Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

Silver linings (Ollie Taylor, ESA)

Silver linings (Ollie Taylor, ESA)


The pursuit of writing begs the question “why?”. I feel a constant need to better grasp all the ramifications within the framework of my own intent. No meaningful voice, I believe, can transpire without facing the question of why. I found myself going through posts written in the past ten years. Consciousness, I feel, runs through a multilayered spacetime. We are left to wonder where exactly it resides from atom to stratum. On an individual level, it is the ability to reflect on one's own thoughts. A pause involves the act of metacognition. It means to ​​step aside, as it were, from oneself and analyze and judge the operations of one’s mind. The same image appears again and again in my head of my own self drifting away. Each step forward initiates a necessary halt and so begins another round of reflective bits. 

I have followed the wise advice to read Whitehead’s writings. For him, consciousness “enlightens experience which precedes it” (1). There can not be any consciousness without past -- individual or collective -- experience. The “residual trace” spoken of by Utpaladeva sends an echo when I read Whitehead on the question of memory.  There are some elements of recollection in consciousness, sparks from the “dim recesses of the Unconscious”. But the Unconscious is a labyrinth. Lost in the maze of a dream-like reality we follow breadcrumbs that guide us to sprinkles of light and fragments of memory. It is oblivion that motivates our quest.


We are who we are in large part because of what we have learned and what we remember...The human memory system forms abstract internal representations that arise from previous exposure to similar images or experiences.

The Age of insight, Eric R. Kandel, 2012

 From William James to Alfred North Whitehead, drops of perception to drops of experience, the mechanism that we observe from smaller to larger scales is the ultimate notion embodied in the term 'concrescence’ that is a never-ending process of becoming in a seamless flow. Whitehead talked about the creative action of the Universe that is “always becoming one in a particular unity of self-experience and thereby adding to the multiplicity” which is the Universe as many. The primary stage in the concrescence of an actual entity is the way in which the antecedent Universe “enters into the constitution of the entity in question, so as to constitute the basis of its nascent individuality”.


To be is only to be an avatar allowing the transmission of information, an archive of the past concealed within. From the first cell, a clock hides in the Unconscious. Memory is in the cloud. As we wonder how matter came into being the first hundreds of million years, how particles clustered to give rise to the first stars, some find an analogy between artistic creation and cosmic creation. One thing led to another, from Whitehead’s essay in cosmology, I stumbled upon Samuel Alexander’s works. The question raised in my previous post by John Archibald Wheeler,  “How did the Universe come into being?” may not be properly asked, he argued. It should be“what sort of a thing the world is in its ultimate and simplest nature?”. He explained that “just as the object known is revealed through the ordinary reaction to it; so the work of art is revealed to the artist himself through the productive act wrung from him in his excitement over the subject-matter” (2).


In a conceptual reality filled with the emotion of time, I find it telling that Whitehead uses repeatedly such a subjective and evocative word as “feeling”  while David Bohm talks about small, ‘quantized’ wavelike excitations on top of an immense background of spatial energy. Although common words like emotion, feeling, and excitation may be borrowed, I would agree that it is because we feel more than we can know.  A feeling, Whitehead writes, is “the appropriation of some elements in the Universe to be components in the real internal constitution of its subject”. For him, all actual entities, including electrons, atoms, and molecules enjoy a little bit of feeling “at least in rudimentary forms” (3).



It may be that my perspective on cosmic consciousness is not only a choice but a conceptual feeling that has “found integration with other feelings” (1) which poets are fond of, thrive on, and are nurtured by. The question that emerged from Whitehead’s reading is whether consciousness can be without its subjective form. Can there be objectively something beyond ourselves, a consciousness beyond individuality? For him, feelings “taken in their original purity devoid of accretions from later integrations” do not involve consciousness because consciousness is a “subjective form arising in the higher phases of concrescence”, It “primarily illuminates the higher phase in which it arises”, and only “illuminates earlier phases derivatively”. 


Whitehead’s take on feelings is to be examined in the light of other contemporary statements pertaining to the psychology of emotions. To the question “Is there pure states of feeling?”, if we reply in the affirmative, writes Ribot, “then the state of feeling is considered as having at least sometimes an independent existence of its own and not as condemned to play forever the part of acolyte or parasite” (4). And if we pursue the analogy between the mind and the Universe, we could think of the emotion of time as an “organized manifestation of the life of” feelings as defined by Whitehead.


Poets feel with their intuitional mind. I imagine cosmic consciousness to be the gathering of a higher order in which “floating” parts of ourselves meet “floating” parts of others. It is by feeling that poets understand as they engage in a dialogue with the Universe. It may be that cosmic consciousness is but a shadow for the growth of feelings is to be “distinguished from the objects to which those feelings relate”(5). In both instances -- cosmic creation and artistic creation -- we may say that creativity is a state of feeling that feeds on itself and its environment. Poets who wander in reverie are sensitive souls whose doubts time will answer. Will intuition triumph over the anguish that uncertainty has thrown us in? For we may conclude that there are feeling-like “phenomena” (6) in organic and inorganic matter alike.

And when we wonder about the accidental nature of the Universe, whether it has risen from free will or in a superdeterministic way,  we may dwell upon Alexander’s description of an artist or a poet who may not, systematically,  first form an image. To paraphrase Alexander, they may be clueless of what they want to express, but find out what they wanted to express by expressing it for they have, in general, no precedent image of their work and don’t know what they will say till they have said it, and it comes as a revelation even to themselves. Writing and direct carving are, I feel, an irrepressible and fragmented journey, the purpose of which is still a mystery. Its key, I hope, will help me escape the labyrinth of my own twists and turns. But some mysteries may be beyond the reach of imagination.


In progress

In progress

When the instinct of constructiveness seeks not practical gratification but is satisfied for its own sake; when the maker beholds his work and sees that it is good, the constructive instinct has become aesthetic and the work which satisfies it is beautiful.

Artistic Creation and Cosmic Creation, Samuel Alexander

  1. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality
  2. Samuel Alexander, Artistic Creation and Cosmic Creation
  3. John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, The inequality of man
  4. Theodule Armand Ribot, The psychology of emotions
  5. Samuel Alexander, Space, Time and Deity
  6. John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, The philosophy of a biologist
To be informed of the latest articles, subscribe:

Comment on this post