The Poetic Stream of Consciousness
by Ken McClure
Centering prayer is an attempt to still the mind so that one becomes aware of God's presence at the center of one's being. To do this one tries to quiet the frantic busyness that characterizes distracted consciousness. That's not easy. There are times, someone has said, when a succession of battleships seem to be sailing down the stream of consciousness with all guns blazing. And even when the fleet has been diverted, the simple sound of the stream itself may seem too agitating, its very language accursed, defiling the desert where God would otherwise meet us. But we should think at least twice before so construing the word, lest we slay that very awareness we most wish to conceive. For not only does the stream of consciousness irrigate the soul, it is the harbor of the Holy Spirit, the womb where prayer is born.
These are very grand claims to be making for a place that no one thinks very much of. If, for those seeking God, it is a pestilent moat around the castle of silence, for many who can't imagine Him it has not even that tangential grandeur of contiguity. For those who crave mechanism and worship logic, it is but a conceptual fish farm. There, in an endless exercise of mindless redundancy, empty concepts are bred, through which we are predestined to experience a vacuous actuality.
Whether or not man is born free, he certainly seems everywhere to be in chains, and the most encumbering of these are often not of material circumstance but are mental chains of his own making. Consciousness, which should make us more free, seems determined to destroy that conditional but real freedom that life gives to us, as it were, biologically.
It is true that religious consciousness may so distort that freedom as to be called the opiate of the masses. But the materialists who yell that the loudest seem themselves to covet a state of mind so inert and empty as to be transcendently anesthetic.
They imagine that consciousness begins by having ideas imprinted on it by the outside world the way coins are mass-produced in the mint.
Ah, but then might not the mind, in the free internal world of its thought, redeem this debased currency of the real world through baptism in the stream of consciousness? No. Such a stream, to the extent it exists, would only gum up the materialistic business of the mind, rusting the conceptual factory's machinery. That business proceeds according to the same kind of laws that govern logical operations in any mechanical system, with ideas grouped according to similarity and propagated through traditional means of cause and effect. Here is opium without euphoria, epiphenomenon without epiphany, a dreamless sleep.
Another kind of materialist, no less prone to zealously stone the religious, makes a large place for dreams in his scheme of consciousness. In this scheme, consciousness is run not by the strictures of logic but by the forces of illogic, which turn out to be much the more powerful. Here too, neither thought nor language can make us free; we are determined not by the laws of logic but by the irrational forces of the unconsciousness. Language, whether inside or outside of the stream of consciousness, is not a key to unlock our chains but a symptom of our disease. The logos is an illusion.
One might think that only an empty materialism could conceive of so devitalized a consciousness. But that's not quite so. There cannot be a more robust empiricist than Aristotle, whose vision of "informed matter" is still foundational to our view of the world. It is famous for giving us a source of unchanging and certain knowledge, explaining how we can know the immutable essences that make things what they are. Nevertheless, there is an emptiness at the heart of Aristotle's world, a cost for the certainty of it all. If essences never change, nothing ever really happens. In such a world we can have certain and necessary knowledge, but our cognition is an exercise in redundancy.
Another way to say this is that, according to Aristotle, we can never know things in their concrete individual reality. As Father Copleston explains: "The concrete sensible substance is thus an individual being, composed of matter and form. But the formal element in such a being, that which makes it this definite thing, is specifically the same in all members of a species. For instance, the specific nature or essence of man is the same ... in Socrates and in Plato. This being so, it cannot be that the formal element renders the concrete sensible substance this individual, i.e., form cannot be the principle of individuation in sensible objects."
So what makes someone not any old person but just this precise, actual, beloved person? It is not the form, with all of its celestial clarity and intelligibility; it is matter, with all its earthy confusion and unintelligibility. And so, according to Aristotle, we have a problem. Matter, not form, is what makes things individual things, but matter, in itself, is unknowable. "Now, from this it appears to follow that the individual concrete thing is not fully knowable. Moreover, Aristotle ... explicitly stated that the individual cannot be defined, whereas science is concerned with the definition or essence. The individual, as such, is not the object of science and is not fully knowable" (Copleston, pages 308-310).
St. Thomas Aquinas harmonized faith and reason by conjoining Christianity with philosophy, which meant, effectively, with Aristotle. The two don't quite fit together. Aristotle is enchanted by a world of timeless truth; he sees these timeless truths expressed in the essence of things, which inform matter, perpetually infusing it with substantial reality. Christians believe in a God who virtually invented time and who seems to love entering into it to change things.
So we would expect Thomas's version of cognition to be somehow dramatized or enlivened by the ingredient of time. But, on this score, Thomas may seem devoutly Aristotelian. There is a disquieting mechanical nullity to the cognitive process he envisions. He seems to leave us with a knowledge only of things as they group themselves together by their conceptual nature, whereas Christianity seems to impel us to know beings in their individual reality.
Perhaps poets and literary artists have something to say about this. There is certainly more to knowing than conceptual knowing, and more to the stream of consciousness than its function as a conceptual fish farm or a factory for unending neuroses. What might this be?
In some way the characteristic reach of the mind in the stream of consciousness IS away from logic and conceptual thought. But perhaps we should say this dimension of mind, though deeper than logic and different in its reach, yet may work to enhance the conceptual fruits of knowledge. Let us see what light Freud (who never really "got" literature) can cast on this when he is diffracted through the understanding of Lionel Trilling (who sometimes really did). And in what follows, we may take the description of how the mind works to be a good description of the reach of the stream of consciousness, of the way it "works."
"For the mind, in one of its parts, can work without logic, yet not without that directing purpose, that control of intent from which, perhaps it might be said, logic springs. For the unconscious mind works without the syntactical conjunctions which are logic's essence. It recognizes no because, no therefore, no but; such ideas as similarity, agreement, and community are expressed in dreams imagistically by compressing the elements into a unity. The unconscious mind in its struggle with the conscious always turns from the general to the concrete and finds the tangible trifle more congenial than the large abstraction. Freud discovered in the very organization of the mind those mechanisms by which art makes its effects, such devices as the condensations of meanings and the displacement of accent" (Trilling, p. 61).
The stream of consciousness works much like the unconscious mind that is its source. It, in turn, may be seen as the source of poetry. The reach of its flow is away from concepts of things to things in their concrete individuality. In conceptual knowing we see things as separated into groups; in poetic knowing, as connected through their odd resemblances. And although the world may be seen as composed of separated things, those apparently separated things exist by virtue of an underlying infinite relatedness. The stream of consciousness, if it is not contemptuously disregarded (and even, perhaps, if it is) forces this awareness upon is.
Another way to say this is that the universe does not exist by virtue of conceptual connectedness alone but through its very infinite relatedness. In the stream of consciousness, we pay attention to connections that do not appear through concepts. When the material of the stream of consciousness is poetically shaped, important connections that have escaped our conceptual accounting can be proposed to consciousness. If we had to bet on whether the mind of God had in it -- and held the world together by having in it -- concepts or poems, I would bet on poems. To be sure, others would bet differently. And that leads to our next point. For the stream of consciousness individuates not only by turning us away from concepts towards things in their individuality, but by individuating US. There is a sense in which the self emerges from that stream.
But how does that happen? Well, in the first place, the objects towards which the unconscious mind turns -- those tangible trifles it finds more congenial than abstractions -- are often details in my individual life. So some of the material that is subjected to condensations of meanings and displacements of accents is material unique to my individual experience.
In other words, in the stream of consciousness, perceptions are reconstituted according to a poetic way of knowing rather than a conceptual way of knowing. We all recognize how this happens in dreams: Connections are made between apparently disparate elements of our past day or past life in ways that sometimes, if recalled and considered in our awakened state, are quite meaningful to us. We might say that they propose significant metaphors which give us real knowledge that can actually change us.
Now, in the stream of consciousness we are more fully awake than that. And we not only recollect disparate elements in our past but often perceive the present through that stream. My sensorium does not register the sense datum of a particular kind of bird sound emanating from a point my calculating consciousness then inferentially estimates; I hear a thrush singing outside my window. Experience is conceived in language that is so close to our body that it seems to have become a part of it.
Vygotsky has beautifully sketched what happens when language enters the psyche. One wants to say that the individual is reconceived in the image of human actuality; one may perhaps better say that human actuality is reconceived in terms of the individual. All of us who have watched infants emerge from the womb will agree that each embarks upon his or her journey equipped with a personality that is distinctly his or her own. And all light that enters their orbit must first be bent to their will by passing through the atmosphere of their concerns. Language is no exception.
Once the individual has made language his own, the will to power being what it is, he will begin to change language to his own devices. The plasticity of language is limited, and one's will, here as elsewhere, is hardly sovereign. But there's room for creativity. If we are lucky, he may propose certain metaphors to us that describe a condition of human actuality that otherwise would not have expression: My love is like a summer's day.
Does such a thing really matter? Possibly that kind of metaphor can make some difference in the experience of our loves and our summer days. But if we are to stop being tender-hearted and start being hardheaded, what is the difference? Similarly, one might ask his poem A Blessing: When James Wright sees two Indian ponies just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, and suddenly realizes that, if he stepped out his body, he would break into blossom, what does that have to do with the real world?
One wants to suggest that Mr. Wright's poetic memorialization of that perception may serve as a foundational perception, a footprint in reality on a path we can take when the conditions of the race have substantially improved. One is reluctant to claim that it has a more vivid currency in reality as we know it. It seems too much to say that the poem provides us the best way to understand the reality of St. Francis of Assisi, allowing us to see that he very much stood in Wright's shoes, saw those two ponies, and, while remaining in his body, spent the rest of his life actually breaking into blossom. That admittedly does seem too much to say.
But it may not be enough. We do not adequately grasp the power of natural language. As Whitehead has taught, philosophical thinking in natural language "builds cathedrals before the workmen have moved a stone, and it destroys them before the elements have worn down their arches. It is the architect of the buildings of the spirit, and it is also their solvent: And the spiritual precedes the material" (Whitehead, viii).
But before thinking narrows to this powerful pragmatic focus, it broadens out in the stream of consciousness, permitting language to expand its meaning, allowing us the freedom to better experience the world and bring us closer to God. It sometimes is necessary to reformulate our philosophical thought to comprehend the fruits of that experience.
Whitehead's experience of Romantic poetry played a role in forcing that necessity on him. Through it he may be said to have learned that "there is no real dualism between external lakes and hills, on the one hand, and personal feelings on the other: Human feelings and inanimate objects are interdependent and developing together in some fashion of which our traditional laws and cause and effect, of dualities of mind and matter or of body and soul, can give us no true idea. The Romantic poet, then, with his turbid and opalescent language, his sympathies and passions which cause him to seem to merge with his surroundings, is the prophet of a new insight into nature. He is describing things as they really are; and a revolution in the imagery poetry is in reality a revolution in metaphysics." (Wilson, pp. 5-6).
A change in the meaning of language, born in the stream of consciousness, is created through imagery in poetry. And we may say that a philosopher subsequently takes into account that change in meaning by modulating it into a more organized conceptual system of thought. But that focuses on history too narrowly and misses too much outside it. After the poem changed the meaning of words, people started to have a new experience of the world in light of that meaning; human actuality changed. It is that changed dimension of human actuality, which poetry helped engender, that Whitehead's philosophy acknowledges.
This has taken us far from those private waters where experience is born for us in language that is a part of our body. Language in that dimension seems almost to be who we are. In William James' Psychology the chapter "The Stream of Thought," explicating the stream of consciousness, is followed by "The Sense of Self," so closely is that sense shaped by that stream. Reading the interior monologues of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, which dramatize the stream of consciousness, we sense that inherent in the web of interior language is the very core of individual personality. If the unique destiny of the human person is to be appropriately achieved, that core must be linguistically divined and developed. In Keats' terms, our intelligence must acquire an identity and become a soul. That begins in the stream of consciousness.
So it is not surprising that it should be a frightening place to leave. If a language magnet were fashioned to lift all words out of our minds, fear strikes that we would lose ourselves in the process. When we are well situated in the stream of consciousness, it may feel like we are in the very center of our soul, a place where it seems like we are meant to be. But there is a deeper place still.
It is very difficult to talk about. In terms of this discussion, we may say that it is a place where the infinite connectedness of the universe is so perfectly known as to still the impulse to conceptually articulate it. Another way to say that -- a better way, I think -- is that, in that deeper place, we no longer can mistake the fact that we are in the presence of God's love.
To say more about this, I would start this way:
"Two people are talking together. They understand each other, and they fall silent -- a long silence. This silence is language; it may speak more eloquently than any words. In their mood they are attuned to each other; they may even reach down into that understanding which, as we have seen above, lies below the level of articulation. The three -- mood, understanding and speech (a speech here that is silence) -- thus interweave and are one. This significant, speaking silence shows us that sounds or marks do not constitute the essence of language. Nor is this silence merely a gap in our chatter; it is, rather, the primordial attunement of one existent to another, out of which all language ... comes. It is only because man is capable of such silence that he is capable of authentic speech. If he ceases to be rooted in that silence all his talk becomes chatter" (Barrett, 223).
For an existent to enjoy such silence with his creator may be the greatest experience open to us. And there is a sense in which we must leave the world and the stream of consciousness in order to get there. But that cannot by turning our back on either. The way is quite clear. To get there we must go through the world and through the stream of consciousness, not contemptuously but as wholeheartedly and highheartedly as we can, loving the word as hard as we can as far as we go.
W. Barrett, Irrational Man, (New York, 1990). F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume I, (New York, 1962). L. Trilling, "Freud and Literature" in The Liberal Imagination (Garden City, New York, 1950). L. Vygotsky, Thought and Language (1986, Cambridge, Massachusetts).
Born in 1949, Ken McClure received his BA from NYU in 1972. Since that time he has worked as a court reporter in New York, Vermont, and South Carolina. From 1996-2004, he and his wife, Kathi, owned and operated Rivendell Books in Montpelier, Vermont. They currently run McClure's Bookstore in Clemson, South Carolina.