Monday, 11 January 2010

The Natural Rhythm in Life— Using the Figure of Eight Model

In The Redemption of the Robot, written two years before his death in 1968, Herbert Read points out that there are two ways in which it can be said that there is a natural rhythm to our human being, awareness of which can, given a proper attitude, emerge gradually from the substance of our pre-conscious proto-self—represented by the bottom half of the Figure of Eight model. Neither way is the result of left brain activity—a characteristic of the top half of the Figure of Eight model. Both ways rely on a kind of felt relationship between body, the microcosm, and outside ‘events’ in the macrocosmos.

The first way can be conveniently called The Storm in a Teacup Way. Metaphors of this kind come into being in human language (which is in fact all metaphor) by way of a sense of fit between one field of experience and another. Shakespeare had this when he deftly represented King Lear’s self-inflicted anguish by dumping him naked on the blasted heath—an objective correlative (TSEliot) for his internal storm. Subscribing to my friend Hilary’s Blog ( I was talking about the difficulty of making sense of linguistic abstractions (‘beauty’, ‘justice’, ‘career’ etc) as being pretty much the same as wrestling with a large frog at the bottom of a mucky pond. This image just happened; it came out of nowhere seemingly, although, on the same day that I was confronting the problem of dealing with abstract ideas, I had also been clearing out an old pond in the garden. I didn’t think the metaphor—it kind of thought me, it just occurred to me at some level of my psyche over which I do not exercise control. Imagery of this kind comes to us in spite of conscious thought; in a way such imagery is more effective in conveying ‘meaning’ than trying to put things together in a linear sequence as I am doing now; it makes its point in a nutshell.

The second way in which natural rhythm may be identified is in the flow of experience itself which may be apprehended as a sequence of patterns. Its ‘facts’, if we are to make a resourceful response to them, ‘are not grasped by enumeration but must be felt as a coherent pattern’, not piecemeal, bit by bit, but as a whole, a good gestalt. Whether we like it or not we choose our patterns of behaviour because they feel right to us; behavioural outcomes that feel right tend to get repeated to form a pattern.

It has come to feel right to me to be writing with this fountain pen at this desk—it is part of the pattern of my life. It has to be with this fountain pen at this desk; it can’t be anywhere else, at dawn anyway. It’s part of a pattern I run on some occasions: call it a has-to-be-thus pattern rather than an it-could-be-any-old-how pattern. This pattern here and now feels right to some level of my psyche over which I do not exercise control—in fact it is a living schema, a life-metaphor for my writing urge.

Herbert Read points out that Plato said that true education is about observing the natural rhythms of a well-regulated life; once the pattern has been observed the task is ‘to compel the foot and the music to suit themselves to the sense of such a life and not the sense itself to the foot and the music...’ Square up to natural internal rhythms rather than allow what’s out there to dictate its rhythm to us.

Tuning in to our natural bodily sense of balance & symmetry, proportion & rhythm we become able to notice the way in which all experience falls into naturally persisting patterns. This happens when we use our biological sense of ‘fit’ to assess what’s going on outside us. Any attempt to force things without feeling a sense of fit results in discordances—ill-temper, procrustean methods, colonialism, profit and war. Gauging what’s ‘natural’ within us results in the possibility at least of learning to go with a sense of ecological flow.

Balance & symmetry, proportion & rhythm—these are aesthetic laws inherent in the biological processes of life itself. Working with life is an aesthetic process.

Balance & symmetry, proportion & rhythm—these are life-metaphors as opposed to the invented metaphors of poetry, the task of which is to look for natty ways of expressing ideas. Incidentally, a haiku writer will recognise that a haiku in itself is a life-metaphor which is why haiku eschews invented metaphor—but that’s another story...

A life-metaphor is one that just feels naturally right. For instance, those hundreds of seagulls that fly up and down the river, morning and evening, outside where I’m writing—I can’t help what they do; I don’t control it; I haven’t invented it; they just do what they do as they have been doing for at least 150 years since the river was straightened out by human labour. In doing what they do, in the way that they do it, they have come to represent the to and fro of me; they are an objective correlative for my pendulum existence. There is something or other in me at a deeper level than I am consciously aware of that fastened on this daily activity of seagulls as representing a part of me. As I write about this now, whatever the impulse in me, it makes its way up the Figure of Eight and the life-metaphor becomes loaded with words as I try to explain what’s happening—it’s probably just best left to itself!

When Cicero hit upon the lucky phrase excitare fluctus in simpulo, I like to think that it did just flow out of his proto-self through his pen, as he went with the rhythm of his experience, perhaps while he was watching a cook stirring the soup in a cauldron or even doing it himself. ‘To stir up a flood in a soup ladle’ is a lively image which has come down to us through several variations to be transformed into the stone-dead metaphor, ‘a storm in a teacup’ which is how, incidentally, the Oxford Classics translates Cicero’s lovely phrase, elegantly illustrating how novel expressions, in the hands of mechanical educators, become debased in the course of time. Nowadays politicians would be thought rather old-fashioned if they used the expression ‘a storm in a teacup’. Being in the catch-phrase business, they go on to others: Harold MacMillan’s dismissal of some political storm (the nature of which I have forgotten) consisted of saying, uncolourfully, that it was ‘all got up by the press’; now the dead metaphor is ‘spin’ which can be hurled unthinkingly at anything one disagrees with.

For Herbert Read and according to the Figure of Eight model, life is organic growth; it ‘cannot be lived according to an abstract formula of words, but only to a pattern, and not to a pattern in the abstract sense of a defined form, but only to a living, evolving form, which obeys rules... Life is movement; we cannot halt it for a moment without killing it. The pattern is visible only in time. We can give pattern to our span of years, but we cannot without death or distortion, give life to... any purely verbal, symbolic system of behaviour. The basis of a living community, the basis of individual happiness, is physiological: it is only in so far as this physiological basis has unity with nature (physis = nature) that society can have harmony and health...’

In a little child, what starts off as organic growth in Essence becomes pretty quickly subject to the distorting influence of everything that passes for progress in our left-brain civilisation—‘the root cause of social disintegration’ as Herbert Read puts it. ‘We sow the seeds of disunity in the nursery and the classroom with our superior adult conceit...’

Organic growth is the natural process depicted in the bottom circle of the Figure of Eight—infinity turned on its side.

The challenge for all who consider themselves to be ‘educators’ is how to ensure a smooth constant flow from the proto-self to the worldly self and back again, preserving balance & symmetry, proportion & rhythm. It’s what happens at the point of intersection that is crucial; what we keep with us as we work our way upwards.

An even greater challenge for us jaundiced, mortgaged adults cursed with vanity and ambition is how to recognise and then work with natural metaphors deriving from the proto-self.

Now you come to think of it, what kinds of events in the outside world sometimes seem somehow to minister to your sense of being-in-the-world? Whatever you discover will be different from what I think of as my own natural connections (life-metaphors) but examples I might suggest would include:-

● standing paddling in the ebb and flow of the tide
● coming to the top of a hill and getting a fresh perspective
● rooms or sheds etc as containers for my psyche
● awareness of sunrise
● awareness of sunset
● coming to a clearing in the middle of a forest
● arrival at a house in a clearing in the middle of a forest
● islands
● flying in dreams
● snow—the way it levels everything out

Like the habits of seagulls these things say something about the way ‘I’ am. It’s as though they chose me.

Like John Parsons said in his ‘homework’ : I have a flock of rooks—their flight less determined—they chat and fool around—more like me I think. Dawn locks the gate.