Early on in The Fox in the Attic Richard Hughes steps aside from his narrative to consider how the experience of the First World War played on the consciousness of those who were alive at the time. I understand this completely: reviewing my own war-time experience at the age of 3 to 8 (!) I realise how they generated an all-pervading feeling of life being fragile & temporary, likely to be whisked away at any moment – railway goods yards that were there one day and blown apart the next – the consequence of Hitler’s rise to power as brilliantly depicted in Hughes’ long novel, not that you have to concentrate on the political details of it – you just note that they happened.

I suppose we are to take it that Hughes’ thinking is relevant to his hero Augustine’s state of mind which is what we are most concerned with; it’s similar. At the beginning of Polly & Rachel there’s this: ‘those four war years would condition their thinking and feeling all their lives through…’ Augustine & Douglas Moss, his friend from University.

Primitive Man [which one?] is conscious that the true boundary of his self is no tight little stockade round one lonely perceiving ‘I’, detached wholly from its setting: he knows there is always some overspill of self into penumbral regions – the perceiver’s footing in the perceived.

There’s a ‘union with a part of his environment and he [primitive man] scarcely distinguishes that from his central ‘I’ at all. But he knows also that his self is not infinitely extensible…’ There’s ‘I’ and all that out there – a ‘concept of self wholly within Descartes’ cogito…’ There’s also a gesture of solidarity outwards towards a ‘we’ as opposed to ‘they’; I-ness becomes ‘we’ together with something belonging to it – ‘our’. Others come inside us; we are identified with a group of like-minds and so ‘we’ becomes opposed to ‘they’ – them out there.

On the other hand while solipsism is a dead-end cul-de-sac, says Richard Hughes, Reason keeps on asking the unanswerable question – where is the boundary of the self? An invalid question, says Hughes: ‘the whole system of ‘self’ lies within the observer; at the most its shadow falls across the objective observed…’ ie what’s out there.

Personality is a felt concept: the only truth ever relevant about selfhood must be emotional, not intellectual, truth. We must answer then that objectively the we-they dividing line ‘reasonably’ lies … wherever in a given context the opposing emotional charges for the moment place it: wherever it brings into balance the feelings of owning and disowning, the feelings of loving and hating, trusting and fearing… ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. For normally (at least up to now) each of these feelings seems to predicate its opposite, and any stimulus to the one seems to stimulate the other in unregenerate man. In short, it is as if it were the focus of this emotional balance that circumscribes and describes the whole self, almost as the balance of opposite electrical forces describes the atom.

We feel I-ness as it moves pendulum-wise between opposites aiming to achieve emotional & intellectual balance at the bottom of the swing. Constantly swinging.

The question Where is the boundary of the self? remains an interesting one since there certainly is a physical interface we associate with the being of self – skin, veins, hair, etc – so that it naturally arises that there seems to be a difference between all that’s inside – thoughts, feelings, pain, discomfort, excitement, proprioception – and whatever it might be that’s out there. ‘Boundary’ is a metaphor attempting to depict something standing over against things in themselves.

In The Human Predicament, themes & images are intricately woven together over hundreds of pages. Marching, murders, political & religious unheaval, journeyings, avoidance of issues… Much later in the scheme of things, Augustine’s sister Mary incidentally breaks her neck in a horse-riding accident and she is paralysed; for her, the boundary of the self shifts a bit:-

…now that so little of Mary’s body was ‘her’ any longer it seemed as if even the trunk and legs she had lost had never been Mary the way [a tulip head held to her face by her daughter Polly] was… Moreover once she had thus far broken her old corporeal bounds soon even these lawns and bushes – these gardens, as far as the eye could see. In short, it wasn’t so many months since ‘every inch from the crown of Mary’s head to the tips of Mary’s toes’ had been Mary’s limits, but now every inch from the crown of Mary’s head to the tips of Mary’s trees rejoiced at being alive. Of course as summer wore on this sort of ecstatic vision was doomed to fade into common day.

How much of our body is ever ‘ours’ after all? That big toe, a little finger, the left buttock… Whatever the answer to that question might be our ‘common day’ is an interior construction! Hughes & Ouspensky are quite right: everything is inside – all ‘reality’ is a schematic representation which we toss about in an imaginative circus. Those trees & fields, the sky and the moon, disgust at the latest political swindle, all gods & their mates, the breakfast plate, love/hate, misery/exaltation – everything is an internal event.

Richard Hughes can become very complex, obscure even, and when he’s creating a story line people, named only once, come and go without explanation because they’re inside him – which is OK; it’s just like life where people come and go & there’s no point in pretending a real life authorial omniscience about them; we can never really know other people, only the image we construct of them inside us after our own lights.

I spent a whole evening unpicking a page or two of meta-Hughes.

In terms of our picture of the self … objectively, old ‘we-they’ dichotomies will appear to be continually replaced by new. On the scale of history, old oppositions such as Christian and Paynim will in time give way to Papist and Protestant; these in turn to distinctions of colour and race, local habitation, social class, opposite political systems: but whatever the changing content of the opposing categories, the love-hate balances of kinship and alienation will continue…

That’s because people are Third Force Blind, content to think in abstractions, instead of facing things as they are, played on a blue guitar.And what Hughes says next, though wrapped in a typical complex sandwich of things, is very interesting – after an evening of pondering.

But suppose that in the name of emergent Reason, the very ‘we-they’ line itself within us had been deliberately so blurred and denied that the huge countervailing charges it once carried were themselves dissipated or suppressed? The normal penumbra of the self would then become a no-man’s land the whole self-conscious being is rendered unstable – it has lost its footing’: the perceiver is left without emotional adhesion…

The ‘we-they’ dichotomy is, of course, something else that only exists inside us – it’s very easy to erect ‘they’ into a conceptual monolith and then think of ‘we’ as a monolith standing over the other side of the abyss. But when you’re face to face with somebody who is, say, of a completely different politico-religious state of mind from your own whom you kind of ‘like’ anyway, the ‘we-they’ dichotomy fades into nothing at all; just one sentient human-being and another and that relationship turns out to be an amorphous, ‘blurred, trace inside you – how to conceptualise it? And currently (December 2019), the we-connection one might many moons ago have thought one had with the ‘Working Classes’ turns into slime & sick when they become ‘they’, having idiotically voted for the Ruling Class Party. Then it’s the case that the ‘…normal penumbra of the self … [becomes] a no-man’s land the whole self-conscious being… rendered unstable…’ Where am ‘I’ in relation to something that’s not easily made into a monolith? One loses one’s footing completely. Something otherwise needs to come about.

Then surely in this entropy [degree of disorder or randomness in the system] of the whole self, the depleted voltages, must cry out for a re-charge and dichotomies new.

True… unless one can stay at the bottom of the pendulum swing.

In comparison with that psychic need material security will suddenly seem valueless. Reasonable motive-constructs such as ‘Economic Man’ and the like will be revealed [simply] as constructs [and nothing else], their motivation being quite overthrown or adapted as conduits for much deeper springs. In such a state the malgré-lui may well turn to mad remedies, to pathological dreaming; for his struggles to regain his ‘footing’ would indeed be an upheaval from being’s very roots… gurgling up hot lava suddenly on to the green grass.

Unless you are forced to sleep on the street, as a concept ‘material security’ is not that important anyway, though the already rich seem determined to decrease the chances of the conceptual wolf getting its nose anywhere near their golden doorways.

The paragraph after that is incomprehensible. It just seems to suggest that random examples of dichotomies have collapsed; you can no longer tell one thing from another as with Post-modernity. But this rings true, even now:-

Moreover in the last century the once-dominant liberal mystique of Laisser-faire had called on us to renounce even the natural tendency to love one’s neighbour – the worthless starving craftsman, stunted women sweating in the mills, naked child Jezebels dying in the mines and the sore chimney-boys. Ignoring what an unnatural and dangerous exercise this is for ordinary people (this trying not to love even mildly even such neighbours as those), the earliest English ‘Liberals’ had loudly denounced that strong implanted urge: not only as a Tory obstacle to economic progress, hut worse – as a blasphemy against their rational doctrine of total separation of persons, a trespass on the inalienable right of the helpless to be helped by no one but himself.

Sounds very much as though this tendency has at last come to fruition in fascist Britain (December 2019)

Now, coming full circle, you were called on to love all mankind at large, coupled for good measure with all created nature! The Humanist ‘we’ of infinite extension. Yes, but how? For ‘Sin’ nowadays evoked nothing stronger than a mild distaste – the lifted eyebrow, not the lifted rod; and they had found no substitute for Sin.

Intellectual/emotional void supreme. No idea what to make of ‘we-they’; mankind at large – the great abstraction – as opposed to the man dying in the street. And ‘sin’… What on earth is that since one would be derided for calling the ‘leaders’ of the Western world ‘sinful’.

And then a few days later: “Do you know,” he said, “the extreme agony that comes about at the moment when you must try to explain to somebody some deep understanding that has suddenly arrived in the hidden byways of your mental apparatus?” This was in a dream at the end of a record-breaking seven hours of continuous sleep – the first closed-eye sequence of such length he’d had for many moons. After some considerable musing – all lost in the rigmarole of dream – he found himself grasping a couple of people by the scruff of the neck and saying, “You do not know the extreme agony that comes about, as at this moment now, when I find myself in the human trap of not being able to say what I wish to say about an illumination I have had…”

He had not actually said anything like this but he might just as well have – it is a verbal formulation that occurred to him as a waking way of putting into words a sensation, a momentary understanding of something that seemed important at the moment of coming round, as it were.

The essence of what he wanted to say was, in straightforward language, that in human relationships there perhaps occasionally comes a crossover point at which you feel that there exists a matter of complete & utter rapport with another person. But you may be mistaken. It’s not at all as straightforward as that. The dream had it but the element in him that imagines it has come into waking consciousness was incapable of capturing the feeling of absolute certainty that seemed to exist at the ‘scruff of the neck’ moment.

Something it was about the difference between people who pass in the night with whom there is absolutely no chance of being with (Being-with) and those with whom there is a sensation of at-one-ness. It comes and goes – that moment when you feel you are really inside somebody else’s brain, seeing what they see/hear/feel in precisely the way they see/hear/feel whatever it might be. But always they (or you, or both together) go off at a tangent into some other way of seeing/hearing/feeling the world, the universe, the dust & cobwebs of ordinary life, the foul rag & bone shop.

Thus it was for Augustine.

In the dream, at the ‘scruff of the neck’ moment it had been quite clear: he was trying to say that there is a crossover point from everyday contact with beings concerned with paying bills, deciding on action, eating & drinking, and a time when there is (or seems to be) a kind of unity of intent, of conjoint vivification. A crossover point from simply shaking hands to the expression of being-at-one-with. In the dream that was the important thing – the moment of transition… Ah! The Boundary Experience. for goodness sake.

Then comes the conclusion in the light of day. it is not a state of being. It is just a movement from one brief inkling to another; the great inbetween providing the illusion of ‘real contact’ or what, in order not to have to think about dreams any more, they dare to call ‘communication’.

He began to tot up all those with whom he had imagined he had been, as it were, ‘close’, with whom he had exchanged a few ideas – those that seemed to offer the basis for continuing a ‘deep friendship’. Just an idle concept, the use of which appears to catch experience in a net of words to render it manageable. Words are simply complicated & devious ways of reducing the mess of experience to what appears to be manageability. They offer the ‘belief’ that we are managing things by accurately (or not so accurately) describing their nature. It is an appalling mistake.

Totting up the people in his past with whom he had imagined he had touched feelers like ants that seem to pause for a second or two in their scurrying, he realised that what his dream had for a moment brought to life was illusion. Old Conrad was quite right: ‘we live as we dream, alone…’

For Augustine, people keep passing by; big events just happened. Old attachments & fancies are a bewitchment, a bewilderment.

You can only stand one foot on one side and the other on the alternate side of the Boundary Experience; you don’t ever get ‘it’. What, in the words chosen to express it, to manage it, appears to offer a lasting Unity of understanding is forever an illusion.

Everything is inside us, a personal construction: the nature of events, the appearance of other people, a concept like the Boundary Experience, any kind of Unity, the abstractions we trust in, the relationship of words to sticks & stones. We take on board small word-inklings; inklings about another person that are encapsulated in (provoked by) the words they use. Inklings is all. Arthur’s piano improvisations, Mick’s ‘on to the the next thing’ mentality, Anna’s passion for the scrapings of detail and getting things right before she should die, David’s idea that everything is an invention (apart from God in his case), Michael’s passion for keeping at it, James & his unicorn dream… You take up all the inklings; internalising them, they become part of who you imagine yourself to be. Everything else is a grave mistake.

Richard Hughes called his big work The Human Predicament.


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