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Lewis Caroll

John Tufail

Although much has been written on Lewis Carroll’s philosophy, it can be reasonably stated that the vast majority of what has been written has been based, understandably, on a false premise. This premise, first asserted by S. Dodgson Collingwood in the first biography of Carroll -1898 – and re-affirmed consistently since, is that Lewis Carroll was, in all things, the epitomy of 19th century traditional and conservative thought. Thus, the idea that Carroll, in his writings, would espouse a neo-Platonist philosophy and a ideas on the nature of language that flew in the face of mainstream Victorian thought, could not be countenanced. It is only recently that the traditional view of Carroll has been successfully challenged.

As a consequence little thought has been given to Carroll’s use of illustration in his collaborations with his artists other than from a purely aesthetic point of view. Neither has the full import of Carroll’s use of ‘nonsense’ as a device for systematically presenting a coherent and persuasive philosophy of language been sufficiently well explored.

This short paper, concentrating on ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (AiW) is by way of an introduction to Carroll’s philosophy of language – most especially of his challenge to the traditional view of how language developed historically from motivated sign, to arbitrary sign, with all other written linguistic forms being merely milestones in this ‘advancement’.

Although the primary purpose of this paper is to examine the relationship between motivated and arbitrary sign in (AiW), it is felt at least useful to begin by providing some groundwork on how Carroll sees the relationship between reality, truth and the articulated and written text (arbitrary signs).
I would therefore like to begin by examining a position that has fairly general acceptance in contemporary Western Thought. A position that has been strongly articulated and supported among philosophers from a wide range of ideological and philosophical schools. It is a position taken by people as disparate as Mannheim, Althusser. Ayer and Lukes – that although some aspects of reality are culturally mediated, socially determined, irretrievably ideological in nature. Others are not. I quote for example, Steven Lukes from his essay on ‘The Social Determination of truth’:

a. There are no good reasons for supposing that all criteria of truth and validity are contextually dependent and variable:
b. there are good reasons for maintaining that some are not, that these are universal and fundamental, and that those criteria that are context dependent are parasitic on them…

To support this position, Lukes appeals to language as evidence of the universality of meaning with the notion of:

The existence of a common reality as a necessary pre-condition of our understanding ‘G’s language (‘G’ being a member of a language group other than my own). Though we need not agree about all the facts, the member of ‘G’ must have our distinction between truth and falsity as applied to a shared reality if we are to understand the language.

I believe that this appeal is essentially misplaced and is based on a misconception of how meaning develops in language. To illustrate this point I can turn, inevitably, to ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ as this very question is one that Lewis Carroll addressed extremely succinctly one hundred years before Lukes!

A three inch high Alice has just fallen into a pool of tears , previously formed by a nine foot Alice. As she struggles in the pool she is overtaken by the Mouse which she attempts to engage in pleasant conversation. Failing in English, she tries again in French:

‘So she began again; ‘Ou est ma Chatte’ which was the first lesson in herFrench lesson book. The mouse gave a sudden leap out of the water, and seemed to quiver all over with fright.

‘Oh I beg your pardon!’ cried Alice hastily, afraid that she had hurt the poor animal’s feelings, ‘I quite forgot you didn’t like cats’.

‘Not like cats! cried the Mouse, in a shrill passionate voice. ‘Would you like cats if you were me.’

‘Well perhaps not,’ said Alice, in a soothing tone; ‘don’t be angry about it, and yet I wish I could show you our cat Dinah; I think you’d take a fancy to cats if you could only see her. She is such a quiet thing.. And she is such a nice soft thing to nurse – and she’s such a capital one for catching mice…’

The switch from English to French here by Carroll is interesting and useful when looking at Luke’s argument. It seems to me that Carroll is showing that, contrary to Luke’s claim, it is not necessary for us to share a common reality in order to develop a knowledge of how another language operates, merely to develop a negotiated perceptual approximation. Thus Wittgenstein argues that such a negotiation of meaning does not require a ‘common understanding’ (Luke’s phrase) but a; ‘complicated network of superficial similarities which overlap and crisscross’ (Philosophical Investigations).

Alice was in this manner able to communicate on the level of superficial appearances with the Mouse (note, by the way, the Platonic capital), in the sense that there was a similarity between her concept of ‘Cat’ and that of the Mouse at the level of superficial perception/material appearance. However, she remained fundamentally unable to share Mouse’s world view at the level of meaning. To Alice a cat would always be a loveable, harmless (indeed by virtue of being an excellent mouser, extremely useful) pet. To the Mouse, on the other hand, it would always remain a dangerous, nasty, low assassin.


This is a theme to which Carroll returns on a number of occasions in AiW and can be seen as a central theme in this particular work. In her very next conversation with the Mouse she starts to talk about her loveable, ‘bright eyed terrier’ and reference will be made to the episode where Alice nibbles the mushroom and finds her neck extending from her body. In this incident she meets a pigeon who identifies her as a serpent: the Idea of a serpent being to a pigeon any creature that is both all head and neck and eats eggs. To underline his point, Carroll brings the 3” tall Alice into confrontation with a ‘normally’ sized puppy – an episode in which Alice’s universalist (Idealistic?) world view nearly brings her to grief. Yet having been nearly trampled to death by this relatively enormous animal, our heroine cannot conceive of it in any other terms than,

and yet what a dear little puppy it was!”

Carroll in these episodes appears to be making a crucial distinction between perception and understanding – between the material and the essential – the point being that two people with different world views, different realities, would not necessarily disagree that something is perceived (a puppy, a cat or a tear for example) but their understanding of the significance of the perception would fundamentally differ.

This understanding/perception distinction is important when one is considering the function of illustration in nonsense works (in particular), for it reflects directly on the position taken by people like Bacon, Spencer and Crane on the evolution of language, in that it asks questions of their position that illustration is purely and formally an evidentiary mediator between language and reality.
In ‘The Colours of Rhetoric’. Wendy Steiner puts the evidentiary case as follows:

Illustrations are pictures of the thing-world inserted into the verbal text. As pictures,icons, they both signify and contain the characteristics of what they picture.’

But of course Carroll’s book both exploit for its humorous possibilities and deny the validity of this and like statements at any but the most superficial level.

The importance of illustration in the works of Lewis Carroll cannot be overstated. Throughout his life he used the perceived evidential properties of illustration to brighten and clarify not only his fictional texts but also his non-fiction. In fact, it is worth stating that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction as applied to Carroll is a particularly arbitrary one – ‘useful’ only because Carroll himself made the distinction clear by deciding on the authorship (Lewis Carroll or CL Dodgson) of each piece.
Nonetheless, even in his most ‘academic’ works, Carroll employed ‘fictive’ devices for their illustrative properties and possibilities.

The opening paragraph of AiW contains the following reflection from the mind of Alice:

“What is the use of a book”, thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

This could easily (though less effectively!) be written as:

‘How can any development in knowledge or understanding take place without dialogue/dialectic or illustrative devices’.

The classic Platonist response to the observer-centred philosophy of Aristotle. In AiW, the narrator the narrator plays on the evidentiary concept of illustration – not only in his attempt to ‘legitimise’ his fictive world – but also to subvert it. As an aside it should be remembered that Carroll was a superb photographer, and more than most he understood at an early stage the fallacy of the claim, ‘the camera cannot lie’.

When Alice meets the Gryphon, for example, the narrator refers out from the written text by saying,

“if you don’t know what a Gryphon is (emphasis added), look at the picture.”

Apart from the subtly tautologistic nature of the statement, the main point to note here, is Carroll’s use of ‘is’. He doesn’t say, for example, ‘if you don’t know what a Gryphon looks like’, he uses is – a word that implies existential import for the Gryphon. Given Carroll’s careful use of language throughout the ‘Alice’ books, this application is unlikely to be merely fortuitous – particularly in view of the earlier distinction made between material perception and Platonic idealism. It is a distinction that is crucial to Carroll’s humour. Indeed, it is something more than humour that Carroll is achieving. Carroll’s choice of gryphon for this particular piece of existential sleight-of-pen brings to mind his intense interest in Blake’s illustrations during the period her was writing AiW. We know that Carroll was so interested in them that he had ordered a special printing of them through his publisher, McMillan. We do not know, but it is likely that one of these illustrations would have been that of ‘Beatrice addressing Dante from the Car’ (1826-27) with its prominent illustration of a gryphon before Ezekiel’s chariot. Certainly the religious and poetic symbolism of the Gryphon would have been well known to Carroll and his contemporaries As Stephen Pricket says in book, ‘Words and the Word’:

‘For Blake, Dante’s bi-fold vision of the Griffin is not merely an encounter with the spirit of prophecy, but more specifically with poetic genius.’

This ‘bi-fold vision’ linking the Gryphon with ‘poetic genius’ not only reflects Blake’s powerful biblical imagery, but also brings to the forefront Coleridge’s insistence of the primacy of the poetic in Biblical translation – and the huge influence Coleridge’s neo-Platonism had on Carroll’s linguistic, philosophical and theological development.

In 1855, we have this entry in Carroll’s diary:

Jan: 15. (M) ‘Read Coleridge’s ‘Aids to Reflection in the evening – it is one of those books that improve on a second reading: I find very little in it even obscure now’

On January 7 1856, there is an extended entry by Carroll in which he states,

Finished Alton Locke’.

This book, written by Charles Kingsley caused Carroll much anguish and spiritual soul searching. Kingsley was part of the mid-19th century neo-Platonist revival group that included F.D. Maurice and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

On January 3rd 1857, Carroll noted,

Began reading Kingsley’s Hypatia’.

He finished it on January 7th and again it threw him in turmoil. Hypatia was arguably the greatest of the early neo-Platonist philosophers and she was savagely murdered at the behest of ‘St Cyril’. Carroll notes,

‘The book has interested me strongly in the history of Cyril, which I intend to read the next opportunity’.

On January 3rd 1858, Carroll writes:

Began Coleridge’s ‘Aids to Reflection’ for the second time. ‘I intend to make a sort of analysis of it this time…’

Actually Carroll’s memory is at fault here, as in the earlier diary entry he makes specific reference to the fact that he had read it earlier – this was his third full reading (at least). So, In four (perhaps five) consecutive years, in the early part of January of each month, Carroll read, and was greatly moved by the works of either Charles Kingsley or Samuel Taylor Coleridge – both strongly associated with the emerging 19th century neo-Platonist tradition, itself almost entirely due to the writings of Coleridge.

This may help explain why Carroll’s precise use of language is always an appeal to understanding rather than the visual perception of the phenomenon. In AiW Carroll leaves little to chance. Later in the same work, at the trial of the Knave, the narrator once again interjects with the statement.

The King wore his crown over his wig (look at the frontispiece if you want to see how he did it)’.

This is the second time in the book that Carroll has appealed to the evidentiary nature of illustrations – but surely ironically! Not only that but, as this thesis will demonstrate, there are other reasons why Carroll might well have wanted to draw attention to these particular illustrations.

Once again, however, the appeal is to understanding (how the Act was achieved) rather than to perception (what it looked like).


Of course Lewis Carroll was not the only 19th century writer to use illustrations linguistically, either to enhance, or even subvert, the written text. Most famously Thackeray (‘Vanity Fair’) and Dickens (notably in ‘Dombey and Son’ where he used illustration to evade Victorian mores on adultery) also used illustration in the same linguistic manner. Readings of neither ‘Vanity Fair’ nor ‘Dombey and Son’, for example, can said to be complete unless the illustrations are ‘read’ as extensions of the text.
This challenging of illustration as purely evidentiary, essentially subservient to the written text was, if not common, at least a notable feature of certain strands of Victorian linguistic philosophy. Yet the prevailing view of the text/illustration relationship remained (and to a large extent still remains) that stated by Wendy Steiner earlier in this piece or more expansively by Herbert Read in his historical account of the evolution of aesthetics in ‘Icon and Idea’:

‘Before the word was the image, and the first recorded attempts of man to define the real are pictorial attempts, Images scratched or pecked or painted on the surface of rocks or caves. Our knowledge of the existence of this primal art is comparatively recent, and so staggering was the impact of the knowledge on the scientific mind that for some years the authenticity of the evidence was doubted. Even now the significance of this art, for anthropology, for aesthetics, and I would say, for philosophy, has not been fully appreciated.’

The presumption (unfounded) that the motivated sign precedes the arbitrary in the evolution of language is a powerful motivator in the perception that the motivated sign is necessarily secondary and subservient to the arbitrary. Yet such accounts are demonstrably selective and wrong. It ignores, for example, the fact that in so-called ‘pre-literate societies, the arbitrary sign pre-dominates over the motivated sign. Status and rank badges, boundary signifiers, and direction indicators are all examples of the arbitrary sign taking its place alongside the motivated sign in human culture. Read’s presumption also assumes an evolutionary theory of language based on the extremely subjective idea of a hierarchy of linguistic types; hieroglyph, cuneiform, ideogram, alphabet. Read again:

The stylised symbol of the human form, though it is so dynamic in the Franco-Cantarian and Bushman art…. Is a sign, and in the extreme case we are near to the Chinese ideogram or pictograph. We are at the beginning of a long evolution that led to the invention (sic) of writing.

Or see Francis Bacon writing in Novum Organum:

‘Again, if one considers the refinement of the arts….as the discovery of the letters of the alphabet (still unadopted by the Chinese) in grammar.’

We are presented with an evolutionary continuum ranging from the pictorial representation of the ‘Bushman’s’ art – representing a one-to-one relationship between sign and object, symbol and reality, and the arbitrary, unmotivated, abstracted linguistic sign of Western Culture at the other – apparently representing a retreat from the ‘real’ to the intellectual. This is a hypothesis that is pregnant with qualitative implications. For example, without context, it is impossible to know to what extent Bushman’s art is merely evidential representation or whether at least some is symbol, metaphor or allusion Yet ironically, much of the debate about language since the Baconian revolution has been precisely to attempt to force language back into a one-to-one relationship with reality.

The attempt to somehow ‘purify’ language – return it to a State of Grace – was both a powerful philosophical movement throughout the 18th and much of the 19th centuries (indeed the rejection of the ‘poetics’ of the St James Bible in the 20th century evidences the continuation of this into the 20th century). This movement, although initially instigated by philosophical empiricism, taken to its extreme in theological and Biblical debate.

One of the fiercest debates running through the 19th century surrounded to what extent the Bible should be taken as a literal and historical record (literality) what contents should be read as allegory or metaphor. This, of course, is a fundamental and long-standing debate that continues to the present day – but in the 19th century it was given additional impetus by the project undertaken by Horst and Wescott to provide a new interpretation of the Bible.

Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1903) and Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892) undertook to carry out a complete revision of the King James Bible aimed at eliminating inaccuracies of translation from the original Greek texts. This project caused great controversy at the time – a controversy that continues to this day.

On the one side their supporters acclaim them for their contribution to biblical scholarship, having profoundly advanced knowledge of the original Greek texts. On the other side, they are accused of heresy and apostasy. Their opponents, largely, see the King James’ version of the Bible as ‘inspired’ and the True scripture.

Although the debate was complex and often convoluted, at the heart of the debate was the question of literality.

This mode of thought opposed allegorical, interpretive and metaphorical interpretations of biblical passages (to a greater or lesser degree – depending on how ‘fundamentalist’ the views of the advocate).

It is in this historical and theological context that Carroll’s work must be seen in order to fully understand the radical nature of his works. It also provides a pragmatic and contextual reason why Carroll was so keen to separate his fictional from his non- fictional works by way of a pseudonym.
To return to AiW, the frontispiece contains at least one other contradictory element that can be seen as challenging the evidentiary nature of illustration. Every reader of AiW makes the assumption that at the trial the prisoner before the court is, indeed, the Knave of Hearts. This, quite reasonable, assumption is based primarily on extra contextual evidence. Knowledge of the Rhyme in question, the consequent relationships between the key characters (the Knave and Queen of hearts – with the poor King acting as judge). Illustratively the Carroll/Tenniel relationship produces two illustrations that both show a predominance of Heart symbols – reinforcing out initial perceptions.

Curiously, however, (as Alice herself may have exclaimed), it is the case that nowhere in Carroll’s text does he refer to the prisoner before the court as the Knave of Hearts, merely the Knave, of which in a pack of cards there are four. The only reference to a Knave of Hearts is in the nursery rhyme itself. The fact that actual identity of the prisoner by the reader is rarely queried is due to three factors.
First is the conscious (and/or unconscious) ‘recognition’ by the majority of readers of the nursery rhyme itself – this is crucial

Second is the ‘fact’ that in the eyes of the reader, most illustrations appear to operate comfortably as subservient to the text.

Third is the fact that Carroll (as the narrator) mischievously and subtly reinforces this with hints and associative allusion that almost, but never quite, confirm the fact that the Knave present in the trial is indeed the Knave of hearts. Thus, in the garden scene, Carroll mentions the King and Queen of Hearts…. And the Knave – as opposed to the certainty of ‘The King, Queen and Knave of hearts’.

The frontispiece itself underlines this dialectic between certainty and uncertainty. Although it is a full page illustration, dominating the reader’s consciousness, it is both spatially and temporally removed from the trial scene. It is only when the illustration is examined closely that it can be seen that there is no conclusive evidence that the Knave before the court is, indeed, the Knave of hearts.

Indeed, of all the playing cards that Tenniel’s illustrations portray, it is only the Knave whose identity remains consistently ambiguous. In none of the illustrations of the Knave (there are three) is he unambiguously represented, in text or illustration, as The Knave of Hearts – we only have the nursery rhyme itself as evidence.

Never, for example, is he shown sporting a heart motif (as, for example, the gardeners’ display their suits, as do the King and Queen – quite ostentatiously). Indeed, in the frontispiece the dominant motif on the Knave’s dress is the Club.

There is one significant exception to this. Uniquely, in chapter VIII (‘The Queen’s Croquet Ground’), a knave is indeed identified clearly as the Knave of Hearts . In the procession (first) the narrator says,

Then followed the Knave of Hearts, carrying the King’s crown.

Then, a few lines later,

‘…the Queen then said severely, “who is this?” She said to the Knave of Hearts…

Immediately adjacent to these observations is an illustration depicting the Knave of Hearts bearing the crown. Compare this illustration of the indubitable Knave of Hearts (‘what I say three times is true’!) with the illustration of the knave in the trial.

They are quite clearly two different characters. The clothing differs (look at the headwear, for example – and the tunic design). More compelling, however, are the features. Tenniel has the knave in the two Trial illustrations sporting a prominent up-turned moustache, whereas the Knave of Hearts in the Croquet Ground scene is wearing a rather more desultory, down-turned moustache. Also, as befitting a knave who has just scoffed the Queen’s tarts, the face of the Knave of heats is round and plump – unlike the face of the knave in the trial scenes.

It could be queried that this is a mere error by Tenniel that both illustrator and author overlooked. Indeed this argument has been advanced. There are two counter-arguments to this objection. First is the fact that this is unlikely given the fact that it is known just how carefully both Carroll and Tenniel scrutinised the book for just such errors (remember Carroll withdrew the first print-run because of lack of quality).

Secondly, this is not the only time Carroll plays the same trick on the reader. Look at the two Bellman illustrations below from the Hunting of the Snark. Different Illustrator same illusion:

Not only are the beards of the two Bellmen quite different, the one above fine and flowing, the one below coarse and bushy.

here the Bellman sports a wart on his nose that the Bellman above completely lacks.

To the unwary reader, the nonsense element of the Knave’s trial is the fact that the normal procedures of a court of law are reversed – sentence-verdict-evidence, Yet is this really such nonsense? A nursery rhyme is, after all, a closed system. The Knave of Hearts, being a member of this closed system, has no existence or function other than being the knave that stole the tarts. Logically, the only evidence required is the nursery rhyme itself. This Carroll duly provides at the opening of the trial, as of course, should be the case.

If it is the Knave of hearts before the court, both evidence and verdict are contained within the rhyme itself. The only possible question, therefore, is whether the prisoner before the court is actually the right knave – the Knave of Hearts – for we know that only the Knave of Hearts can be guilty!
And, as has been shown, Carroll goes to great lengths to create an ambiguity on precisely this issue.
It is suggested that thee are few better examples of the dangers inherent in accepting at face value the ‘evidentiary’ properties of illustration. In this case it can be seen that the reader’s ‘reading’ of the illustration is determined by his own expectations – just as the illusionist relies on the
audience’s ‘expectations’ to create the illusion. Because the reader expects the illustration to be evidentiary to an unambiguous text, Carroll the illusionist is able to perform his illusion.

The illustrations refer not out from the text of a universe of playing cards and stolen tarts (not, of course, Carroll’s creations) but back into the body of the written text. The Trial illustrations carry an incomplete information structure that render them meaningless as signifying agents without the additional information contained in the verbal text and the reader’s external knowledge of the nursery rhyme. What we have are two complex but incomplete structures that are mapped onto each other in such a way that to each part of one structure there is a corresponding part in the other. This, of course, includes significant absences.

In his book, ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid’, Douglas Hofstadter discusses how fomal systems come to create meaning. He suggests that a primary causative factor is the existence of what he terms ‘isomorphic relationships’:

‘It is a cause for joy when a mathematician discovers an isomorphism between two Structures which he knows. It is often a ‘bolt from the blue’,and a source of wonderment. The perception of an isomorphism which creates meaning in the minds of people. A final word on the perception of isomorphisms: since they come in all shapes and sizes, figuratively speaking, it is nor always totally clear when you really have found an isomorphism. Thus isomorphism is a word with all the usual vagueness of words – which is a defect but an advantage as well.

It is interesting that Hofstadter’s book is subtitled, ‘A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll’, for surely few writers have so sympathetically summed up the wonderment and enlightenment that readers of Lewis Carroll’s works experience. And few have given a better rebuttal of the nature of language as embraced by those mentioned earlier in this paper.

This concept of isomorphism, though, as Hofstadter acknowledges, is generally restricted to a discussion of mathematical structures. However, this concept of isomorphic generation of meaning can be usefully and most satisfyingly applied to the complex relationship that exists between text, illustration and audience. Hofstadter appears to be arguing that understanding arises not though mere physical perception but through a process similar to that described by Wittgenstein (op cit). Painters, illustrators, cartoonists, novelists and other artists utilise this process, translating the world as an infinitely complex and shifting series of signs and images. The idea of humanity’s relationship with reality is thus something like a detective story in which we are given a series of more or less disconnected clues – an incomplete picture from which we form an image of sufficient coherence that enables to formulate and negotiate our existence.

This theory is used by Umberto Eco (‘A Theory of Semiotics’) when discussing his ideas on sign production – stressing that the recognisability of a clue is a socially learned process in the first instance:

Recognition occurs when a given object or event, produced by nature or human action (intentionally or unintentionally) and existing in a world of facts,comes to be viewed by an addressee as the expression of a given content, either through a pre-existing and coded correlation or through the positing of a possible correlation by its addressee.’

Or, in a more concise manner as presented by a gentleman at least slightly ‘known’ to the readers of this paper:

‘Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; as a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant.’


John Tufail
is an independent consultant in Health and Social Policy and a visiting lecturer in the philosophy of health. He has published widely on the relationship between verbal and non-verbal language and for the last four years has been carrying out research in the field of learning difficulties.

John’s interest in Lewis Carroll developed from his doctoral studies on the relationship between language and illustration in the early 1980s. His interest in Carroll then broadened to include a continuing exploration of the philosophical, political and theological influences bearing on Carroll’s life and his works. He has been very instrumental in rediscovering Dodgson’s ‘lost’ associations with radicals like F.D. Maurice and in placing Dodgson’s political conservatism in its proper historical context.

John is a former Director of the Pracyabani Institute and has edited various journals and magazines.

He worked closely with Kate Lyon on an analysis of ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ and other Carroll-related projects. He is a former director of the Pracyabani Institute and has edited various journals and magazines.


Lewis Carroll’s ‘conservatism’ The Illuminated Snark

(paper presented at the 2nd International Carroll conference, University of Rennes, 2003)


[Alice readers: see also Sherry Ackerman’s ‘Looking for Lewis Caroll’ presentation on the Hidden Sources: Western Esoteric Influence on the Arts post for the 2008 CCWE Conference.]




This is a new page in which CCWE will be publishing writing which has not yet, and may never be published in book form, but which is of value and provides material which would be otherwise unavailable to the scholar and will be of interest to the general CCWE blog reader.


October 26, 2007 at 2:14 pm



(This diagram should be at the top of p.33)

These ideas came to me over a relatively short period in 2007.
I’m not sure of their origin or their value. They’re free.

karika is a Sanskrit term and means a concise presentation of ideas.



One evening, I went upstairs to check that the children were OK. I have this image very clearly in my mind: a sleeping baby, that lovely open face utterly untouched by the world and therefore having no place, and at the same time completely itself. Nothing that has been invaded by the world, however finely, can even approach that state. I can’t remember now which child it was – and it doesn’t matter, of course. It’s the hit that counts. And like all hits, it obliterated me. I wasn’t there anymore: only that reality was there.

Our dog, Harry, had the same quality. Now you might say, “Look, everybody loves their children and their dog.” True. But I’m trying to get at what that love is – the quality that elicits love.

The way I see it is this. There is something warm and liquid – thicker than water because you can almost pick it up and squeeze it – that is everywhere in the universe, just oozing out of the cracks. I call it ‘custard’. It’s not so different from the Bible’s ‘flowing with milk and honey’ but I prefer ‘custard’ because it’s thicker and just one thing, not two. Its characteristic is that when you meet it, you smile, you feel more solid inside yourself. Why? Because this quality – which certain things and creatures manifest – draws the same quality out of you. That’s why I mentioned Harry. Wherever he went, people were attracted to him, felt more real.

What is it to be true to this hit? Answer: to keep yourself ready for everything soft, open, vulnerable, the things that never advertise themselves, that slip round the corner when your attention is elsewhere.

Our horses used to make a right mess of the field in winter. They were heavy creatures and they pulled the grass out by the roots, so pretty soon there wasn’t much left but mud. But the moor was only a few hundred yards away and we staked them out there during the day. One February morning, we took them out of the stable to go down to the moor as usual. Normally, they were raring to go but it was well below zero and they didn’t feel like trotting. We didn’t have a stick to gee them up so we plodded along in the freezing mist (bare back, rope halter). It was colder than we’d thought and we didn’t have warm enough clothes on. Then, when we got there, I had to move the stakes – great iron things that stuck to my hands and made my fingers throb. “Why am I doing this?” I thought. I just wanted to be beside the fire. But as we turned to walk back, the mist thinned out for a second and the rising sun came through. And there it all was: the horses with their heads down, the hedges beaded with frost, the deep red of the sun, the silence. Then I knew why I was doing it.

The way I see it is this. Everything, however ‘ordinary’, has to be met on its own terms, has to be honoured. ‘Honour’ is an ethical term and that’s why I use ‘nobility’ for this kind of hit. This isn’t nobility in any special sense. If we stay true to any excellence then we also become noble in the proper sense of the term: elevated, fine. And since this is a hit that can come from literally anything, nobility becomes a way of life, a gift even. Just by being alive, you’ve got it. A consummation devoutly to be wished.

I was 18, on the upper slopes of Mt.Olympos with a friend and a Greek soldier. It was mid-summer but we ran into a storm (or it ran into us). Without warning, the lightning and thunder struck, a single explosion with no delay between light and sound. I’d always wondered why Zeus, king of the gods, had nothing more than the thunderbolt as his ‘attribute’. At that moment, I knew. All my senses were obliterated: I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, I had no sensation of my body. I hadn’t been physically struck by lightning – but I’d definitely been hit. And in that split second, when, fully conscious, all contact with the world was swept away, I realized that I was without limitation. It changed me on the spot.

The way I see it is this. Before any ‘thing’ exists, including ourselves, there is something else that exists for and by itself – so you can never encounter it in the company of others even when they are right next to you (like my friend and the soldier). You are always on your own. But that’s just the point: on your own is the only place to be.

Now this word duende (which, appropriately, rhymes with bend me). I’ve pinched it from Lorca: “The Duende…will not approach unless he sees the possibility of death.” Traditionally, it is a presence, powerful and implacable, that can transform you – and destroy you. How to be true to it? By abandoning yourself. You can never find what is real by protecting yourself, by trying to keep happiness in a box. You have to go on, not knowing where the path will lead. And there, in the midst of the greatest chaos, and against all computable odds, you will find the simultaneous lightning and thunder that obliterates everything.

The hit precipitates us into the world. (See the three previous pages.) Every world is a gift – but we have to find our way in it. Worlds are dimensional – which means we move on up but we can also get lost. Custard and nobility, colours and sounds, danger, duende: it just gets out of hand.

There are only two responses: ‘That’s it!’ and ‘What is it, really?’ Diving in and pulling away. You can’t have one without the other because that’s what happens when you enter another dimension: you can go in opposite directions.

It’s the imagination which knows that. It’s a glory – and it can be a trial. Why? Because excellence makes demands of us. And that’s the moral realm right there: ‘should’ and ‘ought’ arise when we’ve been touched by excellence and fallen away from it. We can always fall because excellence can only exist in a dimension where descent and ascent are equally possible.

Everything that has a shape also has a shadow. We do. And worlds do. All worlds contain forms – so they come back at us with the laws and forces that hold forms in place. This is the cut: the restriction which is the shadow side of the hit’s precipitation. We’re thrown out and then pulled back in. Reality spreads itself out and folds back in on itself at the same time. Sure, there are gaps and lapses – but love and transgression can cross anything.

You cannot be in a world without an identity. We all know that. We furnish our world with signposts and maps – and ourselves with a passport. Worlds are colonized by names. As soon as we receive the world/identity hit, we’re capable of creating copies and fakes and secrets. We become spies in our own reality.

This is a disruptive business, caught up in confusion and alarms. How could it be otherwise in the game of power and invention? Ultimately, it’s beyond our grasp – which explains why consciousness and the desire to escape it arise together. Freedom and subversion eternally linked.

And that’s the drama right there: reality making us like itself.

I melt, I fade, I dissolve…
Swarming, climbing, groaning, whistling –
My whole life has been a seizure.

Worlds are ambiguous. When they come upon us – those short, bright visitations, those long, turning circles – then we’re touched by a kind of love, a departure from ourselves. The air is still and we know that created things can be other than they are. This pendant world, in bigness as a star of smallest magnitude, hangs on a golden chain close by the moon.

Of course, we’re stretching things a bit far – but you’ve always got to do that. On one side, the angel of life, whose care is lest we see too much at once; on the other, the Buddha laughing with his whole body. The two nod at each other across the arcs of space. We’re in between. What to do? The moment arises, we see the colours running out, hear the great chasms calling. Then we leap. We’re exalted: grace and derangement both. It’s where the dark angels come from when they come to lead us on.

Imagination isn’t reality, I agree. But it prepares us for it. Without imagination there is no reality at all. Why not? Because it’s imagination that enables us to find our way through worlds. That doesn’t mean we won’t get lost. The world is always caressing and mauling us. Lush and intimate, rough and resistant: a transfer of gifts.

And we’re back to the drama – the unfolding of a world. That’s all worlds do. You know: initiation, seduction. Worlds come first; experiences, a split second later. When I say ‘come’, I mean it: worlds surge forth. They occupy all dimensions and create new ones. But they never get in each other’s way. Only experiences do that. Why? Because experiences takes up space and time but worlds generate them. When we’re hit, our lives have pulse and cadence: all those feasts and foibles. And there in the distance a storm is stirring. It looks as if it’s coming our way – but we’re inside it. We always were.

Out of this comes our life. Except that life, you can’t get hold of; death, you can’t escape. Between the ungraspable and the inescapable lies the tumbling destiny of all those that are born.

And there we are: unsealed, unframed, blown. This is hazard in the glorious enterprise. It’s what we do every time we open our eyes.

I saw the opening in the trees
Dark and hooded.
When I went in
Everything was gone
And everything was waiting.

The beyond is always with us. You can’t be aware of something without knowing that there could be something else: bigger/smaller, faster/slower, better or worse. On and on, on and on. Of course, we can be wrong about this beyond – and it may only exist in our imagination – but that’s OK because we can correct our misapprehensions.

Understanding and misunderstanding are inextricably linked. When we ‘get’ something, it becomes meaningful, ‘full of meaning’. And once you’ve got meaning, you’ve got a world – and we’re part of it.

In order to identify something, we have to be separate from it. There has to be a gap between us and it or else there couldn’t be misunderstanding – and there always can be. It’s in that gap that the drama begins.

How to bring a world to life? By metaphor, which carries us beyond ourselves. We have to do that in order to ‘get’ the world. When you have found the kingdom you will likewise find your place in it. Of course, there’s a price to pay: ask any saint or sinner. But it’s the only place to be – even if it isn’t what we thought it was.

‘Getting’ something changes us, obviously: we’ve shifted up a level. We’ve all been through bliss and pain. But we can’t really remember them, only relive them. This embodiment requires imagination: an unruly creature, we know. It gives to forms and images a breath and everlasting motion – which is to say that it fills everything in, given half a chance. But it does ‘get’ things. It knows, for example, that pleasure and pain are close but divergent – like male and female, good and bad.

What is the hallmark of this knowledge? Embodiment: staying in the gaps, filling them in. It’s metaphor with its head up, running. Somebody mimics someone we all know and everybody gets it. It doesn’t matter that the mimic doesn’t look like the person who’s brought to life. We can even embody a quality – impatience or simperingness – that is not linked to any particular person. Just a look, a tone of voice can do it.

But embodiment isn’t just a release: it puts us on the spot. Once we’re in a world we have to live up to it: the invitation, the possibility, is always there. Of course, we may refuse or fail – but these are responses that only pertain to worlds, not to the objects in them (which can be rearranged, even wrapped up and put in our pocket. So convenient – and so easy to lose).

In short, embodiment is a form of transmission. About ten years ago, I went to a party given by a friend who’s a musician and singer. There were about ten people there who sang or played over a couple of hours. It wasn’t a concert – they just got up and did their turn. I was talking to a man who’d already played some pretty nifty jazz piano when a woman of fifty or so was persuaded to sing. She made a small but noticeable fuss. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly…” Quite a lot of that. The pianist and I carried on talking. Suddenly, she started – and the pianist stopped in mid-sentence and looked over at her. She was shaky and slightly off-key – but she’d got us all. She wasn’t saying ‘This is what I can do’ but something completely different: ‘Here I am.’

The only way of getting this transmission – and it’s the same for performer and audience – is to put ourselves in the way of the hit. Which isn’t easy because it displaces us: we find ourselves somewhere else, and we become someone else. And it’s difficult to handle, too. It comes from nothing – both innocent and pure as well as monstrous, alien.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be removed.
After the earthquake, a fire; and after the fire, a still small voice.

Anything entered is a mystery. Quite recently, my four-year-old granddaughter leant forward without any preamble and said, ‘Grandad, when you’re dreaming, you’re in your dream! You’re in it!’ And she hunched her shoulders and stretched her fingers wide to reinforce what she was saying. And what was that? That things are not as they seem – they’re both more and less. And we’re lost and found in every moment. That’s why the hit is beyond technique, why it’s a matter of identity, not persuasion or belief. This is a game you play with yourself as a piece.

So we have to stay true. That’s why embodiment is intimately bound up with virtue in the original sense of that term: a power inherent in a supernatural being or god. A lot of people get upset when the terms supernatural or god are used but there’s no need. All they ‘mean’ is that something undeniable is visited upon us. In the Santeria religion, the santeri who are possessed are said to be mounted. And some gods will mount any horse.

This is magic and conspiracy, both – a gift and a steal.

There’s another way of talking about all this: by taking what’s in the middle rather than where we start – the hit – and where we end up – the world. (These two can be reversed, of course.) What’s in the middle is transposition: (re)creating something in another form. It’s the essential principle of human consciousness.

‘Gong’ is a woody word not a tinny one (even though gongs can be made of tin);
Evelyn Ashford, the great American sprinter, running like a mountain stream and molten lava (at the same time);
Loneliness in a song not by an ache in the voice (which would be emotional acting) but in the spaces between the notes (Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘One For My Baby’).

When we transpose in this way, we are aware of simultaneous realities: that ‘this’ is also ‘that’, that ‘here’ is also ‘there’. And it’s this realization that is the origin of the notion of level because the connection between these ‘forms’ is not causal like a seed and a plant (and they’re pretty damn different, after all). It’s an awareness that what we’re ‘seeing’ is not confined to its form – it has other forms. And moving from one form to another is what we do: we jump levels. And in that very act, we are ourselves transposed. It’s the fundamental human experience.

Transposition is thus a kind of metaphor – and that’s where meaning comes from. Something is meaningful when we realize that it goes beyond its ‘form’ – that it is, in a sense, already in other forms. Babies can laugh before they can talk – and that’s because they ‘get’ the movement from one level to another (which is the basis of all meaning, linguistic or not). To transpose in this way is to be human.

There are ‘modes’ of transposition. Yin and yang, the three gunas, the four elements, the five tattvas, are one set, as it were.

Jung’s four types: intuition, thinking, feeling, sensation. (That’s why I put ‘seeing’ in scare quotes on the opposite page. All four
types are modes of being aware. ‘Seeing’ is the sensation mode of transposition but it’s not the only one – or perhaps it would
be better to say that ‘seeing’ has a different sense for each of the four types);
The five virtues and their equivalent vices; Buddhism’s three defilements (kleshas).

All of these modes are also ways of being: how we engage with reality, and embody it and transmit it. (All transposition is a form of transmission.) They are the laws – the means of expression – that govern the active/creative imagination. (And we’ve all got it. It’s not a special gift. It’s what allows us to be stupid and mean, for example.)

Reality is itself transpositional and approximates us to itself.

Transposition is world-making: not just the forms but the relationships between them, and between them and us. It gives immersion and distance at the same time. It also leaves gaps – and we’re in them.

Every world is generated by a mode of transposition.

We can make a grid or mesh that we put over the world, which allows the world through.
We can send a pulse out into the world, which touches it and transmits back to us.
We can advance into the world like a raider and then come back again.
We can advance and then bring the world up to us like a matador.

All of these are incomplete, of course, because something of the world will always elude us whatever mode we use.

We can enter the world like a straight line or arrow, which is direct but narrow and sharp so that things are missed or fall off.
We can swirl out like a ripple, which catches more but is easily absorbed.
We can flash on and off like a cloud of fireflies – easy to start but given to disparateness, unconnectedness.
We can roll forth like a sphere, which gives an even spread but tends to flatten everything.

Transposition reveals and conceals, is given and discovered. It is meta-physical – action at a distance. Transposition always goes beyond. And it’s in the beyond that reality resides.

This is what Alfie (aged 5) said one evening when he was watching the bath water go down the plug: “That water’s like a fairy. She’s wearing a short dress and she’s going ‘Uh-uh’.” (Wiggling his hips.)

The other evening I was looking at Venus all alone in a dark blue sky – the blue that comes up after the sun has set. It
was completely silent apart from the occasional croak of a frog (which made the silence deeper). This transposes into all notions
of an original perfection that is made better by that which is added to it even if that addition is imperfect: an original unity that
manifests an extra dimension while remaining itself (buildings hewn from rock, for instance – Ellora, Petra).

Venus and silence linking with Petra: this is the adult version of Alfie’s wiggling fairy.

Transposition, metaphor, going beyond (and finding ourselves there): all sensations, all feelings, all ‘ideas’ – and all combinations of them – are at our service here. Height and depth, clarity and opacity, weight and lightness, volatility and stability… This is how we make worlds, by going beyond. Jubilation and subversion at every step. Reality is under construction.

Just a little aside. Humboldt made a connection between sounds and ‘feeling values’:

st = enduring, stable
v = uneven or vacillating motion
l = melting, fluid

This is experience as the continual entering of worlds, an initiation.

Inner/outer, substance/qualities: these are not separate entities that have to be joined but interacting worlds created by transposition. When music is transposed into nature – “It’s like snowflakes falling,” “It surges”, and the like – nature is itself transposed. We don’t start with snowflakes and surging, such that, knowing them, we ‘know’ the music. Both snowflakes and music are known through transposition – which is to say, through our entering them (and embodying and transmitting them). Inner and outer are obvious examples and we all go through them. It’s just that we get lost in them as we do so.

When a new dimension is brought into existence, it defines a new set of ‘forms’. At the same time, it changes how all the other dimensions are ‘seen’ or entered; and what the differences between dimensions consists in. Dimensions are immune to causality so one dimension coming into existence ‘after’ others does not imply secondariness. Any dimension can relate all others to itself. They are all equal in this regard.

Since transposition is always a jump between levels, this explains the particular ‘affect’ that goes with it: entering a world in which we find ourselves – and in which we can get lost. There is no finding and no losing like it.

Jumping levels wakes us up.

The difference between virtuosity and musicality: the first is technique, which stays at the same level, however brilliant; the
second is embodiment, which is discovery and failure. The first requires skill; the second, courage.

I remember seeing a man on TV, having lost someone he loved, being asked how he felt. He tried to say – but he couldn’t. And
in that failure was everything – himself above all.

There’s another level of transposition: when we’re aware of the difference between dimensions of the world –

yin and yang, for example,
or sensation and feeling
or grid and pulse

– which are themselves different modes of transposition. This is higher-order transposition. Not that it’s better – just more inclusive. And we all do it, whether we are aware of it or not. When we are aware of it (which is a gift not a skill), the world gets bigger – instantly and wonderfully. That’s what truth does: it makes space and time.

Transposition is self-inclusive, of course – so it has to be transposed itself. This can never be linear or singular. It has to be level-jumping and dimension-entering.

Because transposition is engagement with reality in different forms, it is both given and part of us, something we do. This is the origin of the object/subject distinction – and therefore of identity, who we are.

When Alfie says that the water going down the plughole is like a fairy wiggling her hips, this says something about him (as well as water, smoothness, rippling, wiggling and fairies). Transposition is the ascription of meaning – which is why it’s world-making. Meaning can always be different – and so can we (and the world).

We can always fall into the shadow – because truth and shadow are equal transpositions. Whatever casts the same shadow is the same truth regardless of its forms. Illusion is the shadow of perfection.

Every transposition, whatever its origin, implies all other forms at the same level:

thus surrounded by implies is the centre of;
alongside implies before and after (as well as above and below);
fleshes out implies gives birth to (and hence consumes).

Transposed forms have meaning – because they’re part of a world. ‘Straight’ above and below, which change where things are but not what they are, is simply rearrangement; transposition gives forms new life. And death is life in disguise.

Death is life in disguise is something we can know just by being alive. No special conditions are necessary. By contrast, a great insight like the true successors of Kant are Gauss and Lobachevsky is meaningless without some prior knowledge. The Kant/Gauss/Lobachevsky connection prepares a place for us (which we may or may not occupy depending on our knowledge). Death is life in disguise releases us from place. All truth does – and it’s transposition that reveals it.

Space is constantly trying to fill itself up. How? By the creation of worlds. And what do worlds do? They extend themselves in all directions, ceaselessly, mercilessly; and they fall back in on themselves (to give themselves extra density). We do the same. As above, so below. But we (below) are not straight copies of the cosmos (above). We’re transposed forms of it: recreations in another ‘place’ (and therefore our own worlds).

So there are gaps – and our life, our drama, is us trying to fill them up. All sins are attempts to fill voids. But so are all pleasures. That’s why they are transpositions of each other.

All ‘ideas’ (mental forms) are transpositions – from Locke’s sense of the term to mean ‘that which is picked up by the senses’ to every philosophy and theology ever devised.

NB. that both mental and form are transpositional terms.

What we see when we look aren’t just things but the relationships that exist between things, and between things and ourselves. Every look establishes a relationship with the world. (John Berger)

And here’s an instance of it. A couple of days ago, I went to a concert of three women singing (a capella). One of them
had a voice with a particular quality: it made you aware of the space around the sound she was creating. Another had the
inverse quality: her voice pulled everything into it.

Both of these qualities – the first is liberation; the second, seduction – are transpositional. They are not just alongside
other ‘forms’ but ‘within’ them. They are dimensional. Put the two together and you have something truly magical: both
extending the world and deepening it. (Aretha Franklin can do both at the same time – the real reason (not her power and
timing, which are themselves exceptional) she’s a great singer.)

There are people who can do the same thing with their bodies. The graceful ones make us aware of what’s around them; the potent ones pull us into them. Both of these – grace and potency – are transpositions. (Lauren Bacall and Marlon Brando are examples of those who have embodied the two qualities at the same time. They are the equivalents – the transpositional equivalents – of Aretha Franklin.)

And we can go further. Tragedy pulls in all our losses; comedy allows us to escape. So comedy can be put in the same world as grace and the space around the notes – just as tragedy goes with the deepening of the world and with potency. This is not to say that grace is comic – of course not. Rather, they are both dimensions of release. It is the mark of transposition to reveal such correspondences.

And how about this. “He possessed gifts which were at any moment likely to be visited by plenary inspiration and accomplish things not only unexpected but wondrous.” This could easily be an instance of angelology – itself a transpositional cosmology. The fact that it’s a description of Jim Laker, a great spin bowler, whom you may never have heard of, does not weaken this truth. The world – in the transpositional sense – has more instances of this sort than there are atoms. That’s why it’s irresistible.

One way of putting all this is in the words of Robert Fripp. “Knowing is the ordering of our experience on the outside of our perceptions; understanding is the ordering of our experience on the inside of our perceptions.”

Inside and outside are transpositional terms, of course.

Modes of transposition – the tattvas, the four elements, Jung’s four functions, and the like – are ways of being, ways of engaging with reality. All of them are manifestations of the active imagination.

Their distribution in the world – or rather, their expression – is what give the world meaning: taste, colour, shape, line, depth, harmony, rhythm, body, weight, movement, balance; plus launching forth and holding back, pulling in and putting out. It’s transposition that knows this (although nobody knows where you are – how near or how far.)

When you’re depressed, life loses its colour and taste. When you’re ‘normal’, colour and taste seem secondary qualities, added to the substantial world. But when you lose them, you realize they’re everything – life itself. (Stephen Fry)

There is a special case of transposition when transposition hides itself. So we get the ‘idea’ of something which is non-transposed (= neutral/pure/undistorted) from which the transposed (= biased/impure/distorted) stems. But this ‘idea’ is the very epitome of transposition, not its absence. The greatest act of the imagination is to forget itself.

This ‘idea’ permits certain moves: rearrangement without really changing anything, for instance (which is labelling, itself a sort of binding). It allows us to represent forms while keeping the forms as they are (we think). Then we can carry the world around with us instead of being in it.

Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible (Paul Klee). That is, it transposes.

Of course, transposition across the arts is easy. Lamonte Young cites Webern, Rothko and haiku as embodiments of minimalism. It’s when the heart is receptive to all forms that it gets interesting.

When I was 16, I went to Paris and did all the things you’re supposed to do at that age – including visiting the Musée d’Orsay to see the Impressionists. One Cézanne painting – actually, one tiny bit of a Cézanne painting – got me. It was a flower in a still life – and it was a single dab of paint. I remember the sensation to this day: the rush that comes from moving from one level to another. And in that jump were all the other jumps I’d made in my life, and I knew that the world contained an unlimited number of them. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that – the world had been telling me since the day I was born.

Another example. I was watching the rehearsal of an opera with dancers transposing the music into movement. And something happened. A quality of the music – its spread-outness – crossed over to the dancers, and a quality of the dancers – their palpability – leaked into the music. So the dancers acquired an intricacy and the music took on a solidity beyond that which each could have evoked on its own. The transposition of the senses is an essential element in all art. (And it’s the only thing that distinguishes art from earnest striving.) That’s why art enhances life and why life copies it.

Transposition uses the reality it embodies – that’s why it’s true.

Truth, however tiny (a dewdrop), cannot be contained. Uncontainability is ungraspability. Whatever we pour truth into, some of it spills out. So truth is a form of escape. This principle isn’t restricted to ‘big’ or ‘deep’ truths – all truth is like that. Truth and liberation and love are the same – and it’s transposition that reveals it. Everything is transposed; everything escapes. Everything is a gift; everything is ours. This is embodiment, the creation of worlds. A dewdrop is quite enough.

Now try this for size. There is a true, free ‘place’ (though it’s actually space itself) which is the same for everyone: musician, lover, thinker, yogi, acupuncturist, mountaineer, gardener. But this space becomes a ‘place’ when we embody and transmit it as a form. This is transposition into forms – and it’s what makes gardening different from music and yoga different from mountaineering. That is, the forms that come out of the hit are what make it a hit about some particular thing (even though all transpositions, by connecting between worlds, are equal). Then there’s a further transposition: from the individual embodiment and transmission to the level above, which is tradition: the social body which governs how the transposed forms (individual) are themselves transmitted across time. (This tradition doesn’t have to be a ‘high’ one like Hinduism or Islam; it can be any social form – the local allotment association, for example, or a jazz club.)

All of these three – original ‘place’, transposition into forms, and transposition into tradition – exist simultaneously, each on top of the other, and so compressed that we can hardly peel them apart. And we get stuck in that. But we can get out.

The true man or woman yields to the process of experience as to a lover. Such a one does not enter into the realms of experience in a defensive manner – cranky, rigid, full of self and knowledge. Rather, such a one enters into the present moment of experience as an act of love. (Da Free John)

Transposition is magic in the true sense of the term: intention, which is directed, together with active imagination, which fills things in. What things? The world.

The distinction between reality and imagination is itself transpositional.

Transposition, by its very nature, allows that things could be different. So meaning is always shared. That’s where the drama comes from.

Transposition is crossing boundaries – ones that require us to give ourselves up. It’s like loving someone. And that means failure. When it’s part of a mode of being, it’s OK, even necessary. It’s only when failure is on the same level as accomplishment that it’s seen as something to be avoided.

It’s the process of transposition that wakes us up. Yet it is always in need of completion. By the very fact that it ‘jumps’ and ascribes reality, it leaves a gap to be filled (and fulfilled). There has to be a gap for there to be meaning, and for us to be aware of that meaning. But then we’re necessarily aware of the gap, too – and us in it.

Language is transpositional, as is all role-playing. Identity and culture are impossible without it. It’s labelling function (‘Mt.Everest’, ‘my pen’) exists within those forms.

Transposition creates the subject/object distinction. (All the terms in this sentence are transpositional, including ‘the’.)

(a) ‘That is there now’/’I am here now’. Inbetween these two is a world.

(b) a ‘take’ on that realization – what it is for that to be there now and me to be here now.

Both are transpositions, which means there’s a jump and a loss. Out of these comes beauty/distortion – in fact, the very ‘idea’ of quality.

That’s why quality isn’t added on to something (which remains the same). Transposition is the perception of quality – picking it up and thus participating in it. This is just another way of saying that transposition ‘makes’ worlds.

Transposition bestows (and perceives) quality; there is no quality without meaning; and no meaning without ‘judgement’. That’s why we’re bound to live up to the truth: ‘That should go there’.

Transposition is inherently evaluative – and because it’s a form of embodiment, it’s also moral (should/ought). That’s one of the reasons that culture/society is transpositional – why it puts people somewhere (and they accept it).

We can derive experiential esotericism from this. For example, the four elements:

water receiving everything
earth sending forth everything
fire searching everything out
air touching everything

water unable to remain pure
earth unable to remain concentrated
fire unable to remain quiet
air unable to remain concentrated

The first set are metaphysical, the second are ‘non-dharmic’. (This is the connection between metaphysics and ‘virtue’ – that old principle, so misunderstood.)

Virtues are independent of conditions; vices are stuck to them, need them, fed by them. The first is love; the second is attachment (which interferes with love).

Truth is faster than thought – because of transposition. Thought rearranges things; transposition makes them real.

Transposition captures the whole truth (though it cannot be captured). It doesn’t separate it out or ‘place’ it – except that, having transposed it, we find that it is ‘in place’ (and so are we).

I love science and I do not want to give it up. But it is not enough. I am looking for something that is enough.

I had a conversation with my brother, who’s an acupuncturist. He talked about the times when he just knows what to do: the needles find their places, he’s not really doing it. He called it “expressing from the heart with intent”. This reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald’s singing: she’s finding her way through a world – of sound and timing – that she has herself created. She doesn’t have to know what she’s going to sing in the next split second – it just comes to her, like a dolphin swimming. “Expressing from the heart with intent” applies very well. This is freedom – which is precisely what we get from listening to her. She’s free, so we are. Transposition as embodiment yet again – the quintessential human experience.

The opposite of love is fear – the attempt to abandon transposition. But transposition can never be entirely lost – because the heart, which is the origin of transposition, can never stop expressing itself (in some ‘form’ or other). So love will always come back.

‘Here I am’ precedes ‘This is what I can do’. This is the only reason that the unitary precedes the multiple. It’s a matter of level – and of identity. But to be true to that we have to embody it.

Transposition, by its very nature, loses something at the same time that it reveals. So we lose part of ourselves as well as receiving the gift.

Transposition has two allies: will (which fills things in) and imagination (which spreads them out). All time is part of this process – and all stories: our past, present and future.

We are always looking for ourselves – but transposition changes us. That which is lost in the very act of discovery is the bit we want to recover.

Transposition needs confirmation for the same reason that it needs completion – because it has no resting place. Where does this confirmation come from? From other transpositions – and from others (who are themselves transposed).

Transposition is self-referential. What goes out as being about the ‘world’ comes back as being about ourselves. There is no self-awareness without this move.

As above, so below (though that principle is transpositional, of course).

Transposition is entering the drama – the unruly miracle.

All transposition is a ‘form’ of revelation – the hit. But it also sets us up – the cut. Culture – what we do with each other – is a repository of such forms. Traditions simply put them into a shape that we can enter, stay in, fall out of – and go back into again. History, from the shortest memory to the great arcs of cosmic time, is one of these shapes. It always has a place for us somewhere.

If the heart is receptive to all forms, we can enter a world in every moment. How to do that? By holding ourselves open, being present. Out of this come the dewdrops of Zen and the unlimited theophanies of Ibn ‘Arabi and the Ramayana.

This is the highway of joy. Brightness comes forth from the heart and the lords that were certainly expected are moving amongst us. We are making something of what we find. We are being true.

This doesn’t mean that we have anything. The mirror is not the substance of the images in it, only the place of their appearance. The same with us. The world is in us – but it isn’t ours.

The bird of the heart flies out and sings. It’s the only freedom – and that is ours.

p. 33
There is a diagram of the worldview of Plotinus [see above under the title].

The outer circle is the cosmic sphere of all ‘forms’ (including ‘ideas’).
The middle sphere is the ‘world soul’, subdivided by the radii into different ‘ideas’ (which I call ‘modes of being’).
The central sphere is the soul’s ‘idea’ of its own inner unity and totality (which includes all the other ‘ideas’).

It doesn’t matter about the arcane or technical nature of this metaphysics. The point is that all levels of it are transpositional – and that we’re going through them in every thought-moment.

Now you might say, “That’s news to me.” But that’s why I’m writing this: to show that entering a world is a ‘form’ of enlightenment.


These references – quite a few of which are very vague or even non-existent – are simply acknowledgements of those who have put things so well that I couldn’t resist them.

p.5 consciousness and the desire to escape it…: John Gray
I melt…: John Robinson
Swarming…: Goethe
My whole life has been a seizure: can’t remember
p.6 This pendant world…by the moon: Paradise Lost, ii.1052
lush and intimate…a transfer of gifts: David Toop, Ocean of Sound
p.7 tumbling destiny of all those who are born: can’t remember
hazard in the glorious enterprise: Paradise Lost i.89
p.8 When you have found the kingdom…: can’t remember
p.9 gives to forms and images…: Wordsworth, The Prelude
p.10 Therefore we will not fear…: Psalms xlvi.2
After the earthquake…: I Kings xix.12
p.15 reality is under construction: the underlying tenet of Charles Fort in the phrase of Colin Bennett
p.16 Humboldt taken from Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms
p.22 “He possessed gifts…: Neville Cardus, Wisden, 1957
p.23 nobody knows where you are…: Roger Waters/Pink Floyd, ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’
p.30 I love science…: a young man to John Pentland, Gurdjieff’s representative in the USA
p.32 heart receptive of all forms: Ibn ‘Arabi
highway of joy: an acupuncture term
brightness comes forth from the heart: more acupuncture
the lords that were certainly expected: Coleridge, Ancient Mariner
The mirror is not…in it: Henri Corbin (drawing on Sufi sources)
p.33 Plotinus diagram: can’t remember


October 25, 2007 at 9:44 pm

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