William Oxley: Oxley's Credo

a dialogue for R.L.


I: Do you think communication is easy, difficult or impossible?
O: It is rarely easy, mostly difficult but not impossible.
I: What are its chief difficulties?
O: Ignorance, or lack of information, and the imperfect nature of the tools we have to work with. Put a more philosophical way, we are imperfect beings trying to communicate perfection.
What do you mean by that?
O: I mean that we are minds temporarily (or permanently according to one's viewpoint) bound by the limitations of finitude or time and space. But we have - and have for as far back as you care to go - the desire to transcend those limitations.
I: Can we transcend those limitations?
O: Yes.
I: How?
O: Through art, through religion, through philosophy...
I: But the ordinary person doesn't go for art and suchlike...
O: There are no `ordinary persons': there are only human beings variously limited, some more than others; but, even the wisest, still limited. If this was not so, the likes of Socrates would be beyond criticism, but even he is not. Even the poorest among us in terms of intelligence has it in their hands to be watchful, or vigilant; to be thoughtful and to listen. So, translating philosophy, art and religion - i.e. the ways of culture - into practical credos for enlightment is perfectly possible for all people, even those who will never aspire to the higher reaches of culture. It is perfectly possible; as Christ said the only condition being `if you have ears to hear'. Well, we all have ears both physical and metaphysical: they aren't the problem. The problem is - and we are all guilty of this in some measure - we don't listen enough. I don't. And that's why my powers of communication are limited. We should all work at this problem more because it is the way to greater enlightenment for us all. The fact that we are so careless of it, of course, is directly related to the will to truth, or the strength of our passion of curiosity.
I: You suggest that - although we are limited beings - we can aspire to perfect communication. How is this possible if we are limited?
O: Well, we have to work at it. I hate clichés: but practice can make perfect.
I: But aren't there some ideas, for example, that are beyond communication because they are beyond understanding?
O: Like what?
I: Like the idea of God, for example. Many people - who are believers - say that God is unknowable; and, therefore, by definition is incommunicable. While many others say that the idea of God has no substance at all - atheists, for example, hold this view.
O: It is impossible to establish the non-existence of God, save by arguing from premisses and ideas of substance that are already existent: just in the way that it is impossible to logically establish the mathematical notion of zero save from already existent numerical terms. If the atheist were to be right, then not only would there be no `god', but no existence at all. There is a fatal contradiction at the heart of atheism; and, at most, it is a fantasy theory; and I have never been in the least bit surprised mathematicians actually refer to their theory of zero and minus numeracy as `imaginary numbers'. For this reason I am certain of the existence of deity or God.
I: Okay, given that you are what is termed `a believer'...
O: I prefer the trem `knower'. It is my view that - however imperfectly - we either know something or we don't know something. And I can only accept the idea of `belief' when it's equated with `faith' and that, in its turn, only as the `hope' to `know' something in the future. Faith means no more than that to me: the promise of future enlightment.
I: So you are saying both that God exists and that we may come to know that Being in the fullness of time?
O: Yes.
I: How so?
O: By a process of self-enlightenment. As Meister Eckhart said: we are in the process of becoming God. That is the purpose of existence, and has been as far back into history or mythology, human society and culture, one cares to go. When Ezra Pound - speaking only of his specialised branch of human understanding, which is also my especial concern too - that the ultimate purpose of poetry was the `extension of human consciousness' he was touching on the same wide process.
I: Accepting your argument, for a moment, that we can come to know God what, then, does God mean to you?
O: My knowledge of God derives from two sources - as does that of all people who possess, or claim to possess such knowledge - from inherited information or `hearsay evidence', as the lawyers put it; and from personal experience or moments of intense awareness of Another. Now it is as well to interpolate here that all knowledge, for example, scientific knowledge is similarly acquired. No one totally invents any area of knowledge: all such areas being built up from inherited or acquired (`said to be true, hearsay' information) knowledge to which the inheritor or acquirer adds something Other, from his or her deepest psychic level. Innumerable scientific discoveries have been made this way and, afterwards, are translated into some terminology and action. And it is the identical process with religious experience, with `God', and with theology - which latter is only the philosophy of God, just in the way that what we call science is really the philosophy of nature, and what we call mathematics is really the philosophy of numeracy. From all of which it therefore follows that what I mean by God is a composite entity: Christ's `heavenly Father'; Mohamet's `Allah'; Valmiki's `Brahma'; the more scientific (or prosaic, if you prefer) Greeks' pneuma or nous or, from their pre-Platonic times, that anangke or Fate to which even Jove was subject; or Spinoza's `indivisible, necessary Substance'; and so on. God is the presence of Other both within and without us. But our awareness of deity waxes and wanes, not with bodily growth or bodily decline, but by the removal of unnecessary distractions veiling our contemplation of that presence. Those who have - down the centuries - been most succesful at deliberately (it can happen fleetingly and accidentally) penetrating what the Hindus call meya, or `the veil', affirm that deity is wholly positive or good or entirely creative: something which would suggest that evil and destruction has its origins this side of the Veil; and I'm very much inclined to accept that. Which latter is why I - in my heart - tend to reduce all sin, all error to ignorance on my part.
I; Where does morality fit into this then? What does morality mean to you?
O: The ladder to perfection: each rung of which being a precept of wisdom. But, of course, `morality' is a generic term covering many moralities: but I only accept that morality, or those rules of conduct, which aim or conduce to the knowledge of God whose religion, as the Hindus say `satyat nasti paro dharma', is Truth. I have no interest in morality as mere social conformism, because ultimate goodness is not of this world. By which I mean that goodness, justice, truth, etc., are unattainable in a world of finitude. The transfiguration of the world cannot come about by social reforms, social-based moralities, (such reforms themselves soon enough get reformed: the `virtues' of one generation very quickly becoming the `vices' of the next), it can only come about in the individual heart: which is to say by people overcoming the evil and ignorance in themselves, and this can only be achieved by agape or caritas genuine love of the good or God. The First Commandment to `Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart', if that is not embraced then the rest of the Decalogue will not work.
I: Why?
O: Because unless we follow what St. John of the Cross called `the Way of Perfect Love' we shall not come to know that Truth which, as Christ said, alone can make us Free: free of the crass limitations of finitude. All other morality is a waste of time.
I: Why? Why, for example, is the search for social justice or healthy-living a `waste of time'? Why have you got to bring divinity into it at all? Why can't we just have a secular morality?
O: Because a secular morality, being finite, can only - like the human body - have a limited life-span. There are innumerable examples before us today. One obvious example has been the swift and spectacular decay of marxist `morality'. Another is the constant mutating of capitalist ideology: remember the phrase of a few year's back `the unacceptable face of capitalism': there is a morality of capitalism. Then consider the way in which `moral questions' rear their heads (very often intractably) around the use of scientific discoveries - e.g. concerning the matter of genetic engineering. Then there is the `morality of technology': how what was designed (secularly) to liberate people has, in fact, created a population of voluntary slaves: young persons wired up to walkmens or chained to computer keyboards and quite cut off from nature and the cosmos, and - ditto - older `couch potatoes' more or less brain-dead in front of TV screens. Or compare the way in which in Victorian times, with the decay of true puritanism into secularity, the soul of a man or woman could be weighed in the scales of truth and justice against secular peccadillos and found wanting: condemned absolutely for the least sexual error by the mores or secular morality of the time: compare that with the way the `new puritans' of today will weigh in those self-same scales the soul of a man or woman gainst an ounce of tobacco or a packet of fags, and find them wanting. Again, think of the twisted morality of the IRA or the Animal Liberators who justify the enormity of their acts by equating `good' with `expediency'. Think of these, and suchlike things - think of how secular morality is prey to fashion - and you will understand how we cannot `just have a secular morality' and expect the world to become any better. Secular morality leads straight to sectarianism and tunnel vision: to the illiberal self-righteousness of gender bigotry, religious bigotry, consumerism, anti-consumerism, dear God, the list is endless! But not my point which is: secular morality may well be, and very often is, commendably sustained by compassion but, all too soon, it becomes hatred (or allows hate in) because without the love of God (i.e. the higher love of perfection which transcends compassion and sentiment) caritas cannot be sustained in the human breast. As St. Paul said: `Faith, hope and charity - and the greatest of these things is charity'. That is why I say secular moralities are a waste of time.
I: Okay, okay. But how must we view other people? Is there no socially correct attitude to follow?
O: As long as we live in groups, societies, individual freedom has to be conditioned by the rights of other individuals. One is obliged to think not only of oneself, but of others as well. There are no ideal societies in this world, but the best that there are strike a reasonable balance between the differing requirements and aspirations of their citizens, and are societies which recognise that it is a blasphemy against truth and justice to try to eradicate difference and variety among peoples, not only because it creates the ultimate misery of boredom and alienation but because such standardisation destroys the beauty in life: and beauty is the reflection of ultimate good. Good order and goodwill between people, between individuals, requires respect for differences - whether of belief, habit or appearance - and such `relationship' is conditioned by morality, which should never be confused with politics. The moral being is concerned with the nature of all other beings; the political animal is concerned with the use of all other beings. Which is where the problem comes in. Translated into concrete terms this means that the `moralist' judges his or her fellow human beings from the standpoint of their natures: asks the question `who are they and what are they like?'; but the `politician' asks: `What use are they to me and how may I control them?' The moral being is essentially creative; the political essentially destructive or depressive. Most of us are a mixture of the two impulses and, dependent on which impulse predominates, determines the social attitude we adopt. Speaking for myself as a creative artist - a poet - I am interested in my fellow human beings for their own sake and am, therefore, more likely to be disturbed by their natural differences than by anything else. However, in my case, such a disturbance is by no means always negative. This is because, being very familiar with my own thoughts and store of knowledge - and therefore prone to self-boredom - I have a thirst for other people's thinking. Which is why I read a great deal; and why, when I meet people, I ask a lot of questions. It is also why I have a relatively high threshold of tolerance towards those habits which, though trivial in themselves, are so often the cause of dislike and hatred between persons. Which in some considerable measure explains why I can fairly readily see that the arguments for a perticular habit or cause are invariably negated by the arguments against; and that the arguments used to justify or not justify something equally apply to so many other things which may well - because of fashion - go unchallenged. I also know that where persons `draw the line' is often very different, as between each other, because of their innate differences: which differences are, of course, the very guarantee of that all-important variety of which I have spoken. Crucial to the matter of censorship, of course, is this question of `drawing a line'; but, unfortunately, because of a widespread lack of clarity of thought, censorship or non-censorship boils down to prejudice or `likes' and `dislikes', rather than any genuine effort to discriminate between the bad and the good.

Every society since records began has tended to draw a distinction between public and private life. And even in democracies, where the line wears thinnest of all, a sort of fiction is maintained. With the exception of one society mentioned by Xenophon in his Anabasis, which tended to do in public those things we do in private, and vice versa, the fiction of public versus mores is largely maintained. But it is interesting to note that some things, like murder for example, do occur in both the public and private domains fairly regularly; and smoking - once regarded as a harmless pursuit - has, through educative brain-washing, come to be regarded as a sort of public and private murder: both a suicide or self-murder for the practiser and, for the innocent bystander caught in the `cross-smoke', a form of being slowly murdered. There is even a term for the innocent smoking bystander and that is a `passive smoker'. Now I have linked smoking and murder not because I draw no distinction between them - only fools and fanatics and those short on intelligence would do that - but because I wish to emphasise the difficulty of maintaining equable relations between members of society, especially a society which - having no recourse to any higher authority than consensus - is governed by secular morality and political expediency, and which, therefore, must inevitably plunge ever deeper into mediocrity, as it loses the vision of perfection. Until morality itself is reduced to the absurdity of being nothing more than a question of manners and etiquette. Like a friend of mine, a London commuter, who travelled every day from Hertford into Moorgate and, in his own words, `had to endure the sight of this woman every day getting on the train and spending the whole journey into London putting make-up on her face'. And he added: `If she'd been a smoker I'd have expected her to have the good manners to at least ask if I minded if she went through this elaborate ritual of making-up every day? Which I jolly well did. I often thought of bringing a toothbrush and cleaning my teeth in the compartment to see how she would react!' Yet my much-offended friend, who made a speciality of running his car engine for at least ten minutes on cold mornings, filling the street with smoke, would have been equally offended if anyone had suggested he consulted his neighbours about the practice before he indulged in it. And if one had suggested to him that all pedestrians were `passive drivers' he would clearly have thought you mad. But the real madness is in none of these things, but in the level of triviality to which secular morality inevitably reduces human relationships.
I: You are a poet. Would you say that your `credo' or world view is that of a poet?
O: Only in one respect and that is, like all artists, I tend to shy away from the consensus viewpoint.
I: What exactly do you mean by `the consensus viewpoint'? Do you mean you are against the status quo? Anti-establishment?
O: Not exactly, no. I mean I have an instinctive aversion to received opinion, to the fashionable viewpoint, and, above all, a sort of desire both to subvert and re-express everything I hear uttered, or wish to utter myself. Of course, one can't hope ever to do much more than tinker with the given language, the common ways of utterance, but I do so love to try to say things in fresh ways. And because of this I am totally dissatisfied with given knowledge. I'm like an octopus trying to grow an extra tentacle.
I: Auden said: `Poetry makes nothing happen'. Do you think that's true?
O: He said that - oddly I always think - in his elegy for Yeats? In any obviously utilitarian sense it's true. And it particularly upset his supporters on the working-class/public school Left because it conflicted with their belief that the only useful sort of person was the man or woman who manufactured something, especially with some use of heavy manual labour. They adored Auden, of course, in those days of politics, Spain, and the working class revolution, and his admission that poetry was `useless' in any practical way greatly disquieted them. But, really, what poetry does - like all art - is it adds to the imaginative dimension of life. It reveals and points to states of consciousness hitherto hidden in the subconscious mind, and provides new material for the philosophical part of the mind to rationalise and bring into the full light of consciousness. Poetry is a marvellous process really ... in the right hands! Poetry, lastly, also makes poems happen.
I: What is poetry?
O: The divine intervention in human affairs. The afterglow of imagination in writing. The ... I can't really say.
I: What is poetry about?
O: Poetry is not primarily about anything. It's about what the poet feels about anything ... life principally. And that's what I've been trying to get at in this credo.
I: Is poetry autobiography? Can we best understand a poet from his poems?
O: Two questions there. No, it's not autobiography: it's imaginative creation quite separate from its maker - and poets were once called `makers': the Greek word poesis, from which ours comes, means `maker' or `making'. But, yes, you can best understand a poet from his or her poetry because their essential being goes into their poetry.
I: Who does a poet make poems for?
O: I can only speak for myself. I write for anyone who cares to hear my poems recited or who cares to read them.
I; Who is to judge their quality?
O: God must inevitably be the best judge because only deity has the cosmic overview. But I'll actually settle for the Muse because she inspires them in the first place: so I reckon She's got the ultimate franchise of judgement. Then the next best judge is the reader or hearer. And the poet - who comes last in my eyes as critic of his own work (like a mother with her kids he's too involved for true impartiality) - is also a valid judge of their worth too.
I: Anything else to say?
O: Only that I wish I could have been more precise in my answers!