Where do we go from here?


Quietism -in this time of wrath and tears, the very word is seductive. It conjures up the possibility of finding peace and tranquillity -of ataraxy, a state of serene calmness. A place -within oneself, perhaps, where one might find an acceptance of life’s vicissitudes, not necessarily an escape from them. It involves passivity. Surrender…

When I was much younger and more easily swayed by things, I remember reading about a way of conquering pain by allowing, not fighting it. Sitting in its center, as it were; the effort of merely remaining there created a wall, like the one a parasite often creates around itself for protection from its surroundings. I was in the middle of a biology degree at university at the time, so the image, while creepy, was intriguing.

I was attending a university that required at least one course in comparative religion for its first year students, for some reason. I think that’s where I first came across the writings of a 17th century priest, Miguel de Molinos: The Spiritual Guide wherein he advised the Christian soul to ‘shrink into its own nothingness … without heeding, thinking or minding any sensible thing.’ And, ‘This act of silent surrender would enable the devout soul to proceed through various stages of purgation until, at last, it entered a state of deep equanimity and mental stillness.’  

I have to confess that I only remember the wording thanks to an essay I recently discovered in the online publication Aeon, written by Andy Wimbush from Cambridge University: https://aeon.co/essays/how-samuel-beckett-sought-salvation-in-the-midst-of-suffering

But, it reminded me that the idea of surrendering to adversity, and accepting it without a struggle, has had its modern advocates as well.

I can’t say I know very much about Samuel Beckett, I’m afraid, but like the morass of confused university students of the 60ies I certainly knew his play Waiting for Godot. We were all searching for something I think, although just what has faded in the mist of years.

But, there was something quite… passive, about the meandering conversations of its two main characters Vladimir and Estragon, who were waiting for a man named Godot who never came. At the time, many of us were in thrall to existentialism and its depressing realism; a plot that went nowhere during an entire play seemed to check all the boxes.

I never took it much further than that, I’m afraid, but maybe Age has a tendency to hone some senses while blunting others. On re-reading the play, I got the definite impression that Beckett was… well, perhaps troubled. But isn’t that the time when desperation surfaces and a search for answers, if not solutions, becomes imperative? When the hope for resolution finds itself embedded in creative outlets if you’re a writer? Stories and their characters become fertile templates for working through the ramifications of different ideas about the problem -different solutions: the lab rats of your own invention.

Beckett, it seems, probably suffered from what we might now categorize as panic attacks. ‘He told a friend that it was like being attacked by a ‘demon’ that wanted to ‘disable’ him with ‘sweats & shudders & panics & rages & rigors & heart burstings’. In Beckett’s early fiction, his literary alter-egos tend to have the same affliction.’

But he never seemed to find surcease in the medical or psychological remedies of the time. His friends recommended trying spiritual remedies -salvation of one sort or another: soteriology in other words -I love the word… One such remedy was ‘a method of contemplative prayer that had been first popularised by Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) and John of the Cross (1542-91). Known as the ‘prayer of quiet’, this method of contemplation involved doing as little as possible… all forms of mental activity are discarded. The devotee abandons his or her own will and surrenders completely to God.’ Beckett refers to this as ‘quietism’.

One of the most outspoken advocates of the prayer of quiet -at least in the 17th century was the Spanish priest Molinos that I have already mentioned. But, the acceptance of this approach waxed and waned over the succeeding years until a thinker who had a significant influence on Beckett’s personal outlook and literary vision, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, embraced it. He believed that life was an endless round of suffering, so the only solution was to renounce all struggle and craving.

Beckett seemed to admire those writers who also had discovered the value of quietism -writers like Dostoevsky, André Gide, and Proust, to name only a few. Their interest in many of the tenets of quietism and passive acceptance of fate, inspired many of the characters and stories that Beckett created over the years. ‘Just as the sage who has quietened their will can thus endure any vicissitude or eventuality – including damnation – the writer who relinquishes control can allow their work to accommodate contradiction and discord. Characters no longer need to be artificially controlled. A writer can embrace imperfection and powerlessness. A text can accommodate contrasting ideas and moods.’ A writer can surrender control and find salvation ‘in a place of weakness, humility and lowliness, right in the midst of suffering. This is Beckett’s mystic paradox.’

I can’t help but notice the similarity between the original ‘prayer of quiet’ -Beckett’s quietism- and the current interest in mindfulness meditation. In both, one attempts to defocus attention, and relax into non-thought. Both are a form of surrender, I think: acceptance. And it is this passivity that seems so therapeutic. So restful.

Let’s face it, we like to think of ourselves as active agents, and yet for many things, we have very little control. And even keeping up with things is like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Red Queen’ in his Through the Looking Glass who needs to run faster and faster to stay in the same spot.

So, perhaps from time to time, we all could use a periodic ‘prayer of quiet’ to anchor us in the fast-flowing river of a world intent on carrying us too quickly to the sea. We can, no doubt, understand the rush, and yet, like the characters in a novel, fail to spot the flowers on the bank. 

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