opinion, as we know when we are awake
that we are awake… We are wiser
than we know. If we will not interfere
with our thought, but will act entirely.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
This long introduction was written for a version of this work which had ninety-one essays. The significance of this number is mentioned in the text. I have included it with this shorter version because it still gives a sense of what I am trying to do. I hope to add the omitted essays and explorations later. The short introdution comes at the subject from a different angle.
This is a book of many stories and I will begin with a story about a book, a Hasidic story from the Jewish mystical tradition. A peasant boy, who had been left an orphan at an early age, was unable to read, but had inherited a large, heavy prayer book from his parents. This he brought to the synagogue and laid it on the reading desk, and, weeping, cried out: “Lord of Creation! I do not know how to pray; I do not know what to say – I give thee the entire prayer book.” This book comes, too, from what I have inherited, what I have learnt and thought about and experienced, and gathered together. And you, the reader, I ask to be like the Lord of Creation the boy asks to receive what he brings, himself. I ask you to take from this book what lives for you and make it your own. It is a book of many stories because I felt that only out of a multiplicity of thoughts could I catch my main subject – the human self, human integrity. This essence can be very emphatic – I myself standing here upon my own two feet. It is also as mysterious and evanescent as the rainbow’s brightness in the sky. This subject leads us into introspection but also out into expression, into devotion.
There is a lot about touch in this book. So many words – integrity (which I’ve used already), entire, intact – mean un-touched and, by implication, associate touch with damage, contact threatening that something will be lost or broken. At the heart of the Alexander Technique, which is one significant frame of understanding for me, is the use of simple, unsentimental touch to help us establish ourselves as strong but permeable selves. More of that anon but now I want to go back to the mid 1970s when I was with my partner (we are still together) in Edinburgh, both of us employed in Social Work, though my training had been as an English and Drama teacher.
We were in our mid twenties and were looking for a direction for our strongly agnostic idealism – agnostic in many senses. We found our way to a life-sharing Camphill Community near Aberdeen and moved there to give it a try for a year, though with a certain shared intuition of commitment. We stayed. Camphill Communities include people who need more in the way of conscious support and care than is the norm, who are more obviously at the mercy of how others see and treat them than is the case for most of us. This has been my life – exploring ways of structuring social life and relationships so that individuals, including vulnerable and uncertain individuals, can flourish. So the question of being a self – of being responsive to others and expressive of oneself – has been important for me.
Camphill Communities are among those social ventures inspired by the insights and teaching of Rudolf Steiner. I use a rather provocative word like ‘teaching’ in order to make clear that he did not give a body of knowledge to be absorbed and then enacted. I think of the ideas he brings as giving direction and nourishment on a path of individual self-development. I develop in myself a capacity for creative and helpful response by working with ideas, images, approaches, to open up my experience of the world. I know many people, who have rooted their lives in practical fields of work which are shaped by approaches which go back to Rudolf Steiner’s inspiration, and who will not be able to put much, if anything, of what informs their daily lives and their inner world into clear statements of knowledge or understanding. The ever newly-created path from the heart via some creative expression directed to the well-being of others or the world – that is the basic human, unpretentious substance of Rudolf Steiner’s ‘teaching’. And so you find active, innovative ventures like the community we joined in 1976. In the years since, I have worked in such communities as a farmer, a gardener, a teacher of children and adults, all within the overarching task of community building – helping people become confident, flexible selves able to see others and be seen.
Rudolf Steiner appreciated but did not limit himself to the modern scientific method of inquiry or argument. Yet he is not a preacher or a guru whose words are offered as soothing inspiration. He has helped many people to develop unorthodox approaches in many practical fields and areas of knowledge. This very fertility has tended to emphasise his position as an outsider whose contribution cannot be fitted into contemporary culture.
The same is true, though not in such an extreme way, of F M Alexander, of the Technique which bears his name, and of the approach to life, and in particular to learning, which shapes his work. The two men had nothing to do with each other though they are roughly contemporary, both born in the 1860s. I discovered F M Alexander and the method of self-exploration he developed about ten years ago when I was approaching fifty. The link between them, apart from their significance in my life, is in their concern for the individual self, and for appreciating how we as individuals come alive and grow in the interplay with what is going on around us. Influence is fluid and if we become more responsive and aware, more flexible in many senses, we will develop towards freedom and control.
These are noble words to which I hope to give some content. So, having discovered the Alexander Technique I took the big step of beginning the three-year training to become a teacher of the Technique. After twenty-five busy years I was very grateful for the chance to undertake a patient, deep, honest remaking of myself. During my training I avoided interpreting my new learning through the categories and filters of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, as the path of learning which he developed is called. But I knew I wanted to explore, in writing, this meeting which was happening for me, in me, in order to more fully understand the human self. Then came 9/11 and this impulse to write became more focused. I wanted to respond to those voices of people dying before the world’s attention. Far from New York there were millions of other unheard or silent voices connected to those shocking acts by a web of fear and ignorance. The truth and beauty of the human self was being lost, buried, turned from its true nature and purpose. I wanted to speak.
When I tell people that I teach the Alexander Technique, if they don’t look blankly back, then they usually sit up stiffly, and talk about posture. This is the reputation of the Alexander Technique and no doubt teachers must take responsibility for it. But that response of sitting up stiff and straight is a parody of the true method and purpose of the Alexander Technique. There’s a seed of truth, in that the stiff-backed sitter has made or remade a connection to his physical self, to his body. In making that connection there is the beginning of realising that the Alexander Technique is not ‘body-work’ as we use that term today to describe work we do on our bodies, to our bodies. The Alexander Technique is not body-work; it is, though, a way of gaining some insight and influence regarding how you are, how you feel and behave, as a physical being. The psychotherapist Susie Orbach wrote the classic Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978. She recognised the body as somewhere a woman could hide, hide from more intangible concerns than fat, hide from social pressures. Over thirty years later she wrote another book, Bodies, which returns to the now much more serious and pervasive problems of the body. Dissatisfaction and hatred of one’s body is now, world-wide, an ordinary ingredient of personal concerns and crises. A single, ubiquitous image of what is desirable, together with endless techniques to remake the body, have led us to feel distanced from our bodies (not hiding inside but separated). At the same time it has become the site of transformation for many people, the place where we can make and remake ourselves. We no longer, as Susie Orbach puts it, take the body for granted. It has become an unstable and unintegrated focus for self-development, a locus of impossible perfection. How strange this is when the last thirty years have seen such genuine moves in our culture towards accepting and celebrating diversity, disability, individuality. So the Alexander Technique is not body-work, but it is one way to help the body to be permeable to the self, to help us be bodies and not watch them. Our physical instrument can be included in our path of self-transformation, but for this to be healthy we need to give some attention to making our bodies our own. Sitting up stiffly can be the beginning of something much more interesting.
To go back to the world into which Rudolf Steiner was born on one side of the world in 1861 and F M Alexander on the other in 1869, I want to bring to your attention two moments from literature which reveal the new concerns of that time. There had been many selfish heroines before Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, written in 1879, but there is a new awareness of the individual (especially so for women) in the calm, despairing conviction with which she leaves her husband and children – “I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me.” Earlier she had danced, and the energy of her solo costume dancing of the tarantella has been controlled and tamed to enable her to take on ‘my duty to myself’ – to try to become ‘a human being’.
Earlier in that decade, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea, another woman caught in a petty life, learns to recognise her partner in a loveless marriage – “that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference”. Until then her short-sighted devotion had not seen him. The paradox about these writers is that their new sensitivity to the emerging individual, to the self, comes out of a passionate commitment to the spirit of science, of naturalism, of determinism, to understanding the individual as the product of outer and inner laws and influences. Emile Zola, the French novelist, at this time writes of submitting “man and his work to a system of precise analysis, taking into account all circumstances, environment and organic causes”. He uses the image of anatomical dissection – “I have simply done on two living bodies [in a story] the work which surgeons do on corpses”. But it doesn’t work like that. Out of the analysis, the laws, the teasing out of the social milieu – the individual emerges, the self experienced within or recognised in the other. The naked self appears more clearly against the influences which shape us. Living people refuse to be corpses in life as in art. A contemporary called George Eliot ‘the first great godless writer of fiction’. Godless, yes, but, for her, the individual becomes a moral agent, harbours a seed of spirit.
Today, when we want to understand who we are, what we are, we are drawn to the techniques of investigating and imaging the brain and its working. We like our understanding to be based in something material, even if the substance is the infinitely complex matter of the brain. Beyond the physical structure, the complexity of the brain is in the networks of connection and activity. It is in the networks, and the networks of networks, that many people see the generation of intelligence and personality, of mind. I want here to note that these brain networks are not independent of what we see them as controlling (the body), or, even, identifiable as separate elements, or layers, which in a clear-cut way support or interfere with each other. The brain is a ‘whole’, but, then, on a higher level, so are you as an organism, and as an individual.
A lot of this book is about deciding to move, putting plans into action. We naturally recognise intentionality in other people. Very small babies recognise that people move under their own volition while furniture doesn’t. This is the first expression of our need to understand what happens as having an active cause and a purpose. We are ready to see, to create meaning. Now, research seems to confirm what I might have guessed – that when we feel frightened or unable to control or influence what is happening, then we will, if possible, emphasise the meaningfulness, the intelligibility, the narrative content of what we experience. Fear generates meaning, and, potentially, a greater separation between what is physical, here and now, and what is mental, thought. Our knowing and our idea of where meaning resides will both tend to float free of the immediate physical reality, and of the body, because in those supernatural realms safety may be found. When we come back to our senses, we may feel foolish and superstitious. This can lead us to mistrust our creativity. If, however, we can return to presence in the body, it could be possible to affirm our sense of control, and not separate out intentionality, the purposes of others and of ourselves, from our physical embodiment. We will always want, at times, to enjoy our ability to separate – to dream, to fantasise – but the world of meaning is not by nature separate from the physical. We need to be able to tolerate what bringing them together faces us with – that other people are different from us, that we can’t always get what we want, that we grow infirm and die. Preoccupation with the brain is another way of avoiding knitting mind and body together, just as much as magic or superstition. This knitting together is the craft of the Alexander Technique.
With this in mind I want to give you a hint of what I find so wise and nourishing in the approach of Rudolf Steiner, and of his relevance to my theme of the self, of the developing individual. Most of the words of Rudolf Steiner which survive are transcriptions of lectures. He travelled throughout Europe, lecturing to many different audiences and I will present some of the content of just one lecture he gave during a summer conference on spiritual values in Education which took place in Ilkley in Yorkshire in August 1923. The lecture, the fifth in a series of twelve, has been given the title ‘The emancipation of the will in the human organism’. Rudolf Steiner builds his lecture around some very fundamental questions: “Why do we educate? Why is it that animals grow up and carry out the function of their lives without education?… Why is it that the human being cannot acquire what he needs in life merely through observation and imitation? Why has the teacher to intervene in the child’s freedom?”
The answer he gives to these questions is that the interplay between thinking and willing, which happens naturally in animals, has to be achieved from within by the individual human being. It is because it can be achieved, and can only be achieved by our own activity, that we are able to fulfil our inherent impulse towards morality. Now, what does he mean by ‘thinking’ and ‘willing’? These faculties of the soul are not for him, simply, opposites – thinking to do with consciousness, knowledge, the higher faculties, and willing to do with unconscious impulse and organic functioning. Rudolf Steiner always explores how something develops or transforms, and in looking at human development, he looks at the way that soul faculties, more to do with mind and consciousness, become, one by one, freed from the organic activity of physical development in which they were nurtured and which they controlled. We give birth, out of our own life, to our higher capacities. From the formative forces of growth, the activity of thinking, through our childhood development, and guided by education, becomes released. Rudolf Steiner, in this lecture, sees this transformation – the development of thinking – as belonging to the head of the child and to the direction from above downwards, from above us, down through the head. Later in childhood the still obvious, but less conscious, life of feeling becomes, relatively, freed from the organic life of the developing human being. Last the possibility for the emancipation of the will (the lecture’s title) becomes possible – the freeing of the individual’s own inner faculty to bring about change and transformation in and through herself. This capacity is released into the moral life of the individual but is not expressed in the clear verbal consciousness we associate with thinking. This life of the will has its home in the limbs, in movement, and Rudolf Steiner describes its direction of action as upwards from the earth, from our contact and exertion against the physical earth. (Directions of influence, above and below, are significant in the practice of the Alexander Technique.)
As human beings we are called on to integrate these currents in the self. Rudolf Steiner goes on to describe (using the figure of Francis Bacon, the early seventeenth century philosopher as his exemplar) how Western Education and Culture came to prevent the interplay between the two streams – thinking and willing – in order that we could establish our freedom. The stream from below up, from our contact through our bodies to the earth, binds us to Nature. Bacon can be seen as a leader of that movement which seeks knowledge of Nature from the outside, keeps our knowing external, cold, observational. We cut thinking off in the head and leave the will as the intentional life which somehow propels us around in our behaviour, but is not integrated into the self.
Rudolf Steiner does not lament this cutting. It was a necessary step, establishing the freedom of the observer, which would eventually promote a reconnection, an enlargement of the individual, by connecting what comes from above with what arises from below, but now as the fulfilment of individuality. So, Education needs not just to work with the thinking of the head but to be “something which can recognise in the body of man and in his earthly deeds a revelation of the spirit”. We separate as free individuals through our pallid observational knowing, but such individuality is very hollow. It can be filled with the full-blooded flow up from the limbs which can enliven our thinking into the presence of the self. This needs the emancipation of the will, the setting of a personal way of moving, a way of directing our power to bring about change, and bringing it into harmony with the control of thinking, the control of the head. Creating and maintaining the harmony between thinking and willing is, for me, a stimulating description of the Alexander Technique. Rudolf Steiner talks of children subconsciously rejecting what is taught “from outside”, by methods which only address the head and do not engage the inner being of the student. This inner being only comes to life in the interplay of thinking and willing, head and limbs. This achievement of integrity, of a self with something to express, he describes as the young adult becoming “a being complete in himself”. A new sense of self has been born, not so obvious as the thinking self because, perhaps, we are not so aware of how our foot meets the earth.
We are now right in the territory of the Alexander Technique, the individual in movement, whose thinking affects that movement. ‘Moving’ embraces playing the violin, playing tennis, singing, gardening, working at a keyboard, the subtle inner movements which accompany or express shifts in our attention – different qualities of the physical. Thinking, too, is not uniform. It can be abstract and logical, or fanciful and dreamy. It can be animated by the physical activity of the limbs or drawn into the attention of the senses, into perception. It is through the rhythmical give and take of our attention and awareness, moving between ourselves and what is around us, moving in time too, that we gather the capacities of the soul into an integrated sense of ourselves. The field of our experience enlarges as our attention generates interest and openness – towards ourselves, others, what we do, how we move. The way that the Alexander Technique teacher uses her hands to help her student learn is a crucially significant manifestation of the kind of self development that is being encouraged. The contact, the touch, of the teacher’s hands creates the conditions for the student to develop this integrated sense of being a physical being with mobile, open attention. So the quality of the contact, the touch, is not an end in itself – it is the means by which the student is able to remind himself of himself, of being a physically grounded centre of attention who can think and act for himself. Learning, in the practice of the Alexander Technique, has self-development in mind and therefore tries to avoid relying on anxiety, or the need to be accepted or rewarded or to get things right. These motives or methods may work if the criteria of success are purely behavioural but not if we are wanting change that brings freedom and control. Learning is not of the intellect, with the Alexander Technique, and not of behaviour, a measured way of moving. At its heart you are learning an ability to monitor yourself, and to be freely responsive. You bring thinking and moving together. In Chinese a bicycle, in literal translation is a ‘self-moving vehicle’, a vehicle which needs a self to move it. With a human being, because we are both agent and instrument, the self which moves the vehicle can become the vehicle which moves as a self.
I want to say something about the structure of the book, why it is written as a large number of essays alternating with shorter explorations. In the lecture by Rudolf Steiner which I referred to earlier, he speaks of Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth century French writer, who really invented the modern essay. Rudolf Steiner sees Montaigne as a leading figure in that movement which was inquisitive about outer experience, and turned away from the traditional embrace of religion, of our sense of humanity being bound to the order of creation. Rudolf Steiner sees that spirit of tolerant curiosity, which Montaigne exemplifies, having in it the longing to find again what we can call spirit – creative order, meaning, purpose, the logos – in the human being, in the form of the body, in the individual self. The essay suggests, as a form, this large-hearted searching. It is a bit haphazard, a bit wandering, trying to gather-in experience. I bring in many writers, artists, scientists, thinkers, as well as ordinary people and everyday events. I want my two somewhat eccentric and difficult-to-place subjects – Rudolf Steiner and F M Alexander – to be included in our one shared culture, our one history of our attempt to know ourselves and grow into freedom and individuality. So, there are ninety-one essays into which you can dip at will although the sequence is something of a journey for me. They were written, bar a very few exercises in re-writing, in the order in which they appear. I have an old poetry anthology, edited by W H Auden, in which poetry is described as ‘memorable speech’. This is how I would hope to write, with little revision, and keeping close to spontaneous thought and the spirit of conversation. I hope to interest rather than convince. I would wish that a phrase or a thought might stay with you and intrigue and feed you, not for you to agree with me. I am asking you to do the creative work of cooking the meal with the ingredients I bring.
This is true in a different way of the explorations between the essays. They are more directly to do with the practice of the Alexander Technique, but without trying to be a teach-yourself-manual. As I have already said, the real or imagined hands-on contact is, for me, an essential element in the learning which the Alexander Technique allows. The explorations are my attempt to give you something to work with, to think about (both together) which will stimulate your interest in your physical structure, in how you move and function, and in the influence you can have on how you react and respond in your everyday life. They can’t replace the direct physical relationship between teacher and student in which, even if there is no actual physical contact, the extra dimension to learning which contact makes possible is acknowledged and welcomed.
The two series – essays and explorations – were written separately, the essays first. I relied on there being a serendipitous interplay between the two sequences as they weave together.
Numbers came to be significant in the writing because of 9/11. As the form of the book, made up of essays, became clear to me, it dawned on me that I could see if, without too much contrivance, 91 essays would be the right number. I had thought it would be about a hundred. The essays were all, in one way or another, about the self, the I-being, the ‘I am’ of the self-aware, centred, intentional individual. So my 91 essays and the subject of the I might be a transformation of 9/11.
I was listening recently to a nurse who works with children and young people with cerebral palsy, and their families. She was saying that for many parents with a young child or baby who has just been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, the first concern is about walking, about the possibility for their child to be able to move independently. She went on to say that for teenagers growing towards adulthood, with this condition, what mattered to them was more the ability to communicate and to have control in their lives. The wish was for influence and interaction. These are still issues about mobility, but more inner mobility, participating – more dancing than walking.
Talking about the self, and exploring learning and development, belong together for me because I see the self as the being engaged in development. That is why I return, often, in the book to the journey of the young child learning (using the world to teach herself), to walk, to speak and to think. This is intense, spontaneous self-expression out of which the more conscious self-willed development of the adult happens. I often use examples or images from the performing arts because there you see the perplexing challenge, both for performer and audience, of both participating in what is happening and being able to interpret , to observe, to be somehow detached. We are all, potentially, both inside and outside the action of our lives and this dilemma makes life both difficult and interesting. The clown puzzling out how to put up a ladder or play his violin shows us this human predicament of being actors, of developing skills, of combining thinking and doing.
Trying to understand being a self leads me to explore the fundamental give and take of separating and uniting. Biologically, physically, we are all part of the Earth’s life, the flow of energy and substance of life. Human beings, especially today in the West, need, as individuals, to feel intact, separate, biographical beings. If we don’t we cannot be healthy or active. On many occasions throughout the book I introduce the ideas of Donald Winnicott, the psychoanalyst who worked throughout his life with children and who explored emotional development, and early environmental influences on the personality. He died in 1971. The concept of the self – including the true self, and false selves – was important for him as a way of presenting the linked needs we have to be both private and to communicate. The self is us dealing with those different directions, inward and outward. The self moves through the boundary, expanding and contracting.
I love words, and often explore the original meaning and use of words in this book. I want now to examine two words, which we use as a pair of opposites – ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’. I want to try to show you what is different in my searching for the self from the ideas of this man whose devotion and wisdom and wonderful ability to communicate I honour.
‘Absolute’ is a hard word to talk about today; because of our need to be strong and convincing ‘absolutely’ has all but replaced good old simple ‘yes’ as a gesture of affirmation. ‘Absolute’ in its origin means ‘set free’. This meaning can go in two directions. In one direction this takes us towards the sense of existing independently, unrelated to anything else, unconditional and certain. Many Victorian thinkers, who had lost belief in a personal or active Divinity, were happy to speak of ‘The Absolute’, as a distant unknowable authority, a boundary to Existence or the Universe. We also use ‘Absolute’ to translate ‘brahman’, the uncreated reality of the ancient Vedic philosophy of India. But ‘brahman’, although ungraspable, resonates in the individual self and in the multiple forms of the created world. The many and the one are a whole.
This idea can lead the meaning of ‘absolute’ in a different direction, there in the past, and in our need, today, to affirm ourselves. This meaning leads from the idea of being set free, of being emancipated, to the sense of being unrestricted, and because of that, able to be absorbed in what you choose to say or do. Having been freed, I can be absolute, I can give myself.
With ‘relative’, which, going back to the Latin, means ‘carried back’, there are also two directions of meaning which I want to describe. One is the common idea that something is only understandable, or has reality, be referring it (same origin as ‘relative’) back to something else. Whatever it is that we are talking about can’t stand on its own: it’s relative. The other direction in the meaning of ‘relative’ is the shift from dependence to mutuality, to the way we now talk about members of our family as ‘relatives’. The emphasis is on what is shared, what, for good or ill, binds you together.
To return to Donald Winnicott, always known by his initials D W in formal contexts, and his idea of the self, I start from his calm avowal of determinism. I quote from a paper of 1969 entitled ‘Freedom’: “The study of the personality… is an extension of the theoretical basis of biochemistry, chemistry and physics. There is no sharp line anywhere in the theoretical statement of the universe if one starts with the theory of the pulsating star and end up with the theory of psychiatric disorder and health in the human being, including creativity or seeing the world creatively, which is the most important evidence we have that man is alive and that the thing which is alive is man.”
So the human being is relative. We refer right back to the pulsating star to understand his genesis. From physics comes biology and the sophisticated manifestation of life in the creative self of the human being. Given a good enough environment (principally a mother) then the relatively autonomous creative self – an absolute of a kind – will develop, will come into being. But, because for D W Winnicott, this ‘self’, however real and absolute it is for the one who is that self, because it is determined by the environment, then it is inherently fragile and under threat. The self faces dangers from others who, because of environmental failures, are unable to fulfil themselves. So, for D W Winnicott, the health of the individual, the freedom of the individual, depends on defence, on the flexibility of defence of the self – “without the organisation of defences there is only chaos and organisation of defences against chaos” (Freedom, p 231). Here the self is a fragile, vital absolute wary of its relatives and necessarily ignorant of its origin.
There is a lot in this book about inner and outer, about points and circles, about the movement between a concentrated centre and an expanded horizon. This exploration of space can help, I believe, to approach a different sense of the self as I play with the meanings of ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’. In our daily life we function as individuals with a skin: points, you could say, in space. We look up at the night sky from this little centre of awareness and, perhaps, try to reach out to the boundary, the Absolute of Infinity which is beyond our understanding. In this framework, we can each imagine ourselves as a little Absolute, a centre around which we structure the emptiness of space. Our relationship to others whom we are aware of is based on how close or distant we are in the vacant space.
But there is a complementary understanding and experience of space, which I try to explain, and which I use, in the book, which belongs to beings who are alive. It is the space into which the plant grows. It is the space of self-awareness, of exploration.
I want now to introduce a short poem by Walt Whitman to help approach this sense of space which is not empty but generated by life. He compares the soul to a spider spinning the will to connect out of itself.
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fly catch somewhere, O my Soul.
In the world of the living, space comes and goes, allowing different kinds of life to flourish and decay. The many centres – human individuals in this context – are determining the space into which they come into being, together with the distant horizon. I am both centre and horizon. This self is absolute in that it creates the nature of the space in which it moves. It is unique within a world in which other unique beings arise, all sharing an origin in the periphery.
Thinking of the self-aware human being, the nature of such a unique centre of awareness will be to recognise other selves without fear or suspicion. The self is freed, is an absolute, but freed for attention, to be absorbed in what one does, not a stranger in space. The inner space of the self is on the one hand a space we have to protect, to defend. But it is also a space from which we radiate.
As I was writing this Introduction I read a strangely poignant, alert, astringent memoir by Anne Crosby called Matthew (first published only in 2006), about her son Matthew and her life with him. He was born with Down’s syndrome in 1963 and died, after much severe illness, aged 25. Interestingly, both Donald Winnicott and the leading doctor in Camphill Communities at that time, Thomas Weihs, appear in the book, seeing Matthew in his very early years. I knew Thomas Weihs as a man who believed that it was primarily through self-development that we help others who are ‘handicapped’ by the values of the society in which we live. The doctor, or teacher, or parent, or friend, needs to work first on their own understanding and way of being, if others are to thrive as individuals and not be confined by superficial stereotypes. For Anne Crosby they belong to the procession of figures of authority whom she remembers as not being able to truly see Matthew as an individual. She is calmly honest about her own fears and intimations and limitations. She herself matures as her son grows, through adventure and distress, towards his early death in hospital where “he was at last able to see himself as a man among men, albeit a dying man among dying men. Here he found himself hardly more handicapped than those about him” (M, p 328). Matthew experiences a lot of pain and Anne sees this as his path towards becoming an embodied self – “He always had a conviction that any suffering which came upon him was a part of his corporeal self, his to reckon with and to dominate as best he could. He had endured so much illness in his life that he saw it as something akin to the weather, his personal weather” (M, p 332). But the path is not deadening. Matthew develops a ritual of swearing in response to pain – ‘Taking a deep breath, he would embark on his little litany of bad words, his voice and his spirit strengthening with the delivery of each one. “Blast, blood, stupid monkey, Mud, horrid-pudding. Scratch, biting, fart”.’ (M, p 332)
This is playful wit, not immature nonsense. This is, for me, the creative self. When Matthew was born, Anne could not take in who he was, could not face him: “I foresaw him being perceived and treated as an imbecile. However anomalous he was, I understood he was not that. I envisioned so much suffering for him that I felt compelled to put my hand over his poor blue face (M, p 27). She at this moment does not want ‘life forced into him’. When Matthew dies, a man among men, she is reminded of that time by the distress she feels when her husband, from whom she is separated, arranges for many photos of Matthew, dead, to be taken, disturbing the peace of Anne laying him out with a young male nurse. It is, though, not Anne herself but Matthew’s older sister, Dido, who alerts Anne to the insult – “How can you and Dad just stand there and let her take photographs of Matthew dead among those awful carnations!” (brought by the father for the photos). His sister wants to respect his life, his power to transform himself, but back at the beginning of his life it was Dido whom Donald Winnicott wanted to protect from the harmful influence of Matthew being cared for at home as part of the family. But Matthew had come alive, as a self, through his direct vitality. He had nurtured, not damaged, his sister’s self. Anne describes him as “a natural existentialist. All he best understood derived from direct observations” (M, p 224). Within that vitality, which Anne had feared at his birth would only be pointless suffering, there could shine his self-generating absolute self which was not just a private space to be defended but a light which could only shine through his ’corporeal self’. The corpse only emphasised the presence that had gone.
Finally to the Far East, and to the artist and the publication which have been an immediate influence on the form of this book, and which gave me a guiding image of the self I wanted to celebrate, of how life is both the familiar and the holy pilgrimage. You will probably know the print by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai which is commonly called ‘The Great Wave’ in which the beautiful curve of a huge wave hangs over three small fishing boats, with, in the distance, the snow-capped cone of the sacred Mount Fuji. It is one of a series of prints, created by Hokusai, in the 1830s when he was in his seventies, of views of Mount Fuji. It was an immediately popular publication, coming towards the end of a lifetime of illustrating, drawing, recording and celebrating the details of life. Like Emile Zola whom I mentioned at the beginning of this Introduction, he was fascinated by the intricacies of trades and skills. He is not considered a master by cognoscenti of Japanese art both because of his style and his subjects – too informal, too trivial, too personal. These very qualities, together with his experimentation with Western perspective, are what we love in his work. The series of ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’, which became in the end forty-six views, radically transformed the Japanese print. Each view is formed, caught, by a working together of his artistic imagination with a clear seeing eye to create a pattern that is personal. He shapes a place, a moment, a glimpse. This had always been his way but in this series of views of Mount Fuji there is a new depth of interpretation, a resonance is created between the fleeting and insignificant details of daily life and the immortal yet potentially fiery cone of the holy volcano.
This was a time in Japan when the political situation allowed people a new-found freedom to travel and Hokusai’s view of Mount Fuji include many travellers, most engaged in useful pursuits, but the travellers evoke the idea of pilgrimage, the journey to the sacred mountain which many undertook in the summer months. Pilgrims on the mountain itself are the subject of the last print of the series. The pilgrim is a reminder to us both of what passes and what remains – the destination, the source. The images are composed out of polarities – earth and heaven, mountain and water, nature and human activity, even the curve and the straight line. The way in which Hokusai is experimenting with traditional and Western techniques creates an interplay between detachment and animation. The form of the mountain, sometimes distant, sometimes large and uninhabited, converses with the liveliness of the mortals going about their business. The two worlds, two moods, act together to draw the spectator, you, into the depth and layers of the images.
Translate Hokusai’s vision to the attempt I make in this book and the holy mountain becomes the human self, or the activity of being a self as it is seen in the human form. In some of the essays this living abstraction is pure and present, in others it is glimpsed through daily life, through art and experiment, through the passing shapes we make. Mount Fuji is seen in different seasons, times of day, weathers and its presence gives dignity to the ordinary just as, through the sharp details of the everyday, we sense the presence of the mountain, the energy of the volcano. We stand under that mountain even if we do not understand it. There is a source of transformation in each one of us that we experience as the dawning of possibilities in the present. We cannot contact it by effort but by living with the knowledge that ‘we are wiser than we know’.