art and science, being in time, Edwin Muir (1887 - 1959), Gabriel Marcel, George Mackay Brown, God and mankind, imagination and communication, Jonah Lehrer, objective and subjective truth, Peter Butter, the human race, What is true?
They say the first dream Adam our father had
After his agelong daydream in the Garden
When heaven and sun woke in his wakening mind,
The earth with all its hills and woods and waters,
The friendly tribes of trees and animals,
And earth’s last wonder Eve (the first great dream
Which is the ground of every dream since then)—
They say he dreamt lying on the naked ground,
The gates shut fast behind him as he lay
Fallen in Eve’s fallen arms, his terror drowned
In her engulfing terror, in the abyss
Whence there’s no further fall, and comfort is—
That he was standing on a rocky ledge
High on the mountainside, bare crag behind,
In front a plain as far as eye could reach,
And on the plain a few small figures running
That were like men and women, yet were so far away
He could not see their faces. On they ran,
And fell, and rose again, and ran, and fell,
And rising were the same and not the same,
Identical or interchangeable,
Different in indifference. As he looked
Still there were more of them, the plain was filling
As by an alien arithmetical magic
Unknown in Eden, a mechanical
Addition without meaning, joining only
Number to number in no mode or order,
Weaving no pattern. For these creatures moved
Towards no fixed mark even when in growing bands
They clashed against each other and clashing fell
In mounds of bodies. For they rose again,
Identical or interchangeable,
And went their way that was not like a way;
Some back and forward, back and forward, some
In a closed circle, wide or narrow, others
In zigzags on the sand. Yet all were busy,
And tense with purpose as they cut the air
Which seemed to press them back. Sometimes they paused
While one stopped one—fortuitous assignations
In the disorder, whereafter two by two
They ran awhile,
Then parted and again were single. Some
Ran straight against the frontier of the plain
Till the horizon drove them back. A few
Stood still and never moved. Then Adam cried
Out of his dream, ‘What are you doing there?’
And the crag answered, ‘Are you doing there?’
‘What are you doing there?’—‘You doing there?’
The animals had withdrawn and from the caves
And woods stared out in fear or condemnation,
Like outlaws or like judges. All at once
Dreaming or half-remembering, ‘This is time’,
Thought Adam in his dream, and time was strange
To one lately in Eden. ‘I must see’,
He cried, ‘the faces. Where are the faces? Who
Are you all out there?’ Then in his changing dream
He was a little nearer, and he saw
They were about some business strange to him
That had a form and sequence past their knowledge;
And that was why they ran so frenziedly.
Yet all, it seemed, made up a story, illustrated
By these the living, the unknowing, cast
Each singly for his part. But Adam longed
For more, not this mere moving pattern, not
This illustrated storybook of mankind
Always a-making, improvised on nothing.
At that he was among them, and saw each face
Was like his face, so that he would have hailed them
As sons of God but that something restrained him.
And he remembered all, Eden, the Fall,
The Promise, and his place, and took their hands
That were his hands, his and his children’s hands,
Cried out and was at peace, and turned again
In love and grief in Eve’s encircling arms.
The 20th century French philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote: A presence is a reality; it is a kind of influx; it depends upon us to be permeable to this influx, but not, to tell the truth, to call it forth. Creative fidelity consists in maintaining ourselves actively in a permeable state; and there is a mysterious interchange between this free act and the gift granted in response to it. (Quoted in Edwin Muir: Man and Poet by Peter Butter, 248.) Such a “permeable state” seems to have been one which came naturally to Muir. Likely it’s one of the qualities that endeared people to him; many decades later I, too, feel strongly appreciative of his life and work and recognize a closeness to him on some level. It may be we are all born with a limpidity of this sort, but being in the world, somehow, very soon draws a deep opaqueness through this consciousness in many of us—as it does, suddenly, in Adam’s dreaming / “half-remembering” state, when he sees his descendants and suddenly realizes, but only fleetingly, who we all, as he is, are.
Something in us resonates with this pellucid quality in another. Perhaps it is our imagination which is prodded. One feels a strong intuition of an integrity, of a coming together of visions and of knowings into a coherent wholeness, this sense which so often evades us in the scattering forces of our daily life.
Throughout his life Muir had occasion to teach in several countries. One of his students, fellow-poet George Mackay Brown, wrote of him: He was very pleased that his students were trying to write plays and poems and stories, for he believed that only the exercise of the supreme gift of imagination could save the world from slow decay or quick disaster. He discussed our crude productions with delicacy, kindness and understanding . . . In his company all stir and fret died away . . . The students who went to Newbattle knew and loved them both—‘respect’ is too mild and neutral a word for it. (Butter 243) (The reference in the last sentence is to Muir’s wife, Willa.) Muir firmly believed that only imagination can hope to counter the escalation of impersonal power systems in societies; real communication is contingent on the receptivity-and-response which only imagination can allow. All communication between man and man, except when it is functional, a matter of business, or compulsion, or direction of work or duty, or mass action, or propaganda, is an act of imagination. (Muir, quoted in Butter 248) Having lived through both devastating World Wars and their disastrous social and political and economic preludes and postludes—all whose effects were amplified by burgeoning advances in the sciences—Muir championed the importance of the arts in encouraging the opening and strengthening of human imagination and creativity and thus the prospect of meaningful communication in society.
The viable social contract among humans requires that we seek not only causes but reasons; not only exposition and explanation but interpretation and meaning. While excellent science relies on the movement of imagination and inspiration no less than does art, it’s nevertheless the case that only an objective truth is its aim. Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details…a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness. (Jonah Lehrer in the Prelude to his Proust Was a Neuroscientist, 2007) Human beings, to be fully human, must strive to discern both objective truth and subjective truth; we need both the science and the art.
Like “The Animals”, “Adam’s Dream” was originally published in Edwin Muir’s 1956 collection, One Foot in Eden. I’m reading it in Edwin Muir: Collected Poems 1921 – 1958, 1984 edition (1960).