The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

The Dialogue With Oneself

Solitude and Quietness (Part Two)

David Jones, the distinguished Welsh poet and watercolorist who died in 1974 lived a quiet—if not reclusive life—seemingly oblivious to fame and 'success.' On the one occasion when he was interviewed by a National newspaper as to why he had shunned the limelight, he replied that a degree of isolation was necessary if he was, as poet and painter, "... to discover the forms of which I myself am made."

The message is clear: By means of the created poem, and the fully realized painting, the artist gave tangible, visible form to the feelings and thoughts that drove his inner, psychological life. And in so doing came to know himself more completely as a human being: one who existed physically in a world of time and space, yet who also lived psychologically in a mental realm of intuition and imagination. And it is through the dialogue that goes on between these two selves, that poet and painter search for identity and meaning in life.

I have previously suggested that such a 'dialogue with oneself' is more likely to occur when not beset by the 'madding crowd'. Life in Wales provided David Jones with the seclusion he needed. Yet there are places on this planet where the sense of isolation is so intense, that the dialogue can sometimes take on metaphysical overtones, intimating spiritual levels of 'being' that transcend the physical. One such place is the Southern Ocean and the continent of Antarctica.

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Over the course of several years I have participated in a complete circumnavigation of Antarctica's western South Atlantic side, and a partial one of its Indian Ocean eastern coastline. The voyages around a Continent that wasn't inhabited by man until the 19th Century were long (six plus weeks at a time) and arduous (requiring careful navigation through high-rolling ocean swells, pack ice and errant icebergs of monumental, sculptural grandeur).  And yet it is here that the senses—caught up in the white glistening world of ice and ocean—release consciousness to go on walkabout.... listening in on voices sounding from some supersensible level of one's being.

Commander Frank Wild—Sir Ernest Shackleton's second-in-command—and a great unsung hero in his own right who accompanied Scott, Shackleton, and Mawson on five South Polar Expeditions between 1901 and 1922, said that once you had been to 'the white unknown' you could never escape 'the call of the little voices.' Shackleton himself, in his book South reveals how he was inspired at moments of extreme crisis by an inner intelligence - an invisible presence guiding their progress over the seemingly impassable Allardyce Range in South Georgia in a Southern Ocean winter. I know a little of what he and Wild were talking about. In the book Antarctic Odyssey I describe sitting beneath an icefall on Mount Erebus in McMurdo Sound. Nerve-breaking silence. Limitless distance: land and sea-ice stretching into seeming infinity. No points of reference by which to establish one's position. Absolute solitariness. But the 'little voices' were off and running: a soundtrack of memories and random reflections....

The French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot wrote: "Where does the strange attraction of the polar regions lie, so powerful, so gripping that on one's return from them one forgets all weariness of body and soul and one dreams only of going back." Had Charcot read Wordsworth's A Poet's Epitaph, written some eighty years earlier, he might have found the answer in the lines: "Impulses of deeper birth/ Have come to him in solitude'.

I write about many instances of such visionary shifts of consciousness in What the Hell Are the Neurons Up To? about moments of inspired insight and reflective mental wanderings initiated when consciousness shifts gear, putting the senses into 'automatic' and linear time 'on hold'. Whether it be a poet like David Jones; a composer like Mozart; a scientist like Einstein; an explorer like Shackleton; or more ordinary mortals suddenly discovering hidden aspects of their lives.... the new intelligence—the dialogue with oneself—is facilitated by attaining a level of seclusion....

However, let Mozart have the last word here: "When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone.... It is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them..."

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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