The mystery of consciousness

Why such an interest in consciousness at the present time? Could it be because of a feeling that we might in this phenomenon be in the presence of something absolutely inexplicable? After all, not everything is explicable. The greatness of a particular work of art, while not pure mystery, is a matter of ‘noumenal’ depth, a bottomless well, beyond demonstration. Is consciousness such a thing? Are we in this phenomenon running our heads up against the limits of explanation?

This seems unlikely. It is worth remembering that at some point during the history of the life-system of which we are part, consciousness evolved into being, and that the laws of physics cannot have relaxed their hold upon physical phenomena as it did. And it seems equally certain that supervenience must have characterized the emergence of consciousness upon such a physical basis, and that it is inconsistent with a radical contingency. If one physical condition corresponds to consciousness in one animal in one life-system in one sector of physical space, it is not going to correspond to unconsciousness or something quite other either in another animal or in a different life-system in another part of the universe. These considerations suggest that there cannot be much to the idea that consciousness is an essentially inexplicable phenomenon. What that explanation is, and whether we can ever hope to find it, are naturally enough other matters.

And so when people speak of ‘the mystery of consciousness’, they perhaps mean that nothing could explain the appearance of so radical a novelty on the world scene. But it is possible that what they are thinking of is something rather different. It could be that what they have in mind is, that whatever the explanation of consciousness may be, that explanation must be one that is marked by a natural depth which is barely to be plumbed in its entirety. And it is easy to sympathize with such a sentiment. And yet why single out consciousness in this regard? Are we to assume that a comparable attitude is out of place concerning Mentality itself—or even Life? Are not these phenomena marked likewise by depth of this particular type, and in that specific sense of the term by ‘mystery’ of a kind?

Brian O’Shaughnessy

Drifting Flowers of the Sea, impressions from last century.

Geraldine Wojno Kiefer writes about Sadakichi Hartmann, an American Impressionist who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a German father. His mother had passed away soon after his birth and Sadakichi was reared in Hamburg, Germany, home of his paternal uncle, a wealthy aesthete who encouraged his precociousness and early love of literature and the arts.

Through a series of colorful twists and turns, Sadakichi ended up in the United States, completing his education in libraries and museums and utilizing the income from printing and writing jobs to finance periodic trips back to Europe. There, particularly through his encounters with Jules Laforgue, Henri de Regnier, and other writers in Mallarme’s Paris circle (entree into which was provided by American poet Stuart Merrill in 1892), Hartmann absorbed a substantial dose of Symbolist literary theory and psychology.

Expanding sensate form to sensate experience, Hartmann defined his version of Impressionist sensibility:

It is not the glorification of classic form, but of an abstract idea… It produces instantaneously a tangled mass of sensations; this is the first impression, vague and vacillating but intense, and thereupon slowly, with the help of our intellect, do we arrive at a clear and distinct pleasure. We repeat the same process of soul activity which the statue represents.

On 1904 he wrote Drifting Flowers of the Sea

Across the dunes, in the waning light,

The rising moon pours her amber rays,

Through the slumbrous air of the dim, brown night

The pungent smell of the seaweed strays—

     From vast and trackless spaces

       Where wind and water meet,

         White flowers, that rise from the sleepless deep,

             Come drifting to my feet.

     They flutter the shore in a drowsy tune,

       Unfurl their bloom to the lightlorn sky,

         Allow a caress to the rising moon,

             Then fall to slumber, and fade, and die.

White flowers, a-bloom on the vagrant deep,

Like dreams of love, rising out of sleep,

You are the songs, I dreamt but never sung,

Pale hopes my thoughts alone have known,

Vain words ne’er uttered, though on the tongue,

That winds to the sibilant seas have blown.

      In you, I see the everlasting drift of years

        That will endure all sorrows, smiles and tears;

          For when the bell of time will ring the doom

            To all the follies of the human race,

               You still will rise in fugitive bloom

                  And garland the shores of ruined space.

Sin título

Dear Empire, I am confused each time I wake inside you.
You invent addictions.
Are you a high-end graveyard or a child?
I see your children dragging their brains along.
Why not a god who loves water and dancing
instead of mirrors that recite your pretty features only?

You wear a different face to each atrocity.
You are un-unified and tangled.
Are you just gluttony?
Are you civilization’s slow grenade?

I am confused each time I’m swallowed by your doors.


Jesús Castillo