Spiritual reading and the epiphany of poetry
Jane Davis says that literature saved her life. She grew up in a broken home, with a single mum who died of alcoholism. She left home and lived in squats, with a husband who also eventually died of substance abuse. She was helped by a Women’s Liberation group and then went to study English Literature at Liverpool University. But she was turned off by the entitled middle-class students around her, and the pervading miasma of critical theory.
That’s when she had her epiphany. She told Ashoka magazine:
At the end of my first year, I read Doris Lessing’s Shikasta. Literally overnight, it changed my whole world-view. It’s a brilliant sci-fi novel, and it made me realise there is a religious or spiritual dimension to life and I needed to understand what it was. It brought on something like a nervous breakdown. I was very scared, because I realised I would have to totally change my life. I didn’t know how to behave in this new universe where everything matters. The book made me see that you have a life for a purpose and you’ve got to find out what that purpose is and then you’ve got to do it.
She graduated with a first, and started to teach in a continuing education college. She got to pick what she taught and she used the course to teach herself about great literature - she did a 20-week course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, another 20-week course on Piers Ploughman. She also did a PhD, but she knew that, deep down, she wanted to help get non-readers into reading, to show them that literature can save and transform lives, and that it belongs to all of us.
In 1997 she started the Reader Magazine, and in 2002 she launched the Reader Organization, which runs ‘shared reading’ groups. The group - anything between 2 and 12 people - read a poem or novel out-loud, and then discuss it in detail, bringing in their own experience and stories when they want to. The discussion is guided by a facilitator trained by the Reader Organization.
There are now almost 100 people working full-time for the Reader, which is an extraordinary achievement. Davis is not just a lady with a mission, she is apparently a brilliant people-manager. There are now over 300 shared reading groups around the country, including over 100 around Merseyside (also the home of Philosophy in Pubs, by the by - clearly something in the water up there). There are shared reading groups in many prisons. The Reader has also teamed up with NHS health and well-being boards to help people recovering from mental illness. And it’s working in care homes to run reading groups for the elderly and for those with dementia.
The testimonies from these groups are amazing. And the Reader has worked with The Centre for Research into Reading at Liverpool (run by Josie Billington and Jane’s husband Phillip Davis) to research if shared reading is good for us - a 2011 study found significant benefits for people recovering from depression. This helped to inspire the NHS’ ‘books for health’ programme - although Jane points out there are big differences. The NHS’ programme only ‘prescribes’ narrow CBT books, which people read on their own. There is not the beauty of great literature, nor the community of a reading group.
So why is reading fiction or poetry good for us? Reading in general gives us cognitive benefits, according to a new study by Alice Sullivan - it improves our vocabulary and even our maths ability. Another study last year found reading novels increases our empathic ability to take others’ perspective. It is also very heartening, if one is going through an intense experience or emotion, to find that someone else has gone through something similar and put it into words ‘often thought but ne’er so well expressed’.
I love what Holden Caulfield’s teacher says to him in Catcher in the Rye:
You'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.
I would say it’s wisdom. Poetry and fiction is an accumulation of wisdom about consciousness and experience. And so much of the challenge of our culture, today, involves remembering the wisdom of the past and communicating it. The Reader Organization does that - it tends the flame, it passes it on.
Also, the communal aspect of the shared reading group is part of its magic. The art work is a stimulus to discussion, to sharing about your lives. You listen, and you feel heard. I think that’s a lot what people get from the philosophy groups I run - in some ways, me talking about the philosophy at the beginning is just an excuse to get people together to talk to each other about what really matters to them (this is part of the appeal of the Alpha Course too).
This week, for example, the philosophy club at Saracens prepared for their Premiership semi-final by reading and discussing Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior. It was surreal, but also brilliant. And it got the players talking to each other about what really matters - it was beautiful to hear them talk about playing for the camaraderie and joy of it (and they won, by the way).
What I think poetry and literature particularly do is reach a part of the psyche that rational philosophy doesn’t necessarily reach. The symbols, the rhythm, the metaphors and paradoxes, these go deep into the soul, beyond the pre-frontal cortex. Jane Davis says that a good sign of poetry is it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Emily Dickinson said ‘if I feel physically that the top of my head has come off, that’s poetry’. It’s a sort of liturgy or spell - and sharing that reverie or even ecstatic state together is very good for us, I believe. It opens a window to the spiritual, and stops us getting too claustrophobic in the narrow cell of our selves.
Poetry can give us epiphanies - a sudden insight into our lives and the human condition - a seeing from another angle, from above, from within, a revealing of the beauty and pathos not just of our lives but of life. Jane Davis’ favourite writer is the novelist Marilynne Robinson, and she has a special genius for capturing these epiphanies - it might be seeing a couple walking down the street hand-in-hand, and the poignancy and eternity of that moment takes your breath away.
It is a spiritual thing. For centuries, Christian monks and lay-people practiced something called lectio divina, or spiritual reading, where you read, considered and digested a passage of scripture, savouring in a deep and physical way the explicit and implicit meanings, the symbols, the parallels with other texts, and the resonance with your own life and where you are now. Spiritual reading helped to grow your inner world, as St Augustine put it - to expand your soul into a many-roomed mansion. Around the 16th and 17th century, that practice passed into the world of poetry, through writers like George Herbert and John Donne, who used many of the spiritual practices of contemplative Christianity in their poetry. Today, poets and writers may not be orthodox Christians, but many of them still keep those contemplative practices alive in the belief that art is good for our souls.
TE Hulme once said that Romantic poetry is ‘spilt religion’. A more positive way to put it is that the Reader Organization offers a form of spirituality for an undogmatic and multicultural age. It uses the language of religion - epiphanies, mission, revelations, converts, testimonies - and some of the practices of religion - shared reading, spiritual reading, liturgy - and offers them to people who might not be sure what they believe, but who instinctively seek for that spiritual dimension to life.
It also keeps alive a tradition of adult education that has almost disappeared. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, faith groups, socialist groups and universities all worked to spread education, to teach people how to read and discuss ideas and art. In the second half of the 20th century, however, many universities closed their extension courses, further education colleges became focused on teaching ‘skills’, and the left-wing intelligentsia lost interest in adult education and fell in love with obscure continental theorists. Thank God, then, that people like Jane are keeping the flame burning.
In other news:
The Huffington Post is turning into a hot-bed for Stoic philosophy, thanks to its managing editor, Jimmy Soni, who is a Stoic, and its CEO Arianna Huffington, who is also a big fan of it. Two pieces on Stoicism from the site - one's an interview with a Stoic former Green Beret. And the other is a general piece on why we need more Stoic philosophy in our lives. Maybe this new wave of Stoic enthusiasm will help my book sell more copies in the US! Lots of nice reviews for it on Amazon at least.
Here's a great programme on helping Muslim populations in the UK with mental health issues - including finding an indigenous way to talk about things like depression. Great idea - and a great way to fight extremist Islam, which feeds off despair and alienation.
And here's a good article on why social activists can avoid 'burnout' through contemplative practice.
Tanya Luhrmann, a great anthropologist, writes for the NYT on dreaming in different cultures.
Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci gave a talk this week on Scientism. Here are the slides.
Prince is touring the UK! Here's a brilliant vid of a James Brown gig in the 80s, where Brown invites Michael Jackson on stage to dance, and then Jacko invites Prince on stage from the audience too. Prince is wasted and gets his bodyguard to carry him to the stage! Hence the Kanye West line 'ride around on my bodyguard's back like Prince in the club'. Hooray for Prince.
Finally, might as well end with a poem. Being in a religious community is hard. Being in any community is hard. It confines your freedom and that chafes. But maybe we discover a greater freedom in service. George Herbert, vicar and poet, thought about this a lot in the 17th century. His poem 'The Collar' is a great exploration of this experience. Have a read.
See you next week,