Monday, March 3, 2014

Journal of a Soul 45

Wooden sculpture, Botanic Gardens, Belfast
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

The above rather long quotation with which I begin this post this evening is the third stanza of W. B. Yeats's masterful poem Sailing to Byzantium.  This poem recounts the Nobel Laureate's frustration with the body as he grows old.  The first stanza talks about Byzantium's being "no country for old men," stanza two that "(a)n aged man is but a paltry thing", and then in the above quoted stanza we read that the poet's heart or soul is "sick with desire//And fastened to a dying animal//It knows not what it is."  In other words, Yeats is cursing the body in a way, or at least writing it off as a very frail vessel for the soul/heart. Now, these poetic sentiments are all very much in the tradition of Western Philosophy and Western Theology, firmly reinforced by the Cartesian dualism inaugurated in the seventeenth century and almost fully swallowed whole by more unquestioning scholars in the centuries thereafter.  What I am speaking about here is what the modern English philosopher Gilbert Ryle decried as the "ghost in the machine," a severe criticism of Descartes' mind-body dualism or mainline Christianity's  soul-body dualism.

Immortality, a work I reviewed here.  The exact sentence that elicited this post were: “But it is precisely in this contradiction that I find the crux of the human condition: our heads are full of dreams but our behinds drag us down like an anchor.” (Immortality  by Milan Kunders, Faber and Faber, London, 1992, translated by Peter Kussi, pp. 269-270). 

Body and Mind/Soul/Self

Art on concrete path, Baldoyle, Dublin
Some of the more vexed questions that bother me from time to time, and perhaps sometimes the readers of this rambling journal, are (i) whether the mind equates to the self, (ii) whether the self equates with the soul, (iii) whether the three concepts are really the same and (iv) whether any one of the three survives after death or more specifically whether in my more spiritual moments I really believe that the soul itself continues in another dimension of existence after we have "shuffled off this mortal coil" (Shakespeare) and have left the "dying animal" (Yeats) behind.  These questions bring me into the land of mystery and wonder, rather than into the land of strong belief on the one hand or the land of strong unbelief on the other.  After much reading, study, reflection and discernment I still remain with an open mind, not too sure at all, at all, but that is fine - after all, what is wrong with open-ended-ness?

Where does all the foregoing speculation lead?

Speculation is just that, speculation.  In the end, we humans are left with our experience.  No concepts, no matter how intellectually convincing they may  be, will, in the end, "cut the mustard" or "come up to the mark" when it comes to matters of deep human or existential concern like when we are faced with life or death crises, deep emotional pain or some such human trauma. And so, where does the speculation lead?  In a sense, all speculations only matter as supports for what's deeply held in our experience.  It's hard most times, I believe, to move from speculation or thoughts or theories into deep conviction, though if we are to believe many authors, both theists and atheists, that thoughts and thinking can and do lead to deep confidence in this or that principle.  However, I have always been captivated by John Keats's remark that "axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses." In other words, we will deeply hold philosophical (or theological) axioms only when we have validated them first in our experience.  Hence, the only place we can really turn, then, when we have ceased all our intellectual explorations is to return to the, perhaps not very solid, but nonetheless somewhat firm ground of our own experience.  It is to this ground of personal experience to which I wish to devote the immediately following series of posts.

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