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Shedding The Ego

Manus Charleton

What the Curlew Said, Nostos Continued, by John Moriarty, The Lilliput Press, 376 pp, €30, ISBN: 978 1 84351 124 3

In Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot points out that Christian belief in the Middle Ages was responsible for philosophy ceasing to be about living a philosophical understanding of the meaning of life, as it had been for the Stoics and Epicureans. Since Christianity was seen as the way, the truth and the light, philosophy was relegated to being the handmaiden of theology. Its scholastic philosophers gained a reputation for parsing abstruse points of theology, satirised in the image of them discussing how many angels might dance on a pinhead. It set in train the understanding and practice of philosophy as an ivory tower academic discipline. With the Existentialist revolt against Rationalism in the first half of the twentieth century, philosophers again emphasised the importance of personal experience both to the understanding and living of philosophy. The revolt had its roots in the nineteenth century in the views of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Kierkegaard planted the seed with his famous observation that philosophers had become like people who build castles while in reality living alongside in a shack. Existentialists such as Sartre and Camus chose to write novels and plays as more fitting than philosophical treatises for expressing personal experience. Existentialism is linked in particular to the absurdist movement in theatre. However, its fate within philosophy has largely been to become a more or less interesting set of academic ideas about freedom, authenticity, and the absurd rather than a way of life for even the few.

In the parlance of the 1960s, John Moriarty was a drop-out from academic philosophy and, indeed, from Western cultural norms. After he had studied philosophy in University College Dublin he went on to lecture in literature in a university in Canada, but then gave up academic life and returned to Ireland to live in Connemara. He was looking for a way of life that would nourish his soul. And, in this his second volume of autobiography, published posthumously, he revisits his experience, mentioned in Nostos, the first volume, of finding the philosophy he was looking for already written in the natural world.

He describes how, “sitting for hours on a rock downstream of a cascade in the Owenglin river”, he began to “uncouple” the “I” from seeing and from hearing. He was left in “pure sensation”, in a “no-thing-ness”. It had come from letting go of ego, that attachment we have to a regard for our self that sets us apart from things and focuses them rigidly in their particularity. This “letting go” enabled him to dwell more in a world in which he could relax his visual grip on any particular thing, and things in turn gripped him less. It left him able to recognise the togetherness of everything, including his own being, in one awareness or intuition. As he puts it towards the end of the book, when he is looking back over his life: “Sitting in woods or sitting downstream of waterfalls in Connemara, I emerged in to inapprehensive seeing and knowing, into the kind of seeing and knowing that doesn’t seek to apprehend or grasp or lay hold of reality. Marvellous states of soul sanctify us there.”

The experience he had accords with the foundational experience of openness upon the world recognised by ancient Greek philosophers, such as Heraclitus. It is the interpenetration of the one and the many, of unity and diversity. And Moriarty finds that: “Instead of threatening them, the unity I lived from sustains things in their particularity, in their diversity. At no point, however, are things in their particularity extravagant to that unity.” To become aware of the world as both unified and diverse in a single, all-encompassing intuition, which includes oneself, is to have an experience of Being.

However, he says he lived for some time in the dark night of the soul, where he felt the awareness to be a metaphysical void, before he began to experience it as an illuminating and uplifting presence of the divine. He attributes the reason why it took him time until he experienced it as divine to the fact that he had been reluctant to let go. “The thought that I might never again cohere around an ego, that frightened me.” But, with the help of mystical writings, such as those of St John of the Cross and Eckhart, once he began to let go of his ego the epiphany came and he was home.

Significantly, he makes clear that for him the experience is not an entry into some other world. When the call of the curlew, from which the book gets its title, draws his attention, it is to the mystical in nature and not towards something supernatural in the traditional religious sense. He says he often felt the curlew’s call to be “an opening not into somewhere beyond the world, rather is it an opening into a mode or mood, mostly unvisited, of the world itself”. It is this world experienced for what it is in itself as a whole. This brings his view close to a form of pantheism, though it’s not a term he uses, perhaps because it’s too redolent of adopting a position within religion and philosophy. Instead, he adopts the phrase “silver-branch perception” from the ancient Irish story of Bran mac Feabhail. As he puts it: “In Connemara I graduated into silver-branch perception.” It is a return to perceiving this world as if for the first time. He says that “Bran and his men knew that Manannan [god of the sea] has gifted them with his way of seeing things, he has gifted them with silver-branch perception, with original perception, with a kind of perception that has been native to them all along but that over time has been curtailed by custom and familiarity.” Of the woman who sang to Bran mac Ferbhail and his men Moriarty says: “It was to another way of seeing their own world not to another world that she had invited them.”

It is a way of seeing the world, and being in it, which is the opposite of the norm for people in the West. Moriarty regards people in Western culture as being socialised into having an attitude towards nature that is spiritually deadening. And he conducts something of a tirade against the way Western culture has placed us at a dehumanising distance from experiencing nature as spiritual. The effect of the distancing, he believes, has been a culture in which conflict and destruction are endemic, a culture devoid of a tradition of continuous nourishment for the spirit. “Our entire cultural inheritance is a heap of broken images.” As he did in Nostos, he makes clear he holds the legacy of Socratic and Cartesian thinking responsible. Socrates espoused rational thinking as the way to knowledge and virtue, bypassing our presence to the world experienced through sense perception as something actual and massively impressive. Socrates’s real crime was not the one with which he was charged. He was charged with corrupting the youth by encouraging them to ask fundamental questions and to think instead of maintaining obedience to religious rituals. He was convicted of the charge and sentenced to death, an outcome which has given him his legacy as a martyr for Western rationalism. But, for Moriarty, “it is with the defamation of actuality that we should have charged him”. And he drives home his point: “To devalue and defame empirical reality as Socrates did is to give ourselves permission to do as we will with it, to trash it, in good conscience. On the contrary, silver-branch perception of ordinary things must issue in silver-branch behaviour towards them.” Descartes’s legacy is to have made a divide between the thinking self and the world external to it. But, for Moriarty, “the subjective-objective divide is a dispensable piece of mental machinery, the mechanism of our alienation, turning us into spectators”.

Arguably, of more influence than the Socratic and Cartesian legacies in forming the attitude that nature is ours to do with as we will is the biblical story of the fall from grace. It tells us that the apotheosis of spiritual experience is being with God, as our first ancestors had been in the Garden of Eden. To put it more theologically, it is to experience the beatific vision. But, when God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden to live on the earth for committing the original sin of eating forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it was to a place of punishment where we were condemned to try to survive through further discovery of knowledge in making use of the earth’s resources. And we did this while continuing to locate the source of spirituality back in another world of Paradise. Our relation to nature simply wasn’t seen as all that important for spiritual experience. And so a scientific rationalist approach to nature could rule with a clear conscience. Moriarty seems to underestimate, or at least not address directly, the relation between his view of nature as spiritual and the fact that spirituality is experienced by so many through their belief in a God of revealed religion independently of their experience of nature. At the same time, he acknowledges the power of religious ritual for fostering a sense of the spiritual. He speaks of the profound formative influence on him of his “induction on to the Christian sacramental road from Baptism to last rites” which he sees as “a supreme gift of my community to me”.

It is not that he is against science, or its technological offshoots. He is against the dominance it has come to have as the main way of viewing the world, and for fashioning how we live in it. He views science as keeping us from being open to the mysterious presence of nature because it perpetuates the assumption that it will eventually provide answers to all our questions. An example is the Large Hadron Collider experiment, the first of which was held in 2008, which in its recreation of the conditions in miniature of “the Big Bang”, attempts to answer questions about the origin of the universe. But, for Moriarty, “the physical world behaving physically isn’t the whole story, even about the physical world”. He cites Newton’s famous observation about how, as a scientist, he felt like a boy playing on the sea shore and diverting his attention by picking up and examining pebbles while “the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”. Moriarty sees a need for physicists to locate their discoveries within the broader and deeper insights of the metaphysicians and the mystics. “Final eureka does not of course mean the end of science as we know it. Not at all. What it does mean though is that it is for Einstein to catch up with Eckhart not the other way round.”

As in Nostos, he refers to Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunting down of the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick. This he sees as a powerful, expressive image of the mindset that’s wrong with Western culture, through which nature is treated merely as something to be harnessed and exploited for practical benefit. A related problem is the old one of evil, which troubles him. “If things are ontologically so right how come they are so often so morally wrong?” He well recognises that nature itself is harsh and indifferent to human and animal suffering. He finds it “unfigurable” that the curlew in whose call he hears “gospels” is also a predator of worms. At the same time, central to his view is the recognition that we still carry within us today something from our entire human and animal past. A part of this has been the struggle to survive in an often hostile environment. Fear and apprehension have deep roots. But so too does wonder, along with dreams and aspirations. Moriarty sees us as still having the capacity to reawaken in ourselves the early stupendous wonder our distant ancestors must have felt on becoming aware of being in the world, a wonder which found expression in naturalist religious beliefs and practices.

On responding to the evil of suffering, he finds Christ’s witness to a way of being in the world not merely exemplary but crucial. To get where he did Christ had to go through the “awful passes” of Gethsemane and Golgotha. By accepting suffering and death in fulfilment of a life of extraordinary power and grace he in a way overcame them. Such a level of transcendence of individual ego enables a person to live fully in unity with others and with nature. For Moriarty, this is “the ground of our Being”, which “Christ became in all of His Being”. What Christ did was so profound, he maintains, that there was no language in his time, or since, through which we can comprehend it adequately. Whether Christ was man or God is not an issue for him; there is more than enough for us to go on from our image of his achievement in removing egocentrism in his whole attitude. Yet it surely matters a lot to the credibility of Christ’s witness to a way of being in the world that there is substance, and not delusion, to his representation of himself as God, and if there is substance how that substance is to be understood.

Though Moriarty had found what he was looking for, he was not at rest. Apart from getting across his view on Western culture, he had a need to go “in questing walkabout through many cultures”, through their myths and stories for accounts of mystical experience and, more generally, for accounts of the mysteriousness of ordinary life and of extraordinary happenings and events. And his discovery of the accounts seemed to have the necessary effect of both stimulating and confirming his own experience. He had a need, too, to share his thoughts and experiences through writing books and giving talks, which includes much retelling of the stories and commenting on them. There is a long extract, for example, from the book Black Elk Speaks, about the native American Indian spiritual tradition.

Moriarty refers to an opinion about “the monstrousness” of his writing. And he has a wayward tendency to go from stories to cultural criticism to views of literary and philosophical figures, such as Laurence and Nietzsche. His writing is not philosophical in the usual sense of building a case through rational argument. And it’s understandable that he would want to eschew the very mode of thinking (rational empiricism) of the culture he found fault with and sought to change radically. In his defence, he sees himself as trying to emulate in his mode of writing the very wild-flowering of nature itself. He views his mode as “natura naturans, springing up in variousness as Nature itself does everywhere around us”. It is a “multifarious, multifaring way of going”. Like it or not, it is his way, and ancient stories are at the heart of it: “Philosophy would be by means of stories not dialectics and that suited my kind of mind. And the philosophy so mediated, that also suited me.”

While Moriarty’s writing is something of a mixed bag, it is animated by his enthusiasm for an experience of nature as divine, which gives it unity. It also has unity from its genuineness as the voice of a particular individual who feels deeply about the material he is writing about. For an autobiography, the information about his personal life is somewhat hidden by the other elements with which it is interspersed. Having said that, it’s understandable tht the life of a spiritual philosopher would be bound up a lot with his thoughts on matters affecting the spirit. We do get a sense of him working as a gardener, close to nature, and of beginning to become known after an interview by Andy O’Mahony on RTÉ radio. There is also the image of him hitching lifts along country roads on his way to or from venues at which he had been invited to give a talk. He does go back over some points already made in Nostos, as well as provide more of the same type of material as in his other books. Perhaps his heart isn’t in autobiography, which is understandable in a person who tries to eschew ego. And he mentions his reluctance to write autobiography for reasons of vanity. It is at the prompting and urging of his friend Tim Robinson that he eventually does.

Some autobiographical details, more than others, give us an insight into him as a person. He takes up an invitation from a former student of his in Canada to return to give talks. While there he is told of the impression he makes on others:

Seventeen years after you left we still remember you and have invited you back. I’ve been teaching for fourteen years. I’m a good teacher, but it will never happen to me. Never, once I’ve left, will my students want me back. I just want to tell you what this means to us and what I hope it will mean to you.

He mentions a visit he made with David James years before to the Grand Canyon. This time they drive from Winnipeg to the American border and on across North Dakota through “vision-quest country”. David has a painful kidney stone and is passing blood in his urine. They consider turning back to get treatment, but David insists on continuing to their destination. Moriarty worries if the stone is a warning sign not to trespass on a sacred place. However, when they reach their destination, Tongue River, he is delighted to drink the water and walk in it barefoot.

He confesses to a troubled conscience, for materialist and ecological reasons, in accepting the offer of a site in Kerry to get his own house built. And, while he doesn’t present himself as a leader of a spiritual movement, he writes about his project to found a Christian Monastic Hedge School in Kerry, Sli ni Firinne, which was unrealised before he died. He also writes about his deteriorating health, which he puts down to exhaustion partly from gardening work as well as giving talks and writing books, but also to “the peril” of “engulfment from within” from trying to live his experience of the world as divine. Towards the end, he writes of being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Understandably, he feels alarm and the need to adjust emotionally to the full force of the realisation that his “homecoming is a leave-taking”. He accepts suffering and death as “ontologically” a part of silver-branch perception. They are “in common with Torc mountain, blue as ever today”. He links physical death to “episodes” of dying to the self on the spiritual road. It is “a final abeyance, a final transition, in self-abeyance into God as divine Mirum”.

He does not go into why he felt compelled to write so much, and so intensely. In a 2002 RTÉ television programme about his life, Would You Believe (available on his website) he spoke about his practice of starting at five in the morning and continuing until four in the afternoon. When he was writing Nostos this involved working day by day until the book was finished, including Christmas Day and Easter. For mystics, the very act of writing is an issue, and it would have been good to have learned more about his relationship with writing. It’s an issue, because the essence of the experience which mystics have found to be the very meaning of life is present to them without language, and to try to put it into words is inevitably to diminish it. He shows he is aware of this. He speaks of raising his head from writing and looking out the window and being struck by the “breathtakingly beautiful” appearance of the Kerry mountains, which would “invalidate me in my opinions and purposes”. In mystic fashion he describes being “languageless before reality” as a “blessedness”. When words to describe the experience are felt not merely to be inadequate, but dispensable, the question arises about why he devoted so much time, energy and conviction to writing.

There is a possible explanation, or at least a possible part of a perhaps more complex one. It is that he needed to write as a spiritual exercise. That is, writing helped him maintain, and develop, his relationship to an experience which is otherwise available only for short periods of contemplation. And this may have included his writing helping to engender in him the kind of spiritual feeling towards which he sought to draw closer. Evidence for this may be gleaned from the way that every so often his writing breaks out in the rhythm of litany. Also, those who have heard him give a talk will know that he could, at times, become almost enraptured by what he was saying. Had to sees the writings of some Stoics as spiritual exercises, in particular Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which is subtitled To Myself. He maintains that Marcus used his writing to fortify himself to live his life according to the Stoic view. Writing, in other words, became a spiritual ritual. And Moriarty shows his appreciation for the need for ritual, for the Christian ritual in particular in which he was brought up.

Part of the explanation, though, may be simpler, in particular for someone who lived far out from the norm. In the Would You Believe programme he refers to a view he had heard about solitude as the glory of being alone, with loneliness its pain, where loneliness means being unable to share your ideas with others. He also speaks of how he got support from reading the writings of mystics. From their accounts he learned he had not gone beyond the bounds of what is possible for a person. Writing, in other words, was part of the way he met his need for company.

But once a writer feels the need or urge to write about a metaphysical experience of the unity of all things, there is the core difficulty of finding appropriate language. This difficulty is compounded when the experience is felt to be a deeply spiritual one through which contact is made with something or energy that is divine. I feel Moriarty’s writing is somewhat at sea in its attempt to attain that language, though understandably so given the difficulty. While he eschews an academic approach, nevertheless his trawl through the already-said of diverse cultures, netting, and commenting on, stories that appeal to him for their affinity with his own experience, is akin to academic exposition of source material. He is also inclined to resort to usual metaphorical words, such as “brightness”, which are too general and common to be other than vaguely referential. But there are signs he knows, or at least feels, that he needs to get his language working in richer and more oblique vein if it is to be more successful. His inclusion of folktales with their literary language is itself an example, even though readers may find the language belongs to another time and they may have difficulty relating imaginatively to its often incredible content. And he quotes poetry extensively, from Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes. On occasion too, he strains language, juxtaposing words into new hybrid terms, to try to surmount the difficulty of conveying what he means, but these terms can end up being difficult and awkward: “Christo-logos is deianthropus-logos”. In feeling a need to strain language he is not alone. Heidegger in particular does it, and Moriarty refers to him as a philosopher who continued to try to express metaphysical experience in the wake of the death of God.

It is to literature we have to look to convey an experience for which there are no direct words, notably to its resources within tone and connotation. Heidegger, in the end, saw in poetry a better means than philosophy to express the experience of Being. And, for Existentialist philosopher Merleau-Ponty, philosophical language needs to become more literary if it is to convey something of the experience. Since there are no direct words for the experience, philosophy, for him, needs to proceed indirectly or obliquely. The philosopher does not put language to his service; he is under the service of language from the depth of his experience.

It would be a language of which he [the philosopher] would not be the organizer, words he would not assemble, that would combine through him by virtue of a natural intertwining of their meaning, through the occult trading of metaphor – where what counts is no longer the manifest meaning of each word and each image, but the lateral relations, the kinships that are implicated in their transfers and their exchanges.

The book is intended as autobiography, and it does give a strong sense of the main feature of Moriarty’s life. This is of a person who, to an uncommon degree, practised his counter-cultural beliefs as well as writing and talking about them, beliefs nourished by the spiritual experience of nature which he had uncovered.

Manus Charleton lectures in Ethics in the Institute of Technology, Sligo. His book, Ethics for Social Care in Ireland: Philosophy and Practice, was published by Gill & MacMillan in 2007. He has also been published in Irish Pages and Studies.