Saturday, November 06, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 5

A picture of an unusual house - Rush harbour, Oct  2010
A great part of our education - both teaching and learning - consists in forging connections between various items of knowledge previously learnt.  As I re-read Keats' letters I am purposely pinpointing images which I have found in other areas of study that I have done over the years.  In the ERV (English Revised Version) of the Bible we read the very famous statement from the mouth of Jesus: "In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2).  The image of house or home or castle is a very ancient and indeed archetypal image.  It is highly symbolic because around the safety of the hearth our very Selves are shaped and prepared for future development.  Let me now refer to that same image in the work of the founder of psychoanalysis, viz., Sigmund Freud:



He [Freud] portrayed the unconscious as a large entrance hall filled with mental images, all trying to get into a small drawing room into which the entrance hall opens. In that drawing room resides consciousness, with whom the impulses are hoping for an audience. In the doorway between the entrance hall and the drawing room stands a watchman, whose job is to interview each impulse seeking admission and decide if that impulse is acceptable. If it is not, the watchman turns it away, and it must remain in the entrance hall of unconsciousness. If an unacceptable impulse gets just past the threshold, the watchman will evict it and push it back into the entrance hall. The impulses that are turned back in this fashion are repressed. Once an impulse has gained admission to the drawing room, it still is not conscious until it has caught the eye of consciousness. Such impulses, those in the drawing room but not yet seen by consciousness, are the preconscious. The watchman who ejects, that is represses, unacceptable impulses is the same watchman who turns up as resistance when the analyst sets out to lift the repression for the liberation of the patient. (Michael Kahn, Basic Freud, 18-19)
It is also important to point out that the image of the multi-storeyed house represented the human psyche for Jung with the lower storeys referring to the unconscious strata while the higher ones refer to the conscious strata of the psyche.

Another image of Soul: The Coachman's Inn, Oct 2010
Now, having elucidated these references to the archetypal image of house, home or hearth and how both religious traditions (Christianity in the above cited example), and two famous psychotherapists have utilized this image, it little surprises us that John Keats would have used this popular and powerful image also.  In his letter of 3 May, 1818 to J.H. Reynolds, that letter which I have quoted heretofore for its references to epistemology, the validity of experience as well as that of knowledge, the place of illness in our personal growth and the place of suffering in life, he goes on to elucidate the archetypal image of the house with many rooms or chambers or mansions.  Let us read what Keats has to say on this image now:

.  (Gittings, Keats' Letters p. 96)
I will put down a simile of human life as far as I now percieve it; that is, to the point to which I say we both have arrived at - Well, I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me - The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber - in which we remain as long as we do not think - We remain there a long while, and not withstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing na bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly by the awakening of the thinking principle - within us - we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden Thought, than we become intoxicatewd with the light and, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there forever in delight: However, among the effects this breathiong is father of is that temendous one of sharpening one's vision into the heart and nature of Man, - of convincing one's nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and Oppression - Whereby this Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradual;ly darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open - but all dark - all leading to dark passages.  We see not the ballance (sic) of Good and Evil.  We are in a Mist... We feel the burden of the Mystery.  To this pointv was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote "Tintern Abbey", and it seems to be that his Genius is explorative of those Dark Passages....  Your third Chamber of Life shall be a lucky and gentle one - stored with the wine of Love - and the Bread of Friendship

Sunday, October 31, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 4

Keats' Epistemology or Theory of Knowledge:

(a) We Learn from our Sicknesses

In the last post I quoted from one of the Keats' letters where he contended that we understand very little until we become sick.  There is not a little wisdom in that contention.  Most, if not all people, who have experienced one sickness or another and who have come through, strengthened as it were, begin to appreciate life anew.  In short, they begin to understand their lives from a new and deeper perspective.  In Keats'own words: "... until we are sick, we understand not; - in fine, as Byron says, "Knowledge is Sorrow"; and I go on to say the "Sorrow is Wisdom" - and further for aught we can know for certainty! "Wisdom is folly."  (Gittings, OUP., p.93)

It is quite interesting to see that Keats values knowledge because the whole sweep of all knowledge is to heal the soul, though, of course, here I am putting words into the poet's mouth.  However, having read his letters and his poems I believe he would agree that knowledge and wisdom which is a learning through experience, when coupled together help human beings make a safer and easier passage through the "vale of life." 

(b) Knowledge and Enjoyment

In a letter to John Taylor, 24th April, 1818, Keats links the passion for knowledge with enjoyment:

I find that I can have no enjoyment in the World but continual drinking of Knowledge.  I find that there is no worthy pursuit but the idea opf doing some good for the world - some do it with their society - some with their wit - some with their benevolence - some with a sort of power of confering pleasure and good humour on all they meet and in a thousand ways all equally dutiful to the command of Great nature - there is but one way for me - the road lies t[h]rough application study and thought. (Gittings, OUP., p.88)
(c) The Unity of Knowledge:

Glass spheres representing the States of Europe, Malahide Castle
It is quite impressive to read Keats' insights into epistemology, especially when one realises that this young man (genius indeed) died at the age of 25 and had no formal university education though he was apprenticed to a medical Doctor and was a qualified apothecary.  He must surely have read widely in philosophy.  His idea of the unity of knowledge prefigures much of what the great John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) was to write in The Idea of a University many years later.  Let us listen to Keats' words in a letter to J.H. Reynolds, May 3, 1818:

Every department of knowledge we see excellent and calculated towards a great whole.  I am so convinced of this that I am glad of not having given away my medical Books, which I shall again look over to keep alive the little I know thitherwards; and intend moreover through you and Rice to become a sort of Pip-Civilian [= An amateur lawyer].  An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people - it takes away the heat and fever; and helps by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery... it is impossible to know how far knowledge will comfort us for the death of a friend and the ill "the flesh is heir to" ....  (Gittings, OUP., p.92)
(d) The Importance of our own Experience:

While conceptual and speculative knowledge are of  importance in the life of a cultured human, they count for little in the scheme of things unless they are "proved upon the pulses." (3rd May, 1818, letter to J.H. Reynolds, Gittings, p. 93)  I found this a wonderful phrase since first I read in March 1994, the date I first read or began to read John Keats' letters.  When we reflect upon our experiences we grow in knowledge and wisdom.  When we speculate we must test out our speculations in our lived experiences.  Both actions are needed.  This is what Keats means when he says that the axioms of philosophy must be "proved upon the pulses."