‘the Other’, but what was already the world as processed by the left hemisphere. It would make it hard, and perhaps in time impossible, for the right hemisphere to escape from the hall of mirrors, to reach out to something that truly was ‘Other’ than, beyond, the human mind.
In essence this was the achievement of the Industrial Revolution. It is not just that this movement was obviously, colossally, man's most brazen bid for power over the natural world, the grasping left hemisphere's long-term agenda. It was also the creating of a world in the left hemisphere's own likeness. The mechanical production of goods ensured a world in which the members of a class were not just approximate fits, because of their tiresome authenticity as individuals, but truly identical: equal, interchangeable members of their category. They would be free from the ‘imperfections’ that come from being made by living hands. The subtle variations of form that result from natural processes would be replaced by invariant forms, as well as by largely ‘typical’ forms, in other words the shapes which the left hemisphere recognises: perfect circles, rectilinear forms such as the straight line, the rectangle, the cube, the cylinder. (Delacroix wrote that ‘it would be worthy to investigate whether straight lines exist only in our brains'; as Leonard Shlain has pointed out, straight lines exist nowhere in the natural world, except perhaps at the horizon, where the natural world ends.)129 Such regular shapes are not produced by natural processes and are inimical to the body, which is after all a source of constant variation, change, and evolution of form, both in itself, and in everything it goes to create. Thus as far as possible evidence of the body would be eliminated from what is made. It would above all make tools, mechanisms, the sort of inanimate objects preferentially dealt with by the left hemisphere, and it would make machines that make machines, self-propagating parodies of life that lack all the qualities of the living. Its products would be certain, perfect in their way, familiar in the ‘iconic’ sense (preferred by the left hemisphere), not in the sense of ‘special things that have value for me’ (preferred by the right): identical entities, rectilinear in shape, endlessly reproducible, mechanistic in nature, certain, fixed, man-made.
Is it over-stated to say that this would lead to a position where the pre-reflectively experienced world, the world that the right hemisphere was to deliver, became simply ‘the world as processed by the left hemisphere'? I do not think so. I would contend that a combination of urban environments which are increasingly rectilinear grids of machine-made surfaces and shapes, in which little speaks of the natural world; a worldwide increase in the proportion of the population who live in such environments, and live in them in greater degrees of isolation; an unprecedented assault on the natural world, not just through exploitation, despoliation and pollution, but also more subtly, through excessive ‘management’ of one kind or another, coupled with an increase in the virtuality of life, both in the nature of work undertaken, and in the omnipresence in leisure time of television and the internet, which between them have created a largely insubstantial replica of ‘life’ as processed by the left hemisphere – all these have to a remarkable extent realised this aim, if I am right that it is an aim, in an almost unbelievably short period of time. Heisenberg, in the 1950s, wrote that technology no longer appears
as the product of a conscious human effort to enlarge material power, but rather like a biological development of mankind in which the innate structures of the human organism are transplanted in an ever-increasing measure into the environment of man.130
I could hardly believe my eyes when I came across this passage, because it expresses precisely my contention that the innate structures of the left hemisphere are, through technology, being incarnated in the world it has come to dominate.
But the left hemisphere would appear to be unsatisfied with this, because it still leaves possible exits from the maze, from the hall of mirrors, unbarred. Through the fact of our embodied nature, through art and through religion, the right hemisphere might still be able to make a comeback. And so we now need to take a look not just at the evolution of the world of things, but of the world of ideas in the twentieth century, to see how the left hemisphere has effectively closed off the escape routes. This is where the ‘asymmetry of interaction’ that I alluded to at the end of Part I comes into play, where the situation, until now evidencing a series of ever more violent swings between the hemispheres, goes out of kilter, and results in a possibly final triumph of the left-hemisphere world.
* Heine: ‘I know not what it should mean that I am so sad'; Lermontov: ‘What is it that pains and troubles me? Am I hoping – or grieving – for something?’ (from ‘Vykhozhu odin ya na dorogu’).
* ‘And am I not instructing myself by observing the forms of her lovely bosom, guiding my hand down over her hips? Then at last I truly understand the marble: I think and compare, see with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand’: Goethe, Römische Elegien, V, lines 7–10.